Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for November, 2007

‘Taste Test’

November 28th, 2007

Exclaim has a little item about my book in its new issue, and in that item is a link to a longer interview, and in that interview I seem unable to speak in anything but Russian-doll-style chains of embedded subclauses.

It was taped pre-Halifax Scandal, so we don’t get into that.

Later: Also, I missed Aaron Wherry’s take and nice shoutout to the book last week. Sorry, AW, and thanks.

It’s Only Just Begun

November 26th, 2007

Best-of-year time is upon us, it seems, perhaps having crept even another week back in the calendar compared to last year’s record-early-and-overdone list season. Because I spent half the year mainly listening to one album released 10 years ago and in the process imagining a world without words like best and worst, I’m not going to play the game this year, at least not in the sense of making a big footnoted list (I’ll still play this game; glad they have had second thoughts on the name, though from the overgaudy they’ve swung all the way over to hyperbland). Interestingly, I find this decision to underparticipate is making me less jaded and annoyed about the whole end-of-year clusterfrak. In fact I almost feel like, “Goody, here’s my chance to get caught up.”

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Mrs. Extra Extra

November 23rd, 2007

Joshua “Jane Dark” Clover sharpshooting a few days back on the improbable feat of Britney’s “Piece of Me” - she takes the triple error of whining about fame, responding to her critics and tut-tutting about the tabloids and parlays it into a home run. Joshua considers its spot in her string of sadomasochistic singles (without even mentioning “Slave 4 U”): “she manages to appear, via a single phrase, as the subject and source of violence, abused and abuser, in a way that makes the distinction itself seem to shimmer and shift.”

I’m less sure about the hierarchy he creates between listening and giving in: “It is a better song than ‘Toxic,’ less artsy, more banging, less for listening to and more for giving in to.” Even granting that about “Toxic,” which I’m not sure I do, is giving in automatically a better relationship to a pop song? Think of Prince: You listen to, say, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and you give in to “Little Red Corvette,” so with the latter you have a more delirious experience in the moment - but “Girlfriend” is the one that comes to mind to comfort and amuse me when I’m emotionally messed-up, never “Corvette.” Being seduced versus being ravished: It seems a masochistic model in itself that it is always better to be dominated; it’s a fine kink but it’s not the way we all swing, at least not all the time. (Or to put it on another sexual axis: Is pop supposed to be no kissing, all fucking?)

For the record, my Britney list would probably put “Oops…” first (when I do swing that way, it’s usually at the mercy of a seemingly sympathetic tormenter like the narrator of this song), “Toxic,” “Piece of Me,” then “Hit Me…,” Joshua’s no. 1.

Tinariwen @ the Mod Club and Ethnic Opacity

November 21st, 2007

The Mod Club was packed. As far as I could tell there wasn’t a big turnout of Toronto Tuaregs or Malians (that’d probably work better in Montreal), unless they were in the rows up close to the front across the sea of music journalists, “world music” fanciers, industry types drawn by Robert Plant’s recommendation (ah, friends, you think that music bizzers just don’t care about music, but they care very much what Classic Rock still has to tell them) and others who had come out to see Tinariwen, the international band-du-jour, this evening. As fellow crit-type Helen Spitzer put it, “So this is the crowd you get when Matt Galloway describes you as ‘the Saharan Rolling Stones.’ ” But I don’t mean this cynically: The band in large measure deserves the hype, and while it’s not the blues-rock-exotica jam-fest that such a descriptor suggests (indeed, as one drunken guy nearby me slurred to his companions, “It sounds like country music! Nashville country music!” - and he was right, in as much as a bunch of songs in 15/8 rhythm can), the way that the electric and acoustic guitar can be treated like a smack fresh idea by this group of ex-expats who came together in a Libyan refugee/guerrilla camp in the 1980s does recall a moment when rock had a credible claim to liberatory power (as Helen’s partner Michael Barclay says in his fine Eye profile of the group).

Lacking a vocabulary in Tuareg musical traditions or even much of a North African fluency aside from rudimentary Ali Farka Toure, most of us who’ve written about Tinariwen this year (do a quick search and you’ll find tons: they’re having a Moment) are short on interpretive strategies. There’s the amazing backstory of their role as the voice of Tuareg rebellion, and then there are the voluptuous waves of the sound, the lightness of the touch: yes, there are guitar solos with some bluesy licks, but they’re almost like Philip Glass rounds of hypnotic organ trills, fluttery birdcalls nothing like a Keef or Santana or Page phallic flange. They do in a reverse-retro way recall, for a western listener, some African-influenced guitar rock such as Television or Talking Heads, especially when rhythm-chord bursts overtake the primary backbeat of drum-and-drone. But even at their most assertive they seem gentle, as if their fingers hit the guitars more reverently than their western counterparts do. And then there are the vocals, which (aside from one apparently French-hip-hop-influenced, talk-sing number) remind me of African Arabic song, beautifully skewed to the hook-repeating guitar parts, hitting on the 3 and the 9 of the pattern and always communicative, conversational, until they descend to the final, sighing burnt-down conclusion of most every song.

We were missing the female component of the band tonight, a fundamental part of the call-and-response space of the music, reportedly because the main woman in the band recently had a baby (and another member, Barclay told me, is fighting malaria), and that made the group, despite its dramatic robe-and-turban-wrapped costume, seem a bit more mundane and boundaried than they do on record. But mainly it was the opacity of the content that nagged at me: Yes, music is a “universal language” in the sense that I joyfully danced and clapped and hummed along to these hypnotic tunes, but it is not, because I knew the lyrical and structural contents of the songs had much more challenging things to say, of which I knew nothing. The band clearly couldn’t tell us much (the stage banter consisted, very charmingly, after they’d just kicked large quantities of musical ass, of asking, “It’s okay?” and being greeted by ever-building screams of pleasure), but I wondered about the tourism we were indulging by listening to this band whose whole identity and mystique is wrapped up in the role they’ve played in their people’s liberation struggle and walking away saying, “What a freaky ecstatic groove that was.” (The country-music guy was also very excited by the purple lightshow that played out on the backdrop for a song or two, saying, “That’s so psychedelic! They’re kind of psychedelic, aren’t they?” When of course the whole category of “psychedelic” was partly constructed by borrowings from Indian and Arabic and African rhythms - the signified becomes the signifier becomes the signified.)

But what would I ask? That Tinariwen provide surtitles? Pamphlets on Tuareg ethnic struggles mandatorily taken at the door? Perhaps it’s more than enough that the next time a story about the Tuareg issue shows up in the papers, a Tinariwen fan will be twice as likely to read it, and if she’s a newspaper editor be twice as likely to give it good play? In this way, beautiful music is perhaps greater propaganda than agit-prop: “I have good vibes for that oppressed people, man.” But as I clapped on the 1 and the 4 and the 7 and the 10 and the 13 (or elsewhere at my best on the 2, 5, 8, 11, syncopating some), I longed to be thinking coherently about guns and camels and millet along with math and guitars. For that I probably needed less for Tinariwen to be coming to me and more to go to the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu, which I learned about in a pamphlet from the merch table. Or more realistically, to find ways to think of Timbuktu as a place and not a nursery rhyme. Maybe the uncertainty is the point.

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Brooks Brother’s Suit

November 21st, 2007

A couple of friends in NYC text- and Facebook-messaged me today with references to Times columnist David Brooks that I couldn’t quite understand. Tonight I find out why: I’m name-checked, along with Sasha Frere-Jones (and Steve Van Zandt), in his latest column. I’m not a Brooks fan, but I don’t mind this one, which synthesizes my and Sasha’s points (ditching the notion of a beef between us, happily, since beefin’ was never my intention) into the notion of music now mirroring a “segmented society.” I’m not so down with its “these kids today” and “music now sucks” ‘tudes (”most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs” … really? My experience is that young musicians now do very wide listening - if anything it may be an issue that our knowledge bases tend to be so broad that they lose some focus, and perhaps that fewer young musicians get traditions passed down in person from older ones.) But he’s refreshingly comfortable with the idea that music, and culture in general, tends to reproduce social structure (more than it causes it, as conservatives and overzealous artsies alike tend to think), and I like his point that this segmentation is a source of widespread anxiety at a lot of levels. And I want a copy of Van Zandt’s proposal for a curriculum that teaches American history through American music history.

Also at the Times site, Democrat Kurt Campbell makes a case for the social force of today’s Nashville country music that I’d happily endorse if he weren’t dismissive of the need for anyone aspiring to speak to a broad popular audience to listen more deeply to what hip-hop/R&B have to say in equal measure. The more this electoral campaign wears on the more I feel that John Edwards’ “two Americas” message is the most vital thing going, except it should be more like six, ten, twenty Americas.

Meanwhile, Peli makes a strong case for not reading tastes in reverse-mode: That is, that to have a strong positive reaction to a certain kind of music (or whatever) is not necessarily to be damning other categories and their audiences. Pierre Bourdieu would argue otherwise, saying that tastes are foremost an aggregate of distastes - that is, that if I reject the music associated with groups of people from whom I want to distinguish myself, I gravitate towards music as unlike that music as possible (and arguably made deliberately to be unlike that music). But Peli usefully points out that straight people who are strongly pro-queer are not taken to be adopting that stance because of their bias against groups of people who tend to be anti-queer (working-class black Americans being his example). I’m not sure that we can be so positive - surely part of the reason a straight young person adopts an outspoken pro-queer position is not just appreciation of queerness (and one’s queer friends) but a distaste for intolerance and often for the particular brands of intolerance held by people (fundamentalists, for instance) that that young person finds distasteful, and that distaste goes beyond the hatefulness of the anti-gay position to a distaste for an entire worldview, a cultural difference. But Peli’s right - this doesn’t invalidate the pro-queer position itself. (Although it might condition certain snobbish, dogmatic ways in which it can be expressed?) This is why in my book I was more concerned to examine cultural dislikes, which I think have stronger social subtexts. Yes, people like stuff because it in some ways suits them, where they’re coming from (which might be a socially segmented place). But that wouldn’t be a big deal if it did not so often also include a desire to place those likes above other people’s likes, to say, “This is good because it’s not like all that bullshit that other people like.”

So Sweet, So Cool, So Fair

November 19th, 2007

Rob Walker, proprieter of the world’s only one-song blog (as far as he or I know), as well as the New York Times Magazine’s “Consumed” column and other good stuff, guest-hosts the downloadable mp4 podcast The Sounds in My Head, where he plays versions of “St James Infirmary” by everyone from Blind Willie McTell to Lily Tomlin and Peter Brotzmann. Fascinatin’ rhythms.

Cool idea alert: As a benefit for the Regent Park School of Music, a bunch of Toronto rock-scene musicians are holding a “Rock Lottery,” in which they meet in the morning, draw names to make up several new “bands” for the day, spend the day rehearsing and writing songs and perform them in a show that evening. The idea originates in Denton, Texas (home of the Hospital Bombers), apparently, and also operates in Seattle, under the happy-making slogan, “10 am: 25 Musicians. 10 PM: 5 New Bands.” (It’s not too far in concept from the “Instant Bands” project that Blocks Recording Club in Toronto did four years ago or so at Canzine, except in that case the musicians did not rehearse or write but attempted to generate songs spotaneously. But the American versions of Rock Lottery turns out to predate that, going back a decade.) Rock Lottery Toronto takes place on Dec. 1 at Sneaky Dee’s and participants include Sook-Yin Lee, Katie Sketch (The Organ), Dan Werb & Paul Banwatt (Woodhands), Josh Reichmann (Jewish Legend), Ken Reaume, Adam Litovitz, Jonathan Adjemian (The River), Jonny Dovercourt (Republic of Safety) and many more.

Kelefa Sanneh reviews Celine Dion’s new album today in the Times. Compared to mine, he is meaner, but generally fair - remarking, “She’s easy to mock because she’s so uncool, or rather, unchilly,” a sentence that could have been plucked straight from my book. I am deeply envious of his “on this planet they call Earth” joke. Also very my-book-ish today, the new study from the Norman Lear Center about how political beliefs and entertainment tastes align - not much of which is so surprising, but I’m eager to dig into the demographic data there and see what we can learn about how the taste/ideology findings relate to class, education, etc., etc.

Sonic Youth ‘Ahead of Curve’ Reputation
Takes V1agra Hit Lee RU OK?

November 15th, 2007

Gee, Mr. Ranaldo, that’s such an amazingly kooky, original idea.

No harm in an idea being reused of course. But it would be more exciting if he were making a spam-based album. I am still waiting for flarf rock to happen. (Question: Who would you nominate as flarf rock practitioners? Aside from The Fall.)

A Culture-Based Economy or an Economy-Based Culture?

November 14th, 2007

koonsdiamond.jpg
Jeff Koons’s “Diamond (Blue),” which sold for $11.8-million in a Christie’s auction yesterday.

Stratospherically high-end art dealer Jefffrey Deitch in The New Yorker last week: “The art world used to be a community, but now it’s an industry. It’s not just a market - it’s a visual-culture industry, like the film industry or the fashion industry, and it merges with both of them. Julian Schnabel makes movies, Marc Jacobs does collaborations with artists. We live in an increasingly culture-based economy, and the value of art is in synch with other tangible assets now, like real estate. I try to act responsibly toward the art, but if people offer tremendous amounts of money for it you really can’t control that.”

Bruce Springsteen in this week’s Rolling Stone: “Race, poverty - those things get lost, and not unintentionally, through the use of other issues. There is an issue with national security that’s real. But the movement has been toward a plutocracy. People say, ‘We’re in a second Gilded Age.’ There’s a price to pay for that. It weakens the foundation of the country, and it denies us freedoms, denies us connection with our own neighbors and citizens. Those are big issues that have failed to be addressed for so many years. Race and poverty clearly are major issues. And what’s so disappointing is that they were major issues forty and fifty years ago, yet at least then they were part of the national conversation. It feels as though the conversation about those things has stopped at this point.”

Chaining Miss Daisy 2
(More Interconnected Miscellany)

November 13th, 2007

… And speaking of (I’m gonna see how many times I can do this) 33 1/3, I’m tickled to tell you that besides the sample-chapter offer, Continuum is holding a contest related to my book: You have to guess where in the sales figures on the series my volume will rank by the end of March (2008) - where, that is, between the series’ perennial No. 1, the Neutral Milk Hotel book, and the current lowest-ranker, on A Tribe Called Quest (race-and-indie-rock polemicists, start your engines!), a book on Celine Dion and the sociology of taste will wind up a few months after publication. The prediction that comes closest will win you 10 free 33 1/3 books of your choice! Send your guesses to predictingceline AT yahoo DOT com by December 1.

And speaking of Celine, my review of her new album Taking Chances appears today in The Globe and Mail. The piece is kind of odd, as I realized in the process that nothing I could write about Celine that would take the book into account would actually make sense to readers unless they had read the book. (I figured out after the fact that I shoulda just dealt with that head-on, but too late now.) So don’t expect anything too rad - it’s mainly just a record review, which only obliquely addresses the mystery of her simultaneous popularity and unpopularity, the question that drives the book. I gave Taking Chances three out of four stars more on whim than anything else: Star ratings are always arbitrary but in the context of having written the book, it feels especially absurd with Celine - what is it being rated relative to: fan expectations, her past work, LCD Soundsystem, Balls of Fury, diptheria, IKEA? (I decided to rate it relative to the extent to which it opaquely fulfills various theses in the book.) There are a couple of tracks on it I like as much as anything she’s ever done, in a way, but that’s because I’m meant to.

And returning to (damn, broke the chain) the questions of ambition, “retreat” and so forth in current alternative rock/adult alternative/indiemacallit, an entry on musical “dealbreakers” on Carrie Brownstein’s new blog for NPR, Monitor Mix, is four-on-the-floor: “My deal-breaker is preciousness: when the music is a tiny, baby bird that needs us to be nurturing and respectful, otherwise it can’t spread its wings. I like quiet music, folk music, solo artists - it’s not a matter of volume or numbers, but it is a matter of art being able to stand on its own two feet. I don’t think music needs to be coddled, no matter how delicate or soft it sounds. When a band or singer makes me go awwww, as I would at the sight of a newborn child, then that is a band that needs a pacifier not an amplifier. Other indicators of preciousness include, but are not limited to: matching old-timey outfits; mumbling, soft-spoken stage banter that trails off and is quickly followed by a cutesy smile, which for some reason garners huge cheers from the audience; being so nervous on stage that someone in the crowd has to yell ‘you can do it!’ or ‘we love you’ (exception made here for child performers); asking people to lie down on the floor for the next song; and any audience sing-along or participation so complicated that it needs to be explained before the song starts.”

I don’t hate all those things (nervousness can be interesting when it’s not an attempt to ingratiate) but it is a good answer to the misapprehension that what we’re talking about is merely quiet versus loud or lo-fi versus pop and so forth. Ms Brownstein is of course formerly of Sleater-Kinney and so far her bloggery is standing up well to her guitarslinging.

Speaking of (hah!) good nervousness, SFJ on The New Yorker blog today has smart + kind words for Toronto’s own Final Fantasy. (Um, Owen, your website needs updating.)

(Later: In re: this latest bit of reportage - which has appeared in several places, oblivious to the fact that a YouTube video of Celine Dion doing AC/DC in sound check made the rounds ages ago - please see several pages of Let’s Talk About Love where I talk about her music as “metal on estrogen.”)

Chaining Miss Daisy (Notes from All Over)

November 13th, 2007

Above, the foreign ministers of France and Germany - Bernard Kouchner (who was one of the founders of Medicins Sans Frontieres, among much else) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in the process of recording a song to promote integration, in both the European-constitutional and the Islamic-immigrant senses, 2 da yout’. I can hear you wincing from here, but the ministers merely join in on singing the chorus of “Deutschland” but the rest is by German-Turkish musician Muhabett and 17-year-old Sefo in a style they’re calling R&Besk (a fusion of pop-R&B and Turkish Arabesk, sung in German) - as you can hear here, it’s none too shabby. You might even call it a fine case of “musical miscegenation.” And while it’s easy enough to make jokes, it’s pretty cool to me that these politicians are going out of their way to take an interest in the street and pop music of marginalized Arab young people in Europe. Better that politicos sometimes embarrass themselves by embracing art clumsily than that they demonize and censor it. (Has anyone heard the Hugo Chavez album?)

Speaking of miscegenation, Franklin Bruno’s contribution to the 33 1/3 blog series at Powell’s reminded me that his book on Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces is, quite subtly, one of the more subtle, thoughtful takes on indie-style rock culture and race out there, taking Costello’s “Columbus incident” as a case study in the problematics of appropriation, cultural distance and “blue-eyed soul.” I also liked his point about first encountering a lot of black American music through UK post-punk covers. It reminded me how I first learned about reggae because a lot of 1980s Canadian new-waveish and even folkie musicians (like their US and UK counterparts) - particularly ones from Toronto - were using reggae rhythms. It was only later I understood they hadn’t just picked out reggae as a cool sound they liked but because, like London, Toronto had a substantial Jamaican community. Indeed, my tastes in reggae to this day pretty much stick close to the “golden age” artists that most influenced that generation, like Jimmy Cliff, Culture, Burning Spear, etc., plus dub. (Due to bad-context overexposure it’s rare for me to find circumstances where I enjoy listening to Bob Marley but that’s no slight on the Wailers.) I’ve never managed to focus more than fleeting attention on dancehall/ragga. That’s one of the questions that’s come up in passing in recent discussion - how often are cross-cultural influences picked up secondhand rather than from, as it were, primary sources, and is it a bad thing when listeners go no further or, for example, musicians borrow elements that way without returning to source? (In some ways isn’t that broken-telephone effect a possible force for good mutations as well as bad appropriations?)

There’s a lot else in the Powell’s series worth reading, by the way, including recent reading lists from Mike McGonigal and Douglas Wolk, or today’s Erik Davis joint on guilty pleasures, Amon Amarth and weightlifting.


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