Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for April, 2008

Now Read This: Gimme Liberty
or Gimme Indie Lazer Bass

April 30th, 2008

Image by indie184.

Over at the ever-productive Moistworks facility, there’s a terrific roundtable discussion about a subject Zoilus has revisited, oh, a few times - the surviving meaning, or lack thereof, of the word “indie”. Contributors include Moistworks honcho Alex Abramovich (bringing in Franklin Bruno on an assist) and writers and musicians Jonathan Lethem, Douglas Wolk, Luc Sante, Andrew Phillips, Brian Howe, Christopher Sorrentino, Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Blake Schwarzenbach, Ben Greenman and me. And more in the comments space. (And as a bonus, tracks by Sebadoh, the recently reunited Great Plains and Big Dipper!)

More, no doubt, to come.

(Later: Coincidentally I stumbled across this April 9 post in Natalia Yanchak from The Dears’ blog, titled “Death to indie rock.” She links to a National Post piece after the Junos that asked record-store clerks across Canada, “Is Feist still indie?”. Several obnoxious answers later - only one, Chris from Zulu Records in Vancouver, addressed it as an economic-model question, by the way - you’re left thinking they should add to the question, “… And why would she possibly care?”)

Also this week in The New Yorker, Sasha Frere Jones introduces Montreal “lazer bass” to the smart set, in the form of Megasoid. More on that sometime soon too, I hope, but for now just a note that Megasoid is slated to be in Toronto on May 18 at the Drake (and less officially other locations), though their planned New York appearance this weekend was cancelled due to a loss in the family, for which we send our sympathies.

or Gimme Indie Lazer Bass">2 Comments

Destroyer Again: “There’s No Salt to Be Passed”

April 28th, 2008

I apologize to Michael Barclay for quoting him out of context, but some good hard thinking came out of it, so let’s continue the ping-pong at least another round.

One point. Michael says: “Throughout Destroyer’s career, singer/songwriter Dan Bejar seems to have been on a mission to convince me that the rock’n'roll game is little more than a ruse, a farce, something to held in contempt. That he does this while making brilliant rock records is all the more confounding. Yet the deeper into his discography that we get, the less I find reasons to care. His mission, it seems, has been accomplished.”

My feeling is that as of Your Blues, and certainly with Trouble in Dreams, it became more a growing case of “mission abandoned.”

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Hidden Agenda

April 27th, 2008

I didn’t get a chance to mention on Friday that I was on that night’s edition of TVO’s The Agenda in a panel discussion called “What Happened to the Hits?” - asking whether there are no longer broad-demographic “songs that everybody dances to” in North American culture, and if so why, and whether it matters. (See Agenda producer Mike Miner’s related blog post here, complete with ensuing weird discussion - though I was glad to see someone bring up Guitar Hero.)

There was a bit of fuddy-duddiness about the setup - they compared Top 10 Charts from 1978 and 2008 - the 1978 chart being Bee Gees-dominated - and read out the names of the artists on the first-half-of-the-year chart with a certain “how can this Lil Wayne guy, whoever he is, possibly compare to the Bee Gees?” condescension. But I think we managed to get out of that mode at least part of the time, though there was plenty we didn’t cover (the role of the introduction of Soundscan numbers, for example, in revealing that the “big hits” weren’t as big as assumed and that country and hip-hop and R&B were selling more than anyone realized).

On the panel with me were Toronto Life/eye’s Jason Anderson, Maple Music’s Kim Cooke and Dan Hill - ! It was a tad surreal to be on the same panel with Hill (who was famous, at least in Canada, when I was a child). He was very cordial and knowledgeable, despite the show’s attempt to set him up against me, since he’s written songs for Celine Dion - I didn’t say it, but in the early ’80s, the book could almost have been about Dan Hill. Now there are plenty of people who don’t know who he is, if my 31-year-old friend’s reaction is any indication. (But she recognized Sometimes When We Touch, the ultimate 70s sensitive-guy anthem [and, regarded cynically, a gold mine of unintentional hilarity], when I, er, crooned it to her.)

Anyhow, I’m told that the video will be online today at the show’s website, and soon on iTunes (at least in Canada).

Street Fighting Man?

April 24th, 2008

My posts on Tomfrankobamaculturetcetera have helped spur some good debate here but also a couple of nice posts I’d like to point out without further comment: Phil Ford at Dial M for Musicology, a site I should mention more often, reflects that “the problem with the culture-critical stance is that shorts the emotional meanings that people derive from their experiences.” (He also says some very kind things about my book along the way. Thanks).

And 2fs at The Architectural Dance Society explains why, proceeding from Ellen Willis’s critique of Tom Frank, the Democrats ought to be running the young Mick Jagger for president. Lately I’ve been wishing Barack Obama would do a little more strutting and tongue-flashing, frankly.

Destroyer in Toronto, April 19:
“A Nightmare,” Three Witches Chant,
Confounding Nerds’ Aim

April 23rd, 2008

Dan Bejar and Destroyer live at the Bowery Ballroom, a couple of days after the concert discussed below;
photo swiped from music journo Ryan Dombal’s Flickr page;
I’m glad we don’t have any kind of professional guild to spank me for it.

I’ve had the title for this one sitting on my computer all week, because I’ve noticed a lot lately doing cryptic crosswords (a recent adoption) that the clues often feel like Destroyer-ese. Unfortunately to mention puzzles suggests decoding, encrypted meanings, blah blah blah, which gets it exactly wrong (in Destroyer songs, the encryption is the message; the funeral is the biography). But I was too tickled by my cryptic clue to abandon it, so there it is.

Mainly, I just wanted to tell you that if you are anywhere in range of the current Destroyer tour (eg., in New York tonight, Philly tomorrow, DC the day after - etc), you should not miss it, because there’s been something of a rip in the continuum and, suddenly, Destroyer is not just a band you enjoy live because there’s something endearingly awkward and stiff and strange about it all - suddenly, they’re a band you enjoy live because they kick ass. Dan’s reluctant-prophet manner has gone up five levels on the fire and brimstone scale - there was a hilarious moment on Saturday night when he tried to make a joke, which flew over everyone’s heads and fell in a puddle to the floor. After a second’s pause he grimaced sheepishly: “Uh, sorry, I’ve never tried saying things to the audience before.” His performance was more physical and stagey - John Barrymore-era theatricalism flashing out between shakes of a super-shaggy head, thoroughly through-composed guitar lines being peeled out as if they were just jammed - which is a long way round to rock’n'roll but it can get you there.

It’s in keeping with the tone of Trouble in Dreams, which is in many ways the least hostile and aggressive Destroyer record yet - almost in inverse proportion to its noisiness (Fisher Rose drums way loud). It’s more of a band album (a more focused This Night) than Destroyer’s Rubies and more of a Your Blues-esque crooner and 1950s-musical album too - contrary to all the backlashy “just more of the same” reviews, which one might expect after nine albums, except that it’s silly to hear it coming from reviewers who only actually heard one of those albums. The erratic semi-random nature of the … Rubies mania of aught-six is thus confirmed. Anyone have a better theory?

(I should note that true to his backlash-courting ways, there was only, I think, one … Rubies song on the set list the other night, which I’m sure frustrated some who haven’t gotten well-acquainted with Trouble and don’t know This Night, the other well the band was drawing on.)

Michael Barclay told me the other day that he felt like Dan had worked so hard to convince him of the ridiculousness of rock’n'roll that he found it hard to listen to him with the current band just playing rock’n'roll. I share some of those feelings; after Your Blues, not just my favourite Destroyer record but one of my favourite records of the decade, I did regret the return to rock on Rubies - but Dan’s changes have never been linear, so the sequel to Your Blues, the all-clarinet-and-sitar album, could be right around the corner. I think the thing is that right now he has this band that, when it locks into formation the way it did on Saturday night, shoots the songs straight into orbit. That might not be true tomorrow, with the musicians of Dan’s Vancouver generation (including Dan himself) gradually settling into businesses, family life, and so on. In some ways the notes of regret and anticipation that I scent between the lines of Trouble in Dreams seem like change-of-life vibrations, a goodbye and the breath right before “hello.” (Perhaps that desire to hold on accounts for my one real complaint about it, which is that it’s two or three songs too long.) The absurdity that Destroyer has always imputed to rock, after all, is by no means unique - the path from politics to poetry leads through understanding that the effort is always ridiculous and doing it anyway. So hit the drums hard.

(Oh, and speaking of [collector] nerds’ aims…)

(Plus, later:: See Dan spar with Emusic readers. Note the John Cale/Syd Barrett discussion at the end - this is what you have to explain to the people who confuse matters with all their pointless Bowie comparisons.) (On the other hand, I just realized I’ve never heard The Apartments.)

“A Nightmare,” Three Witches Chant,
Confounding Nerds’ Aim">3 Comments

Clap Clap Culture

April 21st, 2008

I’m always happy to be questioned and challenged by Clap Clap’s Mike Barthel, an incisive and never-dogmatic thinker. But in his response to my Tom Frank/Obama/class-culture post, he misinterprets me, so I must have been unclear.

Mike says, “the only thing [Carl] reverses about [his past] position is that the people who like Celine have been duped - he still believes that their communities’ cultures are being ['strip-malled and outsourced ... out of existence'] .” No. That was also a reference to a past set of beliefs - in this case, actually, further past than my feelings about Celine. I realize things might get confusing when I set myself up as my own foil, in the name of a reflexive, introspective approach to cultural conflict. But since Mike has read my book, I would have thought he could extrapolate this from the chapter on globalization.

Globalization has formidable problems - how trade deals are contracted and the way multinationals can grow to out-muscle the countries trying to regulate them, for starters - but I don’t believe it or “corporate culture” simply homogenizes and eradicates, because for one thing there’s no singular monolithic “corporate culture.”

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EMP 2008: Academy Fight Song

April 20th, 2008

Douglas Wolk’s super Ballad of the Green Berets presentation at the Pop Conference. Photo swiped from Chelsey’s Practice Space.

Some folks have been down on the recent latest edition of that annual pop-think mindmelt, the prattle in Seattle, the EMP Pop Conference, for leaning harder than before to the academic end rather than the journalists’ side. They complain that it makes for drier presentations and more esoteric language. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I also wonder why that shift might be happening.

(… for that and other post-EMP thoughts, please,
click here to continue reading …)


Bona valetudo melior est quam maximae divitiae

April 16th, 2008

Pop Conference-related distraction meant that I missed the moment when this news, about Mountain Goats singer/songwriter John Darnielle dealing with unspecified “chronic health issues,” circulated over the past couple of weeks. Zoilus readers know how much John’s work means to me (and to many others), so let’s all send healing vibes North Carolina way. The very best wishes to John and his loved ones.

Here, by the way, is a video of John D. making a cameo appearance at a Weakerthans show in NC and duetting with John K. Samson on “Anchorless,” on April 9 - John D. certainly seems vigorous enough (not to mention tremendously stoked) here, which is nice reassurance that whatever is up won’t keep our man down long.

What’s the Matter with
(the Son of that Mom from) Kansas?

April 15th, 2008

Baby Barack with his feminist-anthropologist mother, Stanley Ann Durham:
I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

I’ll get to that post-EMP Pop Con report (I discussed it this afternoon on CBC radio’s show Q - the podcast should be posted here eventually) but first, I want to talk about the current Obama flap - because it raises some questions I really wanted to address in my book, but dropped for lack of space. (Maybe if I had, and if it’s true that Obama’s read some of it, all this could have been prevented!)

Obama’s remarks are being overanalyzed, exploited, exaggerated and spun by the Clinton campaign and opportunistic pundits, but it really is a problem that the segment of the population that connects worst with Obama is older working-class white (and Latino) voters. It’s not a question of policy - it’s more credible to me that Obama would actively pursue policies that favour the disadvantaged than that Clinton would turn her back on her Wall Street and multinational business connections. (Though both of them are bullshitting on Nafta.) But Obama is the child not just of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya but also the child of a white bohemian feminist intellectual agnostic from Kansas (after all what other kind of white woman from Kansas married a black man from Kenya in 1961?). While she didn’t come from wealthy stock, she wasn’t exactly the meat-and-potatoes type - and her son is about as much from Kansas as he is from Oz.

Thankfully Obama doesn’t pander and playact the way Wesleyan/Yale girl Hillary Clinton does, insecurely taking on phony accents, dropping her G’s and pretending to be a gun-toting, God-fearing country gal, if that’s the local atmosphere. I don’t think anybody wants that. But Obama hasn’t found an entirely effective alternative.

As several pundits have noted, his remarks are reminiscent of Tom Frank’s thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas? - that the right wing has taken advantage of economic suffering in the “heartland” to encourage those voters to blame their problems on liberals and city people and immigrants and homosexuals, etc., rather than on the corporate and political elites who put them out of work. There’s no doubt that Republicans and neo-con media do that. But the reason it works is not because they’ve brainwashed the public into acting against “their own interests.” Overall, I suspect white working-class voters in deindustrializing areas are skeptical any politician is going to act in their economic interest. (On top of that, they are Americans, and they believe in individualism and capitalism.) However, their cultural interests weren’t just imposed on them - they are long-standing parts of many people’s identities and communities, and if they become more defensive and “cling” to them in hard times, that’s an act of strength rather than simply weakness and “bitterness.” That is to say, cultural interests are real interests, and any way of thinking that doesn’t recognize them as such is a vulgar materialism you’d expect from some naive Marxist-Leninist groupuscule.

I thought a lot about these questions with regard to Celine Dion. There was a time when I would have figured that listening to Celine, like going to big blockbuster Hollywood movies, was a kind of false consciousness - being seduced by a materialistic Disneyland escapism that says nothing about real people’s lives. I could have written a “What’s the Matter with Celine Dion?” critique parallel to Frank’s, claiming that people were being duped into listening to fairy-tale fantasy music sold to them by the very people who were strip-malling and outsourcing their communities’ cultures out of existence.

But when I listened to Celine’s music more and talked to her fans, I realized that she did, in fact, reflect her audience’s values and concerns back to them in complicated ways - how to be at once strong, modern and feminine, for example, or the fate of tradition and family and community in an era of globalization and mass media - and that the more “rebellious” music that I used to think superior to the mainstream is often indifferent or hostile to those values and concerns. So why should they want it?

I came to think that everybody has a “false consciousness” of one kind or another, because everybody’s cultural tastes are the product of their social experiences and position (including critics and rebels and radicals, seeking affirmation in the beliefs and culture they approve). Which is the same thing as saying no one has false consciousness. It’s not that all beliefs are equally valid, but you won’t get anywhere by assuming or claiming that other peoples’ beliefs are inauthentic.

As the late, great feminist rock writer and social critic Ellen Willis (who probably would have had a lot to discuss with Obama’s mother) said in her brilliant rebuttal to Tom Frank (which remains very, very worth reading), those of us who care about culture can only betray ourselves by dismissing other people’s cultural interest as trivia that arises because of structural misalignments. If we want to assert the importance of multiculturalism, adventurous art, minority cultures, reproductive freedom, then we have to recognize that some other people are equally attached to and serious about their religions, their social values, their leisure activities, their “American” culture.

You might want to change some of those things - for instance, to convince people that American culture has always been built by immigrants and won’t be “lost” by accepting and welcoming new people; to get people to think differently about abortion; etc. - but you can’t do that if your starting premise is that their positions are just pathological hallucinations or side effects. The social-conservative surge in some areas in the past two decades has also been a backlash against genuine “progressive” success on many fronts (in social attitudes to sex, gender, race and sexual identity), and it seems quite likely that the backlash will be temporary - even in rural Pennsylvania, I’ll bet many, many young white people are much more comfortable with diversity than their parents, irrespective of whether they are doing as well economically.

In his follow-up statements so far, Obama has elaborated very compassionately and thoughtfully on how he thinks the government has failed people like working-class Pennsylvanians, and what has to change. But he still seems unable to speak directly to the class-cultural question, much in contrast with the eloquence with which he addressed race after the Pastor Wright controversy.

Then again, no one else has been able to have that kind of “grownup conversation” about class culture in America lately either.The faux-populist news anchors go into an orgy of tut-tutting about Obama’s “elitism” that, however justified, still erases and conceals everything he was really saying about prying government from the clutches of corporate interests and making it respond to human needs. It’s grim to see that the pattern Tom Frank points out in his book is being re-enacted in the response to Obama - the media talking as if what really matters is not whether there’s been decades of economic decline in your community but that some latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, fancy Harvard lawyer thinks he’s better than you.

Rattle Your Keys in Parkdale Tonight

April 15th, 2008

I’ll be back with some thoughts on the Pop Conference and other matters later today, but first, quickly passing on this news about a show tonight that sounds worth attention:

“Keys To The Studio invites you to a concert of music you’ve never heard before! On Tuesday evening, April 15, 2008, starting at 6 pm, experience ground-breaking performances by the Keyholders, the originators of the music on the program, who also happen to be people diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities (such as autism, Tourettes, etc.). The Keyholders will be joined onstage at the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre (220 Cowan Ave. at Queen West between Dufferin & Lansdowne) by their colleagues at Keys To The Studio, well-known Toronto musicians Victor Bateman, Dave Clark, Dan Goldman, Justin Haynes, John Jowett, Teppei Kamei, Joe Kelly and Sandro Perri.

“Come to hear DJ scratching, improv, electronic beats, guitar distortion, rock’n'roll and 8-bit music, and to support Keys To The Studio’s innovative venture to unlock the doors that have kept musicians from this community from their audience (see feature article at Keys to the Studio.com). Pay-what-you-can admission (suggested $5 and additional donations welcome) and wheelchair accessible. Tickets are available at the door, by calling 416-532-8480 or by email at info@keystothestudio.com.”

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