Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for July, 2008

Let’s Listen to Them Talk About Let’s Talk About Love

July 30th, 2008


Finally CBC Radio has posted an online version of one of my favourite things that happened after my book came out - an edition of their entertaining chat show Talking Books all about it, hosted by my colleague Ian Brown, with guests Noreen Golfman, Jonathan Garfinkel and Beatriz Hausner. It’s a smart but down-to-earth, rollicking roundtable, which ranges abroad into questions of cultural shame in general and the weirdness of music critics in particular. Listen here!

Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Pop Montreal Edition

July 29th, 2008

louis.jpg burt.jpg

Dear Pop Montreal, You know I love you. And I know you’re excited to have such a very prestigious guest star this year. But this -

“To begin we have the insurmountable songwriting legend Burt Bacharach, perhaps the single most important figure in popular music of the 20th [century].”

- is just silly. Pop Montreal, sweetheart, may I introduce you to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rogers, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bo Diddley, Les Paul, Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney & John Lennon, Phil Spector, James Brown, Berry Gordy, Joni Mitchell, Chet Atkins, Lou Reed & John Cale, DJ Kool Herc, Rakim, Chuck D … and the rest? Burt’s an icon and he’s written some terrific tunes that stretched some boundaries in pop songwriting. But runaway hyperbole is no one’s friend.

That said, I’m excited about this year’s lineup, which along with Burt inclues Irma Thomas, The Persuasions (!), Nick Cave, Wire, The Silver Apples - and several musicians actually under 50. (Just kidding, Pop Montreal; I love it that you scampy whelps are so much into giving recognition to historical figures. Even if you’re sometimes shaky on the deets.)


From Bad to Verse?

July 28th, 2008

I’m writing a review, a bit belatedly, of the Silver Jews’ great new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and it occurred to me - aside from the Jews’ David Berman, Leonard Cohen and Jim Carroll, are there any other English-language pop (or semi-pop) singers who have published books of poetry (not their lyrics) that stand up as excellent poetry with no jot of special pleading?

I have mixed feelings about Dylan’s Tarantula (I like it, but I like his liner notes better, and it feels impossible to know how one would feel about it without knowing Dylan’s music). I think Patti Smith’s poetry works a lot better when she’s performing it than on the page. I generally feel that way about dub poets, too, though that could be a failing on my part. There must be more, but they’re not springing to mind. (Oh, wait - Ed Sanders of the Fugs, though the Fugs themselves sometimes require special pleading.) The crossover seems a lot more common in other cultures, as in Latin America, Africa, France, even Quebec.

(If you say Gord Downie, I’ll try not to be dismissive - I’ve only read a couple of poems from his book and I’m a bit kneejerk about the Tragically Hip.)

Forced to Write About American Idol?
Call Our Help Line Now

July 27th, 2008


My imaginary big sister Ann Powers has an essay today in the L.A. Times that seems curiously unpegged - perhaps rock-snob readers writing in to complain? - but neatly sums up the pro-pop shift among music critics, a subject discussed in my book, as she kindly mentions. She describes it as the result of a kind of generational coming-full-circle: pop criticism begins as an in-your-face challenge to elitism; as time goes on, like any other field, it tends to develop its own elitisms, but that founding iconoclastic impulse always surges up from somewhere to dethrone them.

I’m not quite sure what point Ann’s making by pointing out that artists like Steinski and Fleet Foxes are highly rated on Metacritic now - she seems to imply that the next generation yet of critics (the post-Pitchfork generation) may make its own stand by challenging the poptimists to a duel, but I doubt it. Even the most pop-loving critics also have their more esoteric loves, because we’re still all, like, nerds. But from what I’ve seen, younger critics don’t tend to remain anti-pop purists nearly as far into adulthood as I and many of my peers did - partly because our positions were affirmed/enforced by a self-conscious counter- (or “alternative”) culture that doesn’t exist in that mode now. Which comes with its curses and blessings, its liberations and its blinders.

At Creative Loafing’s Tampa Calling blog, Wade Tatangelo intelligently speculates that the trend may be economically based: With the crisis of critical authority brought on by the Internet and the (also ‘net-related) decline of newspaper sales, he says, critics are losing their jobs and those still employed are in more vulnerable positions: Maybe they take an interest in American Idol because they can’t afford not to? There’s something to that - I remarked in my book that unlike, say, an academic specialist, a working critic has to address a broad audience, and one who wrote only about the ultra-weird and never about the popular eventually would be out of a job. In the book I add “(rightly)”, but it’s debatable.

Certainly I know people who’ve been required professionally to review shows they wouldn’t have volunteered to watch. Tatangelo says that a couple of years ago he quit a job rather than cover Idol - and that he’s not sure he would feel emboldened to make a similar move today.

But wait, imagine a film critic who proudly resigns his job rather than write about a popular movie or genre of movies - say, movies based on comic books. Would we think that guy was a hero, or kind of an asshole? Wouldn’t we point to great film critics who have written favorably or unfavorably about blockbuster popcorn flicks and found insightful aesthetic and social analyses there? If you’re being told what to say by your editors, that is cause to make a stand; if you’re being asked to cover a major phenomenon in your field, that’s the job, bucko. Granted, in the more flush past of newspapering, you’d probably have been able to slough off lower-status assignments to the junior critic, and today there usually is no junior critic. And nothing against Tatangelo making life choices that make him happier. But there’s a boon to critics being pushed out of their aesthetic habits to observe what’s happening out in what remains of the mainstream - it gives us the function of conducting that cross-conversation about common cultural objects that those lamenters of the semi-mythical, semi-extinct monoculture say they miss.

Whether we jumped or were pushed, then, the shift towards pop actually helps answer the substantive question of what professional critics are for, not just the marketing one. Ideally the “end of criticism” could be more like the end of thumbs-up, three-stars-out-of-the-crab-nebula reviewing (or rather its migration to the amateurs and Metacritic) and the renewal of engaged cultural journalism.

That sounds rather over-saturated in rosy hues, of course, but see for example my colleague Robert Everett-Green’s new series in response to the fooforaw over the reduction of “classical” music on CBC Radio 2, where he takes a step back and says (in chorus with this weekend’s festival at Harbourfront, about which more later), well then, “What is ‘classical’?” (and whatever it is, why is the government obliged to provide it a radio station?).

It’s a superb corrective that makes me very glad Robert’s back from his couple of months on leave - but it’s also indicative of the value of the pro-pop realignment: I wouldn’t call Robert a “poptimist,” but as someone with an extensive high-culture background and leanings, he probably wouldn’t have had the same perspective if he’d been born a generation or two earlier; as it is, though, he (like, say, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross) is able to appreciate and advocate for music in all its messy, unpigeonholeable, crosspollinated complexity. If you’re for that, dial in and press “2.”

Matmos and Leprechaun Catering:
Their Minds Are Not For Rent/ To God or Government

July 22nd, 2008

Great set last night by Matmos at the Music Gallery, as always, though certainly less of a spectacle than their usual inanimate-(or animate)-object-sampling, cabinet-of-wonders performances, due to the “no microphones” constraint on their new synthesizer-celebrating album Supreme Balloon.

Drew Daniel & Martin (”MC”) Schmidt of Matmos are aware that nobody wants to sit and watch someone play a laptop for two hours, so they had plenty of video and a few ritual physical acts and other shenanigans to keep the optic nerve sated while the ears drank in the sounds. For ‘zample, I’m not all that aurally enamoured of the long mesmeric title track, with which they closed the show, but it perfectly suits the psych-out op-art film they showed along with it of expanding dots and planets and seas, and the other dancey, crunchy, noisy, spacey tunes and acts of telepathy and numerology all came off dreamily.

The encore was especially fun - I assume it was improvised, as Martin went off to the dormant piano in the back corner of the church, pounding out some classical riffs that Drew then sampled and turned into a noise symphony that toyed with our spatial perceptions of the sources of the sounds.

My only real complaint is that it was the wrong encore: How dare they play Toronto without playing the new disc’s tribute to our own experimental-animation-and-direct-sound proto-homocore king Norman McLaren, Exciter Lamp & the Variable Band, which contains a round-the-bend cover of O Canada. (See video below.)

However, that was compensated by tourmates Leprechaun Catering from Baltimore (where Matmos now live, as Drew’s become a professor at John Hopkins). The openers named each of the pieces in their noisy, mad-laboratory improvised set with titles that acronym to “Toronto” (”Tits on Reindeer Offer Nourishment to Offspring,” for instance, but my favourite was “Therefore, Our Rap Operas Need Tighter Oratorios”; I couldn’t help spending much of the set trying to come up with more - my best was, “Teach Old Rover One New Trick, Okay?”).

And they topped that off by playing a Theremin-led cover of Rush’s Tom Sawyer (with Drew acting as “human microphone stand” because a metal microphone stand will fuck up your Theremin’s mojo) - I dearly hope someone will post it on YouTube (like maybe that guy sitting in front of me who spent the entire show watching it through the little screen on his digital camera, taking 30-second clips - why bother coming to the concert if you’d much prefer watching it on a four-inch TV?): As Gallery programmer/host Jonny Dovercourt put it, “We stand on guard for Lee.”

Please read the very funny and informative Matmos interview transcript posted by Zoilusian proteg&eacute Chris Randle on his rival blog.

Their Minds Are Not For Rent/ To God or Government">3 Comments

More on ‘Missing the Monoculture’

July 21st, 2008

This Toronto Star story yesterday by Ryan Bigge jumps off from a Zoilus post awhile back to consider the fate of the monoculture, covering a lot of ground along the way, from the lack of a recognized “summer hit” this year to the “loudness wars” to the “long tail” to an intriguing study by David Huron I want to look up, about whether non-western music is becoming more dominated by western harmonies (gives the term “global harmony” a decidedly more sinister twist).

You could try refuting Bigge with three little words: “The Dark Knight.” But I think this idea that there is no middle ground between monoculturalism and alienated uncommunicating tribes is also at fault - in fact, I’d set Bigge up against this piece on “cross-genre covers” by Jonah Weiner on Slate last week, to argue that they each show up the flaws in each others’ cases: First, if you want to find the sweet spot of majoritarianism in our culture, just look at, say, what teen country-pop star Taylor Swift chooses to cover in concert: Lose Yourself by Eminem (as seen above), Irreplaceable, Umbrella - these are all big singalong moments for an audience that’s not expected to be an R&B/hip-hop audience. But of course we’re all in that audience, whether we buy the record or not - sometimes less willingly, of course, the way we’re all in the Katy Perry audience this summer. But we’re not only in that audience - most people are also part of some niche audience. The monoculture has turned into more of a wheel with many spokes, but it still has a hub. Cross-genre covers are one of the ways that multivalent quality is now expressed.

Of course, Weiner is mostly criticizing the “propensity for condescension” in the cross-genre cover - ie., what used to be known as the “ironic cover.” But as I argue in the chapter of my book called “Let’s Do a Punk Cover of My Heart Will Go On“, the ironic cover has been passing from fashion as openness and omnivorism have become the cooler cultural model. Part of my own turnaround on late-90s teenpop came from hearing Richard Thompson doing an acoustic cover of Oops, I Did It Again done with real respect for the songwriting craft involved. (Notice in the concert video how the crowd laughs at first - and how Thompson pays no mind to that laughter at all, just boring into the song until he’s produced an entirely different kind of pleasure at the end. You often see that pattern with cross-genre covers today.) Weiner mentions John Darnielle’s version of Ignition (Remix) without noting that the Mountain Goat does it in a medley with Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town, which is clearly an attempt to draw connections across different continents of the musical map. So there may not be any overpowering single sector of the culture now, but there is a dominant mode - and that mode is connection. And when you think of it that way - that what we have in common is this process of placing things in relation, discovering what they have in common - it doesn’t leave me “missing the monoculture” much at all.

Later: Oh, and I meant to add that for a neat example of the advantages of connection - what you might call the monoculture’s transformation into “interculture” - read Josh Kun’s excellent NYT feature from Sunday on Shawn Kiene, an American country fan who’s morphed into “El Gringo,” and eventually may help introduce the sounds known as “Mexican Regional” and norteno to anglo audiences in the States.

Such stories are Josh’s specialty, as evidenced in his work directing the Norman Lear Center’s Popular Music Project and in his book, Audiotopia.

Two Jazz-Funk Great Happenings

July 16th, 2008


Besides the Matmos show at the Music Gallery on Monday (celebrating their recent release, Supreme Balloon), the duo’s younger half, the lovely and brilliant Drew Daniel, seen above getting groped by (who knows? but we’ll guess) a drunken fan, will be appearing Monday afternoon at 1 pm at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library in Kensington market to read from and discuss his very fine book in the 33 1/3 series (which also published my book) on Throbbing Gristle (whose logo is also above) and their album 20 Jazz Funk Greats (not to be confused with the very fine blog of the same name). Drew is as entertaining a talker as Matmos is a band, and if you can spare some sunny summer afternoon time, I bid you to hit up both events.

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Woah, oh, oh, we’re counting to four

July 15th, 2008

This has been everywhere, of course, but why not here, too? The thing about the Sesame Street remake of Feist’s hit is that it seems like a revelation of the real nature of the song - it’s always been a counting song (a form found all over the world - music and math being a natural marriage). It was just disguised as a love song. So the self-parody is an improvement, as if the original version had just been an excuse to get to this point.

Of course, you can’t go too wrong when you put Sesame Street, music and counting together:

That last was the Pointer Sisters. And that’s not even getting into the oeuvre of the Count. Meanwhile, since we’re at it: Philip Glass does Sesame Street (from either 1977 or 1979, depending who you ask):

Seventies Sesame Street is one of the few things capable of making me feel positively overcome with nostalgia - like, chloroformed with a nostalgia-soaked rag. Congratulations to Leslie for joining that great lineage.


You Scream, I Scream,
and Then You Scream My Scream

July 9th, 2008


I’ve neglected to mention up till now the action going on in the Scream festival, which culminates in Monday’s Scream in High Park reading night. Partly in dishonor of the current blaze over Bill C-61, the fabulously flawed proposed copyright reform, the theme of this year’s Scream is “Copyright, Collaboration, and Appropriation.” So for instance tonight at the Gladstone local poet Kevin Connolly offers his poem “Plenty” up to re-inventions by playwright Conor Green, artist Olia Mischenko, filmmaker Tamara Romanchuk and musician NQ Arbuckle (followed by a set by the pleasantly gruff Mr. Arbuckle).

Then tomorrow at The Boat, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alexis Muirhead, Sonja Ahlers, M. NourbeSe Philip and Michael Maranda take part in a panel on Fair Use (chaired by York prof and sometime music writer Marcus Boon at 7 pm, followed by readings from various pirate-minded creative projects and finally a DJ set by local appropriation ace Brian Joseph-Davis. Friday night at Type Books Paul Petro Gallery (see explanation in the Comments), there’s an 11 pm screening of fanfilm and machinima; Saturday there will be a theatrical performance using poet Jack Spicer’s last lecture as a “script”; and Sunday night at Arraymusic there’s an intriguing exploration of the space between text, voice and tune, as composer Paul Swoger-Ruston tries to “transl(oc)ate” three local poets’ reading styles into music.

Finally on Monday at High Park, there’s the marquee event, where I’m humbled to say I’ve been invited to read. (Reportedly I’m the first nonfiction writer to read in the Scream’s 16-year history.) I’m planning to enact the theme, in part, by stealing material directly from readers of this blog - prepare to sue me!

PS: Before the Monday reading, there’ll be a semi-surreptitious guided walk through the woods at High Park, which is actually an impressive natural conservancy beneath its guise of local dog-walking, picnic-having locale and Scream/Dream venue - a fact too many artsy attendees don’t learn about. Get in touch if you want details.

and Then You Scream My Scream">1 Comment

All the Young Dave Matthews Dudes
(Were Not at the Alejandro Escovedo Show)
(Plus: RIP Schroer; Polaris noms)

July 8th, 2008


When Alejandro Escovedo asked the crowd at the Mod Club last night whether any of us had seen him opening on the last Dave Matthews Band tour, he seemed surprised (and a bit amused) to find that not a single soul in the club had. Clearly it’s reasonable for a performer to hope and expect that a crossover experience like that will bring new fans to their own shows, but Dave Matthews isn’t as big a deal in Canada as he is south of the border, and the people who go to DMB shows aren’t that likely to come to the Mod Club - despite it being a larger venue than anywhere else Alejandro’s played in Toronto (I used to see him at Ted’s Wrecking Yard, and he reminisced from the stage about playing the Ultrasound, which predates me), the sizable crowd last night was just the accumulated result of a slow building love affair between Alejandro and Toronto.

I wonder what he’d have done differently if he’d known. The set list and style of the performance last night was very much in summer-rock, even jam-bandish mode, with a lot of emphasis on guitar solos. Lead guitarist David Pulkingham certainly has the chops for the job, but he’s more of a stylistic chameleon - while he can switch from blues bruising to flamenco-ish classical guitar, he doesn’t make his own stamp on the music. Whereas when Alejandro plays even the simplest lick, it rings with his soulfulness. You could almost feel him urging Pulkingham on to reach in deeper, but I think he’s too gentle a guy to play the disciplinarian. The cost, for me, was a much less emotionally moving show than I’ve ever gotten from Alejandro, who usually leaves me buzzing with feelings. But I couldn’t really complain about the closing round of covers, exuberant versions of All the Young Dudes, Beast of Burden and I Wanna Be Your Dog that sent us out glowing into the summer heat. And it did get me excited about his new record - Real Animal, which chronicles his musical life from his days in the Nuns in San Francisco (opening for the Sex Pistols) through twang-rock bands of the 80s to days living in the Chelsea Hotel and then the Austin scene of the 1990s, people loved and lost, and so on.

I’ll look forward to the next time he returns on his own, or with a string trio, or one of his other many versatile combinations, rather than the showbizzed-up version we saw last night. Although that may be awhile, since his recent very conspicuous endorsement by Bruce Springsteen might keep him in the arena-rock, er, arena for a while yet. (It’s got to be a lot less painful than his last high-profile media appearance - getting the nod from George W Bush for his song “Castanets,” which Alejandro said last night kept him from playing the song for a while.)

Much else to talk about - the death of Oliver Schroer. Owen (Final Fantasy) Pallett dropped me a line over the weekend to say how sad he was about his fellow violinist’s death, and lamenting that Schroer’s explorations weren’t the kind that tend to attract Internet-music-fan attention; read the lovely final-days interview with Diane Flacks from the Toronto Star last week. And then of course there are the Polaris nominations - I’m half-tempted to rage against the outcome, but I’m afraid the leaning towards broadly appealing, smart youth rock (as opposed to non-rock genres, as well as pricklier rock sounds) is a product of the process that’s involved in the Polaris, which I’m beginning to think is, well, perhaps too democratic for the award’s good (imho).

The winner will depend on the makeup of the final 11-judge panel, of course, but if I were to bet now? I’d say Caribou.

(Were Not at the Alejandro Escovedo Show)
(Plus: RIP Schroer; Polaris noms)">2 Comments

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