Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for January, 2009

A Tale of Two Philosophes, and a Dilemma

January 29th, 2009


The TLS presents a lively account of the correspondence of Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which the confrontation between Nietzschean provocateur and pious liberal becomes a parable about the uncomfortable relationship between criticism and compassion. It closes with this remark from George Orwell to Stephen Spender in April 1938:

When you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for that reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.

I sympathize: It is hard to be harsh or even ironical about people one knows or has met - but rather than giving up meeting people, the only answer I see is to give up the kind of polemic that consists in treating people as caricatures embodying certain ideas. If a statement, a work of art or an action truly deserves a scathing response, its offense must be so deep that you would say the same to the person’s face. Otherwise, even though intellectual brutality can be useful and especially pleasurable, it comes at too great a cost to the soul.

As Stanley Elkin (the late American novelist) put it, in a phrase I first read on Dial M that went on to haunt me throughout the writing of my Céline Dion book:

Listen, disdain is easy, a mug’s game, but look closely at anything
and it’ll break your heart.

Or that’s what I think this week. How do others deal with the dilemma: Is it possible and desirable to be civil in private and yet be “public enemies” (as Houellebecq and BHL’s collection of correspondence is punningly called), or should we shun human contact with our intellectual/ideological opponents lest it dull our rapiers? Do you find it harder to pass judgment on people’s work in public or in print after you’ve met them, or even if you know they will be reading it?

Here It Comes … Bush-Era Nostalgia!

January 28th, 2009


Just kidding, but one week into the new Age of Nothing’s Wrong (I say in fun, though Obama’s al-Arabia interview yesterday almost had me believing it!), I happened today to read Carrie Brownstein’s transition-day, beating-around-the-Bush-era post on the former Sleater-Kinney guitarist’s NPR blog, Monitor Mix.

She makes a fine list of songs of anger/angst/protest from the period. But then comes this summary, which hit home on first reading because Brownstein’s such a convincing and clear writer:

“In the last few years, the songs and struggles have tended toward the internal: A lot of music has become as personalized and intimate as the means of recording it. There’s a widespread sense of weariness and reflection in place of fury, alongside a hard-earned desire to dance, celebrate and escape. But, like the end of the Bush era itself, those recent musical trends are the denouement. The lasting musical embodiment of the Bush administration will be the songs with teeth - the ones that weren’t afraid to snarl back at bared fangs.”

No disagreement on the tendency to privatization of sentiment and thought in the songwriting of the past couple of years, which I agree is technological as much as it is zeitgeisty. But on reflection, while the Bush administration itself - or let’s say the Cheney administration - was eager and willing to snarl, I’m not sure the songs that got traction or will have lasting impact actually are the angry ones, at least not the explicitly politically angry ones. This may be a Canadian point of view - one at a bit more distance from the action - but I think the songs that will end up embodying the era will be the ones that reflect what it feels like to have your government relentlessly snarling at you, and living in a society whose leaders openly sneer at “reality-based” perspectives.

Songs of escape such as Hey Ya (with its weirdly fucked-up family-romance narrative lurking under its chirpy surface) as well as the shelter-offering Umbrella aren’t going to be forgotten soon, and the hip-hop fixation on “the club” seems to fall into the same area - recalling the way that escapist songs of the 1930s have endured. Even in the parenthetical, indie category from which Brownstein primarily draws, there was the ascendance of soothing folk/classical/nursery-song-influenced sounds, a lot of punk-disco party music, the Flaming Lips’ dance-this-dada-around moves and so on.

The non-escapist music of 2000-08 that endures may include more generalized expressions of anxiety than explosions of anger. There was that initial post-9/11 backlash against critical thinking - which coincided with pop’s most ferocious trickster, Eminem, withdrawing almost completely from the limelight during 2001-2008 (save for his brief intervention in the 2004 elections). That seemed to me to be followed by a wave of cynicism about the worth of calling down power in art (except in satire), and much of the music of the age reflected a sense of panic - some acted it out, like the “yelpy” school of indie (Modest Mouse et al) or songs like Crazy, while some staged it through withdrawal, such as Animal Collective and the other more insular sixties-revival-slash-experimentalist groups, or the mournful goth/emo bands such as My Chemical Romance.

There are exceptions, and Brownstein’s right to celebrate them, from Green Day to Arcade Fire - the latter’s mix of pessimism and optimism and nerve really does seem more heroic to me now than it did before November. And Sleater-Kinney’s own muscular engagement with both social and sonic dynamics seemed heroic to me right away, so I’m happy Brownstein’s not too shy to give herself and her comrades a nod. Finally, leaving aside veterans such as Young and Springsteen (who were really just taking up their appointed roles), there is the saga of The Dixie Chicks (pictured above on the notorious Entertainment Weekly cover that, in its ‘aughties, Britneyish way, was an attempted show of strength that nearly pitched over the threshold of abjection): Not Ready to Make Nice seems likely to hold onto its place in pop history as a cry against the very deep-freeze in the culture that prevented a lot of other protest music from getting a real hearing.

What strikes me about that song is the way that it adopted not so much the language of traditional political songs to make its point, but the rhetoric of a relationship song. And that’s a final development worth noting: I could be wrong, but it seems to me that breakup songs have had a real heyday in the past five years particularly. It doesn’t take a Slavoj Zizek to read the political-cultural subtext in such expressions of frustration at being disrespected and abused and of the yearning for a fresh start - such as Hollaback Girl and Irreplaceable and Since U Been Gone.

And at the end of that cycle comes Single Ladies, which in that context almost seems like a triumphant kiss-off - for “single ladies” read “swing voters” (or non-voters) who at the start of 2009 can sneer at the sleazy chumps who underrated them and set their sights on someone who dares to “put a ring on it,” which (while a retrograde image) still can stand for commitment and integrity and square dealing.

One could go on - I haven’t touched on the re-emergence of the sentimental homefront ballad in Iraq-wartime country music, which has gone too little noticed outside the genre, or for that matter the newfound respectability of heavy metal, which maybe be a point for Brownstein’s snarlers. But as for which music posterity will eventually elect to represent that messy era, well, as Bush himself once put it, “history takes a long time for us to reach.”

On the last day of your life,
don’t forget to die:
RIP Silver Jews

January 23rd, 2009


Worst loss of the recession so far? I’m devastated to see that David Berman quietly announced the end of the Silver Jews this week:

“I guess I am moving over to another category. Screenwriting or Muckraking. I’ve got to move on. Can’t be like all the careerists doncha know. I’m forty two and I know what to do. I’m a writer, see?

“Cassie is taking it the hardest. She’s a fan and a player but she sees how happy i am with the decision. I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to Shiny Happy People. What, you thought I was going to hang on to the bitter end like Marybeth Hamilton?”

My verklemptitude is mitigated a bit by fascination with the post that follows where he vows to wreak “justice” on his father, who turns out to be the worst kind of corporate spin doctor. But not much more than a bit - and David, really, it seems healthier to let it go and tend your own garden, you know?

I’m so grateful I got to see the Joos live before this happened, and for all the great records, and look forward to films, books and perhaps someday some other sort of musical endeavour from the gifted Mr. Berman. Perhaps it’s true that the Joos never really seemed to fit this decade the way they did the ’90s. But right now I’m just going to flop down on the mattress and sniffle over bygone days.

Encounters at the Edge of Possibility

January 21st, 2009


I don’t want to add too much to the verbiage of the past day - I did enough of that on Facebook. Obama chose wisely by going short, recognizing that the potency of the lived moment was, to some degree, beyond words. He could have stuck with a haiku. (”Dad was refused lunch/ Now his son is president/ Childish things, farewell.”) Musically, John Williams could have been far worse - there was dissonance! Yo Yo Ma looked so “Yo yo yo!” - and Aretha’s artistry overcame the weakness of her aging instrument unforgettably. (I was nervous for her.)

Two or three times I heard TV and radio commentators mis-speaking and claiming Aretha sang “America the Beautiful” rather than “My Country Tis of Thee.” One could riff on that mistake for a while, but at the least it seems like a real deafness to how much she was reworking it as a freedom song, referencing Martin Luther King Jr’s use of it in the Dream speech (a speech I was glad Obama avoided echoing in his address, especially after Feinstein and Warren [ugh] both did it), as well as Obama’s past references to it and most of all Marion Anderson’s singing it at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her do so at their indoor gathering. It felt like the broadcasters were confusing Aretha with Ray Charles - “oh, some soul singer does a jazzy version of a patriotic song.”

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem was unfortunately more prosaic than both Obama’s prose and Joseph Lowery’s funk, and made worse by her “poetry voice” delivery. But the occasional-poem commission is a tough gig. She should have read something already composed that would be appropriate - the way Robert Frost spontaneously, instinctively did in 1961, switching from his poem for JFK in midstream to “The Gift Outright.”

Later in the night, tired of cable coverage but not of reality, I watched Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, his doc about scientist-travelers in Antarctica. Besides how much it put the day into perspective (oh yeah, extinction of the human race, right), and how humbling it was, a few further observations: First, the under-ice calls of seals sound like Pink Floyd (as one researcher observed) and like trance techno, not like an animal; anyone into sound should see it for that reason alone. Second, I had no idea that Henry Kaiser, the California-based improv/blues/world/rock guitarist, was also an expert cold-sea diver - he produced the documentary and is fleetingly seen playing music with one of the scientists, but is otherwise way in the background; I knew that he was a world traveller but this is a new angle.

Third and most of all, though, Herzog keeps putting intrusive atmospheric electronic and choral music on the underseas and volcanic-chamber sequences, which really detracted from a film where the most compelling aural aspect is the notion of silence. As a visual person, he might not have realized how invasive it would be for people who are more led by their ears - I could barely see the jellyfish and weird mollusks and ice-shelf footage for all the Bulgarian Choir noise. Eventually I started turning the music down to almost-inaudible so I could finally appreciate the visuals. It felt like a case-study problem in sensory-intensity diversity. It’s an extreme case but I started to wonder if it indicated a basic paradox in soundtrack reception.

All that said it’s a great film. Just ease the sound down in between the interviews and voiceovers.

And O, it was a blissful day. Big embraces to our American cousins.

Sophocles is potlucking

January 19th, 2009

Toronto’s own Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler win at Internet this week. (Not for the first time.)

“Mina Loy is my Industrial Park. Lorine Niedecker had a metted wet squirrel in her apartment yesterday and was amazed at what a cheeky little pre-stew rodent it was and how hard it was to get it out! Theophile Gautier is mechanical vacuum fixit genius guy. And it works so much better when you actually plug it in after you fix it. Erich Maria Remarque is regretting those chicken wings.”

Brian Joseph Davis explains further.

NB: Bill Kennedy was Zoilus’s designer & for several years its web-mechanic.

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Hipstory Repeats

January 16th, 2009


Mort Sahl, late 50s/early 60s, according to The New Yorker’s recent piece about the Village Voice: “The beat generation is a coffeehouse full of people expectantly looking at their watches for the beat generation to come on.”

Sounds like a punchline from Cat & Girl.

Note the mature refraining from comparisons to vague foreign threats, technological jitters and unspecified-hope-inspiring presidents of other decades.

Talk of Land

January 16th, 2009


I have a profile today on The Globe and Mail website (not in print) of Montreal blessed-and-cursed trio Land of Talk led by Ontario-born singer/guitarist Lizzie Powell, who’s also been singing with Broken Social Scene the past year. I’ll print the full transcript of our interview this weekend, but you can see them for the last time in a while tonight in Kingston, Ont.

Key paragraphs: The oscillations between bright and dark spots in Land of Talk’s career mirror its music, founded on the sour-and-sweet blend of Powell’s spiky, dissonant guitar with her plaintive voice, as if Kim Gordon of post-punk band Sonic Youth had the wounded twang of Louisiana country-rock balladeer Lucinda Williams. Powell’s lyrics, too, hover in a twilight zone between Eros and Thanatos.

On Some Are Lakes‘ title track, for instance, where another songwriter might have been content with “I’ll love you as long as I live,” she swerves into the hairpin “I’ll love you like I love you, then I’ll die.” In this, she picks up on a cut-off 1990s strand from near-forgotten bands such as the Throwing Muses or Spinanes, who probed for a tough-but-not-macho feminine rock voice by more complex strategems of difference than the shock tactics of the riot-grrrl movement identified with Hole or Bikini Kill.

‘Translate the Bible into velociraptor’? Yes, we can

January 14th, 2009

Weird. In what I can only guess is The New Yorker’s attempt to join in this month’s spirit of hope, unity and a post-ideological politics of citizenship, this week it’s published a poem that is at once from the avant-ish side of the aisle and not by John Ashbery or Charles Simic or some other safe grey eminence but in fact by a grad student. Or, put another way, a poem by a young poet that is not about mourning one’s spouse by the slant of winter light on lobster bisque. Quick, someone tell me this guy is William Shawn’s sister’s chiropractor’s grandson or something, so I can relax again and enjoy the 40 below.

Confidential to Michael Robbins: “He has not yet found any academic application for his love of hip-hop, country music, & death metal” - ? Dude, you’re clearly not looking very hard.

News from Somewhere

January 12th, 2009

Photo from Somewhere There by Girlchoochoo on Flickr.

Passing this along for interested local musician readers from my favourite Toronto music venue (even though I don’t go there nearly often enough), a place, as its slogan currently claims, “where everyone looks like a clarinet.”

Somewhere There is a venue for creative music in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto. The programming features the diverse membership of the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (AIMToronto) as well as our creative-musician friends and colleagues from other places.

Key components of Somewhere There programming are the residencies, during which a musician or group has two months of weekly performance slots on Wednesdays (8 pm), Thursdays (8 pm), or Sundays (6 pm). If you would like to propose a residency for a two-month period between July 2009 and July 2010, then please send a proposal for consideration.

Please include: 1) A one-paragraph description of what you wish to do during the residency;
2) A one-paragraph biographical statement for you and/or your group(s);
3) Preferences for time of the year and for night of the week (alternate choices could be helpful).

Please send this information to sowehear AT gmail DOT com by Friday, 16 January, 2009.

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Friday Fast Ones

January 9th, 2009

Kenneth Goldsmith from UbuWeb talks “outsider writing” at Mercer Union tonight at 7 pm. Shit, that’s soon.

In Eye this week, Dave Morris pens his final Totally Wired column after four years of providing this blog with fodder. And yes, Dave, we fell for it.

Just as Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan prepares to release his new album, Troubadour (recorded at Tuff Gong studio in Jamaica), the American music press has discovered his first one, 2005’s Dusty Foot Philosopher, which was just released stateside last year. Perhaps this will be the T-dot’s moment finally - the screwfaces get hypheny with it?

Steve Martin banjo album this month. Oh yeah.

No time to go into detail right now but Jon McCurley’s play-that-turns-into-an-art-exhibition Double Double Land at Gallery TPW was a dazzling and delicious piece of creative work and included the most ingenious, confusing and astounding surprise ending there’s ever been in anything ever. The surprise ending was so intense there could only be one performance. (Though secretly there were two.) If you missed it console yourself by reading this conversation between Jon and his comedy partner Amy Lam, aka Life of a Craphead, who it’s still possible you could see someday so don’t give up hope don’t give up don’t give up oh don’t.

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