Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for June, 2009

Is Your Life a Painting?

June 29th, 2009

Said the Gramophone’s elegy, “After Michael Jackson Died” (”He understood the liberated/ sing/ of his childhood songs, the worlds concealed in his boyhood choruses, wants he found words for, even then, before he/ knew what such wants could be, before he knew the meaning of “darling!”, back in the days where he still thought he/ would find this, find “darling!”, before he had given up, turned instead to monkeys and children, to dandelion joys.”)
K-Punk (”But before the Thriller phenomenon encased Jackson in the hypercommodity that he was now reduced to being just a little part of - he would soon be only a biotic component going mad in the middle of a vast multimedia megamachine that bore his name - before all that was Billie Jean.”)
The Boston Globe (deeper into Peter Pan)
Oliver Wang’s MJ Deep Cuts Mix
Lynn Crosbie on Ryeberg Video: “Crazy Michael Jackson Fan” (sexiest MJ piece I’ve yet read: “But it was hard to fantasize about Jackson, whose sexuality was, ultimately, part of his mystery; part of the burlesque nature of some of his work. Part of him, the man who was so complex that to have erotic thoughts about him is like making a pin-up of Picasso’s Dora Maar.”)
An appreciation and mini-biography by Jason King (”I’d call him a spectacularist, if that were a legitimate word. He was the thriller he sang about.”)
David Cantwell (”Some of the most soul-sustaining, emotionally-perfect musical moments I know are those times in J5 hits when Michael’s high sweet voice gave way to the voice of one of his brothers’, usually Jermaine’s, who would spell Michael for a line or a verse or a bridge, the older sibling with his musical arm around the shoulder of a kid brother.”)
Sasha Frere Jones (”He was the Jackie Robinson of MTV and, in many ways, the Google of pop dancing.”)
Steven Shaviro (”one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been ‘mainstreamed,’ or that the very ‘mainstream’ itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away … allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy.”)
Owen Hatherley (”In terms of lifelong fame, limitless but profoundly unsatisfying power and presumably endless guilt, the only man who probably knows how Michael Jackson felt near the end is Kim Jong-Il.”)
Ernest Hardy (”So many of the tributes being written … think they are bestowing the ultimate praise on him by positioning him alongside conventional, traditional soul men or icons of Negro male cool. Make that unquestionable hetero Negro male cool. But the thing about Michael … was that he resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention. [He] cemented his solo superstar status during the gender-bending / gender-fucking era of the early ‘80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones – though he was a seasoned old pro in comparison to all of them. (It was his second start at a solo career.) Because his gender-tweak shit was subtle relative to those artists, it doesn’t really get commented upon. But Mike evolved from childhood mimicry of the masculinity of soul titans to something more complex and more layered. It was his. And it eventually housed a much more problematic sexuality.”)
ILM message-board Classic: “The Tragedie of Michael Jackson, King of Pop”
The Minutemen weigh in

… after a long illness. RIP

June 26th, 2009

I felt we lost him long ago. Dreams of comebacks were fantasies; it’s sadly unsurprising that he did not live to perform those out-of-proportion 50 London concerts this summer. In my heart, I feel that it was as if the adult Michael were his own portrait of Dorian Gray, falling into delusion and disrepair to compensate for the preternatural amount of universal energy that had been expended on making his childhood self so much more than childlike. But in my head I know that’s a mystification: What made that magical boy was, along with the raw talent, a sweatshop-style regimen of child labour and, at the least, physical abuse. And what made the broken man was the same thing.

One of the most common comments I’m hearing is that people liked the early stuff best, the little broad-brim-hat-wearing sibling who outshone his elders, and who radiated happiness so much more than the maker of Thriller (much less the 1990s and 2000s Jacko) did. Perhaps that’s because it’s how people my age first encountered him, or again as an antidote to the grimness of his final chapters, or simply the fact that childhood became the theme and leitmotif of his life.

But while I feel all that Jackson 5, jumpsuits-and-suspenders, robot-dancing nostalgia myself, I wouldn’t want to praise the bubblegum years too much at the expense of the revolutionary sounds of his popular peak, which along with the parallel dance/rock (and gender/race) crossover breakthroughs Madonna was making at the time, countered not only sonically but commercially (by breaking the MTV colour line for example) a tendency towards the re-segregation of the pop charts that had been developing at least since the decline of AM radio in the early 1970s or even, you could argue (as Elijah Wald does in his new book), since the Beatles.

Thriller was a global event that marked at once the ultimate American domination of international pop culture and its ending: Not only would the world never quite agree again on anything the way it did on Michael Jackson (although the Titanic movie and Celine Dion come close, beloved everywhere in the late 1990s - except by the elites of the culture that produced them), in retrospect you can see a hint of things to come in his difference-bridging musical persona, in the way his sound and his dancing reconciled opposites: The advent of a President Barack Obama is surely an event that took place within a cultural space Thriller staked out - it was, as the Minutemen would have it, a “political song for Michael Jackson to sing.” But by then his voice was too frail; now, it is still. The king is dead; his throne has vanished.

Here are a few of the smartest and most affecting tributes and reflections I’ve read since last night. Not remotely all, since that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing:

Ann Powers
Hua Hsu
Jody Rosen
Andrew Sullivan
Sheila Heti (on the new Ryeberg Curated Video site, which I’ve been meaning to tell you about)
Liz Renzetti and Robert Everett-Green in The Globe and Mail (tomorrow, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Lynn Crosbie)
His dance legacy
Salon: Margo Jefferson, Michaelangelo Matos, ZZ Packer, Andrew Hehir, Jeff Chang and more
From the Village Voice archives: Bob Christgau, Chuck Eddy, Nelson George, Stanley Crouch, Greg Tate, Vince Aletti, Guy Trebay and more (Tate: “Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy-at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.”)
Quotes collected by Idolator
Jonah Weiner
Ethan Hein’s MJ Sampling Map
The story of that great Simpsons episode, surely a highlight of the series
Stephen Metcalf (”To substitute for the childhood he never had, he picked, with uncanny accuracy, exactly those things that don’t substitute for an actual childhood. Amusement parks and toys—the placatory devices of the bad parent”)
What will happen to his kids? (And his money)
… and someone who rented him videos

Finally, there’s this, for another place and people who loved him:

Persian Rap - the Real ‘Twitter Revolution’?

June 20th, 2009

Just read an AllHipHop.com post that claims that Iranian rappers are heavily involved in organizing the heroic protests there right now. In fact it goes so far as to say they are incorporating demo plans into their songs: “[Rappers are] telling and passing out [information] telling people where to go and meet and the issues going on. It’s becoming the music of the revolution.”

Unfortunately, albeit understandably, it’s very short on specifics and background. I knew there were diasporic Persian rappers in Los Angeles and elsewhere, but hadn’t heard about domestic rap in Tehran - although why not, since it’s all around the world? It’s a fascinating concept, reminiscent of the old ’90s-era “hip-hop as black CNN” line and also an illustration of a fact that many media are coming around to analyze this weekend, that much of the social-networking tech being touted around the uprising is inaccessible to most Iranians and word-of-mouth and other inventive means are crucial there - not to say that Twitter, to which I’ve been riveted all week, hasn’t been vital in getting information out to the rest of the world.

I wonder if any of their rhymes are as stirring as this line from poet Ahmad Shamlu (Shamloo?) that was reportedly used on a placard in one of the silent marches in Tehran this week: ”To slaughter us/ why did you need to invite us/ to such an elegant party?”

In 2049, It Will Be
the 40th Anniversary of Totstock

June 19th, 2009

It’s supposed to be a beautiful day in Toronto on Sunday, when you should grab your favourite kid and head to Totstock at Sorauren Park.

It’s a benefit for the much-in-need and very worthy High Park Nature Centre, which does environmental education and ecological awareness-raising in classes and camps for kids from across the city in Toronto’s largest green space (and home of the endangered savannah ecosystem). The Nature Centre, staffed by certified teachers, operates on a shoestring with no stable government funding.

Totstock is hosted by Don Kerr (ex-Rheostatics and Ron Sexsmith drummer/cellist, and producer of a million bands at the Gas Station), with “The Blue Bin Band” and will also feature Claire Jenkins, David Wall (ex-Bourbon Tabernacle Choir), Claudia Dey (novelist, Stunt, and Globe relationship columnist) and many more with with storytelling, music and “eco-crafts” all over Sorauren Park for those aged 2 to 8. Also join David Bruins & Hilary Leung as they stage the world’s largest ever Cowboy Ninja Bear tournament.

Sun June 21; 2-5pm. PWYC.

NXNEats Itself,
Polaris (Dog) Pondering, Book Notes

June 17th, 2009

There would have been more Zoilus posting this week if I hadn’t wasted so much fruitless time trying to find a coherent, utile version of the North by Northeast festival schedule. Band by band, the NXNE site’s fine, but if you want to know what’s happening hour by hour - say, to post in your own concert listings - NXNE seems to say, “Tough shit.” I’m becoming convinced this is a deliberate deal to keep NOW’s printed (but not online) grid the sole reference source.

Speaking of NXNE, The Globe & Mail today had a few of my picks for the weekend, along with some from my colleagues Robert Everett-Green (whose Homosexuals endorsement, among others, I heartily second) and Brad Wheeler. It’s worth noting, too, that for the first time (I think), out-of-towners will be able to watch live webcasts of select NXNE shows.

The other big Canadian music news this week, of course, was the release of the 40-album Long List for the Polaris Music Prize. I’m disappointed but not surprised my no. 1 pick, Blackout Beach, is absent. And frankly, though, the list makes it clear that 2008-09 was rather weak beer for Canadian music, if I compare it to last year’s, and I suspect that we are headed for another guitar-boy-heavy Short List. On quick survey my top picks of the 40 would be Fucked Up, Tim Hecker, Land Of Talk, Martha Wainwright and an undecided fifth (Junior Boys? Rae Spoon? Happiness Project?) but I have to do some remedial listening this weekend.

Meanwhile, the ticklingly named blog North by Eastwest is conducting its own “shadow” Polaris poll.

Toronto music-history enthusiasts should not miss this: Stuart Berman of Eye, P4K, etc., has today’s Book Notes at Largehearted Boy, in which he revisits TO-rawk of the ’90s, such as Change of Heart (who have a reunion show in NXNE) and the mighty Phleg Camp, as background to his fine new oral history of Broken Social Scene, This Book is Broken (being launched by a collection of the usual BSS subjects tonight in NXNE at Courthouse). It’s not my favourite period in Toronto music to say the least, but Stuart makes it shine. (Oh and I neglected to tell you when another Toronto writer and f.o.Z., Sean Dixon, contributed Book Notes for his novel Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal (published by Coach House in Canada as The Girls Who Saw Everything).

Finally, on matters bookish, I should mention that another P4K writer, Matt LeMay, who wrote the new 33 1/3 book on Elliott Smith’s XO, will be in Toronto a week from Sunday (June 28) and doing a reading and discussion with me at 2 pm at Soundscapes - appropriately enough since the first chapter of my book talks about the odd moment in history when Smith competed for an award against Celine Dion. (It could’ve been worse - he could have been Hey Rosetta up against Leonard Cohen …) Here’s the Facebook event page.

More soon. Meanwhile: Solidarity with the people of Iran.

Polaritively Nositive: The Final Tally

June 10th, 2009

Here’s how my Round 1 ballot for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize looks ($20,000 for the Canadian album released between June ‘08 and June ‘09, for those out of the know). What happens next is that on Monday, the Polaristocrats announce the “long list,” which includes the Top 40 point-getters from the ballots of the 190 voters. We all vote again solely on that list, which produces the 10-album official Short List, revealed on July 7. And the winner is chosen from that list by the 11-person Grand Jury, backstage during the gala ceremony in Toronto, scheduled for Sept. 21.

1) Blackout Beach - Skin of Evil

Carey Mercer (also, of course, of Frog Eyes and Swan Lake) is an utterly original and emotionally acrobatic songwriter and performer wherever he appears, but with Skin of Evil he’s created an extended, focused suite exploring a single narrative rather than the hyper-niscient jump-edits characteristic of Frog Eyes, a tale that at once conjures the potency of a romantic, self-martyring fixation and mocks and undermines it. The sweet-toxic mood is in the sound, in the notes and between them, even without the lyrics in which High Modernism melts into pink bubblegum, as if “The Wasteland” had been written by Archie Andrews. (By the by, Mercer has a blog, named Clouds of Evil after the first song on this album, that is almost as wild and entertaining as his music.)

2) Martha Wainwright - I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings, Too

Without the immediate personal charm of her older brother Rufus (except perhaps to those of us with a weakness for the “difficult” woman), but carrying many of the same neurotic-narcissist personality tics - along, of course, with the musical brilliance that runs in the family - Martha hasn’t done herself any favours in the past by writing songs that seemed excessively inward and repetitive, though every release has had a standout track or two. But on I Know You’re Married…, I feel as though she’s really opened her sensibility up, not to mention learned to edit herself, and produced a record that can sink in deep, to ears that are open to hear. (See my original Globe & Mail review after the jump.)

3) Land of Talk - Some Are Lakes

As I wrote in The Globe in January: “[Land of Talk] is founded on the sour-and-sweet blend of [Elizabeth] 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. … 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-yet-not-macho feminine rock voice by more complex stratagems of difference than the shock tactics of the riot-grrrl movement identified with Hole or Bikini Kill.”

4) Fucked Up - Chemistry of Common Life

The only potential Polaris nominee whose lead singer is a commentator from the left on Fox News, whose “unprintable” name (no, really, try it on your own printer - doesn’t work!) will pose an entertaining problem for news media for months and who are actually revolutionizing their genre. While you could complain that it’s just hardcore for people who don’t like hardcore (the way that Sunn0)))) etc. are often charged with being metal for people who don’t like metal), that’s belied by the fact that hardcore fans love them - it’s actually just hardcore that is so good that non-hardcore listeners like it too. Unlike a lot of the rock records that will be on the long list, Fucked Up’s Chemistry (like its predecessor Year of the Pig, which should have been nominated too) isn’t just the best Canadian record of its kind this year but the best record of its kind anywhere this year. Granted, its kind is not my main musical preference, but if I were on the final jury I’d argue for F.U. over most of the other artists with a strong chance of making the shortlist.

5) The Blankket - Pegatively Nositive

Sadly overlooked, in part because creator Steve Kado was out of the country when it was released (at art school in L.A.), this short sharp shock of a concept album deals in rattling junkshop rhythms, very-non-pitch-corrected melodies and untrammeled yelling - which may not sound so appealing, but it’s all in service of Kado’s provocative, unconventional messages about both mainstream and indie cultures and their mutually lazy, smug avoidance of the really tough stuff - death, for example, or actual independent thinking. (Rather than hipsters, he calls his targets “modern babies.”) Depending how you listen it could be a bitter bracing tonic or a hilarious send-up - in fact, Kado’s sleight of hand is nimble enough that it manages to be both at once.

I went back & forth all weekend about which way to flip #1 and #2; the order was fixed only when last night’s midnight deadline elapsed. I also regretted that no hip-hop albums made the cut, and continue to wonder if there should be some sidebar award for best single that might help to expand the musical palette of the prize.

The #5 slot is what changed the most: The Blankket’s album took it mostly because it was the last impulse I had when I logged on the voting page before I had to go out for the night. Also, in my mind, more or less tied for fifth were: Swan Lake, Castlemusic, Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project, Last Step (a new project from the man better known as Venetian Snares), Junior Boys, Tim Hecker, Anthony Braxton & the AIMToronto Orchestra, Rae Spoon, Great Lake Swimmers, Joel Plaskett, Leonard Cohen live, The Bicycles, Hank, Slim Twig, Kardinal Offishal, John Doe & the Sadies and possibly a few more.

But that is it for the teeth-grinding part of the process. Next up: teeth gnashing!



June 5th, 2009

I’ve been quietly agonizing all week over what five records to place on my ballot for round 1 of Polaris Music Prize voting, which is due Monday. So far, my picks for Canadian albums released between June 1, ‘08, and June 1, ‘09, are almost certain to include Martha Wainwright’s I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life and Land of Talk’s Some Are Lakes, but there’s a ridiculous volume of heavy competition for the last two spots: Blackout Beach (aka Carey Mercer from Frog Eyes), The Bicycles, K’Naan, Great Lake Swimmers, Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project, The Blankket, Hank, Slim Twig, Kardinal Offishal, Leonard Cohen (Live in London), Timber Timbre, Elliott Brood, Anthony Braxton & the AIMToronto Orchestra, Venetian Snares/Last Step, John Doe & the Sadies, Blah Blah 666, Joel Plaskett … Not to mention some I haven’t even heard yet.

SO - what do you think? Sway me! Bribes accepted in the comment box.

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