Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for October, 2009

When the Saints Go Marching In

October 26th, 2009

As I write, Toronto musicians and arts supporters are assembling outside the CBC building in Toronto for a New Orleans-style parade “funeral” in the name of the Canadian Musical Diversity program, recently eliminated by Stephen Harper’s Conservative administration under Heritage Minister James Moore. This very small - $1.4-million - little program is directly responsible for a large share of the recordings made in this country by artists in jazz, folk, improv, “world,” contemporary composition and other “niche” genres, and indirectly for the way those recordings (however little they may sell individually) help make those artists’ careers as performers possible (as well as the festivals and other events organized around them). The money is being transferred over to some kind of “digital market development” program as well as international marketing (the latter being the program whose elimination we were protesting a couple of years ago).

For complete background and details, this Facebook page is likely the best clearinghouse.

The mark of ideology is on this, as the Harperites want to increase funding to the FACTOR program, whose basic policy is to give a boost to artists/labels whose commercial prospects are strong. It’s in keeping with the general neoliberal bias of this government to give helping hands to “winners” and the boot to “losers” (whom they’ve tried to make seem like lazy whiners by claiming these artists are “not interested” in commercial success, as if they were the musical equivalent of hobby farmers). I have no quarrel with helping out the likes of Arts & Crafts records, whose success is actually modest and surely helpful to the overall health of the Canadian music scene - it makes good economic sense, probably pays for itself in taxes. But this move threatens the principle that public funding is meant to supply the social benefits - such as a musical culture that’s reflective of our social and intellectual diversity - that the market alone cannot provide. And it’s a cheap-ass, sleazy, kneecapping cash grab by the government against people who’ve already sacrificed their own prosperity in order to make the kinds of music they believe in.

Let the trumpets sound!

X-Browed Notes

October 21st, 2009

I haven’t got time to respond to this exhaustive and enjoyable discussion of taste and high-low-middle “brows” (which kindly references my book) today but expect it soon, perhaps both here and here.

Meanwhile my brow is simply bouncing at the thought that the Music Gallery’s X-Avant festival starts today in Toronto, themed around “scenius” and collaboration, with the first-ever Canadian performance by Krautrock (kosmiche muzik) legends Cluster (less than a month after seeing Faust!) - with Phantom Orchard (Zeena Parkins & Ikue Mori), a “Hip-Hop/New Music Summit,” Iva Bittova and Chris Cutler, Six Finger Satellite, and more to follow. Reports from the shows will appear here where possible the next few days.

If you’re not in Toronto, get your nu-muze fix from Zoilus’s compadres at Destination Out who have previews of the extraordinarily hot shit what Vijay Iyer’s trio with Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore has got up to lately. Need further convincing? Feast your I’s and ‘ere’s below as the trio offers a persuasive reinvention of M.I.A.’s 2005 breakthrough single Galang, as recorded for their new disc Historicity.

November Spawned a Gig Guide

October 14th, 2009

Next month’s Toronto show listings, draft 1, up on the Gig Guide page now, featuring Devo! David Amram! Junior Boys! Vic Chesnutt! My Power Plant/Music Gallery show with Joe Pernice, D-Sisive and the Reveries (Nov 11)! Jesus Lizard! Lyle Lovett! Dirty Projectors! Billy Bragg! Surprising amounts of Dubstep!

As ever, notify us of omissions, errors and other monsters. Signed, your hostages to kindness.


The Reopening of Iris
(Pop Montreal Postscript)

October 13th, 2009

Catching up with life in Toronto last week, I didn’t get the chance to write about the final show I saw at Pop Montreal, after the deadline for my Sunday wrapup - Iris DeMent at little jazz-bar boîte L’Astral on Ste-Catherine, which just opened this summer. Now, Arkansas-born country singer DeMent has been one of my favourite singers and songwriters since 1994, when she released her stunning second album, My Life, full of piercingly poignant chronicles of family, love, music, faiths found and lost, the whole catastrophe.

She doesn’t play often, at least north of the border (I think she said that she’d never been to Montreal before) - I hadn’t seen her since the 2000 Blue Rodeo picnic at Fork York in Toronto, where she seemed more than a little on the shaky side, playing only one song composed since her controversial 1996 record Wasteland of the Free (which with radio bans due to its anti-Gulf War and related sentiments made her Nashville’s Dixie Chicks of the 1990s, although obviously on a smaller scale), and that one song was about reading self-help books. As David Cantwell later revealed in a fine piece for No Depression, she had been dealing with divorce and a life-long struggle with depression. I was relieved, then, to hear a new album from her in 2004, Life Line, but beautiful as it was, it was a collection of gospel covers, with, again, just one original (a great retelling of the Good Samaritan story called “He Reached Down”).

Last week in Montreal, however, DeMent played a good six or seven songs that seemed to be of recent vintage, igniting hope in a faithful fan’s heart that we’d hear a record of new tunes from her sometime in the 21st century. One was a touching anniversary song, “I Think This Love’s Gonna Last,” for her husband, folksinger Greg Brown, whom she married practically on sight back in 2002: They’d both been around enough to have tried it all the other ways, she explained, so why not? (Committing herself enough to express it in song was a bigger step, she half-joked.) There was a great tune in tribute to the frank talk of her 90-year-old mom (DeMent, now in her lateish 40s, is the youngest of 14 kids), a wrenching one addressed to a lost child and another about losing a sibling in childhood (one couldn’t help wondering in both cases if this was fact or fiction, but no question that they were true).

The latter, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” was a return to one of the essential themes for DeMent, who was raised in a Pentecostal family where “worldly music” was forbidden (though anyone who’d put out a gospel album was okay, which was how she got her hands on Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn albums), and has sung throughout her career about her adult agnosticism (perhaps best expressed in “Let the Mystery Be”) and love-hate relationship with religion, on the one hand as a way to bond with people and the natural world, and on the other as a locus of hypocrisy and judgment rather than compassion. She also played a lighter little ode to a morning-glory flower at the top of a hill near her and Brown’s home in Iowa - “it’s a happy song - when I have them, I like to point that out.”

But of course there were also old favourites, opening with a version of My Life lead track “Sweet is the Melody,” itself a meditation on the difficulty of songwriting (”so hard to come by/ it’s so hard to make every note bend just right/ you lay down the hours and leave not one trace/ till a tune for the dancing is there in its place”); the song had been rearranged, its melody (ironically enough) rewritten, I assumed to avoid some of the high notes that she might find harder to hit now that her voice has matured out of its early, swooping girlishness. The crowd, a mix of longtime devotees (she said she was surprised to find out that her music had reached people this far from home) and Pop Montreal newcomers, gave her two standing ovations and were rewarded with a closing version of “the first song I wrote that I thought was good enough to play for anyone but my mama,” the bittersweet “Our Town.”

My eyes gave their own pair of ovations when they brimmed over with tears in a couple of songs (and came close several times more), and I left the hall grateful to feel that DeMent had found a greater contentment than when I saw her last, that Pop Montreal has the capacious taste and imagination to welcome such an artist into a program much heavier on youthful or self-consciously avant-garde ones (though I wished they’d double-billed her in the church on Saturday with Buffy Sainte-Marie), and that my week revisiting my old stomping grounds in Montreal and so many musical touchstones had ended on such a grace note, with a true homecoming of the heart.

The News Today - Oh Boy!
(Pop Montreal, Ignatieff, ECHO Prize)

October 5th, 2009

My roundup of Pop Montreal is in today’s Globe and Mail.

The Leader of the Opposition sounds like he’s been reading my book: “You can like hockey, you can like classical music. Let’s stop playing Canadian against Canadian or taste against taste.”

Congratulations to Toronto’s D-Sisive for winning the $5,000 purse in the 4th annual ECHO Songwriting Prize for “emerging” artists - against strong competition from Land of Talk, Timber Timbre, Joel Plaskett and Sebastien Grainger - for his affecting “Nobody With A Notepad” (from Let the Children Die).

Which makes it a good day to announce that D-Sisive is one of the three acts - along with Joe Pernice (see Zoilus past) and The Reveries (Rat-Drifting) - playing a show I’ve curated at the Music Gallery for Wednesday, November 11, called “Songs for Jesse Presley.” The night is a tribute to Berlin artist Candice Breitz’s current exhibition at The Power Plant on the themes of fandom, twins and identity. Named after Elvis’s stillborn twin, it will feature all three acts - rap, indie-pop and avant-whatsit - playing covers of songs that influenced them and helped shape their own musical identities, along with some of their own tunes.

Here’s the video for D-Sisive’s winning track.

2009 Montreal Popposts #2: Friday

October 3rd, 2009

Quick-hit notes on last night at Pop Montreal:

Saw Hot Panda from Edmonton and The Pack A.D. from Vancouver for the first time at the afternoon BBQ, enjoying the milding of the weather and (as Hot Panda’s singer joked) the “double-bill with Free Food.” The Pandas may be generic indie but I cottoned to their guitar interplay as a background sound; Pack - a double X-chromosomed duo of drums and guitar whose recordings have never been able to capture my attention - turn out to be a way more compelling live act, charismatic and very funny, with guitarist Becky Black boasting a Ramones-meets-Janis (at the corner of Jett and Hyndes) throaty alto that arrows deep into the ear, even if their Zeppisms remain not quite my cup of benzodiazepine.

From there over to Benelux for beers and chat with a bunch of fellow Polaris Prize jurors. Talk of the table included grousing about regionalist bean counters, debate about how to give non-rock genre specialists more effective input (’genres are unavoidable social categories’ versus ‘fuck genres, that’s how the music business plants worms in your mind’) and how indie culture should be a helluva lot more like Newfoundland kitchen-party amateur music-making culture (with shoutout to Murder Folk Night).

Next up, my first encounter with tUnE-yArDs, after years of eloquent lobbying by Sean Michaels and Lauren Schreiber, at the museum of contemporary art - and given the crowd apparently I’m not the only one who finally smartened up and paid attention. Amazing spectacle of white cloth, white-makeup faces, a bass clarinet wrapped in tinfoil, elaborate headdresses. Resonant reed relays. Choral looping pedal vocals, mic percussion and rocked-out ukelele. I felt there was much less in the way of song than there was sound (and sight) in this show but know-betters tell me that was somewhat specific to this set. Word is that Merrill Garbus (who is leaving sister band Sister Suvi to focus on this project) has been signed to 4AD, which puts her in apt company. One of the highlights of the festival for certain.

Argued my way into Club Soda (”I’m not staying for Yo La Tengo, I promise”) to catch a set by The Horse’s Ha, apparently a project of seven years’ vintage in Chicago even though word never reached my ear till this fall. I’ve been a fan of Janet Beveridge Bean (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day) for ages, but this configuration (with Bean on mandolin and English songwriter James Elkington of the Zincs on guitar) finds her in indie-chanteuse mode, the twang largely smoothed out of her Kentucky-born voice, to more soporific effect. Not that it wasn’t pretty, but it needed more of Fred Lonberg Holm’s scratchy oblique cello for an edge that would bring out the beauty more by contrast. My vain highlight was turning to a friend and saying, “Y’know, it’s kind of like Slapp Happy combined with Syd-Straw-era Golden Palominos” (he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about) and then, 10 minutes later, Bean saying, “This is a cover of a song by Slapp Happy.” Critical mojo risin’!

Finally it was time for the Buffy Sainte-Marie concert, which unfortunately I have to report as disappointing. No fault to Buffy and band, who came fully correct, but in the vaulted cavern of a 2/3-full Eglise Jean-Baptiste, there wasn’t enough human mass to absorb the echoing sound waves and the mix was horribly soupy - often you couldn’t understand, from my place about 3/4 back of the centre aisle, even what she was saying when she was speaking. The symbolic power of having her perform songs of native empowerment in the bosom of that abductor and abuser the Catholic church was sadly trumped by the practical sonic snafu. Nothing can stop “Up Where We Belong” from sounding gorgeous though. We split before the end to cab up and catch most of a strong Destroyer solo set at the Ukrainian Federation (in front of a pastoral Ukrainian landscape backdrop) including a new song about Chinatown in East Van. You don’t need to hear me yammer on. Dan’s voice got kinda hoarse in the last few songs but he got lots of rest and should be good to go for his show with Andre Ethier at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight.

Rounded out the evening with Ian Svenonious again, this time at his new band Chain & the Gang’s spectacle at Lambi. Sartorially splendid, some of the set (I missed the first half) seemed like generic soul-junk that had no need for Ian Svenonious’s strut. But then he converted me with a final singalong tour de force on Deathbed Confession in which various figures on the verge of expiry first confess to the narrator their perpetration of various assassinations and other political atrocities of the 20th century. While still giving of the sixties mod jive. More than worth the wait. Followed by another soul party with I.S. on the dance floor hittin’ on chicks, so all was as it should and ever will be. Except that in a Butthole Surfers-induced fit of wariness I missed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, whom I hear were short skronky and sweet-ass. Damn.

Today: DJ-lectures with Wayne Marshall, Jace Clayton et al in the symposium at 5, Faust, Os Mutantes and more. Later, skaters.

2009 Montreal Popposts #1

October 2nd, 2009

Another year at my favorite rock festival, Pop Montreal, and I’ll post quick dispatches as I go. (I’m also sending field reports to Twitter, if you roll like that.) I missed Day 1, Wednesday, and while by most accounts that wasn’t a tragedy, it sounds like there were some memorable bits. Meanwhile, I flew in Thursday afternoon in time to make my 5 o’clock on-stage interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie. Do I need to tell you she was a delight? Probably not. (Although a challenge, as a voluble and digressive speaker, for an interviewer to keep up with!) An extraordinary 47-year-long career so far, much more than we could ever talk about. Her counsel on “following the joy trail” and that the world is never ready for what’s most original in us, as well as her thoughts about her other vocation, education, will stick with me. Looking forward to her show at the Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste tonight, with what sounds like a tremendous band of younger aboriginal players. Ask her what Big Bird wears under his costume and whether she liked the Trailer Park Boys movie.

Musically most of what I caught last night was a disappointment, unfortunately. After a little R&R, got out to the Olympia in time to see Toronto’s own Lullabye Arkestra pull out stadium-sized energy and charisma, rock the house and set their snare drum literally on fire (to refreshingly chill response from the venue). For a two-person bass-drums duo, Kat and Justin can make surprisingly like Motorhead. It was Torontoverthetopia! Totally upstaging the reunited Butthole Surfers, who looked unexpectedly healthy and cheerful, were still showing autopsy videos and zombie movies, and demonstrated that the music - a melange of sixties psychedelia, Zappaesque prog, punk sloppiness and basic rock freakouts that’s really up the quebecois alley, a fact that made me realize that their musical heirs were really Mr. Bungle (mister bunghole?) - was never really the equal of the idea of the Butthole Surfers, and that idea depended on novelty or perhaps enough naivete to take it as novelty, or perhaps enough acid, and by the time they re-screened the eye-slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou, I figured that it was maybe four or five decades past time to leave the show.

Along with Toronto buds Jonny Dovercourt (Wavelength, Music Gallery) and Chandler Levack (Eye Weekly), I found myself next at the Blocks Recording Club showcase at the Casa del Popolo, where an enjoyable set by The Torrent was joined in progress. But since a Blocks showcase is basically our daily life in Toronto, it was quickly on to the next venue, Club Lambi, where true hip-hop legend Roxanne Shante was giving what she’d reportedly sworn would be her last live show ever. After her DJ warmed the crowd up and the crowd traded Cornell jokes (”Imma let you finish, but first Roxanne has to defend her dissertation”), Shante came along, rapped a few verses, did some crowd-charming patter, then led a long singalong session to the first verses of various golden-age hip-hop tunes (which was a lot of fun, actually), rapped a bit more, left. Hmm, that took about 13 minutes. I guess that’s what you get when you pour your energy into talking someone into doing a show they maybe don’t really wanna do.

We rounded out the evening at a crammed Green Room for an Ian Svenonious-DJ’d Soul Clap Party and Dance-Off, a popular NYC (and DC?) event that needed a different, larger space to really work - the dance competition (a self-declared concession to capitalist individualism by the famously Marxist (Chico tendency) Svenonious) had 32 contestants, so it was lengthy and involved and until it got down to the last round or two one couldn’t see a damn thing from the back of the room.

Perhaps the trouble was my planning. Today I finally registered for and used the interactive schedule on the Pop Montreal site, and even paid the $2 to install the corresponding app on my iPhone, and it’s looking like the only way to go. Here are my plans, subject to change and whim and secret hints - tUnE-YaRdS, Buffy, Destroyer… Pretty promising, right? If I manage all the running around, I’m particularly intrigued to see The Horse’s Ha, a new outfit from Janet Beveridge Bean (Freakwater, 11th Dream Day) and James Elkington (The Zincs) with Fred Lonberg-Holm and other Chicago stalwarts on backup: I’ve only given a cursory listen to the album but it seemed to have staked out its own distinct encampment on the AbEx-country-colour spectrum, and Bean is always a bracing and beguiling presence on stage.

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