by carl wilson

RIP, RIP, RIP

Norman Whitfield. (Listen.)
Mauricio Kagel. (Watch.)
And, belatedly, Richard Wright, who wasn't to blame for this turning into that.

Also a reminder to T.O. readers of David Wallace that there's a silent memorial tonight in Trinity-Bellwoods at 9.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 19 at 3:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Charice is a Word I Use to Describe...

Thanks to Jon Caramanica's insightful Celine Dion concert review in The Times the other day, I learned that Celine appeared with a 16-year-old Filipino singer, Charice Pempengco, "who came to her attention through an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show," one of several Charice (as she's known back home) has done on U.S. teevee (the Ellen show, too), complete with weepy family drama. Celine's very popular with Filipino audiences, so it's a savvy hookup, typical of her global-audience-connecting strategies, but I'm sure it was also an immediate identification with a fellow unnatural-pipes-bearing teen star and singing-contest winner from a relatively unrecognized part of the world. (Along with Celine's devotion to the cult of Oprah and its in turn to her.)

I'm most struck by Charice's version of Mama, a wrenching sentimental song (what else with that title?) about migrant work - a major issue for Filipino children whose mothers go off to raise other people's children overseas. There are heartbreakers like, "I'll be home in three years time/Mama it seems like forever/ You've been gone since I was 5," although the one that really gets me is, "They say you were a good teacher/ In the same school where I can't survive" - a whole novel of details compacted into two lines, never elaborated in the rest of the song.

The tune was originally by Smokey Mountain, an early-'90s group that was an unusual hybrid of protest music and boy-band pop - named for Manila's infamous Smoky Mountain waste-landfill-cum-shantytown, and costumed to fit the part. Knowing nothing at all about Filipino music (except what Tom Waits has tried to tell me), I'm not sure how common that sort of blend is there, but it's certainly not one I've stumbled across elsewhere ... kind of Up With People with a twist of Down With Global Capital.

smokey_mountain.jpg

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 19 at 1:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Defragging the D-Mag

A curious twist in the Loudnessiad: A Guitar Hero alternate mix of the new Metallica album Death Magnetic (widely agreed to be seriously overcompressed, which if we still used magnetic tape would make its title rich in... is there a term for unintentional appropriateness?) provides the transition point from the fan remix to the fan remaster.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 16 at 5:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

RIP DFW:
When the Jest Becomes Infinite,
It's Not Funny Any More

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David Foster Wallace: Leave a light burning.

I've been spending much of the day, after spending a lot of yesterday simply knocked out by it, looking around at quotes and articles and YouTube videos and other tributes to and reminiscences about David Foster Wallace, whose suicide this weekend was a shock and devastating and disappointing even though he was a writer who was always frank about the struggle against succumbing to enormous sadness and despair (and art's role on both sides of that struggle), someone whose work addressed depression and addiction so incisively but also compulsively. They are being compiled here, on the longtime fan site "the howling fantods," named after the catchphrase in Wallace's masterpiece Infinite Jest for extreme agitation. (A term that has a longer history than I'd realized.) It seems apt, given what a deep kinship and admiration and envy and inspiration DFW kindled in other writers, that what came to mind when I heard the news was a line from an unpublished story by an old friend: "He died of an attack of suicide."

As a fiction writer, Wallace seemed to me to be perhaps the only one in North America who both understood what the project needed to be in his time, and had the full unquestionable capability of doing it, although there did seem to be some self-stalling and sidelining going on in the past decade. It speaks profoundly of the sociality and intimacy and seriousness of his work that when I heard the news my first feeling, and others have told me they felt the same, was to wish I had known him and had been able to do something to help - even though it's immediately obvious that he probably had no shortage of people around who cared, and that often when an attack of suicide comes on no amount of door-bolting and torch-waving by the villagers can drive the monster off. But the first feeling was that empathy for the loneliness he must have been feeling, because his understanding of human loneliness was so obvious in his writing, with all his willingness or rather determination to use all his erudition and verbal firepower to acknowledge and face the sentimental and the banal, which in the avant-pomo-whatever tradition that spawned him is of course the forbidden zone. (It's just hit me that his influence on my own book was bigger than I consciously realized.) The second feeling, of course, was of the great loss to literature and to culture, of all the potential that will go unfulfilled.

Partly because his death coincided with a not-so-great weekend for me on that banal-human-sentiments, stuff-of-life level, I really am too smacked to say much more, but I'll end with a quotation I've always remembered from a 1996 Salon interview by Laura Miller, whose appreciation of Wallace today was one of the most resonant I read.

"It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

Note: There is going to be a memorial event for Wallace in Toronto on Friday night, 9 to 10 pm, in the "pit" at Trinity Bellwoods Park. All are welcome.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 15 at 4:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Max Tundra: Music to Pass Out
with Meringue in Your Hair By

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This seems to be "quote week" (or should that just be "week") here on Zoilus, but I couldn't resist this uproarious testimony from f.o.z. Owen Pallett to a musician previously all but unknown to me. (Yes, it's a press release.) Followed by Max Tundra testifying for his chosen instrument, an antique that once was the darling of the world. Followed by one of the songs from Tundra's upcoming, third album Parallax Error Beheads You so we can all assess how full of it Owen is, or what it is he is full of.

About Max Tundra by Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy)

Max and I met in Barcelona in 2005 at Primavera Sound. His slot was at 4 a.m. He put on a mask, wrapped himself up in tape, and played forty minutes of music made mostly using Amiga sample tracker software from the late 1980s. There was virtuosic melodica playing, Pointer Sisters-style singing, and an eight-minute version of "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound Of Music. I was wasted and ended up passing out on a beach in my underwear. When the sun rose, I woke up with dried merengue and sand glued to my hair [er, I think Owen means meringue, the eggy topping, and not merengue, the Dominican dance music, but since he was in Spain and in Spanish they're the same, no harm no [sic] - ed.], and in a daze, I realized that I had just witnessed nothing less than the best music performance of my life.

What sets Max Tundra apart from any other band in the world is his attention to detail. This album is impossibly full of ideas, seeking out every imaginable sound in the world and giving each their own curtain call. When you listen to this album, you'd think that it was made by an eccentric millionaire, with every name-brand pop music producer in the world contributing their own two seconds of material. Upon closer inspection, you'd realize that it's been six years since Mastered By Guy At The Exchange, in that time, Max probably hasn't had a single good night's sleep.

I can't compare this record to any record I've ever heard before. Even Max's previous records are a distant echo. It is dance music, it is discourse, it is teen sex comedy, it is a video game, it is a dance troupe, it is a thirteen course meal with Amontillado. It is shock and awe. Listen and be humbled.

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About the Commodore Amiga 500 by Max Tundra

There are no modern-day computers on this record. My PC is strictly for emails and Photoshopping the words Max Tundra into Coldplay line-ups. The main technology behind this and all of my albums has been the Commodore Amiga 500 - bestselling home computer at the time - running a $1 public domain software tracker program. The sounds don't emerge from the Amiga itself however; the machine is used to control various synths, samplers and the like. I look at colums of numbers all day on the screen of a black and white television; these digits relate to pitches, durations and tones. A lot of the noises on my record are real; the cello, bass guitar, drums, piano, trumpet and others are all rehearsed and played by me, but sometimes I will use realistic fake versions of these noises. Each song is recorded in a different way; drumkits are recorded on mono cassette recorders twice, then stuck together on the left and right of a mix; string arrangements are planned and then layered up; each note of an electric guitar is sampled so that it can be sequenced in ways too complicated for my fat fingers to play at full speed. And then I have a cup of tea and sing my heart out.

Max Tundra, "Which Song"


General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 11 at 11:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Wajdi Mouawad to Stephen Harper:
'Do Not Ignore That Reflection on the Opposite Shore'

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So there's a Canadian election going on, too (to my personal irritation). The following "open letter" has appeared many places in French and a few in English, but among anglos it might be mainly theatre people who've read it. It is an unusually powerful evocation of the intimacy of art and politics, in a broader spirit than merely that of "protest," though of course it is that too and for good reason. Playwright-director Wajdi Mouawad is one of the more distinct voices in contemporary Canadian writing.

An open letter to Prime Minister Harper

Monsieur le premier ministre,

We are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. You are Prime Minister of the Parliament of Canada and I, across the way, am a writer, theatre director and Artistic Director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre (NAC). So, like you, I am an employee of the state, working for the Federal Government; in other words, we are colleagues.

Let me take advantage of this unique position, as one functionary to another, to chat with you about the elimination of some federal grants in the field of culture, something that your government recently undertook. [... continues ...]

The Symbolism
Firstly,
it seems that you might benefit by surrounding yourself with counsellors who will be attentive to the symbolic aspects of your Government's actions. I am sure you know this but there is no harm in reminding ourselves that every public action denotes not only what it is but what it symbolises.

For example, a Prime Minister who chooses not attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, claiming his schedule does not permit it, in no way reduces the symbolism which says that his absence might signify something else. This might signify that he wishes to denote that Canada supports the claims of Tibet. Or it might serve as a sign of protest over the way in which Beijing deals with human rights. If the Prime Minister insists that his absence is really just a matter of timing, whether he likes it or not, this will take on symbolic meaning that commits the entire country. The symbolism of a public gesture will always outweigh the technical explanations.

Declaration of War
Last week,
your government reaffirmed its manner of governing unilaterally, this time on a domestic issue, in bringing about reductions in granting programs destined for the cultural sector. A mere matter of budgeting, you say, but one which sends shock waves throughout the cultural milieu - rightly or wrongly, as we shall see - for being seen as an expression of your contempt for that sector. The confusion with which your Ministers tried to justify those reductions and their refusal to make public the reports on the eliminated programs, only served to confirm the symbolic significance of that contempt. You have just declared war on the artists.

Now, as one functionary to another, this is the second thing that I wanted to tell you: no government, in showing contempt for artists, has ever been able to survive. Not one. One can, of course, ignore them, corrupt them, seduce them, buy them, censor them, kill them, send them to camps, spy on them, but hold them in contempt, no. That is akin to rupturing the strange pact, made millennia ago, between art and politics.

Contempt
Art and politics
both hate and envy one another; since time immemorial, they detest each other and they are mutually attracted, and it's through this dynamic that many a political idea has been born; it is in this dynamic that sometimes, great works of art see the light of day. Your cultural politics, it must be said, provoke only a profound consternation. Neither hate nor detestation, not envy nor attraction, nothing but numbness before the oppressive vacuum that drives your policies.

This vacuum which lies between you and the artists of Canada, from a symbolic point of view, signifies that your government, for however long it lasts, will not witness either the birth of a political idea or a masterwork, so firm is your apparent belief in the unworthiness of that for which you show contempt. Contempt is a subterranean sentiment, being a mix of unassimilated jealousy and fear towards that which we despise. Such governments have existed, but not lasted because even the most detestable of governments cannot endure if it hasn't the courage to affirm what it actually is.

Why is this?
What are
the reasons behind these reductions, which are cut from the same cloth as those made last year on the majority of Canadian embassies, who saw their cultural programming reduced, if not eliminated? The economies that you have made are ridiculously small and the votes you might win with them have already been won. For what reason, then, are you so bent on hurting the artists by denying them some of their tools? What are you seeking to extinguish and to gain?

Your silence and your actions make one fear the worst for, in the end, we are quite struck by the belief that this contempt, made eloquent by your budget cuts, is very real and that you feel nothing but disgust for these people, these artists, who spend their time by wasting it and in spending the good taxpayers money, he who, rather than doing uplifting work, can only toil.

And yet, I still cannot fathom your reasoning. Plenty of politicians, for the past fifty years, have done all they could to depoliticise art, to strip it of its symbolic import. They try the impossible, to untie that knot which binds art to politics. And they almost succeed! Whereas you, in the space of one week, have undone this work of chloroforming, by awakening the cultural milieu, Francophone and Anglophone, and from coast to coast. Even if politically speaking they are marginal and negligible, one must never underestimate intellectuals, never underestimate artists; don't underestimate their ability to do you harm.

A grain of sand is all-powerful
I believe,
my dear colleague, that you yourself have just planted the grain of sand that could derail the entire machine of your electoral campaign. Culture is, in fact, nothing but a grain of sand, but therein lays its power, in its silent front. It operates in the dark. That is its legitimate strength.

It is full of people who are incomprehensible but very adept with words. They have voices. They know how to write, to paint, to dance, to sculpt, to sing, and they won't let up on you. Democratically speaking, they seek to annihilate your policies. They will not give up. How could they?

You must understand them: they have not had a clear and common purpose for a very long time, for such a long time that they have no common cause to defend. In one week, by not controlling the symbolic importance of your actions, you have just given them passion, anger, rage.

In the dark
The resistance
that will begin today, and to which my letter is added, is but a first manifestation of a movement that you yourself have set in motion: an incalculable number of texts, speeches, acts, assemblies, marches, will now be making themselves heard. They will not be exhausted.

Some of these will, perhaps, following my letter, be weakened but within each word, there will be a spark of rage, re-lit, and it is precisely the addition of these tiny instances of fire that will shape the grain of sand that you will never be able to shake. This will not settle down, the pressure will not be diminished.

Monsieur le premier ministre, we are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. There is nothing but the Cenotaph between our offices, and this is as it should be because politics and art have always mirrored one another, each on its own shore, each seeing itself in the other, separated by that river where life and death are weighed at every moment.

We have many things in common, but an artist, contrary to a politician, has nothing to lose, because he or she does not make laws; and if it is prime ministers who change the world, it's the artist who will show this to the world. So do not attempt, through your policies, to blind us, Monsieur le premier ministre; do not ignore that reflection on the opposite shore, do not plunge us further into the dark. Do not diminish us.

Wajdi Mouawad
(translation by John van Burek).

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 10 at 4:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Dreaming Out Loud: Zorn at Guelph

I didn't flip the word-producing, note-taking, signifyin' Critic Machine chip on in my head during yesterday's astounding double-feature matinee at the Guelph Jazz Festival featuring John Zorn's The Dreamers and Electric Masada. Sometimes all the humming and whirring of the analytic hard drive is just too much static in the ears. But it was truly one of the finest shows I've seen in years, and I think the finest I've ever seen in Guelph's handsome Riverrun auditorium.

The two ensembles had almost the same personnel - Marc Ribot (guitar), Jamie Saft (organs), Joey Baron (drums), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Trevor Dunn (bass) and Kenny Wollenson (percussion) - except that in Electric Masada they were joined by Ikue Mori on electronics, and Wollesen switched over from vibes to drum kit, making it a dual-drummer barrage. And, in Electric Masada, Zorn played his sax more (none of us could recall after if he'd played it at all in The Dreamers) - although he still let it rest much of the time in order to conduct, which he does with great charm and precision. Indeed watching him conduct was one of the great pleasures of the show - slamming down his fists to trigger an improvised-explosive blast of a group sforzando, or tapping the air with his knuckles to bring an abrupt pause, or stretching out a hand and giving a spidery come-on with his fingers to ask a player to give him more of what they were doing (at one point Mori, sitting a few inches from the bandleader, responded by wiggling her own fingers right back along his). But most of all it was just the fluid, unforced power of all these musicians, making this collective music like they were sailing a boat out to sea: As the rhythm section pulled their ropes tight, Ribot's guitar might rise cinemascope-style up into the sun; or when Saft's organ would move from harmonious vamping into a set of anxious amphetamine riffs, Baptista might reach into his seemingly wheelbarrow-sized stock of noisemakers and, say, shake a hula hoop covered in bells and gauze to hint that gentler waves would soon surface over the horizon.

I hadn't heard the recording of The Dreamers that came out this spring, but on the evidence of yesterday's show it's roughly in the mode of Zorn's popular 2001 album The Gift - surf-inflected, Morricone-refracted, post-lounge with beautifully concise head melodies played mostly on the guitar and vibes, never going so far out as to get skronky or violent. But that was what E-Masada was for, of course, and by the end of that second hour-plus, Zorn and his companions had taken us on a musical tour through so many emotional weather regions that it felt thoroughly, classically cathartic, as if we had all vaulted together through a purgative sonic-obstacle course for the soul. The Guelph crowd repaid their efforts with two standing ovations and screams of rapture, and after an encore (a few tunes from the aforementioned Gift), the band seemed to leave the stage feeling very pleased with their day's work, arms slung around one another's shoulders, chatting amiably as they vanished into the wings.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 08 at 5:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Short-Attention-Span Friday

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Wasilla, Alaska, band Portugal.The Man are no fans of their neighbour turned governor
turned VP-candidate, Sarah Palin. See final item.

I am on the programming committee for this year's Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Our call for papers went out this week: This year's theme is "Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic," a deliberate turn to the saucy after last year's perhaps-a-bit-earnest mix of topics. If you want to talk over ideas, feel free to get in touch - I'll be getting in touch with a few of you.

My fellow Pop Conf. committee member Ann Powers picks up on some points from my Silver Jews article to discuss the generational place of politics in today's music on the L.A. Times music blog. My quick answer to the question of "where's today's Rage Against the Machine/Public Enemy/The Clash/Bob Dylan?" by the way, is that the idea that putting messages in music is an effective means of rallying people politically is out of fashion - so the politics in music is now more about subcultural cluster formations and social networks. But since this is short-attention-span Friday, I won't stop to develop the point.

Local queer zine Fab talked to me for a piece in their new issue that asks: Celine Dion - worst gay icon ever?

I should have said earlier in the week, but voting is now on for the ECHO prize for Canadian songwriting. Go the page and you can listen to all five nominated songs; you can vote once a day up till 4:59 pm on Sept 29.

Another reminder: As part of the Toronto International Film Festival, my friend Margaux Williamson's beautiful documentartry Teenager Hamlet 2006 is screening through Sept 13 at the Katherine Mullherin gallery, 1082 Queen Street West. Previously discussed here, and this week's Eye has more.

Meanwhile, with a Canadian election call hanging over us like a dirty spiderweb about to get all up in our hair, the arts community is getting organized to respond to the Harper government's recent round of disses. Get involved in the well-sorted strategy of the unofficial "Department of Culture" here. More comment sure to follow.

Anyone been attending the Guelph Jazz Festival this week? I'd be happy to hear reports. I was there on Wednesday afternoon to moderate a panel discussion on "Improvising Digital Community" between DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) and Vijay Iyer, which flew by way too quickly to even summarize, though I think it got hottest when it ran into this zone: the role of creative labour (and corporeal labour) in digital culture, and whether there is still an important distinction between the artist's role as consumer and as producer. Vijay put it out: "We are more than our playlists" - Paul agreed, but ambivalently. I'll be going back to Guelph on Sunday for the double-header John Zorn jawn.

Finally, have you read this scorching anti-Sarah Palin screed from her Alaska hometown's leading rock band? Guitarist/vocalist John Gourley of the oddly punctuated Portugal.The Man writes, after a lengthy and touching personal anecdote: "I see the sport hunter, the censor, choice taker, the revelations reader, and the high school cheerleader. It is endlessly embarrassing to watch people fall all over this idea. This is not my Alaska. The Alaska I know." (Via Rock&Rap; Confidential.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 05 at 1:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

David Berman:
From a DMZ at the back of the universe

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Here is my email interview with David Berman, of/aka The Silver Jews. He was writing (for the first time, he said) from within a moving van, so his answers are uncharacteristically brief, but there's plenty of detail I didn't get in to the Globe profile.

CW: There aren't that many precedents for your position in popular music: A "serious" poet - not a poetaster, not a light-verse guy, not a Rod McKuen or Jewel - who is (or becomes) a similarly respected songwriter. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, a few more-obscure figures. I'm curious how you experience and regard the aesthetic divide between those worlds. And why isn't it crossed more often?

DB: It's definitely not a case of dual citizenship, as the gatekeepers of neither poetry nor rock have tried to claim me as one of their own. I live somewhat uneasily, in a little noticed DMZ at the back of the universe.

I wanted poetry's intensity of language poured into a larger vessel than academia can provide. Perhaps I now need to be pouring into an ever bigger vessel, i.e., a screenplay.

Is literary writing something you continue to do or intend to return to?

The labor is thankless, the rewards are small, and frankly there are many great talents in the language arts. I want to be working in a field where the high marks are low enough as to make real-world historical songwriting victories entirely achievable. I don't see painting or fiction or poetry within miles of its masters. I'm working in a field whose commonly acknowledged greatest practitioners - Dylan, Springsteen, etc. - have so little control over their supposed mastery.

[... continues ...]

And that small distance between the greatest practitioners and the novice musician is what keeps it folk. In practice though it seems songwriters hide the fact of this, pulling up the ladder behind them. Almost every interview has asked why I included the chords. [Note: The liner notes for Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea include chord charts for every song.] Isn't anybody interested in what it means that almost no one does? Why is it mentioned so often that punk or country is rudimentary, yet there are no simple directions available to the novice?

How have your feelings about live performance changed, and do you think now that it was a mistake not to tour before?

I'm new out here. I'm like an 18-year-old compared to my peers who are jaded and have been touring for years. I enjoy playing the role of the rube in rock. Touring wouldn't have worked when I was younger. I would have done bad things and taken advantage of some of the privileges that I gladly pass up as a 41-year-old.

Those years of isolation also kept me away from the ridiculous kind of "can do no wrong" adoration offered musicians. The poor guys never get a chance to develop writing skills because so little is expected. Everything in rock seems under-imagined from here, riding the asymptote of good enough.

I'd like to ask what the Stephen Bush painting on the cover signifies to you. The image suits the mood of the album instinctively to me but I wonder if there's a thematic reason for the choice - and whether/in what way you were attracted to Bush's continued repetition of that image year by year.

It's as you say, intuitively complimentary. To unpack it all, you have to think about the mock-heroic aspect of what I am doing. And about my countrymen, who are as oblivious to their peril as stuffed animals in a storm.

You've said that this album is you talking to people who were born after 1980. I find that really interesting, as someone nearly your own age. We're no longer the young people. So three questions: (a) What do you think now about the ideas that prevailed among that '90s youth cohort, that "slacker" identity with which you were often identified? (b) What is it that you wanted to say to or address about people in their 20s now, and (c) why them rather than your own generation?

a) The slacker attitude, which is really just the pure product of a seventies childhood, probably hasn't served its historical purpose yet. Soon we may know why slacker 50-year-olds had to be so cynical and independent to fulfill its role. Some generations move history as young people; others, like FDR's, later in life.

My generation doesn't have 'following' skills. The younger generations, growing up in a more enlightened world perhaps, are team thinkers. My belief is that the next twenty years will be the story of what the adults (us) and the young adults (people born after 1980) do to recover from the damage that this exceptionally stupid and selfish generation of Republicans, businessmen and God-botherers has inflicted.

There is no doubt in my mind that the 40-year-old guys out there who think life has passed them by, the slackers who kept slacking while their peers sold out, will have a very active second half of their lives.

Do you feel this album is looking towards a post-George Bush era, or has a relation to the zeitgeist in that sense? It seems to carry some kind of on-the-upswing charge compared to the rawness of Tanglewood Numbers, and I wonder how much that has to do with external social context as much as the personal one. (I won't ask whom you're voting for, but feel free to expound.)

My anger at the 40 million Americans who voted for Bush in 2000 and the 52 who did in '04 has been a terrible poison I've fed myself every day for eight years. I have no doubt about who is to blame for what we have going on here. No politician can tell the truth to the American people. Who is going to tell them that they are the problem?

Does your adoption in recent years (as I understand it) of a more serious Judaism and Talmudic study alter what you are going after in your writing? There's certainly a Talmudic quality to the first song on Lookout Mountain... (or perhaps a meta-Talmudic, Edmond Jabes kind of tone). But then on "San Francisco BC," for instance, you sound just as comfortable as ever in indulging in nonsense and whimsy...

It's profoundly affected the way I write. It's a repository of story and wisdom that really has no bottom to it. It's made me excited as a reader again.

I don't want to ask you to rehash the story of your drug problems, but I am curious why you chose to put the story out so publicly in such detail at the time. It came as a surprise coming from someone who'd seemed quite private. Was there a moral choice involved in that - perhaps a debt being repaid to fans, or a kind of atonement - or was it a more personal need or strategy?

Getting sober is the end of many different privacies. You're exhausted with privacy.

It feels good to talk about hard times when they are over.

It felt like a way to put some space between me and the Drag City m.o. which marks so many of the label's releases: Agressiver Mysteriousing.

People who go through hell like to let it be known that they are available to help another.

And subsequently has it been difficult to see your work all being interpreted now in the light of those events, or do you somehow feel it's appropriate to be subject to those kinds of biographical readings/hearings?

It's not difficult. My problem is people knowing too little about me and what I'm trying for.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 02 at 4:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Coming Out of the Black Patch

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In celebration of the long-awaited first-ever visit of the Silver Jews to Toronto tonight (and Montreal tomorrow), I have a feature today in The Globe and Mail. The more I listen, the more impressed I am with the Jews' new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea - with the way it bursts out of the previous dingy-basement-window-view perspective of bandleader David Berman (seen above with wife/bassist/backup-singer Cassie and canine companion). It really reaches out into the world - probably not coincidentally given that it's the first album he's made since going on tour for the first time ever (and when he did it he did it all the way: a world tour - the related short documentary, Silver Jew is more than worth an hour of your time). But the shift is also a reflection of breaking out of the kind of insulated self-regard that was part of the '90s-disaffected-dude attitude that Berman raised to a kind of poetic sublime.

Rather than the droll monologue of a very very smart friend, as a lot of his work seemed in the past, LOM LOC feels more like poetic reportage - wondrous scenes he's witnessed that are over before anyone else gets there - but with the bright hope that someday you, his listener-companion, might arrive just in time to see the "chicken-fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce," the "vocal martyr in the vegan press," the menacing Mr. Games with "a jeweler's hands and a blurry face" and other Snuffleupaguses (Snuffleupagi?) of the Joosian plane.

Later today I'll post a full transcript of my email interview with Berman.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 02 at 12:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Stick a Pitchfork In It, PTW's Done

I'm not sure why, but I could never remember to check Paper Thin Walls, even though I intended to read it every day. I guess I wasn't the only one, as the site is shutting down. Today they provide a retrospective on their two-years-plus of existence that offers a lot of fun reading, such as the "tell us a story" feature (Chad Van Gaalen does Stupid Human Tricks; Dan Deacon, in Hamburglar suit, feeds frat boys rancid ant-infested burgers), some nifty making-the-video stories etc., and PTW's own ridiculous effort to cover a Deerhoof song. They present Part 2 (less gossip more tuneage, I think) on Tuesday, before they fold up their tent. What I liked best about PTW though was actually their reviews, which whiffed of that old-Creem-smell and then would get all adorably bro-on-bro snark-vs-sympathy in the comments threads. They'll be missed.

Also memorable: In July of ought-seven, Ryan Catbird depicts PTW's place in online music journalism and somehow the platonic form of said field's soul or lack thereof, in diagram form:

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General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 29 at 1:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Tin Pan Idol:
Echo's Songs Rock and SOCAN You
(psvoteveda)

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I've got an idea for a reality show: Tin Pan Idol. It would be like the cultural-work-honouring Project Runway but with songwriting instead of fashion design - show us how the material is chosen, how it is cut to fit the frame, when someone is just chasing a trend or when they are just bucking it and when they are doing something beyond either. Tell the contestants that they need a bridge. Tell 'em they've got too many bridges. Show us what it's like to craft an arrangement and make a demo. At each stage narrow down the field, until at the end some bright spark of a compulsive hook-throwing tunesmith emerges glistening into the light of a publishing contract and a handful o' guesting real-life stars agree to cut a few of his or her songs. (I'm making that an idea an exception from the Creative Commons license at the foot of this site: All rights reserved!)

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Until then the closest thing we've got is the SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) Echo Songwriting Prize, which annually since 2006 offers $5,000 to the writer(s) of a song released in the past year as voted on by the point-and-click public, "to identify what's next and what's best in current Canadian independent music." (Eligibility is determined by being below gold-record status, which in Canada is 50,000 copies sold.)

For the third year running, I've been part of the 10-person panel that selects the nominees - last year the winner was Toronto rapper Abdominal for his urban-cyclist anthem "Pedal Pusher"; in year one, it was Winnipeg's Propagandhi ("the soundtrack for the voluntary human extinction movement") for their song "A Speculative Fiction."

This year it's an extremely strong field, if a little lacking in cultural diversity (except for the final pick, a Jewish-cowboy-hip-hop blend) but robust in geographical diversity. In the order of artists pictured (left to right and top to bottom) in this post:

"Lucklucky", written and performed by Veda Hille (Vancouver)

"Double Suicide", written and performed by Sandro Perri (Toronto)

"Night Windows", written by Stephen Carroll, John Samson, Greg Smith & Jason Tait, performed by The Weakerthans (Winnipeg)

"Weighty Ghost", written by Loel Campbell, Tim D'eon, Paul Murphy and Jud Haynes, performed by Wintersleep (Halifax)

"You Are Never Alone", written by Josh Dolgin, Doris Glaspie, Katie Moore and Waleed Shabazz, performed by Socalled (Montreal)

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You'll be able to vote here (one vote per ISP address daily) starting on Sept. 1 and through Sept. 29 to determine who emerges as the Echo Songwriting Idol. Get your clicking finger warmed up.

I will make no secret of it here and now that I'm'a'gonna do my part to see that this is Veda Hille's year: After her recent masterfuckingpiece album This Riot Life was woefully neglected in the Polaris Prize nominations, this is the least we can do. That said, I'd be nearly as pleased to see Sandro Perri or Socalled take the prize (two more should-have-been Polaris nominees), and not at all sad to see the Weakerthans or Wintersleep have a few grand rained down upon their nappy heads.

I'll make a fuller case for the merits of "Lucklucky" next week when voting is open. There'll also be a video online for "Lucklucky" soon, I hear. Meanwhile, here is a charming live, lo-fi rendition of a track from This Riot that's just as deserving. "Ace of the Nazarene" on the record flirts with heavy metal, but in the version shown below, shot by Playgrrround in a courtyard in Vienna, it's more like a cultish campfire ritual. (VH sez on her site: "i love how we finish the song and all sit up straight like we are in kindergarten.")

THE KID OF GOD STAYS UP ALL NIGHT LONG!

Quick full-disclosure: Over the years, as often occurs between writer and their subjects, Veda and I have developed some personal connections; but it's the kind of relationship in which I had no trouble airing my misgivings about her last disc, Return of the Kildeer, and I'm confident I'd feel just as blown away by This Riot Life without ever having shared a sip of bourbon with Ms. Hille. (Go back)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 28 at 4:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Horsetail Feathers!
Final Fantasy meets Alex Lukashevsky
(and Nico Muhly and many others)

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At the request of longtime Zoilus favourite Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett), I'm very happy to offer you this preview of the opening track from Owen's new EP, Final Fantasy Plays to Please, which is a set of covers of songs by Alex Lukashevsky, a fellow Torontonian singer-songwriter and also of course leader of Deep Dark United, played with as many as 35 other musicians, dubbed the St. Kitts Orchestra (an expansion, then, on the St. Kitts String Quartet, who played on the last FF album He Poos Clouds), featuring members of the Hidden Cameras, Drumheller, Andrew Bird and others. The results are a jangling candybox of sound spilling from Pallett to aural palette, presenting Alex's songs in more accessible surrounds than usual, and perhaps introducing him to a host of other musicians who might begin to draw on his rich catalogue. Here then is a taste: Horsetail Feathers.

(This is the first time Zoilus has hosted an MP3 file, and it required a lot of tricky tech I've never used before, so if there's any trouble downloading the file, please drop me a note. Update: I think the problems people had should be fixed now.)

The EP is one of a pair being released at tomorrow's show at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto (the CD gods willing), the other being Spectrum, which features the members of Beirut and is the first installment of Owen's long-threatened imaginary-world conceptual suite, which will continue on the upcoming album, Heartland. (Exclaim! explains in detail.) A song from Spectrum and another from P2P were posted on Stereogum this morning.

Owen's show tomorrow is together with NYC compositional prodigy Nico Muhly, who in his mid-20s has collaborated with the likes of Bjork and Philip Glass and Bonnie Prince Billy but more importantly, as documented in this well-circulated New Yorker profile by Rebecca Mead, has a sensibility all his own, a classical version of the mashup and YouTube mind, and also a fresh-feeling kind of amodernism - neither post- nor anti-modernist, he seems unusually capable of bypassing not only the old 20th-C debates but also the conventional bypasses of said 20th-C debates. His new album Mothertongue blends the babble of digital information overload with the brouhaha of history, via his love of 16th-century English church music. (He's also a ridiculously entertaining blogger. If he weren't so charming I might want to kill him.)

Besides some evident sonic sympathies (the violin music, the use of looping figures, the unabashed embrace of prettiness, the knife-edge-thin layer of camp), Muhly shares with Owen a concern for communication and affinity and collectivity: Just as Owen has been stalwart to his compatriots in the Blocks Recording Club of Toronto, Muhly has made common cause with labelmates in a project called Bedroom Community, an Iceland-based label (not so local-aurist, then) that gathers "like-minded, yet diverse individuals from different corners of the globe who all creatively orbit around an inconspicuous building and its inhabitants on the outskirts of Reykjavik Iceland- Greenhouse Studios where the music is mostly created." (Another Bedroom Communitarian is Sam Avidon, a frequent Muhly cohort [/boyfriend?] who also appears in Toronto on Wednesday.)

I'd been planning to say more about Muhly but as the technical challenges of this post (yes, I'm a digi-wimp) have taken up too much time, I'll reserve further thoughts till after tomorrow's show. Meanwhile as a warmup, here's a video of Muhly's "It Goes Without Saying," from his previous album:

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 26 at 6:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Teenager Hamlet 2006-2008:
Something Un-Rotten in the State of Toronto

I'm giddily happy and/or terribly frightened to tell you that the long-awaited movie Teenager Hamlet 2006 - created by Zoilusian friend and occasional collaborator Margaux Williamson and including deeply humiliating cameo appearances by, um, me - will be making its premiere next week in the Toronto International Film Festival, and screening daily throughout the week at the Katherine Mullherin gallery.

Musically, the soundtrack of the film was supervised by Steve Kado (aka The Blankket, former head of the Blocks Recording Club and member of the Barcelona Pavilion, Ninja High School, etc.) and it includes music by Kado as well as Toronto artists such as Tomboyfriend, Traditionm, Nifty (Matt Smith), Permafrown, Pony Da Look and Republic of Safety, plus some Diamanda Galas, Lesbians on Ecstasy, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

Above is the trailer, if you're the sort who likes to get sneak peeks, or (blatant solicitation) the sort who might program movies for exhibition in other cities or countries. Zoilus-skin-flick aspect aside, the film is truly beautiful and unassumingly smart. As it says in the synopsis: "A startling hybrid of make-believe and documentary, art and politics, Teenager Hamlet 2006 is an insightful and off-beat look at what it means to live and make art in the 21st century."

Don't miss out: Put it on your calendar if you're coming to the festival.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 26 at 5:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Radio Silence

Hey all, it's been a busy week but we'll back in gear soon. If you're in Toronto this weekend (I'm not), don't miss Vancouver cellist Peggy Lee in the AIMToronto Interface Series. Like her classic singing namesake, Ms. Lee's playing will give you fever. This quote sums up well: "With her deeply sonorous instrument in hand, Lee has more-than-shared the stage with creative improvisors from all over the world: Joelle Leandre, Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, Susie Ibarra, and Barre Phillips to name but a few. Her playing blends grace and precision, yet when the music demands it she can be equally challenging and vibrant." - Jon Morgan, Signal to Noise.

I've disabled comments again for the weekend while we continue to plug the spam leak in our hull. Meanwhile, watch this sad short doc about the ultimate (and ultimately deluded) record collector.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 22 at 3:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

'Do You Suffer from Post-Mortem Depression?'

The gold-medal record-release announcement of the month, reproduced below, including persistent misuse of semi-colon as colon.

"Wintage Records & Tapes proudly present; Disguises' highly anticipated debut lp, Post-Mortem Depression, launch party!!

9/11/08
??????? 9/11/08 ??????? 9/11/08 ??????? 9/11/08 ??????? 9/11/08 ?????

"Taking place @ 5 non-traditional venues all in secret locations ??? Incorporating a night of live musical performances,very unique non-traditional venues, guided walking tours, DJ set by King Greyskullz, live visuals, and interactive theatre/performance art that will culminate in attendees being "kidnapped" and driven off to the final secret location for the Disguises performance.

"Included with ticket purchase you get a map, w/times & locations (in case a ticket holder has to play catch up) & instructions. Guaranteed to be a once in a lifetime concert going experience!

"Making fans through the suggestive power of "Stockholm Syndrome" DISGUISES are proud to release their debut lp; Post-Mortem Depression featuring hit songs such as; Meathead, What Happened to Your Face, T.H.R.E.A.D.S., Dead Patterns, Flesh Bodies ... and more.

"With very special performances by; Lambsbread (Delaware, OH) Ecstatic Peace recording superstars are a three-peese mixed gender spazz/jazz punk aktion unit. There bio reads, Sabbath meets Coltrane. They have had nothing but ++ reviews, strong word of mouth, and in the words of Paris Hilton are "Hot" right now! WHERE:?????

"Bottom Feeder(Hamilton) Ex-Fossils duo consisting of minds eye
splintering Horn headwallop and Scum/Sic/Surge electrifiried pedal slomp! WHERE:?????

"R.O.M.I.N.S. Random jet blasts of confusion and wrestling
the dada bird are this duo's thrash palace. Molding mind matter into conscious thought, the tools they will be using for this night a secret..it is left up to our own psychic prowess to decipher the mysteries ... WHERE:??????

"WHERE:???????????

"Tickets available in very limited quantities (hand ##) 08/22/08 !!! @ Hits & Misses (on Bloor), Rotate This (on Queen), & Soundscapes (on College). Tix are $7 (only in advance!!!). Doors 8pm."

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 20 at 1:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

I'm Out Like Flout
(plus a plug for Tramp Hall)

Away for the weekend and due to our little Spamalot problem, I've turned off comments. My apologies. We'll fix 'er up next week.

Speaking of, a reminder to Torontofunions that yers truly curated this Monday's Trampoline Hall (my maiden voyage!), with these lecturers, every one a headliner: Zoilus team member Erella Ganon speaking on "Friendship 202," friend-of-Zoilus (and Slate music critic) Jody Rosen on "The Jody Grind" and man-about-town Jesse Huisken on "The Curta Calculator: Its Construction, History & Aura." Tix now on sale at Soundscapes on College St, last-minute rush seats at 6:30 pm Monday at Sneaky Dee's, doors at 7:40, show at 8 sharp.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 15 at 3:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Thursday Reading:
HolyP-Orridge BonnieTyrannaLove

Holy Fuck responds to Eye's Marc Weisblott on being dragged into the Tory arts-cuts controversy. To paraphrase, "Oh, shit, here we go again."

This feature about Genesis P-Orridge (ex-Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Temple ov Psychick Youth, etc) from the latest Radar magazine is the saddest, strangest, most stirring piece of music journalism I've read in a long moment. Further thoughts later if there's time. Caution: May produce tears.

I review the latest Bonnie Prince Billy joint, belatedly, this week in the Globe and Mail.

Vintage '78 Toronto punk band Tyranna (get it?) opens vaults, reunites for one-off Friday night at the Silva Dolla.

Audio interview with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (of The Thing with Ken Vandermark and other nord-meets-midwest projex). Nilssen-Love appears with saxophonist Frode Gjerstad on Thurs Aug 21 at the Imperial Pub (54 Dundas St East), 8 pm, $12. As promoter Ron Gaskin (Rough Idea) puts it: "In the vicinity of former jazz HQ the Senator, the oldest becomes the newest jazz room, within the neon shadows of Yonge-Dundas carnage." Stu Broomer of Cadence magazine says of the saxophonist: "Gjerstad has a voice of his own: he is a singer and a storyteller with his horn, with a talent for extended improvisations in which motifs are developed incrementally."

The New Yorker's Ben Greenman gives a holler to Ontario country-rock firebrand Fred Eaglesmith, whose new gospel-themed album Tinderbox is, incidentally, his best in a few, which is saying loads.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 14 at 4:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Long Long Overdue

I am updating this site's links page for the first time in, oh, two years or so. If you have a site (especially a Toronto/Canadian music blog or site) you think belongs, let me know. If a listed site is defunct let me know that too. (I've cleared away the deadwood in the first Toronto-music section only so far.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 11 at 5:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

'Anyone Caught Doing Culture, It Was a Career Killer'
And Other Just-So Stories

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Toronto band and federal whipping post Holy Fuck.

1. The Globe has a news story, an editorial and at fine column by Simon Houpt about the Harper govt's attempt at a stealth attack on the cultural sector. I'm often critical of the effect of arts grants in Canada - the sense that Canada Council dependency results in a blander, more "worthy," "healthy," good-citizen kind of art culture here that breeds mediocrity - but these two programs are the kind of pragmatic aid that I think is pretty free of such effects: they promote "soft power" for Canada internationally while broadening artists' horizons and career potential.

The bust on the not-very-expensive programs is not just yokel philistinism: The fact that they're being justified by invoking the naughty-sounding name of Toronto band Holy Fuck (who despite their name are a danceable, creative and hardly threatening electronix-meets-rock band, who coincidentally are on an international tour right now and may not even be that aware of their ideological exploitation) and grants to authors to read abroad who might sometimes have a different political agenda than the Conservatives (because, y'know, milquetoasty neo-con-ism has given the world so much great art), all recalls the Gingrich-era cultural attacks of the Republicans in the U.S. If it were an isolated case, that'd be one thing but in combination with this spring's film-funding-censorship bill C-10, we're seeing a consistent pattern. And this while the Cons remain in a minority position: If they gained a majority in this fall's likely election, it could (like a lot of their agenda) shift into warp drive.

If you're Canadian, please write your MP as well as trade minister David Emerson and Heritage (ugh) minister Joseé Verner. If you're not but you can attest at all to the fact that international cultural outreach for Canada or any other country matters, drop them a note too. I'm proud of The Globe for applying fire to Harperite tootsies on this.

2. Elsewhere: T'cha Dunleavy of the Montreal Gazette had an interview with me this weekend about my book, taste and of course La Diva Dion. I always feel like I come off much more equivocal than I mean to when I'm asked about my final feeling about Céline in interviews. It's partly a reluctance to give away "spoilers" but maybe I should just say Céline Dion is amazing. Other recent reviews/coverage of the book from Bricolage and Nigel Beale as well as a wonderfully reflective LiveJournal post and subsequent discussion from someone I don't think I know named Christopher Pratt. It's the kind of reaction that's truly a pleasure to read. The book also comes up in the comments section of this post on "Eclecticism and Class", a Bourdieu-oriented discussion of cultural omnivorism on the new-to-me-blog The American Scene that could have come straight out of the middle chapters of my tome. If I have a spare mo' the next few days I may respond at length.

3. Also note that Vespa is continuing its Scooter Head campaign by moving into yet another relatively fresh medium - first paste-up graffiti, now wall projection - one of the themes of my Toronto Life piece this month on street artist Dan Bergeron aka Fauxreel, which I don't think I've linked here before.

4. And finally I've been remiss in not mentioning to Torontonians that the current edition of the Summerworks theatre festival has added a very well-curated nightly musical component featuring a roster that should be quite familiar to Zoilus readers. It takes a break tonight (Monday) but picks up again tomorrow through Saturday, 10:30 pm each night at the Theatre Centre.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 11 at 1:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

They Say Everyone's a Critic...

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... but in this case, the critic is everyone: Today in Slate, F.O.Z. Jody Rosen uncovers what just might be "in purely statistical terms ... the greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism".

Update, Friday: The tale ends badly. It's worth reading the plagiarist Mark Williams' incredible aria of self-pity, quoted at the end of the blog post - it's very vulnerable underneath all the vituperation it aims at Jody. It's a case study in a pattern I've seen before, of people who end up kicking around writing/ publishing/ media jobs without the talent and/or energy to get anywhere, and end up extremely embittered at the more successful. And, in this instance, resorting to extreme measures to cover up their problems. There but for the grace of fortune... I do feel truly sorry for him, and hope he can bounce up after hitting bottom - into another field of endeavour.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 06 at 3:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

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

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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!

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, July 30 at 4:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Pop Montreal Edition

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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.)

fondly,
Carl

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 29 at 3:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

From Bad to Verse?

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.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 28 at 1:06 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (28)

 

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

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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."

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, July 27 at 4:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

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

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 protegé Chris Randle on his rival blog.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 22 at 6:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

More on 'Missing the Monoculture'

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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 21 at 5:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Woah, oh, oh, we're counting to four

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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 15 at 4:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

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

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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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 08 at 1:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Calgartopia Riseth?

"There was no pre-existing culture for us, really, so we had to make it up. And since no artists can afford houses here, we had to basically build an imaginary castle that's based on music and art."

"My friend in Edmonton claims everyone there is jealous of how connected the Calgary scene is. Even if you don't like each other's music, there's this mutual support and respect that's really incredible."

Shows in churches, autonomous festivals, proliferating side projects, inventing your own culture... It's striking how much the Calgary musicians that Sarah Liss talks to in this week's Eye sound like Toronto musicians four years ago. It makes sense - Toronto was going through a wave of high-speed gentrification etc. in the early 2000s that seemed to call for a critical-creative response; Calgary's gone through a hyperwarp version of such processes the past couple of years that would also breed urges to express another perspective. It's good to be reminded that it's not as monolithic as easterners sometimes think. Go, alt-Calgary!

Meanwhile a few of us old Torontopian hands were chatting last night about how we haven't kept up so much with new happenings (new bands, in particular) since that moment semi-passed - at first consciously displeased with the more homogeneous stuff that seemed to be emerging, and then just distracted. It's like the Grade 8s who snub the Grade 7s but simply don't know the Grade 6ers. So I'm going to try to make a few field trips to other corners of the playground in the next month. Anybody want to recommend newish acts (defined as having surfaced since, say, early 2007) that I should make a point of hearing, ideally ones that aren't just catchy indie-pop?

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 03 at 3:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)

 

They Can't Get On His System 'Cuz His System Is The Solar
Plus: Bishop Bros. Revisited

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As several people have noted, cover of Lil Wayne's new album implies
a claim to monumental status with obvious visual reference to Nas's Illmatic and Biggie's Ready to Die.

My review of Tha Carter III - the new Lil Wayne album, if'n you've been living under a rock (or, perhaps, inside a rock-music bubble) - was in The Globe and Mail today. I repent a little bit of the claim that Wayne has talent instead of "drive" - you don't put out all the material he does if you don't have drive, although I meant that he doesn't give the same impression of career-micromanagement that a typical pop star does, that he's a lot more spontaneous. Likewise "friendliness" is a subjective call - his giggly megalomania is kind of personable though it's also kind of offputting - and he does seem to have cleaned up his look a little bit for record-promo season, compared to his usual I-slept-in-the-studio raggedy-ass look. Writers: See where going for an easy joke when you're right on deadline gets you? Take a lesson. But the point stands, I think: Wayne doesn't preen and doesn't try to seem user-friendly in the usual star manner. And that is of course another way of being a star, the don't-give-a-shit iconoclastic way.

I didn't have space in the review to get into another point about Wayne's use of the "alien" persona, especially in Phone Home, which is the way that he's invoking what Deepak Mehmi (at the recent Canadian conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) has called "the metaphorical Afronaut" in hip-hop, a trope others have noted in jazz (Sun Ra being the classic example), funk (George Clinton with his Mothership) and techno (all over the placed). It's the Afro-Futurism theme, the "sonic fiction," as Kodwo Eshun has called it, of black people as alien beings - or at least of particular black artists as being so far-out - and not really "of" the world they come from - that they are like alien beings. This self-exoticization is a sort of reclaiming and reversal of the treatment of talented black people as freaks, and I wish I'd discussed it in my review because my discussion of him as a wildly atypical pop star could be critiqued as falling into the exoticization trap too. But I think that Wayne is very deliberately raising and promoting this image, just as Clinton and Sun Ra did, because it can be a liberating place to operate. By freeing himself of his context he frees himself of rules and expectations. (Unlike Ra or Clinton, though, he does try to have it both ways by keeping up his New Orleans bonafides, especially since the hurricanes, another rich vein of contradiction to explore with Wayne.)

I also didn't talk - because I was writing for a Globe audience that I wanted to convince to give Wayne a chance, and not provide an excuse for them to ignore him - about the sexism you do still hear all over Carter 3, with its alternate greed for and sneering dismissal of "pussy" in track after track, one of the lazy places Wayne lapses into when he doesn't have enough else to say. It's what I meant when I talked about the "garbage" that sometimes bobs in the stream of his flow. For instance in A Milli: "The bible told us every girl was sour/
Don't play in her garden and don't smell her flower." The rumours about Wayne's sexuality make these moments especially ambiguous - touching the forbidden issue of gay males and misogyny - but at the same time he's of course always posing as this indomitable cocksman, like any other rapper but with an extra dose of protest-too-much. Not that I have a clue whether or not Wayne is gay, but if he is and could just go ahead and say so, he would certainly be vouchsafing the fearless individuality he's always asserting - though you can also imagine him not wanting his freakiness to be reduced down to his orientation, too. That's how I figure it with Missy Elliot, for instance, though she certainly doesn't strain as hard to disguise things.

And that's not even getting into the very-hard-to-parse political speechifying in the closing track. All that said, though, the album's maddening and marvelous, though I'm still waiting to compare it to the new Nas (which it probably outstrips) and the upcoming Andre 3000 (which it may well won't).

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Meanwhile, I never got around to my promised report on the Bishop brothers (ex-Sun City Girls) concert in Toronto last week. It was a funny one: The show was divided into two parts, the first of which didn't connect much with the audience, to the Bishops' obvious frustration: The first set was mostly the misanthropic murder, blasphemy and incest-themed hillbilly-styled songs that have always been a part of the SCG repertoire, especially the Beat-styled nihilism of the late third Girl, Charles Gocher, to whose memory this tour is dedicated. While there are points where those songs' gonzo intensities can't help but be amusing and occasionally even visionary in their surreal violence and such, a lot of it depends on a shock value that by this point seems pretty threadbare and adolescent. Maybe some of the anti-religious stuff hits home better south of the border, where everyone feels more impinged upon by the fundamentalists, but in Toronto it's hard to work up a sweat about it. On top of that, we were in an art gallery where the strongest drink on hand was soda pop, so we didn't get the drunken-yahoo fun out of it that probably happened at more bacchanalian Sun City Girls shows of yore. (Alan Bishop took all this as a sign that Torontonians are the same cross-their-arms-and-judge types as New Yorkers, as he saw it, and there's no doubt something to that - but as he found out when he started making fun of Canadian bands, especially Rush, we weren't a crowd averse to humour - he just hadn't found our funny bones yet.)

A sizable chunk of the crowd left after that unfortunately (some of them, I know, understandably enough were racing over to the Tranzac to catch the final Silt show). But as Alan promised before the break, they came back with their guitars in different tuning, ready to "sell out all over the place and make you love us." Selling out for the Bishops turned out to mean playing their fantastic pastiches of blues and global music in oceanic acoustic-guitar duets, kind of an extended series of variations on Zeppelin's Kashmir but with wider ethnomusicological sensibility and some ear-scouring, very impressive vocals from Alan in semi-Arabic and African tones. (It's worth remembering that the Bishops are of Lebanese heritage, so they have deeper connections to this music too.) A lot of it was beautiful - with a little comic relief in the fact that Alan broke guitar strings in nearly every song, and in one case two of them, which is even more notable when you realize (as Richard later pointed out) that he started out playing with five strings instead of six because, he said, he was inevitably going to break the top string anyway, so why bother? Richard (who as "Sir Richard Bishop" has been doing a lot of solo, instrumental-guitar records and tours in recent years) didn't break a single string in the same time.

It's too bad that they didn't mix the two sets up over the course of the evening - the naughty novelty songs would have been easier to enjoy if they'd just been interspersed among the more musically compelling ones. Sure, that would have required that they tour with an extra set of guitars (because of the different tunings), but it would be worth the effort. I was a little let down too that there wasn't more of a sense of theatre to the show - at one point Alan did get up and scatter some powder around the room, including on audience members' heads, without identifying it; while it looked like cocoa the buzz was that it was Charlie Gocher's ashes (I doubt it, but who knows?). It's tough to live down your own legend, even when it's a legend only a handful of people have ever heard, and while this was not at all the psychic journey that the storied Sun City Girls shows of the 1980s and 1990s were, I was very happy in the end that I got to witness it.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 24 at 10:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (19)

 

Polaris Top 40 Announced

Still in the maw of distraction, but didn't want to let this innovation in the Polaris Prize process go unmentioned. Instead of just announcing the nominees, the Canadian best-album prize - judged by critics and broadcasters (including yours truly), sponsored by Rogers and carrying a $20,000 purse - is now spreading the love (and publicity bump) around by making public the 40 strongest contenders in pre-voting by the entire jury pool: We each chose 5 albums released between June 1/07 and May 31/08. The most frequently mentioned (and highest ranked) got onto the long list. This allows for strategic voting - we can (but are not obliged to) replace or re-rank the no-hopers on our ballots in order to elevate the prospects of favourite up-and-comers.

Here it is in alphabetical order - just think, an extra month to complain about jury bias and imbalance! For the record, four of my five picks made the list, the exception being The Reveries' Matchmakers Vol. 1: The Music of Willie Nelson. I'm left wishing I'd made my jazz/improv selection more strategically - perhaps I could have boosted Feuermusik or David Buchbinder's Odessa/Havana over the wall. At least Sandro Perri is there representing the improvising massive (arguably along with Thee Silver Mt Zion and Socalled's sui generis disc Ghetto Blaster which crosses four or five genres). Perri would be my no. 1 were it not for the true object of my upcoming lobbying efforts, Veda Hille's This Riot Life.

At quick glance hip-hop, electronic, country-folk and francophone representation all seems to be improving; harder rock/emo get some 'spect, but not hardcore or metal; pop music registers not at all unless you count City and Colour. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell likewise draw blanks. Regional balance doesn't look too shabby: Someone do the math - which city's musical cuisine reigns supreme? And who the hell is Gatineau?

Finally, sympathies to the unheard and unsung. Remember, there is joy in being barred from the temple.

2008 Polaris Music Prize Long List (alphabetical)

The Acorn, Glory Hope Mountain
Attack In Black, Marriage
Black Mountain, In The Future
Born Ruffians, Red, Yellow and Blue
Buck 65, Situation
Basia Bulat, Oh, My Darling
Cadence Weapon, Afterparty Babies
Cancer Bats, Hail Destroyer
Caribou, Andorra
City And Colour, Bring Me Your Love
Constantines, Kensington Heights
Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles
Destroyer, Trouble In Dreams
Fred Eaglesmith, Tinderbox
Kathleen Edwards, Asking For Flowers
Christine Fellows, Nevertheless
Gatineau, Gatineau
Hayden, In Field And Town
Veda Hille, This Riot Life
Hilotrons, Happymatic
Holy Fuck, LP
Islands, Arm's Way
Karkwa, Le volume du vent
Corb Lund, Horse Solider! Horse Soldier!
The New Pornographers, Challengers
Pas Chic Chic, Au Contraire
Sandro Perri, Tiny Mirrors
Plants And Animals, Parc Avenue
Ghislain Poirier, No Ground Under
Protest The Hero, Fortress
Justin Rutledge, Man Descending
Sadies, New Seasons
Shad, The Old Prince
Socalled, Ghetto Blaster
Stars, In Our Bedroom After The War
Tegan And Sara, The Con
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons
Two Hours Traffic, Little Jabs
The Weakerthans, Reunion Tour
Wintersleep, Welcome To The Night Sky

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 12 at 2:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Watching the Ripples

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Salif Keita, in Toronto as part of the jazz festival on June 29.

Sorry for the spate of radio silence. I've been playing three-dimensional deadline chess all week with various competing assignments. Meanwhile, though, locals might like to know that NXNE and Jazz Festival listings can now be found in the gig guide. If we've missed anything (NXNE's website is a nightmare, and the Jazz Fest's is good but huge) just holler.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 11 at 4:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Bloody Momofuku Asshole

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That title's misleading - this post isn't really railing at anybody - but I couldn't resist combining the names of Elvis Costello's latest album and an earlier Martha Wainwright EP, as I have reviews of both their terrific new records today in The Globe and Mail.

Supplemental notes: Momofuku finds Costello (hanging out with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley as well as his own old mates in the Imposters) in his most incisive mood in a long while, much more of a return to form to my ears than When I Was Cruel or Brutal Youth (though they're both good records) - though much more a return to the form of, say, Spike or Blood and Chocolate than to his first four or five records, a do-no-wrong streak people ought to stop measuring him by. Bob Dylan's made some great records since 1970 but it verges on impossible for him to touch Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde, because that was all about how Dylan's energy and creativity fit into and altered the spirit of its time. You can't assess stuff like that "purely" as songs and performances, aside from context and pure newness, and the same goes for albums like My Aim Is True and Armed Forces, I'd say.

As a side note, because Elvis is among other things one of the biggest music nerds ever to become a pop star (sorta) himself, there's a fascinating historical background to one of the songs on Momofuku, called "Stella Hurt." (You can stream it, with the rest of the album, on the Lost Highway site.) Rather than simply one of Costello's fictional or composite characters (like "Veronica" in his hit with Paul McCartney), Stella Hurt was a real person, the final married name of a forgotten jazz singer of the 1930s and 1940s once known as Teddy Grace - she's in the centre photo above, and you can read her rather sad tale in this article from The Oxford American by Derek Jenkins (though its real hero is New York jazz/blues-collector David McCain, who tracked down the former singer in a nursing home just months before she died and got her story). I have little doubt that Costello read the OA story and his wordplay-loving mind could not resist the aptness of Stella's fall from Grace to Hurt.

The other review is of Martha Wainwright's new, second (but it might as well be first) album, I Know You're Married, But I've Got Feelings Too, whose title (like that of her Bloody Motherfucking Asshole EP) encapsulates its dominantly rueful mood - but not nearly all of its moods, as this is a beautifully rounded record. My review might be a bit overboard in its enthusiasm, but it's such a pleasure to find a performer I first heard a decade ago singing her collegiate compositions on guitar in little Montreal cafes finally making the record she's long had in her, one with the potential to win thousands, even millions of hearts, that I don't feel the slightest apologetic about shouting it to the skies.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 02 at 10:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Love Don't Change

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Tonight marks the release of Eric Chenaux's latest album, Sloppy Ground, a lovely term for its main subject matter, which Eric describes as not the beginning or the ending but the middle of love - the main part, that is, but the most overlooked, the part for which we need much more music: the "ever after" that follows the closing clinch of the courtship dance. There's a nice interview with Eric in Eye today too. Meanwhile Eric's frequent collaborator Ryan Driver (of Deep Dark United, Silt, Reveries, etc) has his first solo album, enticingly titled Feeler of Pure Joy, coming out on home-base label Rat-drifting. (Both releases are celebrated tonight with a show at Wrongbar in Toronto.)

Additional Thursday reading: David Dacks has a perspicacious survey of the new generation of Toronto soul on AOL Canada of all places.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 29 at 2:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

I Miss the Tyrant

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The most quotable quote from this year's EMP Pop Conference was probably Robert Christgau confessing, "I miss the monoculture" - that storied (and arguably mythic) time when "everyone" listened to the same songs, watched the same shows, and so on. A similar sentiment animated the TVO's Studio 2 The Agenda panel I did in April, asking what ever happened to the big hits that "everybody" danced to.

Leave it to this week's Cat and Girl to provide the counterargument.

It makes me imagine a fable ending with this dialogue:

"I miss the tyrant," the old hero sighed.
"But you killed the tyrant!" his young disciples cried.
"At least under the tyrant," he replied, "we all knew who needed killing."

Okay, a fable or maybe a prog-rock song.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 28 at 1:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Starlet Sing-Off, Round 2

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Since people seem to love arguing about Scarlett Johansson's Tom Waits covers album, let's extend the theme: The most frequent comparison raised (whether for or against S.J.) is Zooey Deschanel's duo with M. Ward in She & Him. It's hardly a one-to-one parallel, because Deschanel's nowhere near the household name that Johansson is - she's about M. Ward-level famous in movie terms (which means much more famous ... but you see the point).

But the one I've got my ear on is Jena Malone, partly because her musical pursuits don't seem so side-projecty (though a little self-indulgent/twee). She's not only writing her own songs, she's dropped her backup group (flying without the safety net of a "real musician" male partner) in favour of inventing her own "one-woman band" rig, The Shoe (see below). And last weekend she did a "treasure map tour" of L.A. with it. You can hear some of The Shoe's recent output at her MySpace. I'd give them at least a "promising," and notably I find I don't think about her status as "actress-singer" at all while I'm listening - I just listen the way I might to songs by any other young new artist. ... Arguably, of course, that is to be deprived of a pleasure rather than to gain one.

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General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 27 at 3:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

The Sadies' Most Wanted

Toronto's pride The Sadies exercise a light-hearted version of YouTubin' vigilante justice by posting this security-cam footage of some asshole breaking into their van and grabbing their GPS unit, and the group's discovery of the theft, all given a Dukes of Hazzard-esque rollicking soundtrack. If only cameras were on the spot more often when bands' instruments and gear get ripped off, but that's usually from the back alley behind some club. The video's very funny-sad - them Sadies never met a lemon they couldn't turn into a bourbon sour. If you do recognize the perp in these pics, let their management know.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 26 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Rocks On!
(Concrete Toronto Music)

"We wanted to encourage the musicians to explore the true meaning of musique concrete, which is to make music using non-traditional musical sounds," says Bunce. "You don't have to have studied Pierre Schaeffer at university to do that. ... That's one of the reasons why we wanted to approach minimal techno and noise artists. There is a sense of 'ugly beauty' to those styles of music, which corresponds to the way a lot of people feel about brutalist architecture. ... In terms of a real concrete experiment, [noise artist] Knurl will be [using contact mics on] actual concrete and cement! I'm really curious to see how that will go over with the family crowd at the Science Centre."

That's a quote from Sarah Liss's piece today in Eye weekly about the Concrete Toronto Music shows this Sunday and next, co-curated by Zoilus and the Music Gallery. (And tomorrow, I'll post my answers to Sarah's questions, which came too late for her to use.)

Plus: For those who missed this year's FIMAV festival in Victoriaville, John Kelman at All About Jazz catches us up. (Below, the semi-reunited Art Bears.)

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General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 22 at 4:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Scarlett Letter

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For the first time in a while, I have a record review in The Globe and Mail today, of the new Scarlett-Johansson-sings-Tom-Waits joint, Anywhere I Lay My Head. It is not a positive review. I still like her in movies though.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 20 at 4:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (34)

 

Yon Ferrets Return

Strange synchronicities: It seems that just as my book about Celine Dion and "good vs bad taste" came out, a bunch of contemporary dancers in London and Berlin were undertaking exactly the same project - in live dance and YouTube video form. From looking at their site, there are no hints that they know about the book, but I definitely must get in touch with them. I'm so taken with what they're doing, at least at first sight, that I don't feel the urge to respond more criticially-analytically, but perhaps later.

Other gleanings from all over:


  • It's a few weeks old but I've just discovered this podcast on the making of Veda Hille's This Riot Life, the amazingliest record of 2008. If you have not heard it, you have been wasting your year, friend.

  • In further Hille-related news, she did some music for a show currently playing at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, Theatre Replacement's Sexual Practices of the Japanese, which is enough recommendation for me (along with all the good reviews).

  • If you want to follow the R. Kelly trial, WBEZ in Chicago is doing a daily blog, but also opened with a smart set-up essay on the race-gender-celebrity-perversity-etc. codes that will make this particular merry-go-round spin. If you would rather not follow said trial, I cannot blame you.

  • The Guardian blog makes a zippy argument that all the ridiculousness of rock is being hoarded by metal and that the rest of music ought to go back and claim its rightful share of ridiculousness (which is what we love R. Kelly for, no?). But that piece also reminded me that I wanted to recommend to you the new issue of Mike McGonigal's great art-music-what-have-you zine Yeti, which includes a more indepth and emotionally stirring and funnier celebration of black metal by esquire Scott Seward (adapted from his 2007 EMP Pop Conference presentation). Yeti also always comes with an ear-scouring compilation CD.

  • There's another fun mix in the current issue of Esopus magazine, in which Neko Case & Carl Newman (of the New Pornographers), Marnie Stern, Busdriver and others were asked to find a "good news" clipping in the paper and write a song about it. (The Case/Newman entry provides this post's headline.) You can listen to the results online.

  • Finally, let's all go to this concert. (I hear rumours that the Ex might bring a similar bill to Toronto someday - but not in '08.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 16 at 3:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

May 25 & June 1: Zoilus presents
Concrete Toronto Music!

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The month is flying by and I've neglected to tell you that a week from Sunday (May 25) as well as the Sunday after (June 1), Zoilus and the Music Gallery are presenting two versions of a special show called Concrete Toronto, first at the Polish Combatants' Hall and then at the Ontario Science Centre (with a bus going up from downtown).

This extravaganza is part of the Soundaxis festival and performers include CCMC (Michael Snow, Paul Dutton and John Oswald) (May 25 only), Sandro (Polmo Polpo) Perri with Tony (Great Lakes Swimmers) Dekker, Greg J Smith & Neil Wiernik (aka "naw"), Knurl, and composer Erik Ross presenting a new work (with some text by yours truly) with performers Carla Huhtanen (voice) and Wallace Halladay (sax). There will be visual projections and the like too.

As the writeup sez: "Concrete Toronto Music is a concert of original new music, created by Toronto composers and musicians, in response to Toronto's Concrete Architecture, as catalogued in the 2007 book Concrete Toronto (ERA Architects/Coach House Books). Many iconic buildings, such as City Hall and the Ontario Science Centre, used concrete as their primary material during the building frenzy that gave expression to the growth of Toronto in the decades of the 1950s to the 1970s. The Music Gallery has commissioned a significant handful of Toronto-based composers and musicians to create new works that pay tribute to Toronto's concrete legacy, experiment with concrete's mutability and explore these buildings' role in the city's psychogeography."

Complete details at the Music Gallery site.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 14 at 5:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Goodnight Mr. Rauschenberg

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Painter, sculptor, assembler, composer, choreographer ... Robert Rauschenberg died last night at 82. Rauschenberg helped pry open a lot of the space "between art and life" that's been central to my own interests, influencing happenings, Fluxus, performance, participatory, conceptual (although he said he "never used ideas") and other art movements. A moment of noise (he wasn't much one for silences!) in his honour.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 14 at 1:09 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Jive Talkin': Doing it live

We could be talking about Jody's defence of Mariah Carey or whether blogs really break bands or how it is finally really, really, really time to declare an all-out Ticketmaster boycott, at least until the governments get off they's asses and go full-on combines-investigation on them. But we're not because I have been too busy.

For two things, I've been preparing a talk that I'm giving on Saturday for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (Canada) conference - if you're in St. Catharines at Brock University around 2:15 pm, I'll be airing some not-fully-cooked proposals on the subject, "Can You Talk a Few Bars of That? Music Vs. Words in Pop Criticism."

Then there's Monday's edition of the Trampoline Hall Lecture Series in Toronto, when for the first time in (oh my god) six-and-a-half-years of working behind the scenes and at the door, I will be giving a lecture. The show is curated by the brilliant and hilarious Becky Johnson, and its theme is her family. I am going to be talking about her mom, with some digressions on radio love-doctor programs and compulsive hoarding syndrome. The other lectures will be about her dad and her brother. They all live in British Columbia. It's a family that could be your own, except that it's Becky's. The host, as ever, will be Misha Glouberman, whom I hope will be gentle with me. (Tickets are now on sale at Soundscapes.)

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 08 at 3:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Heaven Knows I'm Miscellaneous Now

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Harry Partch plays his "cloud chamber bowls" (see final item in this post).

The sight of people lined up down the block to buy copies of Grand Theft Auto IV made me wonder when the last time was that you saw such a line outside a record store. (I think it might have been for an Eminem album?) Granted, leaking means release dates don't matter anymore for music, unlike games and movies, but surely, the size of this phenomenon has to make one stop and think - video games seem a lot closer to the centre of that mythic "common conversation" in culture than music does now. And with GTA IV, it even seems that it answers that call for pop entertainment with "significance." Yet I still wonder whether gaming serves the identity-forming function that music does - is there a partisanship, are there fashions, looks, attitudes that go along with alliance to a particular kind of games? (Or does that really come only after the monoculture-making impact - is GTA IV more a kind of Beatles '65 phase?) These are random pre-framings of the questions, and your random speculations are welcome.

Speaking of identity and music, John Darnielle is blogging for Powell's about the five metal albums he might have written about for the 33 1/3 series if he hadn't chosen Black Sabbath's Master of Reality for his oughta-be-classic little young-adult novella.

In Toronto this weekend there is no shortage of diversion to be savoured, courtesy of the Over the Top music and film festival as well as the Jane's Walk sessions of collective flaneurie in honour of the late great Ms. Jacobs, with the obvious locations supplemented by strolls through the unappreciated inner suburbs and a tour of Parkdale "shortcuts and hangouts" conducted by schoolkids (the usual madness from Darren O'Donnell's Mammalian Diving Reflex).

Not to be overlooked, though, is also tomorrow night's show at the Music Gallery by the Harry Partch Ensemble from Montclair State University, the designated repository for the original instruments invented and built by the hobo-genius engineer and theorist of microtonal music - meaning this might be the one chance you get to see & hear the chromelodeon, harmonic canon, diamond marimba and other patented Partchian devices live. (They've never come to Canada before - way to go, Mr. Dovercourt et al at the MG.) For those who've never heard Partch's music - it was probably the single greatest influence (well, along with Brecht-Weill music) on Tom Waits's peak transitional music of the '80s, eg. Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. Imagine the more chiming, rhythmic, marimba-percussion tunes on those albums with Waits' voice subtracted and you have a rough idea of the timbral zone of Partch's work, though of course there's much more to it. I assume we'll see Iner Souster there!

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 02 at 1:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)

 

Now Read This: Gimme Liberty
or Gimme Indie Lazer Bass

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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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 30 at 4:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Destroyer Again: "There's No Salt to Be Passed"

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."

[... continue? ...]

Savaging rock just doesn't propel the songs anymore; though it still pops up here and there on Destroyer's Rubies, it's a side issue, as is the angry-young-man aspect in general. "I've been living in America in churches of greed," Dan sings on the new album's Dark Leaves Form a Thread: "It's sick! No, it's cool." The theme of complicity lingers, in a more tragic, personalized register, but with a maturity that is "perfectly at home with this dread."

It's something Destroyer's been arching towards all along, I think - just as the "arrogant" avoidance of direct contact with the audience in live shows had more to do with wanting to offer something otherly-sincere to cliched rock-show behaviour but finding, until recently, his only alternative was awkward discomfort. Similarly, the Bejarian attack mode is often more reactionary/defensive than other aspects of the writing (though redeemed by its sense of humour), and I think it's gradually receding.

It still seems odd to say Destroyer has convinced you that rock's a farce and so you've lost interest in him unless you've actually lost interest in all other rock, too. I suppose you could argue that it's hypocrisy or something, but as I argued in my previous post I think the hypocrisy is precisely the point: Destroyer is an ongoing drama about a guy struggling with his purist urges and ambitions, about falling from grace and then wondering if the place you've fallen is actually more full of grace than was your previous lofty perch.

Michael also says: "The more I immerse myself in the ongoing Destroyer discography, the more I think he's just making fun of me and every other pretentious asshole who wants their music to 'mean' something. ... But why would you ever bother being that verbose if you actually don't have anything to say? What kind of a poet, other than a self-declared con artist, would claim that his choice of words is entirely arbitrary and devoid of intent?"

I find Michael's example, the lines "you've been wandering around/ you've been fucking around," weird (what is arbitrary and meaningless about those words? they could have been written by Paul Westerberg), but I realize that's how a lot of people react to Dan's lyrics and what he's said about them. Still, asking a writer to explain what they've written seems to me either to suggest that they've failed in writing it - that it isn't sufficent unto itself - or that the reader/listener isn't willing to bring their own interpretive and emotional apparatus to bear on it, to cooperate in the making of meaning.

It's a big misunderstanding to think the claim that lines of verse have no paraphrasable meaning - no sense that can be restated in other words without abandoning their precision and their multiple layers of meaning - implies that they are "arbitrary and devoid of intent."

Dan probably has sewn confusion with some of his sloppier answers to interview questions, but he's never been more clear on that score than in this discussion with Grayson Currin of North Carolina's Independent Weekly. The whole thing (which includes chat about the origins of songs like "Foam Hands" and "The State" - "I'm pretty sure that song is about political torture in some ways, and in other ways, it's just about a girl") is worth reading, but particularly this passage:

Q. Are there times when you discover what may be a new meaning for a song years after you've written it?

A. I guess it's possible, but usually I do that with the overall, as in, "What was I trying to get it, making that record sound the way it did?" As far as writing goes, I don't really have the same view of meaning as maybe some people do. ... [Every] single line in every single song means exactly what it says when it says it. That's how I generate meaning, just by trying to find the perfect word to follow the perfect word that came before it so that the next perfect word... I'm not saying that Destroyer songs are perfect, but I have this idea in my head of what ideal musical writing sounds like. I just try to get close to it.

As far as what the song is about, [it's not] I say one thing but really it's about my dog that went missing. Or I say "Blue flower, blue flame," but what I'm really talking about is the river behind my house. That shit doesn't exist. Meaning to me is whatever abundance of emotion I can create by saying something.

Q: So you don't mean a phrase like "blue flower, blue flame" to be any bigger than its exact meaning?

A: No, I don't. There's no code. There's no hidden veil. There's nothing behind the curtain of these words. It's just like notes, you know? I feel like the languages have to be cut some slack, just like the melody or a really awesome drum fill or a swell of strings, it kind of means the same things as those words mean. It's hard to get your head around that, I guess, because we generally try to communicate ideas and concepts with words. When we say "Pass the salt," we want someone to give us salt. When you're making art, there's no salt to be passed. It's just a mystery, right? It's just like "pass me..." - "create a mystery for me."

I think that's what art is. It's this thing that gets made, and you don't know exactly why, but it just blows you away. When I read something and I really like it, I just have to put the book down for a second or a minute. It's the same sensation as someone knocking you over. You have to kind of brush yourself off and make sure that what happened happened. Maybe that's just me. Maybe that's not normal.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 28 at 3:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Hidden Agenda

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).

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 27 at 9:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Street Fighting Man?

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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 24 at 2:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Destroyer in Toronto, April 19:
"A Nightmare," Three Witches Chant,
Confounding Nerds' Aim

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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.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 23 at 5:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Clap Clap Culture

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."

[... keep reading? ...]

To use an easy example, Brazilians in Rio's favelas are borrowing from American hip-hop and other foreign, commercial music when they make baile funk, but the result is still unquestionably local culture - which would be diminished if some cultural militants tried to push them to play sambas. Hip-hop and other music in Britain and the U.S. (such as M.I.A.'s) are in turn influenced by baile funk, and that's cultural process for you - and this kind of exchange, of course, goes pretty much all the way back in human history.

However, there are occasions when cultures need defense - in colonization, for example. Cultural preservation is urgent right now in New Orleans, for example, as Larry Blumenfeld illustrated in his moving and enraging talk at the EMP Pop Conference, reporting on cops cracking down on second-line parades and traditional jazz funerals, and musicians and other citizens passionately objecting.

Milder cases of gentrification, as with Mike's Disney Store, raise valid, though milder, concerns. There's a desirable midpoint between freezing things as they are (or seeking some fantasized "pure" past, as some cultural conservationists seem to desire) and just giving private capital a free (invisible) hand to decide on its own how a community or a city develops, no matter what the people without as much money need or want (the latter being what's often called "neo-liberalism").

But cultural influence runs in all directions: The world is not becoming flat and it's not becoming (white) American - it's a self-flattering assumption on the part of western critics to imagine that our cultures are so seductive and powerful that people are unable to resist succumbing. (Almost as self-flattering as it is among those crusaders and "freedom"-exporters who want that to be true.) Non-western and western cultures change each other, as do city and country, region and nation. Celine Dion's music implicitly recognizes such changes as both exciting and traumatic. People love her for her traditionalism and for her glitz, for her modernity and her anti-modernity.

On Friday, I was honoured to be part of a conversation on WNYC in New York's great Soundcheck program about the way music expresses and constructs personal (and group) identity, along with philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose work I admire. There's a great deal of overlap between my book and Appiah's Cosmopolitanism (so much so that it was often hard for me to add to what he had just said; understandably, he got the lion's share of the theoretical questions).

In retrospect I wish I had referred directly in the book to Appiah's praise of "contamination" - both our investigations have to do with letting yourself be contaminated while maintaining a sense of identity, how to assert strong values while being aware that they're deeply contingent on social context, and how to recognize commonalities while also respecting differences. That's what my post and my book were really about, though I don't know that even Appiah has reached a final synthesis. (Mike says "being curious and respectful of what other people like isn't the goal of criticism, but the base standard for responsible criticism," and of course I concur, but it's not nearly so widely practiced that way.)

Mike's other main objection to my post - part of a larger argument about how critics at places like the Pop Conference combine culture and politics - is that "to conflate 'adventurous art' and 'reproductive freedom' is ludicrous." He goes on to add, "You can never really 'win' an argument about the avant-garde. You can win an argument about abortion. And that's as it should be, because abortion policy has real, demonstrable consequences."

I can't fully answer here Mike's question about what the "consequences" of cultural actions are - as he says, it's "an entire field of study." But as I'm sure he knows, but doesn't say, a large part of that field no longer holds "that culture maintains the power relations in society by distributing the ruling class's dominant messages," because contamination occurs here too - culture also distributes resistant messages, audiences receive messages resistantly, and so forth. There are people who believe very strongly that the dominance outpowers the resistance, and other people who believe the reverse. As usual, I'm a both/and guy (though I have my more dour moments).

Nevertheless, Mike and I do disagree: Abortion beliefs, for example, are broadly culturally based, and much of the debate about them (like most values/ethics arguments, as Jonathan Haidt maintains) is backwards rationalization. A religious-versus-humanist dispute is seldom resolved by logical debate alone. "Winning" on abortion has more to do with how much social influence either side accumulates - not just political power but which one becomes more attractive and advantageous for people in various contexts to accept. Which isn't all that much unlike how social disputes over art - say, representation versus abstraction or swing jazz versus rock'n'roll - are "won."

Any "red/blue" map of political preference covers up more than it explains, but those patterns - the way social conservatism, religiosity and cultural conservatism tend to cluster, for example - do persist and have consequences. I use Pierre Bourdieu's work to discuss this in my book, but I like the way Appiah describes it - as "social scripts." Culture and politics are alike influenced by an implicit understanding of what "people like me" (or "people like what I want to be") are supposed to like and dislike, believe and disbelieve, not to mention what "people not like me" are figured to think and prefer. (Though the objects of approval or disapproval and the metrics that define social "likeness" are always reshuffling.)

To take another of Mike's examples, he says, "If a lot of people dislike gay marriage, that means a bunch of my friends can't get married. If a lot of people like Celine Dion, I occasionally get annoyed while in a department store. That's not just a difference of degree, but a difference of kind."

Sure, but it doesn't mean those forces are radically distinct from one another. Instead of Celine (who has gay-friendly associations, though you could argue that a lot of people see her in "family values" terms), let's talk about the effect of a lot of people liking, say, Ted Nugent - and another bunch of people having hostile notions about "people who like Ted Nugent." Let's say at a guess that the pro-Nugent crowd is more rural and the anti-Nugent crowd more "downtown." The pro-Nugent camp is not unaware of what the anti-Nugentites think of them. They're also aware that the folks downtown include a lot more gay people (at least openly) than they have in their neighbourhood. The Ted Nugent issue becomes a reason for them to think that homosexuals are not only weird but hostile to their own lifestyles, the ones echoed and expressed by Nugent's music.

The result? A lot of Mike's friends can't get married.

This is shorthand caricature, of course, but it's suggestive: Art matters politically in part because of its contribution to reinforcing and/or challenging social scripts - or enhancing social experiences in which those scripts are reinforced/challenged - in a way that debate can't. And politics affects art partly because it helps construct the social scripts that art draws upon and revises. Those scripts are collective creations, to which culture and politics both contribute, and they have collective impacts, of which culture and politics both partake.

(Of course art also matters in a lot of ways that are not political and have much less to do with identity, politics and social scripts. Likewise, little things like, say, money probably matter more than art to those processes. Mike is right to caution against "conflating" anything.)

Finally an aside to Frank Kogan, who says: " 'Everybody has false consciousness' and 'no one has false consciousness' are ridiculous statements, since there's nothing inherently false or inherently true about having a consciousness based on one's social experience and position."

Perhaps my tone wasn't sarcastic enough, but that's exactly what I meant by equating the two statements. I think "false consciousness" is in the same set of unhelpful, misdirecting concepts as "authenticity," which you could equally ascribe to everybody or to nobody.

(While I'm really happy to have Frank, a writer I greatly respect, participating in this argument, I wish he'd stop publicly characterizing my thinking as "terrible" without actually reading the work. It feels like turf defence.)

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 21 at 1:17 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

EMP 2008: Academy Fight Song

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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 ...)

To make that argument, you have to overlook the amazing work many academics have contributed - including this year Katherine Meizel on "God Bless America" and "God Bless the U.S.A." and American civic religion; John Vallier on Christian "applied ethnomusicology" (that is, writing hymns in the style of local musical cultures as an evangelical gambit); Dan Thomas-Glass comparing Public Enemy and poet Lyn Hejinian's pauses, stresses and caesurae as figures of urban spatio-cultural gaps, in a hilarious fast-thinking power-point presentation; Tim Lawrence's bracing polemic on the way disco is left out of the story of the late 70s/early 80s downtown avant-art/music scene (with Arthur Russell as exhibit A); and Charles Hughes's lovely meditation on Sam Cooke, among others.

More significantly, you have to overlook the fact that many, many of the people who present at the Pop Conference are both academics and pop critics, including some all-stars like Joshua Clover (whose by-all-reports-mindblowing M.I.A. lecture, like many others, I missed on the Friday because I was holed up in my hotel room overcoming writer's block on my own talk), Oliver Wang, Elijah Wald, Daphne Brooks (whose Amy Winehouse paper, which again I missed, was named by many as the best piece in the conference), Daphne Carr, Will Hermes (whose paper on 70s NYC rhythm culture, from salsa to minimalism to hip-hop, dovetailed beautifully with Tim Lawrence's), Franklin Bruno, Greil Marcus and of course conference organizer Eric Weisbard himself.

By conference's end, Robert Christgau was surveying folks to see how many critics were doing academic work or knew other critics who either were combining the two fields or had switched over to academic work entirely. A comparison to poetry and fiction occurred to me - sometime, it seems in the '70s or '80s, there must have been a pivot point where the authors who made a living mainly from writing or from another sort of day job started to be outnumbered by writers who made their living as teachers, because that's how the economics and the culture had shifted. These days, it's almost surprising to meet a creative writer who is not in some way connected to the academic world (unless they work in the publishing field itself). Are we seeing the same thing happen with pop criticism, and indeed arts criticism in general?

For sure, the freelance environment has gotten harsher both economically and creatively, as the print medium is struggling to survive and most newspapers/magazines also have become less hospitable to long-form reviews and cultural journalism. Simultaneously the academic world has become more welcoming of pop-cultural discussion and studies (provided they're put through disciplinary filters, of course) - an opening partly owed to the way journalists and critics on film, music and TV built up intellectual cred for their forms over the past 40-plus years. The Pop Conference itself is a product of that crossover.

I don't want to leap to conclusions about the trend, but it's worth tracking.

Otherwise, I thought it was a strong conference. The opening panel suffered a bit from the decision to cross-promote with the EMP's (excellent, from the bits of it I saw) "American Sabor" exhibit on the history of Latino/Chicano/Hispanic (take your pick) contributions to U.S. pop music. It was great to hear the perspectives of Louie Perez from Los Lobos (whose testimony to the band's discovery and embrace of their "parents' music" was terrific), Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli, the amazing El Vez (Robert Lopez, fromerly of The Zeros, who connected punk outsiderness and Latino outsiderness) and younger L.A. musician Martha Gonzales of the band Quetzal (whose music I have to check out) as well as the scholars and curators.

But the tendency to continually refer back to the exhibition and debate its effectiveness and its set of terms really hobbled the discussion and prevented it from getting deeper into the core issue the panel began with, the dominance of the black music/white music binary in talk about American pop music and everything it erases. (It was great to learn that "Louie Louie" was actually based on a riff from a cha-cha sung by Ricky Martin's dad - I'm embarrassed not to have known before!)

What's more, and this made for an uncomfortable tension in the whole conference, it meant that the opening panel didn't succeed in framing the conference theme of "music, conflict and change." Of course the two subjects are related - any exploration of race/ethnicity, community and cultural history has to do with conflict and change - but there was a split throughout the program between the Latino/a-themed panels and papers and the ones squarely aimed at political-social content and context in music. There were a few points where they were juxtaposed, but it was a programming challenge that couldn't really be overcome.

Combine that with the fact that there were so many presentations this year - more than 160! - with four panels going on at once, most of the time, and it exacerbated a sense that there were several separate (albeit intersecting) conferences going on at once. While the inclusiveness is great, I still would prefer a somewhat smaller conference with less counterprogramming in the interest of what comes out of the conference, as a conversation that then continues in the days, months and years to come. When fewer conference-goers have heard the same papers, it's harder to have that conversation.

I don't want to come off as endorsing Christgau's "I miss the monoculture" proclamation (during his terrific John Mayer talk), but just as there is content to that sentiment, in yearning for a shared public culture that maybe never existed, I'd like the conference to combine its diversity with a strong sense of focus. (Which may mean that not all of the all-stars get to present every year - which might be a promotional obstacle but still seems the right road. That's what you call affirmative action, no?)

That said, I do think the "conflict and change" theme prompted people to sharpen up their arguments this year - there were more strong assertions and on-a-limb theories, along with the excellent research and analysis. For instance, in Jody Rosen's utterly ass-kicking talk on early 1900s vaudeville wild girl Eva Tanguay (which I hope becomes a book and a documentary and, hell, PBS series on vaudeville and the American experience), he didn't stop at asserting that she was the first-ever pop star (!) and that her all-but-forgotten influence can be traced in the styles and manners of female image-making and music-making alike well into the jazz age; he added that pop history has overlooked vaudeville's vital role in between minstrelsy and the age of recording, and that it's a distortion that needs to be addressed.

However, in my experience the stronger theses didn't lead to so many really lively, provocative Q&A; sessions - maybe because the schedule was so packed that people were thinking more about where they were headed next, and also felt run a bit ragged?

I won't go into all the other fine work I saw and heard, let alone all that I missed. (Do a Google blog search on "Emp Conference" and you'll find a nice set of reports.) But despite my (I hope constructive) criticisms, it was a great conference. As always, I can't wait for next year.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 20 at 11:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Bona valetudo melior est quam maximae divitiae

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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 16 at 7:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

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

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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.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 15 at 4:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

No Ordinary Love:
"Double Bill #1"

Posting has been sparse lately, partly due to life and partly due to scrambling to get my paper done for the EMP Pop Conference, which will be the subject of upcoming posts this weekend. Before I get Seattle-bound, I want to tell you about a beautifully Toronto-bound event that opens tonight (Wednesday, Apr 9) and runs until Saturday.

"Double Bill #1" is the yield of a "mash-up"-style concept from Dancemakers artistic director Michael Trent: he wants to reach out to other artists to create works in dialogue. Having seen last year's wonderful "Dance/Songs" piece (subject of past Zoilusian praise), Trent chose to invite Ame Henderson of the Public Recordings company as his first collaborator. The parameters they agreed on were simple: They would each create pieces that used the same people, from dancers to music, which would mean each choreographer's process would be bumping and grinding up against the other's.

The results, which I previewed at a dress rehearsal on Saturday before they moved it to Harbourfront's Premiere Dance Theatre, are superlative. I have to single out Ame's "It Was a Nice Party," which, like "Dance/Songs" (which took the skeleton of a rock-club show and draped it in a dance piece, with equal measures of wit, irony and reverence) and her Nuit Blanche piece (which involved large crowds of dancers emerging in and out of the margins of a Kensington Market park, dancing to music from hand-cranked portable radios), is a playful exercise in slow-motion revelation: If you pay attention, a seemingly arbitrary and cryptic set of behaviours is slowly unveiled as a self-conscious game.

( ... continues ...)

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that what the dancers are doing is "sampling" from the party scene of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in a series of algorithms that's almost an Oulipian set of themes-and-variations that you slowly decode. The byproduct, as Dancemakers dramaturge-in-residence Jacob Zimmer put it to me, is that out of the film scene, the company was able to generate quickly a fresh set of gestural vocabularies that are not at all "dance" vocabularies. (They also tried using a bank-robbing scene from The Thomas Crown Affair and a bird attack from The Birds but settled on the more cheerful-strange ambience of a party - which, bonus points, allowed some of them to pretend to be Marcello Mastrionni.)

Humour and energy spring out of this strategy, all the more so because Ame's preserved the unheimlich grammar of film in the choreography - the dancers keep suddenly dashing across the stage to keep pace with the cuts and crosscuts of film editing, too, so the typical dignity and smoothness (even in choreographed awkwardness) of dance is undercut by the frantic splicing and interruption to which reality is subjected by the camera.

In addition, the ensemble keeps the mood of the piece itself party-like - casual, companionable, conversational, giddy. At intervals, in personae somewhere between themselves and themselves-as-character, the dancers come to microphones at the corners of the stage, to explain what just happened and what's about to happen next: "We're going to do that again, only this time, Kate's going to be over there and I'm going to start here... okay?"

Both pieces are scored by The Reveries, a band I've toasted in the past as one of Toronto music's uncanniest combinations of silliness and sentiment, with their poker-faced techno-peasant routine of playing instruments that are amplified through cellphone speakers lodged in each other's mouths, while they slobberingly deliver the lyrics of love-song standards. The group features local improv luminaries Eric Chenaux, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli (plus, more recently, percussionist Jean Martin).

For "Double Bill" they presented the company with several CDs featuring dozens of songs they'd be capable of covering, ranging from jazz standards to Willie Nelson to Sade, and let the dancers choose over the course of rehearsal which songs to use. Then they provided recordings of covers of the selected songs as the final soundtrack, which gets played by the dancers from an on-stage boombox.

In both dances, but Ame's in particular, there's some aleatory space left after that, too, as the dancers can choose which Reveries selections to play during the show, which reinforces the party theme ("hey, what should I put on?" "no more Willie, I'm tired of Willie") but also severs dance from music and allows for recombinant effects - they might end up dancing frenetically to a slow ballad, or the song might end before the segment does and leave them dancing to silence. It all helps to free the dancers from what can in dance sometimes seem a slavish relationship between music and choreography - while the movies scene is dictating the motions, moments might fall anywhere on the beat, so it's a new dance every time.

The mood is also struck by the frantic effort that goes into following the movie's kinetic "score" - the dancers are constantly checking video monitors to see what action they should be imitating, so they have a split focus, which mirrors the audience's own effort to watch what's happening at the same time as puzzling out the embedded structure. Viewing it in the smaller rehearsal space, I was particularly conscious that I kept wanting to watch the movie on the monitors (even craning my head around to do it) instead of the real people in front of me - the same trouble one has, for example, carrying on a conversation in a bar while a TV is running in the corner over your friend's shoulder, or the way people you know in real life take on a kind of extra-reality in the microcelebrity of their Facebook pages and YouTube videos. In a way the dancers cannot compete with the film's aura, but their physical presence catches the viewer out in that guilty attraction, and reminds us of the satisfaction and complication the person-to-person encounter can offer. For instance, the dancers use their real names to refer to one another in dialogue, except that there are two Kates, so the second insists on being called "Magenta," after the colour of her dress, which is both an assertion ("I'm the girl in the magenta dress") and a surrender of identity.

Michael Trent's second half, "And the Rest," is a bit jarring after the revelation of the first, in that he turns the company back to a modern-dance physical vocabulary, and there's much less narrative drive. But on the other hand it's here that you get to see these dancers dance, again to the Reveries' wobbly ebbs and flows of song, and things get sexy in a much less ironic and more realistic (and thus more disturbing) way, as themes of dominance, submission and Bartleby-like abstention come into play.

My favourite section was one that went head-on at the sadomasochism of choreography itself, in which one dancer started giving instructions for moves to another and then got caught in a kind of deranged loop demonstrating the ridiculously strenuous motions that were required to fulfill her own orders, while the rest of the ensemble lazily ignored her. The orders she's barking ("put your wrists on your thighs, half-twist, sink to your knees, thrust three times, flutter your elbows twice") are of course exactly the kind that the choreographer must have used to make the whole piece - our pleasure rests on the mnemonic and physical labour of the artist-interpreters, our admiration of their seeming freedom resting on their terpsicordian bondage. The dress-rehearsal crowd laughed familiarly, but for those of us who aren't dance insiders, it was more of a moment in which the emperor stripped off his clothes to reveal that underneath, he was stitched up in a tight, rough corset. The work of the dancer, in those interludes, became its own subject, and its own reward.

In the program, Michael and (in his program notes) Jacob tell us that the piece is about tyranny and change: I wish only that they'd followed Ame's example and put more of those cards on the table in the piece itself. But that might just be that I'm a relatively inexperienced watcher of dance, and its pure physical abstraction (and perhaps its voyeurism) always make me crave more intellectual semaphore, more clues to the content within the form.

A real dance lover might find Ame's piece more frustrating because its whole mechanism stymies the flow of dance, blocking and undermining the performers' skills at each turn. I find that both funnier and more moving, seeming closer to daily life, but since I'd probably be unsympathetic to a similar argument about highly abstract music or painting, I'll offer that reaction with a grain of suspicious-tasting salt.

In any case, the pairing left me with plenty to smile over and think about and I wholeheartedly urge you to get down to Harbourfront to drink it in with your own eyes and ears. Also, check out The Reveries' new CD of Willie Nelson tunes, which was released this week.

Read More | Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 09 at 3:24 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Goodbye Excentrico (RIP Klaus Dinger)
And Other News


Neu! in 1974 playing an early version of Hero.

Although it happened more than a week ago (March 21), news is only reaching the internets today of the death of Klaus Dinger - early Kraftwerk drummer, core member of Neu! (shown above playing guitar, though he's best known for creating the "Motorik" beat as a drummer) and founder of La Dusseldorf. The influence of Dinger (whose brother and Neu!/Dusseldorf partner Thomas predeceased him in '02), from postpunk (see under PiL) to post-rock (Stereolab on out) to various branches of techno (minimal, ambient), would be hard to fully estimate.

In happier news, it seems that there's finally a concrete outcome for Canadians from the fact that Elvis Costello is semi-resident here (on Vancouver Island with spouse Diana Krall and baby twins Dexter and Frank): He's doing a series on CTV. It's a talk show of sorts, coproduced by Elton John (oddly enough - I'd never known the two El's, Declan and Reggie, were friendly), and seemingly partly inspired by El Cos's success guest-hosting the Letterman show in 2003. Titled "Spectacle" (subtitle: "Elvis Costello with ..."), it'll feature various guests, musical and otherwise, in actor's-studio-style indepth chat. No hints yet of who's on the guest list. From angry young man to genial chat-show host - I can think of worse fates.

As for me, the podcast of the Happy Ending Reading Series event I did in New York in January is now up on Radio Press (the promising new project of Toronto expatriate and former Anansi Books editor Martha Sharpe - to download, go up to the "your playlist" box and click download). And I can't resist mentioning that my book made #7 on Entertainment Weekly's "Must" List this week. Celine and I are sandwiched in between a Joan Crawford movie marathon and Horton Hears a Who, which somehow seems just right.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 02 at 1:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Au Claire de l'Histoire:
Recording History Revised

Music history, or at least the history of recording technology, is re-made today with the publication of Zoilus friend and ace anachronist Jody Rosen's A1 piece in The New York Times about the discovery of an 1860 "sound recording" that pre-dates the famous Edison "Mary Had a Little Lamb" side by decades.

The twist is that the "phonautogram" technology involved was a development in sound recording but not in sound reproduction, leaving our Benjaminesque paradigms in place. So history has been excitingly footnoted more than rewritten, I suppose.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating as an instance of how current technology is able to lend new meaning to past technology - it's an artifact that only gains significance now, when there's a way to translate it back into sound via digitization. I'm really curious what else is in the archive of what was done with phaunotogramophony. What parallel developments can we imagine with other dead-end retro-explorations if they were re-examined by current science? (I'm sure there must be hardcore-science equivalents, eg., revisiting naturalist observation of the 19th century with current software... scientists out there?) It's all very steampunk!

It does make me think of, for instance, Colin Nancarrow's work with player-piano rolls
or the digital reproduction of Glenn Gould performances on magical robot pianos.

On a personal note, I'm tickled that the piece of music in question, "Au claire de la lune" - and by the way, I suggest you listen to the later NYT mp3 example first, as it makes the 1860 one more comprehensible - is the one French songs all English-Canadians know from FSL classes (aside from "O Canada" en francais, I suppose, as well as "Frere Jacques" [pardon the lack of accents but they're a bitch to program at 2 a.m.] which everybody knows). Recorded music and bad French singing in Grade 9 share some DNA.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 27 at 12:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Sigh

From an email I got this afternoon (at random, I assume) from Atlanta-based BREAK magazine. It seems kind of worth repeating as a snapshot of the music-journalism game 2008.

My question: Is anyone actually getting $2500 to post an MP3?

"Since you are an avid supporter of BREAK, we would like to introduce to you first PUSHIN. To learn more about this exciting opportunity, I've attached a detailed media kit explaining more about this new venture. This is an innovative project and unprecedented on today's underground scene. The complete PUSHIN experience kicks off in April of this year. And don't say that I left you in the dark! This initiative is going down major and you should reserve your slot in the hottest new Indie rag on the streets today, and perform @ the PUSHIN Showcase/Launch Party, get featured in the PUSHIN Mix CD, and receive an MP3 PUSH for $400.00.

"Think about this: you pay XYZ publication $200-$300 for a feature, a showcase promoter $500-$1000 to perform, a mix CD promoter $300 for a feature, and an online promoter $125-$2500 for 1 MP3 Blast. On average that's about $2500.00! BREAK Media Group has proven that we can put together a scorching hot publication, produce scorching hot showcases, and put out fire hot email blasts! And now you can get all that and more for $400.00. Now who's really down for the independent artists PUSHIN to get a BREAK?

"Why be in the PUSHIN' section? Because the industry is watching! You will be featured in 2500, full color/full size glossy magazines that will be distributed throughout the nation, and your story will be blasted to over 60,000 industry contacts beginning in April. Through BREAK Magazine and PUSHIN, your story will be told the right way!"

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 21 at 4:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

A Compressed Thought

Jake's comment on that Deerhoof-and-silence/dynamics post from last week: "If everyone digs music with dynamic shifts, why do so few of us make it?"

He blames it, basically, on indiscipline and ego. But today it occurred to me that it might relate to the great debate about compression - both the kind of compression that shrinks songs down into mp3s and the kind that makes all the records on the radio go to 11, all the time. If most of the music people hear has its dynamics all squashed together, that becomes the kind of music they want to make. Or are at least afraid not to make, which may be the psychological dynamic Jake is observing.

And this seems as good a point as any to point to Carl the Impostume's two superb posts about Pere Ubu (one and two), who understood that if you wanted to make your guitars "sound like a nuclear destruction" you first had to get "a ticket to the sonic reduction."

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 17 at 5:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Three or Four Goats out of Five?


Centre, John Darnielle; right, Peter Hughes; lower middle, drummer Jon Wurster.
Rear, just nudging into the frame: that missing star from my Blender review.

My review of The Mountain Goats' Heretic Pride, written two months ago, is finally up on the Blender site. Magazine time takes time to get in tune with. Also, looking through this month's review section I decidedly feel like I underrated the record: nothing wrong with the writeup itself (well, one thing, which I'll get to) but it should have been four stars instead of three. This is one of the flaws of the starring system quite apart from the reductiveness and near-meaninglessness of it: Unless you're the editor and can compare how every writer is rating records, each of us are using a star system in our minds and that adds up to an incoherent syntax. For example, here's Xgau giving Ottawa's Kathleen Edwards a thanks-but-no-thanks review. Three stars. Meanwhile I had in mind more the question, "How does this record rank among Mountain Goats records?" because I assume that relative to most records, every TMGs record is a five-star record. I was thinking, "If Sunset Tree and Sweden are five-star TMGs records and maybe Get Lonely and Nine Black Poppies are four-star TMGs records, then maybe this and Nothing For Juice are three-star TMGs records."

I may have been "wrong" about that - it earns four stars relative to TMGs norms, I feel now (stars are all about mouth-feel, or the aural equivalent) - but not no-better-than-Pride-Tiger wrong.

On more substantive grounds, the following thoughts got left out or muddled by space squeeze: First, I wanted to say that fans might end up calling Heretic Pride "the drums record," unless touring and all the fan enthusiasm over "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" makes the next one even more of a drums record. Second, in the review I ended up saying, "The mixture of corrupters and corruptees helps Darnielle explore the nature of evil without losing his sense of humor." This is not quite what I meant. Rather, what helps him do that is the mixture of a psychological naturalism (albeit an expressionistic one) with imagery and characters from genres that either reject or don't bother with psychology (such as horror and fantasy). It's like Ibsen or Strindberg being directed by Roger Corman or Russ Meyer. Things that would be too overwhelming to face become approachable because they are situated "In the Craters on the Moon" (which I've lately come to consider less an Iraq song than a New Orleans song, though I know that it isn't "really" either one) or in a comic book or a pulp novel. (Even "San Bernadino" almost, almost, seems like it could be set in a Harlequin-style romance. "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident," on the other hand, doesn't allow any such outs; only its elliptical lyrical style prevents it from being unbearable.)

Finally, "succumb, willingly or not, to corruption" is an understatement of what happens in many of these songs. I hadn't been living with the record long enough when I wrote it to understand that the "heretic pride" of the title, as I and others have discussed before, has to do with characters throwing themselves willfully, sometimes almost gleefully, into the flames (in at least one song, literally so) - affirming their humanity, even if they can affirm nothing else.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 17 at 4:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Istvan Kantor's Transmission Machine:
Message (Redundantly) Received

Istvan Kantor was formerly known as Monty Cantsin, although of course he wasn't the only artist to use that Neoist multiple identity, just the only one who angrily claimed to be the "real" Monty Cantsin, which is a fine showcase of Kantor's persistent deafness to his own contradictions. I went to see his latest work, a showcase called Transmission Machine last night at the Theatre Centre in Toronto as part of the Free Fall performance-art festival, and I think my arm candy (as she likes me to call her) put it best when she said afterwards, "Why does the theatre of the oppressed always have to be so oppressive?"

[ continued after the jump ... ]

Kantor's got a reactor's worth of energy - constantly on the move except when doing a headstand on a long stainless-steel sink, burning off excess calories by trashing furniture seemingly at random. By any means necessary he'll make sure you can't ignore him, which explains why he's forever splattering his blood on valuable paintings in museums and galleries and, everywhere else, setting shit on fire. (His bio for Free Fall points out that he is probably the sole person ever simultaneously banned from the AGO and Sneaky Dee's.) As he must be in his mid-50s or so, the vigour is impressive, but all that drive is directed down the "shock art" dead end of masculinist modernism, with self-glorifying-martyr crap fully intact.

My favourite section of the show was the opening monologue, in which Kantor narrated his life story - that he came from Budapest, but before that he was a "monolith that was really a filing cabinet" (using a black cabinet on stage to illustrate this creation myth) as well as Wilhelm Reich and other historical figures - and reached the point of describing the past 60 years as an era of "mental gentrification" in which "broadcast imperialism" has forced all other elements of life to the margins in favour of the "shiny" - the remaking of reality on the model of the television screen, for example in the AGO's current renovation with a new titanium facade courtesy of Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst's $100-million diamond-encrusted skull.

And then Kantor went on a spree of very shiny fire-setting and giant-video-screen projections (okay, he does throw paint on the video screens at the end), with a crew of videographers and photographers following him around the stage documenting the performance and not inserting "broadcast imperialism" between us and him. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that this was intentional, which is generous considering what followed.

What followed was sound and fury and the fumes of burning gas, giving us three kinds of headaches, as Kantor tried to analogize broadcast imperialism and neighbourhood gentrification in Toronto, in speech and video (a hokey bunch of actors playing "developers" stalking Kantor's neighbourhood) and song (a ditty called "I love the stench"). He set himself up as a paragon of "the poor," falling into the usual but nevertheless irksome pattern of blithely equating the voluntary poverty of the artist with the unchosen poverty of poor people. And what's to be done? Well, "revolution," though by the time he's tangled his red flag (literally) around his head three or four times, you get that he knows the non-ness of this answer, but he sticks to it because it sounds exciting despite its void credibility (which you'd think someone from Budapest might have realized quicker). Along the way he elaborately, through video images, compared gentrification both to torture with electrification and, here it comes, to Nazi genocide. (Good ol' reductio ad Hitler, or Hitler ex machima if you prefer.)

The show ended with Kantor inviting members of the audience to come up on stage with him as "revolutionaries" and the others to make a "ratatat-tat" machine-gun sound, "executing" them. It was kinda fun, as goofy group-participation exercises are, even when they're a dispiriting wallow in futility.

That moment at least had some gentle conviviality to it, as opposed to the ego-on-performance-art-cliche-amphetamines of the previous hour. More than the shallow analysis, what's maddening is, given the anti-sociality of the problem he's addressing, the unexamined way in which he tries to attack it with more anti-sociality. Cute as the "stench" song was, praising the noise, pollution and violence poor people are forced to live with "because it keeps the developers away" is revolting, and it only keeps the developers away till there's a buck to be made - as is the case currently in Kantor's nabe of "dirty Bloor West," which is where the art galleries fleeing high rent on Queen West are about to relocate.

The real-estate regime - which Kantor, with 1980s-punk-zine panache, dubbed "the Rentagon" - goes unchecked because there's no public will to develop neighbourhoods any other way. Private interests are quite willing to bulldoze their way through social and architectural dysfunction, since that all makes land and buildings cheap enough to turn a tidy profit. Meanwhile government and political formations aggressively neglect those areas. The Rentagon would be undermined by efforts to bring healthy development to people and places that need it while preserving affordable housing (ideally owned by the residents) and services - efforts not sexy and politically profitable enough to be worth the bother.

By mirroring the black-and-white view that places and cultures must by nature be either unlivable shitholes or yuppie palisades in the rhetoric and symbolism of his show - it's either Hitler or revolution, it's either quiescence or red flags and fire and furniture-smashing - Kantor is just re-enacting the logic of gentrification, not to mention repeating 20th-century avant-gardism as farce.

That's always been my reaction to his stuff, but last night I at least appreciated some of his countervailing eccentric charm. It was much better when he was dancing around and singing a kooky, Cabaret-style song about the cities he lived in before "a beautiful prophetess" lured him to Toronto and the subsequent birth of his kids, or showing off his admirable upper-body strength and balancing skills doing headstands. Because when he tries out the acrobatics of thinking, Kantor just crashes jarringly onto the audience's last nerve.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 15 at 8:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Printably Yours

A nice press day for my book today, with an interview in The Onion AV Club (with its catty comments section) and a review on The Guardian's music blog.

Meanwhile in today's Globe, Robert Everett-Green and I handicap Canadian Music Week. (Some of my prose there is pretty hasty-wastey, but the choices themselves are more considered.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 06 at 1:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

'Hoof Has Seen the Wind:
On Deerhoof and Silences

I haven't had time/energy to see many live shows so far in '08, and wasn't especially regretting it. Aside from the head-detonating Veda Hille/The Fits/Tomboyfriend concert at the Gladstone a couple of weeks ago, and that Baby Dee snowstorm-night jamboree a couple of weeks before that, there hasn't been much to motivate me to drag my sorry ass out into this sorry, ass-dragging winter when I could be having lambchops and wine and reading or whatevering in my apartment. Thus I was millimetres away from skipping tonight's Deerhoof spectacle at the Phoenix, as part of the opening-night showcase of Canadian Music Week, even though I deeply love the band and had never (shocking admission) seen them, no doubt due to similarly short-sighted past decisions. That mistake was averted thanks to Jonny Dovercourt staring at me in disbelief earlier this evening when I mentioned that I was feeling too tired to go. Ah, good old shame!

You already know this, no doubt, but Deerhoof is the kind of band that makes you wonder how you ever felt going to see live music could be a chore. It's not just the three-rock-dudes-and-one-diminutive-pixie-singer dynamic; or bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki's theatricality (her stillness which explodes into thrashing, her secret semaphore-mime coded hand signals, the deadpan affect that makes her cooing, chirping voice seem to be piped in from Erewhon); or the extraordinary musicianship of the whole ensemble (especially the Keith Moon-meets-Han Bennink drumming of Greg Saunier); or the way that somehow '80s Tokyo noise-rock, jazz-exotica, prog, post-punk, mod 60s garage, no-wave, J-pop, Bartok, Zorn, Braxton and sugar-cereal commercial jingles all seem to soul-kiss in their music. It's not the catchiness of a music that plots in so many ways against catchiness. It's not even the light show, which consisted of a large light-emitting spinning propeller and a series of garbage-can-lids-on-light-stands that all together seemed (can this be right?) to be a sound visualizer, triggered by the peaks and valleys and frequencies of the music, like a multipart mechanical oscilloscope.

No, it's those peaks and valleys themselves, and most especially the deep valleys - that is, the silences, pauses, dead stops, 180-degree turns. It's the silences, I think, that account for the accessibility and memorability of a music so complicated as Deerhoof's, with its multiple time signatures, generic shifts, surprising dynamics and modal melodic meanderings. While stubbornly refusing to "add up" to a standard rock song, Deerhoof music respects the fact that the ear is apt to be overloaded and overcrowded by what they do, and so they build in rest stops that almost magically boost the listener's capacity to take all the content in. And at the same time of course all the stops and silences act as a tease, building anticipation so that when the music comes, it seems to gush back in a rush, a sexual release (albeit an animated-cartoon sexual release in Deerhoof's case). It's not just a gimmick they use here and there - Deerhoof plays silences all the friggin' time, as much a building block of their sound as Saunier's bruising kick drum or Matsuzaki's trilling coo. It's the simplest answer (though of course there is no simple answer) to the question that hearing this group inevitably raises: Why can't more bands do this? Why can't live music always be this transporting? Because too few musicians realize that they are architects.

The live rock bands that have had a similar effect on me psycho-somatically, that feeling of out-of-body transport and transcendence, by the way, all share Deerhoof's propensity for stop-start dynamics: the Pixies way back in their first incarnation, 1980s and 1990s-era Pere Ubu (not, at least the last time I saw them, the current version), The Ex, the Dogfaced Hermans, God Is My Copilot, Fugazi and even Bruce Springsteen. (For an easy example, think about "Rosalita.") In other genres - because, for example, of syncopation - that stop-start space is effectively built into the rhythms and polyrhythms - what is funk but a stop-start beat layered over a stop-start? There's "the 1" and then there's not the 1. I'll stop speculating before my musicological limits become apparent, but I'll extend the question psychologically and philosophically: Why, in noisy music, do separations and silences become so important? There's the need I already raised for suspense and release, for contrast, for relief from outbursts of ecstasy, but in some ways loud-quiet-loud forms, way over-used since Nirvana, serve those purposes.

My guess is that the power of silence also has to do with the character of consciousness and experience. Consciousness is not a continuous process, but a chain of discrete moments forever vanishing before we can get hold of them - in a sense, of experiences slipping away before they are truly experienced. It's always now, and now and now and now, and as the bulk of Eastern thought and religion informs us, one of the basic dilemmas of life is that we seldom feel "in" that now: its elusiveness is its essence. It doesn't disappear by dwindling away, by cresting and falling, but always all of a sudden: This instant, this second, this hour, this day is "now" but in the time it takes to note that fact, the instant is now "then." As a survival mechanism, our minds create a continuity out of it, the way our optical processes narrate the discrete frames of cinema, stillness becoming an illusion of movement, but this is a constant, perhaps exhausting subconscious effort. Experience is as much made of total breaks, of gaps and aporias, as it is of content. Music, like (almost) all art, takes the chaos of experience and makes something more coherent of it because it has form - even the most abstract art has greater structure than the experience of consciousness. (Although it also might have more freedom than social experience, with its daily routines, etc. - a combination that helps account for its pleasure.) So perhaps this meta-genre of "stop-start" art feels especially elevating because it returns the fragmented experience of life to us, magnified and exaggerated, so that what feels day to day as a frustrating limitation of the mind can be transformed into a hosannah of glorious affirmation: "Praise be to the gap, to the disappearance and reappearance of the moment! What a miracle that time annihilates itself, because, behold, it also spontaneously regenerates in the very moment of its demise! What a happy universe in which a black hole becomes a big bang every instant! Let us observe it in slow-motion replay, and dance!"

And the delightful paradox is the way that the sudden stops and gaps superficially make everything feel more chaotic, but in fact are a rigid form of organization: You're hearing a song that consists of six different emotional tones, time-signatures and practically six whole different genres, and it seems like the silences are the knife-blade shredding them in an indifferent blender, but then you're flabbergasted to realize that these silences keep coming in the exact same place in the sequence, on the seventh beat of a thirteen-beat pattern, and this means that the musicians are marching in military discipline, their minds having to be synched to all these subtle patterns and kicking in formation like a can-can line, at the same time as the music is evoking the most interior experience of existential disjunct. As great music always does, they're taking privacy and making it social again.

So, er, way to go, Deerhoof.

By the time I got to the Phoenix (hey, mediocre venue, but aptly named!), I'd missed the first few bands (including intriguing locals ">Ten Kens, who've managed to elude most music writers' tracking systems till now, though they've been gaming world conquest in their lair awhile and their record, as Zoilus readers might like to know, was produced by Colin Stewart, who's helmed the board for among others Destroyer's This Night and Veda Hille). But I did see much-blogzzed-about (and, to be fair, New-Yorkerzzed about) L.A. duo No Age, who were affable kids with great energy and occasional songs. At their best, they're part of the current Jesus & Mary Chain revival but without the po'face, as if the Jesus & Mary Chain had been part of the Gilman Street punk scene in San Francisco - indeed, with youthy yelly exuberance such that I could almost imagine them as misplaced Torontopians, or more specifically drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt as Matt Collins from Ninja High School. I liked the way Spunt played riffs on his drums rather than just beats, and the way those riffs interacted with Randy Randall's tidier-than-they-seemed guitar figures, and the way they deploy electronics almost as a subversive stealth agent, and the way they sound even live like you're hearing them on a low-bandwith YouTube video, and the way occasionally that all added up, with the yelling, to an anthemic feeling. I like them best when they yell together so that what felt like bratty mischief suddenly seems like a conspiracy. But they'd go down a lot better at their home base at The Smell in L.A., or any cramped intimate room, with an audience of friends, than they did shouting "how are you feeling, Toronto?" on a slushy March night in the oversized pickup-joint that is the Phoenix with an audience of winter-weary Toronto Deerhoof fans and CMW takin'-care-of-businessers who spent their set wondering why they bother to come to see live music.

And No Age might sound a lot better if they found out that little secret about silence.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 06 at 2:08 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Encore un verre, une cigarette...

Birkin.jpg

Jane Birkin played Toronto for the first time ever on Monday night and I reviewed it in today's paper. The headline makes it sound like I dislike Birkin's voice, which isn't true. I actually think it's very pretty, just not very strong.

Plenty of other things to get to soon.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 27 at 4:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

'Blasting open an escape hatch
to flee a culture we despised':
RIP Jim Jones, 1950-2008

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February's such a bitch.

As a member of Pere Ubu from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Jim Jones played the guitar like a magnifying glass: when he bore down on a riff, it seemed to expand and expand as he zeroed in, to grow bigger and hotter - though not necessarily louder - until it climaxed in a burst of flame. Jones's first band in the 70s Cleveland scene was the Mirrors, later the Styrenes, and he also played with ex-Ubu members in the excellent Home & Garden and his own band the Easter Monkeys, as well as serving the music world as a record clerk, Ubu roadie and studio engineer.

He died at home of a heart attack on Monday, after a decade or so of health problems. The Cleveland Scene has a touching remembrance of Jones as a musician and friend, and here is a 1996 interview with Jones by John Eric Smith.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 20 at 2:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

When We Talk About ...

Since I haven't mentioned it for awhile, I'll quickly remind you of my other site, which keeps track of reviews, readings, interviews and online talk about my book (see left). Among new items there: I'm reading as part of the Box Salon at the Rivoli in Toronto on Thursday night, and there are new reviews and interviews by Alex Ross, the Chicago Sun-Times's Jim Emerson, Crawdaddy magazine and The Washington Post's "Express" edition. (An interview in the Onion's AV Club should be going up later this week, too.) Links all up on the other blog.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 19 at 7:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Passages: Robbe-Grillet, Val Ross

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The music has gradually faded and here and there a word can be heard emerging from a chance phrase, such as: ... "unbelievable" ... "murder" .... "actor" .... "lying" ... "had to" ..."you're not" ... "it was a long time ago"... "tomorrow."
- L'annee derniere a Marienbad

I've been so distracted by the Castro story that I forgot until mid-afternoon about seeing a note on the CNN crawl late last night that Alain Robbe-Grillet had died. Today, Robbe-Grillet is obituarized by a Guardian obituarist who is himself already dead. (Look at the note at the end.) This seems incredibly fitting; it lends an extra layer of distance, a sense of objectivity. Le nouvel roman est mort, vive le nouvel roman. (Later: Ugh, nouveau roman, I shoulda said.)

As well, I want to note the death over the weekend of my colleague at The Globe and Mail, Val Ross, best known as the paper's reporter on literature and publishing in the '80s and '90s, and generally as a culture writer. Val had an extraordinary vitality, sharpness and humour, and a deep commitment to Canadian culture that will be missed at the paper. More personally, I will remember her as the most encouraging and enthusiastic person I met when I arrived at The Globe, someone who never failed to comment on one's latest article, who radiated warm fellow-feeling and an appreciation not only for culture and thought but for plain existence. At 57, she leaves us much too soon, but even my small acquaintance with her assures me those were 57 years fully lived, and that is a lesson to remember.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 19 at 4:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

May the Most Uncanny Candidate Win

In the belief that all real political struggles are finally settled in the imaginary, Zoilus's dear friend, Toronto author Sheila Heti, has put up two blogs to gather the subconscious droppings of the current Democratic nomination contest: I Dream of Hillary and I Dream of Barack, where she is posting submitted dreams about the two frontrunners. To my surprise, given which one is running more as the "dream candidate," thus far Hillary is ahead 14 dreams to 11. What does this augur? Perhaps that the Clintons have insinuated themselves further into our collective repressed desires, having had a longer linger, even among those who consciously support the fresher face? Will this mean many compulsive Freudian slips of the lever/pencil/chad/touch-screen in upcoming primaries, as people walk dazedly out of the confessional voting booth thinking, "Wow, I really thought I meant to vote Obama?"

Barack supporters are encouraged to put dream journals by their bedsides and even up the score.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 18 at 9:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Goodnight, Willie P

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Now we would all like to close our eyes
And lick the snow as it goes by
Feel it in our faces, hold a hand full of aces
And be the winner when it comes time for us to die

- "Me and Molly," by Willie P Bennett, 1951-2008

I was shocked and saddened to read the news tonight that Willie P. Bennett has passed away at the much too early age of 56. Bennett was a beloved mainstay of the Canadian folk-music circuit - I first saw him in festivals like Hamilton's Festival of Friends when I was a teenager - and a respected songwriter, paid frequent tribute by his peers, notably by the group Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (named for one of the Bennett songs they covered), but many others as well. I most often got to see Bennett play guitar and harmonica as a member of Fred Eaglesmith's band, where he was always a dynamic but (in contrast to the frontman's brash energy) modest presence. Bennett suffered a heart attack last year, and despite many optimistic predictions for his full recovery, it apparently wasn't to be. Those who want to write to his family can find addresses on Bennett's website. My deepest sympathies and best wishes to the people coping with this very sad loss.

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, February 17 at 11:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Clearly I've fucked up:
Vampire Weekend, Will.i.am/Reich

Seems if I wanted to write a book about why people like the music they like and dislike the music they dislike (as my spiel goes), I should have waited a year and written a book about Vampire Weekend. Christgau's take is of course worth reading, though less for its dissection of the sloppiness of writers' Afro-pop references (not to mention the band's own), though that's a point well taken, than for its argument that what V.W. and African music have in common is that they'll be "a hard sell to the young" because the music sounds too happy for young people to take seriously. (For happy, read cheesy and for cheesy read sentimental and for sentimental, read chapter 10 of my book, "Let's Do a Punk Cover of 'My Heart Will Go On,' or, Let's Talk About Our Feelings.") (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Still, I can't help continuing to feel that cheerful songs set at cottages in Cape Cod and cheerful songs set in African shantytowns will have significant divergences of affect however much they intersect. Which raises an envy factor that is perhaps underdiscussed as an aspect of musical reception?

(Meanwhile, "Media Guy" at Advertising Age comes at Vampire Weekend this way: "In certain circles these days, liking or hating is less and less about liking or hating a specific phenomenon (e.g., a band or a movie or a politician) but about whether or not you like or hate the people who like or hate that phenomenon." Again, this is the subject of much of the book, with the caveat that it's much more common than "in certain circles" and has a lot longer legs than "these days.")

Xgau also points to an excellent post by Eric at Marathonpacks, who questions whether what V.W. is referencing is in fact African music at all, but rather western pop that's influenced by Afropop, eg Graceland of course and "Peter Gabriel, too," which for people V.W.'s age and presumed demographic would be music they associate with their parents back when said parents were yuppies. Where I part company with Eric is at his suggestion that the reference is therefore hostile/critical - if V.W. don't realize Graceland is a few floors above them in the tower of song, they're kidding themselves - but I certainly agree that V.W. knows what issues their "appropriations" raises and is doing it on purpose, with all the Louis Vuitton-reggaeton-Bennetton-PeterGabrieltoo verbiage. Whether they're doing it with all that much purpose is a question I'll take more slowly, and would prefer to think about with a more fully baked album than the one they've put out. By which time, if these little omnivores are as smart as they seem to be (but no smarter), V.W. will probably have moved onto something else.

V.W. is playing in Toronto tonight, but as I'll be busy at the door at Trampoline Hall, I can't make it, unfortunately - I'd like to see how they come across.

I was going to write here last week about the "Yes We Can" song/video, which knocked me out when I first listened to it, and its connections with speech-based composition in other genres, notably the work of Steve Reich, but John took care of that. I'd only add that Reich's use of this technique goes back further than Different Trains, to It's Gonna Rain, and give you a little visual aid: This is part of an ITV documentary about Reich. The section about It's Gonna Rain (an obvious influence on work like Byrne & Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [heh, speaking of cultural appropriation...]) begins around 2:20. Btw, I have agonized over how to make use of the stupid portmanteau "Will.i.am Reich" but came up dry so I just put it in the headline. Me not soon join staff of Teh Onionz.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 11 at 5:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Dis-concerted: Live Notes -
Keren Ann, Dean and Britta, Baby Dee

Ever mystified by the capricious ways of the Mod Club, I took the 7 pm door time as a signal that 8 would be an opportune time to arrive to catch the beginning of the music at tonight's Keren Ann/Dean and Britta show; further, I had the impression from publicity that Keren Ann was headlining, as counterintuitive as that seemed. Wrong on both counts, and as a result, I only caught the last 20 minutes or so of Keren Ann's set. I was taken with her first album Not Going Anywhere a few years ago (especially its gossamer title single) but time has thickened the delicate-wisp-strands into more mundanely conventional folk-pop. The bigger surprise was Dean and Britta - I've long responded to Dean Wareham's venerable indie-stitution Luna with a benign neglect, since Damon and Naomi got custody of me in the Galaxie 500 split, but it seems I've been missing out on the straightforward appeal of Wareham's songwriting, an understated channelling of VU-via-Yo La Tengo that results in a lot of catchy, atmospheric, memorable tunes. They're strong on texture, which explains the partisanship of shoegaze/Britpop fans to Luna's stuff - another reason I haven't paid attention, as that's pretty much the last descriptor you could affix to me, but the texture in this case is just ornamentation on solid frames, not gauzey camouflage. It's an uncomplicated pleasure, but the music hit the emotional spot. Britta Phillips is only a passable singer, or at least her voice isn't always flattered by the range in which Wareham's talk-sung verses are pitched, but she's quite a fine bass player, and, well, on stage she has other compensatory charms. So sue me, I'm a fan of watching good-looking married couples sing love songs together. It's sexy. It's romantic. It's better than watching brothers and sisters do the same. (In the ancient iconic struggle between Sonny & Cher and Donny & Marie, I've made my alliance, even though, ok, nothing involving Sonny Bono can be described as "sexy.") In any case, fine set and it seems I have some Luna/D&B; to catch up on - anyone want to send me a mix?

On Wednesday, a much greater revelation hit Toronto, but not many showed up at the Drake Underground to receive it thanks to the avalanche of snow that was falling on the city at the time. I was sceptical of Baby Dee at first - the typical descriptors - "transgender," "performance artist," "cabaret" etc - suggested the '80s-bound "transgressive" cultural location that put me off about her friends Antony and the Johnsons (don't get me wrong, Antony's voice is miraculous, but I only like him when he's singing other people's songs) and the "Cleveland street artist" and "Coney Island freak show" and "produced by Will Oldham" and "with guest Andrew W.K." elements had me wondering if this was a case of "outsider-music" being half-consciously condescended to by its patrons. But praise from some Cleveland-area friends and a listen to the songs at her MySpace made me switch off my cynicism - she has a unique entrancing voice, and it's hard for me to resist a harp player - and by the end of her set at the Drake, I was a convert. The sound mix when she was on piano, as she was for much of the show, combined with her extremely capable band (John Contreras [Current 93] on cello, Alex Neilson on drums, guitarist Emmett Kelly [The Cairo Gang] and Palace brother Paul Oldham on bass), sometimes buried her voice, so my favourite moments were those on harp - she's completely competent but also the only harpist I've ever seen who treats it a bit like a punk rocker playing an acoustic guitar, frequently thumping the lower strings with the palm of her hand for a discordant thunder-rumble. (Which makes sense when you find out that her initial bond for the harp was based on falling in love with the harp-like guts of a smashed-up piano.) Her performance was ecstatic and generously embracing, an enormous affirmation of personality and comfortable eccentricity, middle-aged self-acceptance writ very physically and soulfully large, an utter rebuke to bitterness and reticence. Which would all be very self-helpish if the songs weren't so intelligent, tuneful and surprising, autobiographically daring ( a lot of family-unromance is present in a blunt tone that recalls Xiu Xiu's they-fuck-you-up-your-mom-and-dad gestures) - and anachronistic in a chosen, musically literate way that bespeaks unhesitatingly distinct personal curiosities and taste. And how can one not melt over a merch table where you can buy official Baby Dee bird calls (see picture), little wooden nubs with a steel screw inside that produces chirping out of adversity, and that come with a little capsule of rosin to keep them squeaking true?

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, February 10 at 12:33 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

4 Quickies for Possible Later Expansion

1. If you are a Wire fan, then this series on the Freakonomics blog ("What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?") is amazing reading. It's written by Sudhir Venkatesh, who does a kind of old-fashioned street sociology that is as much journalism as scholarship. The structure: Venkatesh watches each episode with a group of "New York-area gang personnel," and records their reactions, comments and predictions for future plot twists. As someone says in the comments section (which, warning, may include spoilers), these conversations should be included as bonuses on the next The Wire DVD. But they also model a bold new form of reflexive criticism, albeit with its own potential pitfalls to be sure.

2. The new Veda Hille record, This Riot Life, is not only very likely the greatest record she's ever made, it's one of the most wonderful (and I mean that very literally - "awesome" in the Biblical sense would do, too) records you'll hear this year, and there are a lot of wonderful records coming out this year.

3. Why the hell not? Go, Celine, go. (PS: Neil Young is "adult alternative" now? Wha'a?) (PS to confused Canada-philic Americans: The reason the best-int'l-album nomination list, including a Josh Groban Xmas album, looks like it's determined by Soundscan figures is that that's literally how it's determined.)

4. Anyone know what this "Kubilee" thing is all about?

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 05 at 6:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

Marginalia: And the Award Goes to ...

Okay, I have to break my embargo on public Heretic Pride discussion (see last post) to mention this lyric from my second-favourite song on the album, "Autoclave," with which I am now officially obsessed, having completed a week of fixation on my first-favorite, "San Bernardino." Besides its nice bouncy music and possibly-literally-lethal chorus ("I am this great, unstable mass of blood and foam/ And no emotion that's worth having could call my heart its home/ My heart's an autoclave"), it has to be given a special citation for Greatest Ever Appropriation of a Line from a TV Show Theme Song. This is a song that begins with the words, "Hand me your hand, let me look in your eyes/ As my last chance to feel human begins to vaporize," and by the third verse it gets here:

I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls
On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls.
And the dream went on forever, one single static frame ...
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

I always felt that having to spend every day at that bar in Cheers would be sort of a living Hades. Yes, Shelley Long would be there, but she'd just want to be friends. And everyone else in the room would be eternally intolerable, especially good ol' normative Norm - no one you can call "good old x" can really be good. Satan himself is "Good old Nick," no? (Not to be confused with his also-red-clad, anagrammatic xmassin' cousin Nicholas.)

The question is whether anyone is truly as toxic as the character in this song portrays himself - it seems like we all know people whose hearts seem built with the pressure and heat to destroy all viable life, but the first-person point-of-view here supports my suspicion that very often it's due to a reverse paranoia: It's their own suspicion and fear that they are irredeemably corrupt that makes them so poisonous. This song is sung by someone at a crossroads, wavering between fighting that feeling and giving in and embracing a nihilistic identity - letting himself become a regular on the barstools of the damned.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, February 01 at 4:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

John Darnielle, Master of Reality
and 33 1/3's Publishing-Heretics' Pride

I see that the 33 1/3 posse is following the same template for the upcoming book in the series by John Darnielle (Mr. Mountain Goats, of course) as they did for my book: offering a section as a PDF to anyone who emails sabbathsampler@yahoo.com, to whet potential readers' appetites. It doesn't seem as necessary - I don't think there's any remaining music-geek stigma against Black Sabbath, and there are surely thousands of fans, like me, who're going to read any book John puts out with a devouring hunger - but I'm happy to see that what I fear will come to be called "the Paulo Coelho strategy", and hope will instead be called "the Cory Doctorow technique" is becoming a 33 1/3 trademark. I won't bother arguing the long-tail, copyright-sceptic, etc., etc., reasons why, but I will mention that I felt a mite nervous when we were doing it and in retrospect feel it inarguably helped prepare the ground for the book's mostly good reception. Authors, be ye not faint of heart.

In the case of John D's Master of Reality, though, the offer should come with a doctor's warning that if you read a couple of chapters and can't keep going, the suspense may actually kill you. I got the chance to read it last week, and it's as marvellous as expected - a two-part novella basically about a teenager who's confined to a mental-health facility (the kind Darnielle worked in as a psychiatric nurse before becoming a full-time musician) and has all his music confiscated. The narrative consists partly of an extended, often profane, sometimes insightful, sometimes goofy-stupid argument the kid makes in letters to his psychiatric nurse, explaining how much more crucial his Black Sabbath tapes are to his sanity than any treatment the adults can offer. What sounds at first like merely a clever framework for a critic to indulge in extended ruminations on Black Sabbath becomes a meditation on the role of music in our lives, why "bad" (angry, crude, ridiculous, hateful) music can be good (healing, comforting, enlightening) for you, institutional disrespect of troubled youth, growing up, and survival. It could easily travel under the same banner as the latest Mountain Goats album, Heretic Pride, as Darnielle's admiration for his character's individualist defiance - even when it goes too far, even when said defiance actually may be very, very, very much not in his own long-term best interest - shines through the story. (Besides busyness, the reason I haven't written about Heretic Pride here yet is that I've reviewed it for Blender. I'll expand on those brief thoughts after they're published.)

My optimistic suspicion is that Master of Reality is going to become a cult young-adult novel for sensitively bad-ass high-school students, a new S.E. Hinton kinda phenom, if it can get the right kind of circulation. It's due out April 15.

Meanwhile, if you need some more 33 1/3-octaned fuel for your music-book-reading brain: I've just started the Throbbing Gristle book by Drew Daniel (of Matmos), which is as sparkly and spunky so far as anyone who's ever met or read Drew would guess. Further notes on it when I get further in, but so far: "industrial" culture, photos taken of dismembered horses as a form of teenage kicks, and the perverse allure of anti-pleasure.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, February 01 at 1:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

The Rest is ... Poise

Did you check Alex Ross on Colbert last night? Some fine representin' for the music-geek massive - I was surprised the conversation worked as well as it did, and it actually ended up being an aesthetic argument: Colbert playing the card that music means nothing to history (ie the autonomy of art) and Alex proving that it does, describing Shostakovich and Stalin's relationship and Reagan's history-blind use of Copland-ripoff music for "Morning in America," eg, though I kinda wish he'd hit the McCarthy theme with Copland, not to mention Eisler and Brecht... Just because it would've tweaked Colbert nicely. ... I do wonder, though, on a not-unrelated theme (music and ideology) how Alex feels about appearing on the show during the writers' strike? That's not a dig, because last week in NYC some friends were urging me to shoot for a Colbert appearance (this being the ilk of fantasies you can indulge in NYC), a conversation I couldn't quite imagine but did feel a little shiver in picturing, but then realized, mid-shiver, "What about the union issue?" (And surely for writers a writers' union issue especially counts.) I found the question painful to answer: It would be so tempting to get the book that level of exposure, and it's not like the interview segments are so scripted even under normal circumstances; but if there's a picket line there, I'd have a hard time crossing it.

Alex's new piece about Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood is excellent and reminds me that I'd wanted to mention that experience here after seeing the movie: Not only is the score quite extraordinary in its own right, as Alex says, but it was the first thing almost ever to turn me around several degrees on Radiohead. I've been so fixated over the years on Thom Yorke's voice and songwriting, neither of which click for me, that I missed a whole other aspect of the band's essence. I happened to listen to In Rainbows for the first time only after seeing the film (shocking Internet music guy omission, whatever) and could hear them anew, listening for how the guitarist's musical intuitions might resemble Ennio Morricone levels of smarts as opposed to how far short of a million post-Kraftwerk artists Yorke falls in portraying man-vs-technology themes (and vocally short of anybody similarly lauded in his tonal range from Jimmy Scott to Klaus Nomi to Antony). So count me at last as a partial convert.

In a footnote, mutual-backrubbing thanks to Alex for the shoutout the other day.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 31 at 1:50 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Did Obama Really Touch My Book?
Ask Me in NYC

obamamini.jpg
'If you truly have vision, you can look to the future and see... the end of taste?'
Obama-Wilson rumour mongering hit Facebook this weekend.

This was too weird and funny not to share: I was informed this weekend by a dubiously reliable source, that my book was leafed through briefly on the campaign bus last week by Barack Obama, who made some joke to the effect that it sounded like I felt about Celine the same way he feels about Hillary. It was the Celine/Hillary connection that prompted him to pick it up in the first place, after a campaign volunteer (the guy who told me the story) left it lying around on the bus.

So there. Obviously I'm the future of America. If this guy isn't bullshitting me. And I have two readings in New York this week:

Tuesday Jan 22, 7:30 pm
Word bookstore, 126 Franklin St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This will probably be the more intimate-ish one. Unless word gets out about the free beer. (I'm not kidding.)

Wed, Jan 23, 8 pm (doors 7 pm)
Happy Ending Music and Reading Series.
Hosted by Amanda Stern. With Trinie Dalton (who comes recommended by Dennis Cooper, Aimee Bender and Ben Marcus) and Charles Bock (whose new novel Beautiful Children is endorsed by A. M. Homes and Jonathan Safran Foer) and me (whose book was maybe, possibly, briefly thumbed by Barack Obama). In addition to reading, each of us have to take some kind of "public risk" - doing something we've never done on stage before. (I've figured mine out. I'm nervous.) With music by Luke Temple. It's at 302 Broome St., between Forsythe and Eldridge, in Manhattan. It's highly recommended that you get there early ... apparently the place fills up fast.

Bloggery will be sparse to non till my return next weekend.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, January 21 at 1:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Mirror, Mirror, on the Blogspot,
Tell Me What Reviews I Got

Yes, there's been lots of action this week, what with the posting of the Eye and Idolator polls, but I've been a bit too crazed to comment. Perhaps over the weekend. For now, just a point of information. I've created a new separate site to keep track of events, reviews, interviews and such around the book (what book? look to your left), so that I don't clutter up Zoilus too much with such things. If you're curious about the adventures of me, or still on the fence about reading (or selling, if you happen to be a bookshop) the book, tom-cruise your way over to This Is What We Talk About (When We Talk About Let's Talk About Love) and click your finger off. I'll probably mention upcoming readings here too (such as the two next week in New York) but that'll be the main info hub.

(Later): Btw, The Globe and Mail had a review this weekend (link up on the blogspot but not here as I feel like the review gives a little too much away for people who haven't read the book yet). And Brian Joseph Davis, who DJ'd the launch offers this free download of a track he created for the event that mashes up Celine with Dutch anarcho-punk masters The Ex. He calls it "Celine as a Montreal crusty punk."

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 18 at 5:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Book-Launch Memories: The Power of The Power of Love

A video of Final Fantasy's performance of Celine Dion's "The Power of Love" at my book launch last Wednesday surfaced on YouTube over the weekend. (If someone has video of the other performers out there, please let me know.) Too bad about the laughing, but that's entirely predictable of course. (See discussion of the "ironic cover" in my book - though this is by no means one, that's what people are trained to expect.) By the second half, ain't nobody laughing.

And here's a first-person account of the event. One small note: I actually said Louis Armstrong, not Ray Charles, as an example of someone whose ability to transcend taste categories seems unquestionable. I'll avoid reading too much into the switch-up: Ray does fine as an example.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 15 at 5:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

News from Nairobi: Extra Golden Need Your Gold

At the IAJE panel on Friday, there was some discussion of the wisdom-or-lack-thereof involved in mixing opinions on current affairs into music blogging - with the general sense being that unless you bring something unique to the topic, it's unwise. The example that came up was commenting on the unrest in Kenya - no reason why some random music writer should start throwing his two bits into that well, we said. So it's kind of ironic that five days later, I actually find myself having cause to bring up Kenya.

The reason is an appeal for help from Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson, the American members of Extra Golden, on behalf of Opiyo Bilongo, Onyango Wuod Omari and Onyango Jagwasi, their bandmates who live in Kenya. Bilongo, Omari and Jagwasi make their livings as nightclub musicians in Nairobi, but with the current all-night curfews, they've been unable to work. They've also been forced from their homes, which have been looted. Their families have almost no food and no clean water. Minoff and Eagleson are asking for donations of $5 to service@kanyokanyo.com via Paypal.

Extra Golden's mixture of Kenyan benga music (the Kenyan musicians are from a group called Orchestra Extra Solar Africa) with D.C. rock (Minoff is also a member of Weird War, while Eagleson is an ethnomusicologist) goes down beautifully, with much more richness than the African-rock pastiche efforts of certain fashionable bands. Nothing against pastiche, or even against those bands particularly, but it's heartening to hear a more intimately collaborative approach to third-world musics.

Their current predicament is, like many of the stories out of New Orleans in the past few years, a potent reminder that whenever crisis affects a population broadly, you can be sure that it's affecting the art and culture of those people as well; and that, conversely, it's vital not to reduce any place and people to its problems. As Henning Mankell told me for the profile I wrote last year, "the West knows all about how Africans die but next to nothing about how Africans live," from their daily working lives to the nightclubs and dances they attend - except, that is, when there's a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

On a tangent, recalling the Tinariwen discussion here in November, it was at their concert that I learned about the Festival au Desert, which took place in Timbuktu last weekend. My colleague Stephanie Nolen's report from Mali in The Globe and Mail, which follows the experience of a group of Inuit performers there, is very worthwhile.

Likewise, the promo video below for Extra Golden's latest album, Hera Ma Nono, which came out in October.


General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 15 at 1:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Jazz Bloggers at the IAJE:
There's No Arguing With Darcy James


Darcy James Argue's Secret Society North at the IAJE: Photo shoplifted from WBGO.

My busy week (see below) unfortunately coincided with the big IAJE jazz educators (and musicians and labels and critics and promoters - the name's deceptive) conference in Toronto, so I wasn't able to attend much of the proceedings, which included the likes of Courtney Pine curating a UK jazz night, an appearance by Francois Houle, a big Oscar Peterson tribute show this afternoon, etc. (You can catch up on some of it at Ear of the Mind.) But I was booked for one event, a panel on jazz blogging moderated by Chicago's Neil Tesser (Listen Here) and featuring Brooklyn's (but formerly Canada's) Darcy James Argue (Secret Society), Montreal's David Ryshpan (Settled in Shipping), New York's David Adler (Lerterland) and me. (Jason Crane (The Jazz Session) had to back out as he had been transferred rather suddenly from Rochester, NY, to Saratoga Springs, NY, by the union he works for, and he was moving.)

The tone of the panel was a little bumpy because Neil didn't know much about blogs and presented himself as a sceptic - going so far as to read a scoffing article from The Onion (gosh, The Onion... remember?) - and came at it rather heavily from a "don't blogs suck and does anybody actually read them?" pov. He said that he'd often been asked to start a blog and never understood why. However, this proved somewhat useful, because it seemed a fair guess that Neil's attitude was representative of what most middle-aged jazz guys feel about blogs, and so the rest of us built our case for the usefulness of blogs (and the Internet in general) as venues for the popularization, community-building, reconsideration and renewal of jazz. Jazz blogging now strikes me as very reminiscent of music blogs in general four or five years ago - tightly knit, very well informed, not beset with next-new-thing fever, and highly discursive. That's lovely, but there's tons more knowledgeable people out there who aren't making use of the medium - part of why jazz folks get so frustrated with their lack of press (and lack of quality press especially - see Ken Vandermark's many rants on the subject, for example) is that they are still focused on press, and we all know that's a smaller part of how information and ideas are circulated today. (Though I always say that with mixed feelings, as a lover of and creature of print.)

Darcy made the point that every local jazz scene could use at least one highly active blogger to help track, critique and spread the word about a sadly overlooked sphere. He also responded inspiringly to one audience member's question about how blogs can promote the "appreciation of jazz" - we should start, he said, by getting rid of the whole concept of appreciation, of treating jazz music like a series of monuments that need to be venerated and revered at a distance: "I don't 'appreciate' Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, man, I fucking love them!" And I made the point that it's this personal tone that bloggers are able to strike, and the intimacy of their relationships (and conversations) with readers, that give them some power to make readers find things accessible that they might otherwise keep at a distance. (Of course Destination Out came up as the shining example.) We won Neil over - he said at the end that he was convinced and that he'd think seriously about starting blogging.

Zoilus is by no means a "jazz blog," of course, but jazz and especially local improvised music are a fairly frequent topic here (though a bit less often lately). I was happy to be invited and to point out to the jazz cats that when this music can be discussed in the same forums and in the same tone someone uses to talk about pop and indie music, for instance, there's an opportunity to foster new audiences. I had a great conversation later in the day with Tatsuya Koeda from Now Forward (a promotions company in NYC) about the idea that for musicians and listeners alike, genres are less and less a barrier - not only because of the Internet but because of multiculturalism and much else, everyone's ears are getting bigger (debatably, shallower too, but that's another question).

Our conversation in itself demonstrated the point: With a couple of other people, we began from talking about the shifts in jazz venues in Toronto and a little while later I was being asked whether I ranked Spoon on my Top 10 last year and about Broken Social Scene playing at a NYC swimming pool last summer. Young jazz pianists are covering Bjork and Radiohead (in large numbers) and Black Sabbath (okay, that's only The Bad Plus) and picking up rhythms from hip-hop as Jason Moran and Matthew Shipp do. I know from many personal experiences that plenty of young rock musicians are venerating not only Ornette and Coltrane, as they've long done, but Gyorgy Ligeti and Steve Reich and Tinariwen and Konono No. 1, too. That's not the future. That's the present. Genre will never disappear, as it's a social epiphenomenon and a necessity for interpreting and interrelating musics and a way of keeping shit organized in our heads, but in the 21st century it's not going to be as dominant (and oppressive) as it was in the last.

As it turned out, the concert that night at the Tranzac by Darcy's Secret Society North band (the core of his 17? 18?-piece New York ensemble along with a pack of great Canadian players stepping in as, er, pitch hitters) was one of the most galvanizing illustrations of that development I've witnessed in a long time. While I've read and traded links with Darcy for a long while, I hadn't taken the time to listen to his music. So what I (and a substantial crowd of IAJE attendees and local musicians) got at the Tranzac came as a wonderful surprise. Fluidly and expressively conducting this "steam punk" big band (horns, reeds, drums, electric guitar and bass, Rhodes piano), Darcy rolled out one after another his incredibly smart, complicated, beautiful, firey and funky compositions. (In the lineage of, but distinct from, the writing and arranging of his teacher Bob Brookmeyer - see Ben Ratliff's profile in The New York Times.)

I told people afterwards that it was like hearing Duke Ellington and minimalism and Tortoise and Funkadelic and Elliott Carter and much else besides melding into one floating, shifting, dodging music, often with political themes (one piece was dedicated to Maher Arar), sometimes with Escher-like overlaps and spirals. I didn't take notes so I can't be more specific (though there were standout moments from saxophonists Christine Jensen and Chet Doxas [whose trio opened], trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and my mistake, sorry Jason Logue [who was subbing in for Lina Allemano, who unfortunately fell ill], trombonist Barb Hamilton, guitarist Sebastian Noelle, pianist Dave Restivo Gord Webster and drummer Jon Wikan, among others). But in short, this is music for people who fuckin' love music. This skinny, scruffy young Brooklyn dude's got it and he knows just what to do with it.

You can hear a sample of the band's other IAJE appearance at WBGO.

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, January 13 at 12:56 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

X to The Power of Love


Me with "Celine" (Laura Landauer) and, right, Final Fantasy playing "The Power of Love" last night at the very-Gladstone in Toronto. Photos by Chris Reed and If You Want to Sing Out.

I can't begin to tell you how asskickingly last night's launch for the book went. Kay arr eh zee why!

There was a zillion jillion people there (sorry to everybody who got turned away!);
Laura Landauer took everybody to Celine-imitation college;
Laura Barrett made Celine's dancehall-reggae bumper "Treat Her Like a Lady" into a wistful folkie plea and also covered Weird Al;
Steve Kado aka The Blankket covered the history of anglo-Canadian colonialism and Quebec class structure and the complexity of Celine as cultural object, told us "talking is the new music - go home and post some talking on your blogs," used host Misha Glouberman as an exquisitely baffled foil, and then turned "This Time" (the domestic-abuse number on the new Celine disc Taking Chances) into a Bauhaus-worthy goth dirge, utterly polarizing the audience between those who did and those who didn't know the meaning of "awesome";
Owen Pallett aka Final Fantasy quoted Celine to the effect that when you perform you are naked and "when you are naked you suffer" then went on to prove that "The Power of Love" is a quantum-leap more beautiful song than even Celine fans ever realized and to generate more Vegas-sized metal-on-estrogen bombast with just voice and violin than has ever been accomplished in the history of sound;
and finally Mark Kingwell expertly conducted a conversation that made me sound a lot smarter than I really am.
Misha was the definitive host and Brian Joseph Davis (who is trying to cop Misha's steez) was dapper on the digital decks.
We sold a whole lot of books. (I know 'cuz I had to sign them all.) I wore the nicest suit I've ever worn and brand new shoes. And I think aside from the overheating the crowding caused, people had fun. Thanks to the Gladstone, Pages and all who attended.
It made my life.

Could I plead that anybody who made recordings, videos and pictures last night send me copies or links? (I already know there's an MP3 out there of Owen's performance, which I'll post tomorrow.)

By the way, there's an interview with me about the book today in British Columbia's The Tyee.

And tomorrow (Friday), I am actually going to talk about something other than Celine Dion for once, in a panel in the IAJE jazz conference - about jazz and blogging, at 3 pm at the in Room 206 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, with a bunch of smart jazz-blog cookies.

PS Clearly the revolution's not yet complete.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 10 at 8:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Ghosting the Gramophone

The terrific trio who write my favourite mp3 blog, Said the Gramophone, are doing a series this week in response to Let's Talk About Love - they're doing a little bit of personal archaeology, examining the pre-history of their own tastes - taking up the notion of the "taste biography" that I propose early in LTAL. Dan started yesterday with a confession that his tastes began from the urge to explore the forbidden (parental-advisory stickers were his totems); today, by contrast, Sean gives a very honest and self-effacing account of his teenage addiction to sad songs and dismissal of angry ones as shallow and "mean" - while fun songs, songs to dance to, were completely out of the question. Tomorrow, Jordan completes the trilogy. And of course they all give you music to listen to as you read, because that's how StG rolls. I'll respond to their thoughts in more detail later in the week - after my book launch, which happens tomorrow.

Speaking of book events, by the way, I should tell New York-area readers that I'm appearing in the Happy Ending reading series there in two weeks, Wed Jan 23. There will probably be a couple of other events while I'm there.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 08 at 3:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

2007 Eye Poll Ballot

For the record, because my Idolator ballot was hasty and off, my Eye critics' poll ballot. Most immediately regretted: Spoon ("You Got Yr Cherry Bomb"), Joel Plaskett Emergency (either "Fashionable People" or "Nothing More to Say"), Aly & AJ ("Potential Breakup Song"), LCD Soundsystem ("North American Scum"), UGK & Outkast ("international Players' Anthem"), Burial ("Archangel"), The New Pornographers ("Myriad Harbour" but also "Challengers" and "The Spirit of Giving") and The Weakerthans ("Civil Twilight") would ideally all be in the singles list. And maybe Bettye Lavette (Scene of the Crime) in albums. (Not to mention all the albums I didn't get it together to hear in '07, eg Robert Wyatt's Comicopera or Britney's and UGK's full records, etc.)

BEST ALBUMS
1. Sandro Perri, Tiny Mirrors (Constellation)
2. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter 3 Sessions (mixtape)
3. Sunset Rubdown, Random Spirit Lover (Jagjaguwar/Absolutely Kosher)
4. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (DFA)
5. Frog Eyes, Tears of the Valedictorian (Scratch/Absolutely Kosher)
6. Tinariwen, Aman Iman/Water Is Life (Harmonia Mundi)
7. Dirty Projectors, Rise Above (Dead Oceans)
8. Christine Fellows, Nevertheless (Six Shooter Records)
9. Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars/5RC)
10. Exploding Star Orchestra, We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey)

BEST SINGLES
1. Battles, "Atlas" (Warp)
2. Amy Winehouse, "Rehab" (Island/Universal)
3. Feist, "1 2 3 4" (Arts & Crafts)
4. Rihanna,feat Jay-Z, "Umbrella" (Def Jam/Universal)
5. Yo Majesty, "Club Action" (independent) (came out in 2006 but didn't really get heard, including by me, till sxsw '07)
6. Britney Spears, "Piece of Me" (BMG)
7. Brad Paisley, "Ticks" (BMG)
8. Fucked Up, "Year of the Pig" (What's Your Rupture)
9. MIA, "Bird Flu" (XL)
10. Grinderman, "No Pussy Blues" (Anti)

BEST DOWNLOADS
1. Lil Wayne, Da Drought 3
2. The Mountain Goats, "From TG&Y;"
3. DJ Erb, "Ecstasy of Gold (Nas vs. Ennio Morricone)" (close runner-ups, ABX, "I'm a Flirt (Shoreline) (R Kelly vs Broken Social Scene"; "Leave Britney Alone"; Souljah Boy, "Crank That"; the complete Daytrotter Sessions)

REISSUES
1. The Very Best of Ethiopiques (Buda Musique)
2. Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth (Domino)
3. Brian Joseph Davis, The Definitive Host (Blocks)

MOST OVERRATED OF 2007 (BY ME)
Celine Dion

DESTINED FOR GREATNESS IN 2008
1. Kardinal
2. Cadence Weapon

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, January 07 at 7:42 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Albums That Deserved More
of Your (and My) Lurve in '07


Elizabeth Cook: "Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman."

As I've mentioned more than once, this is an odd year-end for me, because I essentially checked out of the following-new-releases game in about May and didn't fully check back in until about a week ago. Funny thing is that writing a book that rails here and there against the year-end-list-centrism of music criticism actually had the result of making those year-end lists very useful to me in getting caught up (some more than others) (not that some blog lists aren't great, but the 'sphere is prey to the usual "why is The National number 8 not number 1" nonsense). The whole obligation to "keep up" as a critic, the constant radar sweep, can be wearing, and when I finished the manuscript, I wasn't eager to jump back on the audition-and-evaluate merry-go-round I'd just spent months critiquing. (I still feel deeply ambivalent about the task.) My Idolator poll ballot, as I've mentioned, was the most perfunctory treatment I've ever given that kind of task. My enjoyment of other people's lists and polls and such has reminded me of the fun and usefulness of the process, so I'll be a tad more conscientious with my Eye poll ballot, realizing that the beauty-contest (or cool-contest) aspect is balanced by the utility to listeners who might have had other things on their minds (i.e., their lives) through the year.

However, there were some discs from this year that so far I haven't seen too widely touted - likely because people didn't hear them, for which I must take some blame: all my toils in the fields of meta-criticism not only distracted me from hearing much new music, it prevented me from writing about a lot of what I did hear. There's more than I note in this list (I omit records I've already written about such as Frog Eyes and Christine Fellows; I've barely begun to catch up on country and hip-hop, let alone chart pop - to see what this Ashley Tisdale fever is all about, for instance) but it's a start.

Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash. Like its honoree, a modest but sentimentally potent collection that cares for tradition, home truths and family, but has the guts to kick up its heels too. With Loretta Lynn, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Brad Paisley, Billy Joe Shaver, Patty Loveless and Kris Kristofferson (dueting), Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris in tow, you can forgive the Billy Bob Thornton cameo. The mystery of why Sheryl Crow (singing here with Willie Nelson) is on every tribute record ever made persists, but at least we are spared Bono.

Apostle of Hustle, National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts & Crafts). In general, regular readers know that I'm not a huge fan of the Broken Social Scene scene, but this record is getting neglected because it came out too long ago - February - and to me AoH is more satisfying than anything else that milieu produced, including Kevin Drew's recent overflattered disc. The Brazilian influence serves to discipline the Toronto loosey-gooseyness, and the subject-centric writing (songs for Jimmy Scott, for Victor Jara) and unshyness about pop hooks flatter the players. No masterpiece, but something I'm always glad to hear, especially the New Order-meets-Tropicalia title track.

Baby Elephant, Turn My Teeth Up (Godforsaken Music). A Prince Paul-produced disc, featuring Bernie Worrell and George Clinton and Nona Hendryx and Yellowman, this recalls the whimsy of the Handsome Boy Modeling School rekkids that critics adored a few years ago, but is actually musically more potent and weird. Uneven, of course, but so were the HBMS discs. Could it be the absence of rock crossover nods that kept it in shadow? That it wasn't named after, um, most rock critics? Turn My Teeth Up is among my favourite album titles of the year at the least.

Bishop Allen, The Broken String (Dead Oceans). They're certainly a longtime talked-up blogband, and partake in the literary-tasteful aesthetic there was, oh, a minor tiff over this year, but I found myself immensely impressed with the songwriting and performances on BA's second full-length. I think the reason lies in an exercise they went through that was at once very web2.0 and very old fashioned: In 2006, they put out an EP every month. The songs here are mainly rerecordings of those tunes, and the honing and reworking shows, the way it did when a combo, for instance, made a recording of music they'd been workshopping through months of regular residencies in clubs in the jazz era. It's not just the time invested but the time working it out in public, with the pressure on, that helps turn the raw materials to jewels. Pedantry aside, the songs are tuneful, charming, sceptical but not cynical - mumblecore that's figured out what it has to say.

The Blankket, Be Your Own Boss EP and the rest of the year's output from Blocks Recording Club. The international mini-fame of Final Fantasy doesn't quite seem to have clued the Arcade Fire-distracted hordes into the importance of Owen Pallett's base in this Toronto music collective to his aesthetic. I was surprised to see so many strong releases from Blocks this year go unremarked much beyond local precincts. In particular, Steve Kado's The Blankket (which did tour in Europe this year) hit the nail on the zeitgeist with his Be Your Own Boss Bruce Springsteen electro-sincerity covers project, before all the survey articles about Broooce's influence on the AF, the Hold Steady and the collective unconscious began to appear. BYOB presents Springsteen as both a chronicler of and tragically a creature of the effects of late capitalism on emotional life, with a raw but incredibly charming and funny use of electronics, guitars and extreme dynamic shifts, finding that sweet spot between tribute and satire where music can evoke the feeling of critical thought. (The Blankket's next project is about Theodor Adorno.) Also slept on from Blocks were The Phonemes' lovely, melodious and surreal (and often compulsively singable) tunes on There's Something We've Been Meaning to Do; the uneven but often mesmerizing, mostly instrumental, Afropop-and-Arthur-Russell-inflected loop-a-thons of A Sparrow! A Sparrow! by Nifty (who is the gifted musician Matt Smith, formerly in Les Mouches with Owen Pallett); the mordantly funny doom-folk of Tradition; and the multiple-Internet-meme-spawning, Arthur columnist and pop-culture-mashing author Brian Joseph Davis, whose audio works were collected into a lovely package called The Definitive Host (including 10 Banned Albums Burned Then Played and Greatest Hit - which combines all the songs on greatest-hits albums by the likes of Whitney Houston and the Carpenters into single tracks - and the new Eula, in which Sony's interweb-infamous End User License Agreement is turned into a choral love song). Why wasn't it beblogged everywhere? We know: It's because the internets don't like to think about more than one idea at a time. (Full disclosure here: most of these people are, to one degree or another, friends of mine - but mainly because of how much their work's meant to me, not the other way around.)

David Buchbinder, Odessa/Havana (Tzadik). The leader of Toronto's radical-Jewish-culture pioneers The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band finally gets his moment in the Tzadik sun, with an audacious cross of two local strongholds, Cuban and klezmer music, and the blend is an unfussy joy. It's only radical in its casualness about connecting two red-diaper musics and its utter multicultural confidence. The international jazz crits should be all over this one, but so far, they've been preferring Ned Rothenberg's lovely but more standard-Tzadik-issue Inner Diaspora; this Tzadik party-music record deserves to be bigger news.

Neil Cleary, I Was Thinking of You the Whole Time. (ind.) This isn't as memorable as Cleary's last disc, 2003's Numbers Add Up, one of my favourites of that year, mainly because the theme is more conventional: That record was more about growing up in (and out of) a scene, whereas these are all songs of romance and betrayal, but his ear for a hook, a play on words, a bitter twist, a storyline, remains robust. Fans of Fountains of Wayne and likewise power-pop polish should be cocking an ear (double-entendre intended) at this angle. And it includes one genuine meta-pop masterpiece, "I Once Knew A Girl (Norwegian Fuck)," that tells a story almost anyone can identify with, of an ambivalence stupidly maintained in defense against something genuine, until that truth was lost; part of its method is parodying the glib doubletalk of John Lennon's original. ("I once knew a girl, or should I say/ we used to fuck./ We were pretty good friends, but in the end/ not good enough.") But nearly every song has at least a line that cuts to the quick. A bit like a Gen X Nick Lowe.

Elizabeth Cook, Balls (31 Tigers). Featuring a title track that updates Tammy Wynette with the notion that "Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman," an opening cut that features a jaw harp and slags on Britney Spears, a Velvet Underground cover (okay, granted, it's Sunday Morning), and Cook's saucy-twangy but rich vocals, this Loretta-for-the-21st century merits a share of the enthusiasm that's been afforded Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson and (thank goodness, in a few quarters lately) Kelly Willis.

Deep Dark United, Look At/Look Out (Rat-Drifting). Last year, Alex Lukashevsky's solo disc Connexions would have been a leading contender for this kind of tally; this year it's the Toronto singer-songwriter's latest and best disc (recorded live at the Tranzac) with his longtime half-improvising band DDU, featuring altoist Brodie West, pianist Tania Gill, drummer Nick Fraser and the underwater-wooshy tones of Ryan Driver's synthesizer (also heard on Sandro Perri's Tiny Mirrors, which for the second time in 24 hours I'll mention was my favourite record this year). On Connexions we were plugged directly into the deep-sea strangeness of Lukashevsky's proudly perverse unconscious; it's much the same with DDU, but with funkier, multihued, electric fish constantly swimming by. (David Dacks had a nice appreciation recently.) On a side note - Rat-Drifting pickings were slim this year; just DDU and The Reveries' live album made in Bologna; I hope the latter band gets some of its tribute projects done in 2008 (Sade! Sade!), that Driver gets his solo disc out, among other potential wandering-rodent mind-melters.

Exploding Star Orchestra, We're All From Somewhere Else. (Thrill Jockey) I've just caught up with this one via the jazz lists, but haven't noticed it on more cross-genre surveys. With its science-fiction-big-band concept, PanAmerican/PanAfrican gestures, spoken-word smatterings and a title that recalls the quote "we all came from nowhere here, why can't we go somewhere there?", the quick tag that comes to mind is "Sun Ra for the 21st Century," but convener Rob Mazurek (of the Chicago Underground Duo/Trio, and leading candidate for that city's jazz scene's MVP of the decade, even though he now mostly lives in Rio) says he also had in mind the likes of Robert Ashley, Georgy Ligeti, Luc Ferrari, Stan Brakhage and Stanislaw Lem. More importantly, he has an amazing band, with star turns by flautist Nicole Mitchell (arguably Chicago's most important recent contribution to the music), the Tortoise posse on percussion, horn player Corey Wilkes and many more. The aim is, Mazurek writes, "to project a one-piece unit's sound into the atmosphere while retaining personality within that frame, in order to imagine the possibility of a non-border/non-restrictive world in which we can live full creative lives without the stress and absurdity of war and separation..." Perhaps 2007's most satisfying hunk of sonic utopianism, then.

David Grubbs and Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract. (Blue Chopsticks). The second collaboration between the Louisville-bred musician and sound artist and the Buffalo-based poet is an eerie, meditative journey into the irretrievability of the past and some of its utopianisms. Having seen Howe read from this new poem on her recent Toronto visit gave me a bit more entree into the recording, on which Grubbs provides backing with electronics and Laotian mouth organs called khaen that sound alternately like a harmonium and a buzzsaw; it's a sparse, word-centric record that requires more concentration than their last duo, Thieft, which was more collage-like, but it rewards it.

Heartbreak Scene, The Szabo Songbook (Fayettenam Records). I want to write about this at greater length, but this tribute to obscure Vancouver songwriterRob Mark Szabo, with the participation of the Heartbreak Scene's Marcy Emery and Mark Kleiner as well as various New Pornographers including Zoilus stalking-object Dan (Destroyer) Bejar, got almost no nods this year except this flicker of interest from Stereogum. Given that a whole record label was inspired by the project, the dead-accurate liner notes ("these twists and angles aren't - to use a word that needs to be purged from the rock-critical lexicon ASAP - quirks, but part of their deep structure, in full interplay with the songs' narrative and emotional heft") are by Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue, the Human Hearts - whose disc would've been on the 2006 version of this list, and whose singles catalogue is the next project for Fayettenam), and it comes with a John Darnielle endorsement... you would have thought some notice would be paid. But no. Is it because the songs don't live up to the hype? No, it is because the songs are too grown-up, neither settled-down middle-aged nor all-vistas-open youth-angsty, but Cassavetesian-realistic films turned to pop music, and there's not that much room for that much honesty. One of the three or four records this year I'd put on anytime, anywhere. Perhaps that says something about my year.

His Name Is Alive, Sweet Earth Flying. (High Two) I came across this one this week on jazz lists as well, as it's a tribute to the under-known saxophone player Marion Brown. Warren Defever of HNIA has been flirting with jazz for years now but this marks full immersion (much as his R&B; infatuation became full-blown in the early part of the decade). I haven't heard enough to assess it yet, but enough to say it's substantial - reverent, atmospheric, captivating. I was also surprised not to hear more in year-end lists about HNIA's other cd this year, Xmmer (which I've yet to pick up), after the attention paid last year's great Detrola, but perhaps Defever's consistent strength has him taken for granted.

Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul (Numero Group). This did get widely reviewed when it came out and I was looking the other direction, but in case you missed it, too: 17 tracks by other groups of kids doing what the Jackson 5 did (both predecessors and imitators) but who didn't make it big - a genre the compilers describe as "so deep and wide that it might be impossible to exhaust it." Need I say more? Clearly I need to delve further into the beautifully assembled catalogue of the Numero Group.

Bettye Lavette, Scene of the Crime (Anti). I'm not arguing that this is a historically great album, but it's superior to the previous Lavette-comeback albums both in performance (the all-ladies-songs album was better in intention than results) and songwriting, but most of all in the studio support she gets from the Drive-By Truckers, a band that's able to match her own ferocity and suppleness. In a year when "retro-soul" was the big tale, this should have gotten more of a shake.

Joelle Leandre & Kevin Norton, Winter in New York, 2006. (Leo Records) I got a big package of Leo recordings this fall, including several new Anthony Braxton records (which if I'd had time to absorb them at all, would be on this list), but the one that I reached for first was this disc, because French double-bassist Leandre is among my favourite musicians anywhere, seemingly incapable of playing a dull note. She certainly doesn't in this collaboration with percussionist Norton. Knotty, chiming, combative, but also swinging, almost rocking at times.

The Luyas, Faker Death (Pome Records). A critics' favourite in eastern Canada, but not yet adopted by many fans (I was startled how thin the crowd for them was at Pop Montreal), the Luyas are natural-rock-star Jesse Stein (guitar, voice, ex-SS Cardiacs) and Stefan Schneider (percussion) and Pietro Amato (French horn) of Bell Orchestre (Amato is also of Torngat, whose You Could Be album of geometric pop-chambre-jazz deserves mention here). Stein's songs have evolved since SS Cardiacs, where they were somewhat simplified-Spinanes confessionals, into Alice-in-Nightmareland dream monologues that rock out at the parable points, and the way that Amato and Schneider's more abstract colourations tinge and shade her stripped-down folk-rock structures makes the songs twice as mobile and complex (and probably less popular). This record hasn't quite gelled, I'd venture, and if they can stay together for another it promises to be a real killer. (One senses the depressive undertow of the songs pulling the recording apart digit by digit.) Still, I was genuinely surprised the woozy-hooky lead track, Flickering Lights (Will Likely Fail You) didn't become an MP3-blog hit this year.

So-Called, Ghettoblaster (JDub). Why didn't people swarm this vaudevillian accordion-player/hip-hop head's record featuring James Brown sideman Fred Wesley, NYC kool-klezmer figures Frank London and David Krakauer, theatre legend Theodor Bikel, Wu-Tang's Killah Priest, Feist sideman Gonzales, backpacker C-Rayz Walz, and Bagels and Bongos cult object Irving Fields? Well, I suppose that question is its own answer, but if "miscegenation" is the issue, this Montreal-based brat's record is the giddiest leap for it you could ask. Does it all work? Of course not. But every time I put it on, I want to get it on and keep it on. If this list were ranked it would go Top 10, just in discrepancy between potential appeal and realization.

Linda Thompson, Versatile Heart (Rounder). Full of tiny gossipy points for those of us who follow Thompson-Wainwright clan dramas, this is the most relaxed and fluid vocally of her post-comeback albums, and among the prettiest folk records of the year. The woman has a gravitas and flexibility that is hard to equal - it makes one look forward to what Joanne Newsom will sound like when she is 60. It includes the best Anthony (as in & the Johnsons) duet ever, on a song by Rufus Wainwright, who came back into his own in '07 too.

Venetian Snares, My Downfall (Original Soundtrack) (Planet Mu). In which Winnipeg's Mr. Aaron Funk presents a more digestible, less forbidding orchestral sound that's as hard to resist as his many breakcore masterpieces. The downfall in question (there is no film for it to soundtrack) could be romantic, erotic, moral or theological, but it leaves a very pretty mess.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 02 at 11:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

A New Year Has Come...

... but for me, many things remain the same, namely that I spend odd amounts of time discussing Celine Dion. So it's always nice when YouTube steps in to help. This was patched together by someone (later: er, excuse me, by FourFour, who's read the book) out of the A New Day DVD, the five-hour document of her Las Vegas run, which is selling briskly. (In Canada, it almost instantly became the bestselling music DVD ever.)

Meanwhile, I'll be on WNYC's Soundcheck tomorrow at around 2 pm (EST) to talk about Celine, criticism and taste, as a little bit of post-end-of-year-listmaking hangover cure. (More on all those lists later in the week, by the way.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 02 at 6:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Quick note

CBC Radio 1's Talking Books show will, I'm told, be having a roundtable discussion about my book (see left) this weekend, Saturday at 4:30 pm (5 pm in Newfoundland).

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 28 at 5:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

It's a Holiday, Such a Holiday...

That Bee Gees song always seemed so mysterious, Syd Barrett-ish, with its talk of puppets and thrown stones. Take my holiday silence this week in that same spirit and indulge in grand speculations. I'll be back with some year-endish blather next week; I've sent in my Idolator poll ballot hastily and wish I could revise it -even when you don't believe in the list ritual quite so much, there's still a self-portrait self-consciousness to the exercise, and this year I think my lists simply portray a person who was otherwise preoccupied. I was tempted to Bayard it and list some records I haven't gotten around to hearing yet (Robert Wyatt's Comicopera, f'rinstance) but apparently I'm not French enough to balls that through.

More next week.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 27 at 11:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

My Book, but in Iraq
And by GB Trudeau

Two recent Doonesbury strips:




General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 19 at 8:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Freakin' is Our Business &
Stock Options Are Peakin':
Fairies, Turtles, Ninjas ... and Me


Matt Collins of Ninja High School, with NHS followers rocking out at rear, at Sneaky Dee's last weekend. Photo by The CJM.

Reviews of le livre (see left) are beginning to trickle in: a hefty one in New York magazine ("this book goes very deeply right") and one in the Gazette in Montreal (I love that they call it "a compulsively quotable book"). The Las Vegas Review-Journal also had a column about it this weekend, coinciding with the last night of Celine's Caesar's Palace run. And I'm honoured to have been "felt" by Simon Reynolds (whom I hope will pursue his asterisk'd caveat too).

Meanwhile, Claire Colley has a cuppa-tea-comfy chat with Robert Wyatt about his recent Comicopera, surely one of the albums of the year, about his "karaoke" songwriting process ("I play really nice records and when the record's over I keep playing, and of course I can't play the tune so I come up with something else, and that's my tune") and other things. Of Comicopera, he says: "The first part, Lost In Noise, is about loss and relationships. The second, The Here And Now, is more objective, about things I like, don't like, don't understand, like religion ... and do understand, like nice cosmopolitan music in a town square. Side 3 is, you know what? I'm fed up with English-speaking people. I'm going to go away with the fairies. I sing in Italian and I do a bit of surrealism, free improvisation, and end up with a romantic revolutionary song of the '60s, a hymn to Che Guevara."

John Turtletop has a long essay in response to Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise. There's a bit of throat-clearing at the top, but it picks up steam around the point he says, "The Rest Is Noise does not subscribe to the outdated theory that popular music is ephemeral while 'classical' ... music is for the ages." John, being generally a pop guy, pays particular attention to the contrasts and parallels and overlaps between 20th-century composers' music and jazz and pop. One strong claim John makes is that there seems to have been no sequel in popular culture to the figures of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, no one further who's so successfully melded the roles of formal composer and pop musician in recent decades. My impulse is this is because the "classical" realm has lost its special status of ultra-respect, becoming simply one more cultural niche, and so it's not an aspiration in the same way anymore. (Although I'm inclined to say that in a different way, Lennon & McCartney - with or without George Martin? - could claim to be Ellington and Gershwin's heirs; someone [not me] might also point to Philip Glass.) Also, John hints that Alex slants his account toward The Battles of Harmony/Dissonance, wondering what other story might emerge from thinking through 20th century's rhythms, timbres, durations. But mainly it's an appreciation that certainly reminds me that I need to clear some time to finish Alex's book.

I was too swamped last week to pen any sort of eulogy to Ninja High School, which disbanded after four-and-a-half years with a show at Sneaky Dee's last Thursday. But sometime Zoilusian Chris Randle had one over at Eye. The demise of NHS (as well as the apparently stalled Barcelona Pavilion reunion?) does seem to cement the sense that a certain phase of the Torontopian moment has been over for a while now; what follows is perhaps the less starry-eyed, more methodical work of crop rotation and diversification that makes for a sustainable scene. What I'll miss most is NHS's ability to generate slogans that worked as self-fulfilling prophecies - the slogans would come true through the very act of shouting them: "It's gonna be us-us-us-us-us!" "We know we're not the only ones who think this way!" "These ideas kill!" (Or in the case of "It's all right to fight," they would be fulfilled, playfully, in the mosh pit, where the silly-wrestling energy tended to mirror the friendliness-through-mock-aggro mood of the lyrics precisely.) After their follow-up album to Young Adults Against Suicide was lost in a computer-hard-drive incident, and a few of the rounds of interpersonal drama that bigger ensembles are especially vulnerable to, the momentum went out. Fortunately, various fractions of NHS are planning to re-emerge in '08 with new projects (including one from Steve Kado and Matt Collins rumouredly called Serious [or was it Seriously?]). Hey hey, my my, iPod'sitivity will never die, but the way it's seeming right now? It was gonna be us, and then it was us, and then it wasn't. RIP NHS: You always sent us home in a fuckin' ambulance.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 17 at 1:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Christine Fellows:
'They're Just Letting in a Little Light'

Prelims: Today's me-interview on CBC's "Q" should land somewhere 'round here.

Yesterday, I had a feature profile of Christine Fellows in the Globe & Mail. (Transcript to come, Canuckistan-stylee.) Tonight, Christine plays a show at the Music Gallery, showcasing her lovely new album with a title that's one of the ear-ticklingest, bitterest-sweet words in English, Nevertheless. (Borrowed gently from a Marianne Moore poem.) Her voice, ukulele, piano and cetera will be supported by cellist Leanne Zacharias and hand-animated visual projections by the amazing Shary Boyle (who's also collaborated with Feist, Jens Lekman and others). Rather like this:


A songwriter gets intimate with solitude
12/13/07 The Globe and Mail
CARL WILSON

Intimacy is a slippery thing. When it begins it's so hard to be sure of, and when it goes -- worn out by routine, dispersed by separation, brought to a full stop by mortality -- only unreliable memory can vouch it existed, since its traces lie by definition in territory unreachable by any outsider. And the price this most precious human experience exacts is to invent a new kind of emptiness you know you'll plunge into when its tethers break. It's funny that more people don't simply opt out. The ones who do -- the reclusive eccentrics, confirmed bachelors and maiden aunts among us -- seem to be keeping another sort of secret.

The gregarious and thoughtful Winnipeg musician Christine Fellows is, by her own testimony, happily married to John K. Samson, her sounding board and sometime collaborator, as well as the lead singer of flagship 'Peg rock band the Weakerthans. On her superb 2005 album Paper Anniversary -- which led celebrated U.S. songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to invite her on tour last year, proclaiming, "Christine Fellows is writing better songs than anybody else. Everybody else is actually quite pathetic next to her" -- partnership and family were conspicuous themes.

She is following up with a set of musical portraits of lives marked by intimacy's apparent banishment.

"At the end of the day you are alone with yourself," she said in a backstage interview when she opened for her husband's band at the Opera House in Toronto in early November. "Yourself is inescapable. Even with Paper Anniversary -- and I know this is kind of a bad way to be -- I had just gotten married but I was thinking, 'What do I do when he dies?' I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking," a wrenching chronicle of sudden widowhood, "and I felt like, 'Oh my god, I can't bear the thought.' So I wrote a little sketch of my family coming home after my grandmother's husband, my grandfather, had died." It became that album's gorgeous centrepiece, Vertebrae. "I had to go to that dark place even though I was totally jubilant."

The new album, Fellows' fourth, Nevertheless, began with a commission from Toronto-based dancer and choreographer Susie Burpee, who wanted music for a one-woman show about the concept of the spinster, the solitary woman. She asked not just for an instrumental score of the sort Fellows has composed for many dancers, filmmakers and other cross-disciplinary collaborators, but for a song cycle. Fellows quickly decided to base an album on the same material.

Though the spur may have been a standard feminist inquiry into a scorned stereotype, Fellows' research -- "because I have my own weird little way" -- led her to a "male spinster," American collage-box artist Joseph Cornell (1903-72): "It turned out he lived with his mother his entire life, and was really shy, and fascinated with ballerinas, these archetypes of the female. He's not a bachelor, right? He's a spinster." Next she discovered Cornell's correspondent Marianne Moore, in some ways his opposite number -- though apparently celibate, and renowned for her brainy and unsentimental nature poems, she was a flamboyant presence on the New York literary scene, often clad in a black cape, squiring Paris Review editor George Plimpton to baseball games and known to have a pet alligator in her bathtub.

"I fell in love instantly," Fellows said. "But I wanted to get inside the idea of why her life was that way. Did she ever have relationships? I spent a long time trying to figure out if she was gay, and so on. And why did I want to know? I wanted to know where her passion lay. And finally I realized that her passion was in poetry. It absolutely was her work, and her way of looking at the world. ... I started out trying to figure out why she was alone and then realized there was no need for that."

Much of Nevertheless was written in dialogue with Moore's verses of singularity and resilience (it takes its title from one). It also portrays Cornell-like figures as well as a retired boxer named Cruel Jim, an old lady keeping chickens in the country and a Winnipeg spinster named Betty (based loosely on a clipped-out obituary Fellows rediscovered in the pocket of her winter coat one day) whose pets are a mated pair of Parlour Roller pigeons, a bizarre evolutionary-dead-end breed of racing bird that cannot fly but wildly flaps its wings and turns backward somersaults along the ground. (It's worth a YouTube search for this uncanny and, as the bird-loving Fellows said, "heartbreaking" sight.)

Clearly, all this is not in the usual ambit of a confessional singer-songwriter.

"At a certain point, all your previous life seems to be very inward-focused, directed towards yourself. Then at some point the focus goes outward," said Fellows, a wide-eyed 39-year-old with dramatically white-blonde hair. "That's part of why this poet was so interesting, because her focus was always outward. ... I sneak little bits of myself in -- that's unavoidable, right? ... But it's also, 'What's the rest of the world up to?' "

The effect is far from impersonal, thanks to Fellows' intricate and sensitive writing, "pushed up against" the melodic energy of her piano lines and chamber-string settings, with a few bouncy rock refrains and the occasional choral interlude. Her singing voice skips nimbly over off-rhythms to convey complex thoughts in a disarmingly chatty tone, as if in a phone call with a close friend. Which only makes the poignant twists, when they come, more pulverizing.

Combining commissions, arts grants and the support of her small label, Toronto's Six Shooter Records, she has found a neatly Canadian niche that helps her bypass an entertainment industry "that really has nothing to do with what I do, most of it." Unlike many female singers who aren't famous by their late 30s, she's at no risk of feeling like a music-business spinster. She was so busy last year that at one point she literally broke out in hives.

"I didn't even know that I could sing until I was 24. I went to jazz school when I was younger, but I never sang, I just thought [being a musician] would be a kind of cool job -- my grandfather had played in a big band. So I feel like I'm still kind of young with it."

The scattering of the Winnipeg scene Fellows settled into with early bands Helen and Special Fancy in the 1990s (she grew up mainly in British Columbia) has given her another sort of experience of solitude. Yet while Paper Anniversary was painstakingly patched together alone in a home studio, her suite about loners was recorded very sociably, with one ensemble in a restored 1912 opera house in the small rural town of Manitou and another band assembling in Winnipeg. But to do it, she had to fly most of the players back to Manitoba. Usually Fellows has to leave home now to see musical friends, whether on tours like the one that brings her to Toronto's Music Gallery on Friday, or trips to collaborate with people such as visual artist Shary Boyle, whose magical hand-animated projections were used for the album artwork and will accompany Friday's show.

In Winnipeg, Fellows has a sense of living "a bit off the grid," as she and Samson spend their time mostly on their own, writing. "Both of us have really made an effort to stay there, because everyone leaves. For him it's family, and for me it's a place I chose. So I want to make it work even though technically it doesn't work."

For all the album's empathy for spinsterhood, the earthy Fellows, ever quick with a curious-fact digression or a joke at her own expense, seems unlikely ever to embrace such an ascetic choice. Her heart ultimately is with the pigeons -- awkward, perhaps ill-fated, but paired for life. In the final song, the bluegrass-tinged What Are Years?, she turns a famous Marianne Moore quote into a question: "Is solitude indeed the cure for loneliness?"

And she answers: "Oh, I don't think so: I'd miss you too much."

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 14 at 3:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Queering the Pitch
(An Expression Whose Literal Meaning
I Have Only Just Now Come To Understand)

3313.jpg

I missed this Freakytrigger post when it first appeared last week. It brings up the most cogent criticism yet of the premise or placement of my book. Tom writes: "The utopian part of me wishes it was coming out as its own thing, not as a 33 1/3 publication. ... [The] choice of this book for this series queers the pitch, creates a structural divide between Dion and all other music covered in the series. These other acts get their albums written about lovingly by fans, Celine's is written about by a non-fan trying to convert themselves and explore ideas of taste. Celine Dion is a perfect subject for a book like that, and I think it'll be a terrific book. But it unlevels the 33 1/3 playing field - it makes Celine a special case."

He makes a sound point about the 33 1/3 meta-narrative. When I pitched the book two years ago, I felt the series inevitably reinscribed the notion of a pop/rock/etc canon. Perhaps that's not true now, though when I was interviewed on the radio this morning that's exactly how the hosts described it: books about "influential, important" albums, except mine. In this sense, it seemed like the right place for an intervention over canon criteria.

While I'd like to imagine the 33 1/3 editors would have accepted a "straight" Celine book from a plausible author with a good angle, "utopian" does seem a good word for the prospect. Likewise I doubt this book would have found a decent publishing berth anywhere else, at least in any version I would have been both willing and able to do. The match of series and book brings it to the most appropriate audience, in the less-than-ideal real world of taste: Pointing out that a field is already massively slanted isn't the same thing as "unlevelling" it.

Frank Kogan extends in the comments: "I like Carl ... but at the same time he may be the epitome of what I was calling 'PBS' in my book, embodying PBS virtues as well as flaws. The concept 'How do people like us come to terms with someone like Celine Dion?' seems almost guaranteed to render Celine lame in the context of 'our' appreciation. ... There can be good reasons to temporarily suspend judgment at times while listening to music, but 'This Is The Album Where We Have To Suspend Judgment' seems awfully condescending."

I'm dealing with my soreness over being called "PBS," however good-naturedly: I am pretending Frank is mistaking for a PBS accent what is actually a Canadian accent. (Frankly I don't see how criticism is ever really not PBS, including Frank's, Lester Bangs's, whoever. And good art is neither PBS nor anti-PBS; good art never heard of PBS.)

Otherwise: I hope that I never in the course of the book address an "us" that is presumed to include me, the reader and some vague group of people, save when that "us" is human beans. (A suspect device, yes, but useful.) Rather, it is about me, her and a range of particular thems. The reader isn't presumed to share my dilemma, just that it might tell us generalizable things about the workings of social aesthetics. The reader is presumed to be like me in that she's interested in knowing those things (in itself a ridiculous presumption).

I'm given pause by the proposal that suspending judgment is condescending. I'd say suspending judgment might be a habit to adopt every time we encounter a new cultural work, whether first-impression simpatico or not. Seeing how long we can leave it suspended. Paying attention to what ends up fraying the thread and causing judgment to come crashing down. There's a lot more about this in the book. But what else do you do to undertake a reconsideration? Is reconsideration inherently condescending? Or is this again more a meta-series issue?

An audio file of my chat this morning with the hosts of NPR's Bryant Project Park project can be found here. I've certainly been fortunate so far in my interviewers and their researchers - good questions all round.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 12 at 2:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

I, Mediawhore

Since the book (see left margin) comes out this week, I'll be busy doing a heavy round of media. I'm on today's edition of Fair Game with Faith Salie (a PRI show that airs at various times on various NPR stations) - it looks like you'll be able to listen in their on-line archive later in the week. Faith is a very charming interviewer. I'm also going to be on the Bryant Park Project morning show on Wednesday (probably between 8 and 9 am EST), and on Q with Jian Ghomeshi on the CBC sometime in the next week.

(Why you'd want to know all that, who knows? But posting it here helps me keep track of myself.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 10 at 5:48 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

So Long, It's Been Good to Know You
Plus: The 'Shoe Fits


The Horseshoe on Queen St, Toronto, as it looked back in the Stompin' Tom/early-punk era.

This just in: RIP Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The Guardian's "Readers Recommend..." Friday feature of themed song playlists is always a pleasure, and for me today's "... Songs About Other Songs" is crystal meta, although I think they miss a beat by naming "Sweet Home Alabama" itself (more answer song than song-about-a-song) when they could mention the Drive-By Truckers' "Ronnie and Neil," or nearly anything else off of Southern Rock Opera, which is basically music history/criticism set to music. Nick Hornby was amiss in not including the entire 'libretto' in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 book. Does the Guardian have a page where you can see the full list of suggestions for the category? Can't seem to find it. I wonder if there were any Destroyer entries. And for some reason as soon as I saw the topic, perhaps my favourite Randy Newman verse from a not-so-great Randy Newman song began running through my head, from "Old Man on the Farm" (Little Criminals, 1977, the album with "Short People" on it):

Goodnight, ladies.
Sorry if I stayed too long -
So long, it's been good to know you ...
I love the way I sing that song.

Elsewhere, both Eye and Now (in several different articles, timelines, etc) toast the 60th anniversary of Toronto's Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, which opened in 1947 and is celebrating this month. Tonight the Waco Bros. (Mekon Jon Langford's country-rock-rave-up band) play, and next week, a six-night stand by the Joel Plaskett Emergency. Joel's going to showcase a different album each night - so Monday it's In Need of Medical Attention, Tuesday it's Down at the Khyber (probably my favourite), Wednesday it's Truthfully Truthfully, Thursday La De Dah and Friday Ashtray Rock. Then on Saturday he plays a whatever-the-hell-he-feels-like setlist. I'd go every night if I could, but it's not exactly a quiet time of year.

Whenever I visited Toronto in the '90s and for the first couple of years after I moved back here, a visit to the Horseshoe was practically obligatory - it was high times for "alt-country" and there were weeks I felt like it was a second home. Since then I've been more of a nomad, having Boat and Lee's Palace and Sneaky Dee's and Tranzac and Silver Dollar phases that have come and gone and come again, and the 'Shoe, for some reason, has become a less frequent stop on my rounds. Yet even this year, when I've been a less rabid concertgoer, there have been memorable 'Shoe occasions such as the show by The Blow and Republic of Safety this summer. I'm not always fond of the sightlines/crowd configuration in the room, but the sound is usually first-rate and the booking is consistent and strong, and above all the place carries a historical whiff (from Stompin' Tom to the Last Pogo to the secret Stones show etc, as Now's articles detail) that you can't overlook. So happy birthday, you dirty old 'Shoe. And keep an eye out for those surprise birthday shows, Torontonians.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 07 at 3:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Crossbloggery @ Powells.com

The site for the independent-bookselling juggernaut Powells.com has been hosting a series of posts by authors from the 33 1/3 series, and mine went up a couple of days ago. It's called "In Praise of Distraction," and it's partly a reflection on writing the Celine book for 33 1/3 and partly about the notion that "Being interested in music ... really means being interested in almost everything."

If you're a U.S. reader, in particular, you might be interested in Powell's buy-2-get-1-free sale on the 33 1/3 series.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 04 at 11:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Ian Brown's Boy in the Moon

I seldom mention on Zoilus the stories I work on as an editor of The Globe and Mail's Focus section, but I feel compelled to let those of you who've missed it know about the series "The Boy in the Moon" by my colleague and friend Ian Brown, which began this past weekend and continues the next two. It's the story of Ian's life with his son, Walker, who has a rare genetic syndrome called CFC that makes him disabled in a dozen different ways. But it is a tough, curious, humorous and philosophical take on the sort of subject matter that is usually served with a heavy sauce of sentiment. Ian's writing, always strong, is at its best here. It's lengthy (the groundwork for a future book) but incredibly emotionally and intellectually engrossing. The multimedia content on the website is compelling, too.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 04 at 4:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Taking Liberties with Susan Howe

This weekend, Toronto's lucky to be graced with the presence of Susan Howe, the New England writer whose work since the early 1970s has helped push the intellectual and formal bounds of poetry. Howe's poetry is a notoriously spare and rigorous one, layered with historical and literary allusions, but in a reading yesterday at Ryerson University, hearing her speak it for the first time, the humour and sensuality of it was much clearer - or, to put it in relevant terms for this weekend's events, the music. In a conversation after the reading, Howe noted that she's often regarded as a visually focused poet, but she said that to her, "every mark on a piece of paper, every mark, is acoustic." This auditory awareness is rewarded with the attention of musicians, including Toronto's veteran composer Udo Kasemets (Estonian-born, now in his late 80s, best known by shorthand as one of the most prominent of John Cage's Canadian disciples), who presents his "pOemoPERA" version of her The Liberties tonight and tomorrow afternoon at Ryerson.

Wearing a heavy ceramic-and-wood necklace, black shirt and jacket, beige pants and professorial glasses, with her sparrow face, sprigging grey hair echoed darker in back, Howe read the title poem from her latest book, Souls of the Labadie Tract, an exploration of the abandoned site of a late 17th-century communitarian religious sect (the history of antinomian Protestant groups is a frequent presence in her work), shifting between a sort of cataloguing of fragmentary facts and features of the landscape and a lyric that seems to address history - "with continuous volteface/ in this sense ownerless" - in the tones of a lover: "I think of you as wild and fugitive. Stop awhile." (Part of the backstory is that Wallace Stevens' wife had ancestors from the Labadie group's area, so Stevens is a presence in it too.) The poem has also been musicked by David Grubbs (formerly of Gastr del Sol, Squirrelbait, Bastro) on an album forthcoming from Drag City, David's second collaboration with Howe (the first being 2005's fine Thiefth.)

She also read from the source of Kasemets' new work, a 1980 poem called The Liberties, which plays with the figures of Cordelia from King Lear, the Irish legend of Lir, and Jonathan Swift's "Stella," one of the two young women named Esther (the other he dubbed "Vanessa") with whom the Anglo-Irish satirist was ambiguously entangled. All of which, she explains, connects not only with feminist thinking but with Howe's mother, an Irish writer and actress whose set was preoccupied with the Stella/Vanessa story. "I think Cordelia is an equivalent figure to Stella in her loyalty, erasure, toughness and truth, not saying what she 'should' say." The poem was also influenced by Strindberg, Ibsen, and the feminist performance art she was seeing in New York at the time.

Kasemets didn't drop too many hints about what the "pOemoPERA" will be like, but if it's a match for the multidimensional, sculptured sound of Howe's words it should be a beauty. In their conversation, Howe said, "I'm not a music person, but I've been reading Theodor Adorno on Beethoven, where he said something like, 'In music you have to think verbally': You're making a narrative, and you are describing the music to yourself as you listen. I'm interested in the relation between words and music, or letters and music, or syllables. It interests me so much that Charles Ives wrote essays to go with pieces like his Concord Sonata, as if the essays had to go with the music."

The Liberties of Susan Howe by Udo Kasemets is performed tonight at 8 pm and tomorrow at 3 pm at Ryerson University's Rogers Communication Centre, Eaton Auditorium, 80 Gould Street.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 01 at 1:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

'Taste Test'

Exclaim has a little item about my book in its new issue, and in that item is a link to a longer interview, and in that interview I seem unable to speak in anything but Russian-doll-style chains of embedded subclauses.

It was taped pre-Halifax Scandal, so we don't get into that.

Later: Also, I missed Aaron Wherry's take and nice shoutout to the book last week. Sorry, AW, and thanks.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 28 at 5:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

It's Only Just Begun

Best-of-year time is upon us, it seems, perhaps having crept even another week back in the calendar compared to last year's record-early-and-overdone list season. Because I spent half the year mainly listening to one album released 10 years ago and in the process imagining a world without words like best and worst, I'm not going to play the game this year, at least not in the sense of making a big footnoted list (I'll still play this game; glad they have had second thoughts on the name, though from the overgaudy they've swung all the way over to hyperbland). Interestingly, I find this decision to underparticipate is making me less jaded and annoyed about the whole end-of-year clusterfrak. In fact I almost feel like, "Goody, here's my chance to get caught up."

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 26 at 4:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Mrs. Extra Extra

Joshua "Jane Dark" Clover sharpshooting a few days back on the improbable feat of Britney's "Piece of Me" - she takes the triple error of whining about fame, responding to her critics and tut-tutting about the tabloids and parlays it into a home run. Joshua considers its spot in her string of sadomasochistic singles (without even mentioning "Slave 4 U"): "she manages to appear, via a single phrase, as the subject and source of violence, abused and abuser, in a way that makes the distinction itself seem to shimmer and shift."

I'm less sure about the hierarchy he creates between listening and giving in: "It is a better song than 'Toxic,' less artsy, more banging, less for listening to and more for giving in to." Even granting that about "Toxic," which I'm not sure I do, is giving in automatically a better relationship to a pop song? Think of Prince: You listen to, say, "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and you give in to "Little Red Corvette," so with the latter you have a more delirious experience in the moment - but "Girlfriend" is the one that comes to mind to comfort and amuse me when I'm emotionally messed-up, never "Corvette." Being seduced versus being ravished: It seems a masochistic model in itself that it is always better to be dominated; it's a fine kink but it's not the way we all swing, at least not all the time. (Or to put it on another sexual axis: Is pop supposed to be no kissing, all fucking?)

For the record, my Britney list would probably put "Oops..." first (when I do swing that way, it's usually at the mercy of a seemingly sympathetic tormenter like the narrator of this song), "Toxic," "Piece of Me," then "Hit Me...," Joshua's no. 1.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 23 at 12:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Tinariwen @ the Mod Club and Ethnic Opacity

The Mod Club was packed. As far as I could tell there wasn't a big turnout of Toronto Tuaregs or Malians (that'd probably work better in Montreal), unless they were in the rows up close to the front across the sea of music journalists, "world music" fanciers, industry types drawn by Robert Plant's recommendation (ah, friends, you think that music bizzers just don't care about music, but they care very much what Classic Rock still has to tell them) and others who had come out to see Tinariwen, the international band-du-jour, this evening. As fellow crit-type Helen Spitzer put it, "So this is the crowd you get when Matt Galloway describes you as 'the Saharan Rolling Stones.' " But I don't mean this cynically: The band in large measure deserves the hype, and while it's not the blues-rock-exotica jam-fest that such a descriptor suggests (indeed, as one drunken guy nearby me slurred to his companions, "It sounds like country music! Nashville country music!" - and he was right, in as much as a bunch of songs in 15/8 rhythm can), the way that the electric and acoustic guitar can be treated like a smack fresh idea by this group of ex-expats who came together in a Libyan refugee/guerrilla camp in the 1980s does recall a moment when rock had a credible claim to liberatory power (as Helen's partner Michael Barclay says in his fine Eye profile of the group).

Lacking a vocabulary in Tuareg musical traditions or even much of a North African fluency aside from rudimentary Ali Farka Toure, most of us who've written about Tinariwen this year (do a quick search and you'll find tons: they're having a Moment) are short on interpretive strategies. There's the amazing backstory of their role as the voice of Tuareg rebellion, and then there are the voluptuous waves of the sound, the lightness of the touch: yes, there are guitar solos with some bluesy licks, but they're almost like Philip Glass rounds of hypnotic organ trills, fluttery birdcalls nothing like a Keef or Santana or Page phallic flange. They do in a reverse-retro way recall, for a western listener, some African-influenced guitar rock such as Television or Talking Heads, especially when rhythm-chord bursts overtake the primary backbeat of drum-and-drone. But even at their most assertive they seem gentle, as if their fingers hit the guitars more reverently than their western counterparts do. And then there are the vocals, which (aside from one apparently French-hip-hop-influenced, talk-sing number) remind me of African Arabic song, beautifully skewed to the hook-repeating guitar parts, hitting on the 3 and the 9 of the pattern and always communicative, conversational, until they descend to the final, sighing burnt-down conclusion of most every song.

We were missing the female component of the band tonight, a fundamental part of the call-and-response space of the music, reportedly because the main woman in the band recently had a baby (and another member, Barclay told me, is fighting malaria), and that made the group, despite its dramatic robe-and-turban-wrapped costume, seem a bit more mundane and boundaried than they do on record. But mainly it was the opacity of the content that nagged at me: Yes, music is a "universal language" in the sense that I joyfully danced and clapped and hummed along to these hypnotic tunes, but it is not, because I knew the lyrical and structural contents of the songs had much more challenging things to say, of which I knew nothing. The band clearly couldn't tell us much (the stage banter consisted, very charmingly, after they'd just kicked large quantities of musical ass, of asking, "It's okay?" and being greeted by ever-building screams of pleasure), but I wondered about the tourism we were indulging by listening to this band whose whole identity and mystique is wrapped up in the role they've played in their people's liberation struggle and walking away saying, "What a freaky ecstatic groove that was." (The country-music guy was also very excited by the purple lightshow that played out on the backdrop for a song or two, saying, "That's so psychedelic! They're kind of psychedelic, aren't they?" When of course the whole category of "psychedelic" was partly constructed by borrowings from Indian and Arabic and African rhythms - the signified becomes the signifier becomes the signified.)

But what would I ask? That Tinariwen provide surtitles? Pamphlets on Tuareg ethnic struggles mandatorily taken at the door? Perhaps it's more than enough that the next time a story about the Tuareg issue shows up in the papers, a Tinariwen fan will be twice as likely to read it, and if she's a newspaper editor be twice as likely to give it good play? In this way, beautiful music is perhaps greater propaganda than agit-prop: "I have good vibes for that oppressed people, man." But as I clapped on the 1 and the 4 and the 7 and the 10 and the 13 (or elsewhere at my best on the 2, 5, 8, 11, syncopating some), I longed to be thinking coherently about guns and camels and millet along with math and guitars. For that I probably needed less for Tinariwen to be coming to me and more to go to the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu, which I learned about in a pamphlet from the merch table. Or more realistically, to find ways to think of Timbuktu as a place and not a nursery rhyme. Maybe the uncertainty is the point.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 21 at 1:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Brooks Brother's Suit

A couple of friends in NYC text- and Facebook-messaged me today with references to Times columnist David Brooks that I couldn't quite understand. Tonight I find out why: I'm name-checked, along with Sasha Frere-Jones (and Steve Van Zandt), in his latest column. I'm not a Brooks fan, but I don't mind this one, which synthesizes my and Sasha's points (ditching the notion of a beef between us, happily, since beefin' was never my intention) into the notion of music now mirroring a "segmented society." I'm not so down with its "these kids today" and "music now sucks" 'tudes ("most young musicians don't know the roots and traditions of their music. They don't have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs" ... really? My experience is that young musicians now do very wide listening - if anything it may be an issue that our knowledge bases tend to be so broad that they lose some focus, and perhaps that fewer young musicians get traditions passed down in person from older ones.) But he's refreshingly comfortable with the idea that music, and culture in general, tends to reproduce social structure (more than it causes it, as conservatives and overzealous artsies alike tend to think), and I like his point that this segmentation is a source of widespread anxiety at a lot of levels. And I want a copy of Van Zandt's proposal for a curriculum that teaches American history through American music history.

Also at the Times site, Democrat Kurt Campbell makes a case for the social force of today's Nashville country music that I'd happily endorse if he weren't dismissive of the need for anyone aspiring to speak to a broad popular audience to listen more deeply to what hip-hop/R&B; have to say in equal measure. The more this electoral campaign wears on the more I feel that John Edwards' "two Americas" message is the most vital thing going, except it should be more like six, ten, twenty Americas.

Meanwhile, Peli makes a strong case for not reading tastes in reverse-mode: That is, that to have a strong positive reaction to a certain kind of music (or whatever) is not necessarily to be damning other categories and their audiences. Pierre Bourdieu would argue otherwise, saying that tastes are foremost an aggregate of distastes - that is, that if I reject the music associated with groups of people from whom I want to distinguish myself, I gravitate towards music as unlike that music as possible (and arguably made deliberately to be unlike that music). But Peli usefully points out that straight people who are strongly pro-queer are not taken to be adopting that stance because of their bias against groups of people who tend to be anti-queer (working-class black Americans being his example). I'm not sure that we can be so positive - surely part of the reason a straight young person adopts an outspoken pro-queer position is not just appreciation of queerness (and one's queer friends) but a distaste for intolerance and often for the particular brands of intolerance held by people (fundamentalists, for instance) that that young person finds distasteful, and that distaste goes beyond the hatefulness of the anti-gay position to a distaste for an entire worldview, a cultural difference. But Peli's right - this doesn't invalidate the pro-queer position itself. (Although it might condition certain snobbish, dogmatic ways in which it can be expressed?) This is why in my book I was more concerned to examine cultural dislikes, which I think have stronger social subtexts. Yes, people like stuff because it in some ways suits them, where they're coming from (which might be a socially segmented place). But that wouldn't be a big deal if it did not so often also include a desire to place those likes above other people's likes, to say, "This is good because it's not like all that bullshit that other people like."

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 21 at 12:31 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

So Sweet, So Cool, So Fair

Rob Walker, proprieter of the world's only one-song blog (as far as he or I know), as well as the New York Times Magazine's "Consumed" column and other good stuff, guest-hosts the downloadable mp4 podcast The Sounds in My Head, where he plays versions of "St James Infirmary" by everyone from Blind Willie McTell to Lily Tomlin and Peter Brotzmann. Fascinatin' rhythms.

Cool idea alert: As a benefit for the Regent Park School of Music, a bunch of Toronto rock-scene musicians are holding a "Rock Lottery," in which they meet in the morning, draw names to make up several new "bands" for the day, spend the day rehearsing and writing songs and perform them in a show that evening. The idea originates in Denton, Texas (home of the Hospital Bombers), apparently, and also operates in Seattle, under the happy-making slogan, "10 am: 25 Musicians. 10 PM: 5 New Bands." (It's not too far in concept from the "Instant Bands" project that Blocks Recording Club in Toronto did four years ago or so at Canzine, except in that case the musicians did not rehearse or write but attempted to generate songs spotaneously. But the American versions of Rock Lottery turns out to predate that, going back a decade.) Rock Lottery Toronto takes place on Dec. 1 at Sneaky Dee's and participants include Sook-Yin Lee, Katie Sketch (The Organ), Dan Werb & Paul Banwatt (Woodhands), Josh Reichmann (Jewish Legend), Ken Reaume, Adam Litovitz, Jonathan Adjemian (The River), Jonny Dovercourt (Republic of Safety) and many more.

Kelefa Sanneh reviews Celine Dion's new album today in the Times. Compared to mine, he is meaner, but generally fair - remarking, "She's easy to mock because she's so uncool, or rather, unchilly," a sentence that could have been plucked straight from my book. I am deeply envious of his "on this planet they call Earth" joke. Also very my-book-ish today, the new study from the Norman Lear Center about how political beliefs and entertainment tastes align - not much of which is so surprising, but I'm eager to dig into the demographic data there and see what we can learn about how the taste/ideology findings relate to class, education, etc., etc.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 19 at 6:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Sonic Youth 'Ahead of Curve' Reputation
Takes V1agra Hit Lee RU OK?

Gee, Mr. Ranaldo, that's such an amazingly kooky, original idea.

No harm in an idea being reused of course. But it would be more exciting if he were making a spam-based album. I am still waiting for flarf rock to happen. (Question: Who would you nominate as flarf rock practitioners? Aside from The Fall.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 15 at 3:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (16)

 

A Culture-Based Economy or an Economy-Based Culture?

koonsdiamond.jpg
Jeff Koons's "Diamond (Blue)," which sold for $11.8-million in a Christie's auction yesterday.

Stratospherically high-end art dealer Jefffrey Deitch in The New Yorker last week: "The art world used to be a community, but now it's an industry. It's not just a market - it's a visual-culture industry, like the film industry or the fashion industry, and it merges with both of them. Julian Schnabel makes movies, Marc Jacobs does collaborations with artists. We live in an increasingly culture-based economy, and the value of art is in synch with other tangible assets now, like real estate. I try to act responsibly toward the art, but if people offer tremendous amounts of money for it you really can't control that."

Bruce Springsteen in this week's Rolling Stone: "Race, poverty - those things get lost, and not unintentionally, through the use of other issues. There is an issue with national security that's real. But the movement has been toward a plutocracy. People say, 'We're in a second Gilded Age.' There's a price to pay for that. It weakens the foundation of the country, and it denies us freedoms, denies us connection with our own neighbors and citizens. Those are big issues that have failed to be addressed for so many years. Race and poverty clearly are major issues. And what's so disappointing is that they were major issues forty and fifty years ago, yet at least then they were part of the national conversation. It feels as though the conversation about those things has stopped at this point."

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 14 at 1:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Chaining Miss Daisy 2
(More Interconnected Miscellany)

... And speaking of (I'm gonna see how many times I can do this) 33 1/3, I'm tickled to tell you that besides the sample-chapter offer, Continuum is holding a contest related to my book: You have to guess where in the sales figures on the series my volume will rank by the end of March (2008) - where, that is, between the series' perennial No. 1, the Neutral Milk Hotel book, and the current lowest-ranker, on A Tribe Called Quest (race-and-indie-rock polemicists, start your engines!), a book on Celine Dion and the sociology of taste will wind up a few months after publication. The prediction that comes closest will win you 10 free 33 1/3 books of your choice! Send your guesses to predictingceline AT yahoo DOT com by December 1.

And speaking of Celine, my review of her new album Taking Chances appears today in The Globe and Mail. The piece is kind of odd, as I realized in the process that nothing I could write about Celine that would take the book into account would actually make sense to readers unless they had read the book. (I figured out after the fact that I shoulda just dealt with that head-on, but too late now.) So don't expect anything too rad - it's mainly just a record review, which only obliquely addresses the mystery of her simultaneous popularity and unpopularity, the question that drives the book. I gave Taking Chances three out of four stars more on whim than anything else: Star ratings are always arbitrary but in the context of having written the book, it feels especially absurd with Celine - what is it being rated relative to: fan expectations, her past work, LCD Soundsystem, Balls of Fury, diptheria, IKEA? (I decided to rate it relative to the extent to which it opaquely fulfills various theses in the book.) There are a couple of tracks on it I like as much as anything she's ever done, in a way, but that's because I'm meant to.

And returning to (damn, broke the chain) the questions of ambition, "retreat" and so forth in current alternative rock/adult alternative/indiemacallit, an entry on musical "dealbreakers" on Carrie Brownstein's new blog for NPR, Monitor Mix, is four-on-the-floor: "My deal-breaker is preciousness: when the music is a tiny, baby bird that needs us to be nurturing and respectful, otherwise it can't spread its wings. I like quiet music, folk music, solo artists - it's not a matter of volume or numbers, but it is a matter of art being able to stand on its own two feet. I don't think music needs to be coddled, no matter how delicate or soft it sounds. When a band or singer makes me go awwww, as I would at the sight of a newborn child, then that is a band that needs a pacifier not an amplifier. Other indicators of preciousness include, but are not limited to: matching old-timey outfits; mumbling, soft-spoken stage banter that trails off and is quickly followed by a cutesy smile, which for some reason garners huge cheers from the audience; being so nervous on stage that someone in the crowd has to yell 'you can do it!' or 'we love you' (exception made here for child performers); asking people to lie down on the floor for the next song; and any audience sing-along or participation so complicated that it needs to be explained before the song starts."

I don't hate all those things (nervousness can be interesting when it's not an attempt to ingratiate) but it is a good answer to the misapprehension that what we're talking about is merely quiet versus loud or lo-fi versus pop and so forth. Ms Brownstein is of course formerly of Sleater-Kinney and so far her bloggery is standing up well to her guitarslinging.

Speaking of (hah!) good nervousness, SFJ on The New Yorker blog today has smart + kind words for Toronto's own Final Fantasy. (Um, Owen, your website needs updating.)

(Later: In re: this latest bit of reportage - which has appeared in several places, oblivious to the fact that a YouTube video of Celine Dion doing AC/DC in sound check made the rounds ages ago - please see several pages of Let's Talk About Love where I talk about her music as "metal on estrogen.")

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 13 at 5:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Chaining Miss Daisy (Notes from All Over)

Above, the foreign ministers of France and Germany - Bernard Kouchner (who was one of the founders of Medicins Sans Frontieres, among much else) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in the process of recording a song to promote integration, in both the European-constitutional and the Islamic-immigrant senses, 2 da yout'. I can hear you wincing from here, but the ministers merely join in on singing the chorus of "Deutschland" but the rest is by German-Turkish musician Muhabett and 17-year-old Sefo in a style they're calling R&Besk; (a fusion of pop-R&B; and Turkish Arabesk, sung in German) - as you can hear here, it's none too shabby. You might even call it a fine case of "musical miscegenation." And while it's easy enough to make jokes, it's pretty cool to me that these politicians are going out of their way to take an interest in the street and pop music of marginalized Arab young people in Europe. Better that politicos sometimes embarrass themselves by embracing art clumsily than that they demonize and censor it. (Has anyone heard the Hugo Chavez album?)

Speaking of miscegenation, Franklin Bruno's contribution to the 33 1/3 blog series at Powell's reminded me that his book on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces is, quite subtly, one of the more subtle, thoughtful takes on indie-style rock culture and race out there, taking Costello's "Columbus incident" as a case study in the problematics of appropriation, cultural distance and "blue-eyed soul." I also liked his point about first encountering a lot of black American music through UK post-punk covers. It reminded me how I first learned about reggae because a lot of 1980s Canadian new-waveish and even folkie musicians (like their US and UK counterparts) - particularly ones from Toronto - were using reggae rhythms. It was only later I understood they hadn't just picked out reggae as a cool sound they liked but because, like London, Toronto had a substantial Jamaican community. Indeed, my tastes in reggae to this day pretty much stick close to the "golden age" artists that most influenced that generation, like Jimmy Cliff, Culture, Burning Spear, etc., plus dub. (Due to bad-context overexposure it's rare for me to find circumstances where I enjoy listening to Bob Marley but that's no slight on the Wailers.) I've never managed to focus more than fleeting attention on dancehall/ragga. That's one of the questions that's come up in passing in recent discussion - how often are cross-cultural influences picked up secondhand rather than from, as it were, primary sources, and is it a bad thing when listeners go no further or, for example, musicians borrow elements that way without returning to source? (In some ways isn't that broken-telephone effect a possible force for good mutations as well as bad appropriations?)

There's a lot else in the Powell's series worth reading, by the way, including recent reading lists from Mike McGonigal and Douglas Wolk, or today's Erik Davis joint on guilty pleasures, Amon Amarth and weightlifting.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 13 at 2:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Indie, Class and the Death of Bohemia: 2

In saying that there is no bohemia in the 19th/20th-century sense - and, as suggested in the Comments this morning, also no avant-garde - I'm not calling for its restoration. While I feel an inevitable nostalgia for a lost tradition I grew up imagining I would join (but never genuinely did or could), elitist vangardism, revolutionary playacting and condescension aren't attractive to me now, and subculturalism is basically the upmarket model for consumerism, the boutique mezzanine above the big-box ground floor.

However, as bohemian avant-gardism goes up in a puff of disbelief, it leaves us with a problem: motivation and direction. The delusion that the avant-garde was going to better the world - or, later, in its more punk-rock iteration, "destroy everything" - was naive and grandiose but it was something to work with. The capital-r Romantic playacting that middle-class youth cultures took up, renouncing privilege or snitching hip black signifiers or more generally pretending to either being street toughs or decadent aristocrats (the two main artistic personae of the 20th century) related to these horizons in some broad way. Personally, I feel like we can and should do without the Romantic quest for excess, and one of the strengths of alternative music/art scenes now is that in aggregate they do. There's a lot less grandeur and more of a what-the-hell, playful, toss-it-at-the-wall attitude (an eclecticism Arthur Danto explains as resulting from having outlived the end of art history). The trouble however is that this generates a lot of underdone art.

(... continues below the fold ...)

I'm very pro-middle-class, in the sense that as more-or-less a social democrat, I'd like to see a world in which everyone was roughly middle class. However, so long as society is heavily striated, class wreaks mental/moral damage on everyone. There are syndromes typical of the rich and the poor, but one of the traits of middle-classness tends to be an anxious mix of self-satisfied complacency and self-defensive risk aversion. It's great that adult-alternative rockers aren't pretending to be the oppressed (which besides being obnoxious tends to produce a lot of heroin addicts), but those pretenses did have imaginative functions - they push you to become something bigger, to try harder, to take larger chances.

So then the challenge becomes: What is it that might produce great middle-class art, in the absence of a bohemian motivational and support construct? (Granting that middle-class is a vast, fuzzy umbrella term; maybe it would be better to ask something like how might we produce great insurance-broker art or great graduate-student art or great suburban townhouse music. But extending high-school-clique terms throughout adult life - whatever identification we continue to feel with "jock" or "nerd" or "prep" in later life - mostly obfuscates the nature of grownup social divisions. The inadequacy of class terms is more transparent and that's an advantage.)

It's not like it has never been done - a lot of classic midcentury Hollywood film would qualify to me, giddily depicting middle-class stability disrupted or threatened and then restored. Among adult-alternative musicians, I feel like Final Fantasy, for example, nears the goal - marshalling all his resources, some of them quite luxurious and others in various states of disrepair, having a democratic interest in both the beautiful and the ugly where they seem to serve the purpose, all with an evident work ethic and level of commitment that a lot of equally talented artists don't muster. But I'm not sure I see a paradigmatic conclusion to draw from that. It does make a certain sense in this light that so much of the music currently seems "literary" in nature - and that "poetic" doesn't seem quite the word in the old Romantic rock-and-roll Dylan & Jim Morrisson etc sense - because surely the 20th-century novel is the exemplary middle-class form. (Whereas poetry is the exemplary bohemian form.)

I think it's a problem shared across the arts since the 1960s, which has just deepened decade by decade: Given the collapse of the avant-garde ideal of forever superseding previous intensities in order to transform consciousness/society, what exactly is art after, what is it for, what is it aiming at, what makes one work worth doing and another not? It's difficult to put that out of our pretty little heads forever. In pop music, the ambition to get rich/famous stands in for this dilemma, which I think makes things easier, but not all the good artists are cut out for that game. At the same time, defining yourself "against the mainstream" while having no working theory of what you mean by "mainstream" or "against" is a hard trick to sustain.

This in part explains, I think, why, as Frank wrote, "indie vocalists aren't hearing a potential voice for themselves except in vocals that seem to be some sort of retreat." The Romantic/bohemian tradition they're trying to fit into being defunct, the voice of retreat may seem a natural language, perhaps one that is in search of new words for forwards. To borrow a distinction from the Dave Hickey interview I linked a few days ago, the "trouble with indie rock" may not be the "quality of the work" (which is often quite high) but "the quality of the job" - what task is being taken on, whether a task is being taken on, and with what kind of ambition. That seems to be the thing to listen for.

PS: I respect Frank's question about the lack of specific musical examples in this conversation. There are actually quite a few in Sasha's piece, even if I quibble with his choices. If his article had been a couple of pages longer so he might have expanded on some of his critiques, but space restrictions are as much a reality as deadlines. What I felt more keenly missing from Sasha's piece, however, was socio-economic context, which was why I concentrated so heavily on that aspect. No reason why the discussion can't continue on to asking listeners and musicians their perspectives (which partly happened in the Arcade Fire's response to Sasha for instance), but as I've said before, sometimes you have to choose the big brush and forego the small, especially when you've got exactly a day to prepare a response. My book is about taste, class and music, too, but it's got a lot more nuance. (Frank's recent columns overlap so much with my book that it's eerie - and not just when he compares Celine Dion & the White Stripes.)

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 09 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Indie, Class and the Death of Bohemia: 1

Folks (in the Comments) are leaping to misjudgment on what I meant in pointing to Frank Kogan's recent Las Vegas Weekly column in response to Sasha Frere-Jones and my pieces on "indie." (Which I'll assume, if you're bothering to read this, by now, you've already read.)

Frank provides, as always, intelligent syntheses and correctives to ideas from both pieces, eg. on the need to read alterna-cultural gestures dialectically in relation to the mainstream, which is if anything more intensely "miscegenated" than ever. Sasha was trying to say the same with his Snoop/Dre example but got a bit off-track; turning to Justin Timberlake instead, as Frank does (when he's finished re-celebrating the Rolling Stones), is a much clearer point of contrast: The question becomes, why does JT so giddily mimic black styles while "indie" tends to eschew them, and to some degree the question is its own answer. However, to the degree that it's not, I still say that for liberal white kids the entire critique of appropriation that came out of both academia and black nationalist '80s-and-'90s activism has created a taboo, and one of the debates that feels missing in all the response to SFJ's piece is the one I suspect he most wants to have, which is, Should that taboo be respected? (Which in a way is again to ask, what is the value or negative value of "authenticity," "keeping it real," and so forth?) It's his strongest point and I do feel like people keep trying to wish it out of existence, by bringing up exceptions such as TVotR etc. Part of my point was that it's instructive to observe who, socially, respects such a taboo and who doesn't.

My main disagreement with Frank comes when he says: "The class divide that's relevant here isn't, as Carl thinks, between rich and poor but between bohemia and the mainstream. Most indie kids may be middle class, but most of the middle class isn't indie and most salaried professionals aren't part of liberal arts culture."

I agree that we're talking about fractions of the middle class, rather than classes as a whole. (I'd still argue that's part of the problem, that once upon a time the "underground" did have a stronger relationship to bigger social divisions than that, often a vicarious or romanticized relationship but still not this utter indifference.) But I have real trouble with Frank's interchanging use of "bohemia" and "liberal arts culture" here, as precisely my point was that this cluster of musical interests once denoted a membership in a bohemia - in shorthand, a dropout mutual-aid network of alienated dissenters using various parasitic subterfuge to sustain an alternate set of values - and is now semi-professionalized as a liberal-arts activity. I don't think bohemias in the old sense exist much anymore, and certainly indie-rock is not where any remnant or mutant versions are likely to be found.

(... Continued below the fold ...)

The sustenance of a bohemia, I suspect, requires a larger middle-middle class than in this ever-more-polarized economy, in which upper-middle and lower-middle keep getting further apart - which means, for instance, a shortage of the kind of low-commitment day jobs and casual work that support bohemias. It's also for the socio-economic reasons I discussed in the Slate piece, which I'd summarize by saying that many of the values formerly associated with bohemia are, in a "knowledge economy" where graphic designers and programmers and consultants and other ideas-trading entrepreneurs (including many writers) are part of the upper-middle class, now mainstream values. So the fragment of the children of the middle-class who are drawn to that kind of creative discourse are actually among the most potentially upwardly mobile. Having a rock band on your resume is likely to be a plus for those seeking those kinds of professional jobs. At which point the structural oppositionalism of bohemianism - which included an at least vicarious identification and often more extended contact with lower socioeconomic classes due to "voluntary poverty" - vanishes and it is reabsorbed into class dynamics.

But mainly it's a cultural-history thing: For technological, sociological and other reasons, in North America and most of Europe, "bohemia" won the tug-of-war with the cultural conservatives that marked much of the history of art movements in the 20th century. Which, perhaps thankfully, renders bohemia obsolete. What it leaves by default, though is liberal-arts culture. What distinguishes liberal-arts culture from the rest of upper-middle-class/upper-class culture? I would turn - as I do at length in my book - to what Pierre Bourdieu describes as the conflict between portions of the dominant class whose status is primarily staked on economic capital (eg. most people who work in business, financial, sales, industry and such fields) and those whose status is primarily founded on cultural capital (the arts, academics, software, designers, advanced-degree professionals).

Bourdieu argues that the cultural-capital fractions occupy a "dominated" position within the dominant class, which is part of why they (we) feel like a dissenting group that identifies with the underdog while at the same time are regarded by the majority of the population as a set of snooty elites, a contradiction that Republicans have exploited for political gain over the past 20 years. So there is a separation, as Frank says, but I don't think it's the kind of separation made by bohemians in the old sense.

Indeed, the lines blur dramatically, as has been captured by the otherwise-pretty-useless David Brooks in the phrase "Bobo" - bourgeois bohemian. I'm aware of many, many more upper-middle class architects, lawyers, academics, even accountants who spend their music budgets on "indie"-related music than I can imagine were aware of underground/alternative stuff pre-1995. The Eagles record is sold at Wal-Mart; Feist is sold at Starbucks. And the proportion of high-school and university students who are actively engaged with it, as is reflected on record charts and MuchMusic and many other indicators, is much larger. What's more, one of the dominant more-mainstream musics right now - emo/mall-punk - is only one skip and jump away, and while there's some effort in alternative music to keep a distance from that, it's hardly its driving purpose. Which leads us to the question: Is there a driving purpose?

I'm not saying that purpose should be akin to the outmoded bohemian one. I have to break off here but I'll continue (probably tomorrow) by discussing why and what the other options might be.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 08 at 2:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)

 

Organic Vs Silicon Intellectuals

Here's another take on the class-and-rock (slash adult alternative) issue via the Guardian's blog: "Where are rock's working-class intellectuals?" Personally I doubt that even in the very different ranks of "indie" as they're defined in the UK, there aren't still bass players reading esoteric books, but working-classness and lack thereof in rock gets a good workout (amid various feuds and nonsense) in the comments there, since it's Britain, where nobody gets freaked out by using the word "class." Meanwhile of course in North American indie/adult-alternative, there's no shortage of well-readness and literary reference (which is all the poster means by "intellectual" there, which is a dubious usage), but nearly all in a liberal-arts register, not the autodidactic, knowledge-as-escape/weapon/secret that it seemed in the examples given (and often in the post-punk examples Simon Reynolds details in Rip It Up & Start Again). Pardon the hastiness of these thoughts - no time to expand further right now - but it does tie in to the bohemian-vs-middle-class distinction that Frank Kogan draws in the column linked yesterday, which I don't think is very viable in reference to "rock" culture now.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 07 at 1:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

How the Hell Are You, Blue Roses

Details have been announced on the upcoming Hello, Blue Roses album, that being the duo of Dan Destroyer Bejar and Sydney Hermant/Vermont. The quote from Dan in the P'fork story is equal parts vinegar and honey, just like Hello, Blue Roses music.

On the argue-about-things front, some responses to recent writings by Frank Kogan and others are forthcomingish.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 06 at 6:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Iva Bittova, and Wine Music vs. Beer Music

My profile of Czech singer-violinist Iva Bittova appears today in The Globe and Mail, with an introduction for newcomers to her work and some cool news about recent changes and planned new projects for fans.

Above is a video of Bittova performing (with a children's choir she directed) on Czech TV. And here are a few outtakes from the interview that didn't make it into the piece:

On her father: "He was born in Slovakia near the Hungarian border. He grew up in a musical family and he could play many instruments, and also he played folk music, like Slovakian, Hungarian, Romanian, and as a professional doublebass player with opera. So he was very open to play and listen to many different kinds of music - I grew up listening to folk, opera, jazz. I remember he had many scores of classic music like Dvorak ... we were reading notes and listening to music at the same time, which was very important to me, to see how the writing of such beautiful music looks. He was a human being that was more quiet and full of emotions, and he was mostly practiciing at home and playing and listening rather than talking. I feel now that I'm more communicative through music. I prefer to explain what I really feel by music."

On the difference between Moravian and Bohemian Czech culture, in terms that might be relevant to Dave's contemplations of dinner music: "There was an article, because I released this Moravian Gems album [with George Mraz] - there's an article from a newspaper that said that Bohemian people drink beer and Moravians drink wine, so in Bohemia they play more brass bands, more simple kind of music, while Moravia is Janacek music - so it's better to be born there! And also near to Slovakia border, because also this is what I like to do in future - maybe collect traditional songs from east of Slovakia, they are very very beautiful songs. My father played lots of these songs."

On career planning: Everything in my work is just like, one day I receive some invitation and then I decide if I go or not. ... I have to make very careful choices. LIke when they invited me to sing in the opera, I was not really sure if I could do it. It was the most hard work for me in my life, but it makes me stronger as a singer. I cannot be afraid. I just have to find my way, and see if I am good or not. Most organizers ask me to come solo because it is more simple, but have many different opportunities to play with other musicians - for example, the Nederlands Blazer Ensemble, 15 brass musicians; a string quartet, sometimes; and last month I played in Sardinia and I'd never met the drummer before - I met Hamid Drake just at the soundcheck. He is a wonderful drummer."

Bittova plays the Music Gallery in Toronto tonight, solo, at 8 pm. Don't miss her.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 06 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Passing the Secret (Society) Along

Happy news from Darcy James Argue, who's not only a shakin'-and-bakin' young composer and band leader about town in NYC, but one of the most productive contributors to the non-pop/rock music blog world: In conjunction with the International Association of Jazz Educators conference in the T-dot in January, he's going to be presenting the very first Canadian gigs of his Secret Society big band. However, since it's prohibitively expensive to tour an 18-person group, what DJA is presenting is "Secret Society North," a reconstituted version that combines core members of his NYC ensemble with Canadian musicians. (Darcy is Canadian himself, hailing from Vancouver and having done his musical undergradding at McGill.) The roster is impressive: on reeds, Erik Hove, Christine Jensen, Joel Miller, Chet Doxas and Carl Maraghi; a heavy-hitting horn section of Ingrid Jensen, Dave Smith, Lina Allemano, Kevin Turcotte and Jocelyn Couture on trumpets and Mike Fahie, Kelsley Grant, Barb Hamilton and Bob Ellis; and in the rhythm section, Sebastian Noelle, guitar, Dave Restivo, piano, Matt Clohesy, bass, and Jon Wikan, drums.

As Darcy puts it: "Our gig there is an important opportunity to present Secret Society tunes to a much wider audience, but more than that, it's a chance for us to perform fresh and forward-looking music for students and educators who too often let their focus on jazz's past obscure their view of what is happening right now." (Cf. Dave Douglas's interesting reflections on jazz education and the New.)

In Toronto, besides an official IAJE gig Jan 10, they'll be at the Tranzac on Jan 11, and before they get here they'll be making a stop off at La Sala Rossa on Jan 8.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 05 at 4:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

The Bodybuilder & Jim Guthrie & I

Just wanted to urge readers in Toronto to go see the local documentary The Bodybuilder & I in its opening weekend, playing at Canada Square. That's the trailer up above: A touching and funny look at a father-son relationship through the bulgy lens of late-middle-age competitive bodybuilding, it won first prize at the Hot Docs festival this year. I served as a music consultant on the film and we were lucky to get Jim Guthrie (of Royal City and Islands among other projects, though he's probably best known for that "Hands in My Pockets" TV commercial) to compose the soundtrack.

You know how the commercial runs of Canadian movies tend to go - in one week, gone the next - so don't snooze. The filmmaker and his dad will be there tonight for the 7 pm screening. The movie's also showing at the Granville in Vancouver and the Bytowne in Ottawa.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 02 at 2:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Bizarre Love Triangle:
Skye Sweetnam Steals Joel Gibb's Boyfriend

I've been resisting complaining about this, but I've just seen the iPhone ad that uses Skye Sweetnam's new single, "Music Is My Boyfriend," as its soundtrack and perfectly unobjectionable as the song is, I got annoyed. Can it really be a coincidence that the title is the same as Toronto's own The Hidden Cameras' song "Music Is My Boyfriend" (that's a good quality but slightly distorted live recording), which was released on the album Mississauga Goddam in 2004, and the title of which has also been the band's semi-official slogan for years?

Given the eccentricity of the phrase, and the fact that Sweetnam (who co-wrote the song with the Matrix, I believe) is from Ontario herself, it's kind of hard to swallow this as a golden stream of pure coincidence. (Though it might have been unconscious pilfering.) Since my general stance on plagiarism is "yes," it's not like I want everyone to lawyer up, but it'd be great if Skye and Capitol Records handed Joel Gibb and crew some kind of acknowledgment. Although it could be that even the tide of missed-target Google searches this will generate will bring a few new ears to the Cameras.

But Skye, honey, I'm afraid music still loves Joel best.

(Later: I was mistaken - that iPhone ad is actually using CSS's "Music Is My Hot Hot Sex," not the Skye track - I mixed them up because CSS also uses the "music is my boyfriend" line in that song! Plots thicken, pots call kettles black, etc etc.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 01 at 11:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Dave Hickey and Sheila Heti:
Down Around the Lizard Brain

hickey.bmp sheilahead.jpg

"Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It's a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. ... I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort - a totally nonredemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway. It's about that level of intensity. So you want to find out more about it since its sources are so mysterious, and these sources reside in you as well as in the object. But I have no evangelical feelings about art at all. I despise art education. Art doesn't lend itself to education. There is no knowledge there. It's a set of propositions about how things should look." - Dave Hickey

This interview in the new Believer with Dave Hickey, art critic and author of Air Guitar and MacArthur "genius," is one of my favourite things I've read this year. Hickey is a hero, and the interview was conducted in Toronto by Zoilus's dear friend Sheila Heti, whose talent as an interviewer is almost the equal of her gifts as a writer. I've had a transcript of this interview for several months now and find myself compelled to re-read it once a week, just to re-boot my own head. Fresh, clear, compelling thoughts about art and society (not all of which I agree with but all of which I enjoy thinking into and through), with sidelines about life and love, wrapped up in a salty, hilarious conversation.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 01 at 1:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

33 1/3'ing: Powells

I've neglected to mention that Powells Bookstore's website blog has been featuring a series of guest posts by authors of the 33 1/3 books. Haven't read them all yet but they're looking as varied and enjoyable as the books themselves. My guest post is coming up sometime in November.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 4:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Adult Alternative?

feist-live.png

A couple of days ago, in Pretty Goes With Pretty's latest take at trying to unearth what it really is that Sasha/me/Jess/everybody have been bitching about in re: blogrock, he brought it back around to an earlier post of his that I'd never seen about the transformation of indie-under-mini-maxi-rock into Adult Alternative, using the obvious case of Feist as an instance. This gets very near the nub of what I was suggesting in my Slate piece. Coincidentally, I also just received the following email from Steve Kado of Blocks Recording Club, with whom I've been writing back-and-forth about these issues the past week:

Steve says: "i'd argue that we do have words for what we're talking about there are actually even radio formats for most of it: 'adult alternative' 'college rock'. seriously: what else is 'the national' or 'the hold steady'? that is college rock, or alternatively: it's college rock for 30 year olds who never outgrew college. never mind that we might want to feel different about it (or someone might), that it's "more than that". the violent femmes, archetypal college rock are also "more than that" - they are a kind of canny and clever acoustic post-punk band, but what did that add up to? college rock.

"i think that the main problem is that ideas of 'taste' are actually trying to manipulate the vocabulary surrounding what are basically very standard categories - in part out of shame or a desire to be 'above' shame. or maybe more accurately: the pejorative associations that 'calling a spade a spade' would produce would render the products 'unmarketable' in part because it would highlight things about the intended and enthusiastic audience that would not help them warm to the product."

Both Steve's and PGWP's words bring me back around to the question that animates much of my book. It involves playing devil's advocate against my indie-and-class position from Slate, but: What is the nature of the stake so many of us have in disliking conventionally pretty music? In the book, talking about Celine, it's in the context of "adult contemporary" (formerly MOR, "middle-of-the-road" music). Here, it is "adult alternative." In both cases it's easy to label it as "dinner music." Well, what is wrong with having music to have dinner by? Mightn't that in fact be one of the times that you most need some music to listen to, music to which you can chat along or else sit and chew and sip your drink and listen contemplatively, but music that is not going to disrupt and upset your digestive system or your conviviality with your dinner companions?

Not saying that I don't feel my knee jerk hard against "dinner music" too, against its unsexiness or decontextualizedness (my biggest complaint against Feist and against New College Rock in general, symptomatic of global-economy cosmopolitanism, but even then, perhaps too absolutist a value), its supposed complacency etc. But it is a rather strange prejudice just to take for granted, no? And I think the parenthood question in PGWP's post is very germane here: Is the reluctance to say, "Okay, I like some Adult Alternative music," owing to some atavistic fear that we are approving music that our parents might also approve of? If so, how moronic is that?

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 3:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

'The Global Cipher'

While parsing the definition of "hater" is all jolly fun, it can be nice to look out beyond our blogospheric navels, so I recommend to you Jeff Chang's new feature about international hip-hop in, of all places, Foreign Policy magazine, along with an interview with a Shanghai hip-hop promoter.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 1:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

A Reality TV-style Challenge

Using this LimeWire post as your entry point, but being sure to read Jess Harvell's blistering Idolator screed and however much of the comments section you can stand, see how much music-blogorrhea you can ingest before you pass out. When you wake up, you will never want to use the Internet again.

John Darnielle's response calmed me down a bit, getting all historical-perspectivey. It is true that today's relentless Positive Energy is only the flip and decidedly preferable side of yesterday's Overwhelming Cynicism. However, I think the main conclusion to be drawn, despite all of last week's slapping around of the term, is that we would be better off to stop talking about "Indie Rock" at all, not only for literalist reasons (much of it is not independent and when it is, the thing that it is independent of is a music industry that's not particularly scary unless it's suing you; as well, a lot of it is not rock music), but because the use of the term invokes the image of an underground culture organized around music, which was once an extant reality but has not in fact been one for most of this decade if not longer. (Arguably there are current musical undergrounds, but indie is not one of them.) To clear our vision on that matter would be helpful in bringing down the reading on the Delusional Barometer a few notches.

As far as the state-of-criticism issue in general is concerned, John's final paragraph on LPTJ is very much in the sprit of the last chapter of my book, where I address this question at length, so I'll leave that for another day. Suffice to say that it is a reductive and much too easy answer to think that to reclaim a robust sense of criticism is to expend more energy on the pointing out of flaws, just because that's the literal meaning of "criticize." The ratio of praise to blame is barely at all germane to what makes good criticism. In any case, more specifically, dear Idolator, I really like you, but between this and last week's Oink merry-go-round, it does get mega-meta-grim around there sometimes. Thank you for relieving the gloom with that life-restoring Robyn video.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 29 at 4:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

'[Indie] Is Poisoned by the Vanity of Its Audience'

Without directly referring to the discussion here/on Slate/in the NY'er, Matt Perpetua took the whole argument to a grouchier extreme the other day on Fluxblog. He's only half-right, but wow, does he ever nail that half to the wall:

"When it comes to art that is practically defined by it falling on the outskirts of the mainstream, the audience is almost always going to be comprised of people just waiting for the right moment to get into backlash mode. They kid themselves into believing that they sincerely care about the art, but what they really love is the social capital of hipness, and can't afford to put too much of themselves into something that may become unfashionable. This is the real problem, if we're going to be very honest -- at the root level, indie/alternative/college rock/blog rock/whatever you want to call it is poisoned by the vanity of its audience, and as a result, the industry built around it will always be unstable, and the culture around the music will be dominated and debased by swarms of self-styled experts attempting to one-up one another. As a wise man once said: 'This ain't a scene, this is a god damn arms race.' "

(Likewise, viz Clap Clap.)

And Wayne Marshall as always has extremely cogent things to say.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 24 at 2:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 2

A few more scattered points before I let this drop:

e) One of the most articulate commenters in Slate's "the Fray" objected that Sasha and I were each "fetishizing authenticity." This is a good question. My first demurral would be that you can't talk about these "big picture" things without making reductive generalizations, which unfortunately makes it easy for readers to take away points that you weren't actually making. (This happened to Sasha too.) To sufficiently qualify and evidence all the points would require a book-length treatment, maybe a really boring one. These were broad-brush pieces. However, I'm not saying that working-class music is better than middle-class/upper-class music, but that cultural insularity can be a problem. As she says, it can also be a fertile sort of concentrated force, but it does risk running into ruts, and if there is a problem with indie rock at all right now, it is the sense that there are ruts being dug.

However, if, as that same commenter goes on to say, you think either Sasha or I think that rhythm-centred music is made with less mental calculation and aforethought than any other kind of music, you are misreading. What each of us said, to different degrees, is that "indie" right now has a tendency to lack in body-consciousness and emphasize "smart" in a good-student kind of way (sometimes actually being smart and sometimes just loading up on signifiers of smartness). This does not entail, however, that more-body-conscious music is less smart. One does not require the other. (Also it doesn't mean that I don't like lots of music that's all head and no butt, because obviously I do. The proportions are just seeming out of whack.)

f) Scott from Pretty Goes With Pretty objects to my class thesis on the basis that "indie/alt-rock" and "college" have gone together since the '80s. But that overlooks the broader context I pointed to in the Slate piece, of growing material gaps between classes in the U.S. in the past 25 years. So yes, it's always been a mainly middle-class thing but as the true middle class shrinks, that starts to mean more of an upper-middle-class thing. For one thing I think its increased distance from the (arguably) more class-mixing hardcore-punk scene (what's left of it) has changed the cultural style of "indie." (This of course began with the mainstreaming of the harder-rocking sector of the underground in the early-to-mid 1990s.) As well, the devaluation of the literal meaning of "indie" has happened for a lot of reasons (downloading being one) but along with it comes the diminishment of the obsessive means-of-production discussions that used to be part and parcel of the "indie" aesthetic - once it was heavily politicized and concerned about material procedures and consequences; the dematerialization of music and the depoliticization of "youth culture" end up resulting in a default to a more unself-consciously insular class p.o.v. on the "college" scene, including confusing voluntary low-income status with class, etc. (Not that the politics of 80s and 90s alt-rock scenes were always - or maybe ever - convincing and coherent; but at least those questions were built in.) However, Scott's right to point out that a key class issue in this climate is access to high-speed Internet service.

g) One thing I didn't get to in the article, which I think is vital, is that what a good part of "indie" draws on are avant-garde gestures, but very few of these bands think of themselves or practice as an avant-garde. (This may apply to art across the board, but I won't get into that broader issue here.) So there's a confusion - at one time eschewing dance beats, conventional harmonies, etc, were deliberate decisions in an art practice, now they're simply features of a niche genre. (One that's increasingly mainstream.) You could come up with a class analysis but for our purposes let's just say that what "art-rock" means, what it's for, has become much more vague. It's tempting to say indie has become more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual, more of a "middlebrow" thing rather than a deliberate smashing together of high and low. Personally I have a really fraught time with that, feeling some lingering attachment to an avant-garde framework but also wary of the multiple snobberies embedded in using a term like "middlebrow." (See my book for a whole lot more about this.) This is why I left it out of the Slate piece, but I do think finding terms to talk about it is very salient to this conversation.

h) Bringing up the fact that dude from Modest Mouse grew up poor is, like the TV on the Radio thing, not a refutation of the more general point. The exceptions would be interesting to analyze, but that would be another set of articles. I'm sure there are tons of non-middle/upper-class people in indie rock now. If someone wants to do a statistical survey, bring it on. However, I feel my generalizations are valid enough, based on years of observation. (That said, remember that Isaac Brock and friends started Modest Mouse in 1993. The fact that they are the example that springs to mind for everyone almost seems to demonstrate that something did shift from the '90s to the 2Ks.)

i) One thing that got muddled in all the rhythm-talk - it seems to me a lot of the dance-punk stuff comes from a milieu that's if anything more upper-class (rich clubbing kids) than the folkie-indie stuff. Again, not all of it, but quite a bit. You might even guess this, since the choice to use hip-hop and techno materials shows a greater sense of entitlement, as opposed to the more hesitant skirting-around that the indie-folk stuff arguably does. I'm not sure how to fit this into the whole scheme of the debate, but it's worth noting.

j) Aside from all the social issues, what we might be talking about is just the decline of rock, as a very old, played-out form. Certainly when Sasha, perhaps inadvertantly, sounded like he was calling for a blues-rock revival, it raised the spectre of a Wynton Marsalis-type neo-classicism. Is rock (leaving aside metal) following the footsteps of jazz, where you have the neo-classicists (Kid Rock, for example, and even the emo bands in a way) keeping the styles of past decades in circulation and then the pro-innovation camp (indie/noise/etc) seeming to recycle gestures of "newness" for a small, specialized audience, with little sense of consequence on either side?

k) Finally, what is the problem with the upper-class-ization of indie rock, if that's true? It might mirror some social trends I find troubling but what is the musical issue? It's not an objection to any one or several groups' practice, but to an accumulated tendency, and some of the answers are similar to what Sasha named as the consequences of a lack of African-American influence. The main one I think is the profile of ambition that comes across in the music: Because the privileged musicians don't have the same survival issues at stake that pop musicians historically often have had (which are comparable to what motivates a lot of people who become star athletes), the aspirations are more modest and the stakes often seem much lower. Less seems to be on the line. The art of performance often suffers (that "show-biz" put-it-all-out-there fire). With the most gifted musicians, this doesn't matter so much, because they find something else to be ambitious about, something to stretch their capacities. But with others it can indeed produce a dullish, good-enough music, which was the core of Sasha's complaint.

Once again, that's a broad generalization but I suspect many people understand exactly what I'm talking about.

l) The one thing most people seem to agree on here is that the word "indie" is increasingly a red herring, an umbrella term for a lot of music without much in common, a fairly useless genre label, one that conceals more than it reveals. Could we do without it, or is there some unitary thing there we need a label for?

Which seems like enough footnotes. However, I'm happy to keep on debating these questions in the comments boxes, and if any super-compelling sub-debates arise - or after Sasha posts his planned rejoinders in the New Yorker blog - I'll return to them here again.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 22 at 3:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 1

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Image from the Dirtbombs blog.

Thanks to everybody who's given feedback on the Slate piece, whether in the Fray at Slate, at ILX, on your own blogs, in the comments section from Friday, or by email. And now, some clarifications, extensions, responses. I will break them into a few posts.

a) The point of my quibbling with Sasha's New Yorker piece was not that he was wrong. It's certainly true that indie rock, whatever-that-is, is a very white - or at least non-black - world, your TV on the Radios and Earl Greyhounds and other exceptions notwithstanding. (That the exceptions are so conspicuous underlines the point.) Rather I just objected to the way I felt he distorted the timeline - I was arguing that rock in general has been getting whiter and whiter for a very long time, and alternative-underground-indie-whatchamacallit rock in particular. People like SFJ and a lot of the British critics, who lived in New York or London in the early 1980s, were lucky to be around for one of the very rare places-and-times where there was a lot of exciting cross-fertilization, theft, mimickry and synthesis going on across cultural lines, and it quite naturally created a permanent hunger in them for that kind of thrill.

But even in that same period in other places, there was a move towards a foursquare, unswinging punk/new-wave metre as a reaction against bar-blues bands and classic rock. Nine times out of ten, a white musician or band's attempt to be anti-mainstream in North America is going to produce a less-"black" sound because, as Sasha rightly says, American mainstream pop music is built very centrally on a black-music-white-music-which-is-which mixture. So a white "alternative" band is probably going to be less R&B; than a mainstream band, because rock's main underpinning is that it's white R&B.; Again, there are exceptions (my favourite one today is The Dirtbombs) but we all know they are exceptions. So if we agree (i) that the whiteness of indie rock is not news; but (ii) that something has seemed a little different, a little troubling, in the state of indie the past few years; then (iii) looking at the changing class positioning of indie seemed like a useful exercise, alongside (but not instead) of race.

b) While my piece was subtitled, "it's not just race, it's class," the point was not just to throw another analytic into the mix. What I was trying to say was more like, "It's not indie rock, it's America." The fact that all these forms are tending towards more self-segregation is a reflection of the social fracture that's been implemented socio-economically over the past 30 years, the neo-conservative era, and while it'd be nice if the artists fought it harder, the fact that art is seeming narrowly segmented right now is a symptom not the source. My main objection to Sasha's piece was that while I know he's well-aware of all that, he leaves it mostly unmentioned. I think it's crucial.

c) In the piece I mention that reducing black music to rhythmic space is problematic - I didn't give this example, but I think Arcade Fire does include black influences via gospel and parade music and Caribbean music, for example, and the freak-folk people are definitely listening to old African-American folk-blues along with Brazilian music and much else. Sasha's perhaps muddied the issue by trying to take in all rock history, which leaves us arguing about how black-influenced Brian Wilson was, when the pivotal question in his piece has to do with hip-hop - the reactions or non-reactions of rock kids to this burgeoning force. It is simply not the same to draw upon generations-old or oceans-away African or African-American-based music as it is to engage with the "other" music and musicians of your own time - the latter is a lot riskier and more fraught, but also for that reason more exciting. I tried to underline some of the social reasons it hasn't happened that I thought Sasha slid by too easily, but his question stands.

d) Some people have objected to the word "miscegenation" because of its "ugly history" etc., but I think this is the strength of Sasha's case: There's ugliness everywhere in these matters, but what if we dared to trample the niceties and go for the utopian gold anyway? Shut our eyes and bear ahead and stop being polite? He's not just reclaiming the word, he's embracing it with its horrible baggage, realizing that to be American and to talk about race is always to end up smeared with centuries of shit and blood. In some ways he's asking: Which matters more in the long run, making great art or never offending anybody? (And again, to me, class helps explain why "indie" music has tended to get more and more inoffensive, since it's being made by people brought up to have good manners to a fault - sometimes to the point of passive-aggression.)

(Much more to come).

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 22 at 2:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

'Sploded! Post-Halifax Report


Plasketts Sr. and Jr., in Halifax on Saturday. Photo pilfered from Kaytethinks on Flickr.

I'll return to some underdeveloped points about indie/race/class tomorrow, but wanted to say that if you ever get a chance to go to the Halifax Pop Explosion, jump on it. The scale makes for almost the perfect festival - the venues are all within 20 minutes' walk, for one thing; and despite the smaller size, the quality and diversity of the programming is as high as you could ask. Sure, there weren't any superstar-legend guests, but who needs them?

I got in very late on Friday night after two delayed planes, so I missed everything that night. Our Saturday-afternoon panel on the 15th anniversary of the HPX was a racuous, enjoyable and productive one (if occasionally a bit insiderish, and more than a bit of a sausage party). The strongest debate that emerged was the question of how hard the festival should try to get more government funding, as after 15 years it still gets only meagre city and provincial support - and partly as a result has not one full-time paid staff person - mainly because it will not shift to be less "pop" and more "culture" as the local gods of tourism see it, ie., "more boats, fish and fiddles please." A comparison was made to the East Coast Music Awards, which once were dominated by Celtic music but after a lot of lobbying (by some of the folks on the panel, as well as others) opened themselves up to be genuinely representative of Canada's east coast, and gained much more national attention in the process.

I suspect that (as I outbursted in the discussion) "the total fucking transformation of the music industry" will make the HPX and events like it ever-more self-sustaining in the future - as bands and management alike recognize how central live, showcase performances can be to a career in the new, not-so-recording-oriented business models - so my bet is on the government coming around. Better yet, maybe, would be sponsorship from non-music-biz businesses that see the value in sponsoring something so entrepreneurial, innovative and cool. (This is one of the strengths of the Polaris, to me, that it is neither government nor music-business dependent, but gets support from unrelated quarters.) Bureaucracies are slow and Canadian bureaucracies are especially turtle-ish about recognizing non-traditional culture as true Canadian/regional culture.

As for the music? I saw about 10 bands, the definite highlights of which were an almost-unheard-of, semi-acoustic (no drums, amps down low) Eric's Trip mini-set at the launch of Bob Mersereau's new book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (about which more, I'm sure, in the future) and Joel Plaskett's joyous mostly-solo acoustic show at St Matthew's Church. Never having seen Joel without a band, I was floored by his ability to vary, ad lib within songs, poke fun at and personalize the experience. (Prominent in the patter was the fact that he'd flown in from Dallas at 5 in the morning and had to fly back out to New York in a couple of days to hook back up with his Emergency band and the Tragically Hip tour they're featured in. He was tired, and a bit hoarse.) And I was reminded again what a humblingly, casually smart songwriter he is, sometimes hokey but often inspired and left-field in the connections and twists his songs make, and how his lyrics are poetically chatty rather than too-fragile-to-touch (speaking of class and indie-rock...). He also put the "pop" back in "Pop Explosion" by performing almost half the show with his dad, Will Plaskett, who turns out to be a crack guitarist. I've never seen Joel in Halifax before, and the hometown spirit that permeates his songwriting is doubly moving in that setting. I spent half the show with my eyes a little damp, and did a lot of clapping and singing along, as did everyone in the room.

Otherwise, I realized just how Pixies-esque the Vancouver band Mother Mother really is (the folk flourishes are deceptive) but despite the derivativeness they're a fine live band; I saw Toronto-based group Forest City Lovers for the first time, and there's a lot of craft there, though some of that old unfortunate indie preciousness veils the potential strength of the songs; I saw the utterly unprecious Zoobombs blow the roof off yet another venue and the tops of the heads off another unsuspecting crowd (revelation, though: Haligonians dance less than Torontonians do!); I realized that I like all the elements of Land of Talk but still haven't quite embraced the sum; Miracle Fortress had a slightly "off" set, as did Toronto's Germans (all the driving it takes bands to get to Halifax does take its toll), but no shortage of personality and ideas; and the full-on Eric's Trip electric show was the nostalgic, emotional, pogo-your-face-off-and-then-get-a-little-weepy festival closer it was fated to be.

Thanks to the fest for the hospitality explosion, and I'm sure I'll be back. It's as good a festival, in its smaller way, as Pop Montreal, and as we all (a bit cattily) agreed, beats the hell out of the Toronto equivalents.

Which leads me to this thought: The Wavelength Pop Festival?

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 21 at 7:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Hey Halifax, Is That Your Pop Explosion,
Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

With all this action going on re: the Slate piece, I wish I could hang around and do that discourse thing, but I've gotta see a man about a plane. I'm heading to Halifax for the Hfx Pop Xploze, so I'll see you there if you're there, and if you want to see me there, I'm part of a panel discussion on something like The Canadian Scene '07: Bitchin' or Bogus, tomorrow (Saturday) at 3 pm @ the Lord Nelson Hotel in the "Britannia Room" (so you knowz it will Rule).

Further efforts to render the whole idea of "indie rock" moot will follow on Monday.

For those of you who might be new visitors, if you liked the Slate piece you might be interested in my book, which covers some of the same themes but in a very different way. To get a totally free PDF of the first two chapters for your sampling pleasure, send an email request to letstalkaboutcelineATyahooDOTcom.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 19 at 1:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Slated and (Soon to Be) Berated

The promised/threatened Slate piece is now up. It is a disagreement with but not an attack upon SFJ, and it will make certain people one degree more annoyed. Please eviscerate me cleanly, with your finest-honed silver knives.

Additions, outtakes, discussions and clarifications follow. Here's one to start with: I thought The Arcade Fire was kind of a bad example for Sasha to choose for his piece (as I mention) and I'm not particularly thinking of them in mine, despite the picture. Also, like Sasha, just because I think there are social dynamics and problematics to be analyzed in a sub-sub-genre does not mean that I dislike all the music it makes. Okay, enough, out.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 18 at 5:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (23)

 

Objects in the Mirrors


Sandro Perri (right) with Ryan Driver (left) and other guests launch Tiny Mirrors tonight at the Tranzac. Photo from Basic Sounds.

Alert. Note this reference in today's throne speech: "Our Government will improve the protection of cultural and intellectual property rights in Canada, including copyright reform." Get the engines warned up for a serious fight, everybody.

Hurrah. Longtime Zoilus superteam member and occasional contributor Chris Randle this week launched his own blog, Gutteral. It's mainly a comics blog (thus the name), and so far there's just an introductory post, but I'm looking forward to seeing what sprouts in those gutters.

Tonight, local luminary Sandro Perri (aka Polmo Polpo) launches his new album Tiny Mirrors at the Tranzac in Toronto. I've hoped to have time to write more about this record, but since I can't today, let me just give you the soundbites: Along with the new Sunset Rubdown disc, Tiny Mirrors might be the best Canadian album of 2007 - gorgeous, soulful, creatively written, unique in sound. (The closest comparison in wobbly out-of-focusness is last year's reminiscently titled Dull Lights by Eric Chenaux - Chenaux appears on Perri's record, as do several of the same collaborators - but Perri's songwriting style is quite different.) Pivoted around a cover of Fred Neil/Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," much of the album partakes of that same bruised raincloud emotional tone, but it always slips away like a thought bubble bursting just when you want to hold it to your chest and sob along. If you can get to the Tranzac tonight I urge you not to miss it. A top contender for next year's Polaris &allathatjazz.;

Unfortunately it seems I'm going to have to miss it, because I'm busy converting my planned post on Sasha's New Yorker piece (foretold yesterday) into an article for Slate. It should hit their site sometime tomorrow - keep your browsers peeled.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 17 at 1:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Tune Your Dials to the Heart of the Sun

The Guelph Jazz Festival's Anthony Braxton and AIMToronto Orchestra concert, whose rehearsal session was covered here, will be broadcast tonight (Wednesday) soon after 11 pm EST on "The Signal" on CBC Radio 2, along with portions of an interview with Anthony Braxton by Andrew O'Connor. It's a birthday present for at least three Orchestra members celebrating theirs. Many happy returns and gravity radiances!

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 17 at 2:19 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Bruce, Win & Regine: It Ain't No Sin
To Be Glad You're Alive

Normally I wouldn't bother, as of course it's been all over the place, but there's really something mind-boggling about this video of Bruce Springsteen singing the Arcade Fire's Keep the Car Running with Win and Regine from the AF, in Ottawa on Sunday night. It is like some sort of reality barrier was breached, in ways to which their previous star-crossed experiences don't quite compare (you sorta expect it of Davids Byrne and Bowie, and nothing Bono does is ever very surprising). More importantly, it makes the argument for a continuum between Springsteen's roots in the '70s New York scene (which he shared, as is so often forgotten, with the likes of Patti Smith, Suicide and the Ramones) and where indie rock is now, in a non-analytic, demonstrated-to-be-so kind of way: Get Bruce singing an Arcade Fire song and you hear how much like a Bruce Springsteen song it is. My colleague Robert Everett-Green had a review of that show which seems to draw a bit on Michael Barclay's Eye cover from last week about the Boss's currently rampant influence on younger indie bands today, the whole "why now" issue (discussed a bit here on Zoilus back in April). Robert favours the anti-postmodern "sincerity" angle, and Michael likewise covers the "death of irony" side of the street, although in fact Springsteen's songs are full of ironies of a subtler, lower-key kind, and once irony is dead we all are.

But Michael does get a very good take on it from Mac McCoughan (of Superchunk/Portastatic/Merge) - that it's about facing darkness and surviving it, and celebrating that survival without (I would add) having to lie to yourself to do it - which makes me think of the line from Badlands at the top of this post. And that's certainly a sensation that the Arcade Fire also tries to generate, an attitude that seems especially appealing in this moment - to say it's no sin to be glad you're alive, of course, implies that there's something suggesting to you it is a sin, that there's something plausible about that. And the thing about Springsteen is that very consistently, on some level, sometimes politically and sometimes just socially, he's always been pretty clear on saying that it's some form of elite (your dad, your school, your boss, the bureaucrats, the rich, the president) that makes ordinary people doubt the value of their own lives, and that the only chance for magic always begins by refusing to believe them. Which has certainly seemed timely of late. I was sad that Michael didn't mention or talk to Steve Kado anywhere in the piece, as Steve has a particular take on "why Springsteen" that makes sense of why his Blankket project would do a Springsteen EP shortly before going to work on a Theodor Adorno cycle. Eye Daily also has an online review of last night's Bruce show in Toronto, which I unfortunately missed.

Coming soon: Some talkin' back to SFJ's anti-indie polemic in The New Yorker this week. (First I'm going to politely follow his request and listen to the podcast.) Sneak preview: He's right about some things and overlooks others, but he's also leaving a pretty important variable - class - out of the picture entirely.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 16 at 1:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Guest Post: Brief Exquisite Encounters

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Slow Dance with Teacher: Photo by Bytepusher.

Through my own fault, this is appearing a bit late, but please enjoy this lovely essay by friend-of-Zoilus Jane Wells, a teacher and actor (Number Eleven Theatre) and gem of a woman. Jane's reflections on her participation in Nuit Blanche Toronto open up into broader thoughts about art and intimacy and experience in general well worth reading whether you live here or not. Have a nice weekend, everyone. - Carl

by Jane Wells

Considerable grumbling has rolled around the city since Nuit Blanche, and not just in the media, or among the art crowd. Most of the teenagers and adolescents I know say "it sucked" and was "too hyped." I agreed, and was increasingly cranky as I biked around town in the few hours I had before midnight, when my own involvement in the thing was due to start. I did love the crowds, and the delight of bumping into so many people felt like Paris in the Thirties. Nonetheless much of the art work felt ill-considered, the waste of a rare and glorious 12-hour window of possibility, and waste is always galling.

My shindig was called Slow Dance with Teacher, an event conceived by Darren O'Donnell, for the Great Hall at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I had agreed to be, from midnight to 5 am, one of 12 teachers slow dancing with audience members; I thought the idea was funny, and curious, and posed a peculiar combination of stamina and intimacy that appealed to me.

We were separated from the audience by red velvet cordons, manned by security guards, and with each change of song we were to approach the audience clustered on the other side of the ropes and invite someone to dance. Darren's initial idea was for us to talk as little as possible while dancing, which I concurred with, but when our shift came on, in fact everyone in the first shift found the talking quite essential. [...]

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My first partner was a lovely young musician from Peterborough, very relaxed and pleasant. My second partner was older, had a long goofy face, and carried a bright yellow satchel over his shoulder. He had a geeky look about him, almost clown-like, and his face lit up beautifully when I asked him to dance. We began to dance to Cyndi Lauper, "Time after Time," and suddenly he cut loose and began to spin me about, expertly. He was a fantastic dancer, and I was thrilled, beaming and laughing at all the spinning and dipping and jiving. He was too. We were the happiest couple in the world. When the song ended, he kissed my hand, and said thank you, and walked off. He was the only man all night with whom I had no conversation and did not exchange names. Maybe this dance set me up for joy, because the night became exquisitely joyful.

The majority of the other dances were the basic shambling waltz, my left hand on his shoulder, his right hand at my waist, our other hands holding together to the side. Most of the men apologized for not being good dancers, but I immediately assured them I was not either. We would begin our dance, I would initiate conversation, and chatting would ensue. But I began to feel distinctly a subtle pulse, a current running between our simple get-to-know-you conversation and our hands on each other's bodies. Even dancing with the men with the lightest, shyest touch, barely holding my waist, I felt the pulse. Maybe it was the pulse of possibility, but it changed something in the way we were speaking. People talk to you differently when they are touching you.

I was also trying to project a charming but authentic presence, something on the edge of flirtation, just enough to draw the men out but not overwhelm them, a little pull to step forward into a moment of mutual revelation. Revelation not of information, but the tacit awareness of the intimate possibility that we held between us. I danced with upwards of forty men, some clumsy in their mild discomfort, but receptive to warmth and curiosity, a couple saucy and raring to go, some just happy to dance, and in all of that jumble, I felt that I glimpsed each of them, once, utterly themselves.

Throughout the night these thoughts, and the effort to describe why it was so exhilirating, kept surfacing, and I wrote a bunch of things down before I went to sleep at 6:30 am. But I didn't actually identify until late the next day the one thing of which I was most manifestly aware - smell. As the night wore on, my sense of smell became a rising current beneath the waves of these encounters, the thing to which I was purely responsive - what this man had to drink, whether or not that one had smoked a little that evening, his sweat, mixed in with subtler smells. Amazingly, thankfully, none of it was unpleasant - all the smells were singular and of this person. How often do we smell a stranger so specifically?

The work I had seen earlier in the evening was more promotional than experiential, to do with bank logos, and signs, and cables and metal barriers and the inevitable trappings of the safe city. It had missed the opportunity to transform public space, to give people a unique memory of, a rare encounter with some piece of the city, which they will think of always when they pass through it.

Many years ago, in Winnipeg, I worked on a vast winter parade for First Night, the New Year's Eve celebration. For two months, with 150 volunteers, we built puppets, gargoyles, stilts, an enormous dragon; and on New Year's, in minus-30 C, we remade a portion of downtown, pulled it out of unrelieved concrete and brick. I like to think that every now and again a Winnipegger passes the Archives' parking garage and remembers the 15-foot, furred and golden dragon that emerged from its depths at midnight.

If there is one experience I want to offer, and be given, in art, it is the act of transformation. It is the key to political change, to personal change, it is the seditious and seductive whisper in your ear that another way is possible. Men asked me what was the point of this piece as we swayed back and forth, and I had little more than a light answer to offer. But in the three or four minutes of each dance, we were transformed from strangers into intimates, an intimacy unique to that moment.

In that night of the masses, of art as accessory, of crowds roaming in search of surprise, I lucked out, and found the inversion of what I had been seeking, found instead, in each tiny encounter, the transformation of private space.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 12 at 5:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Makin' with the Meta

Over at rockcritics.com, Scott Woods has held a little kitchen party to talk about music blogging. I brought the hummus.

Tom at Freaky Trigger had some smart side comments as did his comment box.

Meanwhile Idolator was having another music-blog fracas break out, though mainly about the other sort of music blogs. Bill Wasick provides the most elegant, in depth, meandering version of the discussion in the Oxford American (if you follow only one of these links make it this one) and Pretty Goes With Pretty has an extensive set of responses.

I get the irony that after all my blather in the roundtable about dialogue and indepth reflection, I'm not going to say anything further in response to all these reactions, for now. But it is late and I am tired all the way in, from chest to spine, so irony wins. (Don't get too comfortable, irony - I'm gonna cut you when you least expect it, sucka.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 11 at 1:07 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Bleating Hearts

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Casey Dienel.

My review of the Patti Smith church concert at Pop Mtl was in yesterday's Globe and Mail - I was on the train most of the day and the wireless service wasn't working, thus the delay. It comes with a festival-wrapping sidebar which mentions in passing the schedule switch with Sunset Rubdown on Saturday - which resulted in my arriving when the band was in the last minute of the last song. After a bad experience with the completely vague schedule of the Fred Wesley House Party the same night, I ended up kind of pissed off at the organizers, which I hate to be because they are lovely people who run a fantastic festival. I realize some adjustments are unavoidable, but they ought to be prominently announced on the website as soon as they're known and ideally also sent out by email - all these communication media exist for a reason.

On Sunday night I decided to stick with one location, and spent the night at Said the Gramophone's Bleating Heart Show in a compact but lovely chapel on the McGill campus. There was so much pretty music one hardly needed a drink, which was good, as there were no drinks. And the electricity threatened to cut out all night, so that by the third band apparently the whole show was running on one breaker. And when it got crowded, we got packed pretty tight in them pews. But it was all old-musty-sweater comfy. For awhile.

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Casey Dienel played songs in the genre I've come to call "poor-little-rich-girl music" (cf Cat Power, Scout Niblett, Feist, etc. - there's "poor little rich boy" music too of course, but the genders produce somewhat different patterns). But I find Dienel's unusually well observed and engrossing - so add "with a creative-writing MFA" to the descriptor, although I know that's not literally true in this case - and as unaffected as it's possible to be when you're working that slightly-precious end of the spectrum. She was an extremely charming presence too, making great efforts to speak "your language," French - with a very pretty accent - even though really there were probably about two francophones among the 60 people in the room at that point. The flaw in poor-little-rich-girl music, I find, is that very charm: It's concerned about its posture, its smile, its polite nod and studied distances. So my favourite moment in Dienel's set was when she and her small band broke through to somewhat rougher territory, as on Napeleon at Waterloo. I liked the very unpolished singalong at the end - she led us into it so casually and unstagily that it was almost like she was saying, "sing in your most mundane voice, sing along talkatively - don't belt it out, sing like you're singing to yourself bicycling down the street," and it was an unusually beautiful uncertain sound to hear 60 people singing at once but each to themselves.

Montreal duo Elfin Saddle played next. I think it took me most of the set to forgive them for their name, though I have since found it's an actual thing rather than just cutesy whimsy. There was a lot I liked about this pair, originally from Victoria, BC - Jordin McKenzie is clearly a very strong musician, playing a one-man-bandish agglomeration of instruments, while Emi Honda has a gorgeous voice, and their Alexander Calder contraptions of percussive objects (on the sidewalk afterwards, someone called them "bells and chimes and paddywinks") were alluring to look at (McKenzie and Honda are also visual artists) and fun to watch being played. I didn't find McKenzie's singing or the songs themselves so captivating - a bit too ersatz-old-timey in that current acid-folk way for me - but there's loads of potential there.

In between sets, there was an inane conversation going on behind us between two women, one of whom was saying, "I'll take it, but I kind of hate the label 'bisexual,' " to which her friend replied, "Yeah, I hate all labels - the only one I'm really comfortable with is 'hetero,' because, you know, it doesn't really have any meaning." Her friend was all like, "Uhhhh..." And so she started insisting on it: "No, you know it's just what everyone assumes anyway, so it doesn't have any specific meaning." Halfway through Horsefeathers' set after that, I wanted to turn around to her and say, "Honey, this is the meaning of hetero." Nothing against heteros and all - hell, I am one myself - but the lead singer of Horse Feathers had this whole sensitive-guy thing going on where he doused his voice with Nick Drake-flavoured icing sugar, to the point that one could barely even discern a melody, much less the words, it was just this sound that kept repeating over and over, "See how nice my voice is? See how many feelings I have? Girls, wouldn't you like to dump your boyfriends and sleep with me?" Honestly, I could not figure out what a single song was about. And it was a shame because the rest of the band is kind of incredible, especially the brother/sister string section, Peter Broderick on violin and Heather Broderick on cello. It was great when they all sang together and drowned the lead singer out, which happened fairly frequently, but this band is less than the sum of its parts. The parts are quite impressive. But the sum is "21st-century James Taylor."

Somewhere around this point I said to Sean from StG, "We sure have had a lot of sweet," and he said, "Don't worry, there's a lttle bit of mean coming up." He was lying, because Clues, who were playing I think their first gig at this show, turns out to be pretty sweet as well, but they are at least not indie MOR. Clues consists of Alden Penner (ex-Unicorns) on guitar/vox, Brendan Reed (ex-Arcade Fire, Les Angles Morts) and Bethany Or (Shanghai Triad). You can view a portion of the show here, although the real YouTube Video moment in the show came later, when Reed suddenly threw a drumstick at the audience, stood up and overturned his entire drum set, knocking over a microphone and a xylophone, which kind of tumbled off the stage into the crowd, and walked off stage and out of the room. And then he returned a couple of minutes later, saying, "Sorry, I got overheated." Some folks were taken aback but it was clearly an impulsive bit of performance art (and apparently a kind of tribute to Reed's own bands past) intended to make up for the fact that the show was not going so well in its own right - the music was really pretty great when there was music, but there was a lot of mumbling and foot-shuffling and can't-tune-my-guitar and stupid jokes and time-wasting going on before that, pretty much all on the part of Penner, who was drunk and wearing a cape. The cape made me want to slap him but I restrained myself. It was kind of unfortunate, as Or had already announced her parents were in the audience, who 30 years ago got married in the very same chapel, so one couldn't help imagining the band conversation that was going to follow.

But Reed really did try to keep it interesting, and by the end of the show, a lot of us were just laughing at the absurdity, and so was the band, and they really managed to undo any kind of mutual hostility and get us all into whatever trouble they were having, together. As for Clues' songs - some of them sounded pretty fantastic, although I had a feeling Penner's lyrics were tipping over into bad undergraduate-poetry over-extended metaphors etc., but that could have been the cape. The drumming is epic. We couldn't really hear the organ much of the time. But it was wonderful to wrap up Pop Mtl with a set so constructed to be something to talk about for the rest of the year, until we're all together again next October to say, "Remember when ... ?"

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 09 at 12:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

A Great Swirl of (Let's Talk About) Love

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Patti Smith at Pop Montreal. Photo by Gordon Bisnor.

I hadn't realized this was happening so soon but Idolator has put up an excerpt and some very kind remarks about my upcoming book. Also, as announced there, the 33 1/3 people are making an offer that if you want to read the first two chapters (from which the excerpt is drawn), you can email for a PDF: letstalkaboutcelineATyahooDOTcom.

Meanwhile here I am at Pop Montreal and I haven't been telling you anything. The main story for me (I got here late and haven't been running around as much as planned) is the Patti Smith show at the Eglise Jean-Baptiste last night, which I'm reviewing for the Globe on Monday but I'll say here what I can't say there: shit, wow, holy fuck. I mean, look at what that church looks like. Now add Patti Smith to that. I hardly have to say more. But she was also on a complete love buzz for Montreal, which made the whole thing more special. I didn't get here in time for the surprise Wednesday show with the folks from A Silver Mt. Zion, but everyone, including Patti during the Friday show, said it was incredible. Here's how she described it - improvised, as a song: "I came to Montreal three days ago, though it feels like three weeks/ I done two panels, a press conference, and someone took my picture/ ... And I went to the Ukrainian Hall and I met Silver Mt. Zion" (you have to imagine her strumming her guitar and crooning this), "We didn't have much time and I never got to know their names, and yet we travelled together in the realm of trust, in a great swirl of love... I went to the Mile's End [sic], where the railroad tracks move like the palms into the horizon and the factories loom beautiful, unspoiled, and the junkie shoots and the musicians wonder if they should put a machine with clean works to protect them from themselves. Everything I saw in Montreal was wonderful... and I now gotta get back to work." (She goes into My Blakeyan Year.)

Other highlights: The Republic of Safety's maybe last, and maybe best, show ever. The Luyas and Feuermusik to an unfortunately sparse room. The Nymphets in the afternoon. But I haven't gotten around all that much. Tonight much more - the Fred Wesley/So-Called "House Party," the CBC Radio 3 showcase with Sunset Rubdown, the DJ/Rupture set (if you are in Montreal, do not sleep on Jace's set - 1 am at bar Coda). Maybe some other bits of action. I'll report back.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 06 at 5:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Ubu: Arc of Darkness

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Pere Ubu, not in Toronto but in Chicago last week.

There were two kinds of audience members at last night's Pere Ubu show: Those who had seen the band before and those who hadn't. The latter, from what I could tell, walked away suitably impressed by the group's sonic power and personal magnetism; but those of us who'd seen Ubu before - in my case, about 10 or 11 times before - were not only disappointed but a bit concerned. It's no slight against the musicians - drummer Steve Mehlman (who was rockin' a vintage Skinny Puppy T-shirt), analog synth player Robert Wheeler, bassist Michele Temple and Keith Moline on guitar - who played fiercely, precisely and wildly when called upon, although I do feel like the absence of any '80s-or-earlier Ubu members other than Thomas has altered the dynamic for the worse since 2002, when guitarist Tom Herman departed. (I also feel a little sad that the band rule that all members must be from Cleveland was dropped - Moline is from England, and Thomas teases him about it - but I may just be being sentimental on that count.)

No, the trouble was that David Thomas didn't seem to want to be there.

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He didn't seem especially strongly not to want to be there - he wasn't screaming and stamping his feet at the other musicians and at the audience, which is a familiar sight and one that's usually compensated by a doubly powerful performance once he gets his shit back together. (Indeed, it often seemed as if the band deliberately simulated a performance breakdown in order to frack with audience expectations and achieve maximum mind-destructo mode upon restart.)

But in this case, it was almost as if Thomas was phoning it in. He wasn't, of course - I don't think "phoning it in" is something he's psychologically capable of - but his attention seemed intermittent, he didn't seem to particularly feel many of the songs, he was sometimes indifferent to the words and more focused on drinking (he praised Alexander Keith's beer extravagantly, saying that after decades of being given Labatt's and Molson's he had been under the impression that Canadian beer was all crap). At one point he even went out for a smoke break, though to his credit he did instruct the band to play a "really interesting introduction to this next song" before he left, which is what they did. He had a printed book of the lyrics and frequently referred to it, a shocking turnabout from show after show in which Thomas knew the words of all his songs so intimately that he seemed to be spontaneously thinking them up before your eyes and ears.

There were plenty of exceptions, when flashes of what makes him one of the greatest frontmen in rock history (a description I stand behind without a second's hesitation) flared up and he had us all in the palm of his hand rather than flicking us away with his thick fingers like pesky flies. There was my favourite song from the recent Why I Hate Women, "Caroleen," as well as "Folly of Youth" from Ray Gun Suitcase, "Sad.Txt" from Pennsylvania (Thomas complained that every cause has a ribbon except "former punk-rock males in their 40s and 50s going into a mid-life crisis" - someone in the crowd shouted "I want a ribbon" - he came back "I wrote you a ribbon!") and the whole encore, including a masterful performance of "Dark" from St. Arkansas, and not least a sweet version of "We Have the Technology," which I was thrilled was in the set (partly because it's one of my favourite songs and partly for the small selfish reason that my essay about it is about to come out in the new Da Capo Anthology, thanks to Mr. Christgau). But in overall effect the show took place in standard-issue reality-space, which is not the place you normally find yourself at the end of a Pere Ubu show. (Which explains why this is almost the only band I have ever considered following around on tour as if they were the Grateful Dead.)

During the final number, a very fine rendition of "Street Waves" (one of only a handful of "classic"-era songs - desultory versions of "Final Solution" and "The Modern Dance" and a pretty kickass "Sonic Reducer" from Rocket from the Tombs days), Thomas stopped the action to, as usual, introduce the band, but also to deliver a monologue that went something like this: "Now we've reached my favourite part of the show. The end. Because after the end, I am set free. Again. I can go back to my squalid hotel room and stare at the ceiling and ask myself the central question: 'Why. Am. I. Still. Doing. This.' " He went on to say that his life was driven by a fear of failure and his life had been nothing but failure." People in the audience shouted out that they loved him. "You don't understand. I don't care if you love me." (He later sort of apologized for saying that.) And then he said that his goal was to come out and give the audience a series of orgasmic experiences, and "you didn't get that tonight" - again, audience objections - "don't try to tell me," he said, "I know." And oddly enough, though it was all very bleak and I don't think he was kidding (even though it was all delivered within the self-satiric hyperbole that is Thomas's rhetorical home key), I found it comforting that he was acknowledging something was amiss. I hope that it was a bad mood rather than a bad life phase, that he really doesn't just wish he could quit.

Better, though, to quit than to become bitterly resigned. When you're the best - "I do one thing," he's said, "but I do it better than anybody else does," and that one thing has more to do with live performance than with making records, it has to do with being able to reliably dispense brain-gasms to barrooms full of strangers - it's unbecoming to carry on to the point where you don't respect your own talent anymore, where you settle for just being good and go into cruise control. (If I were a boxing fan I am sure I could summon up some perfect pugilistic-career parallel.) Thomas's perfectionism - with something as inherently impossible to "perfect" as the kind of broken and scrambled rock music Pere Ubu makes - has always been part of his signature set of paradox-miracles. So too the fact that he is able to make growling, gesticulating, whining and grimacing - and spitting out lyrics that tremble on the razor-edge between the deepest voice of the soul and the most nonsensical babble of baby talk - seem like such an immensely dignified and grownup activity.

Whether it was an off night or Thomas is having an off year, I trust that this is a transitional point, that he'll rediscover that sense of purpose for which, as he sings in "Dark," he's "agreed to pay the price." But some nights you see how high that price can be - when you come across a man who seemed to be born an immovable force, suddenly seeming eroded, a mountain worn down by rain.

PS: Zoilus-pal Chris Randle has another view over at Eye Daily, and Auditory has an interview.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 03 at 2:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Book News!

My book, which, now that it's actually in the publisher's hands, I can finally talk about as a concrete thing rather than a hypothetical, now has an official subtitle. It's not on the mockup of the cover on Amazon but it is in the entry title. As you may know, the books in the 33 1/3 series all are titled after the album they deal with. But since mine is a bit of a twist on the series - treating the album not so much as the object of the study but as an exemplary jumping-off point for a book on a broader theme - the publisher agreed that it might be helpful to add a subtitle to hint at that larger dimension.

Ladies and germs, I give you Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. (And yes, you can pre-order the book there...)

Also, you can read a short excerpt right now on the 33 1/3 blog.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 01 at 3:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

Things Will Shortly Get Completely Out of Hand

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Mountain Goats lyrics consult at Lee's Palace on Sept. 25:
See note on "Tulsa Imperative." Photo swiped from Amber B.

There's nothing I can say about the Mountain Goats show last night that won't sound fawning and ridiculous, as became clear listening to everybody speak fawningly and ridiculously afterwards. I can only say that I kind of wish tMGs would never release another album so that all their tours could be non-album tours and we could get completely unpredictable setlists like last night's, which hit all sorts of out-of-the-way spots in 14 years worth of John Darnielle songs, including one he never recorded at all, two that have yet to be recorded, and so on. And his showmanship was in peak form as well.

(For an annotated set list, look after the jump.)

Check it out (this is not in order, I don't think):

Up the Wolves (2005) (included a false start - "I got overexcited." an audience member had to remind him of the first line)
Cheshire County (1995)
Wild Sage (2006) (terrific theatricalized performance)
In the Craters on the Moon (2007) (new song, which seems like an oblique Iraq protest song)
Store (aka Aisle) (2002) (JD gets one of the verses out of order for a moment, but catches and corrects himself)
Woke Up New (2006)
How to Embrace a Swamp Creature (2007) (another new song, with long, funny introduction explaining the scenario of going to visit your ex's apartment incredibly ill-advisably, in a state of total desperation, with the alibi that you're coming to get your Miles Davis albums)
Tollund Man (1995) (featuring apparently an entire new verse that JD sings away from the mic, just mostly to himself, including the words "this is my father's country" or possibly "this is my father's will" and "rejoice, rejoice": it's the secret happy ending)
Tulsa Imperative (1993ish?) (after a lengthy intro explaining how the song was written and then forgotten by John, doing a very funny imitation of his hyper-amped-up younger self - Peter interrupting to say the reason John forgot the song is that he couldn't get a good recording of it within a day of it being written, which by early tMG's insanely rigid rules meant the song was a discard, so Peter's then band Diskothi-Q played it - JD completely forgets lyrics halfway through, and he and Peter have an amazingly long side-conversation trying to remember them, and finally have to admit defeat)
Cobscook Bay (2000) (I was very happy to hear this tune from the Isopanisad Radio Hour 1-sided 12" EP; I might have squealed like a little girl; maybe)
Jenny (2002)
Dilaudid (2005)
Nine Black Poppies (1995) (fantastic performance of this one - burned the image of the "jet black postmark" into my brain)
Old College Try (2002)

encore 1
Snow Crush Killing Song (1995) (!!)
No Children (2002) ("please join me in singing this hateful little song")

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Tulsa Imperative (now with forgotten verses restored: "Between the time Peter and I left the stage and now ... we have to give thanks for wireless internet")
Dance Music (2005)
Houseguest (1994) ("I know you guys have seen this, but I just love singing this song" - another tour de force performance, highlighted by creepy-loser hip undulations perfectly in character for the stalkerish guy in the song, which is of course originally by Franklin Bruno)

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 26 at 5:18 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Polari-lyzed

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Polaris climactic moment, photo swiped from Chromewaves.

I join the chorus of bafflement at Patrick Watson's Polaris win last night, though I felt a lot better about it when the band said they had thousands of dollars in rental-van damage bills to pay off, so at least there was some needs-and-means convergence going on. I think what we've seen is just the lead-in to Watson getting some real commercial viability going - I'd bet his/their next album might be on a major label and have some radio-playable singles - and I suppose one of the things the Polaris can do is boost people along that route. But it's not one of the things I'm most interested in seeing the prize do. And can I just raise a general principled objection to the whole naming-your-band-your-own-name thing? It made the Globe this morning sound like it was claiming Watson himself is eight years old, which is in fact how long the band's been together. Sure, "the Patrick Watson Band" would be fine, but I feel sorry for the guys who play with him who have to tell people, "Yeah, I'm in Patrick Watson." Yes, and I'm deep inside Jenna Jameson. (It's just occurred to me that this is sort of a bandonym in reverse.)

I'm curious who the second-place finisher was, which rumour has it was very close. In the live performances, Chad VanGaalen and Miracle Fortress both delighted me, and the Julie Doiron/ex-Eric-Trippers rock-out was a cool, bold choice for the room, though in some ways it didn't show off Julie's skills to best advantage. You can hear for yourself if you go download the CBC Radio 3 podcast of the awards. (Speaking of which, Grant Lawrence did an ace job hosting.) For further Polari-palaver, I highly recommend Michael Barclay's and Helen Spitzer's amusing, hungover breakfast-table dialogue from this morning.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 25 at 2:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Regular Programming Resumes

Hi, folks. I missed you. I missed a lot of things. But I got through it. And now we are reunited, and it feels so good.

Not tons to report at the mo', but a couple of exciting things quickly to mention: One, that the absolutely astounding, charming, beguiling, surprising, virtuosic, sui-generis, superlative-exhausting Czech violist and singer Iva Bittova is coming to the Music Gallery in Toronto on Tuesday, November 6. Watch the clip above and you'll see and hear what I mean. (There's quite a bit more Bittova on YouTube if you want to pass a wonderful hour or so.)

As well, two notable notes from friends in blogland: Prof. Drew LeDrew tugs our coatsleeve to say that Destination: Out, the free-est of jazz blogs, has a very special feature this week: Vijay Iyer, who's maybe the most exciting younger player in the music today, has compiled a superb "Solo Piano Mixtape" for D:O, with his own annotations, which are beautifully written and insightful. It includes tunes by Geri Allen, Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Andrew Hill as well as two by Iyer himself. It's up for one week only, so hop on over there.

Also our old friend Rob Walker is, as mentioned in the past, doing fascinating work on the song "St. James Infirmary" on his No Notes blog, and last week he did a fascinating interview with microtonal composer Ezra Sims, who (a) explains microtonality for beginners; and (b) offers some observations on the Louis Armstrong version of "St. James Infirmary," explaining how it incorporates mirotones and how he, in turn, slipped a "St. James" section into his piece "Sextet" - which you can hear because Rob has found this awesome site, The Avant-Garde Project, with which I, for one, am going to be spending a whole lot more time.

More soon.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 20 at 1:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Goodbye, Young Danish Women

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Zoilusian operations are on hiatus for the week, while I take up a scythe to shear off my manuscript's hair, feed it a porridge of wild grains and ready it for ritual sacrifice.*

The sacrament occurs on Monday, Sept. 17.

After that I won't be so bogged down, and will be back here lovin' you up.




* Emailing it to my editor, that is. I don't mean to be melodramatic.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 11 at 4:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Pop Goes the Conference, 2008

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Already! Here's the call for papers for next year's EMP Pop Conference. I think it's the perfect subject for a U.S. election year and also the perfect subject to shake up the sometimes-too-unassertive style that's prevailed at the past couple of conferences: When what you need is more arguments, have a conference about arguments. That's the spirit. Also very glad that the smart cookies on the planning committee configured the question around "conflict and change" rather than "protest and politics," which would be the more standard and also much less useful way of looking at it. Haven't conceived a topic yet but I'm excited.

Call for Papers: 2008 Pop Conference at Experience Music Project
Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change
April 10-13, 2008, Seattle, Washington


How does music resist, negate, struggle? Can pop music intensify vital confrontations, as well as ameliorating and concealing them? What happens when people are angry and silly love songs aren't enough? The migrations and global flows of peoples and cultures; the imbalanced struggles between groups, classes, and nations: what has music's role been in these ongoing dramas? We invite presentations on any era, sound, or geographic region. Topics might include:
- In conjunction with the new EMP exhibit, "American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music," how Latino musics have shaped the American soundscape and challenge black and white rock-pop paradigms, or more broadly, the unsettling effects of immigration, internal migration, displacement, assimilation, and colonization.
- How music enters politics: social movements and activist responses to crises such as New Orleans; entertainment's connection to ideology and propaganda; music within "cultural policy" and as part of the public sphere; debates over copyright, corporate power, and cultural democracy; performing dissent.
- Social and musical fragmentation: segregation and constructions of whiteness, divisions of class and gender, versus musical categorization and niche marketing, from big genres to smaller forms such as "freak folk."
- "Revolution" as a recurrent theme in popular music, a social or technological reality it confronts, or an association with particular genres and decades of music.
- Clashes between communal, local, identity - tradition, faith, nativism - and cosmopolitan, global, modernization.
- Music in times of war, economic crisis, adolescence, and other intense stress
- Agents of change: tipping points, latent historical shifts, carnivalesque subversions, and accidents or failures of consequence
- The sound of combative pop: what sets it apart?

Send proposals to Eric Weisbard (EricW AT empsfm DOT org) by December 17, 2007; please keep them to 250 words and a 50 word bio. Full panel proposals, bilingual submissions, and unusual approaches are welcome. For questions, contact the organizer or program committee members: Joshua Clover (UC Davis), Kandia Crazy Horse (editor, Rip it Up: The Black Experience in Rock 'n' Roll), Simon Frith (University of Edinburgh), Holly George-Warren (author, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry), Michelle Habell-Pallan (University of Washington), Michele Myers (KEXP), Ann Powers (L.A. Times), Joe Schloss (NYU), RJ Smith (Los Angeles magazine), Ned Sublette (author, Cuba and its Music), and Sam Vance (EMP).

The Pop Conference at EMP, now in its seventh year, joins academics, critics, writers of all kinds, and performers in a rare common discussion. Our second collection, Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, will be published by Duke University Press in November. The conference is sponsored by the Seattle Partnership for American Popular Music (Experience Music Project, the University of Washington School of Music, and KEXP 90.3 FM), through a grant from the Allen Foundation for Music.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 07 at 3:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

There's an Echo in Here. And in Here. And in Here

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Chris Corsano, Luciano Pavarotti, Ian Curtis.

Echo 1: The $5,000 Echo Prize for independent Canadian songwriters, which I discussed a couple of entries back, has now put up its voting page up, and you're allowed to vote for your favourite of the nominated songs (by Abdominal, Feuermusik, Nathan, Chad VanGaalen and the Besnard Lakes) once a day until 5 pm on Sept. 28. Actually, if you have both a home computer and a work computer, for example, you can probably vote twice a day. That's a whole lot of voting for Feuermusik ahead of you. Get busy.

Echo 2: I admit it, like everyone else I'm excited about the Ian Curtis bio-pic too. I'm just so sure that I'll be disappointed. If only it weren't directed by Anton Corbijn, I wouldn't be getting my hopes up. It's an eerie echo that it comes so shortly after Tony Wilson's death. Did you hear the story about Wilson's coffin - that it has a Factory Records catalogue number? The last one, of course: FAC 501. If that story's made up, whoever did it really knows how to make up stories. Now, I want to know if Peter Saville designed Wilson a gravestone.

Echo 3: Also in this week's Eye, weirdly dropped hints about a Chris Corsano gig at 5 pm on Sunday at the Tranzac in Toronto. Turns out it's true - I just got word that free-jazz drummer Corsano, who is on tour with Bjork, is performing with Buffalo baritone sax player Steve Baczkowski. If you don't know Corsano, he's a real force, who's also played with Paul Flaherty, Jessica Rylan, Evan Parker, Thurston Moore, Jim O'Rourke, Nels Cline, Jandek, Keiji Haino and more. The Guyaveras and Colin Fisher open up.

Echo 4: Also in this week's Eye, quote of the motherfuckin' week, from Taiwanese black-metal band Chthonic: "The government is sometimes pretending like they are metal fans on websites and message boards, saying they are against our messages. I can tell they are because they spell everything wrong, like 'Dimmu Borg' and 'Cradle of Fifth.' " (Of course no real metal fan would ever misspell words on a message board!)

Echo 5: If it starts sounding hollow and ringing around here, it's because I'm, at last, in the final two weeks of work on the book, and can't spare much time to blog. I can, however, finally say with a degree of certainty that there really will be a book, which is a soothing feeling. Less soothing is having been up all night working on the chapter that touches (not very charitably) upon Celine's duet with Luciano Pavarotti (an adaptation, by the way, of this 1973 Shirley Bassey hit) - and then waking up to the news that the fat lady has sung for the fat man. My colleague Robert Everett-Green has a Pavarotti appreciation on The Globe and Mail's website.

Echo 6: Feuermusik-sik-sik-sik-sik...

(Later:) Echo 7: German contemporary ensemble Zeitkratzer has released an acoustic arrangement of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. I haven't heard it yet but the idea is pretty fucking amazing, considering that MMM, famously, consists of nothing but an hour of feedback. Says Reed himself: "Zeitkratzer gets in touch with me: 'Can we play Metal Machine Music live?' I said, 'It can't be done.' They said, 'We transcribed it. Let us send you a few minutes of it and you tell us.' They sent it, I played it, and there it was. It was unbelievable. I said, 'My God! Okay, go do it.' They said, 'Will you play guitar on the last part of it?' So Metal Machine Music finally got performed live at the Berlin Opera House. It's extraordinary, because all those years ago it was considered a career ender. And it almost was, believe you me." The group's director says the transcription draws on orchestration techniques from Debussy as well as the group's experience working with later noise musicians like Merzbow. And yeah, Reed sits in on the last part, melding the original MMM and the new, wood-and-brass-machine music.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 06 at 2:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Look at this Showroom, Full of Fabulous Prizes
(Vote Feuermusik!)

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News today from the glamorous land of Canadian music awards.

First, SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) has announced the shortlist for the second annual Echo Prize, a $5,000 competition for the Canadian song of the past year by an independent artist. (To qualify, the nominees must not be signed with any of the four major labels and/or cannot have sold gold-record numbers, which in Canada means 50,000 copies.) The focus here is on songwriting rather than performance though that distinction's obviously a blurry one. I was one of 10 panelists from across the country that nominated three songs each, and then ranked our top 5 each among the 30 nominees - a painstaking process, as that amounted to several hours of music, much of it (refreshingly!) unfamiliar, to audition and re-audition.

But the results are ace - an unpredictable and varied shortlist compared to the Polaris album prize, as I discussed when those nominees were announced. And the Echo process also has a bit more built-in fun - the final winner will be determined by votes from you, the people. Or at least the Internet people, as the poll runs through the SOCAN website. Their listen-and-vote page isn't in operation yet is up now, and you can also follow the links to the artists' MySpaces below to hear most of the contending songs. For your consideration:

Pedal Pusher, performed by Abdominal
Devastation, performed by The Besnard Lakes
Dopplespiel, performed by Feuermusik
Scarecrow, performed by Nathan
Graveyard, performed by Chad VanGaalen

Among this group of, respectively, hip-hop, indie-rock, avant-jazz, country-rock and folk-rock tunes, the only weak link for me is The Besnard Lakes, whose special appeal eludes me, but they don't require my approval, what with the international-press buzz and a Polaris nod (VanGaalen is the other double nominee here). But particularly cozy to my cardiac is Toronto sax-and-buckets, ecstatic-jazz duo Feuermusik, one of my nominations in the initial round, whose album Goodbye Lucille I've been starry-eyedly plugging for a full year. I suspect that for many judges it was their first time hearing F'musik, since it's an independent release with scant national distribution - a real testament to how captivating their Coltrane-on-a-skateboard sound is. Next on my list would be Abdominal's Pedal Pusher, a unique entry in the rap canon - an unapologetic ode to non-motorized two-wheeled transportation from the not-so-mean streets of Toronto.

(Incidentally, my two initial picks that didn't make the final cut were Frog Eyes' epic Bushels from Tears of the Valedictorian (see my Pitchfork review) and Eric Chenaux's However Wildly We Dream from Dull Lights (see my Globe and Mail article).

Congrats to all, but again, please vote Feuermusik.

Meanwhile, a minor announcement as well from the Polaris camp: The performers at the Sept. 24 gala at the Phoenix in Toronto will include these five nominees: Julie Doiron
"who will reunite with members of Eric's Trip for this performance"), Miracle Fortress, Patrick Watson, the Joel Plaskett Emergency, and Chad VanGaalen. (So no Arcade Fire or Feist? Gosh, who'd have guessed. I'm crushed that my beloved Junior Boys won't be performing, though. And the other no-shows are the Dears and Besnard Lakes.) The ceremony's to be hosted by CBC Radio 3's Grant Lawrence, whose party-pumping (and ass-kicking) talents were well in evidence when we were together on last year's final jury. None of which matters much to most of you, as the event is invite-only, but speaking of the jury, here is juicier grist for speculation and oddsmaking - this year's distinguished and honourable roster of deciders:

Stuart Berman, Eye Weekly (Toronto)
Laurie Brown, CBC Radio 2 (Toronto)
Ben Conoley, here magazine (Fredericton)
Mike Doherty, National Post (Toronto)
Stephanie Domet, CBC Radio 1 (Halifax)
T'Cha Dunlevy, Gazette (Montreal)
Robert Everett-Green, Globe and Mail (Toronto)
Cam Lindsay, Exclaim! (Toronto)
Stephane Martel, VOIR (Montreal)
Sandra Sperounes, Edmonton Journal (Edmonton)
John Sekerka, XPress (Ottawa)

PS: Vote Feuermusik.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 30 at 4:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Braxton in Session:
'Go to F as in 'fox' - but not as in Fox News'

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I was privileged along with a dozen or so others this morning to attend a partial open rehearsal conducted by Anthony Braxton at the Arraymusic Studio on Atlantic Ave. in downtown Toronto, with a large ensemble of musicians from the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto, who will be performing with him a week from Friday (Sept 7) at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Braxton, of course, is the reed player, teacher, theorist and composer best known for pioneering the fusion of 20th-century modernist composition with jazz, beginning in the late 1960s. (And, more recently, punked-out noise.)

The "AIMToronto Orchestra" has been rehearsing with Braxton for just a couple of days now (though they worked on the scores on their own before he arrived), and the level of fluency, precision and musicality with which they were playing these spidery, unpredictable pieces was remarkable. I'm always struck by how the presence of an admired visitor - in this case, of course, something of a living legend - can galvanize Toronto musicians, shaking off some of the stiffness that can be our local curse and calling forth what they're truly capable of. The ever-affable Braxton seemed impressed, too - at one point he joked that he'd "already alerted Wesleyan University" (where he's a professor) that he was "never coming back."

Unfortunately, the fact that they were doing so well meant that we only got small glimpses of Braxton in directing-and-teaching mode - most of the time, he was animatedly conducting, his shirt drenched in sweat (the Arrayspace is a rather boxy, attic-like, un-airconditioned place, despite its other charms), rather than speaking. If we'd hoped (which I confess I kind of did) to find out what Braxton would be like chewing out Scott Thomson for blowing a trombone cue - well, I suppose that's why they went back into closed session after the first 90 minutes. Otherwise he didn't cater to the fact that there were auditors, so Braxton didn't provide any context or commentary on the compositional intentions and techniques involved in the pieces, as I'm sure he'd already done in their initial rehearsals.

Nevertheless, it was revealing to watch him in action. In particular, hearing his minimal directions to the ensemble, which partook somewhat of the arcane myth-science language for which Braxton is notorious, helped make more sense of that language for me - it feels more organic in a musician-to-musician conversation than when it's removed from that context. It was a bit odd to hear him say "I'm not hearing gravity radiance there" and then, after another runthrough of the section, "Very nice, I'm hearing good gravities." But in relation to the music you could guess what he meant much more than when you hear him speak that way in the abstract. Towards the end, he told the group, "I'm hearing some body time now - it's coming in, it's coming in," which seemed of a piece with his instruction that when they re-entered after pauses, they should not speed up but play as if they were speeding up - "to keep things on the upside of the pulse." Gradually it dawned on me that without coming out and saying it, he was telling them - in this clustery, spikey music in which even to detect a rhythmic tick is a challenge - to swing. And soon enough they were pulling it off.

The other main comments from Braxton were little politics-and-current-events jokes made off-the-cuff along the way, usually when telling the group what section of the piece to go to - "F as in 'fox' - but not as in Fox News!" he'd say, or, "Now let's try section V again - but we'll keep Michael Vick out of it." Or on the subject of that almost-swing - "I will not use the language of General Petraeus and say 'surge' - but bump it up a bit." Besides injecting a bit of levity, these one-liners served an artistic purpose (consciously or not), I think - helping to keep the real world in the room, to remind the players that for Braxton, these highly abstract compositions are still hooked into the social and political dynamics of the society and era in which they were created.

We heard the orchestra playing sections of Braxton's "Composition 91 for creative orchestra" (1979), a partly-notated and partly-improvised piece (available on the 1989 Black Saint release Eugene), and seemingly more through-composed pieces "Composition 305" (recorded on Braxton's 2002 Duets (Wesleyan) record with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum; you can hear a sample here) (sorry, my notes were in error there - please see the comments) "Composition 306" and "Composition 307" (which he plays alone on the four-CD set Solo Live At Gasthof Heidelberg Loppem 2005, some of which you can hear if you scroll down to it in the Aquarius Records catalogue). Obviously the latter two pieces sounded quite different with an 18-person orchestra than on those recordings, though. I didn't get a chance to eyeball the scores to see what the notation was like, although from a few rows back it was evident that it was on a conventional musical staff rather than the completely graphic notation style that Braxton's known for (note: please see the comments, again, for a clarification of this) - but that doesn't mean that up close the staff wouldn't look like this. Comp. 306 (if I've got the title-to-piece order straight) was particularly entertaining, with the wonderful vocalist Christine Duncan (of Barnyard Drama) regularly breaking in to the music with quick melodic verbal interjections, such as, "The old gang got together last night, and we talked about you somewhat," "The IRS is killing me!" or simply, "Yes. No. Maybe. Maybe."

Chatting at the break with bassist Rob Clutton, he said of the work with Braxton, simply, "It's a gift, a real gift." I couldn't agree more, and the audience in Guelph next week will be counting its blessings too.

The AIMToronto Orchestra is: Anthony Braxton - woodwinds, direction; Ken Aldcroft- guitar; Parmela Attariwala - violin; Victor Bateman- double bass; Kyle Brenders- saxophones; Rob Clutton- double bass; Christine Duncan- voice; Colin Fisher- tenor saxophone; Nick Fraser- drums; Tania Gill- piano; Justin Haynes- guitar; Tilman Lewis- cello; Rob Piilonen- flute; Nicole Rampersaud - trumpet; Ronda Rindone- clarinets; Evan Shaw - alto sax; Joe Sorbara - drums, percussion; Scott Thomson- trombone; Brandon Valdivia - percussion.

PS: Most of the group, by the way, will be taking part in a "company"-style improv session at Arraymusic on Friday night in the Leftover Daylight series. There's been no hint that Braxton might sit in, but one might wonder....

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 29 at 12:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Midnight is another Jail Guitar

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If, like me till today, you haven't made your way to Brian Wilson's website to hear his new song Midnight Is Another Day, part of his forthcoming collaboration with Smile partner Van Dyke Parks, That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative), get your mouse off its ass and motorvate. It's a glory. As always these days, Brian's vocals are a bit of a sticky gate to pass, though his worn-down tone is moving in itself; but by the end of a listen, I only wanted to hear it again. And again.

In the newspaper this weekend, my colleague Elizabeth Renzetti had a good column on the Jail Guitar Doors program in the UK, named for the Clash song and fronted by our beloved Billy Bragg - the idea is to get instruments to prisoners, as a humanitarian and rehabilitative aid. As Liz tells it in the piece (in case you can't get to it in the Globe's paid content section, like maybe because you're in prison or something): "When Malcolm Dudley of the rehabilitation-through-music group Changing Tunes wrote to enlist Bragg's help, he mentioned that the inmates he worked with at Guys Marsh prison in Dorset had precisely two guitars: one belonging to the warden and one to the vicar. They both went home at night. He also cited a statistic: Almost two-third of inmates reoffend, but among those who had been through Changing Tunes, which teaches everything from composition to recording skills, the figure is between 10 and 15 per cent. That number caught Bragg's attention. 'It's not that I don't believe in prison,' he says. 'I do believe people should go to prison for their crimes. I just don't think we should throw away the key. I want them to come back to society.' "

The mechanism is simple enough: They hold a fundraising concert, use the cash to buy guitars, bring them to the jails and help those caged birds sing. (Sorry.) Last weekend a Washington, DC, group put on the first non-UK Jail Guitar Doors show: "It's something any musicians can do, raise some money to buy guitars," Bragg says. "It's just an idea. But it's a good idea."

A good idea that maybe some local "any musicians" might pick up (in Ontario or wheresoever "local" for you might be).

PS I am digging on the new Weakerthans album, Reunion Tour, coming out in a few weeks. More on that soon.

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, August 26 at 10:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Sexasaurus Rex: R. Kelly's Tightrope Act
(And the Serialized-Single Revolution)

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Jody Rosen has a great piece on Slate today about R. Kelly's turn from love-man to "meta-love-man." (Though I have to mourn the missed wordplay-op there - maybe Jody couldn't decide between plain "metasexual" and "meta-ro-sexual"? I'm having the same problem. And also now on the hunt for a situation that would justify the use of "retro-sexual" - maybe the carryings-on in Mad Men.) I agree with Jody that Kells is now playing up his sense of humour, and that this is a refreshing thing in pop music, particularly in the over-earnest realm of R&B; - and it's also an impressive lover-man move, as surely being able to joke about sex is a helluvalot more potent display of sexual confidence than male R&B; singers' standard boasting and overbearing come-ons. The clearest precedent is Prince at his best, but generally Kells is stepping into the underrecognized lineage of perv pop, the boudoir music made by men so louche that coming on to you is almost a redundant formality - they can say any ridiculous thing and it all means "... and then we shall fuck." Serge Gainsbourg is probably the paradigmatic case, as New Zealand musician George D. Henderson argues in the above-linked blog (and as The Teenagers, No Bra and even Flight of the Conchords know). But Henderson's list should be balanced out by the long line of jelly-rolling, lemon-squeezing, backdoor-knockin' blues musicians whose comic flair helped furnish Kelly with his metaphor-slinging modus operandi.

For all that in principle I want to give kudos to Kells's vaudevillian turn, I have my hesitations about it, too. Kelly's humour has always been most effective when he leaves us guessing - when he plays the "is he kidding or is he actually such a crazy motherfucker that he means that?" game. It's not an easy effect to pull off - and there are times when people's inability to credit Kelly's comic awareness seems to spring from plain racism - but he is most able to fascinate when he teeters on the edge of self-parody without letting himself slip all the way over. It's a tightrope act. That's also a way of charging up the magnetism of the songs - jokes, after all, wear thin with repetition, but a song that winks at you so subtly that you're not sure whether you really saw it is going to pull you in back over and over again, to try and catch it in the act. So I confess I've been hesitant to watch the new episodes of Trapped in the Closet, because I felt like at the end of the first set the humour started getting really broad, and any illusion that Kelly believed in his characters started to collapse - moving from irony into camp into farce. After that, Kelly can only play the "how far do you think I can take it?" game, which is enjoyable, but a bit less mesmerizing.

The other conspicuous fact about Trapped is how sui generis it is; but I'm actually a bit surprised that it's remained alone in its category since Kelly launched it in 2005. The basic idea - a series of interlinked singles, released gradually online, with some kind of structure of narrative and/or suspense built in - is a perfect response to the changing conditions of the music industry. Naturally nobody should dare to make an imitation Trapped (unless it's Weird Al, or South Park, or some kid with Sims), but the basic template offers the potential for a wider variety of approaches. The singles-serial could be to the 2Ks what the concept album was to the '70s... Ah, right, maybe that's the problem. But still.

Mind you, Kells' penchant for seriality is not due to the existence of iTunes and YouTube, however much it suits them. He's been horsing around in the pastures of "to be continued" ever since his debut album when he introduced Ronald Isley's Mr. Biggs character. There aren't many other contemporary performers - except Eminem, at his peak - who seem so comfortable with creating ongoing characters. But that's not the only possible way to link a set of singles: Just think what Jack White, or Bjork, or Andre 3000, or Lil Wayne, might do with the form.

Jody's piece included a link to this performance I hadn't seen before, by the way - Kelly doing a kickass a capella live rendition of his new song Zoo - just earnest enough to make you laugh and hot you up at the same time, and as any would-be seducer knows, that's a consummation most profanely to be wished.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 22 at 2:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Welcome to the Neighbourworld

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Toronto cellist/electroacoustic musician Nick Storring has launched a laudable addition to the music-blog world, which (though I'm not keeping up as much as usual due to the book deadline) feels like a rare occurrence lately. Nick's blog is called "End(-)Of(-)World(-)Music," dedicated to his adventures in non-western musics of all sorts. It opened strong with a thoughtful polemic about the uselessness of the "world music" designation, a couple of entries sharing specific discoveries (complete with YouTube videos) and most recently a reflection on the aesthetic/ethical profiles of two projects in which North American independent/underground sensibilities and global sound exploration meet, the labels Sublime Frequencies (which I've written about at length here) and the newer Drag City offshoot Yaala Yaala, which was new to me. While I'm not convinced it can be done, I found Nick's attempt to rehabilitate the term "exotic" from its colonial associations thought-provoking. He's got me hooked.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, August 18 at 3:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Guest Post: A Canadian Remembrance of Tony Wilson

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Canadian readers will probably know Kim Clarke Champniss (above left) from his days on MuchMusic and his other TV appearances as a figure on the national music scene for decades. He got in touch the other day and said that he'd written up this appreciation of the late Tony Wilson (above right), the newspapers hadn't bitten, and might I be interested in putting it up online? So here it is. While for many readers it might be retreading some overly familiar subcultural ground, I like its evocation of the new-wave era of Kim's youth in Vancouver, and its reminders about the roots of things like Nettwerk Records which would go on to be institutions. Hope you enjoy it. - C.W.

I was saddened to hear that Tony Wilson of Factory Records fame died of a heart attack brought on by kidney failure. I'm sure the British music press will be all over the story singing the praises of one of the most important men of the new-wave scene of the 1980s and the "Madchester" scene of the 1990s, one of the most influential men on the British indie scene, who broke such bands as New Order and The Happy Mondays. But his importance, or more accurately, his record label's influence on the worldwide scene was crucial. Even here in Canada, Tony Wilson influenced our musical heritage.

I am a case in point. Tony Wilson released Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart on Factory Records. That song, that band, that wonderful artwork, changed my life forever. It caught a moment in time, never to be repeated. And I was not the only one profoundly affected by the music and the art. At the time that record was released in 1980, I was living in Vancouver and a deejay at the notorious new wave nightclub, The Luv-a-Fair, arguably the most influential new-wave club in North America at the time.

The international music scene was in the post-disco, post-punk period. Joy Division, the flagship band of the fledgling label, had a dark, romantic sound. The graphics on the album, designed by Peter Saville, and the whole packaging of Factory Records product, were an artistic statement in themselves. Coupled with the mysterious, brooding music and lyrics of Joy Division, they were a profound statement. Every transmitter needs a receiver, and Tony Wilson, who was overseeing this music and art of his label, connected with many of us in the Vancouver scene.

(continues after the jump)

My deejay partner at the Luv-a-Fair nightclub was Steven R. Gilmore, now a renowned artist who contributed to The Lord of the Rings and provided graphic design for such artists as Skinny Puppy. Steven was deeply affected by the artwork and music of this Manchester label. He and I would purchase Factory Records product just because we trusted the musical direction of the label. The packaging was exquisite. The music was insightful and inspirational and somehow had its finger on the dark, brooding isolation that many of us were feeling.

One of the main music stores to sell the imported Factory Records product was Cinematica on Vancouver's 4th Avenue. The manager of the store, and the individual that ordered the music, was Terry McBride. Terry has since become an international music success story running Nettwerk Records and Management Company. Today he manages such artists as Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan and the Barenaked Ladies. But back in the early '80s he sold records to Steven and myself hoping that we would make them hits at the Luv-a-Fair. Terry knew that many of the club's patrons, like Steven and me, were captivated by the myth of Factory Records, so he would monitor what we were playing and order extra copies, not just of Joy Division, but of other cool acts like A Certain Ratio and (after Ian Curtis's suicide) New Order, and get a jump on the competition.

In 1981 I stepped down from the deejay booth to manage a young Vancouver band called Images In Vogue. These five musicians, pioneers of the Canadian electronic scene, were also influenced by Tony Wilson's musical savvy. The band would christen their music publishing company "Edition Divisionale" as a tribute to Joy Division, and the band’s first EP, Educated Man, which was designed by Steven R. Gilmore, was reminiscent of Peter Saville's graphics on Factory.

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Four years later Terry McBride, along with two other partners, would launch Nettwerk Records. Steven was recruited to design the album graphics for the label's three simultaneous releases - the Grapes of Wrath, Skinny Puppy (featuring the former drummer of Images in Vogue), and Moev - which were, of course reminiscent of Factory Records. Steven was also commissioned to design Nettwerk's logo. For inspiration, he examined the stylized "f" of the Factory Record label and designed the "N" of Nettwerk in such a fashion. That logo remains to this day.

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The triple release by Nettwerk in 1985, with gorgeous graphics and cutting-edge music supplied by the three bands, had a major impact around the world. A myth built up around the Nettwerk record label, similar to Factory Records, which of course was the whole point.

In 1986 MuchMusic hired me and I left Vancouver for Toronto. Part of my on-air duties was to host the alternative music show City Limits. Needless to say, I featured many videos by Factory artists like New Order, who had fused rock and dance music to become a hugely successful band, and the Happy Mondays, who had plugged into the whole British ecstasy scene. The heart of that rave culture was Manchester, Tony's hometown, which came to be known as "Madchester." The number-one club in the city was the Hacienda - owned by Tony Wilson and members of New Order. So MuchMusic dispatched cameras and I traveled to the Factory Records head office to obtain Tony's view on what made Manchester a great music town, and why he and Factory Records became so influential: Passion, he would say.

Tony, who was like me also a pop-culture TV presenter, reverted to his classier birth name Anthony Wilson in the mid-'90s. He organized the Manchester music convention "In the City," and would often attend Canadian Music Week as a guest speaker, influencing yet another generation of music folk. That's where our paths last crossed in 2005.

The story of Tony Wilson, Factory Records, and the Manchester scene, has been immortalized in the brilliant mockumentary 24-Hour Party People, a must-see for any music fan. It documents how Mr. Wilson famously made no money - "but made history." Despite the appreciation and nurturing of pop art and its artists, Tony Wilson was not a good businessman. Factory Records never owned its recordings' master tapes. It existed only as brand, a vision of its passionate owner. The Hacienda, as well, despite its legend, made no money.

In 2006 Tony Wilson was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He was told that the drugs to treat his cancer would cost 3,500 pounds a month (over $7,000). He did not have the means to cure the illness. Possibly, in the long run, he regretted the decision to put art above commerce.

When I read of his passing it brought back memories, and the remembrance of that music, of that golden period which shaped my life. A copy of Love Will Tear Us Apart still hangs, beautifully framed, on my wall - a reminder of how a single song changed my life, a single piece of art that showed me a direction when I was rebelling against a predictable Canadian music scene. It renewed my belief in the power of popular music.

Tony, you did make history. Many roads lead back to you. This is my way of saying thanks. - Kim Clarke Champniss, Toronto, August 2007

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Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 16 at 1:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Unleash the Press Hounds

Two scraps of information worth noting that came across the e-transom today:

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1. Lit-jazz. I go reeling back to the halcyon days of the ought-four "lit-rock" debate courtesy of the news in a press release that New York-born, London-resident jazz singer Stacey Kent's new album Breakfast on the Morning Tram includes four songs with lyrics by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, including the title track. (Kent's husband, saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, wrote the music for them.) It's difficult to guess how much the songs reflect the Booker-nominated writer's signature mix of repression, class and barbed social criticism, though the name of the opening track, "The Ice Hotel," is suggestive. Of course the jazz/literary crossover tradition goes back much further than the rock/literary one, and doesn't piss off anybody whom jazz doesn't piss off on principle in the first place. Then again, jazz doesn't involve so much pretending to illiteracy (though no doubt there've been plenty of illiterate jazz players in history, likely more than there ever were illiterate rock singers). To be fair, though, jazz is a more yielding and flexible medium for words to slip into. The next-most-prominent contributor of songwriting to the Kent album, by the way, is Serge Gainsbourg, and Kent also contributes to the accumulating consensus that Stevie Nicks' Landslide has attained stone-cold standard status. (None of this should be taken as an endorsement of the Kent album - to my knowledge I've never heard her sing.)

2. Kershuffle: The further adventures of Evan N. Inspired by the Harper government, no doubt, the local music industry is rearranging some deck chairs: The ever-more-burgeoning force of Canadian distributor Outside Music has been buttressed by the absorption of the Baudelaire Music label (speaking of literary-rock interreference), home of Jon-Rae & the River, the Diableros, Tangiers/Jewish Legend and others, but more to the point, home to iconoclastic A&R; guy Evan Newman (see Zoiluses passim), whose artist-management skills are the main quarry of Outside's poaching expedition here, as Outside is starting up a mortgage loan, oops, I mean, in-house management division. All interesting developments in the gradual mutation of the Canadian music industry: As major labels increasingly shrink down to the status of distribution companies, distribution companies start bulking up into multi-service-style labels... Newman generally has been a useful caller-of-bullshit among the more mainstream walkers on the indie/mainstream borderline so it'll be worth watching his role evolve.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 15 at 5:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

'He could produce genuine surprises'

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Excellent obituary over the weekend in The Guardian of the late European free-improvisation pioneer, trombonist Paul Rutherford, who died last week. Rutherford was one of the founders of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which would include the likes of John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Maggie Nichols, Peter Kowald, etc. Although I think the article does bend over backwards just a bit: It would be less "fanciful" to "trace the beginnings of European free improvising" to AMM, which I believe began prior to the SME, not to mention Joe Harriott's "free form" jazz. But that's quibbling. The obit is well worth reading.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 14 at 1:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Knee Plays

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A couple of weeks ago I told you about Cathy Gordon's public divorce-ritual project On My Knees, in which she is crawling across Toronto on hands and knees in her wedding dress to mark the end of her eight-year marriage. Well, it's happening today, right now. You can follow her progress via her website from now till the end of the afternoon, although I am finding that the Flickr photo stream is proving the most efficient live-update source. (Though don't let the photo #'ing confuse you; it's deceptive.) If you are in Toronto and want to greet, toast and console Cathy at the end of her journey, you can rendezvous with her either at the Jameson Pedestrian Bridge (at Jameson & Lakeshore) around 6:30 pm or at the final of the eight "stations" on the journey, the small beach by the Canadian Legion Boating & Sailing Club (the "Water Heals All Wounds" station) at 1391 Lake Shore W, around 7:30 pm.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 13 at 1:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

'No One Sets Out to Be a Smooth Jazz Musician'

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"except maybe David Sanborn. But even he got to play some rock and free jazz earlier in his career and get it out of his system."

This piece has an unusual ring of detailed insider truth: So has The Onion got an embittered sessionman on its staff now, or just an ex-jazz-school student with a vivid paranoia for where he may end up? But even as I laughed at the satire, I had to remember this column written, if not exactly in defence of the Smoothies, at least with an ear to understanding what this music means to its listeners and players, and why it does in fact have a relationship to the jazz tradition (which like most genres has always had a "hardcore" and "softshell" rivalry, like most genres, to use the terms coined by Pete Peterson). When I was typing the title of this post, I accidentally wrote, "No one sets out to be a free jazz musician," and while that's no more empirically true than The Onion's headline (I imagine many more people set out to be smooth-jazz musicians, though more of them probably fail at it because the better musicians scoop up their jobs, as the piece documents), the Freudian point of my slip may be that one way or another, it's circumstance (of education, exposure, opportunity and other factors) that determine what a musician does, not some kind of innate primeval drive. Those influences shift what "taste world" a person lives in, and none of us are innocent of having a taste world, which is the thrust of my upcoming book.

And speaking of the book, I'm off work this week to bear down on the final phases of the manuscript, so not only posting but gig guide updates etc. have to be put on hold to minimize the distraction quotient. You're probably too sweaty for a lot of meta-musical debate yourself, no? See you on the August downslide.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 06 at 11:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

I Never Felt So Much Alike (Alike, Alike, Alike ...)

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Nate Petrin takes the ball, runs with it, carries the ball around the world counterclockwise at the speed of light, thereby reversing time, saves Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson, defeats Braniac and then superspeeds the ball back around the world clockwise to shoot it through the goalposts in the final second of overtime.

Nate contributed the Iron Man limerick to last week's fun and games, but, unsated, he decided to climb a higher mountain: An entire album, with a limerick for every song. His chosen victim? The Clash's London Calling. You have to read the whole thing (probably with a track listing nearby for crossreferencing), but here's a taste, Nate's version of Jimmy Jazz:

A rasta named James was once fearless
'Til he was found headless and earless
I was quizzed by a copper
'Bout a suspect be-bopper
But I've no idea where that heel is.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 01 at 11:44 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

20th-Century Cinema, RIP

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It's an obvious point, but: Bergman and Antonioni in two days? Wow. Also, I had no idea Antonioni was five years older than Ingmar. I would have guessed the opposite, not only because the Italian seemed more active in later years but because Bergman made some of his great masterpieces in the '50s while M.A. didn't become prolific until the early 1960s.

I've had phases of infatuation with each of these filmmakers, especially with Antonioni's early-sixties trilogy of emotional estrangement, L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse, but I do feel generationally removed from them in a way that leaves me more in mourning for an era - the greyscale landscape of European intellectuals reflecting on and reinventing existence, especially urban existence, after the War - than for the individual artists. (Whose lives were long and relatively blessed.) It does make me think of the later-1960s directors, whose work seems to me now less distant, more anticipatory of the era to follow, and how sad it will be when they begin to fall. Godard is 77... Are film directors an especially long-lived group? It seems like it, compared to, say, writers and visual artists. I suppose it requires more physical stamina just to be a film director in the first place: Miranda July was talking about this in an interview I recently heard, saying that the one thing she hadn't anticipated about making a feature film compared to every other form she'd tried was that it seemed like an Olympic endurance event - she lost something like 20 pounds, which to look at her seems practically a medical emergency. The scribblers and the daubers, though they may have at least as many vices, don't get the same regular workout. (Sculptors are always an exception.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 31 at 1:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Amigos Makin' Art;
Plus, Happy 80th, John Ashbery

P(re)-S. Thanks for all the limerickal steez. Keep 'em comin'. And now...

Zoilus has frequently spoken of dear pal Misha Glouberman and the curious classes he teaches at the Misha Glouberman School of Learning, in various forms of improvisation, especially vocal, for non-musicians. Better than any account I can offer is this new short documentary about his latest class, based on John Zorn's Cobra. The film is by Rose Bianchini:

Another friend, Cathy Gordon, has long been planning a project I find compelling/horrifying/beautiful: Five years after she separated from her husband of eight years, Steve, Cathy was finding herself continually avoiding finalizing the divorce. So she created a structure she felt would enable her to do it: On August 13, from 11:30 am to 7:30 pm, she is crawling across Toronto on her hands and knees, in her wedding dress, visiting a series of significant locations from her marriage, and at the final station, signing the divorce papers. She is documenting the whole process (including her current crawling training) on a new website that is more than worth a visit.

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Finally, tomorrow, Sat. July 28, marks the 80th birthday of probably my favourite living writer, American poet John Ashbery. Mainly via Facebook, I've been organizing a "notional celebration," just to encourage people to think of Ashbery with gratitude tomorrow, but that has developed as well into an actual, modest-scale celebration: At 3:30 pm, a few people are going to gather at Clinton's bar in Toronto, pretend it's the Cedar Tavern, quaff a few cocktails and read a little Ashbery. If you're so inclined, join us. Or just raise a glass in that spirit tomorrow, wherever you are.

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.
Come see it.
Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.

- from "Just Walking Around," A Wave, 1984

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 27 at 1:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Sure Hope the Hanging Judge is Drunk!

We hear, Idolatrices, and we aim to please:

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

Where strippers and mobsters get cozy,
Big Jim loves both Lily and Rosie,
Which leads to some killin',
A theft and ... er, Dylan,
Is the Jack of Hearts Keyser Soze?

(For those just joining us, start here.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 26 at 3:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Rice Scented in Our Absence:
Paul Haines, In Memorium

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ON BIRD
WALKS
OUGHT
THOSE WHO DO NOT
BELIEVE IN BIRDS
BE ALLOWED
TO TAG ALONG
WITH THOSE WHO DO?

AND WHEN
I TOLD THEM
THEY DIDN'T
BELIEVE ME

- Paul Haines, What is free to a good home?

In keeping with this week's unplanned poetry-and-music theme: My colleague Robert Everett Green has an excellent piece in today's Globe and Mail, talking with Emily Haines (best known as the singer for Metric) about her new EP, What Is Free to a Good Home?, being launched tonight at Harbourfront, which is named after the above poem by her father, the teacher, poet, artist and music writer Paul Haines. Tonight also marks the release of Secret Carnival Workers, a collection that for the first time brings together Paul Haines's poems, jazz-album liner notes, short fiction and other music writing, all united by his unique bodhisava-dada sensibility; the book was edited by Toronto composer and jazz critic Stuart Broomer, but it exists mainly thanks to Emily's efforts, as Stuart told me - she is self-publishing it through a company called H.Pal, although Coach House is printing and distributing it. (Emily also spoke about her father this week to Dose and The National Post and wrote an essay about him for The Toronto Star.)

In honour of the occasion I'd like to reprint the memorial piece I wrote for Paul Haines in The Globe, awhile after his death four years ago, but never posted on this site.

His words fit into music 'like fish in water'

Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
8 May 2003

Let's sit right down and say how slowly the passing can appear to take/ When nothing in the form of everything is at stake.

Those lines by Ontario poet, teacher and video artist Paul Haines could have been his own funeral march, if somebody sang them loud-and-soft enough, the way they are on New York avant-jazz band Curlew's 1993 album A Beautiful Western Saddle.

So could such works as Anti-Pondering or On the Way to Elsewhere and Here or What This Was Going to Suppose to Mean, many of them sung on the 1994 Haines anthology Darn It! Or the Michigan-born writer's Canadian Poem, which declared, "The summer has/ aged and I'm/ getting dark/ earlier and/ earlier."

This was an artist fluent in things that slip in and out of existence: a note, a laugh, a light, a life.

[... continues ...]

He was a high-school French teacher, husband and father in tiny Fenelon Falls, Ont., where he settled for the last quarter-century before his death on Jan. 21 at age 70. But Haines was also the inventor and inhabitor of a way of language just one step from jazz music, pivoted on its heel, at a tilt facing north.

One friend, Toronto critic and musician Stuart Broomer, puts it plain: "He was in some ways the most important imaginative writer involved in jazz in the last 40 years."

The musicians who in turn answered Haines's call have a few last responses to come, with tributes planned next Wednesday in Toronto and this fall in New York and at the Guelph Jazz Festival, in Guelph, Ont.

Consider Haines as a jazz songwriter, as Broomer does, and you'd go back to Hoagy Carmichael or Cole Porter to find lyrics that slip through to such wry, poignant effect. Yet his style was nothing like theirs, just as the new jazz wasn't Duke Ellington. Rather than suave couplets about cocktails and courtship, a typical Haines poem offered stripped-down postwar French surrealism, a haiku doing a can-can.

He gloried in puns, malapropisms, cracked syntax and ribald mental pictures that might raise a blush. He walked on mechanical knees -- a souvenir of his high-school track career near Saginaw, Mich., in the 1940s -- and the idea somehow suits his writing: Metal meeting meat in motion.

"The fact that his words were so baffling," British singer Robert Wyatt told BBC Radio 3 after Haines's death, "that's perfect for music, because you can say you liked the solo or not, but not what it meant. So his words sort of floated in music like fish in water."

Where other "jazz poets" through the years have taken the liberty of the music as licence for manic jags into the badlands of self-expression, Haines took his cue from its multidimensional form, at the speed of surprise. As Toronto composer John Oswald says, "Paul never wrote about music; he wrote music."

"His poetry is very polysemous -- it points in many directions at once," says a younger friend, Guelph, Ont., drummer and composer Jesse Stewart, with whom Haines wrote a multimedia opera in 1999. "And music might be said to do that as well."

The trombonist Roswell Rudd, who is helping organize the New York tribute, calls Haines, "one of the great listeners of the world," with a range from swing to punk. Rudd was a friend and musical partner of Haines beginning in the late-fifties jazz hothouse of New York's Radio Row (now Ground Zero), alongside free-jazz pioneer Albert Ayler, Canadian artist Michael Snow (with whom Haines made the landmark film New York Eye and Ear Control) and other giants-to-be such as Steve Lacy and Paul and Carla Bley.

Out of these friendships eventually came Haines's famed libretto for Carla Bley's dazzling avant-jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill, which has been called the Sgt. Pepper's of early 1970s jazz, featuring everyone from Charlie Haden and Don Cherry to Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt. Haines sent Bley his poems from a Navajo reserve in New Mexico, where he and his wife Jo lived at the time.

The title came, he later said, from his irritation with the verb "to escalate" during the Vietnam War era (reflecting his eternally subtle social conscience, and adding shades to "over the hill," too). The paper back in Saginaw celebrated with a headline reading, "Local athlete writes opera," which so amused him he carried it around for years.

Escalator was revived for a live European tour in the late 1990s, but meanwhile Haines did a second Bley disc, Tropic Appetites, written while he spent five years in New Delhi. "He was this great traveller," says Broomer. "The kind of person who would go to Moscow for the weekend. He actually did that once."

Later, Bley would also participate in Darn It!, a double CD assembled over seven years by Haines and producer Kip Hanrahan, on which his poems were performed by dozens of musicians in and out of the jazz realm, from ex-Box Tops and Big Star singer Alex Chilton and Toronto's Mary Margaret O'Hara to jazz-improv composer Henry Threadgill, English saxophonist Evan Parker and cult guitarist Derek Bailey.

These albums are virtually the only way to find Haines's writing. His one book -- 1981's Third World Two -- went out of print once its texts had been cannibalized for songs and for the admired but little-seen video works he made in his final decades. He seemed to find print too static, though he could destabilize it, too, when he chose, as in his album notes and other critical essays.

He wrote a glorious dada-polemic booklet for the original pressing of Ayler's 1964 Spiritual Unity, a key album in free-jazz history (a rare copy recently sold on eBay for $1,725 U.S.), and notes for many other milestone records. On several, he even served as the recording engineer.

"He had an ear for sound, really quite beyond mine," says Rudd. "And this included language. There were times when it was difficult for me to understand him, as if he was speaking in tongues."

But friends also mention Haines's prodigious warmth, generosity and humour, and his avalanches of eclectic "gaslight" mixed tapes (or "K7s," a bilingual pun). Jesse Stewart mourns the end of the many letters, signed with aliases such as "Rudy L. Glorytractor."

I experienced that side of Haines personally in 1995 when a fax about an interview that, sadly, never transpired, included this text as a return address: "Matrigupta of Ujjain, India, wrote a poem that so pleased Rajah Vicrama Ditya HE WAS GIVEN THE ENTIRE STATE OF KASHMIR. The poet ruled Kashmir for five years (118-123) and then abdicated to become a recluse."

Haines may have won his own kingdom, but his end ("at his desk with his cassette deck on pause," says Oswald) was similarly obscure. His death met with silence in the Canadian press; compare that to the frenzy when his daughter Avery Haines was fired in 2000 for making an indiscreet joke as a TV news anchor. (Her career recovered. Another daughter, Emily, is a fine rising rock singer, whose father's sensibility often winks out from her lyrics.)

It may be that, as Toronto event organizer Glen Hall says, Haines was "a pretty intransigent non-self-promoter." And that, as Oswald says, "Like quite a few extraordinary, little-recognized Canadians who come quickly to mind, he is unclassifiable."

But Haines was also an ideal transplant, with his very Canadian-seeming, off-kilter humour, and deserved better treatment here. It was left to the BBC to do a half-hour tribute in March, including a passage from High Tide, commissioned there in 1999 for an Evan Parker session -- another elegy manque and one of Haines's sweetest:

Everyone's feet wetter -- musicians, listeners -- and tied now together.
Night parachutes concealed, their cargo installed.
The tide, no longer high, is in, and still.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, July 25 at 2:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Famous Poems Rewritten 2
(Modern Lovers Boogaloo)

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In response to yesterday's song-as-limerick idea, my friend Matt Benz of Columbus, OH (formerly of great truckstop-rock band The Sovines, and one of the funniest people I know), responded: "The closest I've come is William Carlos Williams's 'The Red Wheelbarrow' as done by Jonathan Richman. It was called 'Hey! Little Red Wheelbarrow!' " Of course, I immediately demanded the lyrics, and with Matt's kind permission I'm sharing them with you. Further entries in either the famous-song-as-limerick or famous-poem-as-song-in-the-style-of-x genres are still delightedly encouraged.

Mr. Benz says: "You'll have to imagine the voice, snap the fingers to a simple 4/4 time, sing a very simple melody and it's something like this. In the key of G."

Hey! Little Red Wheelbarrow!

Hey! Red wheelbarrow,
Red wheelbarrow,
Doncha know, doncha know,
So much depends on you.
Oh red wheelbarrow, hey!
So much depends on you.

Hey! Red wheelbarrow,
Red wheelbarrow,
Glazed with rain, glazed with rain water,
Oh, red wheelbarrow, hey!
Beside the white chickens.

And so much depends on you,
Yes, so much depends on you,
Oh, so much depends on you...
Maybe too much! (Alright now, dance, modern lovers, dance!)

(Instrumental break)

Hey! Red wheelbarrow,
Red wheelbarrow,
I remember the first time that I saw you there,
Glazed with rain water,
The chickens all around,
Making their clucking sound,
And I thought to myself
And I spoke it out loud:

I said, hey! Red wheelbarrow!
I said, hey! Red wheelbarrow!
So much depends on you,
Oh, little red wheelbarrow,
So much - too much - depends on you.
Red wheelbarrow, hey!

Hey! Red wheelbarrow,
Red wheelbarrow,
Doncha know, doncha know,
So much depends on you,
Oh, red wheelbarrow, hey!
So much depends on you,
So much depends on the
redwheelbarrowglazedwithrainwater,
redwheelbarrowbesidethewhitechickens ...
So much depends ... on...you!

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 24 at 1:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Famous Songs Rewritten as Limericks

Tickled by the link Bookninja (and Boing Boing) posted this morning to "Famous Poems Rewritten as Limericks," I realized you could do the same with songs, so I whipped up the two examples below. They both kinda make the same joke, but I didn't try very hard to cure their lameness because I figured their very imperfection might prompt a competitive spirit.

Stairway to Heaven
There's some lady who's going to the stars,
Via stairs, road, or wind, not by car.
I would say if I could
If she's evil or good,
But it's all drowned out in loud guitars.

Teenage Riot
Discord and confusion are looming
While a youth revolution is brewing:
Though its programme's unclear,
There'll be leather and beer,
And a lot of creative detuning.

Later: All right, another:

Norwegian Wood
Once J.L. met a girl with good floors,
Upon which they proceeded to score.
She had work (so she's legal,
Which was rare for a Beatle),
But he still treated her like a whore.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 23 at 3:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (74)

 

We Hearby Submit that Pop Montreal
Change Its Name to 'The Paradise on Earth Festival'

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B-a-n-a-n-a-s. I'm watching Raul Julia play New York New York on clarinet to his goats as Calibanos in Paul Mazursky's The Tempest (I forgot that it was Molly Ringwald's first film; she's good in it! It's not as bad as its reputation, not near). I decide to look in on the internasty, and what do I hear from the folks at Pop Montreal but this: Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, Mort Sahl, DJ/Rupture, Final Fantasy, Gary Lucas, Tagaq, The Federation, Half-Japanese, Qui with David Yow, and PAG in one festival? I've got one heavy-duty case of dropjaw.

"Confirmed Artists, more to be announced:
Patti Smith, Cody Chesnutt, Pere Ubu
Half Japanese, Mort Sahl (who apparently is originally from Montreal - did you know this? I did not know this!)
Ron Sexsmith, Michel Pagliaro, Black Mountain, Oakley Hall
Sunset Rubdown, The National, A-Trak, Kid Sister
Caribou, Born Ruffians, Final Fantasy, Chromeo
Tiga, Bobby Conn, Yelle, Eric's Trip, DJ/Rupture
Tony Rebel, Jr Kelly, Starvin Hungry, Bionic
Trigger Effect, Lotusland, Magnolia Electric Co., Chad VanGaalen
Grizzly Bear, The Watson Twins, MSTRKRFT, DJ Mehdi
Jay Reatard, Qui, Megasoid, Glitch Mob
The Cool Kids, Gary Lucas, Earlimart, Ndidi Onukwulu
Miracle Fortress, Taqaq, Fujiya and Miyagi,
Daedalus, Filastine, United Steel Workers of Montreal,
Barmitzvah Brothers, Fucked Up, Maga Bo, Georgie James,
Tiombe Lockhart, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Basia Bulat,
We're Marching On and much more."

The dates are Oct. 3-7. And it sounds like the Future of Music Coalition and McGill are going to put on a "Pop & Policy" conference at the same time. Please don't come. That town ain't big enough for the million of us.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 21 at 10:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (16)

 

Aural Arrival

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There's a new kid on the web-radio/web-lit crossover block, thanks to former House of Anansi impresario-editor Martha Sharpe (much missed in Toronto, currently domiciled in NYC) and Toronto publishing type David Ross: It's Radio Press, the new home of pod-pliable literary commentary and fun'n'games. So far, poet Adam Sol presents Moby Dick in 5 minutes; Mavis Gallant and Toronto writer Erik Rutherford go on a gossipy walk through Paris; there's a new story by Mark Anthony Jarman; Rick Moody talks about character creation and the canard of "likeability"; and contributors to Brick Magazine read their work. That's about it for now but it'll get more capacious - I hope to contribute at some point down the line, and there are big ideas about Radio Press fulfilling the second word in its mandate and eventually publishing print, too. Felicitations to the editors on the parturition of the long-gestated, bouncing baby site.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, July 18 at 3:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Block Ice & Bloodlines

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This Friday, New York's Erik Friedlander, perhaps the most prominent cellist in the improv-and-new-music world today, is playing a show on Toronto Island, and by some coincidence, today in The New York Times, there's a story about Friedlander - in particular his new album, Block Ice & Propane, which draws on memories of family camping trips with his mother, sister, and father Lee Friedlander, the famous photographer. I'd forgotten that Erik F. was the lensman's son, so I was curious to read this piece. It's disillusioning as you get older to find out that half the people exhibiting in galleries have trust funds and another third have artist parents (and a few have both), the ways that class, cultural capital and nepotism determine the shape and population of arts communities - not that the kids of artists should be excluded, of course, but it's another sense in which the tribe is kind of endogamously self-reproducing rather than having full intercourse with the rest of society and evolving out of that. However, I didn't feel that way about the Friedlander connection, I think in part because it's obvious how hard Erik works, with his quite prolific output of solo albums along with guest appearances in performances and recordings by everyone from the Mountain Goats to John Zorn and Ned Rothenberg to Courtney Love; but also because there's always been something a bit mysterious in his aesthetic to me, which somehow framing him as the child of a modernist-artist family helps to bring into clearer focus.

One point that the Times's Ben Sisario passes over that seems worthy of mention is that Lee Friedlander has quite a direct link to the music world, as he was the photographer for jazz and soul albums on Atlantic in the 1950s and 1960s, shooting the classic portraits on the covers of such albums as Miles' In a Silent Way, Coltrane's Giant Steps, discs by Aretha Franklin, Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Mingus, Ornette and many more. Friedlander remarks in the story about the liberating effect of having grown up seeing that art is a matter of "just doing" the impossible. I'm sure that he also grew up hearing that lesson illustrated sonically by the subjects of his father's photographs, some who bent the rules and some who recognized no rule but their own, and his own work, which is so much about tension and timbre and the marginal limit points of music, is illuminated when I look at it as conditioned by and responsive to the swaggering, expansive music that surrounded him in childhood.

Whoever his daddy is, Friedlander is quite an intense performer and well worth catching live. See the gig guide for details. Also, on the "jump" to this post is a column I wrote about him three years ago when he was touring behind my favourite disc of his (I haven't heard the new one yet), Maldoror. [...]

Making ugly sounds on a beautiful instrument

CARL WILSON
April 15, 2004
The Globe and Mail

When I reach Erik Friedlander, he's rollerblading through the streets of New York, and asks me to wait as he passes through a tunnel.

It's the first time I've interviewed an internationally acclaimed musician in mid-skate. But for a jazz player on the outer rim of expression, and an unlikely instrument, "cellist on rollerblades" is as good an image as any.

I ask if he's heading to a studio job, maybe an avant-jazz session like those he's done with the likes of trumpeter Dave Douglas or saxophonist John Zorn, or a pop gig like those with Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, or one of his own scores for film.

"Actually, no," he says, "Couples therapy." The 44-year-old laughingly adds, "Don't worry, it has nothing to do with Maldoror."

Maldoror is his first solo disc, after a half-dozen as leader of cross-cultural jazz ensembles Chimera and Topaz. It's based on the book Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautreamont, the pseudonym of Uruguayan immigrant Isidore Ducasse. He wrote it in Paris in 1868, at half Friedlander's age, and died two years later, unmourned till the surrealists rediscovered him a half-century on.

Friedlander came to it when the composer Michael Montes - after years of pushing for a solo disc - cornered him in a Berlin studio and surprised him with printed pages of Maldoror excerpts. Friedlander read them one by one and, with tape rolling, improvised musical responses, all in about an hour.

In the book, Lautreamont rhapsodizes over evil of every persuasion, from murder, pedophilia and the rape of Christ to erotic union with a shark. Its preface, which inspired Friedlander's first track, warns the reader may find "the deadly issues of this book will lap up his soul as water does sugar." No wonder he fears I'll jump to conclusions about his private life.

Yet relationship counselling is another accidentally apt metaphor. Here more than ever, Friedlander is mediating between cultural odd couples: 19th and 21st centuries, classical and jazz, beauty and brutality, spontaneity and structure. As Lautreamont's notorious line goes, it's "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella."

The idea of jazz cello sometimes feels that incongruous to the son of 1950s jazz photographer Lee Friedlander (who shot covers for Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus), despite praise like being a voted a "rising star" in last year's Downbeat poll.

Jazz cello can be traced from Oscar Pettiford in Duke Ellington's band through Abdul Wadud in the 1970s loft scene. Today it can even be found in the hands of Peggy Lee in Vancouver, or Kye Marshall and Matt Brubeck (son of Dave) in Toronto. Yet it remains a bit like a leggy, brandy-toned Bacall striding unexpectedly into a bar full of stubbled, scotch-soaked Bogarts.

"I think it's the timbre, the texture," says Friedlander. "I used to play Broadway shows, and the most basic player with a sax or clarinet could play five notes and sound more 'jazzy' than I would after slaving over a tune for five hours. The sustain of the cello - there's nothing cool about it, I mean in the Miles Davis sense. It's too intense."

Its strengths are nearly as tricky. "It has a warmth and resonance that's fantastic. Everyone responds: 'Oh, I love the cello.' But I need not to be so restricted by that preconceived notion of what the cello sounds like. It can be raucous, ugly, aggressive - and it needs to be.

"Although I've sometimes gone too far trying to be that way."

Wittingly or not, Montes may have struck close to that dilemma in choosing Maldoror - a beginning of the modernist inversion of morality and rejection of beauty that would define 20th-century art.

"Lautreamont was clearly trying to shock people," says Friedlander. "Which I found funny at times, living now. But I had to be aggressive and find something I could respond to, without bowing down to it too much. It's hard not to be impressed by the economy of it, what he crammed into a small space."

In turn, Friedlander coaxed from his strings his own pizzicato and bowed compressions of the poet's pranks and agonies, from the skittering madwoman to the swirling starlings, the pretty boy's heart torn from his chest and the "stern" elegance of mathematics. Yet like many artists who no longer identify with the old protest against pleasure, his vocabulary harbours harmony as much as dissonance, turning Ducasse's anarchy to elegy, maybe for modernism itself.

The exercise also broke down the compositionally-oriented Friedlander's resistance to free improvisation. "Complete freedom is nowhere," he says. "As an audience member I get frustrated and angry when players just lob one idea after another that has no connection, no tension that can then be released."

Yet with Maldoror the only structure is conceptual. "Once I start, I try to deal with what I have just played, not just cast it aside. I tell a story." How will he approach it in concert? "That's the crux of the problem. To recreate the same music or process would be a little deadening mentally. So I'm touring the spirit of the record, creating something in the moment."

For this first solo tour, including stops at Montreal's La Sala Rossa tomorrow and the Rivoli in Toronto on Sunday, he's rehearsed basic frameworks for Maldoror and other pieces by Zorn, banned Iranian pop star Googoosh, and even his teenage rock hero Carlos Santana.

But he got a surprise in a trial solo run at South by Southwest in Texas last month, for an audience waiting to hear rock band Mr. Bungle (whose singer, Mike Patton, has his own side group named Maldoror): "Without exception these kids were more interested in the improvising. I couldn't play 'out' enough for them. When I did something prepared, you could feel the energy drop immediately. . . .

"Maybe people are ready for something different."

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 17 at 1:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

She's Gone Like the Spot


Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, shooting I'm Not There.

This has been all over the interblogs already, but maybe it's been a lovely summer weekend where you were, as it was where I was, and you were ignoring the interblogs completely. In which case, you will want to see this leaked clip from the upcoming I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's movie about - or around and about - Bob Dylan, which is being released in September. For some context to the clip, which is mostly being shat upon by the self-styled know-it-alls of interbloggery (by which I mean not S'gum itself but S'gum's commentators), it's helpful to remember that the film is an episodic series of vignettes, featuring six different actors playing Dylan in different phases of his life, including, "Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) - an 11-year-old black boy, always on the run; Robbie - a womanising performer, always on the road; Jude (Cate Blanchett) - the young androgynous rock star; John/Jack (Christian Bale) - a folk idol who reinvents himself as an evangelist; Billy (Richard Gere) - the famous outlaw, miraculously alive but growing old." (I wonder if they originally tried to get John Travolta for the Gere role, as the Times insinuated yesterday is standard practice?)

The device is a somewhat obvious one given Dylan's famously mercurial and elusive persona, but it's still ballsy to do it. I've never revisited Haynes' glam-rock period pic Velvet Goldmine but I felt at the time that it failed because it got overly absorbed with some fairly obvious sexuality issues around the Iggy Pop/David Bowie/Lou Reed figures; but that aside, Haynes is the person who made Safe (one of the best American movies of the '90s) and Far From Heaven and Poison and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and in the battle of the Todds and their multiple-actors-play-one-character movies - and I actually did like Palindromes at least somewhat - I know where I side. (I have a much trickier time in the battle of the Andersons: Wes or P.T.?)

I'm pleased for instance by these comments from Blanchett about the film: "Even though the film's aim is not to be a biopic, people automatically will want to receive it like that. Even though I had no interest in imitating Dylan, Todd was really specific that I wore the exact suit that he wore in Manchester in 1965, and the hair. He wants those iconic references, but he doesn't want an imitation, so it was a really difficult tightrope to walk. Which I hope I walked without falling off too often."

Also note that the film is titled after the Basement Tapes-era I'm Not There (1956), which is one of Dylan's best terrible songs, poker-faced yet compelling music with nearly gibberish lyrics, eg, "Well it's all about diffusion that I cry for her veil/ I don't need anybody now beside me to tell/ And it's all affirmation I receive, but it's not/ She's a lone-hearted beauty, but she's gone like the spot": Lyrics with a really absent centre, a collapsible subject, but a charismatic melody - which suggests how I imagine Haynes wants the film to be. And that seems like a good antidote to the almost-too-available-Bob of the past couple of years, the cooperative Dylan of the Scorsese documentary, the author of the memoirs, the far-less-prickly interview subject, even the radio-show host.

On the other hand, I suspect that it's somewhat impossible to make a wholly satisfying movie about Bob Dylan (just as it's always impossible to be wholly satisfied by Bob Dylan and his music, which is how he manages to keep you craving it [little-known fact: the Stones' Satisfaction was actually about Dylan] [alright, no, it wasn't]), but I have a fair amount of faith that we will be arousingly, absorbingly, worthily dissatisfied by this one. And on a third hand, David Cross as Allen Ginsberg is the best idea anybody's had for what to do with David Cross. (Even better than this idea.) His usual barely repressed smirk of delight at how clever he is suddenly transforms into Ginsberg's uneasy barely repressed smirk of delight at how closely he's communing with William Blake's angels and their little bareassed nirvana. He really has the affect. I love how in this scene Dylan is running his customary con games and then gets so easily conned himself. Aside from that the scene seems slight, but hell, it's just a scene.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 16 at 3:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

'You can't face a noun so you're straight adverbing it'

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Must-read music reporting, one of the few in that category recently: Vanity Fair gets a sitdown with Sly Stone 2007. It's not the coup that it makes itself out to be, quite, as Sly has been playing occasional gigs lately (and according to the piece, has a "library" of new songs he wants to record), and there's been a slew of reissues, so the interview is obviously part of a publicity plan, but for now it is a rare fish, and pretty well-landed.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 10 at 4:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Polaris Short List!

This morning came the announcement of the shortlist for this year's Polaris Prize, as voted by 170 music writers, broadcasters and bloggers across the Grated White Nerf, including your humble proprieter. The winner of the $20,000 award for the best Canadian album of the year will be selected at the gala on Sept. 24. (Last year's winner, of course, was Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds). This year's list is far shorter on diversity and surprise than last year's, which included two hip-hop albums and one in French, but it's a decent batch - nice to see Miracle Fortress sneak its way on - though for me, in this selection, the standout is glaringly clear. (Go ahead, guess.)

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (Que.)
The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse (Que.)
The Dears - Gang of Losers (Que.)
Julie Doiron - Woke Myself Up (N.B.)
Feist - The Reminder (Ont. [expat])
Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye (Ont.)
Miracle Fortress - Five Roses (Que.)
Joel Plaskett Emergency - Ashtray Rock (N.S.)
Chad VanGaalen - Skelliconnection (Alta.)
Patrick Watson - Close To Paradise (Que.)

Of the non-nominees, I'm particularly sad Frog Eyes didn't make the cut, but half the jurists have probably never even seen that record, as it's not distributed by as large an organization as all of these are. Which goes double for the Feuermusik disc, which some of us delusionally hoped might make a last-minute charge up the left flank to get into the endzone. Nevertheless, congratulations to all the worthy nominees. And I won't even whine about the Toronto shutout (not counting non-resident Feist) - 2006 wasn't an especially blazing year for local releases, and B.C. fared even worse.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 10 at 12:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (21)

 

Fickle Flickers of Facts and Figures

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Saw the ever-delightful Khaela Maricich aka Portland "band" (bandonym *) The Blow (aka "Toronto's wife" after she "married" Toronto in a performance a few years back) last night at the Horseshoe, with Republic of Safety opening. Not as high-concept a narrative to the performance as other times, but a nice taxonomization of the varieties of the love song (from the "I keep moving towards you and you keep moving away" song to the love-achieved song - which Maricich basically maintained goes "la la la la la," no further words - to of course the lost love song or the "I'm so over you" - except you're not because you're still singing about it - song, and so forth), and the question of whether the songwriter pursues bad relationships in order to have something to write songs about, or vice versa... with the dances and the demonstrations, the anecdotes and the emotions. I especially like it when Khaela's goofy-wonder-and-sauciness songs, with their sixties pop melody lines, get combined with actually funky, Beyoncesque R&B; beats. Doesn't happen quite enough. Lots else happens though. There's a nice, like-eavesdropping chat between Khaela and her friend, the filmmaker/performer/writer Miranda July, in the latest issue of The Believer. For those puzzled by the line about the "deli aisle" in Parentheses, all is explained.

Among other things that happened this weekend, the odd pair-up of Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hutz with Madonna at Live Earth should not go unmentioned. It seems that he and the band are appearing in Madge's first project as a movie director. I'm trying to keep a completely open mind about this but Madonna + movies does not always go so well, so blocking the route to my open mind you might discover some wincing eyes.

Meanwhile in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, Yamataka Eye of the Boredoms did something typically bravura and beautiful - a snaking 77-drummer "boa" for 7/7/07. (The drummers including Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt and Kid Millions from Oneida.) As Kelefa Sanneh notes in that NYT story, Eye has managed here to do the apparently impossible - to redeem the drum circle. Sneaky.

* PS: I just did a quick search and discovered that you can now find a dozen or so hits on Google of people using the term "bandonym" who are not me, as if it were a word. I can't help but be very tickled by that.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 09 at 4:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Geeks in Love

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I linked to the Cat & Girl art-geek versus science-geek strip a couple of months back - it's good subcultural fun, but there's a lot of truth to it. I've long imagined a TV or radio show made up of those conversations that smart but scientifically subliterate arts types get into, arguing about some matter of scientific fact, often after a couple of beers, where nobody really knows the most basic terms of what they're talking about. Artists Talk About Science would be the lowest-rated program ever, but it would get big laughs at MIT. (The only function of this joke is to refer to it when these conversations happen: "Welcome to the latest episode of Artists Talk About Science.")

While I'm as guilty of scientific obtuseness as the next art geek, I'm excited whenever someone tries to bridge the two geekitudes. It's why Boing Boing is such a success, for example. It's part of why I love Matmos. Or Brian Eno. Or Blackalicious rapping about the periodic table in Chemical Calisthenics. And it's the driving impulse behind two performance events this week in Toronto: This year's Scream festival of poetry and literary performance has a scientific theme (I should have posted this in advance of last night's panel discussion on the subject, but ah well), and Small Wooden Shoe is presenting the latest installment of its "Dedicated to the Revolutions" series of theatrical explorations of scientific revolutions as part of this week's Fringe festival: I Keep Dropping Shit, a show about the Newtonian revolution. (The title's a gravity joke, obvs.) To show they're not just taking science as a cheap supplier of metaphor (though science is great for that), SWS is presenting the show at the MaRS Institute of research and innovation on the University of Toronto campus, which has showed its soft spot for art geeks in the past by serving as a venue for Nuit Blanche, not to mention somebody up there's obvious concern about architecture. The MaRS folk have an enjoyable interview with Dropping Shit director Jacob Zimmer up on their blog today. Let's increase the geek love.

I should also mention that I'm in a panel discussion at the Scream on Sunday afternoon which has nothing to do with science except in its title: "Under the Microscope: The State of Poetry Criticism." The writeup follows, but it's at 3 pm at Tinto coffeeshop at 89 Roncesvalles, and it's free. I am on the panel as the designated outsider - the organizers made the argument that they think music criticism gets right what poetry criticism gets wrong, and while I'm not sure I agree (I guess I have three days to decide!), it's fruitful ground for discussion. Come on out and get into it. I'm going to try to make sure there's plenty of time for audience contribution, in a scientific spirit of free and open inquiry.

Even with a microscope, it's (almost) too small to see: where's the discussion of poetry among non-poets? The media carries criticism of all kinds of arts, from architecture to audio installations, but no one seems to talk about poetry. We'll examine why. Panelists include David Orr, poetry critic for the The New York Times Book Review; Carl Wilson, music critic and proprietor of the website Zoilus.com; Damian Rogers, arts editor at eye weekly; and Elizabeth Bachinsky, a poet whose latest collection was nominated for a 2006 Governor General's Award. The lab director for this discussion will be Toronto writer Marianne Apostolides.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 05 at 1:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

Going to the Source

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SoundProof magazine, a previously unknown-to-me Toronto venture that apparently has big ambitions to expand across the continent, keeps it proudly local in their new feature, "The Top 20 Toronto Albums Ever," based partly on a very patchy survey of critics & bloggers including myself. Aside from the Barenaked Blegghies and some picks of dubious Torontosity (throwing Neil Young in at no. 2 is only the most obvious instance), I won't nitpick their choices: Some might quibble with putting both Final Fantasy albums in the list, but predictably not me. But I was most grateful to see that Main Source's Breaking Atoms was on the roster, because I'd never known about that terrific 1991 disc's T-dot hookup - I was living in New York when it came out and thought of it as an NYC product, unaware that the two members who weren't the Large Professor were Torontonians. (Further background here.) And here I'd thought the lovable but not exactly A-list Dream Warriors were Toronto's only semi-substantial contribution to golden-era hip-hop. Breaking Atoms is a stone classic.

Here, for the record(s), (sorry Michael), is the list I sent them. I ended up choosing not to rank them but to list them off in chronological order, which affected what ended up on my list. You'll note that the '90s are a bit of a dry patch - I'm not, for example, the Rheostatics fan that many people are, and Toronto was pretty heavily grungey through much of that period. One big oversight (aside from Main Source): I'm embarrassed to say that I overlooked Fifth Column, though I'm not sure which album I'd choose - and maybe it would be the JD's Homocore compilation instead. I also lament the lack of jazz, though it would be hard to settle on one or two particular albums there. Some improvisors are represented in other guises.

What would be your picks?

Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations (1955)
Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, self-titled (1970, re-released 2004)
The Four Horsemen, Canadada (1971)
Gordon Lightfoot, Gord's Gold (1975)
Bruce Cockburn, Humans (1980)
Jane Siberry, The Walking (1987)
Mary Margaret O'Hara, Miss America (1988)
Handsome Ned, The Ballad of Handsome Ned (posthumous, 1989)
Bob Wiseman, Sings Wrench Tuttle: In Her Dream (semi-pseudonymous, 1989)
John Oswald, Plunderphonics (samizdat-autonomous, 1989)
Guh, self-titled (1996)
Michelle McAdorey, Whirl (1999)
Royal City, Alone at the Microphone (2001)
The Hidden Cameras, Ecce Homo (2002)
Blocks Toronto Compilation (aka Toronto is Great) (2002)
Barcelona Pavilion, It's the Barcelona Pavilion EP (2003)
Les Mouches, You're Worth More to Me than 1,000 Christians (2004)
Bad Bands Revolution compilation (2006)
Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds (2006)
Eric Chenaux, Dull Lights (2006)

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 28 at 7:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (32)

 

Feel-Good Music For Fucked-Up People

A reminder that Eugene Chadbourne is doing a solo show tonight at the Tranzac. Here's a little clip for the uninitiated, but it's only a portion of what Dr. Eugene gets up to, which include sheer noise on the electric rake and stringed skull, twisted-roots country on the banjo and shreddin' on the homebuilt electric guitar...

Oh, and here's a little '80s Schockabilly for good measure:

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 27 at 2:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Notes on Taste:
This Year's Winner for 'Most Withering Venn Diagram'

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Someone sent me a link to this t-shirt design on Diesel Sweeties. I laughed in spite of myself.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 25 at 1:48 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

So Ex-cited

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The guitarist in Vampire Weekend, whoever he is, is really good and has listened very closely to African township jive. I like the violinist too. The rest, the New England Paul Simon-meets-David Byrne vocals, etc.? Not. Sorry, Ryan. But he's been championing some great stuff lately, as usual - I'm pretty taken with Kickball, and Moviola is known quality.

But random MySpace bands are not what we are here to talk about. We are here to talk about last night and The Ex - a band whose name I've never realized before this moment could denote "the ex," as in ex-boyfriend, ex-wife. I just took it as a generalized name of protest. But on the evidence of last night, no way are they my ex-band. Still my greatest love of live music in the world. Even without a bass player - an absence that makes a difference to the physical dynamics on stage but, strikingly, is not at all a problem for tonal balance, as Terrie and Andy just fill in the bottom end of their own sounds and Katrin's bass drum kicking is remarkably powerful enough to fill in the low end. As for the sound itself, I can hardly describe - at the end of the show, I said, "I wish I could do something in the world as well as they do that." Their sense of polyrhythm, of dynamics and drama, is simply nonpareil, and GW Sok remains the best white European rapper on Earth - he did a solo rally-speech/poem that sounded like a freestyle flight whose topic just happened to be international power relations. I was gratified to hear a couple of tunes from my favourite Ex-era, the Tom Cora years, with Katrin leading on Hidegen Fujnak a Szelek and Sok on the indelible State of Shock (one of the most linguistically sophisticated songs ever written, with an A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D rhyme scheme, a critique of post-Wall Berlin, and mid-section verses that condense the whole song down to an instant-replay recap by using the end-words of all the preceding verses as text: "Shock-said-blank-down/ Block-bad-tank-town..."). But even better than that was the following song that used a Fela Kuti-style groove on the verses and then broke into a chorus that was kinda straight out of the Clash playbook, then repeated the pattern again. As usual, Sok seemed like the most earnest man in the world, wringing his hands as he danced in a kind of worrywart-OCD ritual motion, and then pulling out the megaphone to shout his exhortations, and Terrie and Andy, while visibly quite a lot older than they looked when I last saw them five or six years ago, still joyfully jump around the stage and lock horns with the heads of their guitars like improvising rhinos. They really make most other bands in the world seem like they don't get the point.

Afterwards there was a rumour that the band was going to head over to one of Bloor Street's Ethiopian dance bars, and we tried to follow, but by the time we got there it was 2 a.m. and the doorman was very sternly firm about not allowing anyone else in. The music upstairs sounded like a shower of arcweld sparks. Or maybe we were just still in a heightened state.

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 24 at 1:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Just Flew in From Facebook...

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... and boy, are my proprioceptive ego-self boundaries tired. That thing is a mindfuck. As you all know. I am late to the party, which I now realize is kind of like a whole second Internet. So that's what "2.0" means. My friend Lauren says Facebook is "a TV show about a town." Which is true, except that it is a town where all surfaces are wrapped in mirrors, which makes the TV show overwhelming to watch (and watch watching itself). (Btw, Lauren's three-day art show begins tonight. See the gig guide for details.)

As a result of all the distraction, many things to catch up with:

Fastest case of a Cat & Girl comic coming true in real world ever: Metal-addiction disability claims.

Next record you need to hear: Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators. "The Soul Investigators" is the best backup-band name in neo-soul if not in soul of all time. It reminds me of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, as well as that Woody Allen joke about cheating on his metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy next to him.

Mike Watt interviews Tony Maimone (bassist for Pere Ubu and many other bands over the years).

Devo remain the smartest.

The Diodes reunion is documented on YouTube.

Brooklyn's Dirty Projectors are doing a Pierre-Menard-writes-Don-Quixote-stylee exercise with Black Flag's Damaged, under the title Rise Above - that is, to be clear, Dave Longstreth reproduced the album from memory, song by song, without reference to the source. All on acoustic guitar I think. (See comments.) Notable for all Oulipian-inclined rock fans.

Which makes me wonder: Has there ever been a rock/pop Oulipo subsection, official or not? There should be. Along with the DPs, I nominate Pyramid Culture as founding members - their constraints include all members being female and having three names, all stage costumes being primary colours, and, most importantly, all songs being non-fiction. On their upcoming album, titled 100% True, I hear that all songs will appear in alphabetical order. The disc will be launched together with Brian Joseph Davis's book/CD The Definitive Host in Toronto at Mercer Union on Aug. 3.

This weekend in Toronto, the big musical newses (for those of us for whom Pride is not the big news) are Extermination Night tonight and The Ex tomorrow, but I didn't want to leave unmentioned the remarkable-sounding tribute to Carole King's Tapestry that's taking place at the Boat on Sunday, with a different artist/group covering each song on the 1971 album, whose sheer number of classic tracks is kind of astounding to behold. Anticipated highlights include ZZ Sharrock doing I Feel the Earth Move, Sandro Perri perforing It's Too Late, Nif-D playing (the Gilmore Girls theme song) Where You Lead and Katie Stelmanis closing up with (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (which was a Goffin-King tune, though Aretha recorded it first). A waaaay better prospect than the actual released 1995 tribute album, although that one did have Aretha herself, and the Bee Gees - it's really hard to live down the one-two punch of Richard Marx and the Blessid Union of Souls. (Yes, I swear, they spell "Blessed" with an "i". I believe there's some law on the books that makes this grounds for being tied to a stake under a full moon and being torn apart by weasels, right?)

I was going to make a list of picks for the Toronto Jazz Festival, but you can look to the sidebar and the gig guide for that, for now. Also here are my Globe and Mail colleague JD Considine's choices, and some my friends at Eye.

Otherwise, though, I am pretty out of it. Any major controversies happening I should know?

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 22 at 3:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

HRC
(Hillary Rodham Clinton
and/or Her Royal Celine)

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L to R: Denise Rich, Bill & Hillary Clinton; Celine Dion in Air Canada uniform.

No media have called yet to get my author-itative opinion on Hillary Clinton's campaign's choice of a Celine Dion tune as her 2008 theme song: I guess it would help if the book had been published (or for that matter, if the manuscript were finished). But meanwhile a few bird's-eye notes on the story:

- The choice was the result of a faux-American Idol-style contest on Clinton's website. Which reinforces a single lesson: Celine is the Platonic form of the American Idol contest winner. If you hold an open-slate Idol sort of thing, Celine will always win. This can be confirmed by a survey of Idol-style contests around the world, including Iraq Star (an actual TV program, where the prize is, and I'm not kidding, getting out of Iraq): Along with the matinee idols of their own culture, everyone's other influence is always Celine. Even when she's not on the ballot. (Celine was added as a write-in favourite - wonder what fan community coordinated that? Anyone who knows, drop me a line.)

- In any case, the evocation of Idol by a (leading) presidential candidate is pretty entertaining, an arguably risky reminder to the public of a more ideal version of democracy, or at least what democracy could viscerally feel like. And it's a contest that no one has ever been able to say was fixed by powerful interest groups - even though it's actually a corporate creation, of course, and has its own narrowly defined scope of permissible ideologies and qualifications, the Idol process still rouses a more participatory, engaged spirit than U.S. politics have managed in quite a while. Although, like American presidencies, it peaked early: Kelly Clarkson is the Abe Lincoln of Idol-spawned pop stars.

- For conspiracy theorists: There's a shadowy kind of link between Hillary and Celine: Two songs on Celine's Let's Talk About Love were written by Denise Rich, the songwriter-socialite who got embroiled along with her ex-husband Marc in just a teensy bit of controversy towards the end of the last term of Bill Clinton, when Denise's campaign contributions to Hillary apparently helped Marc get a pardon for tax evasion. The web was tangled enough to ensnare Hillary's brother Tony and the scandal hasn't entirely died. (For those who nod off unless there are really salacious angles, here's one.) Clintons-haters might leap to the conclusion that there was a fix in on this contest, but since the chosen song is not actually a Rich production, but a song written for an Air Canada ad campaign, you would be overreaching. (However, this kinda stuff is why the Clintons should think twice about blithely inviting comparisons between themselves and a Mafia family.)

- Insert Lettermanesque "10 Ways that Hillary Clinton is Like Air Canada" list here.

- To be more serious for a moment, the result can be read as a wad of demographic tea leaves at the bottom of Hillary's teacup: The chosen song was by far the most "soccer mom" of the options, pointedly bypassing the civil-rights-era echoes of the Temptations, the more youth-oriented Smashmouth (purportedly Bill C.'s pick, but in general a weird case of wishful thinking and cool hunting that missed the mark), and the overly politically aware U2.

- For many potential Clinton voters - especially working and middle-class women of all ages, single mothers, new immigrants, exurban families, and many more - the Celine choice is going to be a much more sympathetic and welcomed selection than you would think if you went by the media and the blogophere, which predictably went right into mockery mode. As I argue at length in my book, critics and pundits are, by and large, exactly in the place in the culture least disposed to understanding Celine's appeal, and have always, as they are this week, stood by and jeered while Celine went on to be embraced by hundreds of millions of fans around the world. At least for once Hillary's managed a genuinely populist move here, rather than backing away into the neutral zone her handlers seem to prefer. Although maybe that's because she doesn't make a very convincing populist, which leads to our next problem.

- The song itself, as usual in Celine's English oeuvre, extends a cliched metaphor (flying) to improbable lengths over the course of a few verses, but clips its wings to avoid the danger of getting too poetic, high-toned or metaphysical by relentlessly speaking in terms of "You and I" (as the title has it), which the Clinton campaign no doubt hopes strikes a tone of intimacy - it's between Hillary and the voter, working together - but unfortunately bears with it a kind of individualism and selfishness that is the downside of the Clintons' image. Once again, the "You and I" can be Bill and Hillary, in their opaque, power-seeking dyad, cased within a marital arrangement that is a mystery to the rest of us: "You and I/ Were meant to fly/ Higher than the clouds/ We'll sail across the sky." Way to confirm the perception that you're incapable of being down-to-earth, HRC.

- In most contexts, the use of this kind of privatized-dream language works for Celine, because it suggests that her music belongs in a domestic context, relating to the daily life and struggles and aspirations of her fans. And because Celine herself never seems to have any real ambition except to submit her voice to the approval of a wider and wider public, to be the conduit for a kind of global exchange of broadbrush empathy - oh, and to buy a lot of shoes - it doesn't seem so self-important (except from the POV of committed Celine haters). But give that same message to Hillary and the tonality shifts quite a bit: She would have been better off with a song more like Bill's most memorable campaign anthem, Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop, which works in a kind of direct-address second person, an exhortation followed by a reassurance ("don't stop/ thinking about tomorrow/ don't stop/ it'll soon be here!"), which welcomes in the crowd much more, serves as much more of a rallying point rather than a breathless invocation of destiny.

- But then, that's the difference between Bill and Hillary, isn't it? His ambition always seemed to involve reaching out to touch (a few too many) people; her ambition always seems much more self-regarding and insular. (It's a kind of gender paradox in a way.) The Celine choice might be hoped to "soften" her image more than a rock-and-roll song would, and maybe that would work for a straight-shooting, tough-talking kind of woman, but for Hillary, who always seems just one blurry degree out-of-focus, what bleeds over are some of Celine's less-attractive qualities - her stiffness and awkwardness and melodrama - but not her common touch.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 20 at 12:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Polaris Express

Today was the deadline for first-round nominations for the 2007 Polaris Prize, the second annual $20,000 award for best Canadian album of the year (released between June 1, 2006 and May 31, 2007). Here were my nominations, which may or may not remain the same as my final vote in the second round:

1. Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye
2. Frog Eyes, Tears of the Valedictorian
3. Eric Chenaux, Dull Lights
4. Feuermusik, Goodbye, Lucille
5. Drumheller, Wives

Regrettably I couldn't also vote for: Fucked Up, Hidden World; Black Ox Orkestar, Nisht Azoy; Hidden Cameras, Awoo; Jon-Rae & the River, Knows What You Need ; Do Make Say Think, You, You're a History in Rust; Tim Hecker, Harmony in Ultraviolet; The Silt, Cat's Peak; Arcade Fire, Neon Bible ; Joel Plaskett Emergency, Ashtray Rock; Tradition, Tradition; Secret Mommy, Plays; Julie Doiron, Woke Myself Up; Swan Lake, Beast Moans; Omnikrom, Trop Banane; Abdominal, Escape from the Pigeon Hole; and a few others I'm forgetting.

Still, not quite as strong a field as last year, methinks.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 11 at 5:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)

 

The Glitchpranos: When the Fat Lady Hiccups

Spoiler warning: If you haven't seen the final Sopranos yet, and care, don't read this entry. Here's a picture to shield your delicate eyes.

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Now: Amid all the miffledment about the conclusion of The Sopranos, the shock non-ending feels better and better to me the longer it sets in: Doomed Tony eating with his now-clearly-doomed children (AJ to low-level mob parasitism, Meadow to corporate mob lawyerdom at best, neo-Carmela mob-wife status at worst), and the rest of Tony's life, be it short or long, to be spent looking over his shoulder in fear that one or another form of justice will find him, and justice may come in the next split-second or it may never come, because that's how justice is. But the kids not escaping is the real ending - saving them was really the only honourable motivation Tony ever had.

But there's one point I haven't heard made: That last little gimmick, when the screen cut to black dead air before going to credits, reminded me of nothing so much as the "glitch" electronic music of the late '90s, most memorably made by Oval - an entire genre of music whose premise was to make you think that your CD player was malfunctioning, and out of that to consider, as a kind of sonic sculpture, the emotional and aesthetic effects of digital degradation, of the fact that data is always becoming corrupt, to undermine the trust we invest in technology, and so forth.

Chase's mischievous move was a similar kind of digital techno-prank: Knowing that the worst nightmare for most Sopranos viewers would be to have their cable cut out or their Tivo/DVR timing fail in the last 10 seconds of the eight-year journey of the series that revolutionized television, he simulated exactly that - a weird kind of participatory art in which he got millions of people to yell "fuck! no!" at their televisions in synchrony. But it was also a way of foregrounding the medium in the final second, to deliver a secondary message to the existential one of the actual narrative ending - a reminder to an over-invested public that there is no Tony, there is no Carmela, there is no diner, that this is all artifice, an imaginary community mediated by the corporate and technological mechanisms of television and cable-HBO in particular. If that were the whole point it would be cheap, but along with the more substantial - but also, in its way, classic and narratologically conventional - diminuendo of the actual scene, it's simply an extra kick, a twist, a fold, a glitch, a skip, a poltergeist in the datapipe. The coda of The Sopranos, scored for you by Journey and Stockhausen and Cage. Rest in flux, T.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 11 at 3:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (20)

 

Hang on, St. Christopher Jude

Marc Ribot on "The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin." You know how Ribot's guitar can pull the underskeleton of a melody out through its skin, rearrange the bones so the creature impossibly becomes twice its own size, and make the whole process seem as lively as a unicyclist juggling fire? Well, turns out he can do much the same when he's discussing the economics of sustaining a new-music scene, specifically in Manhattan. He's especially cogent on the fact that government funding is no substitute for market funding, because of the dynamics that competition brings, yet at the same time "do it yourself" models are no substitute for public funding (relying on a logic of self-subsidization that falls apart pretty quickly).

(Btw, in case you think Ribot's just talking the talk, in April he was arrested for refusing to vacate the Tonic club when it was being closed - he and Rebecca Moore kept on playing till the NYC cops hauled them away. Apparently the charges weren't dropped at their hearing either; they have a court date in July.)

Read, consider, discuss.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 09 at 5:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Max Poetics: Canada Gets Along With Everyone

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But primarily poetry is supposed to have a pleasure principle. It's all about sensual reading, hearing song and echoes of songs - contaminated, of course, by adulthood. - Ken Babstock

Tonight's the annual Griffin Poetry Prize here in town, that apollonian bacchanal where the old ladies flirt with the young drunks (gender unimportant) and poets look lost in their suits. We're here to send out a what-what to our poemboy Ken-B, fresh off his Trillium score and now up for the domestic cheddar of the Griff's $50K payday - there's also a $50K international award. K-Babs says some sharp things in the paper today in an interview with my colleague James Adams. Good luck, drink slowly and don't forget when you was just Kenny from the block. Or, well, the Rock. And if you do win, be aware you will thenceforth be known as "Professor Griff." On the other hand, if Don McKay gets some payback for his outrageous '05 sonning by Roo Borson, we won't be boo-hooing either. (Meanwhile from points west, this fella grouses about awards and ethics; he's not entirely right or wrong but the caveat's always worth noting.)

Elsewhere in the versiverse - still in Toronto, but outside the horserace winners' circles - writer (and Eye arts ed.) Damian Rogers, who invented the "live magazine" Pontiac Quarterly, is now launching the "Tipsy International Poetry Series," with a visit from the Wave Books' posse's two Matts, Matthew Zapruder and Matthew Rohrer (who got an international Griffin nomination, but no pot o' gold, the year before last). Zoilus likes the cut of their writerly jibs, and if you missed them when the Poetry Bus rolled through town last summer, you've got two fresh baked opportunities: Thursday at 7 pm Damian and Brooklyn's diacritic duo (okay, that doesn't even make sense) will be reading at Type Books, 883 Queen W. The next night, though, Tipsy offers a much more shimmery, feather-boa sort of lit event at Buddies in Bad Times called ONWARD HO! (Which my brain immediately Beckettizes into "Worstward Ho" but ignore my brain), a "crazy circus of a night" that starts at 7, ends at a reasonable 9:30 pm and includes not only the Matthews but the aforementioned Ken Babstock (either buying the rounds or drowning his sorrows), RM Vaughan, Zoe Whittall and Lisa Foad, Kevin Connolly, Emily Schultz, a.rawlings, and toute la gang. Coach House will have a poetic-sound "listening booth", the Test series will in some sense represent, there will be visual projections, a "raunchy musical soundtrack" and a Reading Tent, where poets will read one poem to one person in cozy confidence. Resistance is, of course, futile.

Finally I want to mention that Toronto writer Kevin Courrier is beating me handily to the 33 1/3 punch with the launch this coming Tuesday of his own entry in the series. Kevin's previously the author of a fine volume called Randy Newman's American Dreams (the basic reason my 33 1/3 book isn't about Newman's Good Old Boys) and another about Frank Zappa though I won't read books about Frank Zappa. Now he's taking on a real Sasquatch of a subject, that Rosetta Stone(d) of art-rock, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. Courrier seems to be carving out a niche in early-'70s California Warner-Reprise acts, with Zappa probably the linchpin - who's next? Tim Buckley? Tom Waits? The launch is at This Ain't the Rosedale Library, 8 pm Tuesday, free.

Some Matt Rohrer poems.

And a poem from Matthew Zapruder's book The Pyjamist.

CANADA

By Canada I have always been fascinated.
All that snow and acquiescing.
All that emptiness, all those butterflies
marshalled into an army of peace.
Moving north away from me
Canada has no border, away
like the state its northern border
withers into the skydome. In a world
full of mistrust and self-medication
I have always hated Canada.
It makes me feel like I'm shouting
at a child for letting a handful
of pine needles run through his fist.
Canada gets along with everyone
while I hang, a dark cloud
above the schoolyard. I know
we need war, all the skirmishes
to keep our borders where
we have placed them, all
the migration, all the difference.
Just like Canada the Dalai Lama
is now in Canada, and everyone
is fascinated. When they come
to visit me, no one ever leaves me
saying, the most touching thing
about him is he's so human.
Or, I was really glad to hear
so many positive ideas regardless
of the consequences expressed.
Or I could drink a case of you.
No one has ever pedaled
every inch of thousands of roads
through me to raise awareness
for my struggle for autonomy.
I have pity but no respect for others,
which according to certain religious leaders
is not compassion, just ordinary
love based on attitudes towards myself.
I wonder how long I can endure.
In Canada the leaves are falling.
When they do each one rustles
maybe to the white tailed deer
of sadness, and it's clear
that whole country does not exist
to make me feel crappy
like a candelabra hanging
above the prison world,
condemned to freely glow.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 06 at 2:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

I Love Cat & Girl, Part Eleventy Hundred

Enough about "hipsters!"
The "Berlin Wall of Geekdom" doomed Veronica Mars!

Dorothy Gambrell, the Voltaire of our pathetic little tribe. Be sure to read the Cat & Girl home page at least once a week.

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, May 27 at 4:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Amazing Tales: Davis's Blocks Bonanza,
Dixon's Girls Go Swing London

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A portrait of the artist, BJD, as a young bad-ass.

Zoilus's mancrush on friend, neighbour, writer and conceptual artist Brian Joseph Davis has been evident for years now, with such wonders springing from his temples as the Theodore Adorno punk-rock single, the "Greatest Hit" mashups, the "Banned Records Burned and Played" project, the "Yesterduh" beyond-karaoke experiment, The Portable Altamont and (with partner Emily Schultz) the Centre for Culture & Leisure - I'm worn out just listing them, and that's just some of BJD's creative hijinks. Now, I'm excited to announce that for the first time, all his music-related projects will be gathered together and released thanks to some of Zoilus's obviously-favourite people, the co-op-operated folks at Blocks Recording Club.

Brian's album will be called The Definitive Host, it will be formatted as (Blocks's first) book/cd package and it's coming out July 29. Besides most of the above, it will include two new pieces. As Brian says:

"Eula is a choral piece with lyrics adapted from Sony/BMG's notorious End User License Agreement. This score for four vocalists was composed in collaboration with Dawn Lewis of Sub-static recording artists Repair." (If I'm not mistaken, though I may be, it was sung by a choir of lawyers.)

Plus: "5 Box Sets Played on Fast Forward, Then Edited Into Songs: I used a consumer grade Hitachi CD player to turn hours of music into skittering sonic mulch (16 thousand automatic edits); I then assembled the samples using cheesy DJ software."

The release party is Friday Aug. 3 at Mercer Union, featuring a short live laptop set and then "a very live performance of Greatest Hit," in which copies of The Carpenters: The Singles will be loaded into 12 CD players and played by members of the audience. Whitney Houston's Greatest Hits might get the same treatment, time permitting.

Some new MP3s are already up on Brian's site. Eula will be posted July 1.

♥ ♥ ♥

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Sean Dixon plays a gas-can banjo (belonging incidentally to Michael Ondaatje)
at his "banjoree" book launch last month. Note the "HELIX" logo - roxx!

Other news that we can't let pass without a champagne toast: Zoilus's old friend Sean Dixon (possibly the only living person for whom I would sing in public) has just accepted a very generous offer from Harper Collins UK for the British rights to his new novel The Girls Who Saw Everything, just out from Coach House in Canada. I'll leave it to the literary gossip sheets to report how generous, but I'll say it's the kind of reward one always wishes but never dares hope would come to an artist who has persevered in pursuit of his distinctive voice and vision with great integrity for many years. I couldn't be happier to congratulate just about anyone for just about anything, with cheers, bravos and love.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 25 at 2:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Destination: Now?

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My favourite jazz blog, Destination: Out, is doing a terrific series in which they've polled musicians, critics and bloggers for lists of the best jazz albums of the '90s - trying to do for that period what last year's flurry of discussion did for jazz of the '70s-'80s. Here are parts one, two and three. Now we just need a best-of-2000-05 list and we're set.

But I'm not wholly convinced by these exercises, if the point is to say not just that jazz 1970-2000 has produced countless riches, but that jazz is "still incredibly vibrant." There are issues in the life-cycle of a genre that lists of great albums don't answer, ones having to do with where it's practised, by whom, its rate of stylistic evolution, the generic features that are retained or dropped, who the audience is and in what way fans and non-fans alike recognize the genre. The fact that great artists work in the field doesn't automatically mean the genre is vibrant on its own terms or in cross-generic comparison.

The fact that "classical" (notational, compositional, whatever) music still has great composers and performers doesn't mean that it's a "vibrant" genre in the sense we might mean when we talk about popular culture. (I'm not saying it's necessarily not, either, but most of my reasons to say it might be have to do with developments aside from purely artistic ones.) Jazz isn't as extreme a case but it still has similar issues - eg., how much of its audience regards it as a contemporary living genre rather than as a museum-like, repertory genre? Blame that on Wynton and Ken if you want, but it still seems a significant issue for a genre if you look at it in social and not just creative terms.

Not that I have an answer - part of me wants to say "let's start calling new music that grows out of this tradition by new names" and part of me wants to start calling all beat-based improvisation-including music (like six or seven brands of electronic music) "jazz." Just saying that I'm not sure great-album lists are a sufficient response to the anxieties around these issues. Though they sure are wonderful in their own right.

On a less cranky note, here's an interview with Toronto-born, L.A.-established, New York-resident, West Africa-travelling jazz composer/percussionist Harris Eisenstadt. Also, for Alice Coltrane/Zeena Parkins (and Joanna Newsom) fans, a nice feature from Kevin Whitehead on emusic today about jazz harpists through the years.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 23 at 4:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Nobody Takes Manhattan First Anymore...

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Bad news for Toronto, good news for Berlin: Stillepost chatter reveals that members of Kids on TV are moving to Berlin this summer, following in the allemanding footsteps of localz Joel Gibb (Hidden Cameras), Peaches, etc.: "these next shows were doing in may/june are going to be our last ones in Canada for a long time. We won't stop coming back but it will be a lot less frequently." The queer-dance-underwear-punx-party band has just put out its full-length debut Mixing Business with Pleasure on Blocks in Canada and Chicks On Speed Records on the rest of the planet Earth.

Read about the band here (how can you resist a profile that begins, "A pink plastic cock is pressed against Scott Kerr's cheek, blurring his black and white facepaint..."?) Zoilus Team Hunger Force action figure Chris Randle will also have a profile of the band in tomorrow's Eye. B(oot)log has a great set of tracks from KoTV's mashup set with Ohbijou on CBC Radio's Fuse (and B(oot)log's right, that show doesn't get enough credit - does it still exist?).

Below is the video for KoTV's Breakdance Hunx, but before you watch it, I must insist you go listen to Club Action by Yo Majesty from Tampa at their MySpace - I'm sure all the internetses were talking about this months ago or something but I've just heard it and it is the catchiest song released anywhere in the universe this year. Yep, more than anything under yer umber-ella-ella, and way more than Lip Gloss (which can, however, proudly claim to be the mostest so-dumb-it's-brilliant song of '07). CLUB ACTION. I officially declare summer open for gettin'-busyness.

And now back to the Hunks:

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 23 at 2:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

'That was really hardcore -
and you want some more?'

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John Kelman at All About Jazz.com is (sorta) live-blogging the Victoriaville festival (FIMAV), so far covering the Marilyn Crispell/Lotte Anker/Andrew Cyrille/Mark Helias quartet, Corkestra, the Michael Snow/Alan Licht/Aki Onda trio, Theresa Transistor, John Zorn's solo (seen above), the meshugginah Melvins, Signal Quintet, the Victoriaville field-sampling project, Carla Bozulich and (less happily) Acid Mothers Gong. By Kelman's reckoning it's turning out, as the programming promised, to be a very good Victo year.

As for Zoilus's year, I am now well and truly hunkered down in bookwritin' mode, folks, so expect posting to continue being erratic for the next several weeks. Your patience is appreciated.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 21 at 1:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

A Little Off the Top
(Miscellany)

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In the future, every child will be given a pair of scissors and invited to shape our destinies. In the future, every child will be granted full citizenship rights; encouraged to vote, run for office and drive streetcars. In the future, children will teach and adults will learn; a playground will be built on every battlefield; and candy will be free. In the future, children will be powerful creatures able to cross the street without looking both ways, and hold their breath underwater forever and ever and ever. Darren O'Donnell

Darren O'Donnell is bringing his little masterpiece of social performance, Haircuts by Children, to Birmingham, England, next week, May 19-20. Maybe my favourite thing anyone in Toronto has created in the past couple of years.

Give or take a few Final Fantasy songs, of course. New stuff keeps popping up: Flare Gun (part of a compilation inspired by spam email), plus this terrif Polaris-finalist-teamup with Cadence Weapon for the CBC (including Owen's beautiful version of John Cale's Paris 1919), a live show in Kingston, Ont., a Montag track featuring Owen, the Stars remix... And you know of course about the ridikulonk hootenanny in NYC last weekend.

I'd heard a rumour about this but didn't quite believe it until a press release arrived today: Toronto's Andre Ethier (of the defunct Deadly Snakes) has been invited to - wait for it - sing the national anthem at a Major League Baseball game. Those who are (unlike me) knowledgeable about baseball might already have guessed that it's going to be an L.A. Dodgers game - a move inspired by the fact that Andre shares his name with Dodgers right-fielder Andre Ethier. I'm told the Dodgers got wind of the coincidence, had a cute idea, asked to hear some of our Andre's music and dug it, so they're flying him down to L.A. to sing O Canada when the Jays play the Dodgers on June 9. It seems like a bit of a psych to have a singer with the name of one of your players sing the other team's anthem - but on the other hand, A.E. brings a bit of hometown, so I guess it balances. Still, if the Dodgers had really listened to Ethier's very Dylanesque, Americana-styled solo work, it might musically have been better to get him to do the Star-Spangled Banner.

T-dotters, the gig guide continues to be updated; watch it and the sidebar for news, like the fact that Marc Ribot is returning May 18 to play with Italian singer-songwriter Vinicio Capossela. Second time this year! Second time I can't go! Is he dating somebody in Toronto all of a sudden, or is he just out to taunt me?

Tonight's Bitchin' improv session at the Gladstone Art Bar, including Eugene Martynec, Alan Bloor and other local improvimentalists, is going to be streamed live to the web via this site beginning at 8 pm.

Eye Daily reviewed the Arnold Dreyblatt show. (See interview below.) Just as I feared, since I couldn't go: "It was a big, joyful, almost overwhelming noise, maybe the greatest I'll hear all year."

Our pal Sean Michaels of Said the Gramophone has an interview with Will Sheff of Okkervil River in the new Believer. Hi'ly rec, natch.

Currently on TV: V.Mars has been watered down from noir to hot cocoa; Heroes and Sopranos are, in their different ways, ratcheting up the mind-fuckery; and Gilmore Girls is ending, simultaneously too soon and too late. The last half-season, from the splitup with Christopher on, has been, I think, the best sequence of episodes since... maybe, in fact, since Rory started college. But the story is ready to end. Too bad they didn't figure that out a year ago and plot it that way.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 08 at 4:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Zoilus: Now in New Toronto-Lite!

Regular readers will notice a new presence in the left-hand sidebar on this site - a button that says "View Zoilus Without Toronto-specific Content." If you hit it, what will happen is... well, at the moment, nothing, because there's not any Toronto-specific content currently on the front page.

But usually there is: Gig notices and other event-oriented posts that really aren't of much interest if you're not a local reader. They'll make a reappearance when I'm back in full-power bloggin' mode, after I turn in my manuscript in June. And at that point, if you're not from aroun' here, you could just hit that button to skip that stuff and get straight to more universal material.

Of course you may be the type who enjoys reading about Toronto minutiae even if you're not a local. Zoilus loves your kind. Just go on reading the site as always. Also, I should clarify that "without Toronto-specific content" doesn't mean removing all material about the Toronto scene: It won't strip out posts about Final Fantasy or Pyramid Culture and meta-sceniac-theorizing. But this way, I can post about local news and events without fretting (because I'm neurotic) that I'm boring the further-flung audience - which is likely to mean I'll do more of it, so that's good for everyone.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 07 at 1:15 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Guest Post: A Chat With Arnold Dreyblatt:
'I had no musical ability at all!'

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Arnold Dreyblatt (right) with Toronto's Scott Thomson on trombone, at the Music Gallery. Photo by Jonny Dovercourt.

My call for guest submissions to Zoilus during my bookwriting downtime has yielded unexpectedly swift & scintillating results: Jonny Dovercourt, co-artistic director of the Music Gallery, contacted me tonight (Friday) to ask if I'd be interested in posting his freshly transcribed interview with Arnold Dreyblatt, who is appearing Saturday night at the Gallery as a co-presentation with the Over the Top Festival. As someone who's been given excitations by Dreyblatt's "Excited Strings" - though only on record before now - I immediately said yes. Jonny's done a terrific interview. Enjoy.
- Carl W.

Play one of my favourite Dreyblatt pieces, The Adding Machine, while you read. Audio via Dreyblatt's website.

Biographical boilerplate: Arnold Dreyblatt was born in New York City in 1953. He has been based in Europe since 1984 and is presently living in Berlin. From 1979-1997, he was director and composer for his music ensemble, The Orchestra of Excited Strings. In composing a performance opera entitled Who's Who in Central & East Europe 1933, Dreyblatt formed a new ensemble in 1991. In 1995, recordings by the ensemble were released by Tzadik Records (produced by John Zorn) under the title Animal Magnetism. He's also released material on Hat Art, Jim O'Rourke's Dexter's Cigar label and Table of the Elements Records, and recordings of his work by the Bang On A Can All-Stars. A four-CD box set of historical recordings will be released by Table of the Elements in 2007.

"As one of the most engaging of the second generation of New York minimal composers, Arnold Dreyblatt has developed a distinctive - and delightfully accessible - approach to composition and performance. Employing modified and invented instruments and a unique tuning system, his music is a vigorously rhythmic and richly textured romp through the natural overtone series." - Second Layer

Arnold Dreyblatt performs Sat. May 5 at the Music Gallery (197 John St., Toronto) at 8 pm, with Toronto's Anne Bourne, cello; Rob Clutton, double bass; Nick Fraser, drums; John Gzowski, guitar; Kathleen Kajioko, violin; and Scott Thomson, trombone; with Dreyblatt leading the band on modified bass. Tickets are $10-$20.


Jonny Dovercourt & Arnold Dreyblatt in Conversation
May 2, 2007 - Toronto, Ontario

JD: Arnold, I believe you grew up in Queens, New York. Do you want to talk a bit about that and how it maybe influenced you getting into music in the early days?

AD: Actually, I didn't get into music in the early days. I was just telling the musicians today that I was taking piano lessons as a six-year-old and the teacher taught me with a number system, ironically, and I was kind of improvising with it. And she didn't like me not playing from the notes, so one day she told me, "Well, it's not actually numbers." And then she showed the five-line staff, and I said, "Forget it."

And then The Beatles came out a few years later, and I wanted to take guitar lessons, and so my parents sent me to this Spanish gypsy down the block, and after one lesson, he said, "It's throwing your money down the toilet to give your son music lessons." So then there was a long hiatus!

But I was always interested in experimental music, even while quite young, and I was also listening to a lot of rock music. I was going to concerts at the Fillmore East in New York while in high school in the '60s. Then I was in upstate New York studying at various colleges and universities, I was interested in video and experimental film, which brought me to Buffalo, not far from here, around '74/'75.

[after the jump, Dreyblatt on portapacks & the invention of video art, how physics explains sound, Alvin Lucier, LaMonte Young, tunings and harmonics, the composition to be premiered this weekend, & the wisdom of Joey Ramone!]

JD: What was your area of study?

AD: This was SUNY [State University of New York] Buffalo, and there was this very interesting department called Media Studies, which was a public access centre and a department in the university, and it was very connected to the New York or national experimental film scene, and also the beginnings of video art, which was just starting around that time. The medium was practically created by the New York State Council on the Arts in the early '70s. Portapacks were just invented at the same time a lot of funding became available.

JD: Portapacks?

AD: The portapack was the first portable video recorder. There's a question whether Nam June Paik got his hands on it first, or if another artist did. They used half-inch tape, reel-to-reel, black-and-white, really heavy. You had to carry around the whole recorder, which weighed a ton, and a camera, but it was the first time that artists could get instant feedback, audiovisually. It was the first moment that that was possible. So it was very exciting.

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I should say that I was a student, in Buffalo, of Woody and Steina Visulka, who were the founders of The Kitchen in New York. Two years before I arrived they had come up from New York - they were invited by a guy named Gerald O'Grady, who founded this department. They were very interested in producing electronic images, that means not working with cameras but using various frequencies and electronic interference to create electronic imagery.

So I was learning this language of frequency and amplitude; at the same time, during my first month in Buffalo, I was interested in having contact with the music department. Morton Feldman was then head of the music department and there was an event they called "June in Buffalo," the first one with Pauline Oliveros, an electronic music composer called Joel Chadabe, and Feldman.

So I was very happy, after my childhood experience with the numbers and the staff, to learn that the language of physics can explain sound. That it's not just a cultural language with notes on a page and certain letters indicating frequencies and so forth - but that I could escape all that! So that was a very important discovery for me. I was at first applying it more to video, and ironically my early video work was kind of stroboscopic colourfields. I didn't see Tony Conrad's work until much later, but it's interesting that I started with that and then went to music. But I was gradually interested in how this language could be applied to working with sounds, and my videotapes were periodic images; they were in periodic cycles. I was working with putting audio signals into video X & Y and creating different shapes and colours and movements, rhythms. So it was just natural that I would slowly want to move into working with sounds.

And the music department was just as interesting as the media department: They were bringing in a lot of composers from around the country, and in that first year Alvin Lucier came. He did a piece with a snare drum on a stage. It's a piece that I recently had the possibility to realize myself in Dublin. In this piece, he's on the side with a sine-wave sweep generator, with some speakers pointed at the snare drum with the snare on; there's nobody on the stage, other than Alvin Lucier on the righthand side of the stage, and he's turning this dial up, and as it reaches certain resonating frequencies the drum begins to sound. And the audience could feel it, they could feel the standing waves in the room, going through their bellies as the drum would start to sound on its own. So a sense of, "Okay, here's this language of frequency and amplitude, but with video you can just see it on a screen or a monitor" (we were using video almost like an oscilloscope, but with more than one line). But suddenly you could actually feel it, like it was a physical thing - these are like molecules dancing around, up and down.

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Alvin Lucier.

So that made me very interested in sound, and then in the bookcase of one of the experimental filmmakers there, Hollis Frampton, I found [at a party] a copy of Selected Writings by LaMonte Young, which he gave to me. It's a very rare publication, and it was there that I read about his work in the '60s. So I came back to New York, met him and spent a number of years then studying with him. First I was interested in his work with sine waves, and then in the idea of basing an ensemble on his acoustic principles.

You could say that Alvin Lucier, who I also ended up studying with later, his medium was more concerned with sound installation, or sound in spaces, or very directly just transporting acoustic principles through an aesthetic situation, whereas LaMonte in a way took the same principles, and from his own very dense composition background, applying it to an ensemble, which was probably the first amplified "band" in contemporary music. That form hadn't yet existed in contemporary music, a composer with own ensemble, heavily amplified. The band that made him famous was the one with Tony Conrad on violin and John Cale [The Velvet Underground] playing viola.

JD: Was that the Theatre of Eternal Music?

AD: Theatre of Eternal Music if you talk to LaMonte; the Dream Syndicate if you talk to Tony!

JD: At the time that you started studying with LaMonte, had you already started composing your own music or doing your own sound experiments?

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LaMonte Young.

AD: I came back from Buffalo in '75, so I was 22 when I became LaMonte's "slave," and I spent a year living in his loft, trying to understand how he worked. Then I stopped working with him for personal reasons, but continued as his tape archivist for another year. It takes some time to get out from under the influence of someone like that, so I gradually started developing the music in '76/'77, and in '78 started doing my own sound experiments. I was having trouble finding an orientation for this tuning system that LaMonte and Tony had developed, and it wasn't until I started working with strings that I started to understand what the relations are, because on strings you can actually see it. So again, I was looking for a physical model, a geometry you can hear.

I spent some time doing a lot of theoretical work, looking at the use, in history, of strings for generating tuning systems. Of course I always give credit to LaMonte and Tony for their work in that area. So I did my first concert with an instrument in this period, in 1979, in an artist performance festival. I bought a double bass for $100 from the visual artist Robert Longo, another Buffalo connection, who was collaborating with Rhys Chatham. In New York, we were living in the same building, and I strung it up with piano wire as an experiment, and found this fantastic sound. So I developed this technique of brushing and bowing the strings rhythmically, which became my signature sound, and I had this solo concert which was very successful; it happened to be a very beautiful, very resonant room.

Then in '79/'80, I founded my first ensemble, my first Orchestra of Excited Strings. The first one was called Arnold's Orchestra of Excited Strings, and Alvin Lucier told me to take the "Arnold" out. Then I went to Wesleyan University [Middletown, Connecticut], where Alvin invited me, I had a kind of assistantship there, I basically just did my band and taught a few courses. I had an ensemble there of students, and then I moved back to New York, had the third ensemble, and then the fall of '83, I moved to Europe.

JD: Was your tuning system established by the time you founded the first ensemble, or did it evolve more slowly over time?

AD: No, it was basically set then. Completely, the full system. I had this little piano I found that was a miniature upright with tiny keys for a rich family and their nice little girl to play, and I restrung it and I tuned it with unwound wires. And I tuned it with the first 23 overtones to see what would happen, using F as my fundamental - the first 23 odd overtones; all even numbers are octaves, so you don't need to tune the even ones.

And I found right away that there were these relationships. First of all, prime numbers, like 3, 5, 7, 11, were new tonalities. And I also noticed that if I played by accident 5, 3 and 15, it made this incredible chord. And that's how I started to develop the system. Of course, Tony and LaMonte use another version of the same thing - it's not anything I invented; it's something that exists in nature.

JD: You just had to discover it.

AD: Well, I had the background from what they did, and then I had to discover it for myself, let's say, and then the version I came up with had to do with this series of experiments which I carried out. It's a slightly different way of approaching it, but Tony recognizes a most of the tones in the system. So I heard those relationships, then I worked as I began to understand the system, I came up with this "magic square," which is a multiplication table with 1, 11, 11 and 121 at the four corners. I can show it to you.

JD: And these are overtones.

AD: My music, from the beginning, was based on the principle of having a very rich harmonic series, enacted very much in the early days, but to some degree still, being produced by a long string. When I play bass, all it is is a big body strung with a long unwound wire, to produce a strong harmonic partial series, and then I mesh with that what I call an intellectual act, which is to calculate these higher overtones, which are related to the lower ones, like those odd numbers in the magic square - I multiply them by each other, transpose them into a lower octave and then sound them together with the long excited strings.

JD: So how did you take this vertical realm of the tuning system and put it into the horizontal realm of rhythm, which also plays a big role in your music?

AD: Well, when you listen to the early music, like Nodal Excitation [1982], I had no musical ability at all! [laughs]

JD: Punk rock!

AD: I went to high school with the Ramones, you know? Well, with Joey Ramone, what was his name, [Jeffry] Hyman? I had social studies class with him. And I read this interview where someone asked him, "Can you really play guitar?" And he said, "Man, you just turn up those Marshall amps, and then you just strum as hard as you can, and then you listen to those overtones, man, that's all I need to do." So, in the beginning, the striking of the bass, I used to call it "juggling." You'd have to keep hitting it a certain way to get those resonances to come up, to coax them out.

Normally in music, people feel like they're the masters of their instrument, but I'm like a servant to the instrument. I'm there to make it sound, to get it into vibration. So in the beginning I was hitting, and the whole ensemble in a way went into that. There was the little crazy piano I made, amplified, there was a hurdy-gurdy in the beginning, then I started experimenting with some brass instruments. We went into what I called "the rhythm of one," and then a year later I discovered that I started playing in triplets. I figured it out at home and then we all played. The ensembles were always mixtures of musicians and non-musicians, often visual artists.

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Joey Ramone and friend.

Of course, over the years, some other things happened. I remember when Rhys Chatham gave me a gig at the Mudd Club [in NYC], he said to me, "Do you have drums?" I said "No." And he said, "Without drums, you're dead." [laughs] I was very good friends with Phill Niblock then, and I was having a very hard time putting drums in, but then when I moved to Europe I realized it was a very natural thing to help propel the music along. And of course, from all those years of listening to rock music, under the influence, I had that feeling in me, actually. So I started with a snare drum, one snare drum. I've never used a full trap set - I don't like that. I've introduced percussion to the music, and always tried to keep the percussion non-resonant, that means drums are tuned up very tight, so they can cut through all the overtones but don't cloud it. And that gave another rhythmic possibility for the music, and that changed the rhythmic possibilities for the strings, which started becoming more complex.

In the '90s, I realized that the music was wanting to become more complex, and that it wasn't taking away from this other aspect. So I stopped performing with the group then, because I wanted to score it out. So then I had to learn how to notate - and then computers came out, and that helped out a lot - but then there was the question of how to notate it? There were in fact no "bars" in my music until not that long ago, around '99 - which means there were internal systems within the bands to give cues from chord to chord. In the '90s, I began to develop what I call the "Next Slide" structure ("Next Slide" being a cut on Animal Magnetism [1994]). I would have different rhythmic and tonal patterns and it would just cut from one to the other. It's from my film background, to contrast different scenes in the music. Gradually I started to notate some of the more recent material.

In '97, I stopped maintaining an ensemble. I'd been working with the same group of musicians for years in Europe, who knew everything, but I felt like I needed some fresh air, to see what I could do with other musicians. Jim O'Rourke invited me to Chicago, and then in New York, Bang on Can invited me to work with some other classical ensembles. So I started to embark on some new directions, either longer-term commissions where I really write a piece, sometimes for classical musicians. I actually wrote a quartet and an octet. Took me forever, especially when trying to find how to communicate this to musicians that actually don't have the time to learn the tuning for months.

When I did the quartet I worked with a very famous new-music quartet from Germany, the Pelligrini Quartet, but there was no way they were going to sit there and learn how to do all this. So they retuned their strings, they played only open strings and harmonics, which is beautiful.

And then I've also done a number of projects like we're doing here in Toronto, which is meeting a group of musicians and trying to put something together in a shorter period of time - sometimes for two days, this time for a week. There's a certain risk in that, but it's also exciting to see what comes out of it.

JD: Do you want to talk a bit about the pieces you'll be playing at the concert this Saturday?

AD: Actually, there's going to be three pieces. First I'm going to play what I call a recreation of Solo Nodal Excitation from 1979, on this prepared instrument, the "Excited Strings bass," which I started playing again in the late '90s in some club situations, and I feel like it's really developed, in some ways more than it was originally. And then we're going to do a piece which I'm actually quite excited about - with the ensemble, they've actually retuned their instruments and they're struggling to learn that the 5th harmonic is really the major 3rd. This drives them completely mad! But they have actually learned to play in this intonation, and we have a great percussionist, so it's going to be what I call a very sustained, very meditative piece going through these different tone combinations, which is quite long for me, because I'm used to having very short pieces. I'm not sure how long, I'll know tomorrow morning [at the next rehearsal].

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Nick Fraser, percussionist for Saturday's show.

And then we're going to do kind of a rhythmic piece which is based upon a similar technique to what I do on my bass, but by bowing on the violin-family instruments, and to some degree guitar. Listening to the different tones in an open string, and playing tones against it. So there are those three things that show three different aspects of my music. Not that it represents everything. I talked to John [Gzowski] and we agreed that it would have been too time-consuming for me to write out a whole complicated score and have everybody learn to play it, so it is a workshop situation of a week with them, so it's a challenge to see how far we can go. They're going to have charts with what the sequences are, for what they're going to play.

JD: Are these two ensemble pieces relatively new then?

AD: The sustained piece in that form I've never done before. It's actually been created here ... it's a premiere! [laughs] The second piece has aspects which I've used in other pieces, but it's going to be a more complex version than I've done before.

JD: It seems that in your relationship to your music, you're working with something you invented more than 25 years ago, but you're still letting it evolve. That seems really rare. What do you think it is that's kept you committed to this idea of making music?

AD: Well, I have one good excuse - that I can't play anything else!

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 04 at 11:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

One Week After:
EMP Pop Con 2007, Part 1

I didn't get quite the mind-jolt from the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle this year that I have in the past. As always, it was an amazing event - the only place journalists, academics, some musicians and some industry people as well as a few thinkers-without-portfolio (like Internet fan-discussion group members) gather and exchange ideas and energies. I'm going to break my notes up into a series of more digestibly sized posts but this is really one long recap and reflection.

As I said, I didn't come away with quite the same high. I don't think it's because the presentations were any weaker, though I felt that many were less pointed - collections of intriguing material and analysis rather than arguments. It was partly because it was my third time, and also that I'm a bit worn out from busyness and wasn't as sparkable as usual. It may have been that the subject - about "time and place," geography and history in music - was, though worthy, by nature a little distancing and less likely to cause present-tense controversy and conflict.

But it was also because there were more panels scheduled - which meant that whenever you were hearing one speaker, you were missing three others, and that when you chatted with people at the conference, chances were that they hadn't heard any of the same presentations you had. So conversation was often limited to, "What have you heard that you liked?" rather than "What did you think of what so-and-so said?" I realize it's tough for the programming committee to reject so many submissions, but the number will likely only rise in future (the way proposals have risen for the 33 1/3 series, which along with the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology is in some ways a print analogue of the Pop Con), but the value of the event - as of all criticism - is as much in the conversation it enables as in the presentations themselves, and that side should be nurtured just as diligently. The curators recognized this by scheduling three different discussion/plenary sessions and a presenters' afterparty (thanks, Matos!) on top of the opening and closing receptions, but the architecture of the conference also affects the content of those interactions.

For my part, I decided to propose a discussion session rather than a specific paper this year. It was called "Seeing Scenes: The Music Critic in Place." My idea was to talk about localism and partisanship as both fruitful strategies and conflict-ridden problems in critical practice. I partly used Toronto theatre-maker Darren O'Donnell's Q&A; format - getting individuals up one by one and letting the audience ask them anything they wanted on the theme - and then let that morph into a more free-form discussion. I was happy with how it went - a chance among other things to talk to non-Toronto folk about my somewhat-controversial place in promoting and analyzing things like Torontopia and Bad Bands - but there were some disappointments: First, predictably, it took awhile to get warmed up, and with the necessary time constraints, it felt like we had to end just when things were getting interesting. Second, a lot fewer folks in the room than I expected actually work as local rather than (as they say in the U.S.) "national" critics. I inadvertantly compounded that problem in my facilitation, as the people I knew personally and who were therefore the first to pitch in and help the talk get going were all "national" writers, although Ann Powers, for instance, had some really fascinating things to say about working in Los Angeles and feeling frustrated by the way the entertainment-industry agenda and her editors' need to drive eyeballs to their website prevent her from being able to engage with the city itself as much as she'd like. (With a nice sidebar on the fact that in L.A. the music business itself is "local.")

In the second half a few folks, such as Peter Scholtes of Minneapolis's City Pages (I love the name of his blog, by the way: "Complicated Fun") spoke up for the values of localism, saying that all music begins as local music and that if critics disdain getting their hands dirty in that arena - a lot of the critics present said they just didn't hear good music being made by local acts, for instance - then part of the ecosystem of how great music happens gets damaged. But mostly the localism idea (which to me is also a political proposal about the need as a citizen and an intellectual to be engaged with the community in which you're physically situated, not just in the notional and virtual communities of culture) was slighted in favour of a discussion about how friendly critics should be with their subjects. I felt like this was a misreading of my advocacy of "partisanship" and critical engagement with the artistic process, but probably an inevitable one. Robert Christgau intervened on the side of the predictable but worthy ideal of critical distance, saying that critics who don't maintain it are just bad critics. Ann asked, picking up on some points I'd made in my introduction, whether they might just be up to something different. Bob said, "No, I'll stick with bad." Which got a laugh, but was a bit difficult to answer without feeling like you'd be picking an unwinnable fight. (More about that in a second.) Still, it felt like the session stirred a few pots, and people said they enjoyed it.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 28 at 11:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson