by carl wilson

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)

 

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)

 

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

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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)

 

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)

 

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)

 

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)

 

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)

 

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)

 

Handsome Memories

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A guest post from Team Zoilus stalwart Erella Ganon, about a vital figure in Toronto music history who will be honored with a honky-tonk hootenanny this weekend. You can hear some Handsome Ned music at his memorial MySpace page. - C.W.

Many years ago, starting in the early '80s, I had a regular radio show on Toronto campus-community station CKLN-FM. My dear friend, the musician Handsome Ned, was a frequent guest. We'd play all kinds of things and gossip on about alleged "borrowed" lyrics or melody lines, tracing them from one popular or obscure song to another. Since Ned always wore a cowboy hat and played country and western music at the Cameron House on Queen Street almost every day at the time, people assumed that is where his knowledge began and ended. But Ned was an army kid, who was born in Germany and travelled a lot, picking up excellent useless information en route.

One thing he and I shared was our love of a good story. Venturing into all kinds of unusual musical genres, we'd play Flipper, Violent Femmes, Bay City Rollers or Aka Pygmy singing songs about their love of honey and tell tales of the connections we'd imagine.

At the time, CKLN's "promise of performance" allowed us to have virtually every kind of music on the air - except country. It seems preposterous now. I cannot remember why it was, but the country station in Hamilton was powerful and unhappy about our audience. Eventually, because of some my carefully worded proposals, we managed to get our friend, David Barnard, the program director to look the other way and grant Ned his own radio show because he was so fond of the undeniably charismatic Ned. However, there was one caveat: He wasn't to play any country. This became a running joke between us. Ned played honkytonk, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly and everything in between: We weren't to call it country, so it was anything but.

The defining lines between one genre of music and another were far less flexible then than they are now, but Ned wooed us, seducing us and transforming us into ardent fans of whatever song struck his fancy. He was not someone to argue with (though I frequently tested that). His brother Jimmy, Ed Mowbray, Mark from Pages Bookstore and I had our birthdays in the same week, so we celebrated together. A few days ago, on my birthday, we raised a glass for Ned, as we've always done.

Ned was born on his older brother Jimmy's birthday. His parents said, "Son, for your birthday, you can choose a name for your new baby brother." Thrilled, Jimmy decided to name him after his hero, someone he thought about daily, someone who had a big impact on his life, motivating him to no end: The baby would be granted the name "Batman." Oops! Ned's parents hadn't considered that one. Telling him they knew too many other children named Batman, they decided to grant the next best thing: The boy would be christened Robin.

Robin "Ned" Masyk died Jan. 10, 1987. He was an important person on Queen Street. Kind of an unofficial ambassador, the peripatetic troubadour sparked an interest in country music that inspired many musicians that came after him. June 4, 2007, would have been Ned's 50th birthday. To celebrate his life and love of all things musical, his friends are gathering on Saturday night, June 16, at one of his favourite watering holes, the Horseshoe. Expect to see these fabulous former Ned collaborators: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Steve Koch, John Borra, Cleave Anderson, Teddy Fury, Lori Yates, Johnny Macleod, Jim Masyk, Steve Leckie (of the Viletones), Screamin' Sam, Tony Kenny (of the Razorbacks), Emily Weedon, Heather Morgan, Michael Brennon, Scott B, Joanne Mackell and others performing at the event. It also will feature the re-release of the The Name is Ned CD, as well as a preview of the upcoming Handsome Ned documentary film and a limited-edition line of Ned t-shirts.

Some of the money raised that night will pay for the design and installation of a memorial plaque on the side of the Cameron House. That's where I was on the night Ned died. Herb Tookey, one of the Cameron's owners, and I were the only people that knew Ned was dead at the time. A cop heard it on the police radio and came in to tell us unofficially. We had to keep it a secret until Ned's family was notified. As people asked us if we knew where Ned was, and whether he was going to play later that night or at a speakeasy, we kept our lips still, stealing moments to break into tears and resume composure until word was out at the end of the night. It was a series of impossibly difficult tasks.

- Erella Ganon

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 12 at 3:22 PM | 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)

 

Investigate, Impeach, Indict and Incarcerate:
EMP Pop Con, Part 5

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Finally, notes from some of the papers I got to hear:

Jonathan Lethem's opening keynote talk was a lovely piece of writing about the sort of transcendental condition of the "wannabe," about the music critic and fan's place in the "fifth Beatle" position and the way various musicians have created room in their own music for those sorts of points of identification. (The hypeman being an obvious example.) People were a bit snooty about Jonathan's talk, mainly because it didn't tell us anything we didn't already know, but I appreciated the generosity of it: Jonathan, who's got the kind of popular recognition for his writing a lot of critics would envy, was explaining in subtle, memoiristic style why he's got his own case of music-critic envy. Still, as a keynote, it did set a bit of the tone of the conference, in which provocation and dissent took a back seat to appreciations and contextualizations.

Robert Fink showed how musicological analysis can rock in his paper on James Brown's Soul Power, 1971, when he mapped that chorus against Stokely Carmichael's 1966 "Black Power" chant - and showed that the "soul power!" shout falls rhythmically like a shout back at the black-power chant. "It's as if James Brown recognized Stokely Carmichael as another performer - and decided to cut him," Fink said. He also noted that Brown's anti-revolutionary song ("we don't need-uh/ revolution!/ we gotta have-uh/ constitution!") put the emphasis on the word "soul" whereas Carmichael's revolution-minded chant stressed "power." He was calling up the political speech but also rebutting and rewriting it. As Fink summed up, "If one's brothers rhythmicize politics, what can one do but politicize one's rhythm?"

Joshua Clover gave one of the conference's best presentations, "1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About," part of a book in progress. I can't convey all its multimedia umph, but its main point was to weigh the actual year 1989 (the year that included Tiananmen Square and the "fall" of the Berlin Wall) against the signified cultural 1989, or 1989 versus "1989". Using the example of La Marseillese, he said that "it's no easy matter to date a song" (adding, "as every Pazz & Jop voter knows"), which is like "the difficulty of dating history itself." When the French Revolution happened in 1789, La Marseillese didn't exist; it was composed in 1792. "It cannot belong to 1789 but it belongs entirely to '1789.' " The result of these slippages is that "our sense of process disappears," and we lose our awareness of historical contingency, when memory is consolidated in images and symbols and songs.

Joshua then applied that thought to the songs of "1989", such as Scorpions' Wind of Change, which came out in 1990 but actually had been written earlier about glasnost, but was attached to the Berlin Wall story by its video (and the fact that Scorpions were German). "Power ballads exist so one can feel all weepy and overwhelemed, as one does in the face of the historical sublime... like a tiny Zippo in a world on fire." He went on, "The 'moment' is 'magic' but unstated, so that it can attach to whatever magic moment may arrive - the first kiss, the sixth beer, the end of Communism, whatever." His next example was 1991's Right Here, Right Now, by Jesus Jones, which was the musical equivalent of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis and made the boast "Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about." His last example was Roxette's Listen to Your Heart, which besides being the first number 1 single that never came out as a 45, was the soundtrack to Civic Forum (Vaclav Havel's party) advertisements in the then-Czechoslovakia, a song that Joshua said had the "eventless, pleasurable, post-historical ongoingness" that mirrors "the path of the 'new world order,' or as it would like to think." These songs and their videos helped make "1989" an "image-story that every song helped to tell," a story in which "1989" is removed from historical process and becomes a "magic moment," rendered unanalyzable, a moment of "nerf humanism." The music critic, he argued, has a responsibility to historicize in the face of "the pop-songization of history."

I enjoyed all of the "Songlines" panel, though I missed Roni Sarig's first paper on Triggerman while I was listening to Mark Sinker's interesting ramble on music writing; Michael Barthel, known to Zoilus readers for his Clap Clap Blog, one of my favourite music blogs, gave a great paper about how Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah has gradually been reduced by successive cover versions (beginning with John Cale and then multiplying exponentially with Jeff Buckley's cover of John Cale's cover, which was then itself used as the source of uncountable covers), and their use in film and TV soundtracks. It's gone, he said, from a drily sceptical, wry, multifaceted work into a one-dimensional "sad" song to use whenever you need to show a montage of various characters in various places being sad. "It's become the auditory equivalent of a silent-film actress pressing the back of her hand to her head." The effect, he said, was like "making a Matisse into a washcloth" - but, he added, a song isn't a Matisse: "Wring it out and it's ready again." Then he demonstrated this by playing his own recording of Hallelujah, using verses Cale and Buckley cut from the original (which no one ever sings) and a panoply of wild, cheerful musical styles. Now there's a critical manoeuvre you wouldn't get from an academic. It was great finally to meet Mike, who's as bright-eyed and wry himself as any reader would expect. His paper is up on his site now.

Next came Mike McGonigal, a writer I've admired since he was publishing the wonderful Chemical Imbalance zine in the early '90s, speaking both reverently and humorously about Blind Willie Johnson's Black was the Night, Cold was the Ground, and offering fascinating notes on guitar evangelists, street-corner singers and shout-singing preachers (most amazingly, Washington Phillips, who sang to an instrument that might have been an autoharp or a miniature piano called a doceola, but which sounded like "a celestial ice-cream truck"). His paper also featured the most hilariously self-reflexively sarcastic Power Point slides of the conference, which went perfectly with his mix of passion and self-mockery as a speaker. And the panel closed with Anthony Miller's survey of songs about Patty Hearst, of which of course there are loads, and I can't believe I'd never realized it before - from Patti Smith's version of Hey, Joe to some awful Dylanish folk music to the Ramones' Judy was a Punk, the Misfits' She, Camper van Beethoven's Tania on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Black Box Recorder's Love Song to an Heiress. Miller didn't really have an extensive argument to make about all these weird refractions of 1960s mythology, but it was rich material.

Yuval Taylor's piece on "feelgood/bad vibes" culture in 1972 was very fine, though he couldn't improve on his opening, which pointed out that 1972 was the sole year the Grammys gave out an award for "Best Pop Instrumental With Vocal Coloring," and the nominees were Santana, Isaac Hayes and Emerson Lake and Palmer. What kind of strange world was this, he asked, where flutey exotic-semi-rock with sighs and chanting could be considered an entire genre? A world where gatefold album covers were for rolling joints, clearly. (I'd say this was also a foretaste of the New Age music to come.) Meeting Yuval was one of the weekend's highlights.

Franklin Bruno may win the prize for the conference's weirdest topic: The various fifties-and-sixties satirical versions of My Fair Lady and their cast albums. He pointed out that My Fair Lady's own original cast album was actually the "jackpot" that cemented the place of the 33 1/3 LP, selling 8 million copies. One of the versions was Canadian content (Franklin apologized in advance if he was about to commit any offences against Canadian culture): My Fur Lady, a hit musical at McGill in the late '50s, featured, if I followed correctly, an, um, "Eskimo princess" who for political reasons needed to become a proper Canadian, and the main joke of the show seems to have been that you can't "Teach Me How to be Canadian" (as one of the songs was titled) because Canadians don't have any distinctive attributes. The others were My Square Laddie, in which someone tries to learn how to be a bohemian ("I could've boozed all night"), and, most interestingly, My Fairfax Lady, a kind of double-reverse-satire in which a British actress in L.A. wants to learn to be American, but stumbles onto L.A.'s Jewish strip and so ends up being taught to speak in a Yiddish accent, in a script loaded with Catskills-style humour. Franklin was a little pressed for time so he didn't get to elaborate too much on his final analysis, and I didn't take proper notes - again, hopefully he'll publish it, at least on his blog.

Another of my favourite bloggers, Mike Powell, was at the conference for the first time, and it was a delight to meet him. I really enjoyed his paper, "The Pyongyang Hit Parade," which brought us into his pathological obsession with North Korean state-produced pop music, which is of course the only pop music there. It seemed as if Mike started out his journey feeling like he'd stumbled into sort of a "reverse Disneyland" that could be his own private anti-utopian dreamworld musical hobby, but became more and more uncomfortable and disturbed by it as he found out more about it. What sticks with me is his assertion that there is absolutely no sign of a musical underground, a culture of samizdat, in the country, according to accounts from people who have gotten out. I find this an impossible thought to assimilate - usually, at least after dictatorships fall, one finds out about the underground activity that was going on all along - it even happened in Nazi Germany - and I feel compelled to believe that of North Korea. It seems like the bleakest of all possibilities to contemplate that there can be a totalitarian state so complete as to staunch even private imaginative expression. But it also feels important to consider that possibility. This is what I love about Mike's criticism, that it's not only intellectually keen and curious, but never without a personal imprint, an eagerness to put the messy emotions and less-noble impulses and involuntary nerves and bruises on the page, too. I aspire to that.

It's late and this is getting lengthy, but a few more: Kathy Meizels' paper drawn from her thesis work on American Idol was typically strong - I've interviewed Kathy for my book, so I'll wait to remark on her ideas there; Daphne Carr presented some cool research on the Great Battle of Hot Topic among teen punks and wannabes; and Michaelangelo Matos had the brilliant idea of doing a reality check on the stereotype of the Bob Marley poster in the white kid's dorm room, highlighted by his interview with a couple who go around from campus to campus selling posters.

Wendy Fonarow talked charmingly about her "three zones" research on the psychogeography of the indie-scene club gig, which I've referenced here before - I need to read her book - updating it with some salient thoughts on how the cellphone-camera gig-documenting epidemic in zone 1 (the "pit" in front of the stage) is messing with the participatory dynamics there, moving the experience "into the future anterior," so that it's not about being there, but that tomorrow, "I will have been there."

I've already referred to Jesse Fuchs' paper on musical video games, which was a technical tour de force of game visuals and sounds. He argued that games can offer music context, causality, a blur of the listener-performer boundary, familiarity, educational purpose and decontextualization (appreciating music differently by engaging with it physically rather than aurally), and made a pitch for the value of the "honest fake" over "fake honesty" and the utopian impulse in game playing, an activity that's the opposite of work.

The conversation at the University of Washington on Friday evening, between the great hip-hop writer Jeff Chang and the music historian Gaye T. Johnson (whose research on the way the arrival of the Eighth Regimental Band from Mexico in New Orleans in the 1880s for the Cotton Exposition would influence black music in NOLA sounds fascinating) was just a delight, and included some very stirring discussion of the plight of New Orleans now, "the right of return" and "the imperative to forget." Their commitment, sensitivity and intellectual rigor were inspiring.

There's more, like RJ Smith's recreation of how the first incarnation of Destroy All Monsters (a proto-punk noise band with artists Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw) emerged from the post-sixties bummer of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Kembrew McLeod's uproarious recounting of how his tiny Virginia town became the butt of a Spin magazine prank in the post-grunge search for the "next Seattle." Simon Reynolds's paper talked about the way that techno goes through cycles in relationship to the city of London - that a new style will come out of London (usually meaning black London), and then it will get modified by DJs who are responding to the tastes of a more international (white) audience, and at some point that will reach a breaking point where someone feels the need to assert a London identity again, and often their response creates the next genre. The kind of thing that's obvious when pointed out but not beforehand. Meeting Simon at last was another of the Pop Con's pleasures.

Then there was Ned Sublette's call on the "Resurrecting New Orleans" panel that members of the Bush administration be "investigated, impeached, indicted, and incarcerated" for what they did and didn't do around hurricane Katrina, which does in some ways seem even more criminal than the Iraq war. I spent a long night in the hotel bar being regaled along with David Grubbs with Ned's tales of playing with Glenn Branca and LaMonte Young in the 1970s. Ned is an amazing, intoxicating raconteur.

But enough now. An affectionate hi to all the folks I got to meet at EMP this year, the old friends I got to spend too little time with, to Jake London and John Shaw for being my chauffeurs and tour guides to Seattle, and to those I wish I'd met and didn't find space or nerve to talk to, or whose papers I had to miss. Next year, the great spirit and Paul Allen willing.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 4:08 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Freaks in the Forkways:
EMP Pop Con, Part 4

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I moderated a panel at the Pop Con called "Forks in the Folkways," unfortunately at the same time as the exciting "Rethinking Hip-Hop Roots" panel with Oliver Wang on boogaloo, Jeff Chang on the Latin sources of the breakbeat, Garnette Cadogan (whose acquaintance I was delighted to make over the weekend, a very quick, warm, learned and funny guy) on the Jamaican side of the story (which, as he mentioned to me, is a little more obvious to people in Toronto than it is to most Americans) and Joe Schloss on the Puerto Rican uprock antecedent to breakdancing. But I was proud of our panel, which included some of the best shit I heard all weekend. My friend Carl Zimring, an environmental historian who also happens to be a huge music geek, gave fascinating paper on Woody Guthrie's love of dams and other attitudes that separate (and historicize) his politics from what contemporary left-wingers (including Billy Bragg and Wilco) might assume he thought.

Meghan Drury Askins, who comes from the same small countercultural California town as Joanna Newsom, put her old schoolmate's music in the context of Nevada City history and psychogeography - for example the local river, which she points out appears in Newsom's songs as a place of respite and recharge; not to mention the fact that the outline of the county is deliberately drawn in the shape of a pistol pointing at a neighbouring county, in hommage to old historical resentments, which points up the place's ornery side. Scott Seward showed off his habitual blend of wit, knowledge and beautiful language in his paper on the folkie bent of much current extreme metal (not flinching from the way that folkie bent crosses over with Euro-metal's pagan-Aryan drift toward Nazism, but pointing out that worrying too much about the politics of guitar-obsessed dweebs who seldom leave their basements may be misplaced).

And the amazing Erik Davis, as always, managed to make topics hippies think about seem a million percent more intriguing. This time he brought his engaged scepticism to bear on "Freak Folk and the Analog Ethic," pointing out that unlike most analog fetishists who fixate on vinyl records, folks like Newsom and MVⅇ and, to some degree, Steve Albini, among others, look to analog as a practice, and by physically intertwining themselves with the inconveniences and slowness of analog methods, they take an impulse that appears like mere nostalgia and turn it into a lived reality. I can't do justice to the complexities of his talk (digital/analog as particle/wave, for example) because I didn't want to take notes up on the dias, but it was exactly the sort of thing that our imaginary crossdisciplinary Believer-styled music mag ought to publish; it sparked some great chat in the q-&-a period.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 2:27 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Good News for 'Sounds of the Ocean':
EMP Pop Con, Part 3

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My first two posts on EMP were a whole lot of meta-talk, but I think the meta-talk was one of the most invigorating parts of the event this year. One reason was that Robert Christgau was such a presence this year. In a way, the whole event and all this thinking about the future of music writing was in the shadow of the conflicts around Bob's firing at the Village Voice, and Bob was in a (deserved but amusingly odd) position of being the Pop Con's sort of patron martyr and saint. But I think finding himself turned into a freelancer also made him feel more than before that at EMP he's among his peers, so he was a less distanced observer. His contributions definitely helped liven things up, but I think a few people also felt intimidated out of participating in discussions, inhibited from arguing with his authoritative voice. That's probably inevitable at a gathering that brings together "big names" and small, and it's mostly a wonderful thing that Bob, like Greil Marcus and other star critics, comes out year after year to mingle.

Bob's own address was the essay manque for this year's VV Pazz & Jop poll, the first ever that he didn't preside over, and his thoughts on the rival Jackin' Pop poll that Michaelangelo Matos organized for the Idolator blog. (And in which I voted, while boycotting P&J; - Christgau, fyi, voted in both.) His talk included a lot of wise reflection with a smattering of generational crossfire, the flipside of Amy Phillips' remark about "the kids." I think Bob, too, was overgeneralizing. He was obviously right that a poll that skews younger might privilege "emergent" culture at the expense of the "residual" (TV on the Radio over Bob Dylan and the New York Dolls), but I think it's actually that younger critics have more diverse interests in terms of older culture - that is, practice a kind of "long tail" historicism, with less focused attention on the established canon and more time for other roots and rhizomes. What's more, those younger critics will be older someday too, and come to share Bob's interest in the long view. (Maybe I find this easier to see, being almost halfway in age between Bob and the whippersnappers he was fretting about.) Whether they/we will be able to get jobs at that point, of course, is less assured.

In the same panel, Daphne Brooks gave a beautiful, erudite paper about TV on the Radio's sonic black internationalism that made me want to give their album a fresh listen (although her mentions of their commonalities with Radiohead reminded me of other reasons I'm not so drawn to them).

Tim Quirk, the well-named, affable and charming executive from Rhapsody.com and singer for Too Much Joy, spoke about what the "universal jukebox," subscription-based model of music delivery might mean for the future of listening and "the economics of adoration." The upside is that it favours deep catalogue, transforming the industry term "turntable hit" (something that gets played a lot on radio but doesn't sell) from a perjorative to a goal; the downside is that it favours background music - especially "warm, upbeat acoustic troubadors." Several people voiced distress about the implications for black music, though Quirk pointed out that while he called his paper "Good News for Yo La Tengo" he could have called it "Good news for Luther Vandross." I'd say what's distressing is that this model disperses the marketing imperatives and pressures that can push pop toward novelty and surprise; that is, big hits could become less interesting.

">Jesse Fuchs (who'd earlier given a fantastic presentation on interactive music-based video games, from Parappa the Rapper to Guitar Hero) nailed it when he said that the paper should have been called "Good News for Brian Eno and 'Sounds of the Ocean.' " And bad news for Timbaland.

Incidentally,, in the closing session, Quirk also pointed out that music writers are in demand by such services to serve as guides and curators for subscribers. Which is a way of thinking about music for living. But it's not much of a way of writing about music, and that distinction matters to me much the way the distinction between foreground and background music does.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 2:04 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Death of Rumination?
EMP Pop Con, Part 2

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Ellen Willis, photographed by Jade Albert, circa 1981. Thanks to Rockcritics.com.

The other lunch sessions included the very touching tribute to Ellen Willis, where Bob Christgau, Ann Powers, Sasha Frere-Jones, Daphne Carr and others who had known or been very affected by Willis's work spoke affectingly about her and read various kick-ass passages of Willis's rock writing, which cries out for a comprehensive collection. She sounded like a formidable woman. Christgau, who had a relationship with Willis in the 1960s and renewed their friendship later in life, said, "People thought she was shy. She wasn't shy. She was thinking - and ignoring you."

And then there was the closing discussion, "On the Future of Thinking about Music for a Living." The story of this session has already been boiled down to the moment that Pitchfork's Amy Phillips said that kids don't read long pieces anymore and that if the writers in the room wanted to make a living they would have to learn to write very, very fast, for a market that wants information about music faster than they can listen to it, practically faster than it can be made. And then the room had a collective shitfit and Tom Kipp (a great thinker-without-portfolio) said, "We must not accept the death of rumination."

Part of what's wrong with how this story has been recounted is that Amy was interpreted as saying, "Pitchfork is gonna eat your lunch," whereas in fact her passionate tone definitely conveyed her own alarm at the situation. But it also omits a lot of the other responses to and anticipations of the same idea that came up at the session: The academics spoke about the increasing support in disciplines such as American Studies and Musicology for pop-music studies and a growing crossover with journalistic methodology (as in researching music by actually asking the musicians). Jody Rosen (of Slate and many other publications) talked about the publishing industry's hunger for non-fiction books - saying that he's written a book about Irving Berlin and the song White Christmas and has a contract for a book about an obscure 18th-century musical instrument (Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica), and as a result he and his wife own an apartment in Brooklyn. If that sounds crass to you, you're not a critic - the future of thinking about music doesn't seem at all dark to me, but the question of making a living at it (and thus having time to do it deeply and well) is a fraught one indeed. Also, Douglas Wolk made a great, pithy point, that with the Internet, writers need to think of what they do less as making pronouncements and more as proposing conversations. (This is exactly why I started Zoilus.)

But Jody's point also spoke to the bigger context that I think Amy missed: If nobody wants to read about pop music, if nobody wants extensive analysis, why does the 33 1/3 series exist? Why does the Da Capo anthology exist? Why are there more high-quality books about all kinds of music being printed these days than ever before? I think what Amy sees from the Pitchfork vantage point is actually a lot of "kids" who never would have read in-depth pop criticism in the first place, and are using blogs and Pfork the way previous generations would have relied on John Peel or another favourite DJ, just as tip sheets for good new music. But other blog readers, the students in popular-culture courses, the buyers of those books, form the same passionate minority that's always been the critic's audience, and I suspect that mini-crowd is bigger now than before - maybe not as activated as in the 1970s, when rock crit as we know it was born because music was the overwhelmingly dominant force in youth culture, but still plenty healthy enough to give rumination a future. (Pretty Goes with Pretty has some parallel thoughts.)

However, to move that future in a direction that Pop Con types would like to see, as Eric Weisbard (the director of the conference) pointed out, the Pop Conference community, if we can call it that, also has the ability to band together. Josh Kun brought up one possible venue - the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg's Popular Music Project, which he directs, and which proposes to be "a one-stop home for the interdisciplinary study and analysis of popular music" and a "point of open contact between scholars, musicians, students, producers, musicians, engineers, critics, label chiefs, and of course, fans."

As well, though, there was some talk about trying to create a way for the people that EMP brings together to stay in touch and share their work between Pop Cons - apparently this happened once before, in the early years of the event, with the "Pop Talk" message board, which fizzled, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate that effort. The most exciting vision, though, would be to try to start a magazine - online or in print or both - that would talk about music in the terms and on the level that the Pop Conference inspires. The Believer has been brought up a couple of times as a model, and in fact the Pop Con is in discussion with that magazine about doing a collaborative issue sometime in the future. An ongoing magazine, obviously, would require a group of people to step up to plan, finance, edit and publish the thing - and it would have its own downside, no doubt factionalizing folks who felt included and those who didn't - but it's a dream worth dreaming.

As for those who say rumination has no future? Keep thinking - and ignore them.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 1:47 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

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)

 

Turning Around on Rirkrit Tiravanija

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A Tiravanija installation, with the artist at the far right of the pic.

I went to hear the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija speak tonight at the Ontario College of Art & Design, of which, by the way, he's an alumnus: He moved to Canada with his Thai diplomat parents when he was 19, started as a history student at Carleton in Ottawa and as his interest in art was stirring, happened to notice an OCAD (or OCA as it was then) calendar on a counsellor's office shelf, pulled together a portfolio and applied. This was in the early '80s, an especially dynamic time in the Toronto art scene, which spilled over into the school. (He moved on from there to study at the Chicago Institute of Art and the Whitney program, and is now based in Thailand, Berlin and New York.) On his return visit, Rirkrit (as everyone seems to call him) is the first of OCAD's "Nomadic Residents," a program of the school's new Professional Gallery, which is meant to "inspire and influence the OCAD community by featuring artists from around the world whose work questions issues such as travel, mobility, displacement, dislocation, and homelessness, as well as the speed or instability of modern life. ... [to] to join here to there, the local to the global and the provisional and the permanent." He had a low-key chat with OCAD prof and gallery curator Charles Reeve, sometimes so low-key it was boring, and yet I walked away feeling inspired.

Tiravanija is a bit of a pet of the "relational aesthetics" scene, enough so that a picture of one of his installations formed the cover of Parisian critic/curator Nicolas Bourriaud's book of that name. He's best known for installations he's been doing since the early 1990s in which he cooks Thai food for gallerygoers, making the social interaction his material. Another is a meticulous reconstruction of his New York apartment, installed in various galleries in other cities, open 24 hours with an invitation for people to just come hang out and use the place as they pleased. I've always been a bit mystified by the acclaim, from descriptions of his work, feeling that aside from the obvious desire to subvert the inertia of museum/gallery space (an old theme by now), it sounded rather thin. And when he started talking about his student days, when he said his work was always very well-received, I thought, "Aha, maybe he's just, like, the perpetual 'A' student of the art world."

But as he spoke, in gentle tones and small whorls and spirals, around his work, of how he concentrates on the details of the spaces he works in and, particularly, how his projects are always in contention with the physical and legal and institutional barriers and limits of those spaces, and how he changes his work in relation to those limits, I started to get a sense of the energy and chargedness that those who attend his shows seem to experience. It was also striking how much of his work is really to create instructions (or "recipes" if you will) that other people interpret and carry out, and how unnarcissistically open he is to the inevitability of those instructions being altered and improvised upon by the participants, in a flux and flow. For two "retrospectives" of his work in Europe, for instance, he simply left museum spaces totally empty and wrote a script for their docents to use (and elaborate on) to guide audiences around the room while pointing out and describing the "works" that weren't actually there. It's a beautiful concept, a game of let's-pretend that at the same time elegantly answers the absurd problem of how to gather together a body of work that consists mainly of ephemeral experiences. (Very cagey.) And it doesn't involve Tiravanija's presence at all, except as absent referent, as source of initial chain of reaction, reinforcing the quiet rebuke to individualism in his approach. Likewise, I was moved by the idea of "The Land," a collaborative project he's undertaken on a large former rice field in Thailand, which is simply open for artists to use as a site - including architectural investigations of sustainable development. He described the recent "One Year" project, in which a group of artists just spent a year there, getting some work done, but mainly getting to know and talk with one another - it made me think about relationship versus work, in the way some of the best "relational" projects I've seen or been involved with have done, whether all this business of producing artifacts and documents and art is, in the end, as important as the human connections that arise in the process.

His responses to audience questions that drew on the art-world rhetoric around his work were also nice to see - when people asked about "the social as the new modernism" or "open-source art" he would shrug them off, a bit embarrassed, though respectful, conveying that his role as an artist was to explore and expose the territory, not to be the one to map it. I often feel that it's unseemly when artists get too excited about the critical vocabularies around their own work, as though their works really were reducible to a journal article on issues in politics or philosophy or aesthetics, in which case maybe they'd be better off just writing journal articles. (This isn't meant to be a slam against artists who do have a precise intellectual armature for what they're doing, as many of the greatest have, and certainly not against journal articles; but with the re-academicization of the art world, sometimes the critical discourse has become the cart drawing the horse; by distancing himself from the hype other people use to sell his work on the intellectual market, Rirkrit seemed to avoid becoming their product.)

I was also stirred by the video that was projected while he and Reeve talked, a gorgeously simple documentary of a meal he cooked with a group of people in Singapore, which gave a bit of a taste (sorry) of his work for those of us who haven't encountered it first-hand. And then there's his exhibition in the OCAD gallery, which opens today, and which he avoided addressing directly but explained by means of several stories about dealing with those aforementioned institutional limits in other places. The background (at least as rumoured in the audience) is that he wanted to have something cooking, but that was deemed a fire hazard; other proposals ran up against other OCAD rules. So what he did, as a few of us found out by slipping upstairs for a peek, was to wall up the entrance to the gallery - and again, remember, this is its first exhibit, as well as Tiravanija's first Canadian solo show - with, I think, cinderblock bricks, and sealed with mortar. So no one can enter it. He said this was also a "time-based" work, hinting broadly that it wouldn't stay in the same condition over the coming months. I'm very curious to see how it develops.

You can view a video of a conversation a year ago between Tiravanija and science-fiction writer and conceptual gadabout Bruce Sterling at the Walker Center in Minneapolis online. It's more animated than tonight's talk was, but be warned, Sterling is rather overbearing in relation to the softspoken Tiravanija. Still worth watching, though.

Plus, for some music content: the Rirkrit Tiravanija song (er, not a keeper).

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 04 at 11:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Tranzaction Figures

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The Bicycles in their "Last Schmaltz" cd-release party at the Tranzac in Toronto last summer.
Their four-week Wombat Wednesdays series at the 'zac begins tonight.
Photo by Beth Hamill, Rockpaperpixels.

This entry was co-written by me and Zoilus contributor Chris Randle. - C.W.

On one wall of the Tranzac is a bulletin board for events and meetings around its Annex neighbourhood. This isn't exactly unique for Toronto venues, but what's across from it is: The opposite wall is covered with dead men in uniform, a roll call of Australian Victoria Cross recipients. This is the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club's curious nature, as a space deeply devoted to nurturing and housing communities whose history stretches back to before almost all of that community was born, back to a Toronto where even seminal venues like the El Mocambo and George's Spaghetti House were dream buildings.

The past doesn't just leave wistful memories, though. It also creates debts, and the Tranzac has a lot of them. As Kate McGee, a board member as of this fall, puts it: "Obviously, as a member-run community space, there is often a degree of worry about funds and maintenance and sustainability." The fundamental changes that the community has undergone since the group's inception only complicate things further. [... continues on the jump ...]

The Australians and New Zealanders have mostly drifted away now. The Tranzac moved to its current digs at Brunswick and Bloor in 1971, and a few years later it had become an essential hub for traditional music from the British Isles (almost as though Oceania were being colonized again!). And the Tranzac remains an adoptive home for that tight-knit, familial community: Both Chris and Carl, in attending the occasional folk event there, have heard the clatter of Morris dancers' wooden swords (memorably at dawn one May Day), the raucous sea shanties sung from memory by an entire room. Kate McGee grew up in a folk-music family and still participates in that music, while (like Richard Parry of the Arcade Fire, whose dad David was a member of Toronto's famous Friends of Fiddlers' Green) also becoming a part of the indie-rock scene: "I've been going to the Tranzac since I was a little girl," she says. "I remember getting to see all sorts of old friends and family friends and family members everywhere I looked, and being able to roam free all over the club to sample whatever music suited my fancy. I remember other kids falling asleep in guitar cases and on piles of coats under tables, while their parents played music late into the night. My friends' kids still do this."

In the interim, though, the Tranzac has opened its doors to music much beyond the boundaries of - although not entirely forgetful of - folk music. In the past several years, the front room of the Tranzac has become the day-to-day drop-in centre of free-improvised music in Toronto, especially the Rat-Drifting constellation as well as other portions of AIMToronto; yes, the Arraymusic space and Now Lounge are the homes of weekly series that grant this music its most intense testing ground, of players among players, but the weeknight front-room berth the Tranzac affords to improv groups may well be Toronto's most relaxed, affordable experimental-music venue, where you can hear the likes of Drumheller, Deep Dark United, the Reveries, the Silt, the Saint Dirt Elementary School and the Woodchoppers' Association; it was a frequent stop for Rock Plaza Central before they broke through to Pitchfork-level recognition. It's been the site of the annual 416 improv festival, and last summer the three-day Bummer in the Summer psych-noise-improv-boree. More and more, when new-music pioneers such as Rhys Chatham have visited Toronto recently, you'll often find them at the Tranzac, which is like a shambling rec-room little sibling to the more formal Music Gallery.

Given all this confluence, it's no surprise that some of the city's most broad-minded and activist musicians and organizers have begun to take up the Tranzac's cause. According to McGee, it was Jonny Dovercourt, of Wavelength and the Music Gallery, who first recognized the venue as a fellow traveler of the "Torontopian" project, which after all perceives the entire city as a member-driven community - imperfect, lovable and human. Thanks to treasurer Chris Hendricks, the vital musicians' co-op, Blocks Recording Club, is now a tenant of the Tranzac. Not long ago, Chris Randle dropped in to hang out with friends who were working there, and it was such a casually marvellous thing: teenagers, basically helping to run a record label, one of whom has also played shows there - another link in the Tranzac's multigenerational, extended-family story. Blocks luminaries Final Fantasy and the Phonemes, among others, recently played evening and afternoon benefit shows (the latter all-ages, natch) to help the Tranzac deal with its financial issues.

This is the dream for the club - that it become a fully sustainable centre for music and the arts, a nexus, an infrastructure. A space where performers can bring their kids (instead of quitting music for parenthood, or at least quitting the communitarian approach, as too often happens), and where those kids in turn discover what they want to create. When the Tranzac board first started reaching out to the Torontopia-identified rock scene with these ideas, there was some suspicion - was this just a mismanaged folk club scrambling around for ways to survive? But in the past couple of years they've proven some depth of commitment. As McGee says, "I've heard so many people dream out loud about a place like this, an artist-run community space, a social club with lots of room for debate and creativity, and it makes me kind of want to shake them, because it already exists."

We don't mean to minimize the logistical challenges. Despite the numerous artistic organizations that call the place home, its membership is not as high as it once was. What if no one who visits the Toronto Zine Library there realizes that they can get involved with the entire building? We started writing this piece in resignation, thinking it might well be doomed. But the new President, John Sladek, has some experience in turning around arts organizations (specifically the Mariposa festival), and the board as a whole seems to understand the challenge posed to them. We were delighted to learn that Blocks co-founder Steve Kado is now the Tranzac's Building Manager. It needs that spirit of collaboration.

This ethos is personified in one of the bands that played the fundraiser. 123Ten are the children of Tranzac-denizen folkies (one of them is Kate McGee's younger sister) but their debut was opening for Ninja High School at Sneaky Dee's, and the oughta-be-a-hit single Squirrel Babies that announced their existence was released on 2006's infamous Bad Bands Revolution compilation. The trio sings about fighting whales and a crippled "wheely dog" who still finds love with irresistable vocal harmonies that attest to the rich musical heritage they grew up with. Moreover, as Kate McGee says, "It's not unusual to see one of 123Ten doing production up in the Blocks office for a couple of hours, or stuffing envelopes with the new Tranzaction newsletter, or singing along in the crowd at the Flying Cloud Folk Club." The Tranzac has the potential to become an incubator for culture like this, localized without insularity. There are so many gaps this space can bridge if the struts holds together.

Tonight (Wednesday) the popular Toronto bubble-core group The Bicycles (who held their own epic record-release party there last summer) begins an effort to help that happen, by curating the first in their "Wombat Wednesdays" series of evenings of poppier, more song-based evenings at the club - which, in their turn, are meant to help the Tranzac also persist as a venue for the sonic R&D; the weeknight improv evenings allow. It's all a part of a musically cognizant culture that understands how disparate pieces fit together, a realm in which pop and humour and experimentation and exploration can meet and resolve to survive. But without an audience, that leap of faith will not find a treetop to cling to. Don't let the venue fall into misuse or disrepair. Help support the modest ramshackle building with its wonderfully flexible and mutually beneficial vision: All they want is to be one of our landmarks.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 07 at 2:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Celine Dion, Barney the Dinosaur and
the Weaponization of Culture (A Polemic)

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In this corner, alleged "dirty bomber"/torture victim Jose Padilla; in that corner, Barney.

The other day, reacting to my musings on the Celine Dion/Ennio Morricone moment on the Oscars, Zoilus reader Phil S. commented, "I can't think of any reason to purchase her recorded work, unless I get a job working in Gitmo for the U.S. State Department, in which case I'd definitely be forcing enemies of the state to sit through one of her Las Vegas shows on DVD. I'd probably have a hold of Osama by now."

It's an old joke, and I don't mean to single Phil out. If I dug back through my archive of Celine-hate in the press, I could quote a half-dozen similar formulations; you could Google up a dozen more. Trouble is, the commonplace reference to some disliked music as "torture" is not, in our time, some fanciful exaggeration, a pointed grotesquery like Lester Bangs's fantasy of bottle-slashing James Taylor in the 1970s. It's a literal, ongoing practice of statecraft. Yet it's still generally played for laughs in the media - when it was revealed a couple of years ago that the U.S. military had been blasting loops of Christina Aguilera and Eminem at prisoners, there were a hundred bottom-of-the-editorial-page bits of drollery in the newspapers guffawing, "Now they know how the rest of us feel!"

The fact is that firing ear-splitting recorded sound on repeat at prisoners isn't an aesthetic exercise. It's more like using blinding light and other methods of sleep deprivation and sensory overload - part of the "no-touch torture" repertoire that soft-authoritarian regimes like Bush's use to try to circumvent the Geneva Conventions (which, incidentally, forbid it). They're the flip side of sensory deprivation, and equally liable over time to cause the onset of schizophrenia-like symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Coincidentally, today in Now weekly in Toronto, Naomi Klein has a piece on Jose Padilla, the former Gitmo detainee who (as a U.S. citizen) has won the rare right to due process, though he's in no shape to stand trial. (Customs officers take note: This Jose Padilla should not be confused with the Spanish chill-out producer, though what you wanna bet?) Naomi's description of the section of Gitmo reserved for prisoners who've been driven over the edge deserves particular note. Former Army Muslim Chaplain James Yee says, "They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over." Which calls to mind other reports that the music used to sandblast prisoners' consciousnesses at the prison in recent years has included Sesame Street music and the Barney the Dinosaur song. Is that what these delusional shells of human beings are helplessly babbling back to their captors?

Now, I get the impulse to blurt out, "Anybody with a toddler knows what effective torture the Barney song can be!" If I've never called a piece of music "torture" in print in the past decade, I'd be very surprised (though pleasantly). But when you stop and think, Sesame Street songs as psychic bludgeons isn't just ugly; it's a gross perversion of what that music was made for. It's the weaponization of culture.

Clearly, it is only one point on a spectrum that includes worse abuses. I don't mean to magnify it out of proportion. But I think people whose lives revolve around culture, and music in particular, should consider taking the lead in objecting to this one.

For purposes of torture, it doesn't matter what music you choose, though it's likely most efficient to use the most harsh or the most repetitive. In some cases the selections seem to be jingoistic, such as Metallica or Toby Keith brandished as brightly coloured flags with serrated edges. Other times, as with Eminem, they're probably attempting to offend cultural sensibilities. And with the Barney song, David Gray and Yoko Ono (both genuine cases), they probably are operating at the same glib middlebrow-snob level as a columnist or blogger.

Unlike some European legal systems, the anglo-saxon tradition doesn't include droit moral, the "moral rights" of a creator over her work, which (among other things) includes control over any use of the work that offends the artist's sensibilities. And I'm generally glad that it doesn't. Once a work of art is released into the public sphere, I believe, it becomes part of the collective unconscious, of popular/folk culture; compensation and copyright issues are trickier, but on principle images and ideas should be available for resuse, recontextualization, satire and even misappropriation. I don't think that the Catholic Church should control what artists do with icons of the Virgin Mary, or Muslims the image of Muhammad; and so I don't think Bruce Springsteen should have been able to stop Ronald Reagan from inverting the meaning of Born in the USA for propaganda purposes, though I wish people hadn't been careless enough to fall for it.

But musicians and music lovers' deeper moral rights are violated when the story goes beyond a figurative abuse of cultural discourse to the literal abuse of human subjects. And finally, some people are saying so. In February, the U.S.-based Society for Ethnomusicology took an official, unanimous position against the use of music as torture, demanding the U.S. government end the practice. (Predictably drawing yet more asinine humour.) In 2005, Irish music therapist Jane Edwards wrote a letter to Condoleeza Rice in protest and a column urging her peers to speak out (notice the Celine Dion crack she quotes). Perhaps the music industry could follow their lead, turning their attention from the "monetization" of music to the weaponization of it for a few heartbeats.

For further reading on torture and music: The ethnomusicologists link to this academic essay from the Transcultural Music Review. But for a more affecting, journalistic take, I highly recommend Moustafa Bayoumi's Disco Inferno, a Nation feature that was more than deservedly reprinted in the latest edition of Da Capo's annual Best Music Writing collection.

After that, whatever you decide about the issue, let's agree to this much: A moratorium on the crappy jokes, for the duration.

PS: On the subject of culture and torture, Jane Mayer's recent New Yorker piece on 24 is worth your time. Canadians beware: Kiefer Sutherland does not come off well.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 01 at 10:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Against the Doctrine of Relatability

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Neko Case topped the albums list in the Eye Weekly critics' poll.

Yesterday brought the annual Eye Weekly national critics' poll, Canada's own Pazz-&-, er, Jackin' Pop. I like Eye's results a bit better, which may be some small testimony to a distinct Canadian society. Hosers remain more rockist, which despite my ideological objections I find kind of sweet in my compatriots. It's clearly waning, although the "most overrated" list and the "best artist" lists could switch completely and I'd be just as (un)happy. But I'm glad to see honourary-Canuck Neko Case atop the heap, astride Ghostface and safely above the overly lauded TVotR, Cat Power and Hot Chip (in the latter horserace, I bet Spank Rock); as well as to share the true patriot love for Junior Boys, Final Fantasy, Malajube and others; and to see Amy Winehouse, whose new music I've been bathing in, sneak into the top 10. Tokyo Police Club (whom I like) outranking Destroyer is not benign for my stomach-acid levels. But, eh, it's a list. (In which spirit, note the advent of the Parsefork review-aggregator. So far, so underwhelming: "MetaCritic with fussier statistics, fewer sources and an ugly-ass layout! Woo!")

I did enjoy the comments: Scott Woods' defence of Paris Hilton, Phil Dellio on the Clipse vs. Michael Richards, and also in the Seinfeldian field, Stuart Berman's The Hold Steady=Newman thesis (with a nice sideline on the Constantines as superior Springsteenians). As for the case of Zoilus vs. Adrien Begrand in the matter of J. Newsom... Well. First, kudos to the editors for making me look like a blowhard with the full-paragraph-vs-one-liner contrast. My bitch is that it's comedy over context, as the bit on Newsom was pulled out of a bigger point about the year in music (I'll print it after the jump, though it'll hardly exempt me from charges of wordiness). Still, strange that a guy who writes a heavy-metal column should get snarky over the idea of an instrumentally dense, verbally obscure, antiquarian suite. How does he handle those Nordic epics?

But Begrand is right: Ys isn't an album many people will throw on as background or workout music day to day. I'd compare it instead to a favourite novel that you re-read on a quiet Sunday every year - it's more in that internal register, an interior-experience-transporter to activate when needed. Dismissing that option hints at a pop-ist cognate to rockist bias, likewise asserting a narrow range of legit functions for music, and that intensities of specialization (whether that's "mainly good for dancing" or "mainly good for serious introspection") are inherently inferior to broader utility. That kind of attitude has sour outcomes in politics and culture alike. It's not the "lowest common denominator" problem - it's more similar to my most despised buzzword of 2006, "relatability."

"Relatability" isn't all bad: On its face it could read as a corrector against the idea of art being either self-expression or stimulus-response, saying art needs to speak from one interiority to another, that the magic happens in the dynamic relationship between maker and audience. That's the "relational aesthetics" I've often written about this year. But in practice, "relatability" nearly always boils down the presumed interests of the audience to the crudest drives, like sex and status. It doesn't say people are dumb, just that they're homogenous and easily summed up. Sentences (like Adrian's comment) that begin, "Come on, admit it," work aggressively along that line: "Look, don't pretend to be complicated, don't pretend to have your own motivations or curiosities or whims or moods - you're just like the next guy, and the next guy is just like you, and this is how we all are, all the time, and it's bullshit to say otherwise."

This perspective is part of the disproportionate bio-determinism that permeates social thinking right now - that we are the sums of our drives, which are in turn direct expressions of genetic destiny. That's not a crazy position: It stems from recent discoveries that indicate we probably are more biologically programmed than we thought when, for instance, psychoanalysis was the dominant paradigm for the human operating system. But it's an over-extreme pendulum swing, which I optimistically assume will eventually swing back into better balance. And it's a view that, as "relatability" indicates, synchs up conveniently with the current dilemmas of dispersed market capitalism: For instance, when you're trying to market to and extract labour from a mindbogglingly diverse range of people and places who don't share social references and norms, it's reassuring to fall back on universal drives as a hu-manual for how to work their buttons and levers.

This approach has ugly consequences in many fields. But in culture it removes most everything of interest from the dance - except, I guess, the funk, the pheromone trace, or rather the signals that stand in for it. Funkiness is all that counts. I once speculated that there's a corollary to rockism one could call "funkism," and maybe this is what I meant. The positive thing about funkiness in this sense is that it can be found everywhere - you sure can like metal for its funk; that's the "heavy" part. But - and this is a reason not to adopt the term "funkism" - generalizing funk as a "universal" entails forgetting what funk meant to James Brown. For a start, see the last three 'grafs of this definition, for a cursory look at how "funk" fits into the history of oppositional script-flipping in African-American culture. When such inversions get assimilated and incorporated into the outlaw romances of mainstream global culture, into the "rebel sell," the flip gets flipped - and literalized, so that, for instance, the millionaire is now the outlaw and the guy with the hundred-buck-an-ounce cologne is now the funkiest. And the most "relatable." (The meaning of gettin' paid is a lot more complex and contradictory, of course, but that's the part the music business likes best, because, to use another gross 2006ism, it can be "monetized.")

Part of what I like about Newsom, and Matmos, as I say in my Eye comments, is that their music is so physical, so bodily, while not remotely "funky." Then there's Ghostface, who's less funky in the 2K usage than in the older sense, stinking of eccentric individuality that doesn't reduce down to any pusher/pimp/tycoon blaxploitation figure.

And Neko's funky in that way, too - her voice is big-bottomed and sensual, but her persona and concerns don't track to anybody else's outlines. One of the most irritating comments in the Eye poll praises her singing but backhands her as "having her way with a thesaurus" with the title and lyrics of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. In fact, her title character is drawn from the Russian folklore she got from her grandmother - exactly the kind of funk (old picture books in indecipherable script; the must of grandma's sweater when she pulls you in to tell a story; her weakening voice, ghost of an accent) that marketers don't know how to fake, that doesn't relate to get-it-and-spend-it imperatives but asks for the listener to enter into a more thickly woven narrative of where people (and their music) come from and what they might become.

Whew. I was going to try and tackle the CBC radio realignment in this post too - especially the demise of Brave New Waves - but that'll have to wait for later. Now I'm rushing off to satisfy some drives, namely by grabbing some dinner. Just like the next guy.

My comments for the 2006 Eye Weekly Poll:

"It's too bad that the Destroyer and Ghostface records came out so early in the year, or their ranking in the Eye poll probably would be closer to what they deserve. Instead they're probably eclipsed (pun intended) by fresher novelties to our jaded ears, including mine. And despite the many many reasons these days to celebrate Canadian music - which the Polaris prize did a terrific job of marking and making memorable - I actually think that Destroyer and Final Fantasy aside, 2006 was a weaker calendar year than the previous couple of years. But that's mostly just the accidents of release dates. I'm betting the average goes up in '07.

"Otherwise, the digitization of musical experience, between YouTube and listening to music on computer speakers, reached unprecedented lengths in my life in the past year. Perhaps in reaction, I appreciated that the Californian dyad of Joanna Newsom and Matmos struck blows for the re-embodiment of music in 2006, from entirely different angles.

"Newsom is the organicist, consciously deploying her anachronistic arsenal, her fingers blistering on the harp, her folkloric vocal tones, her natural and mythological allusions, and even her intricate metrics and internal rhyme schemes, to knock out the cobwebs of media illusion and open space for the sort of unforgiving introspective examination that is distinctly out of fashion. Ys demands a ridiculous amount from its listeners, but far less than the artist does of herself, and it confirms - if her debut left any doubt - that she's an artist we're going to be contending with for decades.

"Matmos, by contrast, applies the most sophisticated, synesthetic technological tools to combine found physical objects with a whole pantheon of cultural heroes, making a witty but also deeply touching argument for the continued vitality and importance of the bohemian tradition (from modernist literary and philosophical icons to queer sex radicals) to our lives as we live and experience them in real time today.

"In a year when the broader social picture was so very often so very bleak, it was sustaining to hear Newsom and Matmos (among other artists) locate the reasons for hope and faith in each small human body, carrying its unique memory, its shared history and its essential fragility."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 19 at 5:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

William Parker: The Mayor Comes to Town

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William Parker. Photo by Francesca Pfeffer.

Any genre where reissues get attention ahead of new work and there are more students of the form than listeners has to provoke worries over its continued health, and for the first time in my life, in the mid-2Ks, I'm starting to feel more sympathy with the "jazz is dead" crowd when it comes to instrumental, improvisation-based jazz. Not that there's not great work in the field, and "dead" is always a ridiculous formulation - music mutates, branches, burrows, migrates, but forms almost never really terminate. But it's hard not to feel that jazz as a popular form, as a non-academic music, is in a pickle; its feeding currents (whether in dance, song interpretation or identity-remolding experimentation) are mostly turning other wheels, in electronic music (including hip-hop and remixing), non-jazz-based-improv, noise and other hybrid forms. Which would be fine except that it's happened less consciously than it might, so some of the electricity of jazz's legacy and knowledge is leaking out of the code along the way. (One of the reasons I was such a partisan of the Anthony Braxton-Wolf Eyes live CD was that it seemed to resist that dispersion.) The upheavals in the Toronto jazz scene - venerable clubs collapsing, new ones seeming uncertain in their identities - haven't helped my mood on the subject - which is probably a temporary one, but it's a question that's on my mind.

One of the few developments in the past couple of years that's helped to stave off such pessimism has been the Interface series staged by improv-community group AIM Toronto (whose founding has also been very encouraging). Interface has brought guests such as Lori Freedman from Montreal, Wilbert Dejoode from the Netherlands, Stephen Grew from the UK, Joe McPhee from the U.S. and many others to collaborate with members of the Toronto improvising scene. It's inspiring to see the effect of these more experienced players on the local ones, to see people learning and stretching and reconnecting with a global tradition in real time, undoing the isolation that it sometimes feels afflicts the scope and ambition of the music here. It's a reminder of the potent informal processes that helped jazz's place in the previous century remain so compelling for so long, that helped it spread and change as a vernacular music, an oral culture.

The incarnation of Interface taking place this week is likely to be a pinnacle in that process. The guest is New York's William Parker, a figure whose ubiquity, artistry and immensity of spirit has been a binding agent, an essential ingredient in the glue that's held the jazz-improv tradition together in the past few decades. For those who don't know Parker's work, a quick survey: He was best-known from the early 1970s through the 1980s as a sideman with Cecil Taylor (though he also played with artists such as Frank Lowe, Don Cherry, Billy Bang, Jemeel Moondoc, Charles Gayle and Peter Brotzmann) but in the later part of that period he started playing with the likes of David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp, who helped drive the 1990s renaissance in free jazz that took over from the John Zorn/Knitting Factory "downtown" scene (which I'd argue ran into certain dead ends around the same time). In the early 1990s, he began playing and recording solo, participated in the Brotzmann-Vandermark axis that connected Berlin to Chicago, and founded his groups the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and the In Order to Survive ensemble, among others. (If I had to recommend one Parker disc as a place to start, it'd be 2000's amazing Little Huey double-album Mayor of Punkville.)

Since then, it'd be little exaggeration to say that Parker's been everywhere and played with everyone in east-coast U.S. and northern-European jazz improvisation, including the electronic and hip-hop crossover projects curated by Shipp for Thirsty Ear's Blue Series. His alliance with percussionist Hamid Drake has to be noted as one of the most formidable rhythm sections in any genre in the past decade, probably the equal of any drum-bass pairing in jazz ever; he's also been the force behind the vital Vision Festival of music, art, dance and activism in New York.

What stands out for me with Parker, more than any specific detail of his rapid, rumbling walking bass lines, or his ultraviolet-spectrum bowed atmospherics, is the stunning empathy that he brings to every session. To intuit, underline, echo, counter and reply to the underlying thoughts of your fellow players is arguably the essential skill of improvisation, but Parker seems to raise it beyond a musical form to a humanitarian one - he has an uncanny ability to make his fellow players seem more themselves, to pinpoint their emotional and expressive potential and subtly guide a piece towards that territory, while balancing out their weaknesses. I'm not sure that he's technically superior to any of a hundred other bassists, and he's certainly not the most bravura or innovative of soloists, but in his performances he seems to put fewer barriers between himself and others than most people can manage - not only to follow the music where it wants to go without imposing his ego or will on it, but really to create an environment in which the audience, too, feels embraced, and in that security, can let its own imagination (collective and individual) range freely as well.

All of which makes Parker the ideal Interface guest, and I'm thrilled for the Toronto musicians that will have a chance to meet, play and learn from him. The series begins tomorrow (Thursday) night and runs to Saturday night at the Arraymusic space in Liberty Village, at 9 pm each night, $15 a show. (Parker's also holding a free participatory workshop on Friday from 3 to 5 pm at U of T - the Boyd Neal Room, Edward Johnson Building - that musicians ought not to miss.)

If you're the sort who always intends to catch improv shows but never quite gets there, make a point of coming to one of these performances, and see jazz the way it's meant to be, not reissued but issued into the world as if for the first time, a newborn answering the cry of the moment-to-moment, and very far from dead.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 10 at 6:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Extra: 2006, An Assistant-Baker's Dozen

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In which Zoilus listings-&-otherwise help-out guy Chris Randle discusses 12 songs that didn't come up in my own year-end roundup of albums and singles... and one that did. - CW


Pet Shop Boys, I'm With Stupid
George is dumb and Tony's his poodle, as the jokes go (often gayed up for extra hyuks). Somehow Neil Tennant can wring emotion out of even these tired jibes, turning their special relationship into the stuff of all his best songs - tortured queer love. His affecting portrait of a self-absorbed man attempting to justify his feelings for a lover everyone deems dumb as a post is that rare thing, a political song both sympathetic and damning. Tennant twists the knife even as he pities: Is his man really stupid, the singer quails as those sirens blare, or just an unthinking user? "Have you made a fool of me? Are you not Mr Right?" Oh, Tony - why couldn't you tell?

Rozasia, Track 3
Whirling flute trills, raw noise, mad little yelps. I first encountered Rozasia at one of those vital shows being organized in the city's dark, abandoned industrial spaces and it couldn't have been more perfect. I'm happy that their soundtrack for insanity will help ring in the new year for a hundred or so lucky people.

Meat Loaf, It's All Coming Back to Me Now
The Eye writer who reviewed this album called Meat Loaf "an eight-year-old's fantasy of what 'rocking out' might sound like when he or she grew up to be a teenager." I can't put it any better than that. Apparently the latest album was mostly a disappointment, but I love this single, reclaimed from Celine Dion (unlike most of her songs, it sounds more uncomfortable than merely terrible) and inflated with all the hot air that Loaf's barrel chest can muster. Bombast seemed to come back in vogue this year, with even mallcore bands embracing operatic openings and gothic excess. There's a kind of naive charm in the likes of My Chemical Romance attempting ludicrous concept albums they can't actually articulate the meaning of (better that than the Decemberists' basing songs on their English-lit classes), but the Wagnerian heavyweight still blew 'em out of the water with this one.

The Bicycles, Two Girls from Montreal
Summer was idle days in parks and snug clubs, listening to songs like this. They admire The Monkees and the drummer girl's voice is deeper than the singer boy's. How could they not be lovable?

Tim Hecker, Blood Rainbow
Music to fall asleep to, music for moving on, as a friend said when I was listening to this record recently. The glitchy soundscapes soothe while hinting at disquieting, thrilling uncertainty.

The Hidden Cameras, Lollipop
Awoo didn't get as much attention as it deserved, most reviewers glossing over a notable shift in the Cameras' subject matter from all dicks, all the time to a subtler, more wide-ranging lyrical approach. It's no classic, but it feels like a maturation. Of course, having said that, I would go and pick the ditty about blowjobs. But I love the sly poetry here, Joel Gibb yelping about "mouths of salivating froth" over bouncy sing-song staccatos that sound like a kids' song. They've broadened a bit, chosen to code and play coy more, but the Cameras are still queer and explicitly sexual in what they address, and when more indie groups seem willing to show that side of themselves than even at the year's beginning they deserve some credit. That Kids on TV album can't arrive soon enough!

Belle & Sebastian, The Blues Are Still Blue
Quite possibly the best song from their best album yet. The twee has been dialed down and augmented with a playful glam swagger. Kind of like a feyer New Pornographers.

The Blow, Parentheses
Paper Television seems to have been underappreciated, judging from all those year-end lists. True, it lacked an unflinchingly honest and heart-flaying vocal performance on the level of Come On Petunia or Hey Boy, but it's still solid, with this song being a particular standout, as the captivating Khaela Maricich gently tells her lover that it's cool to be sensitive and a punctuation mark: "You're not a baby if you feel the world/All of the babies can feel the world, that's why they cry."

Yelle , Short Dick Cuizi (Tepr Remix)
Some kind of French dance thing? Apparently remixed by a Gallic rapper? I could barely find this track online after hearing it at a dance party, with my limited capacity for the language, let alone uncover much information about it, but I love this, even if mocking a guy over his small penis seems like a failing of that famous French wit.

James Kochalka Superstar, Superfuckers Theme
I wanted to include a song taken directly from a video game for this, in recognition of the medium's increasing convergence with mainstream art and music and my own interests, but nothing was weird and compelling as 2004-05's Katamari soundtracks. My nerd substitute is the theme song for indie-comics-weirdo James Kochalka's demented, hilarious and sneakingly affectionate parody Superfuckers, performed by his side project band (which has gotten a distinctly higher profile in the past year - they did the theme for a failed sitcom!): "Always in our clubhouse getting high/ Everybody wishes we would die."

Plastic Little, Rap O'Clock
Ghostface frankly kicked their asses on his guest spot, but Plastic Little aren't really concerned with refining technical skill or the best production; they're practically outside the game, some goofy guys from Philly simply having a good time. The rap equivalent of a Toronto bad band? I'm just happy there's a crew with "being funny" as its main goal that isn't soul-destroying nerdcore. Plus I'll always like any group who came up with this rhyme: "I like indie girls who say they like electro/ Clash, crash, that's cool, I like Fischerspooner too/ But nah, bitch, I don't bitch/ I like some Ice Cube."

DAT Politics, Turn My Brain Off
I took some speed for money recently (long story) and the first thing I did under the influence was play video games. It still paled a little in comparison to these guys. Sounds like Sega Genesis on crack. God willing, the inevitable 90s revivalists will take their influence from 16-bit and not Pearl Jam's Ten.

Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds
Not the best song from my favourite album of the year; my head would go with the anguished vaudeville lament This Lamb Sells Condos or the quavering percussion that forms Song Song Song. But He Poos Clouds is my favourite, having become more personal than that tale of condo developer/wizard as an impotent, hubristic despoiler. It was, I think, during a late-night discussion of the song-in-progress that I actually met Carl for the first time, almost exactly a year ago. I heard this song at the first local show I ever went to. I was a nerdy kid, pretty solitary for much of my childhood and into the beginning of adolescence, and a young Owen Pallett taking skirt-wearing elf Link from the Legend of Zelda games to be his alternative gay icon makes perfect sense to me, just as the Final Fantasy series' fey, operatic melodrama lends itself beautifully to the name for all his work. 2006 was also the year Grant Morrison completed his brilliant, affecting forgotten-superhero epic Seven Soldiers (itself often concerned, like He Poos Clouds, with malevolent father figures and confronting mortality); the year in which the most universally-acclaimed film appears to be a fairy tale (the old kind, bloody and frightening) created by the director of Blade 2 and Hellboy. Gutter culture or folk culture, both ostracized in their own way, imbued with a modern sophistication and vital relevance to the present. So why not a meditation on loss, on the atheist dealing with death, that quotes Zelda and Narnia and Dungeons & Dragons in the musical language of a band geek? Inside so many nerds beats the bleeding heart of an emotional basket case.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 03 at 7:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Year-End Clearance: Top 20 Albums + Singles

Okay, it's official: The music blog world's year-end rituals have burst the bounds of rational exchange and have become a full-on listmaking orgy. For that reason, I am going to do this with minimal fuss & exchew illustration and justification.

Zolius: Top 20 Albums of 2006

Not likely to surprise regular readers very much (with a few exceptions), what follows are the albums that captured my attention most strongly or longest in 2006. How they overlap with what is according to some cosmic metric "best" or "most important" is a matter of conjecture. Dozens of others bubble beneath the no. 20 mark (from Howe Gelb to Kode9 & the SpaceApe to Agalloch to Eric Chenaux to Bob Dylan to Charlotte Gainsbourg to Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa's Raw Materials) and thousands of others I never got to hear.

1. Joanna Newsom, Ys
2. Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast
3. Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies
4. Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar
5. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
6. The Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
7. Xiu Xiu, The Air Force
8. Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds
9. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
10. Anthony Braxton/Wolf Eyes, Black Vomit
11. Junior Boys, So This is Goodbye
12. The Mountain Goats, Get Lonely
13. Richard Buckner, Meadow
14. Scott Walker, The Drift
15. Matthew Shipp, One
16. Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor
17. Beyonce, B'Day
18. Lily Allen, Alright, Still
19. Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac
20. Tom Ze, Estudando o Pagode

Zoilus: Singles of '06

Using the old-fashioned definition of "single," plus a few allowances for MySpace, iTunes and YouTube, here in no strict order are some of the tracks that I bobbed, strolled, danced, shouted, laughed, sighed and (in the case of the first, my genuine no. 1) cried to in 2006. As for favourites songs? That's just beyond my ability to calibrate at this point. They shuffled a lot in this most changeable of changeable years.

The Mountain Goats, Woke Up New; Beyonce, Irreplaceable; Lupe Fiasco, Kick, Push; Prince, Black Sweat; Willie Nelson, Cowboys Are Secretly, Frequently (Fond of Each Other); Ne-Yo, So Sick; Clipse, Ride Around Shining; Lily Allen, Alfie; Simon Bookish, Terry Riley Disco; La Plage, Coupe de Boule (Zidane); Justin Timberlake feat. T.I., My Love; Lil Wayne, Georgia ... Bush; Cansei de Ser Sexy, Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above; Christina Aguilera, Ain't No Other Man; Cham, Ghetto Story; Ghostface Killah, Shakey Dog; Gary Allen, Life Ain't Always Beautiful; The Raconteurs, Steady as She Goes; Nelly Furtado feat Timbaland, Promiscuous; Neil Young, Let's Impeach the President.

Elsewhere, some online 2006 mixes you should hear: Sean's always-indispensable best-songs list; Marathonpacks' four-volume year-ender; and Paper Thin Walls' collective mixes, which notably includes T-dotopian songstress Laura Barrett's Robot Ponies (and a little interview between her & Douglas Wolk about the song). I feel like I have to count Laura's EP as a 2005 release, but if I hadn't, it would be on my list too. As it is, her 2007 release on Ta-Da! is atop my roster of anticipated records for 2007.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 20 at 7:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Revivalists Dance the Mutation

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I've neglected (except in the gig guide) to share the news with you all that beyond-legendary Hamilton, Ont., band Simply Saucer is having its first reunion gig ever, 27 years after the band broke up, and a full 30 years since it recorded its sole album, Cyborgs Revisited, a set of demos and live recordings the band never released during its existence. The news has broken elsewhere now that Saucer will be playing the Casbah in Hamilton on Dec. 28. I'm a bit ambivalent about the news: Very much like Rocket from the Tombs (probably the band in the world most similar to Saucer in both sound and stature), or the Beach Boys' original Smile, Simply Saucer is a group whose essence in some ways is that barely anyone ever saw them, their recordings were unavailable for decades, and those bootlegs that existed seemed like only a hint of the full hulking body of strangeness that was the thing itself. When such a group reunites (or such an album is re-recorded), a closely related facsimile comes to stand in the way of the original enigma. When a ghost story is made real, some larger cultural reality is erased; it seems unfaithful to the specificity of time and place. What's more, as with Rocket from the Tombs, the new Saucer is only partly the original band - inevitably in these cases, some members either can't or won't participate, so you get substitutions, which again distort the picture.

But then when the reunion actually happens, sometimes the portion of reality it is able to capture is so powerful in itself that these quibbles fade. Mission of Burma, who put out one of the best rock records of this year, are probably the supreme example. But Rocket from the Tombs are an extraordinary thing live, too - it is as if the bodies of these aging men, David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), Cheetah Chrome (of the Dead Boys), Craig Bell and the rest, are supernaturally possessed by the spirits of their teenage selves. The garbled fury and cultural cross-signals that enabled them to cross an unseen threshold to a previously undreamt-of sound, all of that becomes present and manifest, and in the strangest way the most obvious and right response to the puzzle of their own existence, in a manner you just can't get from decades-old recordings. (And we'll see what happens when the promised new RftT album is completed.)

So two cheers for the Saucer reunion, and you can bet I won't miss it.

In celebration, I'm posting a Globe and Mail column I wrote about Simply Saucer three years ago, when Cyborgs was first reissued on CD (which includes the phrase "Simply Saucer, wisely, has never reformed..."). It's a pretty good one, if I say so myself - having been a kid in the same chunk of Ontario when Saucer was busy burning out its roman candles, the subject goes to my gut. Er, Torontonians will have to pardon the not-quite-warranted optimism in there about the then-new Distillery District. It's after the jump, here. Hope you enjoy.



Vomiting up prophetic punk in Hamilton

SCENE
CARL WILSON
22 May 2003
The Globe and Mail

The scenario is hard to imagine: A hot Saturday afternoon in June, 1975, with shoppers coming out of the Jackson Square mall in Hamilton holding paper bags of polyester pants and living-room-yoga sweats. Over their heads, on the roof, stood a quartet of young men looking like any other gang of jean-jacketed greasers wandering the downtown alleys, but pounding guitars to cosmic death, with outer-space effects from a crude synthesizer, and singing about Hitler's love for Eva Braun: "Ah-hah, ah-hah, I'm cyanide over you."

The band was Simply Saucer, already two years into its Syd-Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground-inspired trip to the dead ends of rock'n'roll and sounding like nobody else in Canada, almost nobody in the world. And the roof of Jackson Square was the greatest height to which they would ever aspire.

As the story is told in long-time supporter Bruce Mowat's liner notes to Sonic Unyon Records' new reissue of Saucer's Cyborgs Revisited, the band led by singer Edgar Breau endured from 1973 to 1979 in a Hamilton that barely acknowledged its existence and a Canadian music industry that actively feared and loathed it.

Punk rock in the later 1970s only confused matters - the group cut its hair and hired Teenage Head guitarist Sparky Park, got a couple of opening-slot gigs in Toronto (notably for Pere Ubu, by all reports blowing the fearsome Cleveland avant-garage band off the Horseshoe stage), and released the only record of its lifetime, the 1978 single She's a Dog. But the band didn't really fit in with punk, either, and was too old to care; a year later, the mothership self-destructed.

It was another decade before Mowat managed to get the songs SS recorded on that rooftop and at the studio of Hamilton boys Daniel and Bob Lanois out on vinyl, feeding a legend that had already, by some channel no one can explain, circulated among unpleasant-rock-noise fanciers around the world. But Cyborgs Revisited, now embellished with outtakes from the band's later years, is pretty obviously one of the best Canadian albums ever.

Like a handful of other bands in Cleveland, New York, Detroit and Munich, Simply Saucer drew together the wisps and wraiths of proto-punk from the sixties. Against 1970s rock machismo and folk-rock sanctimonies, they vomited up a prophetic blend of Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Brian Eno-era Roxy Music, psychedelia and late-adolescent rec-room nihilism, which a quarter-century later still smacks the ear like a squawling newborn with a slight case of demonic possession.

Each band that stumbled on this mix did it in absolute isolation, and yet they sound remarkably alike, the same string-snapping Planet of the Apes guitar chords and embryonic Moog technology underlying similar B-movie poetry and premature millennial panic. ("In the future," Breau tells the crowd on one of the live recordings, "unless you have a metal body, they're not gonna allow you to walk the streets. No kidding.")

Hamilton may have seemed an unlikely wellspring for the songs of a future that was not to be, but so did Cleveland, which eventually had a half-dozen such bands, locked in an incestuous, cannibalistic cluster that nearly made up a scene. These armpits were the only places this music possibly could come from. If the groups had anything in common, they were middle-class delinquents, petty thugs making music because they were nerds at heart, Bigfoot fans and conspiracy-theory bookworms not quite up for actual crime.

I was just 9 when these songs were recorded, but the ambience sounds familiar immediately: Anyone who grew up near the shores of the Great Lakes, where the filthy factories already looked like relics but the info-age commerce to replace them was yet undreamt, would recognize the miasmic stink of despair and dispossession and, its impulsive opposite, the nervous rush of groundless optimism: "We're gonna dance the mutation!" Breau proclaims in one song, in his best Lou Reed-as-hoser drawl. Beauty, eh? Beauty, yeah, in spite of everything.

After the split (and amid struggles with heroin and other elixirs of escape), several Saucer members went on to other groups. Breau plays acoustic-based music now, and on Wednesday he makes his first appearance at the Horseshoe in Toronto since that infamous 1978 gig. But Simply Saucer, wisely, has never reformed, its sound rusted in place like an old silo full of lug nuts and broken gears, solitary as Frankenstein's monster, towering over a wasteland that's long gone.

Most of the real landmarks of the industrial era were torn down, paved, painted over in pastels, but not all. In Toronto, the exciting exception is the distillery complex on the east side, buildings lately rescued by developers as a centre for arts groups. This week's Distillery Jazz Festival, which begins today and runs through June 1, offers the Toronto public its first chance to wander through the rummy caverns of the former Gooderham & Worts, while listening to dozens of the city's most unruly ensembles playing every variety of jazz - music that is itself a knotty little industrial-age holdover.

I confess that the most romantic part of me wishes the distillery still churned out hard liquor, or went on standing deserted, an empty repository for anxieties and wishes real architecture never allows. A city needs its blank spots, back roads, ghosts. But the rest of me has never been more thrilled. If it is creatively run, not overly prettified or tamed, the distillery district can not only make Toronto a richer place, but refute our cultural amnesias, showing that decrepitude isn't ugly, there are no dead ends, and obscurity is only what we've forgotten or don't yet know.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 05 at 6:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Cap'n Jackin' Pop Will Get You High Tonight
(in the Statistical Rankings, That Is)

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As the Times reported yesterday, the newbie Idolator website has stepped up to offer an alternative to the Village Voice's long-running Pazz & Jop annual critics' poll, by creating the "Jackin' Pop" poll. The move comes in response to calls from many in the critical community - including me, both on this site and on the I Love Music online message boards (currently on hiatus) - for a boycott and replacement of P&J; since the Voice fired both the poll's creator, Robert Christgau, and its presiding spirit of recent years, Chuck Eddy, earlier this year. The Voice was for decades the hub of intellectually rigorous and musically wide-ranging pop criticism in North America. The new owners' move was explicitly to get rid of the intellect and the range, so to my mind they've forfeited the credibility to be the place critics collectively "meet" to assess the year past.

I do think that function's important, partly to perpetuate dialogue and partly for the historical record: The P&J; serves as the best marker of critical reception we've got: If you want to suss out the profile of a year in pop history, you look at the Billboard charts and the P&J; for that period and you've got the best quick time capsule you can crack. Sure, maybe in the future something like Metacritic will turn out to be the true substitute, but P&J; so far has had a bigger sample and a grittier, grainier texture, with all of the correlations to critics' individual ballots and their comments. And on the consumer side, I still know plenty of people who use it to pay catch-up on the previous year's releases. Music fans still like lists, and P&J; is the list of lists.

The initial talk of a boycott was met with predictable "it's not worth politicizing" complaints, but from a critic's point of view, there's also a straightforward professional issue: If you play along with two of the most respected and senior voices in the entire rock-crit field being treated this way, you send publication managers the message that you're a doormat. Freelance and staff writers get plenty of opportunity to show editors and publishers how little power we have on a daily basis - why reinforce that imbalance by volunteering to do unpaid work to help a writer-hostile publication put out one of its highest-profile and most prestigious products of the year? It just seemed blood-stupid.

I thought Pitchfork might be the ones to raise their hands, but on ILM they said that they considered it then decided to stick with their own staff poll, preserving the site's default insular quality (which isn't entirely a bad thing). I've been agnostic on Idolator so far in its few months' of existence - it's an entertaining site, with decent taste in music, but the quick-hits-and-gossip model inherited from its Gawker parent, plus mp3s, isn't exactly a direction I'd cheer as the future of music criticism. I really hoped that Paper Thin Walls would volunteer, as the place where Chuck Eddy and some of his stable of writers have migrated sinice the Voice firings, and one with a more essayistic bent. In general, it'd be more comforting if the new poll were happening in a venue with a bit more of an established berth, one that you could feel more sure would still be here next year.

Still, Idolator has started off right with a name paying tribute to the lame-o handle of the poll's predecessor, and Idolator made an especially savvy move by picking Michaelangelo Matos, the former music editor of Seattle Weekly and the text portion of Emusic, to oversee Jackin' Pop. Not only is Matos a total list-head who'll apply scrupulous, persnickety math to the exercise (which is a necessity), he's a widely respected writer (viz his super book in the 33 1/3 series on Prince's Sign o' the Times, among many other great pieces), and someone deeply embedded in the critical community. Unlike GW Bush, he really is a uniter. In fact, as a younger person with more of a dance-music background than Eddy or Xgau, he's likely to broaden the base of critics, to get more non-rock people, which may help make the ultimate results more varied and surprising - maybe Bob Dylan and the Hold Steady won't win after all. Many thanks to Matos, who has reportedly been banned from Village Voice Media/New Times, his former employer, for his troubles.

It remains to be seen how many critics participate - people from the daily newspapers and regional weeklies who don't get as involved in intramural discussions or dabble on the Internets. (Did Eddy take his contact list with him, and is he going to share?) The Voice has resolved to keep holding P&J;, so this year at least we'll have two versions to compare and contrast - all more grist for discussion, which is the true pleasure of these rigamaroles in the end. And maybe they'll convince Christgau to present his annual dean's address as part of the package, in his inimitable oft-convoluted but always insightful manner? Everyone bitches aout it, but I'll miss it if it's gone.

Speaking of lists, by the way, the new issue of Exclaim has their annual best-of list, one of the more comprehensive in Canada. And here it is December. Let the games begin.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 01 at 11:23 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Zoilus Guest Post: If Matt Collins Did It

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The room was almost entirely fuchsia (the porter referred to it as "marigold" but I know a sickly pinkish orange when I see it), and I was poolside. Not that I was going to swim, but shit, great is great, right? Why settle for good? The next time you're a 15-year-old with killing for Charles Manson and a media conglomerate as his weekend plan, get back to me on whether or not you took the poolside room.

In a first for this website, Zoilus is pleased to present the following work of fiction: "If I Did It," a rollicking topical young-adult noir by Matt Collins of Toronto band Ninja High School. The events portrayed are fictional, not meant to represent any person, living dead or incarcerated, and all opinions expressed belong to the author, or CNN, or Charlie Manson.

You can read the whole twisted, incredible saga, after the jump. And no, further fiction submissions to Zoilus are not invited - unless you catch me seeming pliable in a bar at about 3 a.m.

Zoilus presents

IF I DID IT

by Matt Collins

I got the phone call during a rerun of Cheers where Cliff lies about a stolen postal van after it is found, by police, near a motel where he is about to lose his virginity to another postal worker, and when they lie about what happened, her devotion to the U.S. Postal Service drives her passion away from Cliff.

So he tells the truth, and she gets fired, and decides to move to Canada and wants him to come too, and he's working in "Dreaded Zone 19," which has some improbably huge Rottweiler population - anyway, there's this fantastic subplot where Sam discovers that Rebecca's one sensory sexual stimulus is the song "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," but Rebecca manages to hold it down while he plays it, and just LUNGES at Norm, kissing him passionately, and then when she says, "I don't know what got into me. Please apologize to Vera," and Norm says, "Are you kidding? After that Vera should apologize to me" - good good stuff - and then the phone rang.

"Chuck Manson? Who in the fuck gave you phone privileges? ...Bleeding heart, yeah..., ..., ..., ..., ..., ..., ..., ...wait, say all that again? ...OK... yeah, I suppose that would start a... yeah, ...no... exactly, a race war, yeah... exactly. Who? ... Who's paying for all of this? No shit! ... Uh... um... uh... Chuck. Charlie... uh... Charlie. Um..."

I rolled my eyes and decided to pretend I knew what he meant by different colors on different people's backs doing things to those different people. "OK. Stop. Stop. I'm in, I just need to know when... lemme check my... no, suuuuure ... OK, you know what? Fuck it. I'm in."

It was a pretty good plan. I was supposed to go to California and stab to death the ex-wife of some former Buffalo Bills/San Francisco 49ers running back with a college record of rushing 3,160 yards and 33 touchdowns in 1967 and 1968, total Heisman winner, who had been reduced to print ads for cowboy boots and cameos in movies like Back To The Beach (I know what you're thinking - when Pee Wee Herman sings Surfin' Bird and finishes by getting hit by a bolt of lightning and surfs into the sky, I get chills too) in order to pay alimony cheques.

Better yet, it was all bankrolled by a big-deal cable news network that my friends and I had been hooked on since the LA riots, who figured it was all a write-off once the footage went on the air and the ad revenue started rolling in. I had no problem with skipping school on Monday - the last week of classes before my Grade Ten exams? Like any university worth their salt was going to check those marks?

The in-flight movie was Sommersby - I cried, of course (romance!) - and this old Italian dude sitting next to me, who was on his way to the fifth congress of the IASS-AIS in Berkeley, pointed out that the movie had much the same point as Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan, which is that things should belong to those who love and use them best, regardless of legal ownership. I shrugged and said, "The transition of the story from the Middle Ages to post-civil-war America was awkward."

"Oh, you mean The Return Of Martin Guerre? But that didn't have Jodie Foster in it."

I looked back out the window and flipped open the copy of Thunderball I brought for the flight. The balding and Pavarottiesque English teacher sighed and put his headphones back on.

We weren't even in Los Angeles, and already it was as if we were having six lunches an afternoon while endlessly pitching hopeless romantic comedies to anyone with a chequebook and a suit but no tie. I kind of saw how Charlie got driven to biker-ranch orgy-cult murder delirium in the first place. And I had to get pumped for that, too, if I wanted a penny of that 24-hour-news-coverage money.

I got in late Saturday night and immediately started drinking. It was coolish and there was no humidity; I cracked a can of Pabst in the airport men's room and, finding it empty, began rock posing in the mirror, standing about three feet back from the sink. With my free hand I did a windmill, and made a "BRUNGGGGGG" sound, then inhaled for two seconds with my nose, tilting my head back. I held my breath in that position for roughly five seconds and stumbled forward, leaning on the sink, and staring into my own eyes I whispered, "Looking good, killer..."

The details, between an LAX security guard finding me and confiscating my beer and getting out of a taxi in West Hollywood, are hazy at best. My booze rampage continued into the lobby of the Best Western Sunset Plaza. It wasn't my chequebook, I figured, and I had heard the hotel bar was good.

The room was almost entirely fuchsia (the porter referred to it as "marigold" but I know a sickly pinkish orange when I see it), and I was poolside. Not that I was going to swim, but shit, great is great, right? Why settle for good? The next time you're a 15-year-old with killing for Charles Manson and a media conglomerate as his weekend plan, get back to me on whether or not you took the poolside room.

The next morning I woke up to Donahue - apparently I'd had the TV on all night - and the desk wakeup call. I mumbled something cordial and realized I had slept in my clothes. The blonde with the cute mouth from the Aerosmith videos was lying on her back, naked, on the floor next to the bed; PETA literature was scattered everywhere.

I kicked her playfully. "Wanna hit the buffet?"

Continental breakfasts are a joke. Sure, you can eat all the waffles and miniature bowls of Froot Loops you want, but it isn't breakfast. The girl started poking through the Times and I was on my sixth coffee.

"So, is it far to Brentwood from here?" I ran my finger across hers and tucked it into her hand. She looked at me over the rim of her shades and smiled, then looked puzzled.

"What do you want to go to Brentwood for?"

"I gotta drop off this package of... uh... drugs?"

She clasped my hand tightly. "Um... not far."

Then she motioned across the pool toward my room and raised her eyebrows. My rule back then was "never sober," but I had things to do as well. Chuck had given me what amounted to a script: Every move was planned out down to the number of steps someone my height (5'3") and weight (99 lbs) would have to take to effectively do the job and get the results the writers were looking for.

Step 1:

I walked up to the cash register at Ross Cutlery and loudly said, "I'm here to pick up the knife my boss, O.J. Simpson, ordered six weeks ago. Can the receipt say O.J. Simpson on it? Can we get that? Great. I'm his assistant. I am O.J. Simpson's assistant, and I am picking up this knife for him."

Step 2:

Al was taking too much time looking through the suitcase.

"OK, why am I putting $8,000 in cash, pictures of O.J.'s parents and kids, a fake beard and moustache and a loaded gun in O.J.'s front hall? What have you got against him?" He was waving the passport around like he didn't even know it was supposed to go in there too.

I smacked it out of his hand. "Cowlings, shit. Put the passport in the suitcase. OK? Look. Just do the fuckin' job. I could care less about that sad sack, but I do care about you dropping this off for me. In his front hall. Like I said."

Like I needed this shit? I was hungover as fuck and couldn't remember a thing about losing my virginity to the chick from The Crush. I had spent the entire cab ride trying to drag up some memory of digging up Cary Elwes' buried treasure.

Step 3:

Now, this may seem too stylized, but I like to wear Aris Isotoner gloves when I shop, and when I kill. I know it was the middle of June in California, but when you have a thing that makes everything you do you, it just makes more sense to give up on making sense.

The guy in the shoe store seemed to think they were worth staring at, though.

I looked all around the place then back at him. "Hey, up here, buddy."

Like I needed this shit?

He tried to regain composure - "Sorry, I..."

"Look, I said a pair of size 12 Bruno Maglis."

"There's no way your feet will fit a size 12."

"I figure at the price I might as well get a pair I'm going to grow into, shithead."

Step 4:

If you ever want someone's condo keys in LA, just fake being a UPS guy.

"Aren't you a bit young to be a..." Ron Goldman eyed me as if this was the craziest thing he had ever seen.

"I'm saving up to go back to high school. They don't let me drive a van. I have to take a bus," I replied, trying not to laugh. I couldn't believe how this city lived. A small-town Ontario boy was winning this town like playing Fish with an anterograde amnesiac. "Shit, you need to sign for this. Do you have a pen?"

He smiled a knowing smile and walked off into the living room. A set of keys was on the table by the door, and I snatched it and jammed it into the brown shorts I had on. Christ, I wanted to change. Like I needed this shit? I wanted the job to go off hitch-free, but dressing like the UPS man was going kind of far. Ron came back.

"Alright, sign here... and here. Your name is?"

"Goldman."

"Goldman what?"

"Ron."

"G... Ron. Okay, thanks, Goldman," I gave him a little hand pistol. I wondered who he was and if it was going to screw up killing this woman. I kind of wanted to know what she looked like. The upshot was, he obviously lived there, too, so I could see whoever he was with and stab them. Then a Ferrari pulled up and I walked away quickly without looking.

Step 5:

"Al, all you have to do is sound black and call her."

Cowlings was killing me! The hell kind of backstabbing best friend doesn't call his buddy's girlfriend the night he's being framed for murder?

"Matty, I don't even know HOW to sound black," he stammered.

Like I needed this shit? "Look, all you have to do is sound black and incriminating."

Al rubbed his face with his palms. "OK. Gimme the phone."

"OK. You're calling her back because she left a message, you've been busy all day."

"What do I do?"

"Roll with it, buddy. I'll direct."

He dialed. I cracked my knuckles and sat up straight in the passenger seat of the Bronco. I had never seen a cellular from this small a distance.

"Nothing."

"Try again."

"Try again?"

"Look, your girlfriend just left you a message breaking up with you - are you gonna let that stand?"

"I guess not..."

"Of course not!"

He dialed again.

"Nothing."

"Try again. Leave a message, at least!"

"It picked up. The, the machine, picked up."

"Leave a message!" I hissed.

"Yo, Paul-uh."

I winced and mouthed the words "Less black! Dammit!"

Al waved his hand at me and looked away. "I wuz just, um, calling you back? Frum, uh, before."

He sounded fucking Italian. I grabbed the phone.

"Fucking idiot."

"I was just!"

"You're an idiot. And I hate your guts." He went to open his mouth, and I raised a fist. "I am trying to build a perfect, beautiful thing here. And I told you that I needed your help, and all you do is half-ass everything. All I'm asking for is a full-ass job."

Like I needed this shit!

"Look, you get scarce. It's going to get real ugly here in a couple of minutes."

The weather was the same on Sunday night, but it felt a bit worse because Saturday night still hung heavy on my temples - how was it I couldn't remember railing the blonde from the episode of The Wonder Years where Kevin tries to pass his driver's test?

I looked at a light on in an upstairs window - was that kids? I didn't want to have anything to do with children. The light went out, and I scaled the fence and walked up to the front. Pretty out-in-the-open-like. Goldman was there, with an envelope or something. I could hear a dog barking, but couldn't see it. I figured it was going nuts because the garage door was opening.

My target opened the front door. All of a sudden, I was in action.

"Hey, the UPS guy!" yelled Goldman, and I slashed open his throat in one action. He fell to the ground, gurgling. I looked over, and realized this other guy was doing my job for me! He had my gravy train down in a kneeling position, and was cutting open her throat.

"The big idea?" I waved my hands back and forth between the body and the guy.

He dropped the body and walked past me, and started stabbing Goldman's body like crazy.

"Did Charlie send you? You seem like one of his guys."

No answer.

"Uhhh... that guy's already dead. Are you crying?"

Whoever this character was, he hated Goldman. I didn't even mean to kill Goldman. He just recognized me. Timing like Wayne Gretzky on SNL. Kind of an idiot. Rich kids in L.A., what do you want? For every Nathaniel West, you get six Nicholas Meyers, right? It's in the gene pool. They're charming at parties.

I walked back over to my job and put my knife down on the second step. I grabbed the body by the legs and hauled it over to the fence, and went back to the steps again.

This other guy was looking at me now.

I shook my head. "What?"

Then a voice came from behind me. "Son? What's going on? Jason?"

O.J. shoved me and rushed the stab fiend, grabbing for the knife. I went for mine, but before I knew it, the fight was over, and O.J. was huddled over Goldman's body, slamming his head into Goldman's chest.

I wanted to say, "Don't do that!" but I hid instead. I tried to go back to where I hopped the fence, but almost slid in some blood left over from dragging the body to the fence. The guy at the shoe store was right. These Bruno Maglis didn't fit for shit. My feet would never be this big. I sadly mused for a second about my adult cock size, and it hit me - my knife was still on the step! Or was it over by Goldman's body on the lawn? Did I drop it when the other guy was stabbing the living shit out of Goldman's lifeless corpse for no reason I could be in on without interrupting him and asking? Wait, I walked over to the steps, and put it down...

Why would I even do that? Or did he drop his knife after stabbing the corpse? Why didn't I stick it in my belt? Why would he leave his knife on the steps? That made about as much sense as stabbing an already dead body. Why did he hate Goldman so much? Was Alicia Silverstone into small johnsons? Which knife was mine?

The knife on the stairs clearly made no sense at all. Lawn knife. My knife was lawn knife.

I snuck up behind O.J. and reached for the knife. O.J. leaned back, looking panicked. I dropped flat next to him. Great. Covered in bloody grass. The knife was on the other side, and I tried to kick it away from Simpson. He was looking all over the place now. He stood up, and walked over to the steps. He didn't notice me, and I instinctively shook my head and shrugged. L.A., what the fuck? I stayed low, and put the knife between my teeth.

I scaled the wall again, and realized that I had the same problem with Broncos now that I had with knives.

Did Al stick around for all of that?

"Al. Aaaaalllllllll." Like I needed this shit!

Al flashed the interior lights of his Bronco once. What was he going to do next, honk? I waved my arm and pointed down the street. He drove off. I walked over to O.J.'s bronco, and had to stop myself from rubbing my forehead. "Shit - blood," I whispered to myself. I pulled off one of the Aris Isotoners, and massaged the bridge of my nose.

He was still doing something in the yard. With the bodies. "Californians are sick and idiotic," I mused.

Then I fucked with O.J.'s Bronco.

Fin

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 30 at 4:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Bad Bands Revisited, Part 2:
Lawyerama for Dollarama?

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VS.


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Can you tell the difference? Dollarama band shot by A Soundtrack for Everyone.

In other "Bad Band" news, Dollarama reportedly received a cease-and-desist order from the retail chain of the same name this week. As pointed out in that thread, there's no reasonable way that the store would win a suit: There's no plausible danger of a junkshop band being confused with an actual junkshop. (Dollarama-the-store doesn't even sell CDs.) If anything, Dollarama the band actually promotes the chain: "Look, it's also an instrument store!"

I have my own complaints about Dollarama, actually: I wish that they'd practice and develop the texture of their improvisations, which are inconsistent and too-often tedious: The joyously hyperactive heights are always surrounded by flat plains of ho-hum. The group would do well to pay some heed to a few of the found-object-improv precedents (Nihilist Spasm Band, VoiceCrack, even some of the current Rat-drifting bands in Toronto).

But this argument goes beyond this band, which is admirably vowing not to buckle: The chain is flexing its biceps, but case precedent is against them, and artists should do their best to face down this kind of intimidation and lawsuit-chill attacking their ability to refer to the commercial world in their work. (Notice how the music industry has started ignoring mashup artists as too much bother to harass.) If corporations are going to usurp ninety-eight percent of the cultural air space, then artists need the freedom to represent, criticize, lampoon and just plain use those reference points, if art is to be relevant to the general stuff of life.

Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes remain the clearest example of where fair-use thinking needs to go, partly because they don't involve the distraction of the "parody exception": His Campbell's soup paintings weren't satire or, arguably, even commentary on Campbell's soup; they were simply portraits of the world as the artist found it, with tonalities open to multiple interpretations. And if Campbell's had been able to cease-and-desist them out of existence, it would have been an atrocity. It seems that they didn't because it wasn't common practice at the time; they were open to the idea that it might be harmless or even good for the company, since hegemonic "branding" thinking hadn't advanced that far by the early 1960s.

Dollarama is still a very young group, and you can't rule out they're going to blossom into brilliance; Warhol was dismissed when he first moved from commercial to "fine" art, too. (And if the Riptorns can improve their game, anybody can.) The crucial fact is that Dollarama's name is by no means extraneous to their conceptual pursuit - it's a strong signpost to the themes raised by their methods, questions about cheapness, the throwaway society, the class questions within music (expensive gear as shortcut to legitimacy, for instance) and the creative recycling of social waste on a broader level. Even if I'd like to see the creativity of their actual recycling practice increase a notch, that's a fertile landfill they're plowing.

(Postscript, Monday: I accidentally deleted a few comments to this entry in my usual spam-comment deletion routine last night. I was alerted and I think they've all been restored now - if any are still missing, let me know. Huge apologies to those affected. It was just a slip of the mouse, not at all intended to censor commentary.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 20 at 6:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Bad Bands Revisited, Part 1:
Constructive Destruction! Unity Through Idiocy!
(Guest Post)

Zoilus space-friend Chris Randle contributes his latest guest post, this week on the baddest of Bad Bands, The Riptorns. Comments disputing his interpretation of Brechtian "alienation" are invited. Have I told the story here about the director from the Berliner Ensemble whom I met in university, who asked what the English translation of Verfremdungseffekt was and winced painfully on being told it was "alienation"? - CW

When Carl mentioned his desire to explore the social implications of musical issues, I immediately thought of the most antisocial band in Toronto: The Riptorns. Their music is certainly abrasive enough - a cacophony of attempted guitar-playing and yowling - but the band's mindbogglingly atrocious covers of other Toronto groups are practically reverent in comparison to their stage presence. The Riptorns' stage persona is basically "destructive idiots." Their last real show, a showcase put on by torontoindie.com, was mostly made up of the band attacking each other, their equipment and the audience.

They managed to infuriate members of other bands on the bill, the bar staff and the person who unwisely booked them (apparently the trio still hasn't been paid for the show). Performing with scene sweetheart Laura Barrett at the "Voodoo" edition of Matt Collins' resurrected "In Search of ..." series last week, they not only made light of this but also cracked blowjob jokes about her. Their stage presence resembles a punk band on the surface, yet its insularity and obnoxiousness creates a very Brechtian distance - fed-up alienation instead of an urge to participate. Riptorns shows aren't about being lost in the moment; they force you to stand outside of it and look on as it stretches into an irritating eternity. But what I find intriguing about the Riptorns is that this is all an act, a deranged Kabuki mask. As civilians, the two main band members, Jeff Wright (also of We Had Wild Adventures and Bacon of Brunswick) and Ryan McLaren (heavily involved with Wavelength, co-founder of All Caps!) are both pretty much goofy, mild-mannered indie nerds. So what would possess them to try and become the most hated band in Toronto?

I can't claim to know their personal motives, but I think the Riptorns, perhaps inadvertently, are creating at least one positive social effect: they're a lightning rod for loathing. That emotion used to be encouraged (in The Iliad, Homer speaks of "strong Hatred, defender of peoples..."), and while things have obviously changed in the interim, I don't believe human nature is an infinitely malleable creature; hatred, like love, will be with us for the foreseeable future.

This is a bit tricky when it comes to music, especially since enmity towards entire genres ("I like everything except rap and country," kids in my high school would say) has been interrogated and questioned at such length. In a community like Toronto's, I think there's a real danger of that natural spleen turning inwards, becoming corrosive, poisonous rancor. It sometimes seems as though there's unreasonable disdain from some people in the local scene towards bands like Broken Social Scene and Metric (something I can be guilty of), or conversely an amazingly visceral dislike for less traditionalist, more conceptual projects like Bad Bands. Look at the recent K-os silliness, where that black artist accused a black Now critic of being the dupe of his white-indie-nerd bosses (as opposed to the white indie musicians K-os has collaborated with). (Zoilus' note: See Danko Jones' great riposte in this week's Now, in the 6th letter here.) It's divisive and damaging, differences in genre or approach or personality used as fodder for bitter arguments instead of discussion and/or collaboration.

But a band like the Riptorns is the perfect outlet for collective bitching: Their music is terrible, they leave a path of destruction wherever they go and the personae they adopt onstage are intentionally, gleefully reprehensible. The Riptorns aren't just a bad band; they're a little bit evil - our cuddlier, less unsettling equivalent of Mayhem or Skrewdriver. The Grand Theft Auto of music. And I suspect the catharsis may exist as much for the band members, allowing for an overflow of id, as it does for spectators. There's no pressure for them to create constructive, meaningful music: A Riptorn is free to express all the snarky mockery of local musicians that might've been building up within them. They can be satire, spurs (burrs?) or scapegoats; that last one also having the potential to be beneficial in its own strange way. Even Jesus needed a cynical little dick around before he could do the salvation-of-all-mankind thing.

- Chris Randle

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 20 at 4:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Quasi-Participatory-Objects: More Matmos, Portland,
Pick 7, CCL1, & the Canada Council


Matmos shaves Jonny Dovercourt's head at the Music Gallery in Toronto on Monday. Photographer unknown, lifted from Stillepost.ca.

First, a note that I didn't note yesterday because I was sniffly in bed with a post-Pop cold: My omnibus Pop Montreal review appeared in The Globe & Mail. Its main value, aside from kvetching about the flaws of the PopMtl program, is its mention of The Nymphets.

Now to the meat: By all reports, Monday night's Matmos show was even more dazzling than the night before, including - as in the picture above - a performance of Germs Burn for Darby Crash in which MC Schmidt gave Music Gallery programmer Jonathan Bunce (aka man-about-Torontopia, Jonny Dovercourt) a Mohawk on stage, while Drew Daniel turned the buzzing clippers and falling hair into music, and another piece (I'm not sure which?) in which a volunteer had his butt flogged, with the spanking similarly sampled and processed. These plans had been hatched the night before over a lovely, way-too-big, late-night Chinese dinner on Spadina - I helped talk Jonny into it! - so I was sorry to miss the outcome. I also wanted to mention that Matmos and So Percussion encored on Sunday night with a new piece composed on tour in the past couple of weeks, consisting of the percussionists playing Aaron Copland excerpts and Schmidt reading excerpts from Hugo Chavez's infamous "Bush is the devil" speech to the United Nations. (I suggested later that it could be titled Appalachian Spring for Hugo Chavez.)

I've been reflecting since Sunday on what makes Matmos's electronic work so special, since when it comes to beats and samples it's not that they're the most sophisticated technologically or any such thing. And it's not even the stunt and satirical value of the use of unconventional sampling materials, though certainly humour is always a welcome element and one too often scant in the testosterone-race to be the most hyper-genre-cool in that field. Rather, I think it's the deeper effect of that technique, which is to return a referentiality to electronic music - to make it, in an oblique way, a representational form. I had a little outburst last week on the blog panel at Pop Montreal about how much I dislike the anti-geographical tendency in cyberspace - the way many websites withold information on what city or region they come from. I always want to know. It's my first question about a band, for instance, much ahead of what genre label is attached. I was surprised by my vehemence about it at the panel. I think the reason is that I value these anchors and hooks back into a grounded physical, historical and, generally, material set of circumstances - while they're by no means determinative of category or quality or content - as a counter to the abstracting leveller of international commerce and capital. Just like the on-stage shaving and spanking, the names of cities and towns (and even of authors and artists) return to a human scale. Perhaps unlike many techno-utopians and transhumanists, I don't wish to escape that scale nearly so much as I fear losing it. It's rather like, in a disaster or war, the difference between casualty statistics ("109 dead in Baghdad today") and reading the names and backgrounds of the fallen. Geography and mortality; objects and names. The problem with digital culture - despite all its positive aspects - is that, like Hollywood or the pop chart, it becomes an enclosed self-referentiality, in which not just individuality and community but subject matter itself threatens to become irrelevant. Matmos's performances, like their new album, mitigate against all that. And they do it while every moment being fun and - crucially, in a manner from which other interactively inclined artists definitely can and should learn - with every aspect also being integrated with a fierce attention to aesthetics. Two great tastes that don't often go together, you know what I mean?

On Tuesday night, I was fortunate enough - along with about 40 other people at Sneaky Dee's in Toronto - to witness another blow struck in that cause, the Which Side Are You On tour by a small crew from the Portland, Ore., scene. It was a fantastic blend of concert and lectures, mostly given by Power Point, on the subject of humanity's relationship to technology, specifically our personal computers. Sounds a little dry, I know, but it ain't so: It was full of built-in little tricks and misdirections, all kind of revolving around the fact that this relationship is loaded with failure, and that this fallibility is the human element that we wish away at our peril. It was sort of a hybrid of a night of Trampoline Hall bleeding into the distinctively mixed-up Portland storytelling-and-song performance style familiar from the work of The Blow and, another layer back, Miranda July. Highlights included Jona from Yacht along with Claire L. Evans ("Universe") singing duets with their suddenly come-to-life laptops, and Aaron Flint Jamison's entire, RPG-meets-metapolitics performance as "the messenger" coming to bring "the particle workers" the good news about the forces of darkness and light - and a tough choice between them, which had real consequences on the spot, including being "banished" from the show - though again in the end things were not quite as they appeared.

Plus they were followed by a Yacht set and then the official reunion, now as a three-piece, of The Barcelona Pavilion, in their first gig under that name since November of 2004. TBP is, for me, the real founding band of Torontopia, with a definite attention to geography ("to see that thing you'll have to leave the building/ all of these things are in different buildings") and real-life subject matter, and that neverendingly fundamental slogan: "How are you people going to have fun/ If none of you people ever participate?!" (They also announced their current plan to release covers of the entire discography of Beat Happening.) Not to mention, one of the best avant-rock dance bands ever. (Although I wish some of the larger boys would recognize the anti-participatory effect of throwing yourself into the pit with maximum force, velocity and violence, especially in groups: There's a fine line between slamdance-playfighting and actually making the pit an impossible place for smaller people, women especially but also the bespectacled and wimpy, to inhabit. I get pissed off when the bigger guys stop respecting that line, even when I know they don't mean to.)

A couple of more peaceable participatory-minded events in the offing include the next, Oct. 14 17th installment of Pick 7, the theatre-meets-music event at Hub 14, which is part-lecture, part-talk-show, and part-concert. The musicians who will perform and converse with each other and the audience this time are Toronto's Sandro Perri, aka Polmo Polpo (whose new Constellation album I mentioned here) and Montreal's Eric Craven, the composer/percussionist whom you might know from Constellation band Hangedup. Highly recommended.

And I wanted to remind you of Thursday's opening (probably tonight, as you read this) of the apartment-based "open-format project and art centre", the Centre for Culture and Leisure 1, right here in Parkdale. This is the new space run by Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis. Whether you can make it or not, you should read their Mike Watt-inspired manifesto, which makes several strong points on community-based culture. And they don't just talk the talk here: First off, you would be welcome to propose a project for the space. Second, their own work displays a similar spirit - for instance, check out Emily's Pledge Me, an exercise in mutual plagiarism in which people are invited to submit writing that will be incorporated into a "curated novel" - which cheekily challenges writers' claims that they don't actually steal their material from friends, lovers, family, etc...

Since this is Canada, one of the issues that these multi-source, crossdisciplinary, etc., projects always face is one of funding. It can be sidestepped, of course, but really if this is a country where one of our collective choices is that we provide funding to culture, the kind of work involved in all the foregoing projects shouldn't just fall through the cracks. Today the Canada Council announced that it was going to make its "Artists and Community Collaboration Fund (ACCF)" permanent. This is welcome news immediately, as the fund supports work such as artists teaching video skills to inner-city kids, or oral history work in aboriginal communities, or parades or dances or plays put on jointly by professional artists and neighbourhoods and towns, etc. But I wonder whether this area of funding will consider more sidelong approaches to collaboration, ones that are less obviously about social amelioration, ones that explore interactivity and open-source techniques without the same kind of altruistic cover story? I know that many of the kind of artists I'm discussing here bypass government funding as too much trouble (or, sometimes, ideologically unwanted), but I hope that they apply to this Fund frequently enough, even if they get turned down at first, to help stretch the funders' definitions of community-based art a bit beyond the easy Worthy Initiatives, to pull them a bit into the Unknown.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 11 at 8:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Joanna In (Even More of) Her Own Words

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Here is the transcript of the Joanna Newsom interview that I did this week for Pop Montreal. Wary of journalists (for reasons you'll grok as she talks), she is agreeing only to e-mail interviews, which is a pleasure when the subject is so articulate but also frustrating because it cuts off so many avenues for follow-up and elaboration. I add a lot more detail in my Globe article (later: hey, David Byrne read the piece!) but I figured that fans might like to have the whole exchange, as I could use only bits and bites in the piece. Joanna was just getting over a flu when she answered these, which delayed the article itself by several days. I've retained the dumber parts of my questions for the sake of honesty. But honesty is never a whole truth.

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1) Can you describe to me what the thought-and-intuition process was, even before the recording, that led you to the vision for this album, and for the more expansive approach to songwriting compared to your earlier work?

I don't think I can describe it in much detail. There was a particular set of thoughts weighing very heavy on my mind; there were three or four particular experiences that were staying with me, sharply, in a way that i couldn't shake, and so tried to articulate musically. And these things settled into a real form very quickly; it was immediately apparent to me, for example, that the songs needed to be long, and that it would be a clumsy, vulgar waste of time to even try to make them short. Then I just started working real hard.

2) Was it at all a reaction to the reception of the last album - did you feel that since it was surprisingly widely embraced, you would see how much further you could take it?

No, it was not that. Those things can't stay in the mind for very long, when they have to try to stand up next to actual life. Those sorts of thoughts pale and get washed out, get mushy and drain away. There were more important and pressing agendas (as there always, faithfully are, when you actually sit and try to write music), and these agendas operated independent and unconscious of anything resembling an "audience".

3) Were these songs each written as full pieces or are they, at least in some cases, different fragments incorporated into a larger whole? I ask partly because when I first heard Only Skin it was a four-minute live recording, with you playing piano, which was only what I'd call the verse and chorus parts of the song, which are now only a portion of it.

They were always intended as full pieces. What you heard, the four minute section of the song you mention, played on piano--that was in London. I had blisters on my fingers from my harp strings, and they'd burst and were bleeding, and so I switched to piano. But I wasn't able to play everything i'd written so far in that song on the piano; i'd never practiced it before. So I just played that little bit. It actually drives me crazy when people refer to these songs as, like, 'suites', or use any words suggesting a cobbled-together, modular narrative; because they're completely bound together, in my mind, and they tell the story I wanted to tell very deliberately. I did learn my lesson about playing unfinished songs in a live context.... I thought it was a lovely and interesting thing to do; but it's only lovely and interesting if it's ephemeral. Bootlegs and live recording ruin everything about that idea, everything.

4) Your songs take place mostly in quite pastoral landscapes, very elemental and rustic. Does this reflect what your hometown was like, or is it more an imaginary realm? Do you consciously eschew more urban and contemporary-sounding references, and if so, why?

I don't think it's either a direct reflection of my hometown, or an imaginary realm. And you'll notice that the "nature" represented in these songs is different from the one represented in the first record, and will probably be different from any version I'd invoke in the future. It's a collection of images intended to convey, collectively, certain themes... all sorts of things; I mean, you'll notice there are many, specifically 'contained', tamed, exploited versions of nature in this record; there are a lot of invocations of harvest, fecundity, rot, livestock, domestication, flooding, property lines, etc. And the other nature represented in these songs is a gaping, cosmic one; not close, not familiar, not harmless, not knowable. Like standing in a dark field at night, smelling the fruits on the ground and hearing the sighing animals but not seeing them, and only seeing the big, dark, swallowing sky. These are certain feelings that were integral to the subject matter; because I didn't want to tell a story explicitly; I wanted to tell the shadow-version of it.

5) Does the title reference to the mythology of Ys bear upon the songs as a whole? What is the connection for you?

The title was the last decision to be made. The songs are not about Ys. But there are many connections. And many coincidences, dreams and so forth that necessitated that title

6) It shares this title with the opening song on Alan Stivell's classic Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. Is he an influence, and was that reference significant to the album to you? I've always understood your style to be quite deliberately distinct from the Celtic one.

No, that's not a reference. I didn't know that. That wasn't deliberate. But there are lots of works of art in existence that were outgrowths of various people's experience of that particular myth. So I am not surprised.

I was trained in Celtic harp. My style is pretty different now. But I would not say it is completely devoid of Celtic influence.

7) On the previous album the harp was central, but on this one it frequently recedes into the background, as the voice and the strings take focus. Did arranging the harp for these pieces call for different techniques than the way you played it on your earlier songs? The harp lines seem perhaps a bit sparser and less polyrhythmic, but I'm not certain.

Yes, it's sparser. I knew i was going to fill in a lot of space with other instrumentation, and I knew that Van Dyke's arrangement style often involves figures playing off the beat in somewhat disorienting (albeit gorgeous) ways; I wanted the harp to feel really grounded on this record, more rhythmically straighforward than usual. But there are some particular moments of polyrhythm more complicated than any on the previous record.

8) Do you ever hear from young musicians who're taking the harp up because of hearing you, or harpists who've started songwriting or are emulating your style?

Well, there are young kids in my hometown who've started playing harp because of seeing me play! That's about all I know of.

9) Was there a particular recording or aspect of his work that inspired you to invite Van Dyke Parks to work with you?

Song Cycle. Above anything else.

10) There seems to be a bit of a return to symphonic arrangements in the 'indie' world of late, between your album, the Sufjan Stevens records, and here in Canada we've got Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett, who actually has done a fairly well-loved cover of Peach, Plum, Pear that you might have heard), among others - all very different, I hasten to add, but there does seem to be some confluence, or at least a freshly receptive audience for orchestration...?

I don't know anything about that. The word confluence makes me break out in hives.

11) When I listen to your songs they seem consistently concerned with death, desire, friendship, sex and other adult themes. But many people emphasized the whimsy and "childlikeness" of the writing with the last album, and now this one will probably be received within the framework of fantasy and myth - partly due to the cover art. Do you worry at all that these trappings can create false impressions and prevent people from engaging with the more serious themes?

It bugs me to no end, but I've promised myself that I won't pay attention any more. I've tried engaging the various comments or assumptions made in various interviews, but the thing is, it never makes a difference. I'm tired of feeling like I need to put extra energy into making statements outside of my songs. But it remains startling, deflating, and somewhat funny that people can ignore so much of what I've said and am saying.

12) The obligatory question about the "new folk movement" hype: On one hand, it's brought attention to some of the lesser-known influences some of the people in that boat have in common, such as Vashti Bunyan. On the other, I hear what you're doing as very distinct from what any of the other artists lumped into the category do, even those you've toured and collaborated with. What have been the advantages and demerits for you? Do you think there are any broader social reasons, media trends aside, why this kind of music is getting renewed attention at this time

I'm gonna take the obligatory pass on that one. No offense.

13) Do you feel that these long-form pieces are what you'd like to continue doing indefinitely, or are you still interested in working in pop-song-sized forms? Would you take it further, and perhaps write a full-album suite?

No, I think it was important to do these songs this way, but i think writing longish songs indefinitely could create a bit of laziness. In this case, it was necessary; I don't know if it will be necessary for me again.

14) And finally, aside from this tour and the release of the album, what's in your future (immediate or more distant) that you're excited about?

Well, I just moved into a new house. I'm excited about decorating, gardening, and getting dogs when I'm able.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 08 at 5:59 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Pop Montreal, Nuit Deux: Oh, oh, oh, oh, Desire

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Joanna Newsom in Toronto the night before last, as portrayed beautifully by Frank Chromewaves.

I wanted to let you know earlier that my Joanna Newsom/Pop Montreal piece appeared today (a day delayed) in The Globe & Mail. You can read it here. Also, in a day or two I will, I promise, post the interview transcript, which includes many nice moments that didn't make it into the article.

It's nearly 4 a.m., and I've just come from eating a very filling smoked-meat special at the Main with Helen Spitzer and Michael Barclay, so I'm not going to be up long enough to run down today in full for you - a day that included not only Joanna's concert but a lot of noteworthy moments at the Future of Music Coalition Summit: I'll recap some of the "Mini-Me-Dia" panel that Spitz and I were on, as well as such weirdnesses as David Byrne's surprisingly useless talk (he was so much better in this interview, f'r'instance,, tomorrow - mainly, I want to say that this meeting, which has never been held outside DC before, and could be so great, needs to turn into an Unconference immediately. More meaningful as always were the personal encounters - with fellow panelists such as Matt from Fluxblog, and Dan from Said the Gramophone, Montreal blogger MC, our convenor Andrew Rose, conferencegoers such as Frank from Chromewaves (first time in-the-flesh!) (btw Frank's speaking this morning on the doomed-to-be-dominated-by-Pitchfork-talk panel), and many others. (Okay, the one that geeked me out was, thanks to Spitz, finally meeting Mac McCaughan, which happened so unexpectedly that I couldn't even choke out, "Uh, sir, I just want you to know that in 1994, I kinda would have given my life for Superchunk." Mac, if you see this - I should have said. And if your show hadn't been counterprogrammed with Joanna Newsom's, I'd never have missed it.)

And then, yeah, there was Joanna's concert, which mainly felt like 90 minutes in which she drew us up close and whispered the stories of love, loss and mystery that are Ys into our ears. The old songs were extraordinary to hear for the first time live - especially Peach, Plum, Pear which, as Barclay said, having heard Owen (Final Fantasy) cover it so many times, sort of felt like hearing a cover-in-reverse of "our" (Canada's) Joanna Newsom song. But never has it been so clear how much stronger and deeper her writing and singing have become from one album to the other. And meanwhile her fingers whirligigged around the harp like a superior alien intelligence - her couple of missed notes (and one case of forgetting the lyrics in the encore, Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie, where a crowd member stepped in and shouted out, "dedicated dourly!") were welcome, if only to ground the phenomenon in fallible reality. It's otherwise an impossible show to review, because, as I gleaned from post-show conversation, my thoughts like many others' were on terribly personal, emotional matters all the way through. I didn't actually burst into tears, as some did, I think because I knew well beforehand that it would be so, but seldom have I reflected on and felt so much during a show while at once feeling that my attention was riveted every moment. However, since I have a bit of a cold, whenever I did feel like weeping, I started sneezing instead - sorry, if you were sitting near me. (Does this happen to you? It's so annoying!)

The single most powerful new songwriter and performer of the decade? Tonight, I and hundreds of other people in the never-before-used, beautiful venue of the Ukrainian Federation on Hutchison in Montreal said yes, at a roar, rising from our seats. Each individual song practically got a standing ovation. There could be more words for it, but Joanna had already used them: "We could stand for a century, starin', with our heads cocked, in the broad daylight/ at this thing, joy, landlocked, in bodies that don't keep."

Set list, as I remember it, corrections welcome:
Bridges and Balloons
Emily
The Book of Right-On
Sawdust and Diamonds
Sadie
Only Skin
Peach, Plum, Pear
Cosmia

----
encore ("I'm getting serious blisters, so I can only play one more song"): Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie

Later: It always feels redundant to link to Pitchfork, but these photos by Ryan Schreiber really do a lovely job of capturing the visual impression. (I met Ryan briefly - who was either faking it or does read this site now and then - and he was very nice, but we didn't get into anything substantial. Which is just as well, as I have no more desire to argue about Pfork than to argue about the weather. My opinion on balance is like the Hitchhikers' Guide entry on Earth.)

Tugging at the harp strings
Joanna Newsom's complex, charismatic work has shot her to the indie-music stratosphere, CARL WILSON writes

The Globe and Mail
Review section
05/10/06

How much scope and challenge is there to California songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom's coming second album, Ys? Well, the chorus of the first, 12-minute-long song - to the extent that there are any choruses here - provides a lesson in cosmic terminology.

"The meteorite is the source of the light, and the meteor's just what we see," she sings in a high, passionate lilt, proffering a mnemonic for science students everywhere. "And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee."

Newsom, who plays at the Pop Montreal festival tonight, can empathize with such issues of perception and mismeasurement.

She burst into the skies of the indie-music planet with her acclaimed 2004 debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. Ever since, she has seen her own intentions confused with the constellated guesswork that fans and detractors alike project onto the charismatic figure of this "elfin" 24-year-old blonde with a very-non-rock axe wedged between her knees.

She has been mistaken for "childlike" because of the heady naturalism of her singing style, when on closer inspection her songs leap routinely from personal lyric to themes of sex and death and environmental disaster. She has been labelled an antiquarian nerd for her allusions to mythology and the pastoral - and the occasional "thee" - when in fact the delicate stateliness of her harp line is consistently juddered away by a verbal and vocal tone as urgent as an ambulance siren. (Though the Renaissance-pastiche portrait on the cover of her new album does her no favours in that area.)

"It bugs me to no end," she said in a rare interview with The Globe and Mail this week, which she would conduct only by e-mail. "I'm tired of feeling like I need to put extra energy into making statements outside of my songs. But it remains startling, deflating, and somewhat funny that people can ignore so much of what I've said and am saying."

Then again, to extend the astronomical analogy, that's what happens to a star. Which is what Newsom is rapidly becoming.

She grew up in the exotic atmosphere of Nevada City, Calif., a former prospecting town taken over by artists, academics and post-hippie intellectual families like her own, which may account for some of her distance from her popular reception. Minimalist composer Terry Riley was a neighbour. She nursed a fascination with the harp as a toddler and began studying it as soon as she could hold one, but quickly spurned the instrument's stereotypical, decorative glissando pastels, learning Celtic styles and then catching on to both Appalachian traditions and African polyrhythmic harp idioms as a teenager at folk-music summer camp.

In university, she started as a composition major but, finding her inclinations out of fashion with academic currents, switched to creative writing.

Her first album (which followed a pair of homemade EPs) shot to the upper stratosphere of best-of-the-year lists from music blogs to magazines to The New York Times. It was an unpredictable fate for a collection of idiosyncratic pop-folk tunes played mainly on solo harp, and one that led to concerts before adoring fans around the world - wherever a quality instrument could be borrowed - including opening a show for an admiring Neil Young.

The status she has garnered among musicians is further evident in the personnel list for her second album, due next month. It is co-produced by Van Dyke Parks, the veteran eccentric best known as Brian Wilson's collaborator on the Beach Boys' legendary lost-and-found master stroke, Smile. Parks built his elaborate symphonic arrangements around voice-and-harp bed tracks engineered by Steve Albini, whose most famous work among hundreds of seminal underground recordings was with Nirvana. And the record was mixed by composer-guitarist Jim O'Rourke, a former member of both Sonic Youth and Wilco.

What, were George Martin and Brian Eno tied up? One has the feeling they wouldn't have said no.

Yet, rather than merely consolidating her position, Ys is an intensely personal album that will test the capacities of acolytes and new listeners alike. It has only five songs, but together they last nearly an hour, with Parks's orchestra, as she put it, "playing off the beat in somewhat disorienting (albeit gorgeous) ways."

The twirling verbal mobiles that Newsom pasted together in miniature on her first record (rhyming "dirigibles" and "irritable," or coining hybrid synecdoches such as "you were knocking me down with the palm of your eye") now become a 4,000-word torrent of images, metaphors, ontology, epistemology, anecdote, punning and rhetoric that seldom repeats itself.

It's a vast thing to absorb. And yet Ys (pronounced "Ees," after an ancient Welsh and Breton myth about an idealized, inundated city, reminiscent of events a year ago in New Orleans) also feels like one of the richest, most moving works anyone has made in pop music this decade.

Despite the flood of information that passes through a listener from song to song, each one has passages that raise goose bumps. In that opener, Emily, she sings of how "tugboats shear the water from the water, flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper."

The process, beginning from a stubbornly nagging set of personal experiences, took over a year, but the conception was ever intact. "It actually drives me crazy when people refer to these songs as, like, 'suites,' or use any words suggesting a cobbled-together, modular narrative; because they're completely bound together, in my mind, and they tell the story I wanted to tell very deliberately."

The central, 17-minute saga, Only Skin, in particular, juxtaposes the erotic, artistic and ethical realms so vividly that it feels like a vast summation of Western existence in 2006. "You'll notice there are many, specifically 'contained,' tamed, exploited versions of nature in this record," Newsom said. "There are a lot of invocations of harvest, fecundity, rot, livestock, domestication, flooding, property lines, etc. And the other nature represented in these songs is a gaping, cosmic one; not close, not familiar, not harmless, not knowable. . . . I didn't want to tell a story explicitly; I wanted to tell the shadow-version of it."

But fans of The Milk-Eyed Mender need not worry that Newsom is giving up permanently on compression.

"I think it was important to do these songs this way, but I think writing longish songs indefinitely could create a bit of laziness. In this case, it was necessary; I don't know if it will be necessary for me again."

So Ys is just one more comet streaking across the infinite space of a restless young mind. It seems very likely that there are decades more yet of indelible radiance to emanate from Joanna Newsom, if we make it there - more light from a source that won't be mapped to any foreseeable orbit.

Joanna Newsom plays tonight in Pop Montreal at the Ukrainian Federation, 5213 Hutchinson.

*****

Pop Montreal

Joanna Newsom's appearance is just one of many coups the Pop Montreal festival can claim in its fifth-anniversary year. Founded by a handful of local promoters, it has grown more and more ambitious by the year, now including nearly 30 local venues, with parallel programs for film, art and small publishing. And as its hometown deserves, it has a reputation for the best after-parties of any music fest on the continent.

Among the more official highlights this year are concerts by several long-lost legends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Bob Dylan's rival Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Newsom's personal hero, British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, Texas psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson and New York new-wave-era maverick Gary Wilson. Also not to miss are Calypso icon The Mighty Sparrow, young Eastern European emigre Regina Spektor, legendary hip-hop absurdist Doctor Octagon, and bands such as Denmark's Under Byen, Victoria's Daddy's Hands (a decisive influence on such current indie favourites such as Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown - who play the festival on Sunday - and Frog Eyes), and Montreal's own electronic innovators Akufen and Tim Hecker, among many others.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 06 at 2:40 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Live Notes in the Rearview:
1. The Mountain Goats

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John Darnielle with Elvises, photo by (Mountain Goats bassist) Peter Hughes, not taken at the current Toronto Andy Warhol exhibition but somewhere else last year.

A backlog of notes, now that the Polaris pandemonium has died down, on recent live experiences. I'll begin with last night's Mountain Goats show, and work back through Jandek and to the Guelph jazz fest. 3, 2, 1: Go!

John Darnielle's body when he performs is a one-man symphony of tics, spasms, awkward dance moves and grotesque facial expressions. Even when he is just strumming the chords of a passage between verses in a very quiet song, he will bend one knee, squint, bare his teeth and half-spin around the stage as if he's rocking out on the solo to Crosstown Traffic. On Tuesday night at Lee's Palace in Toronto, he built up such emotional tension in many of the songs from the melancholy and hushed new album Get Lonely that the cartoony mannerisms made some spectators burst into giggles. It worked like a fart in church. And it was at those moments, most of all, that one saw the agonizingly gawky adolescent nerd in Darnielle poking through what in many other ways is a confident and commanding stage presence, through the authority that he takes on through the power of his writing, the status that he (like a lot of his geeky brethren) gains with his quick wit.

And it struck me then that this juxtaposition of the clever and often profound adult mind with the adenoidal voice and the barely-held-in-check guitar style and so on, just like the mix of charisma and physical awkwardness on stage, has a lot to do with how disarmed I often am by his music of any pretence to critical distance. Because I am just too much a part of his tribe. Some of his experiences, it's become clear in recent years, were much more extreme than mine, but they usually raise parallels (for instance, his songs about childhood abuse raise milder but still painful memories of childhood bullying). But the general personality set that comes through - hyperverbal, hyperactive, isolated but still extroverted - is awfully familiar, so much that when people in the audience the other night giggled at him, I got protective and a bit disproportionately pissed off. All of which adds up to a classic, adolescent-style fan relationship to the Mountain Goats that I seldom have for other music now.

It's a huge pleasure. But it's also really useful in a broad way: I was reflecting after the show that normally I listen to music somewhat through a critical framework I've built up over the years: Not only a set of reference points and terminology, but an ideology that maintains, for instance, that songs are by their nature as art an artificial construct, and so fantasizing about their authenticity or sincerity or autobiographical content is generally a mistake and a distraction. But when I have that teenaged feeling about an artist and their music, those thoughts start popping up - this desire to feel one's way into the singer's own personal thoughts and motivations, because the identification is so huge - you feel (don't you think?) that the artist is you, but a bigger and shinier you, who's saying what you want to say but aren't gifted enough to articulate. As a kid I kinda felt this way about every musician I loved, no matter how outlandish the connection: As my friend Eric said when I was chatting about this idea after the show the other night, "Yes, it turned out that I wasn't really all that much like Jimmy Sommerville." And my love life hasn't turned out to be very comparable to the romance of Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones. As an adult, I suspect that the identifications get a little more precise. Who knows? But they certainly get more rare. The twist, of course, is that I'm having these reactions to a songwriter who's just as aware as I am of the critical problems around authenticity and autobiography, has pretty much the same opinions, and has lately been more and more deliberately fucking with them. So it's that much easier for me to get sucked in, no coincidence. But it's a relief to realize I still have this capacity for projection and empathy through music, because it's such a large part of its potency - and it brings me as a critic back in touch with music listeners who aren't quite as caught up in textual and cultural analysis and are just there, swept up in the music, feeling the love.

And there was plenty of love at the Mountain Goats show here on Tuesday. I think John was feeling it too. This tour is no doubt difficult for him, because he has to generate a very different mood to bring these songs off than the "standard" Mountain Goats show that the fans expect. When someone shouted, "Play some old songs, John," early in the show, he responded that he liked the new songs better, so that if he played the old ones, he'd be pandering: "I'd be whoring, and I'm not a whore. I know I look like one. I'm pretty. But I'm not actually a whore." But after a couple more quiet Get Lonely numbers, which were very well received considering that many in the audience might not even have heard the record yet, he turned to the same guy in a forgiving mood and said, "I understand how it is. You go to see Nick Cave and he's doing everything from The Boatman's Call and you're like, I hate that fuckin' record. That's not what I want - piano ballads? So I'll do an older one. What do you want to hear?" The guy answered, "Water Song?" and Darnielle laughed: "Not that old! I'm surprised I even know what tape that was on - no way do I remember how to play it." So he sang Going to Cleveland.

Michael Barclay in the comments section on Zoilus last week remarked that he didn't get the musical appeal of the Mountain Goats, asking (I'm paraphrasing) whether anybody would give a shit about them if the words weren't so good. The answer's probably no - Mtn Goats fans are words people, surely - but that doesn't mean that the music's bad. Darnielle's been straightforward about the fact that he started making music because (along with being a huge music fan) he was writing poetry, and music seemed the best vehicle for it, since hardly anyone reads poetry and he wanted to reach people. But to make that wish come true - as obviously he's doing - the accompanying music has to do two things: It has to serve the words by giving them an appropriate emotional setting, and have enough lilt and force to make the song memorable. Mountain Goats songs may not seem musically impressive on the surface, but audiences seem to remember the words and music with more of Darnielle's stuff than just about any artist I've seen live in recent years - half the crowd's always mouthing the words or singing along. So for a lot of us the music does what it's supposed to do, make the poems and stories more meaningful and memorable and affecting - it fulfills the age-old bardic function. And that seems plenty. (Which doesn't mean that it will do that for Michael, which is just a matter of taste, although I won't get into the whole "too white" thing now except that some day I'm going to have to write a post about Funkism and the abuse of the word "uptight"). But I also think that on the recent albums, and the new one in particular, there's more and more concern for making the music exquisite in its own right. And that was borne out by this week's concert too.

The new material really sounded astounding. Darnielle is able to apply the same theatrical savvy to the soft and serious as he does to the loud and outrageous. And he likewise does it with exaggeration - if you think those songs are quiet on the CD, you should hear them live. They were damn near inaudible sometimes. And the quieter he got the quieter the crowd got. Cliches about pins dropping came to mind. Peter Hughes's supple, finely calibrated bass counted for more at those moments than ever before, too. I got shivers. I welled up. In introducing Cobra Tattoo, Darnielle spoke about some of the misapprehensions of the record: "A lot of people are calling it a 'breakup' album. Well, I guess you could say that, but what some of the people in these songs are breaking up with is Almighty God. Or their own DNA."

All that intensity made the cathartic release of the louder or funnier songs all the more joyous - most of all his cover of Houseguest, a darkly comic stalker anthem, "a song I didn't write but wish I did," originally by Darnielle's friend and collaborator Franklin Bruno (who plays piano on several recent Mtn Goats discs) with his band Nothing Painted Blue from the 1994 album Placeholders (still available via Absolutely Kosher, apparently). Darnielle did it like a theatrical monologue, acting out the whole plot of a film-noir parody, making every line feel like a punchline. It was delightful.

A couple of other theatrical highlights came with the introduction to Dance Music, in which he explained that the record player in the boy's bedroom in the song was actually a model rocket attached to a small turntable that came with some mini-flexidiscs ("now the collectors in the room are going, 'I've gotta find some of those' ") with recordings of the moon landing. Which forever changes how I'll hear that song, whether it's true or not. And then there was the full-crowd singalong to No Children, a newly minted Mountain Goats ritual that I wasn't even daring to hope would happen, much less come off so well. (Go, Toronto!) And there was likewise a really rousing shoutalong to the "Hail Satan!" climax of Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton in the second encore - but what I'll remember better is how he played the first half of that song with a new restraint, singing it dim and low like a tragedy, as if to imply that these characters too could have been included on Get Lonely, so that when he let rip vocally in the latter half, when the boys in the song get unfairly punished and squashed by their parents and school, with possible dark consequences (I thought of that sad messed-up fuck who went in shooting to Dawson College in Montreal last week), it sounded like what it really is, one of the finest and most on-point goddamn protest songs anybody has written this decade. Darnielle made a dedication: "This is for the young men and women I used to work with" - before the Goats became a full-time thing, Darnielle was a psychiatric nurse and worked in a group home for troubled kids - "who are now scattered to the four winds, and none of whom I will ever see again."

He also dedicated one song to Christine Fellows, his opening act, "whose boots I don't consider myself worthy to polish." And then he realized that what he was about to play was a pretty grim little number: "I've never done that before. Great way to create an awkward moment!" Fellows' set was really good as well, but this has been more than long enough, so I'll have to talk about her another time. Meanwhile, here is the Mountain Goats set list as best I can remember, probably with omissions and absolutely in the incorrect order. (Much later: Proper order here.) My only real disappointment was that he didn't play Woke Up New - I would have shouted for it, but hell, it's the single! I kept being sure it was coming. Damn you - and bless you - John Darnielle, for never being predictable.

Design Your Own Container Garden
Wild Sage
New Monster Avenue
You or Your Memory
Get Lonely
Going to Cleveland
Dance Music
Cobra Tattoo
Dialudid
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Lion's Teeth
Moon over Goldsboro
In the Hidden Places
This Year

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No Children (mass singalong)
Houseguest (cover of Franklin Bruno/Nothing Painted Blue)
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(pre-encore dialogue w/ Peter. Overheard: "Do you think it's too obvious?")
Best Ever Death-Metal Band in Denton (lyric change: Instead of "the top three contenders after weeks of debate, were Satan's Fingers, and The Killers, and The Hospital Bombers," JD sang, "the top three contenders, which were later ripped off...")

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 20 at 10:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

 

'Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Anonymous'

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Jandek in Glasgow, photo by Keiko Cummings.

Zoilus on Jandek, today in The Globe and Mail.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Anonymous

He released dozens of albums while keeping his identity a secret. Now Jandek is coming to Toronto, along with the man writing the singer's 'fictional biography,' CARL WILSON reports

The Globe and Mail, Sept. 16, 2006

When last heard from in these parts, the reclusive Texas musician known as Jandek was busy appearing not at all in the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood.

It recited the classic Jandek lore: Real name, Sterling R. Smith. Location, Houston. First record released in 1978 by his mail-order company, Corwood Industries; 47 more follow (six this year alone!), often sent by the crate to unwilling radio DJs.

His lyrics? Moaned fragments with all the jaunty joie de vivre of Samuel Beckett. Music? Guitar or piano, bluesy but about as melodic as the slow crank of a medieval torture rack; usually solo, but with just enough exceptions to confuse the rule. Album art? Blurry photos, often of a redheaded male at various ages. Publicity? One-and-a-half reluctant interviews, in which he divulged nothing. Most people can't abide two minutes of Jandek, let alone 48 albums.

All of which has made him a kind of anti-superstar for a fervent knot of fans (Kurt Cobain once among them) who love to speculate on his identity, mental state and artistic intentions or lack thereof. It was hardly necessary to add that Jandek never, ever played concerts.

But in October of 2004, those verities were shaken by the appearance of a tall, gaunt "Corwood representative" at a Scottish music festival. He has performed with increasing frequency ever since -- including his first time in Canada, in Toronto tomorrow night.

It's hard to convey how thoroughly this screws up the Jandek mythos. It's the meteor hitting the dinosaurs. It's the Jandek Reformation: A man who lived like classified intelligence now takes the spotlight in a natty black suit and wide-brimmed hat. A guy who seemed allergic to humanity now jets into foreign cities and gets onstage with pickup bands of total strangers.

The accompanists are usually prominent local improvising musicians (recruited by the promoters), with whom this supposed musical primitive meshes with apparent ease. For each gig Jandek writes a new batch of lyrics, which he reads from a music stand.

The Toronto band is percussionist Nick Fraser, acoustic bassist Rob Clutton and guitarist Nilan Perera. Their only rehearsal will be to meet Jandek in the afternoon for a quick sound check and chat.

Perera admits that the initial lure was that "you're going to play with this ultimate cult figure," but the more he listened to Jandek's albums, the more sympathetic he found them. "The back-and-forth between his poetry and his instrument, whatever it may be, is very defined." (In Toronto, Jandek will play a pair of Korg synthesizers instead of his usual guitar, as he did in a recent New York show.) "His way of playing is in the vein of free jazz, in that it's following and commenting from one line to another."

Fraser extends the parallel: "When you're used to experimenting, you wonder about this idea of 'outsider' art. Look at [free-jazz pioneer] Ornette Coleman! People thought he was nuts, and maybe they're right, but it doesn't matter."

"I suspect," says Perera, "that Jandek's found out what improvisers can do -- that there are these other people who are willing to play out of time and by feel. Like any good artist, if his work starts to get rote, he's going to find another way."

Danen Jobe agrees: "He's found a way to make it fresh, and that's great." Jobe has special insight into the mood at Corwood these days, as he has been in close written contact about a project that demonstrates the devotion Jandek can spark.

A young author and university teacher in rural Arkansas, Jobe has just published the first book in a planned fiction trilogy that uses Jandek's songs "to create what seemed to me could be the life of the person that released these albums and made this music." He is giving readings in conjunction with the Toronto show and at Jandek's next stop, Chicago.

Named after the first Jandek song Jobe ever heard, Niagra Blues (sic), the tale uses only scraps of the facts about Sterling Smith, whose name never appears. Instead, Jobe supplies Jandek with a childhood in the Ozarks and a long affinity with the Delta blues. Jandek has approved and serves as musical consultant by correspondence -- Jobe sends him notes and "sometimes I get something back," mostly corrections on lyrics or technical details.

In one memorable case, Jobe sent Jandek a list of possible blues influences, including Blind Lemon Jefferson. "He wrote back and said no, not him, but Blind Willie Johnson. I put it on and could see what he meant. Like a lot of those guys, Jandek moves from gospel to total psychotic stuff. Listen to Charley Patton, or Tommy Johnson talking about drinking Sterno. Except those guys were serious."

Not, Jobe adds, that Jandek is kidding -- you don't put out 48 albums on a lark -- but he has "a hell of a sense of humour, a sly sense of sarcasm, and as you get familiar with the music, you can tell."

Later volumes will imagine Jandek into Texas and the present day. "I'm interested in identity, the things that define you. . . . It starts with your childhood and extends through your interests, and down the line you find you've become the peculiar person you are, whether it's Harry Houdini [the subject of another project] or Jandek.

"I'm not doing his biography," he's careful to specify. "It's this character, Jandek, that he's created, and I'm just creating another place for that person to be."

Jobe thinks Smith is more conscious of constructing a character than observers presume. "He put out his first album and expected people to dig it, to take it seriously, but no one did. So when he released the second one, that's when he became Mr. Anonymous. And he definitely cultivated the mystique, though never at the expense of putting out the music he wanted."

Adds Perera, "The mythology is amazing: that Jandek is an employee of Corwood Industries, but at the same time is its product -- to give yourself that many separations and divisions. . . . And to maintain anonymity, that lack of visual identity in North American culture -- that never happens."

But with the success of the documentary, this strategy may have gotten Jandek as far as it can. "So the mystique is changing," says Jobe. "He doesn't talk onstage, but I think it's because so much emphasis would be put on whatever he said -- even if it was 'Hello, Cleveland!' -- that no one would pay attention to the music. Without a word, Jandek really does command the stage, by looks and gestures, the way Miles Davis used to do."

The crazy, tuneless Texas cracker being compared to the coolest icon of New York jazz? As Jandek once said, "A little intrigue goes a long way." The gap between outsider and insider may be just a matter of a decade or three.

Jandek plays tomorrow at 7 p.m. at The Centre of Gravity, 1300 Gerrard St. E., Toronto (888-222-6608). Danen Jobe reads at Circus Books and Music, 253 Gerrard St. E., Monday, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m., free.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, September 16 at 1:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Polarised! It's (Not?) All About the Music, Man

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Two dialogues: First, re: my Mountain Goats article (intro'd in my last post), there's a just fan-fucking-tastic panel in the current issue of metal mag Decibel called Hipster Metal: True or False?, in which frontgoat John Darnielle along with critic Joe Gross, Decibel writer Kory Grow and metal label guys Keith Abrahamsson and Brian Slagel chew over what to make of indie types glomming onto the Southern Lord bands or Mastodon (who played in Toronto this week with plenty indie types in enthusiastic attendance). It shows once again how much more revealingly the "big issues" can be handled when you begin from a highly specific focus: Darnielle's demolition of the "hipster" label, among other moments, is required reading whether you give a fig about metal or not. (The discussion of the "literary" nature of Mastodon provides a counterpoint to Michael Barclay's anti-Goats comments today, but I hope to respond more to Michael at least by the time of Tuesday's Mtn Goats show in Toronto.) One concrete outcome: I plan to start wearing a lot more suits and ties to hip-hop and metal shows, and maybe everywhere.

And second, in anticipation of this Monday's Polaris Music Prize, yesterday's Eye had a fine discussion with the above hilarious cover image of Owen (Final Fantasy) Pallett and Rollie (Cadence Weapon) Pemberton rumbling in some sort of finalists' virtual-reality holding pen. As one of the 10 final-round judges, I'm chuffed for tense debates and nervous about compromise, especially with such a large panel. I'd be only too happy to see the Eye-cover showdown realized, but it's not gonna happen. I hearby pledge not to be swayed by Eye's survey of how the prizewinners will use their $20-thou, though it's amusing to note how much the suggestion of the scenesters-that-scenesters-love-to-hate, Metric, parallels what Saint Torontopia Jonny (Dovercourt) Bunce proposed in the Coach House uTOpia book last year: A "green" recording studio. (Though Jonny was promoting a "green" venue/studio/community centre instead, which may be a telling difference.)

The Polaris organization, btw, has mandated us to consider the albums solely on their merits qua albums, as recorded artifacts, not "overratedness" or "underratedness", the career positions or prospects of the artists, who "needs" the prize or doesn't, nor presumably any societal "extra-musical" concerns such as genre or race/class/gender etc. I assume this is a reaction to criticisms of erratic judging in the Mercury Prize in the UK, on which the Polaris is modelled. But it's a hallucination. These criteria will be in play but will be rationalized into other terms -- subsumed as ideology into a pose and lexicon of critical "objectivity," and arguably thereby made more ideological still. It's not realistic about the way people listen to and evaluate music, or even can: Listening is always an outcome of an entire history of listening, social values and commitments, perceived zeitgeist and other biases. And it's richer and more fun that way. I will play by the rules of the Polaris game, but I'm pretty sure the experience is just going to confirm that hypothesis (mind you, in ways that might not be as illuminating without the artificial boundaries!). Which is fine: They've just started this thing, and it's a great thing, but there's gonna be a learning curve.

Coincidentally I had a similar exchange this week with the editors of a Major American Music Magazine (M.A.M.M.). In the course of some unexpectedly fraught editing tussles, they told me that they explicitly strive for reviews not to refer to other press and other external reference points. In part that's just the normal stuff of mainstream media, which want to avoid an "insider" tone in relation to a mass audience, and I'm down with that. But M.A.M.M. consciously does this to contrast with "the blogs" - they don't want a conversation, a series of links, but for each review to be as self-contained as reasonably possible - in order to say yay or nay whether a record is "good." In other words their method is nearby ye olde New Criticism - to read the text as autotelic, and in its artistic manoeuvres, stripping out biographical, historical and intertextual levels. It was a startling stance from this particular M.A.M.M., which in its feature pages seems to fairly revel in the gossipy, performative, iconic elements of pop. But close reading (irony intended) of the reviews section - which is full of great writers - reveals that they do try to stick to that brief. Again the exercise is a healthy switch and stretch from other writing, where my interest is often to be as "contexty" as a piece will bear. I can even see its usefulness precisely in a M.A.M.M. where gossipy and performative and iconic aspects tend to predominate. But it's a fiction, and not one I anticipated running into in 2006, much less twice in a week. It says a lot about professional mindsets and the distances between critical discourses that I'll be absorbing for a spell.

To give just one counterexample, I was interviewed for an academic project today about "experimental music" in Toronto, and the conversation was about nothing but context - scenes, venues, series, audiences, interconnections, how music is framed by language and gesture. These are my preoccupations, but even I was taken aback a bit, asking at the end, "Should we talk about music 'in itself' at all?" and hearing, "Nah, I don't think that's necessary."

(For way more about context in art and criticism, check out this post and the ensuing comments on poet/professor Ron Silliman's indispensable blog.)

Which has everything to do with Jandek. More tomorrow.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, September 16 at 12:33 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

Getting Lonely?

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Richard Buckner, photographed live by the improbably named Randy Bacon.

Apologies for my blog truancy this week, especially to those who'd wanted to hear my report from the Guelph jazz fest. The logistics of the multi-track career thing can sometimes go haywire. But some of the results become visible today and in the next few: First of all, there is my Mountain Goats article today in The Globe and Mail. The piece clarifies some of the points I tried to make in an aborted Zoilus post last week on the new album, Get Lonely, albeit more (perhaps too) drily, for newsprint consumption. One idea that didn't make it into the piece: Beyond the subject-matter and artistic-evolution reasons for the subdued vocal tone on Get Lonely, I wonder if Darnielle might (even subconsciously) be backing away from his yelpy vocal style because it's no longer very unique - it's what all the kids are doing, at their burning arcades and their promenades of wolves and their handclapping yeah-saying parties? So rather than trying to yell overtop of those with fresher pinker young lungs, the comparative veteran chooses to undercut them with a whisper. Maybe it's rude to say so but I think Darnielle has a good showman's instinct along with his keen artistic sense, and getting away from yelping seems like a wise pack-breaking strategy at this point. (By the way, I've got an essay coming up later this fall in EnRoute about what to make of those yelpy little buggers.)

Also today I was supposed to have a review in the paper of the new Richard Buckner album, Meadow, in advance of his show tomorrow night at the Horseshoe in Toronto (with Eric Bachmann). For some reason it did not run. This is a shame, because I think it's the strongest outing from him - a songwriter I hold in very very high esteem, right up there with the likes of John Darnielle - in a very long time. So, if you're interested, you can preview it on the jump.

Also, tomorrow keep an eye on The Globe - or on this site - for my feature about the fabled oracle of Houston, none other than Jandek, whose first-ever Canadian concert takes place in Toronto on Sunday.

MEADOW
RICHARD BUCKNER
(Merge Records)
★ ★ ★ ☆

Some eight records along, Richard Buckner is no longer the nearly unbeatable pick he seemed to be in the late 1990s for most-powerful American singer-songwriter of his generation. After three classic, visceral albums, he grew into a more abstract style that gave up vivid subject matter for writerly adjectival compounds, and distinct melodies for explorations of the curlicue paces he could run his guitars and baritone pipes through. But on Meadow, producer JD Foster thrusts the words and the voice back up in front of rocket-propelled rock arrangments, and suddenly even Buckner's most impressionistic portraits of loss and leaving sound once again like stories you can't ignore, phrase after unparsable phrase pounding another spike into the casket of overlooked insights: What will you miss when things are fine? ... It's just too far the way we are.... - Carl Wilson

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 15 at 1:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

CopyCamp! (or, T-Dot Thrillz 2)

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Mark Hosler of Negativland, one of the participants at the upcoming CopyCamp in Toronto.

Copyright law. Pretty dry subject, eh?

On his latest album, Bob Dylan presents a song, Rollin' and Tumblin', which many critics have noted is very much akin to an old blues song called Rollin' and Tumblin', popularized most by Muddy Waters - but is credited as "by Bob Dylan." Dylan has always swallowed old blues and folk songs whole and coughed them up new, but how do you draw the line between love and theft?

Tanya Tagaq Gillis (appearing this weekend at the Guelph Jazz fest, by the way) takes the Inuit communal practice of throat-singing - traditionally a women's recreational pastime, as much a sport as an art, and never performed solo - and writes modern songs with it. Then she is sampled by Bjork, who makes her own songs out of Tagaq's. Not everyone in Tagaq's community is pleased: What happens when collective culture and individual creativity conflict?

As one-half of Crazy hitmakers Gnarls Barkley, DJ Danger Mouse - formerly mashup-world darling - issues his music on major labels and thus becomes part of their copyright regime, which goes around threatening to sue people who make mashups of Gnarls Barkley. Meanwhile, Banksy sneaks into record stores and plants parody versions of Paris Hilton albums - with a full album remix by Danger Mouse - into the shelves in place of the original.

Rupert Murdoch announces that MySpace is transforming itself into a record label - and that the millions of songs already on MySpace would be the building blocks. What kind of deals will these MySpace bands be getting compared to conventional music contracts - which are already famously horrible - and is there really any way anyone's making money out of this? (Or out of any kind of creative career in the age of instaneous digital reproduction aka piracy, for that matter?)

In the art world, a fight breaks out over whether artists should be paid a royalty when images of their work appear in gallery catalogues, or a secondary fee when the people who bought their paintings resell them at auction - even if it severely cripples the secondary art market.

And Pere Ubu lets fans record and make videos of their live shows for personal use - but when those fans post that video to YouTube, David Thomas demands the videos be taken down.

That's just a few random examples of the ways in which copyright and intellectual-property issues affect creators and fans across every art form. This fall, the federal government is undertaking a review of copyright law in Canada, and given the ideology of the Harper cabinet, it seems likely that as in so many other areas, the Conservatives will end up trying to drag this country into line with the American copyright system - a system shaped by lobbyists who, as Lawrence Lessig says, distort the entire domain of intellectual property in order to prevent Mickey Mouse from ever passing out of the Disney company's control. In fact, I'd say intellectual property issues are, in the digital age, the single sharpest lens through which to talk about the nature and future of art (and capitalism).

In that context (and many others I haven't even nudged), one of the most intriguing events of the year could well be CopyCamp, an "unconference" taking place at the end of this month in Toronto. The gathering, which will be hosted by Misha Glouberman (host of Trampoline Hall and close Zoilus associate) at the Ryerson student centre Sept. 28-30, brings together artists of both the traditional and the appropriative kinds, as well as activists, lawyers, open-source software heads and GNU/Linux fanatics, indie-rock cooperatives, industry suits and government bureaucrats - people whose interests, though inextricably entangled, often prevent them from gathering in the same room - unless it's a courtroom. The schedule of activities will be set and guided by the participants themselves on the spot, and structured in ways that allow everybody to contribute from their own expertise, rather than the usual conference thing of having overly long droning papers, panel discussions that go nowhere, and frustratingly short Q&As.; Even if you're not as compelled by intellectual property issues as I think you ought to be, the model (also known as "open space" conferencing) might be useful to experience for your own organizing purposes.

There's been some misunderstanding about the pricing of the event - it's officially a hefty $700 per person, which is very contrary to the tradition of "BarCamp" and other tech-head conferences that CopyCamp is drawing on, which attempt to be as cheap and accessible as possible. But the idea is that people who are attending as corporate or government functionaries pay that much so that the event can subsidize artists, activists and others (me included) to attend for free, and also fly in some guests so that the scope of the conversation can reach well beyond Toronto.

Higher-profile guests will include Mark Hosler of Negativland, the California experimental-music group that was famously driven to the brink of extinction by lawsuits after they used the letter U and the numeral 2 for the name of a single, and went on to become prominent thinkers on copyright and advocates of fair use. Hopefully we'll get to see some exchanges between Mark and John Oswald, the Canadian composer who preceded Negativland in the art-versus-copyright wars. There's also Mike Linksvayer of Creative Commons, Ottawa law-and-technology expert Michael Geist and Canadian artists such as Richard Fung and dub poet Lillian Allen, among many others.

If you want to come and can't afford the $700, there's still a (very) short time left to apply for a subsidized place in the proceedings. Failing that, some of the people who were upset about the fee structure have talked about holding a parallel, free "CopyCatCamp" during CopyCamp, in a public space - though that remains unconfirmed. And one way or another, I'll be doing some blogging live from CopyCamp, so you can follow some of the proceedings right here on Zoilus.

PS: To anyone visiting from the CopyCamp site - they've got an odd link up that doesn't allow you to see the comments on this post. Try this one instead.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 07 at 3:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (27)

 

Christgau on Torontopia

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Neil Young, wandering Torontopian godfather.

The great thing about Aaron is that he's able to write like a rare representative of normal people in the world of weird music geekery while geeking out just as hard as anyone else. His essay in response to last week's debate on Torontopia is a perfect example - even though I disagree with much of it, the simple insight about the friction that's caused by change when it's never enough change really helps explain the high fevers this infection causes. And it's just plain good to be reminded that pro basketball explains things far better than bull about Pitchfork can.

It also prompts me to reprint, in part as an explanation of why I don't agree with his thrust, this passage from Robert Christgau's last big feature for the Village Voice (to touch on last week's other major unfinishable business). Yes, sometimes Xgau can be a muddled writer - see the ILM thread on parsing his sentences (which for me to point out is a little pot-meet-kettle) - but he's always shooting for something substantial, and when he hits it, he hits it. Here is him hitting it, on the issue of participatory musical culture as it happens and doesn't happen in, especially, indie rock. It has sentences on indie rock much more definitive than the one from Frank (happy anniversary) that Aaron uses as his headline. It's useful for addressing the most misunderstood aspects of The Torontopia Thing, as I'll footnote after you read it:

" 'Live Music Is Better' bumper stickers should be issued," joshed Neil Young in 1980's "Union Man," which he has performed in public precisely once. Two visionary musicologists honor this dictum: Charles Keil, adept of participatory discrepancy, and Christopher Small, who believes all music celebrates the intricacy of relationship. For surprise-craving jazz fans, spirit-feeling gospel fans, and house-rocking blues fans, the primacy of the unique, unduplicatable musical event is a truism. The gig is the sacred ritual of indie rock.

Note, however, that all these music lovers like it live for different reasons. Contingency fan Keil treasures the marginal miss, contingency fan Small the magic mesh. Jazz locates inspiration in the mortal musician, gospel in the celestial divine—while blues fans, not unlike indie fans, romanticize the grotty, beer-soaked venue itself. Where blues fans differ from indie fans—and always have, even down at the crossroads—is that they regard musicians as means to a party, and the party as the goal. Indie fans aren't so sure about parties—or anything else, except maybe their favorite band that month. At their best, they're musical adepts combining all of the above. At their worst, they're one-upping self-seekers who wouldn't know a good band if it played their student union for three bucks with proper ID. Either way they regard the venue as the crucible of their developing values and personalities.

This process now has its own theorist: indie kid turned bizzer turned anthropologist Wendy Fonarow, whose Empire of Dirt proved a stimulating 'tween-set read. Fonarow did her formal research in Britain in 1993 and 1994, and some things have changed—moshing has declined, and the guitar relinquished its absolute dominance. But the basic pattern, in which indie is more temporary identity marker than aesthetic commitment, is depressingly stable. The best of Fonarow's many concepts divides venues into three zones. Zone One is the pit, crammed with the youngest, maddest, and most physical fans. Zone Three is the back or the bar, where what the Brits call liggers yap through sets—bizzers, musicians, scenesters, casuals. Also, Fonarow claims, journalists—but not me, or any other rock critic I know. I've been a Zone Two guy since stand-up shows became the norm 30 years ago.

The reason, obviously, is aesthetic. Zone Two is the best place to hear music—and see it, and feel it. Its sensations fill you without overwhelming you. Keil is right about participatory discrepancy—part of live music's excitement is the way it transfigures tiny failures of synchronicity. But this counts for more in the musics Keil loves—jazz, blues, polka—than in rock per se. I go to shows to get a fuller sense of the artist and to augment my experience of the music with other people's cheers and pheromones. And I go to concentrate, focus, immerse. Invariably I find myself registering new details and making new connections. Usually I have a good time, and every once in a while I luck into an epiphany. I'm a record guy, always will be. But records can't match the exhilaration of the best gigs. You walk home prepared to live forever.

So Torontopia is about imagining (and willfully romanticizing) a whole city the way one does a beloved venue, not as the city qua city and not even as Home but as a second home, grotty and with shitty sound-mixing but nonetheless loaded with possibility. It's about the city as a crazed emporium of ephemera, like a Japanese toy-and-housewares store, where no artifact is in itself as important as their bric-a-brac assemblage and the overall sensorium of the arcades. It's (perhaps naively) hopeful about making a more permanent aesthetic commitment than the passing-phase model. It's also about abolishing Zone Three, where people snipe and shmooze and hold themselves at a superior remove from the action. (It even has its doubts about Zone Two, where conventionally good critics live.) It's not about being a record guy, even though a record guy is an okay thing to be: It's about applying both Charles Keil's "participatory discrepancy" and Christopher Small's "musicking" (the music experience as a multi-sensory, social-communal experience) to rock, in ways that the consumerist idea of pop/rock generally disdains. The comparison to blues fans worries me a little! But it's still a disdain that movement after movement in underground rock has had to challenge, in new terms each time - in this case in civic, public-space and questioning-of-professionalism terms. Not for "World Peace," though there's a grit of truth in Aaron's scepticism, but just to survive the continual emptying-out of meaning by the bewitched buckets of all the sorcerers' apprentices. To live forever, at least for now.

(PS: Please see Jody Rosen on Xgau on Slate.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, September 05 at 2:13 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

"I waddle out and get a couple of gasps:
'Is that what their hair looks like?' "

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My Junior Boys profile is now up on The Globe and Mail site (let me know if you can't access it, please). Outtakes to come on Monday.

And isn't tonight the craziest night in shows of all crazy nights in Toronto? Gee, would I rather see the Jr Boys, Damo Suzuki, the Hidden Cameras, Jessica Rylan (amazing Boston-area noise-type artist playing free in Trinity-Bellwoods Park at sundown), the Deadly Snakes, Amy Millan or They Shoot Horses Don't They? Or go to Santa Cruz on the Capt. John's Seafood boat in the harbour? Can't do 'em all! Who wants to give up, meet in the alley behind my house, and drink cooking wine instead?

No, I am actually going to see the Jaybeez, 'cuz I've barely seen them live at all. But it really does hurt.

Also: I have a contribution in the first issue of Becky Johnson's new zine, Point Form: A Zine of Lists. It's the zineyest.



Junior Boys bring electro-pop home

Hamilton's Junior Boys want to prove their bleeps and bloops are as Canadian as Tom Cochrane, CARL WILSON writes

The Globe & Mail Review
August 26, 2006

When Jeremy Greenspan walks on stage, some spectators do a double-take.

Not that the singer and songwriter for the Hamilton-based duo Junior Boys is such a bizarre sight. Quite the reverse: Due to his music's introverted moods and synthesized bubbles and whirrs, listeners often expect a dour rake sporting globs of mascara and asymmetrical locks. What they get is a grinning, mildly pot-bellied 26-year-old with owlish eyes and the trimmed brown beard a soulful folkie might wear.

"I waddle out and get a couple of gasps: 'Is that what their hair looks like?' " Greenspan says, laughing.

And it's not just about fashion. Electro-pop, unusually for today's mix-and-match culture, is stereotyped as belonging to one place and time: England in the early 1980s. It's assumed to be the soundtrack for lyrics about boredom, gender ambiguity, dystopias and androids. None of which has much bearing on Junior Boys' second album, So This Is Goodbye.

The record draws an intricate map of losses and reclamations, etched with traces of conversation that could be domestic squabbles or mumblings into a mirror. Though it's plagued with dust and doubles, shadows and moans, those anxieties are woven into witty melodic filigrees, with a youthful, rhythmic swing assured enough to shake the ghosts off at the curves.

It's one of the finest suites of pop music of the year, and most reviewers call it a distinct advance on Last Exit, Junior Boys' already superb 2004 debut. So This Is Goodbye was rated 9.0 this month on the popular Pitchfork website, which reputedly helped to make the careers of bands such as the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene.

And Greenspan, a motor-mouthed and articulate theorist of his own work, will argue its bleeps and bloops are just as Canadian as Tom Cochrane belting out Life Is a Highway.

"A lot of the mood I'm trying to capture is a uniquely Canadian thing -- the highway thing, the experience of driving up north," Greenspan says. "If you look from a high place, it seems like the city is carved out of wilderness. Even in America, if you take a highway and drive in some random direction, you'll end up somewhere you recognize. In Canada, it's the middle of nowhere.

"This produces an agoraphobia, a fear of vastness, a fear I sort of get off on . . . [an] opposite of claustrophobia that we have here, that is sort of uniquely ours."

Greenspan says he is "totally obsessed with Canadiana," including the animation of Norman McLaren and the contests of figure-versus-ground in the canvases of Christopher Pratt, "a painter that encapsulated everything I'm trying to say about where I'm from musically."

If his music gets mistaken for an anglophilic period piece, it's partly because it was first vaulted to notice by a London cabal of Internet critics. Greenspan's initial duo with programmer Jonny Dark had already split when demos began circulating among British music bloggers and message-board devotees. Their fervour for the amalgam of underground dance rhythms with crisp pop melodies pricked up the ears of Warp Records's Nik Kilroy, who tracked Greenspan down to invite Junior Boys to be the first artists on his own label, KIN.

Greenspan took up with another Hamiltonian beat-maker, Matthew Didemus, to complete what became Last Exit, and to go on the road. Junior Boys is now signed to Domino Records, best known as the home of recent British indie hit-makers Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys. "I find myself at times getting more ambitious than I thought I would," he comments on the prospect of similar success, "but we're kind of a culty band. . . . I'd love to be a one-hit wonder, though. That'd be great."

One of Greenspan's frustrations is that the Domino rock bands' revisions of 1980s post-punk get called fresh, while Junior Boys is considered retro. "The equipment we use somehow codifies in people's minds this specific historical moment in the way it doesn't if people play classic guitars, drums and bass. There's often all sorts of bands reproducing the equipment specifications of the bands they love in much more 'authentic' ways than we do. We use far more contemporary machines, machines they couldn't have used then."

But they did reach back in their choice for the album's architecture, and for an influence on Greenspan's singing now compared to his reedy fragility on Last Exit -- Frank Sinatra's classic concept albums Point of No Return(1961) and No One Cares (1959). The latter's title song, remade as a half-frozen still life, serves as a centrepiece of So This Is Goodbye.

"What I identify with [in Sinatra] . . . is this sort of sense of distilling objects and moments from their contexts," Greenspan says.

That approach brought to mind the theme of collecting, and Greenspan decided to construct the album around it: "I think everyone knows what's sad about collectors -- many music fans are among them. . . . Collecting things is how you deal with saying goodbye to moments, the inability to actually part with things -- to deal with the fact that the moments are gone."

Of his title, he says, "The reason it's not just This Is Goodbye but So This Is Goodbye is that it's, 'So, this is what goodbye feels like.' I hate overwrought drama in music. Simple little sadnesses are far more powerful to me. . . .

"[It's] about dealing with the kind of goodbyes you say to things all the time that actually don't tear you to pieces. It's not about dealing with the death of someone extremely close to you, but saying goodbye to some part of your life that just drifted away and you didn't even see it happen. The kind of sadness everyone deals with all the time, and it's not dealt with in art all that often because it's seemingly not particularly important."

Greenspan credits the rusty byways of Hamilton, "my muse," with inculcating him with his sensitivity to the periphery. "When you live in a big city, so much of your emotional investment in that place has to do with recognizable iconography, whereas for people like me, the things you see every day are strip malls and highways. They start to have emotional resonance for you. . . . I got into this idea of cataloguing, about people who find and hold onto something beautiful that isn't supposed to be beautiful."

For an artist who emerged from the non-place of the Internet, these "homesick, home-obsessed" themes provide ballast and balance. Yet Greenspan also sees value in the "lack of identity, the lack of historical reference" that often vexes Canadians: "I think we should embrace that. A lot of people are overburdened by their own history. Instead, what people want is to invent and replicate a Canadian culture that's not really true -- like Celtic fiddling. . . . I'd like [my music] to be a challenge to what people think of Canadian."

However, he adds, "It's time for me to deal with something else, and record somewhere new." His sister lives in Shanghai, and after the coming year of touring is done, he might move there. "I figured I'd go as opposite as you can go from Hamilton. . . . And I don't think any Western pop group has ever made a record in China.

"At least I'll get my name in the history books somehow."

Junior Boys play the El Mocambo in Toronto tonight [Aug 26], with further dates across the country in September and October. See their MySpace for details.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, August 26 at 3:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Damolition Squad: The Pickup Band Tour

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In case you didn't notice it down in the "top shows" list in the sidebar, Damo Suzuki (ex-Can) will be playing Toronto this weekend, presenting more of his "instant composing" - unrehearsed sets backed by local musicians, whose participation brings them into the Damo Suzuki Network. He does the same tomorrow (Wed.) evening in Montreal, as the above Seripop poster proclaims, and Thursday in Ottawa and Friday in Hamilton, Ont.

It strikes me that his methodology has been borrowed by Jandek, who will be backed by local improvisors Nick Fraser, Nilan Perrera and Rob Clutton in his upcoming Toronto concert. Ariel Pink also attempted the trick earlier this year, albeit with less success because he was asking the musicians to learn his whole set in advance, rather than to wing it. (Anyone see a show where he pulled it off?) And Shiu-Yeung Hui (sometime member of Maher Shalal Hash Baz) pursues similar techniques in his gig tonight at Graffiti's, to which he invites even the audience members to bring instruments and play along. (If you can't make it tonight he's back next week at the Poor Pilgrim series.)

It's a touring model that's relatively common in jazz, of course - a pianist or singer or trumpet player drops into the city and picks up a rhythm section for the duration. You also find it in bluegrass and other forms where there's a set of standards all professional musicians would know. And improvisors in the usual (jazz-derived) sense likewise can play with anyone, as can noise musicians etc. But a pickup-band-tour also comes with many advantages for the adventurous musician who toils in the towers of song: You may not be trying to bring world unity one band at a time the way Damo is, but the economics and creative dynamics are hard to beat. And by accepting the deviations and warpings that a song - or set of song-fragments, as Suzuki uses - will undergo when entered into the atom smasher of improvisation, you present to the audience the possibility that the boundaries of song need not be so rigid as we assume. In fact you generate a kind of spontaneous folk-culture, not only among the musicians who are participating in a hypercompressed version of the oral tradition, but among the audience, who are receiving material that is in some sense indigenous to that specific time, that specific gathering, in that specific room, temporary though it is. Ephemeral folkways. Mobile mother tongues.

I'd be fascinated to see it become more common. You don't have to go on tour to do it, of course. You could do a pickup-band tour of your own town just by calling in different players at each gig. (We could get off here into a discussion of conducted improv too, but another time.)

On the other hand, you have to try to assert the boundaries between "spontaneous composition" (or "instant songs," as I've heard them called), improvisation and jamming. And the latter should be ruled out unequivocally, in the long campaign to wipe jamming off the face of the earth like polio. (What's that you say? Feh. I contain multitudes, etc etc.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 22 at 6:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Come Up & See Me Sometime

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Today in The Globe and Mail, I profile Toronto lo-fi-bubblegum quintet The Bicycles, and review the new Xtina Aguilera and Bonnie Prince Billy CDs.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 18 at 10:44 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

A Few Words in Defence of Randy Newman

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Every once in a while I get into an argument with someone in which I try to claim that Randy Newman was the most significant songwriter to follow after Bob Dylan. I do mean as a writer, not as a performer, in which regard he pales compared to dozens of others. But still I can never persuade anyone. There are other viable late-sixties and early-seventies candidates - Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Curtis Mayfield - but Newman did more than anyone to widen the pallett of techniques in 1970s pop songwriting, with his uses of irony, unreliable and/or actually despicable narrators, and pastiches of classic American pop forms (which was a minor sixties post-folk trend - see Lovin' Spoonful, various "jug bands," etc. - but never done so richly and competently as Newman did it). He arguably introduced serious Brechtian techniques to the pop tradition - a little-noticed influence on Dylan, actually, but one Newman used as more than an affectation, unlike what the glam crowd (including Bowie) tended to do. He's also one of the few people to have combined comedy with rock music and not come off like an idiot or vulgarian, but he's just as effective a tragedian. Besides immediate successors in the L.A. scene, such as Steely Dan and Tom Waits, I would put Elvis Costello at the head of the line of Newman's heirs, along with Morrissey, the Magnetic Fields, and dozens of other pop ironists. You could even add the likes of Kool Keith and Eminem, though I think their play with flipside identities comes out of strategies from the histories of black music, minstrelsy etc. - a legacy that Newman has always been keenly aware of, anticipating all the recent pop scholarship and discussion on the centrality of the minstrel tradition to American pop by decades.

Perhaps with the upcoming release of a Newman tribute album, which strangely seems to feature mainly country-rockers such as Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, more people will come around to my opinion. I'm also thrilled to learn that next year will bring the first album of new Newman songs since 1999's excellent Bad Love, which will include a contrarian, seemingly pro-American song - notable since Newman has mostly been a fierce critic of U.S. policy and culture throughout his career - titled A Few Words in Defence of My Country. (Which might end up being a backhanded critique, on the other hand - to say "we're not the worst country in the history of the world" might just be another way to say "we are pretty horrible," which is the kind of signature Newman move that he made on the last album's brilliant rumination on the death of Communism, The World Isn't Fair). In the above-linked interview he suggests that the new album might be called Fat and Angry.

(PS: I forgot to mention: Newman is scheduled to play a rare live date at Convocation Hall in Toronto on Oct. 14.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 14 at 12:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (27)

 

Said the Carlophone, 5th & Final

My last guest-post of the season at MP3 blog Said the Gramophone offers a fruit-basket of Final Fantasy, Destroyer and (related) Vancouver Nights rarities. I may not have much time for more than Gig Guide updates here the rest of the week so check out the whole series there - definitely the most substantive blogging I've done this summer. As one must, given their high standards.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 13 at 5:11 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Said the Carlophone IV: Kathleen Yearwood, Tagaq
(Plus: UbuTube)

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I know I've been neglectful. It's because I'm still cheating on you with that other blog, and it leaves me spent. Today's entry is about two of the most unclassifiable, undomesticatable women in Canadian music.

Meanwhile as a follow up to last week's Pere Ubu post - check out this footage from YouTube: One a Tenement Year reunion tour (1987) rendition of the band's best-known song, Final Solution - with one of the best representations of David Thomas's stage magnetism that I've seen on video. And, for kicks, a performance from June of the same song by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), TV on the Radio and Bauhaus's Peter Murphy (whose cover version of Final Solution helped popularize it in the 1980s).

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 11 at 3:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

We Have the MP3ology
(Said the Carlophone, Pt. 3)

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My latest guest post on Said the Gramophone is about two versions of We Have the Technology, one of my favourite songs by Pere Ubu, originally on The Tenement Year, one of the "lost" Fontana albums. It kind of turned out like a one-act radio play.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 07 at 4:58 AM | Linking Posts

 

Everyone's a Winner, Step Right Up
(Plus: Said the Carlophone, Pt. 2)

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Veda Hille: Not the Polaris prom queen this year, but the regent of all our gramophones.

The shortlist for the $20,000 Polaris prize for Canadian albums of 2005-06 was announced this morning. (Drumroll.) And the nominees are, in alphabetical order:

Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts/EMI)
Cadence Weapon, Breaking Kayfabe (Upper Class/EMI)
The Deadly Snakes, Porcella (Paper Bag/Universal)
Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds (Blocks Recording Club/Sonic Unyon)
Sarah Harmer, I’m A Mountain (Cold Snap/Universal)
K’naan, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (Track & Field/Sony BMG)
Malajube, Trompe L’oeil (Dare to Care/Outside)
Metric, Live It Out (Last Gang/Universal)
The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (Mint/Outside)
Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary (Sub Pop/Outside)

Congrats to all. The nominees will be on a compilation album coming out in August and the winner will be chosen Sept. 18. (It was also revealed today that the prize is being sponsored by Rogers Wireless/Rogers Yahoo! Hi-Speed Internet.) A few reactions: Final Fantasy and Cadence Weapon were among my nominees; I'm startled to find the Deadly Snakes on there; pleasantly surprised that Malajube were able to break the blue anglo wall; sad to see the Pornographers where Destroyer's Rubies (which fought it out with Final Fantasy for my top spot) should be; as well as, though less so, Wolf Parade instead of Sunset Rubdown. In conversations this weekend, I got the feeling that there is an "anyone but Metric" campaign afoot out there. My other votes, between the two ballots, went to Jon Rae & the River's Old Songs for the New Town, Brian Joseph Davis's Greatest Hit and Veda Hille's Return of the Kildeer.

In honour of Veda, who is perpetually overlooked in these reindeer games, my guest post today on Said the Gramophone is all about her, with nods to Brecht, Eisler and the bootlessness of vanity.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 04 at 2:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Report on UnCanadian Activities

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Of Montreal: Secretly not Canadian.

For the Canada Day weekend, I had a piece in yesterday's Globe and Mail about all the bands in the U.S. and elsewhere who use Canadian place names as their band names and titles of albums and songs - from Mark Robinson's Flin Flon to Indiana label Secretly Canadian to California band Halifax to the new Michigan-based band Canada. Unusually, it's an idea the arts editors suggested to me, rather than one of my own - and I only discovered late in the game that Exclaim actually had covered the subject in 1999 in a piece by Michael Barclay. But, well, it is seven years later, after all, and shit, the world needs its sweet Canada Day fluff pieces. Includes a dollop of musing on perception/reality issues of Canadian identity. Do not consume while operating heavy machinery.

Lost in translation: The editors, probably rightly, cut my quote from the chorus of one my own favourite examples, Son Volt's deeply Neil Young-damaged Medicine Hat: "A tip of the hat and it's already started/ Just like that and the deed is done/ Oh, how I wish that the hat could be medicine/ The time is ripe to be on the run."

Hear Canada Oh Canada by Icelandic singer Þórir.

Thanks to the Stilleposters and ILMers who helped out with ideas - sorry I couldn't fit most of them in.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, July 02 at 12:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Laconic Couth (or: How Many Sonic Youth Headlines
Does The World Have Left To Give?)

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Whenever a new Sonic Youth album comes out, there's a gang of reviewers/fans who say, "This time they've finally lost it/sold out/gotten lazy/etc." and another pack who say, "A return to form! Their best since Daydream Nation!" (if it's a long-guitar-solo album) or "Best since Goo!" (if it's a poppier album). The new one, Rather Ripped, is no exception. But if you hear either line, shrug it off - instead, Rather Ripped is just yet another fine SY disc. Of course, with their occasional weakness for cheezy rebel-talk, SY set themselves up to be misinterpreted as a band that's all about destroying and revolutionizing Rock As We Know It. But I always think of them as a much more celebratory band - for them, the purpose of a teenage riot isn't to fuck up The Man, it's just a good reason to get out of bed. They usually display the right mix of creative pique and pleasure that is dignified in someone lucky enough to be a white, middle-class bohemian New Yorker - which by any measure is one of the most fortunate positions in the world. Maybe in the history of the world. They've always seemed like gifted appreciators of the countercultural heritage and overall cultural abundance surrounding them, but enlightened enough to acknowledge - in their lyrical ambiguity, yes, but most of all in harmonic overtones - that this good fortune depends upon structural inequities that are not only wrong but unsustainable. Aside from Kim's specific salvos against patriarchy (which I'll listen to anytime - she puts sexism in its place with more aplomb than pretty much any other white woman in music), and the occasional lapse like Youth Against Fascism, they generally know better than to grope for the language of protest or complaint, which sounds phony in privileged-hipster patois. Instead their critical thinking is folded into the rolling documentary-of-consciousness of the music. Their music is a vehicle of their attention. They love and respect the kind of battering noise assaults of the MC5 or the Sex Pistols or, today, Wolf Eyes, but that's never been what Sonic Youth is about - I've always thought their best manifesto came in the title Confusion is Sex, and that their music is a balancing act to keep both sides of that equation vital, to get dizzy enough to feel new sensations but also keep cool enough to absorb them. People who come to the band expecting something more formulaically radical are always going to be disappointed. (It's only with revisionist hindsight and indie bias that they invest the pre-Geffen albums with that radicality.) And those who come to a new SY album thinking they know what they're getting will always be surprised at how much there is to it - and probably overrate it. As a musical ensemble, Sonic Youth is a group that depends on interplay - its sound is about combinations rather than spotlights. But it's not a conceptual band: It's always more about the parts - about moments, about songs, about exclamations, about dropped beats and scraped strings - than it is about the sum. Processes, not outcomes.

I tried to keep all that in mind when I wrote my review in the Globe today, but then I had to prune it down to fit and the results were a bit of a hash. So if you don't mind, I'll paraphrase what I said:

Having finally realized that Thurston Moore is never going to introduce them to another Nirvana, Geffen Records (now part of Universal) has decided it's paid off that debt (incurred shortly after Geffen shocked the underground by signing SY in 1989) and is letting the band's latest contract expire. As a result, some listeners will snark that Rather Ripped's compact style marks a last grasp for commercial appeal, or betrays a "contractual obligation" toss-off. But it actually fits right in to the band's long pattern of switching between more exploratory albums and tighter, sharper ones. And among the latter it's one of the best, not streamlining or simplifying the harmonic complexities of the music so much as carving away the feedback to reveal the shapely core. There's a summertime sense of summing-up to the album, as if the four were scrawling their names in one another's yearbooks after grad .... from the old-school-punk-flyer cover to the musical winks to the hundreds (thousands?) of bands SY has influenced: Certain moments here sound almost like quotes of Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins and other mid-90s alterna-rock. Kim Gordon's divine gutter-mumble dominates, as it generally should, but Thurston has an SY classic-to-be in Do You Believe In Rapture?, and guitar hero Lee Ranaldo's sole vocal lead Rats goes the furthest toward recalling the era of Sister and Evol. (The most blatant effort to recall Daydream Nation, the extended Pink Steam, falls flat.) And SY's too-often-overlooked drummer, Steve Shelley, also gets a moment in the forefront, not vocalizing but still leading proceedings on the coda, Or - a tune that, with only the barest sardonic touch, even makes room for the voices of the fans, caught in the final verse straining to be casual when they get a chance to interview or chat with their idols: "How long is the tour? What time you guys playin'?/ Which comes first, the music/ Or the words?" But there's one more typical question Rather Ripped leaves unspoken: "What're you up to next?"

(I gave it three-and-a-half stars out of 4.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 30 at 5:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Said the Carlophone

Beginning today and twice a week for the next few, I'm honoured to be guestposting on mp3 blog Said the Gramophone while the wonderful Sean Michaels is on vacation. I thank fellow StG posters (um, do we call ourselves "Grammers"? "Grammies"? "Said-o-mites"?) Jordan and Dan for welcoming me to the clan. My first post, up now, offers a track from the upcoming album by Hamilton, Ont.'s wunderkinds, Junior Boys.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 28 at 5:34 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Sound of Joy Goes HA HA HA HA!

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Funny that I would have this tussle with Simon (see below) on a day when I have written a piece in The Globe in praise of a very old-skool-style post-punk band, Toronto's own The Creeping Nobodies, and their new album Sound of Joy, launching at the Horseshoe tonight with Jon-Rae's Ryvyr, Wyrd Visions and the five-guitar Wharton Tiers Ensemble. (Tiers, best-known as a frequent producer for Sonic Youth, produced most of the Creeps' new disc.) (See also Kevin Hainey's five-star review of Sound of Joy in Eye.) Tickets for the show were issued on microfiche, which include lyrics, art and notes to the album - inaccessible to most people who don't happen to have a microfiche reader, which is pretty funny, though there are rumours that there will actually be a reader at the show tonight. (Luckily, I work in a place that does have a microfiche reader. Hah!)

Full text of my email interview with the band, full of thoughtful notes on practice and perplex, will follow over the weekend.

How to build a better album

By Carl Wilson
The Globe and Mail
Fri., June 2, 2006

On first hearing Toronto band the Creeping Nobodies, you may feel the urge to take cover. But the hammering, sawing, slashing and grinding of their guitars, drums and keyboards are just the racket of a construction crew at work: They're building an exposition hall to house the grandeurs and, mostly, follies of civilizations past and present -- with annexes for activist seminars, dioramas of poisoned landscapes and inner chambers for more intimate congress.

Architects have joined and left the team, delaying the unveiling. But the torque and contour of the Nobodies' project are clearer on their third full-length album, Sound of Joy, brought to you this week via Toronto's art-rock symposium, the Blocks Recording Club.

A chorus has been rising to demand why, after five years, the Nobodies haven't shared in the breakout success of Canadian indie rock - especially after their arresting 2004 disc Stop Movement Stop Loss. But it's no mystery: Other Canadian collectives have specialized in flamboyant, celebratory displays of feeling. The Nobodies are less apt to march around banging parade drums. Instead they beaver diligently away at their paradoxical pavilion, with exteriors that may look like abattoirs but, inside, vast fields to roam.

Observers also have been misled by the band's beginnings, formed to play a tribute to the Fall, the recondite British outfit Mark E. Smith has led for nearly three decades. Add obvious influences from the likes of Wire and Sonic Youth, and the Nobodies are tagged as a wing of the indie world's revivalism of New York and London post-punk sounds.

Yet as bassist Matthew McDonough points out, immersion in the Toronto scene has been just as formative - whether it's the music of compatriots Anagram or the late Les Mouches, or the hands-on experience of helping organize the early years of the Wavelength weekly music series.

Then there's the ever-shuffling band roster. McDonough and lead vocalist Derek Westerholm are the only original Nobodies in a group that now includes keyboardist Sarah Richardson, guitarist Valerie Uher and drummer Dennis Amos, along with guest James Anderson banging away at found objects.

"The music is entirely based on the dynamics of the band members," says McDonough. "In fact, to a large degree, with each membership change, we have left [behind] all songs written with that group and just wrote new music. That way, you always have the energy of each individual."

Songs are written together during the group's two or three weekly rehearsals - often even the lyrics. Multiple singers are heard in single songs, creating content in counterpoint, much the same way Westerholm's clipped, strangled outbursts contrast with the female members' more mellifluous tones.

As Uher says, "Frequently I'll add lyrics that I feel in some way complement or question words which Derek writes. . . . We usually don't attempt to create a linear narrative or song. It's more of a conversation with tangents and addendums."

The themes of these exchanges are always elusive, but on Sound of Joy they have grown more explicitly political. Westerholm says the images of dark plotting and surveillance partly grow out of the band's recent frequent forays into the United States.

"One tour coincided with the final days of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Another tour was done in the wake of hurricane Katrina, where we were pretty much following FEMA trucks and military convoys on the highways," he says.

"And on yet another U.S. visit, I found myself adding, 'The government loves you,' to the lyrical content of Concrete. That song is based around the idea that concentration camps were actually constructed piece by piece, just like any other building. The general population worked on them, saw them going up. . . . Looking out the window on tour in North America, these questions come up again and again through my mind: How did this all get built? What are all these buildings? What's being manufactured? For what purpose?"

A far less sinister American experience has been connecting with New York's Wharton Tiers, who produced part of Stop Movement and most of Sound of Joy. Tiers's roots are in the 1970s downtown art scene; he went on to record Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Helmet, among others. He brings his own five-guitar Wharton Tiers Ensemble to Toronto and Montreal for the first time this weekend to support the Nobodies' CD launches. "Working with Wharton has been a huge eye-opener for us," McDonough says.

And Sound of Joy is an unusually pellucid indie-rock disc as a result. It opens with the words, "Shadowy shapes call to us/ Lean back, lie down, regress" -- a suspect invitation, but as voices hover luminously over guitars and bass that coil and, yes, creep, a fatally seductive one.

Here's hoping it's enough to lure the world inside the Creeping Nobodies' hacienda. But once within, beware - watch for falling revelations.

The Creeping Nobodies play tonight at 9:30 p.m., $10, at the Horseshoe, 370 Queen St. W., 416-598-4753.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 02 at 4:16 PM | Linking Posts

 

Mao Now, Brown Cow?

Simon uses me as a test case in his passionate argument for a Nietzschean "strength" (as opposed to pussyish Last Man hall-of-mirrors historicism), saying my Celine Dion project is a doomed exercise in "fretful self-cancellation" and that "at the end of his investigation Carl might find himself back where he started: repelled by Dion's music and, despite his better intentions, thinking less of her fans." Celine's crappiness, he says, is "an assumption worth leaving unexamined." To examine it is to send yourself to the aesthetic equivalent of a Maoist reeducation camp.

John kindly comes to my (and his own) defence. (And, later, Dave goes at it too.) I can only say that Simon isn't finding the flaw in my experiment, but precisely its theme. It cannot "fail" because I am at least as attracted to the outcome that Celine Dion's music is irredeemable shit as to the outcome that it's not. (What's oppressive about Maoist re-education and auto-critique is that there is only one acceptable answer.) However, I am unhappy about the gulf between those aesthetic reflexes and the opposite reflexes of millions of other people to whom I don't consider myself superior (many cultural cues to the contrary), and who never, despite the most articulate persuasions I might muster, will agree with me. And yet there is the axiom: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." Aesthetically I'm not so bothered by the idea of "falling for" (falling in love with) just about anything. However, I have grave concerns about the prospect that, "If you'll fall for anything, you can't stand for something."

There are many things I love beyond life in the realm of art, and am compelled to champion. There is very little that I have ever loved artistically that I do not still love, with the exception of some adolescent-boy clever-clever stuff that turned out to be rather hollow. But I have had the experience again and again of realizing that when I disliked things it was because I just didn't get them. And then realizing how rich and wonderful they were. Country and disco being my two signal examples. I have had the experience of my aesthetic instincts being wrong over and over again. So how do I know when they are right? The answer is probably that I can't, so for a period of time I want to immerse myself in that not-knowing with some concentration. My hypothesis is that whatever the outcome this immersion will be like tuning an instrument, like playing scales for hours a day, like sitting meditation. But I am not afraid, when the exercise is over, of returning to a provisional, pragmatic practice of going with my instincts and my beliefs, of loving what I feel compelled to love and objecting to (but, sorry, not hating) what I don't. But I don't see any honorable or authentic course other than to follow the line of critical thought where it leads, and this radical uncertainty is where it's landed me. I find no heroism in choosing the unexamined life, no value in blindered white-light-white-heat. (This is a poem called Why I Am Not A Punk.)

But I call bullshit on this complaint: "anti-rockism is the attempt to remove an aesthetico-moral framework from music discussion." Only literally true: It's an attempt to remove one aesthetico-moral framework, entirely on aesthetico-moral grounds: It posits that rockism has boring aesthetics and inhabits a social fantasy that is in fact morally dangerous, in which visionary Supermen are meant to lead the masses, who are distracted by their corrupt bodies (bodies that are too young, too old, too female, too gay, too repressed, too sexual, etc.) from true engagement with the pure rebel mind - with the help of the Superman they may be shown the way to enlightenment. It precisely is modernist vanguardism. The 20th century has provided us with all the experiments we need to know what is morally wrong with modernist vanguardism, despite its notable aesthetic triumphs. (And its even more frequent, misguided, pathetic aesthetic messes, which litter every bohemian scene.) Though I share the thrilled shiver that comes from hearing it, I am no longer "on the side" of the rhetoric of hanging Peter Frampton from a lamppost, even symbolically - partly because killing a symptom is no kind of a cure, partly because humanity has proved rather adept at literalizing its most vulgar symbologies.

Unfortunately this critique doesn't offer a positive program, a set of critical yardsticks to substitute for the old warped one. This is a problem which it has in common with the left, more broadly; politically, the only plausible responses that have emerged have been those that employ a range of analytic tools in a contextualized dialectic to aim at best guesses at what will produce the most desirable outcomes, or "good enough" outcomes, to use the psychoanalytic catchphrase. The abandonment of any all-purpose formulae. And we all agree there's something unsatisfying about this. In the pro-pop traffic with populism, in its retreat into subjectivism, and so on. It may simply be that a broadly workable aesthetico-moral framework is yet to come. But to take a stance for the sake of taking a stance - that is, to take up an aesthetico-moral framework because it makes you feel better to take it up - is wanking off, with a very weak relationship to critical or political responsibility.

I share Simon's worry that it is difficult to write well without such a grounding. But in myself I recognize it as a status fear - that I will lose critical power (status and success and money and all that shit) if I'm not aggressive and sarcastic and definitive and annihilating. Luckily, there's a wealth of good writing in philosophy and criticism and most of all in literature (let's start with Kafka) that tells me you can write from uncertainty. You don't have to posture on some fictional knowingness in order to write beautifully and justly and wisely. And beauty, justice and wisdom, much more than power - these are the qualities that fucking move me.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 02 at 2:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

A Little Vomiting Music, Maestro

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Photo by Declan O'Neill. © www.declanoneill.com.

It feels, with one thing and another, like months since I've done any actual, you know, music writing. What better way to reimmerse than with a full-body dip into the blackened tar of the genre known as doom metal? I've got a feature today in The Globe limning out some thoughts on Sunn0))), the Kasimir Malevich of metal bands, who play the Music Gallery on Monday. (Read it here.) Also in today's Globe, I take the wheel of the Essential Tracks column, with squibs on songs by Michigan's NOMO (post-techno-post-Fela-post-Ra-free-funkestra), London's smartie-teen Internerd springtime lollipop Lily Allen (next big thing or next Amy Winehouse?), the single from the new Wiley album (you can still hear it over at DJ/rupture's place) and a blues standard by Irma Thomas (from her post-Katrina album After the Rain).

This is not just music to vomit by

BY CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 19, 2006

Rock has died and been revived so many times now that no one should be surprised if some part of it behaves like a true zombie, dragging its ravaged limbs along under compulsion from some cruel and absent puppet master.

Like garage, post-punk and a dozen other rock offshoots, heavy-metal music is back in the near-mainstream, returned from its much-mocked big-haired 1980s phase to its earlier roots as the home of rock's most earnest self-taught intellectuals, with the bad-boy appeal of Satanism serving as cover while you read a lot of books about conspiracy theories and the supernatural.

The rigid genre distinctions that sustained metal fandom through the lean years seem to be breaking down amid its new popularity, as the genre absorbs adherents of goth and puppy-eyed "emo" punk. But along with such commercial successes as bands like My Chemical Romance, or the Ozzfest and Sounds of the Underground tours, the genre is also developing its own art-minded counterculture, with groups that take metal's concept-album tradition to new heights, or may draw heavily on the 1990s Japanese noise-rock underground. And these groups are attracting an audience of listeners who may not normally consider themselves metal fans.

At the forefront is the guitar duo Sunn0))), who perform Monday. (The name is pronounced just like "Sun." The 0))) isn't a word but a pictograph, showing the heavenly body radiating three waves of light.) It's led by guitarists Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, who also founded the new art-metal label Southern Lord Records, with a changing cast of collaborators.

Sunn0))) certainly doesn't eschew the grand guignol of metal's past. They perform theatrically cowled in druidic robes, they are prone to song titles such as Flight of the Behemoth or Bathory Erzebet - and on that latter song on their latest album, the vocals were recorded with the singer confined in a coffin locked in the back of a hearse.

But this band is to most metal bands what colour-field artists are to painting - just look at their last three album titles, White1, White2 and Black One, for a hint. Like Russian painter Kasimir Malevich's 1915 painting of a black square, Sunn0)))'s music distills something essential from the form but takes it to such an extreme that it becomes almost another medium.

Specifically, Sunn0))) is about guitar frequencies. There's little concern for song form or rhythm and certainly (and this it has in common with such long-standing subgenres as death or thrash metal) not melody. There are no drums. Vocals make only rare appearances. Rather, Sunn0))) produces long, slow, deafeningly loud drones that sound a little like a Black Sabbath album skipping so that just one chord plays over and over again. It's what you get when faith in the unifying rebel myth of rock has collapsed, and the anatomists come to pick over its corpse.

Yet if you open your ears, the music is not tedious. O'Malley and Anderson have a beguiling command of timbre and texture, keeping the crackle and buzz of their sound mobile even as the harmonics barely budge. They seem constantly to be urging the groaning, slow-grinding music forward, and the effect can be trance-like, particularly at the extraordinary volumes the band favours in live shows.

Indeed, Sunn0)))'s main preoccupation is not so much with music as with the physiological ramifications of noise - they're turning metal from music to take drugs by, into sound that acts as a drug in itself. They linger particularly around what are called "sub-bass" frequencies, a range that has long been studied by military strategists and scientists as ripe for weaponization. Fans like to boast that they've gone to a Sunn0))) concert and nearly lost control of their bodily functions: The band has even complained that they're tired of fans vomiting at their shows, as if it's become drearily de rigueur.

But closer to its core, Sunn0))) is not a juvenile gross-out game - their vibrations can bang your head into the kind of meditative state that monks spend years trying to master. As Malevich wrote in 1920, "perhaps the black square is the image of God as the essence of his perfection" - or what's really going on between the devil's horns.

Sunn0))) is at the Music Gallery at St George-the-Martyr Anglican Church, 197 John St., on Monday. Sold out.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 19 at 10:33 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Merritt Postscript: Zip-a-dee-doo-Dad

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Left, Scott Falk with his sister Gale, in Hawaiian garb.
Right, his son Stephin Merritt, with ukulele.

One last entry to the Stephin Merritt file before I move on. This is something I meant to post ages ago, before this bunfight even happened, but there's more point now: Go check out the site of Merritt's father, Scott Fagan - it's friggin' wild (thanks, Michael Barclay, for pointing the way). Fagan was a folksinger in the '60s folk revival, then a singer-songwriter with enough cachet that Jasper Johns did a painting of one of his records, then wrote an anti-music-industry rock musical in 1970-71 and, he claims, was blacklisted from the biz. He then retreated home to the Virgin Islands, where he had grown up, and has stayed there doing music in a sort of Jimmy Buffet vein ever since. (He and his mom were abandoned by his own musician father; Fagan says he was raised by a succession of "black alcoholic stepdads"). Somewhere along the line, he found the time to have an affair with Merritt's mom, but it ended before Merritt was born in 1966. The two have never met, but I gather that Merritt grew up aware of Fagan while Fagan has only found out about Merritt fairly recently.

The fact that Merritt was actually spawned by a sixties singer-songwriter makes him a ridiculously literal case of what I argued in my "bandonyms" essay last year is the pattern of 1990s solo artists rejecting the heritage of confessional 1960s-70s singer-songwriterism, in part by adopting band names in the place of their own. Merritt's archly ironic voice provides more such distancing. Yet if you listen to some of his birth father's music you'll catch some surprising presentiments of Merritt's own sound. In most of Fagan's music the similarities are smothered by the "islands" vibe, but you can hear it in ballads such as Where My Lover Has Gone. Except that when Merritt does it, it's much more tongue-in-cheek, as I discussed in an earlier post about his Brecht influence, camp, etc.

But Fagan is also intriguing when you're talking about the racial coding of Merritt's music: There's been a lot of jawing about the thoroughgoing "whiteness" of the Magnetic Fields and other Merritt projects. Well, here he has a father (though absent) who was raised in a black environment and does heavily black-influenced music. Fagan's earliest demos, in 1963, were full of Harry Belfafonte-ish numbers such as Maryann or Rum and Coca-Cola, not to mention something called Shame And Scandal (In de Family). He carried that influence through his hippie-songwriter period and then went back to it full-swing, as you can hear on most of the tracks on his website, such as La Beiga Carousel/Tutsie. You can debate the legitimacy/ickiness of Fagan's blue-eyed-Caribbean style as much as you like, and I don't know how much Merritt knew of his father's music, but: If you grew up aware that your father is this sorta white-rasta guy who sings in dialect, not to mention a self-styled musical genius who happened to leave you and your hippie mom to fend for yourselves, perhaps you would feel there's something unappetizing about white songwriters who piggyback on black culture, and become inclined to look mostly elsewhere for inspiration? You might, in fact, come to have kind of a harsh line on crosscultural appropriation (viz. the Merritt: "White blues" is "fundamentally racist" sub-fight), and therefore steer far clear? Just a thought.

There's been some interesting side-conversation about whether white people should be condemned for being attracted to "white culture," if black people should be criticized for listening exclusively to "black music." That's too simple, but maybe leads to a better question: If we are critical of mainstream America for ripping off black culture as its own (see "rock'n'roll"), why can a songwriter also get shit rained down on him for scrupulously avoiding that move? Rip off black culture, and you're a thief; don't, and you're a musical white supremacist. Granted, the Tin Pan Alley, post-disco europop (esp. Abba), new-wave and country performers who are Merritt's main musical wellsprings all drew on African-American music to a degree. Everything mixes; there is no original source. But the Scott Fagan factor might at least suggest what Merritt is trying not to do, and why his motivations may be far from the ones being imputed. Which, once more, is by no means a story about how tastes are just meaningless accidents of chemical pleasure; but does testify to how scrambled the genetic (and ideological) material of any aesthetic might be.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 15 at 2:00 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Zipadee-Deja-Vu

Bizarrely, Slate magazine has seen fit to weigh in on the EMP-conference-inspired "Is Stephin Merritt a racist?" (not-really-a-)debate. (See previous Zoilus coverage.) I'm afraid Sasha and Jessica have earned the drubbing they take there, but the writer, John Cook, goes too far: First, it's not true that no one can have any idea what Merritt's other tastes in music are; he was a critic for Time Out for several years, and has frequently commented on music in other venues, and, more importantly, since he is an artist who works in pastiche, his musical interests are quite thoroughly and complexly documented in his music (the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, etc.). That they tend to the paler side of the pop and non-pop traditions is fairly obvious. The question is what to make of that. Cook claims that suggesting "one's taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent" is "dangerous and stupid." He's right, but the crux there is the word "intent" - unless your tastes in music run to white-power bands, of course very few people intend to express racism via their listening choices. But Cook's implication is that tastes cannot be "interrogated" at all, whereas in fact the patterns in our tastes (and, as I argued at EMP, distastes) have a lot to say about our identities. We instinctively know this. That's why people ask each other what kind of music they like when they're, say, on a first date. "I can't stand that pretentious jazz shit" or "I hate that cheesy teen-pop pap" are statements of self-definition as much as they are statements about the music. Listening near-exclusively to white artists doesn't mean you hate black people, but it may well indicate a sense of distance from and perhaps a lack of curiosity about black experience. Likewise, for some listeners, gangsta rap very well might be a way - as Merritt has suggested and Cook stops short of agreeing with - of indulging racial(ist) fantasies of black masculinity, engaging in a fatal-attraction tango of admiration and repulsion. For other listeners, it may not be that at all. The narratives of taste are rich but very slippery; any attempt to boil them down to a moral indictment (in SFJ and Jessica's case) is bound to be as foolish as trying (as Cook does) to wish them away.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 09 at 5:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

EMP 4 & Final: Quote-Unquote

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EMP 2006 - nothing but the hits. (Continued after the jump, as a courtesy to readers who don't care.)

Besides everything quoted below, there was Ann Powers riffing lyrically on Kate Bush, Rapunzel and ultrafemme new-wave hair; Robert Christgau and Sean Fennessy on how flagrantly offensive coke rap (Young Jeezy, Lil' Wayne, the Clipse) ended up becoming a trap-door through which they experienced their relationships with their fathers - for Christgau as an unexpected vehicle of catharsis after his dad died (one of his only experiences with an actual "guilty pleasure," he says); for Sean as a window into his drug-cop dad's world (followed by a very confusing Q&A; in which it was debated how literal the coke dealing is and what its economics would be, and why anyone is bragging about selling coke when coke has gotten so cheap); Michelangelo Matos on the song Love Child - and being a love child (see yesterday's post); Daphne Carr taking pleasure in shaming the critical world by doing a hilarious pastiche of all the inaccurate ways critics use "art school" as an epithet; Elijah Wald on Louis Armstrong's love of Guy Lombardo (a "guilty pleasure" most of us aren't old enough even to understand as shameful); Baz Dreisinger on Jah Cure, the convicted Jamaican rapist who sings sweet loverman songs of regret from within his jail cell thanks to a prison-rehab program; Alex Ross's off-festival guided tour through 20th-century notational music; Jalyah Burrell's contentious position that Mary J. Blige has started pandering to her white audience (her best line: "Black people who express love for Kate Bush or John Mayer are positioning themselves as cities on a hill") and Jabali Stewart's rallying cry for black people reclaiming rock as "fearless vampire killers" (the vampires being white appropriators of black history and culture); and Sarah Dougher's unsummarizable conflicted tour through her experience as a left-feminist experiencing catharsis through patriotic Nashville country (whose best line was about the song Riding with Private Malone: "I'm crying to a song about a magical car") (I think I cried three or four times during her presentation, which included Dougher playing recordings of tons of the songs but also sometimes singing them herself).

I missed at least that many good papers, such as Geeta Dayal's talk on the neuroscience of guilt-and-pleasure, Drew Daniel's How to Sing Along with Sweet Home Alabama; Franklin Bruno on his guilt about what's become of indie rock (its conversion from bohemia to petit-burgeois business model, mainly); JD Considine on J-pop; Jody Rosen's rescheduled talk on ragtime; and Douglas Wolk's talk about YouTube and "The Numa Numa Dance," which drew a standing ovation while I was oversleeping.

This year's conference was a guilty pleasure in its own way. I loved it, but it felt less sharp and focused and challenging than last year's. Many of the papers were smart and informative but not so pointed. Is this perhaps because people only want to go so deep talking about shame (see Stephin Merritt quote below)? Perhaps because with the Chuck Eddy firing at the Village Voice and other shakeups in the field there was less desire to argue amongst ourselves and more desire to applaud and support each other (this is Ann Powers' theory)? Or because this subject matter doesn't jack into the really divisive issues in criticism right now, the way last year's minstrelsy-and-masquerade theme did? I'm not sure. It could have. (I had thought David Thomas, not Merritt, would be the guest rock star who made everyone furious.) Anyway, it gives Eric and Ann and other organizers plenty to consider when setting up next year's conference. For which I can hardly wait. No matter what, this conference is helping to change some of the face of pop criticism, by educating us, by informing us what others are up to, but perhaps most of all by moving the goalposts, giving everyone who attends a new imagined audience - this network of brilliant readers and peers to serve as a standard. Not to mention a great place to workshop one's book ideas. And now here's some semi-random one-liners.

Stephin Merritt: "Western harmonic music is a system of thwarting and rewarding the expectations of the listener. Undercutting the pleasure only heightens the pleasure. If you've ever had sexual relations, you'll know what I mean."

[On what he learned from doing 69 Love Songs]: "I discovered quantity is quality."

[On falsetto]: "When there's a break in the voice you can't tell if you are laughing or crying. I've discovered this trying to sing at a show in Colorado, at high altitudes. The body starts heaving, huhh-huhh-huhh, and you just choose whether to laugh or to cry, since we're conditioned to associate it with one or another. ... This is also why men cry at Wouldn't It Be Nice by the Beach Boys more than women do - because you are subvocalizing along with the song without knowing it, and when you reach the falsetto break, you subconsciously feel like you are already crying."

[On why he subverts genres]: "Because I'm embarrassed." (He added that this is also why Andy Warhol did everything the way he did.)

[On the difference between shame and embarrassment]: "You can talk about embarrassment. You cannot talk about shame."

Drew Daniel. [On shame and the conference theme - guilty pleasures - which was Drew's idea]: "Last year's conference was all about masquerade, about how pop allows you to escape who you are. I was inspired by this quote from Emmanuel Levinas who said that 'shame is the experience of being riveted to your being.' " (To, as Levinas also said, " that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I is oneself.") "Musical pleasure resembles shame in that you can't control it."

[On the French band Nouvelle Vague, which covers punk and new-wave classic in a faux-bossa-nova style]: "Nouvelle Vague don't just beat the dead horse of punk - they liquefy the dead horse and serve the dead horse as a smoothie."

[On camp]: "At this point, if you're shooting for camp as a gay person, you've already lost." (Followed by a comment I didn't quite get down on how straight people use camp - like the Mamma Mia stage musical - at this point as a kind of "relief" from heteronormativity - that is, in a way, as blackface... queerface?)

Tom Smucker: "The Carpenters represent the thought that maybe Phil Spector and Mama Cass had 'gone too far.' But Karen's voice is the 'maybe.' "

[On Lawrence Welk's music and its fusion of all forms of "postwar fun"]: "It was about a musical family; it was a music about mainstream social cohesion. It wasn't about an inner life, which is what makes it horrifying to rock audiences. ... You can't 'flip' his music because there's nothing there on the inside." .... [And for those who say affectionately, 'I used to watch it with my grandmother']: "That's not a guilty pleasure, that's a temporary suspension of aesthetics for valid reasons of sentiment." (The loneliness of Karen Carpenter, as one of "Lawrence Welk's children", he went on to say, is that she has no musical family - she's just driving through the suburbs with her brother in an expensive car.)

[In the Q&A;, discussing Karen Carpenter's big, Neal Peart-esque drum kit, in which she almost entirely used just the snare and one tom, Eric Lott says]: "That seems like another aspect of her self-denial - you have this huge kit and you're not playing it!"

David Thomas (whose talk was delivered so theatrically that nobody broke through the screen of his performance to question some very questionable assumptions). "Rock is electrified folk music. It is not catholic but parochial, not a wide tent but a narrow road. It is in the blood."

[On the Tuvan region of Yaktusk]: "Land of the mammoths, frozen as they chewed buttercups." [On the band Cholbon from that region]: "Their sound was closer to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon than Pink Floyd ever accomplished. Put aside questions of cargo culture. You wondered why Pink Floyd had never owed up to their debt to the Yakutian rock scene."

"There's no alternative to meaning."

"The corollaries of datapanik: 1: Dataflow is imperative. 2: Judgment is evil. 3: Everything is true. Datapanik muffles the voice of geography."

"The answer to 'Can foreigners play rock music?' is no. No. Not under any circumstances. But sometimes they can sure sound good if they don't try."

[In the Q&A;] "I don't believe that human beings think. Sound is the basis of consciousness. But I can't explain that now. This is just the result of not having had a job for 35 years."

Seth Sanders. [On a Slayer-inspired murder in California] "The girl's family sued Slayer, who responded that they hadn't even done the necrophilia rite!"

"Everything modernity takes away, it gives back on its own terms."

David Grubbs: [On what John Cage didn't understand about recordings]: "Records make accidents happen." (By providing a frame that makes chance visible/audible.)

[Quoting John Cage, when someone offered him a middle-row seat at a concert so he'd get better acoustics]: "Imagine, sound being 'better' in one place than another."

David Sanjek. [On Nashville Sound recordings that provide effervescent music with peppy background vocals by the Anita Carr Singers for bleak lyrics about not wanting to live anymore]: "It's the commercialization of mood swings."

[On music fans who value the tragic stories of dysfunctional musicians]: "The word 'schadenfreude' grants these lookyloos way too much dignity."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 7:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

EMP 3: Supremes (Beyond Good & Evil)

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Love Child's pioneers, the Supremes: See link to Matos's EMP paper, below.

I don't think I've met Ali Marcus but I appreciate what she said about my EMP paper. She really got it, which compels me to answer her kinda surprising inference - "that Wilson is a person who, when asked if human nature is basically good or basically bad, would choose the latter." No, if I had to guess, I'd say good and bad only exist as bounded human concepts - that "nature" is indifferent to both - and that if you step back from a human paradigm, neither word is meaningful. Ali says, "To believe that a primal, innate, subconscious force within us is there because of repression and therefore is fundamentally negative, is not something I am capable of." Contra Freud, maybe, our repressed subconscious forces aren't necessarily evil; I think we can be as afraid of positive drives - such as empathy - as we are of impulses to violence or lust. (Later: Er, not that lust, or even violence, is negative in every circumstance.) Repression is a survival mechanism run rampant, ignorant of the realities of our lives; if it worked better, social order - fascist or utopian - would be totalizing. Instead we are disruptive, for good and ill. It's not that what's repressed is the real truth of the world; it is just a jumble of displaced pieces of the puzzle, fitting and misfit. Or that's my current feeling, anyway.

Ali also has a set of other reports from EMP that cover much of the action I'd have blogged if I'd managed it. Elsewhere online, so far, you can read Michaelangelo Matos' remarkable Love Child paper (which brought people to tears), and others I missed in person by Josh on righteous fundamentalist toonz, Nate on '70s white soul-rock, and Maria on figure-skating music. Part 4 - highlights from my notes - tomorrow.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 1:30 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

EMP 2: There's No Such Thing as a Zipless Doodah

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Race, taste and pleasure: In this corner, an offensive old Uncle Remus image;
and in that corner, Stephin Merritt's childhood hero, Bertolt Brecht.

Is anybody still reading this mother? I'm back for real now. I'm going to have more notes on the Seattle EMP conference later today but first ...

Chatter continues on the EMP-generated Stephin Merritt/Song of the South controversy I mentioned on the weekend, which I meant to point out (as Sasha does) was a continuation of a previous sizzler in blogland (look down toward the end of that post, under "A Debate..."). It's worth noting this followup from Sasha via Douglas Wolk at the time. Now Jessica posts Drew Daniel's letter on the subject, which squares with my recollection of events. Jessica persists in conflating liking Zipadeedoohdah with liking the whole movie, despite Merritt's explicit separation of the two, and then using that liking to indict people of racism, which, I'm sorry, is knee-jerk and wrong. But she also links to Joshua's post on the relationship between tastes and exclusion and social affiliation, which is very near the core of my Celine Dion project.

Without posting too many spoilers for the book, my argument in my EMP paper was that if poptimism means liking what you like and disliking what you dislike without apology to anyone else's standards, that's a better starting point than using an artificial rockist set of virtues, but it's going to run into the problem of where those "gut" tastes come from. I told the story of growing up in a very white but also quite urban southern-Ontario town, and that when I was 11 or 12 I would tell people that musically I liked "everything" - and then say "except disco and country." Looking back now I can see that "disco" meant "all the African-American music on the radio" (I liked jazz; hip-hop mostly hadn't reached Canada yet) and that country did pretty much mean "hick music" to me. That these prejudices were both ethically unacceptable and musically idiotic only became clear to me after I'd left my home town.

Now, was I racist in any other sense of the word? Consciously, quite the opposite. And I wasn't classist in the terms of my setting either: I was very middle-class, but in a high school where social circles were often defined by class, my gang of weirdos was the one where those barriers at least partly broke down, with alienated bookworms and smoking-area badasses making common cause (though there were misunderstandings and hurt feelings that happened that did have a lot to do with class along the way). But I was still sheltered from the much broader differences of a wider world, and actually was racist and classist in ways I didn't yet have personal experience of. I thought my "good" tastes were natural and objective, which they weren't, and that's a problem I'm still working out. I'm using as a case study and vantage point my more recent distaste for Celine Dion - who has a mindfuckingly mixed-up class and ethnic position as a white non-anglo-american semi-R&B; ballad singer. (As I've said, the fact that Merritt's gaffe was about Celine was exemplary, not trivial.) When we call ourselves "open-minded," what are we letting pass in one ear and out the other?

Tastes always involve such stories, is my argument. It's fascinating that this fight has happened about Merritt's taste, because he explicitly said in that panel that he didn't believe that musical taste was related to identity - he was responding to Drew's stories about what his "straight" punk teenage life in Kentucky had to do with being queer. Merritt (who's also gay, of course) said he'd always listened to all kinds of music (hmm, what was his "except"?) and did not see how it accounted for anything. And yet elsewhere in the panel he was talking about how he'd been exposed to Brecht and Weill by his folkie mom growing up, and acknowledged its influence. If there's ever been anyone whose whole public persona, musically and nonmusically, seems like he was taken to Bertolt Brecht operas as a kid, it sure is Stephin Merritt - and that also accounts for how one might value a song such as Zipadeedoodah. (Merritt's (non)-relationship to his hippie-folk-musician absent father is also a compelling subject, everything to do with my paper last year on "bandonyms" and the singer-songwriter, but I'll save that for a later post. For now...)

I often quote Townes Van Zandt, who said there were only two kinds of music, "the blues and Zipadeedoodah." Townes was a (country-)rockist, so he said he liked the blues; Merritt is a Brechtian ironist down to his bones, so he says he prefers Zipadeedoodah while very well knowing its ties to a racist narrative, because he automatically reads it ironically. He also likes disco, while hip-hop, a more blues-lineage music, has never surfaced in all his genre pastiches, to my knowledge. (Totally unconfirmed untrue report of upcoming collaboration with Snoop Dogg notwithstanding.) Not that the blues and hip-hop aren't full of ironic levels, and Merritt appreciates and to some degree uses them, but his whole project is to queer them into other sorts of ironies, ones to which I happen to respond strongly (i.e., there's nothing happenstance about it). Nothing racist about that, except that it takes advantage of a structural societal racism that gives him (us) the privilege of putting his (our) attentions elsewhere. As Angela says in My So-Called Life, "How come he gets to be the one with other things on his mind?" What are the ethics/politics of having other things on your mind? (Put another way: How much responsibility do we bear for the circumstances of our birth?)

Specifically what is assumed in a reflexively ironic relationship to music, and by extension to your subjectivity, and what does it exclude? For one thing it might assume that you have easy access to a legitimized subjectivity, that it is not something you are still working to claim, but something you are free to discard or disavow. And thereby bypass genres and artists and people for whom constructing and claiming a subject position - and escaping an objectified one - is still a priority. This came up in the discussion period regarding catharsis - Merritt had asserted that catharsis in art is "embarrassing." ("Always?" asked Ann Powers. "Yes. No. Yes and no," said Merritt.) Someone in the crowd pointed out that achieving catharsis in soul and gospel, for instance, is quite the opposite - it's something to be celebrated. (Consider Celine's awkward straddling of these two sets of expectations.) Does it matter, does it help, that Merritt foregrounds his whiteness, and his ironic relationship to it, in his music, as opposed to all the white-boy-blues-rockers who try to sidestep it or wish it away...?

Merritt had as many insights about aesthetic issues as anyone else at EMP, and I think nearly everyone's tastes closely examined would betray similar sets of blinders and backstories. Perhaps because he's quite defensive, and less used to being in this sort of setting, what he was unwilling to cop to was more conspicuous. But for a conference about "guilty pleasures," it seemed, with important exceptions, that there was more of a collective will to discuss pleasure than to take a hard look at guilt (and/or shame). Every pleasure has an ethical ambiguity, a responsibility suspended or elided; there's no such thing as pleasure without complication or consequence, what Erica Jong called "a zipless fuck" and Walt Disney called zipadeedoodah. The fact that the only one whose guilt really ended up on trial was Stephin Merritt seems like a very convenient sort of catharsis - the subset known as scapegoating.

PS: Hear pieces from Merritt's new album, Showtunes - highlights from his semi-Chinese-opera collaborations with director Chen Shi-Zheng - here.

PPS: Years ago, pre-69 Love Songs, I was vociferously arguing in print that mainstream pop singers (with conventionally good voices) ought to be picking up Magnetic Fields songs to cover. That sounds a bit naive in retrospect, but it's gradually coming true: First, there was Peter Gabriel's cover of Book of Love for the soundtrack of the Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shall We Dance?, and now upcoming is apparently a take on When My Boy Walks Down the Street by Ashlee Simpson. For extra credit, guess what the reaction's gonna be.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 02 at 3:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

EMP preliminotions

My EMP liveblogging plan did not click, as readers have guessed. I didn't get my paper finished soon enough to recap day 1, and since then there has just been too much action. Which is a bad blog thing but a good life thing. Dull days at the desk are better for this medium.

I will do a thorough recap later - I've been taking notes for you, my friends - but a couple of initial randoms: First, in relation to my talk about "guilty displeasures," someone asked me tonight about current Nashville country, and I said that while I like some of it, my barrier to embracing it has always been (besides some production values) its centralization of an American style of masculinity - which I said that as a Canadian I have always found alienating. This led to a big talk about what I considered the differences between (the typical) American masculinity and (the typical) Canadian masculinity, in a group with only one other Canadian. After the fact, I thought the word I would use about U.S. masculinity is "unapologetic." While Canadian masculinity is not as deprecatory and miserablist as British masculinity, even the macho version of Canadianness is marked by an ongoing texture of parody and self-undercutting that to a Canadian is noticeably absent in the prototypical American version. I would add that the Canadian machismo is also hard for me to handle, and that Nashville is full of reconsiderations of masculinity as a text, regret and guilt and sentiment being a big part of that, but that it's not doubtful of the starting line in the same way. I'd really like to hear if I'm just being a crazy alienated adolescent about this, or if I'm articulating something identifiable to other men. (American femininity is different too, but I think maybe the ways in which gender is occupied, ironized and questioned as part of the texture of character in both countries trumps the national aspect, so that the gulf between the men is more conspicuous?)

Second, to jump on the only controversy of the week, I disagree with Jessica about what transpired at the opening panel talk with Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. It wasn't the most dynamic discussion of all time, but it was actually quite good humoured and smart. And for anybody who's ever interviewed Stephin, as I have, it was glaring how he was receptive and engaged in a way he's not when he deals with the press. But as for the "racism"? The way I recall it, L.D. Beghtol brought up the fact that Stephin's said that Zipadeedoodah is the only successful happy song, and that prompted Stephin to say that he likes the music in Song of the South, "which is really hard to see now, for obvious reasons." I'm paraphrasing, but I certainly wasn't left with the impression of him celebrating Uncle Remus. And while you could critique the music in that film as being part of the minstrel legacy it uncritically perpetuates, you'd have to take into account the ways that legacy has been reconsidered, at EMP itself last year, as a much more ambiguous and complicated thing in its relationship to black culture, before you could label an appreciation of anything related to it as racist. I'm glad Jessica has agreed to reconsider.

But on the closer-to-home aspect of him talking about Celine Dion as if she were non-white: It was a gaffe, in its way, but a fascinating one in context. Of course, Celine is white, but Stephin was discussing production style and technology, and Celine is in many ways produced and positioned as if she were in the same niche as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey - as if she did R&B; - so he was just choosing the most awkward case for his point, which was that in that genre, highly mediated production for "entertainers" is not considered out of place the way it is for rock or white singer-songwriters. (He contrasted it with Belle & Sebastian's work with Trevor Horne, which I think was a case of them deliberately transgressing that line, but never mind.) And he was using Celine because Drew Daniel had brought her up first as an example of highly compressed, mediated production. But the point was odd because Stephin was saying that it's a basically racist perception of entertainers versus artists: That artists in non-white genres are just here to entertain us, so their production authenticity doesn't matter - they aren't individuals.

To me it was all telling about how Celine exists: First, that she's a white artist whose niche would not exist without a black precedent. (Is she the Elvis of power-ballads?) Second, that she's an entertainer rather than an individual. (She is entirely on-board with that role.) And third, that even though people know that she's French-Canadian (there's no category of Quebecoise here), her foreignness and, I'd argue, her class renders her ethnically Other in an American context, so "non-white" (did he ever actually say "black"?). Stephin's blunder was still a blunder, but it was an exemplary one, not a crazy one. If Celine were Lebanese, things might not be wildly different; if she were a pure white anglo American, her career would be nearly unthinkable. (And if she were black, it would also be radically different.) This entry is ultra-parenthesized because these questions are hard to address directly; I'm still unsure of how they will be dealt with in the book. So, sure, she's "unblack as hell," but doesn't that locution indicate it's impossible to say she is "white as hell", too?

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 30 at 5:18 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

They Shoot Horses & Prince: 'These wonderful,
wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping!'

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Today in The Globe and Mail, I have an article about They Shoot Horses Don't They, the post-punk marching band from Vancouver - making hay (sorry) of the parallels between their sound and the mood of the 1969, kickass, dance-marathon movie from which they took their name. There are similarities to Frog Eyes or Wolf Parade, but more to the anarcho-squat bands I used to call "circus punk" in the early '90s (the Ex, Dogfaced Hermans, pre-Tubthumping Chumbawamba, and to some extent No Means No, Rhythm Activism, etc.). TSHDT plays Toronto tonight @ Sneaky Dee's, along with the Creeping Nobodies and Anagram - a dance card you couldn't beat with a riding crop. (Read it here.)

Plus, here's a clip of the band in action. But more eyeball-slurping is the video for Sunlight by band artist-in-residence Julia Feyrer.

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Also in today's Globe, I have a short (and belated) review of Prince's new album, 3121.

Incidentally, the Vancouver edition of the paper also has a Destroyer profile, not by me but a Vancouver writer hitherto unknown (though it sure feels like I've read it before). Still, Dan's always wryly quotable: "I have probably grown more comfortable with my role as singer, whatever absurdity that role might inhabit. ... So there's kind of a swagger to the music, I think -- even if it is a tipsy old man swagger." And then: "I haven't gone out and bought a summer home or anything. ... But I've got a man on it."

I also noted this piece a few days ago about "circuit-bending music". Agents, does this merit further investigation?

Horses' mad, brisk gallop

BY CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
April 7, 2006, R19

In the hypnotic 1969 Sydney Pollack movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a ballroom floor full of disparate Depression hard cases (most memorably Jane Fonda) dances out a gruelling month-long marathon that can lead only to a cash prize or death by exhaustion, all for the diversion of callous crowds of punters.

Now, examine the eight radiant faces of the young Vancouver band that takes its name from Pollack's film. They don't seem like they've seen much material want. But they've got a similarly crazed determination to ride a rhythm through the noxiously spoiled faith and usury pervading their era. Their own unlikely deliverance will come howling, shaking maracas, tooting horns, banging on pipes and jitterbugging till it falls to pieces.

Though the Emily Carr art-school grads share some of the post-punk, neurasthenic-preacher cadences of Victoria's Frog Eyes or Montreal's (B.C. expats) Wolf Parade, the sound swirling here has more to do with high-school band class. They start their songs neatly marching and wind up swarming over themselves as the paired-off Noah's Ark of two-by-two beats breeds and becomes a house divided against itself that somehow still can stand. It's an endless fusillade of friendly fire.

The best precedent might be the experimental house bands that came out of 1980s anarchist squats - Scotland's Dog Faced Hermans, Holland's the Ex and England's (pre-Tubthumping) Chumbawamba, or even British Columbia's own No Means No - who all had the same exuberant way of turning junk piles into punk Big Tops, despite the dark rodentine gnawings from below. That's a movement that still has too few followers - among them Toronto's Creeping Nobodies, who share the stage with They Shoot Horses in Toronto tonight.

On this, the most extensive tour in the band's couple of years of life, They Shoot Horses are using their cannonade of energy to convert idle spectators into rambunctious mobs, with all the efficiency of revival-tent veterans. But on Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, their first full-length album (as a rare new signing these days on pivotal northwestern U.S. indie label Kill Rock Stars), the funhouse mirror seems turned inward: The yelling sounds more like a bayhound's yelp, the emergency less in jest. You notice for the first time how vocalist Nut Brown's poetic slogans, full of cracked antitheses, hardly ever slow down to squeeze in words of more than one syllable, as if time and breath were both too short.

And you begin to wonder what kind of inner isolation makes the frantic polymorphous togetherness of They Shoot Horses so urgent: Like many of the other jamboree-sized collectives making music across Canada lately, the band could be called just They They They They They . . ., a cry craving for a "we" to echo back.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with the Creeping Nobodies and Anagram, tonight at Sneaky Dee's, 431 College Street, $7.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 07 at 2:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Smoove It On Over:
Notes on Schmaltz (2)

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Kenny G.: The jazz that dares not speak its name.

In today's Globe and Mail, my colleague J.D. Considine (who's blogging a bit more now that he's the Globe's new jazzman) returns to a subject that I wrote about in my column at this time last year: "Smooth jazz."

Coincidentally the Daily Show had a smooth-jazz joke on its mock special on race last night: Jon Stewart said that despite the sharp racial inequalities surfaced by, for instance, Hurricane Katrina, "it's also a fact that no nation on earth is as integrated as ours. Let's look at the fruits of that effort, for instance, jazz - music created by black people, which they shared with everybody. And I mean" - flashing up a photo of Kenny G, like the one above - "everybody." (You can see the clip, for now, under "Afrospanicindioasianization" here, about halfway in.) That quip has thick cultural layers, because smooth jazz is very much a racial matter - though, as I'll get to at the end, not quite the way Stewart's jibe suggests.

I was bemused in J.D.'s piece to find guitarist Jeff Golub trying to claim that "All 'smooth jazz' is, really, is a moniker for contemporary jazz." What bugs non-smooth musicians and fans is the way the industry has turned "contemporary jazz" into a euphemism for smooth, an erasure of everything else current in jazz. But overall, in my queasy position of self-appointed champion of schmaltz (if smooth is schmaltz) (and just how did this happen again?), I say J.D.'s done the right thing by mounting the case for the defence much less ambivalently than I did.

However, Bob James - who is a huge smooth success and recipient of a lifetime achievement award at this year's Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards (oh, please, can't they be called the Smoothies?) - is being disingenuous when he blames commercial radio/record companies for editing out the solos, which he says gets "deep into the danger zone." Clearly he's chosen to go along with such choices, so if he really does believe that erodes the integrity of jazz, he has to share that blame.

James also missteps, I think, when he compares today's smooth to "the roots of jazz" in "dance music and popular music. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman - they played for dancing. It was the popular music of its time." All true, and a point I've often made in discussing hip-hop and techno crossovers with jazz. But smooth is by and large not at all a music for dancing. It is a music for relaxing and for dinner parties and for seduction. None of which is bad, but it's not a populist move in a class-based sense. It doesn't take jazz back to being the social music in which it had its roots. Rather it is an extension of the way jazz has been used by upper-middle-class people since the 1950s - but with the excision of all the intellectual content that was the justification for the move away from social dance music in the first place. A demand that jazz return to those roots doesn't lead to smooth jazz. It leads, maybe, to today's Cuban-jazz revival.

And that's where the case that "smooth jazz" is bastardizing the jazz legacy has force, because it hasn't got either the musical experimentalism or the social populism that are arguably the two legs on which the tradition stands. Which doesn't mean it's illegitimate, or that it isn't a part of the jazz family tree. But it's a tough knot to untie: Part of me thinks that it would be better just to call it Instrumental R&B.; (For more on these matters, see Christopher Washburne's essay, "Does Kenny G. Play Bad Jazz?: A Case Study" in the Bad Music collection, which I discovered after last year's column.) Another part thinks it helpful that there remains a commercially viable genre under the jazz rubric: If smooth/pop-jazz were reclassified, the bolder jazz might just find itself not the artsy margin of a larger genre but a defunct category, more like polka.

One sure thing - to get back to Jon Stewart's point - is that smooth jazz is fascinating sociologically: According to radio-station surveys, it has at once a more affluent audience and a more racially diverse one than practically any other genre. At this point in history, it seems to me almost like a "hopeful monster," a mutant survivor and reminder of the arrested 1960s to 1980s evolution of the U.S. black middle class, a perversely bland soundtrack for the wildest American dream of all, the process of integration strangled by Reaganism and its aftermath.

Note: I am willfully misusing the term "hopeful monster" here, since smooth was by no means a spontaneously generated phenomenon - it came right out of jazz fusion on one hand and 1970s R&B; on the other. But I'll swipe it in that scientifically sloppy way writers do, because Smooth does seem at once monstrous and, in some lingering way, hopeful.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 3:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (22)

 

Byrne & Eno's Danish Cartoon?


My Life in the Bush of Ghosts on vinyl: The new reissue is at once enhanced and,
for surprising reasons, incomplete.

Like Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee, I was one of those kids whose mind was squeegeed by the sonic collages of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in the eighties, when samples and loops were still a startling sound. And now it's reappearing at a time when samples and loops are like toast and jam, in a deluxe Nonesuch edition for its 25th anniversary. (It was released in 1981 - I caught up with it several years later, because of age and because that's the way it was in Brantford back then: Decades tended to arrive about five years late.)

For those unfamiliar with it, it was a work of imaginative "fourth world" anthro-tapeology, maybe comparable to today's Sublime Frequencies found-global-sound compilations, but set to Remain in Light-stylee grooves. It's sometimes referred to as the first sampling record, but that's a myth ...

[ ... more on the album and the removed track Qu'ran, on the jump ... ]

Better to see it as a descendent of the tape-spliced samples of musique concrète going back to the early postwar era, an aesthetic imported to pop by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the White Album's Revolution No. 9 and followed by many others. Then of course there's the vinyl-based sampling of Jamaican dub and early hip-hop. My Life's historical claim might be better staked on being among the first to bring those two streams together - along with Holger Czukay of Can/PiL, who studied with concrète giant Karlheinz Stockhausen, and imitated his use of shortwave samples on Canaxis 5 (1969), then combined that approach with his love of dub in his solo Eighties stuff.

Bush of Ghosts been aped since then on a thousand industrial-techno and worldbeat-with-monks tracks, but it still sounds fresher and more bloodyminded than its imitators. It uses the found voices mostly as an occasion for a twitchy, paranoid relationship to intercultural experience, rather than the sneering-angry template of industrial or the swoony-tourist model of worldbeat -credible perhaps to Byrne's and Eno's shared capacity to fix a quizzical alien eye not only on foreign others but upon their "own" cultures. Not that it's immune to some of the same critiques of cultural appropriation and decontextualization, but it makes a damn strong case for the practice.

Given this bloodymindedness, I was surprised to find out this weekend on the fine Ten Thousand Things blog that one of my favourite tracks on the album, Qu'ran, has been omitted from most of the CD re-releases of the album, including the new Nonesuch. The problem was its use of taped samples of scriptural chanting from mosque services, which drew complaints from official Islamic groups. Since the early reissues came out around the time of the Satanic Verses fatwa, the label or Byrne and Eno themselves - it's unclear - chose to avoid the risk of getting Rushdied. Ten Thousand Things lets you download the original here. There are two odd things about this case: First, the kind of Quranic chanting that's on the track is, as far as I understand, broadly acceptable listening material for faithful Muslims, outside the most extreme sects - it's not remotely blasphemous on the level of Rushdie's parody or the infamous Danish editorial cartoons. The accompanying music is quite demure by the album's own standards. It's those standards that might be the sticking point: Far more implicitly critical are the album's treatments of Christian radio preachers and even a demon exorcism, similar in effect to the use of preacher samples on Remain in Light's famous Once in a Lifetime. (The better-known legal issue around My Life have to do with the evangelical preacher Kathryn Kulman, whose estate demanded the removal of her sermon from the exorcism track The Jezebel Spirit - it forced the delay of the album replaced with another radio evangelist, and the original has surfaced only on a rare Italian bootleg. Eno has said the delay was ultimately fortuitous, as they made Remain in Light with the Talking Heads in the interim, an experience that informed the final reworked version.) In other words, then, there's an equal-opportunity scepticism toward religion that pervades the record, far less blinkered and ethnocentric than, say, the Danish cartoons. Given the centrality of these issues today, it's at once understandable and unfortunate that the added tracks on the reissue don't include the restoration of the original, quite respectful-sounding Qu'ran. (I'd be interested to hear counterarguments though.)

There is good legal news about the album, though, which is (as Boing Boing reported last week that Byrne & Eno have placed two tracks under a Creative Commons license and are allowing others to download and remix the components of those songs. (In a similar spirit the reissue cover is a kind of remix of the distinctive Peter Saville original.) Perhaps this presents opportunities for inventive mischief as commentary on the Qu'ran question?...

Stray thoughts: Given the U.S.-evangelism-versus-the-world subtext coded into the album's DNA, the title has acquired a double meaning in 2006. Also, I wonder how many people have ended up reading Amos Tutuola's novel as a side-effect of this record over the past 25 years.

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Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 03 at 10:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

He's Got a New Spell:
Billy Bragg Seeks a Post-Marxist Language

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Billy Bragg live in Toronto, photo lifted from Chromewaves.

Because I've been too busy getting ready to move house to do anything else, and because I keep seeing him pop up on radio shows and in the press all over North America this week, I thought I'd run the full text of the Billy Bragg interview I did a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of his new, early-years, nine-disc box set Volume 1 and accompanying tour, for a short piece in the Globe. And I do mean "full." The boy does go on. (Can we still call him that, now he's pushing 50?) But he's really a joy to interview, as you might suspect from his live patter. This is especially for Frank Chromewaves, who requested it (and also reviewed his Toronto show).

Topics covered: James Blunt, British National Party, Bob Dylan, Clash, "Spandau fucking Ballet," nostalgia, Bragg's upcoming book on multiculturalism, July 7 subway attacks, Marxism, class analysis, social antennae, fatherhood, Miner's Strike, Red Wedge, Live 8, resemblance of Sudbury to moon, productivity, Connecticut car parks, cynicism, role of the artist, Suzi Quatro, The Weakest Link, suntanning at Lake Tahoe, where the answer is.

Warning: May contain unreconstructed rockism. (See comments about "Roxy Music fans.") Nobody's perfect.

You can download his new song Bush War Blues (an adaptation of Leadbelly's Bourgeois Blues) here, and some mp3s of a recent gig in Massachusetts here.

Now, finally, on to the interview...

This new box set [Volume 1] is at least your second retrospective in the past few years. [His last release was a best-of called Must I Paint You a Picture.] Is that your idea or the record company's?

It was about time we put out some kind of a best-of, which was a couple of years back. And then Elektra in the US got lost in the corporate shenanigans ... someone folded Elektra into themselves. And the end result was that I ended up with my entire back catalogue in a big hole. My rights reverted to me. The good people at Yep Rock, which is a label down in North Carolina, said they'd like to put out my back catalogue. So I got a new deal for my back catalogue. So that really was the way I turned this out. This year I've been writing a book on the subject of identity politics, carried on from the last album [England, Half-English], and it was an election year. So as there was nothing else coming out this year, they offered to put it out now.

When you listen back to those early albums, what do you think of the guy you hear?

It's the alternative James Blunt, isn't it? No, look, I can't apologize enough for that, you can only take so much, we had to retaliate in some way for Jack Johnson, we had to retaliate.

Really, I listened to the first couple of albums in my car when they first sent the re-press down to me and I thought they were as powerful as anything. They've still got that edge to them. And I stand by the sentiments. I think probably because I didn't go in for that big 80s hair and clothes and production, because I did do it the way I did it.

I can remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, it was in the middle of Glam Rock. I swapped a copy of the Jackson 5’s greatest hits with a mate for it, and it was a complete revolution. I’d never heard anything so raw and so empowering. So I’d like to think a 15 year old or 19 year old hearing what i do against the backdrop of - or someone who’s into the alternative singer-songwriter thing that's going on now, Devendra Banhart and those guys, would hear what I do as an urging to get back to the strength and power of song rather than production.

Do you miss the passion for songwriting, the songs just pouring out, of those early years?

I think when you're trying to break out, to get a career, you have to have a fever, you can't do it any other way. You've got to fire it up. You've got to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I was so angry - looking back, Spandau Ballet seems like kind of a stupid thing to be angry about. But I'd been in the audience at Clash gigs. I thought we were going to change the world, and it had come to nothing. A bunch of Roxy Music fans had taken over. And I really knew that if I was going to hear the songs I wanted to hear, I was bloody well gonna  have to do it myself.

But writing the book this year has been a similar sort of thing. It's been a real challenge. I had the same feeling about it, that I must do this, that I felt compelled. The British National Party, a fascist, racist party, suddenly won a council seat in my home town. I felt compelled to not just make an album, that wouldn't suffice, I'd have to go further. It's a completely different discipline. It took me a year or two to figure out how to picture it. It's a lot of similar feelings.

I can remember the first moment when someone in the music industry, a journalist, said my songs were good. You got this feeling, “I can do this.” And I've had several moments like that with the book, when someone else makes you feel justified you've got something worthwhile to say. Whether it's in a song or in a book. In that sense I think I am as driven. Still in the barrel, still looking for Niagara Falls.

Your albums do come slower now. Is it harder to write about marriage and fatherhood than about dating?

I tell you what I think it is: My focus on doing things I think are really worthwhile are much broader now. I knew that the election was coming last year, and realized I'd have to go out - because I'd been campaigning with parliament on trying to get constitutional reforms in the House of Lords, and I knew the time the labour party would be most conducive to that was before an election. And then the BNP had won this council seat so I've been out doing gigs against the BNP.

Then in September there was a song I wrote with a woman in a hospice, for a charity called Rosetta Life. They sent me into a hospital to write songs with terminally ill women, hospice users. We got some local musicians, including Robbie Mcintosh who plays with Norah Jones. And it got to no. 11 in the charts. And that's just as worthwhile. There are these things to do. But back then, I only had one focus, to tour and make records, and consequently everything else in my life suffered to do that.

I am definitely as engaged as I was back then. But making records is not - and never really was - my main concern. Doing gigs, engaging with local politics and national politics, has been my concern. And trying to work out ways to do that - not just ways that were different but ways that engage me as well. The song we recorded and got released - that was just a product of six weeks of songwriting workshops at the hospice. But when it got going, the response was so powerful, people contacting the radio stations who had faced similar poblems and so on. That took up a big chunk of my time as well.

Have you become less idealistic, and more pragmatic?

The world has become less ideological, whether I like it or not. The great watershed for me was in the early ‘90s - whether that was because I became a father, or because the Cold War ended, or because Thatcher was assassinated by her own party. Any one of those would have changed me. But still, if you look at the box set, the ratio of love songs to political songs is 2 to 1 or 3 to 1. But I still have lots to write about with regard to relationships.

Is it harder to be a poet from that less assured point of view?

As a communicator, you have social antennae that pick up what's happening that make you want to write about something. The reason I wrote about Thatcherism in the eighties and am writing about identity now, that's because that’s what the antennae were picking up.

With England, Half English, it was hard because traditionally the left have shied away from any sense of belonging, or those kinds of abstract things. My fans are internationalists, and I'm an internationalist. But the end of the Cold War freed us from the language of Marxism, which I think is redundant now, and leaves us to try and find new ways to articulate the way we'd like the world to be.

Your audience has grown older along with you - do you worry about being a point of nostalgia for their own idealistic youths?

I do, especially in England. You know, when the audience wants me to play Between the Wars, sometimes I do play it. But as with all topical songs it’s the context in which you play it, and sometimes there is the right context. But I always remind them that I don’t miss the ‘80s, I don't miss Thatcher, Reagan, the Soviet Union and Spandau fucking Ballet. I want to look forward. The essence of a culture that's vibrant is to respect the past, but live in the present and concern yourself with trying to make a better future. Doubly so when you're a parent. The whole reason I want to write about identity and make a case for an inclusive sense of it is because I don't really care about where you're from or what your background is. I care about how my kid is going to get along with your kid.

What happened last year on July 7 was incredibly divisive in that sense, of multiculturalism.

I was going to ask what effect you thought that had on the social climate in England.

One of the responses was the question put forward by reactionary newspapers, that this was somehow the fault of multiculturalism - which was their coded way of saying if these people weren’t here we wouldn't have this problem. Their answer was to try to restore “British values.” But nowhere could I find a definition of what British values were or are, and neither could I find a real definition of what multiculturalism is. These two leviathans are set against each other in a way that no one can agree on what they mean. The debate has been warped in that sense.

By the same token, I may not have anything in common with the men who did it, except that we both have British passports. So I have to address that: Why did someone who grew up in the same culture as me feel so marginalized? What made them feel so outside of our community? They didn't just blow up anglo-saxons. They blew up young Muslims on that train too. So if they're against diversity, then maybe i'm against them, too. Maybe they're just like the BNP. We have to discuss that with the people who feel angry at how they are treated in our society.

Figures such as Gordon Brown have made an issue of Englishness, and I'm glad about that. But people like Brown have to understand that Englishness means absolutely nothing without social justice. If you want an inclusive society where people are at ease with each other, you must first have social justice.

What does social justice mean to you - is it economic justice?

I think it can only be delivered by collective provision, as a society. You say, “We as a society believe everyone should have free education, free health care. Everyone should have access to decent affordable acommodation, housing.” As a society we all have to contribute to that. And there is such a thing as society despite what Thatcher said. This is what Britishness means.

(He excuses himself to kiss his son goodnight.)

Education, health care, housing. That’s what I was writing about in Between the Wars. That's what the miners’ strike was about. Those are the things that make me proud to be British, about what my country’s achieved. Those three things, though Thatcher tried to destroy them, and they're still hot potatoes in politics.

I think they’re the big political issues anywhere.

I don't expect these to be uniquely British problems. I'm fortunate. I get to travel, I've seen things, I've been places - to Sudbury, Ontario, or to Penticton or up in Newfoundland. I’ve seen a great deal of Canada and I feel fortunate in that. I’ve seen parts that are unspeakably beautiful and other bits that are pretty mesed up. I've been wowed by it and taken aback by it. When I say I love my country, it doesn't mean i hate your country. I can admire it socially and topographically... Although there are places like Sudbury, Ontario, I can’t say I’ve ever seen nothing like that - Sudbury looks like the moon. And this one place in Connecticut. At least Sudbury has an excuse, it has the nickel mines. This place in Connecticut was just a car park. It didn't have that excuse.

Do you hear a new political music coming from younger musicians now?

I think there's a willingness to address issues, but not capital-P politics in the way we did in the 1980s. That was of a time, because of the miners’ strike, the pressures Thatcher was putting on. We were forced to go perhaps beyond the reaches of where pop music sometimes goes. Rock bands that aren't necessarily political will have stalls in the foyer for causes they support. They'll do gigs for stuff that's political. But it's humanitarian-political rather than ideological-political. You couldn't do it the way we did it.

Well, surely there are ideological pressures in America right now.

Yes, well, in America there's a tradition - this meeting of show biz, rock’n’roll and politics. The last tour I did there, though, was in support of a campaign against corporate ownership in media ownership, and there was politics in that. I was there to say, “This is bad for international artists as well.”

I'm going to be on tour in April sponsored by the unions in Britain, going to towns where the BNP could win elections in May. I'm not sure you could put together a Red Wedge anymore. But I came into politics through Rock against Racism in 1978 so I keep faith with that issue. I keep faith with the Clash, in some ways. And you know, there's young kids who get involved in that too.

At this point do you still think political music is still able to have meaning, or has it become kind of rote? A lot of people are cynical about celebrity activism.

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that the enemy of those of us who want to make a better world is not conservativism, nor is it capitalism - it's cynicism. And unfortunately the Labour government go around stirring up cynicism. I know I have to choke back my own. I know from experience you can't change the world by singing songs on a stage. Only the audience can change the world. But you can draw their attention to an issue, as we will in April against the BNP. Or you can draw people together in solidarity, to express their solidarity with like-minded people so they don't feel they're on their own.

But most importantly, wherever you are on a given night, in any context, whatever the subject - love or politics - you can offer the audience a different perspective. That’s always been my criteria for writing a song. If I’ve got something to say that I haven’t heard said in a debate, then I'll write about it. Or bring it from another place into a song, which is what you do as a troubador. But I think that's the most you can do.

I know that's what happened to me when I went to Rock against Racism. The world was the same as it was when I was coming over on the train, but it had changed my perspective forever.

How did you feel about the Live-8 concert as a rallying point? Is it useful for all these rock stars to come out on stage like that, is it neutral, does it put people off?

I don't think it sets it back. If people expect to solve world poverty by having a few gigs in Hyde Park, that's obviously ridiculous. But people who expect that have overblown ideas of what can happen. But if you accept the role of the performer, to drum up a crowd and for that crowd to feel they're not the only people in the world hwo feel like this - I think it's been proved popular culture can be used to set the agenda, not to solve the problem but to set the agenda. That chimes in nicely with the role of the performer, to ask the right question rather than to deliver the answer. Because as we all know, the answer is blowing in the wind. That's already been sorted!

I think that one of the things that excited people about you early on, especially maybe in North America, was that you talked explicitly about class, which is kind of an unspoken subject here. It was there in your accent and your sense of humour, and for some people it may have been the first time they’d thought in those terms. Now that you’re less of a traditional socialist, do you think class analysis still matters?

I think social background does define so much of your life, what your expectations are, still. The language of Marxism, I don’t think really makes sense to people anymore. But the issues that it tried to address still need addressing. Although the idea of class is unfashionable, the reality is that the education that you're likely to get, your prospects of standards of living, even your length of life, all are affected by your social background. As long as that's true, class will always be an issue.

But the debate about multiculturalism is where those of us who want to create a better fairer society are now engaged. By standing up for diversity, equality, egalitarianism, we're opposing those people who demand a hierarchy, a racial hierarchy, a gender heirarchy, a social hierarchy. These are much broader strokes than we used to use. But we're trying to construct a new language to deal with these problems.

If capitalism won, then why are so many people starving in China? Why is the North American steel market still not open to European steel? These issues are still to be resolved. But I think writing about a “socialism of the heart” is as potent as writing, “There is power in a union.”

If you were to say to someone you want to live in a socialist society, you'd have to spend a lot of time explaining. But if you say you want to live in a compassionate society, I think everyone would understand. They'd still want to know how it works, but as an idea, compassion perhaps has a stronger resonance with people at the moment.

So, what are you up to next, besides this tour?

The book comes out in October, at the same time as Volume 2 of the box set, which brings it all up to date. And then I suppose I'll have to make another record. It's all been a bit of a sabbatical from songwriting, so when I do pick up the guitar now I have new ideas. I'll be trying some of them out in Toronto. I'd also like to come back to Canada in the autumn and start in Vancouver - I'm aware it's been a while since I've been done some shows across the country.

Last year my son changed from junior school to high school and I really wanted to be there for that. A good part of parenthood is just being there. So I thought it would be a good time to write the book as well. I'm really fortunate that people are still interested in what I have to say. I feel very very privileged. I would hate to lose that. It's just a question of trying to articulate that just because I haven't been in town doesn't mean i'm playing golf with Lord Cub or living at Lake Tahoe getting suntanned. I'm doing what I do, but it takes on different shapes, and I think it should.

You try to refine what you say and say it in a way that's more precise. I'm a communicator, and songwriting is the main way i do that. The book was a monumental challnge and I kinda needed something like that. Partly because if I’d done another record then, I would have just made England, Half-English volume 2, because that was still the main thing that concerned me, and I don't think that was the way to go. But until I dealt with this issue, it was where the fire was and I had to go address that. I was getting quite confident i could articulate it, because I’d been going around explaining where the album was coming from, explaining why this is important now.

(Billy tells me there’s a show on TV in the other room about glam - Slade and Suzi Quatro. He starts to make a joke, then stops.)

No, don't write anything bad about Suzi Quatro. I went head to head with her on The Weakest Link - and I beat her. So now every time I see her I feel guilty. ... I did it because my mum watches that show, and it's not every day, when you're Billy Bragg, that you get to do something your mum is gonna care about. And finally it got down to Suzi Quatro, me and this opera singer. And it occurred to me all of a sudden that I might win. My wife said she could see the moment: “You were just breezing along and then all of a sudden your eyes got wider and you gripped the lectern.”

And you know, nothing I've ever done got more comments at the school game the day after it was broadcast. You wave the red flag incessantly for 20 years, not a peep. Go on The Weakest Link, and suddenly everybody knows you. It's a fucking strange world we live in.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 01 at 12:47 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Post-Soviet Auktyon Heroes

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When the Soviet bloc fell apart in the late 80s/early 90s, it seemed briefly as if a cultural bottleneck had been uncorked and the repressed visions only glimpsed in samizdat flashes would soon flood out to the world. But the nasty business of reconstruction and, in places such as Russia itself, mafia-capitalism hasn't turned out to be the fertilizer for a great flowering. There's been a smattering of literary and cinematic action, but outside the former East Germany's electronic and other sounds, how much notable new eastern-bloc pop music has surfaced? (Not counting, uh, tATu, who for all their catchiness seemed as much part of the porn boom as a sonic one.) That's not the whole story - there are traditional, jazz and new music stars out of many of the republics, especially Tuva, and east-west emissaries Tamizdat are tracking tons of emergent voices yet to make a global impact - but it's a much more marginal story than you might have expected. There remain some legends of samizdat rock, often with as many prison records as record albums to their names, such as Prague's Plastic People of the Universe and Uz Jsme Doma. But even the post-Soviet diaspora to the west has just begun to make a mark, with Gogol Bordello and their comrades in New York and a few others - such as Lenin i Shumov, one of my favourite bands in Toronto, led by Byelorussian scoundrel Eugene Slominerov. Tonight at the Mod Club, they'll be opening for a veteran and venerated group Eugene claims is one of very few great Russian rock bands, St. Petersburg's Auktyon, founded in the early 1980s.

I've never seen Auktyon in the flesh, but I've been listening to samples of their music for several weeks, and find their eight-piece, folkloric-new-wave-jazz-ska cocktail at least as combustible as the Czech massives' molotovs. The jousting voices of leader Leonid Federov and hypeman Oleg Garkusha add up to a lyrical-inflammatory hybrid of Jacques Brel and David Thomas of Pere Ubu, two names I never forecasted combining. Reportedly their carnivalesque stage presence lives up to the aural character, as you might gather from the photo above. Having long ago seduced their homeland and much of the Euro club scene, they're on their American campaign now (they turned heads at SXSW) - Eugene reports their plans to record with John Zorn this summer.

For further persuasion, peep this Toronto Star piece by Greg Quill from last weekend, and many others from around and about the interweb. You can also listen to this short feature on the BBC's Global Hit series. As a bonus, you needn't sweat the lingo barrier, as a lot of their lyrics are neo-futurist sound-poetry tossed salad anyway.

Locals will want to know that tonight's incarnation of Lenin i Shumov will come flavour-enhanced, sprinkled with new horn, percussion and string arrangements featuring guests such as Owen Pallett (of Final Fantasy) on violin and Doug Tielli (of the Silt and other Rat-drifting outfits) on trombone. Doors are at 7 pm, and tix $20. But even if you're nowhere nearby, Auktyon is the pickaxe to crack the remnant cold-war permafrost on your listening map.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 29 at 4:57 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Dialogue of a Scene

An interview with yours truly, conducted by Katarina Collins (Pyramid Culture, Barcelona Pavilion, ex-Republic of Safety, maker of the "Torontopia" documentary film) has just gone up on the website of the spry and assiduous Indiepolitik.org. It's mostly on Toronto-specific themes, but also about criticism, participation versus observation and why widespread secret dreams of rock stardom are toxic to music communities. The photo, by the way, isn't meant to be coy - it's a picture from a masquerade party that happened to be the only shot of me I had on my computer.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 14 at 9:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (28)

 

The Crystal Shipp

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Tonight at the Music Gallery and tomorrow afternoon at Arrayspace, a rare visit from one of my favourite living jazz musicians, New York pianist Matthew Shipp, collaborator with DJ Spooky, David S. Ware, William Parker, the Anti-Pop Consortium and many others, curator of the Blue Series, but more vitally an extraordinary rider of the keyboard-as-rocket-shipp. I have a profile and interview with Shipp today - about his new disc One and his current (and perhaps perpetual, he says) solo tour - in The Globe and Mail, aptly titled, "Future jazz for solo piano," which you can read on the jump. There were some nice sections in that interview I didn't get to use in the piece, and I'll post them later in the weekend.

Also, I was stunned by how many people wrote volunteering to help out on the site. Thanks to you all. I'll get back to everyone by Monday.



Future jazz for solo piano

Matthew Shipp strings together a century of musical styles with ease, CARL WILSON writes

The Globe and Mail
Review
Sat., March 4, 2006

In his film The Five Obstructions, Danish director Lars von Trier dares an older peer to make a series of movies based on rules he imposes: One must be made of very short shots, another in "the most horrible place on Earth," another as a cartoon. When he thinks his foil has cheated, von Trier penalizes him with the most torturous challenge he can muster: No rules. No guidelines. Total freedom. The result is the worst film in the lot.

A not-dissimilar provocation led to One, the new album by New York-based jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, who comes to Toronto this weekend.

At a time when he'd played in every possible setting, with squealing saxophones or skittering violins as well as DJs, drum machines and even rappers - and was eager to record with his then-"hot" acoustic trio - the owner of his record label heard Shipp play solo at an awards ceremony and urged him to make his next record that way: On his own. Total freedom.

"He felt I should really bring pressure to bear," says Shipp, hoarse from a cold, on the phone from New York, "It would force people to deal with my vocabulary on the instrument directly . . . because that's all there'd be."

Yet Shipp's response was a revelation, a 40-minute kaleidoscope of a century of piano styles strung together as naturally as a sigh.

Now in his mid-40s, Shipp is a beacon for younger musicians seeking the outer limits, not all of them jazz buffs. You are as likely to find some of the 26 discs under his name and dozens more with other groups in shops that stock techno or indie rock. Experimental-rock audiences picked up on Shipp's chunky, dissonant improvisations in the 1980s and 1990s. He had the austere look of a monk, or a ninja, to match his music's quantum-math complications. Unlike a lot of "free" jazz, Shipp's music wasn't so much a stream of emotion as a spiral drilling simultaneously into sediment and stratosphere.

Yet he played like an athlete. His shoulders bobbed like a boxer's (he's a big fight fan). He covered the 88-key range like radar sweeping the territory, with close attention to suspicious goings-on in the bass registers, where alien entities might most likely be found. Younger listeners disillusioned with punk rock were attracted to another path of musical extremes.

Next, as curator of the Thirsty Ear label's Blue Series in the past five years, Shipp became a pioneer in "jazztronica," mixing and matching DJs, industrial-beat mongers, laptop-computer musicians and rappers with the most stubbornly abstract acoustic jazz, perhaps most ravishingly on his own 2004 disc, Harmony and Abyss.

These projects have drawn predictable bile from purists, but much more praise. They've provoked visions of a future jazz that might reconnect with its roots in popular black dance music without requiring a neo-conservative retreat into swing.

After all that, Shipp relished the chance to strip down. "Solo, I can go where my whims take me in a really organic way," he says. "With a group, it's maybe 60 per cent, since I have to respond to what's going on. Alone, it is a placement in space, a certain way I can breathe, that I think is unique."

Indeed, the dozen pieces that form One can be heard as a continuous statement instead of 12 units of two to four minutes. "I'm dealing with minuets, miniatures, little atomic structures," Shipp says. "I'm trying to find little poetic worlds and put the extended techniques inside them."

With its integration of gospel and show tunes, Duke Ellington blues and Bud Powell bop with spiky atonal rows and funereal chord clusters out of Debussy, Schoenberg and Ives, One also suggests the unity of all musical means. "I'm fascinated by language and syntax, and that's what it all is to me," he says. "Hopefully, I digest it and make it a part of my body."

The disc has a measured maturity compared to Shipp's previous solo discs, such as Symbol Systems a decade ago. Rather than a mass of theory in twisting diagrams, these pieces are like long sentences out of Henry James, thoughts sustained over semicolons and commas and caesuras of musical grammar.

Shipp himself is so satisfied, he says, "If I had my way I'd continue touring behind this album forever and never make another."

It's a notion he's raised before - he loudly announced his "retirement" from the studio in 1999, but reconsidered when Thirsty Ear offered him the Blue Series. But it reflects a view of recording honestly different from the jazz impulse to "document" bands and performances.

"I don't want to have as many albums as [saxophonists] Anthony Braxton or David Murray. It's too much for people to deal with. It's too much for me to deal with. . . . For me, the recording process is not unlike the R&B; and rock I grew up with, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, which was all about concept albums. My hero was Stevie Wonder, with albums like Songs in the Key of Life. That's how I think."

While continuing the Blue Series and playing with other groups, he is heading to a different town on his own every weekend, from Toronto to Nashville. "I want to play every city in America, in old folks' homes and churches and galleries," he says.

With the significance of jazz as anything but a historical music so badly deteriorated today, Shipp sees the tour as secular evangelism. "If I'm seen as a 'crossover' artist, to me you can't get more crossover than playing solo piano. People have pianos in their homes. You think of solo piano, you think of Scott Joplin, Vladimir Horowitz, Rubenstein, even Elton John. That's why I want to get out and connect with people in small rooms."

Solo piano, he says, is "turn-of-the-century music" - and Matthew Shipp is more than ready for jazz to turn to face the next one.

Matthew Shipp performs tonight at 8 p.m., at the Music Gallery, St. George-the-Martyr Church, 197 John St., and tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. at Arraymusic Studio, 60 Atlantic Ave., Ste. 218.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 04 at 1:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

She Creates! She Scores!

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Arts awards are a topical subject today, given tonight's East Coast Music Awards, the upcoming Oscars and the Junos - which, it's just been announced, will be hosted by Canada's own plaster-caster manqué, Pamela Anderson. (Er, above.) And then there's the less-bodacious controversy in the comments boxes this weekend, concerning, first, my omitting mention of the upcoming 2006 National Jazz Awards (given that one of my favourite local musicians, bassist Rob Clutton, is nominated, among many other worthy players) - and, subsequently, the issue of whether "the whole notion of best this or that is so incredibly old school" and "not as much about music as it is about sports."

Artistic competition is a tradition going back to the Ancient Greek drama festivals (which were paired with sporting contests) and it's not going to go away, nor should it, for just the reason Tim was suggesting - it raises audience awareness and excitement. Witness American Idol (and its kin), which tricks people into watching a show about singing because someone is going to win (and, more frequently and schadenfreud-satisfyingly, lose). Even more so witness the CBC's National Playlist, which manages to trick a sizable audience into listening to a daily half-hour of music criticism by making it a game, complete with time restrictions, ringing bells and elimination rounds. The game has no real purpose other than to be a game, but the gambit works. Saying "art is not a contest" is stupid - art is in competition with other art and non-art for the public's time, and awards and other competitive spectacles are the Trojan Horses artists use to penetrate the fortress of mass and media attention. Art is also a contest for meaning, and significance, wrapped up in concepts of advancement and evolution and influence that, for all their pernicious deceptions, we have a hard time living without.

People have an apparently innate enjoyment of contests, and if some gladiatorial sparring has the effect of focusing minds upon the arts once in a while, it's a good tactic, as suggested by the inventors of Theatresports and other comedy-improv contests, as well as poetry slams, etc. (Granted, the challenge is to devise ways that the rules of the game can prevent the level of pandering to which these contests can sink. But I'll leave that for now.) It's certainly far preferable to the more common approach of treating art with the language of business, in which box-office stats, TV ratings, album sales and auction prices become the biggest arbiters of value. If only there were an art Olympics, with the same requirement of amateurism and fascination with the process!

Of course that is not art's primary value and purpose. But why is that even worth saying? The "art is not a contest" complaint generally seems to stem from a sappy wish to assert that all art deserves our love (which is not true), which ultimately masks a fear that if art is a contest, the speaker may be losing it. It's the sentiment that says that if there are to be any awards given out in schools, everybody has to get one, and so forth. Go watch The Incredibles: Saying everyone is special is a way of saying that nobody is special, and while that is true in terms of basic human worth, in fact people (including artists) are special in multivalent ways and not equal to one another on every level, and recognition of extraordinary talents and achievements seems to me more democratic in its acknowledgment of that diversity and the qualities that make humanity seem a more viable going proposition, against all the reasons to give up on the whole pitiful mess. You'd think, from the chagrin with which some speak of it, that the penalty for losing the Giller or the Juno were execution, or at least the immediate cessation of your career, when mostly they raise interest in their fields in general, to everyone's benefit.

Not to say that the evaluation and jockeying for position are not constantly getting out of hand: I would prefer a culture of arts appreciation in which the central communal ritual was not the annual, lumped-together 10-best list. I heard an interesting comment on NPR this weekend that the elimination of separate Oscars for musical scores for dramatic films and comedies has resulted in a total shut-out of comedy scores, due to inherent biases in the film academy's judgments, which consider dramas more Important, and overblown John Williamsesque scores therefore more significant than those with a light, agile touch. That is what Best lists tend to do, when they're not separated out into categories each with their own valid criteria.

And of course, the process lends itself to corruption: Check out James F. English's recent book The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, which documents the myriad ways the ever-growing field of arts prizes acts like a crazed counterfeiting machine that goes on adding ersatz cultural currency to the system until every kind of cultural capital seems always-already-surplus. (In its function as an annex of the celebrity-industrial complex.) But English also notes the way that the prizes all act as pivot points for argument - the purpose of the awards is as much to be wrong as to be right, to be denounced, to leave out the "real winner" and propel a whole cacophanous discourse around value and quality. And even then, they're not taken too seriously, if you compare it to the way people get emotional about athletics, the way Wayne Gretzky is now somehow covered in a shroud of grief because his team didn't win the gold medal. (You don't get headlines reading A Nation in Mourning when Denys Arcand doesn't win a foreign-film Oscar!)

All that said, though, there's a specific reason why I haven't talked about the National Jazz Awards, and it has to do with the creepy process involved. Because they're awarded by a strangely arbitrary online popular vote, the nominees are pushed (by understandable career anxiety) into lobbying mode, rattling around in my email in-box pleading "vote for me!" as if they were running for queen of the jazz prom. The whole thing is uncomfortable and damaging to the dignity of the musicians and of the potential voters they have to glad-hand. I wish it were a juried prize or even an "academy" kind of process (which would at least introduce a degree of formality to the atmosphere, as well as, in both cases, producing enjoyable caricaturable villains, as James English documents). It leaves me unenthused to participate. We may disagree (hell, I may even disagree with myself) about whether art should be more like sports. But surely none of us are yearning for it to be even more like politics.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 27 at 3:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Ariel Pink's Spoiled Graffiti, Repainted

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Saw the Ariel Pink/Psychic Ills performance at the Boat tonight - interrupted by a cameo appearance by the po-po because of a neighbour's noise complaint. (Hope this isn't the shape of things to come.) The Ills were quite fine, in much the vein I described last week but looser, with less ambient-shoegazery - but I have to say that in relation even to the most well-done neo-psychedelic soundscapery, with an attuned psychic (sorry) link among the players, I end up feeling I'd rather be listening to jazz. The analog synth and guitar interplay was the highlight, along with the low drones from the attractive bass player (the vocals were just murk), but I could only yearn that they would build their phrases from a broader harmonic-expressive lexicon. Most of the crowd seemed to, um, dig it, though.

And those folks and I parted ways partway again with Ariel Pink's set, which was marred from the start by the California boy's petulant, spoiled kvetching about the monitors and the mix, the shenanigans for which he's infamous live: "Everywhere I go, people fuckin' hate me," he bitched, with the echo on his mic providing a (not accidentally, I suspect) comical repetition and fade of his complaint. It drove a good portion of the Psychic Ills admirers out the door, if the delay-by-cop hadn't already done so. But with a sizable segment of the crowd stubbornly unwilling to take "I'm too much of a jerk" for an answer, he gradually got into a great groove, with his K-Tel-Greatest-Hits-Drenched-in-Bleach catchily-distorted tunes eventually rippling out into a vast concentric circle of warped sugarpop till I couldn't stop dancing. It was the back-from-the-brink effect, the "Reality Dub" (see previous explication in this post) that I find even more beguiling than conventionally good showmanship. But in this case the terms were reversed: Rather than Ariel manipulating the audience with a deliberate "throwing" of the show and a recovery, the audience manipulated him, clapping and singing and jiving along with songs that he was delivering only desultorily, until he had to unleash some of the Bowie-esque chameleonic superpowers you hear on his records, and regale us with these extraterrestrially idealized creations that channel the dessicated spirits of the Archies, Captain & Tennille, the Smiths and Depeche Mode, by turns, like a too-many-times-rewashed Magnetic Fields. (The polka-dot blouse helped.) I think my favourite factor was the half-dozen people in the crowd who kept mimicking him every time he used his little tic, his "shhhh" sounds over the backup-tape karaoke-instrumentals. It was Toronto saying, "Calm down, dude, we get conceptual indie-mock here, it's old news to us, just do your show and stop being so defensive." After threatening to walk off three times in the first five minutes, he ended up closing a 40-minute set (probably curtailed by the noise issue more than anything) by saying, "I'm really not used to such a supportive crowd." It made me proud of this open-skulled city, with its slogan, "We fix your damaged artists." Although I still thought, man, you should see Wax Mannequin - he'll show you how to deliver those mangled original-classics with real pizzazz.

Kudos by the way, to the Boat's skipper Trevor Coleman for handling the primadonna with egoless aplomb, which just reinforced the joy.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 21 at 3:09 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

'60 Revelations Per Minute/ This is My Regular Speed'

eugene_thumb.jpgEugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello.

I've been confined to bed today as my cold punishes me for sleeping too little this week, so I'm late in mentioning that I had a profile in the paper on Friday of New York "gypsy punk" ensemble Gogol Bordello, one of my favourite bands on Earth, including an interview with an indefatigable verbal volcano, their frontman Eugene Hutz - I'll share some unprinted sections from that interview on Zoilus nearer to their Toronto gig on Wednesday. (Also check out the band's touring music collection, a pretty great source of recommendations.) As well, today my biweekly Thought Bubbles column in the Focus section dealt with more fraudulent memoirists, the deceptions of the French country market, a lucky break for Noam Chomsky and the latest pomo-theory rock star, Giorgio Agamben.

The Wavelength panels went well, thanks for asking, though next time I'd suggest they just be held entirely apart from a night of shows - I think a discussion could draw more people if it weren't going to mean committing yourself to a six-or-seven-hour evening. (Also: Snacks!) But our "shape of things to come" panel must have been at least moderately successful since it's already spawned this take-action thread on Stillepost. Rethinking the indie music community on the model of artist-run centres and artist-run culture feels like an exciting breakthrough to me, for all the participants whose goal is not necessarily "be a famous rock star." (For more on the panels also see the comments box to Thursday's entry, below.)

Also I had a blast recording the coming week's National Playlist radio show with Sarah Slean and Laurie Brown yesterday and I think it's going to make for a lively, intelligent five mornings of discussion about music (yes, they record the whole week's panels the Friday before, even though they pretend it's live day-to-day - that's your little peek behind the curtain - but no, I won't tell you how it turns out). So even if you're sceptical about the show in general, I encourage you to listen this time, Mon-Fri at 11:30 am to noon on CBC Radio 1.

Roma revival

CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Friday, February 10, 2006

When Gogol Bordello first visited Toronto a few years ago, the grotty club they played was dominated by Ukrainian and Russian teens who'd heard the extravagant eight-piece "gypsy punk" band was led by a fellow expat. The few non-Slavs present had heard rumours of a handlebar-mustached, rock-circus ringmaster, whose vodka-fuelled shows mixed (as the band's name suggests) bawdy romps with literary flights in a blender of broken languages, and wound up in Iggy Pop-like ecstatic states of undress.

When the band returns here next Wednesday, the crowd at the swank Drake Hotel may have heard it's led by a movie star. But nothing essential has changed.

Eugene Hutz's part-Roma (Gypsy) family fled Chernobyl's fallout when he was a teen, moving across Europe and finally to the U.S. This fall, the rebel refugee was the toast of the Toronto film festival as the passionately hapless "premium" translator Alex in Everything is Illuminated, the movie based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel.

Critics touted Hutz for a supporting-actor Oscar nomination that didn't materialize. "I wasn't losing my sleep over it," says Hutz. After all, fans already knew his screen persona had just a sliver of the charismatic creativity he brings to the stage. There, he's flanked by parade-drum-beating, war-painted nymphets and guys slashing fiddles and pumping accordions, doing for Gypsy music what the Pogues did for Irish folk tunes.

"Maybe my mom and the whole Ukrainian press was ready for me to take the Oscar. But I know where I belong and what I need to do."

Though he plans to keep acting, he's not about to abdicate his post as a subcultural saint of New York for Los Angeles, or accept any of the "predictable, bad-Eastern-European-guy-spreading-biological-weapons" movies he's been offered lately. As he sings on Gogol Bordello's latest album, Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike, "Them are too greedy to pay my asylum bills/ This is my life and freedom is my profession/ This is my mission throughout all flight duration."

That mission began back in Kiev, where he discovered rock through his musician father, then punk on his own in the black markets. "The Dead Kennedys's Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, I listened to that record 5,000 times," he says. (All Hutz's sentences come garnished with intensifying expletives, so just sprinkle them on in your head.) "It was right when perestroika was about to bust out. . . . Dead Kennedys was very Cold War, and I could tell these people were trying to break through from the other side on a humanitarian level. It spoke to me right away."

Through "exchange students from socialist African countries" he also heard funk bands such as War and Parliament-Funkadelic. "George Clinton said Funkadelic was about wanting to get 'the whole army' on stage. You see the influence of that in Gogol Bordello -- it's just an army of a different kind of characters."

Also key was discovering his Roma background. "We were doing the assimilated thing, but when we left Kiev I met the whole expanded family. I was kinda pissed off at first: 'This is the coolest part of our family!' I'm a Ukrainian-Russian-Lithuanian-Roma mix, and I can identify with any other spirit, but the Roma aspect is important because it brings you straight to the intersection of art and human rights, and all music and art that always interested me had that element of . . . reaching out through borders."

He finally made his way to his dream international city, New York, only to find the underground culture he'd idealized was in a fallow period. So he resolved to invent his own. Starting from a wedding band, he put together Gogol Bordello - with a pair of Russians, two Israelis, one Thai-American, an Ecuadorean, a Chinese-Scot and a drummer from Florida.

They amassed a following performing and DJing in tiny bars in Manhattan's meatpacking district, and then around the world. "We raised [our audience] like a kitten in tour after tour. Those fans aren't going to go anywhere. Now there's even [movie] hype that comes on top of it, but the foundation is already there. The best bands grow into success organically in their sixth or seventh year."

Major labels come calling now - too late, Hutz says - and their cross-cultural party scene has spawned fawning profiles in the New York Times, allies such as Slavic Soul Party! and the Hungry Marching Band, and even a few cheap imitations. "Sometimes I don't want to be Gandhi about it. I want to bust their ass. But everything is going to end up exactly where it belongs."

Hutz has bigger causes, namely the "cultural revolution" he proclaims in his most Clash-like moments in song, against the "strangling element" he's detected all over the world.

"I don't mean Chinese-style, to extinguish your own history. But I've gone through so many mind-warping and stretching experiences, I learned that human beings are very adaptable and powerful. It's all about how you process information. You don't have to give in to these pre-fab ideas fed you by education, or the celebrity cult of values that is force-fed you by media. . . . That is where you revolutionize yourself first."

No, Hutz hasn't gone Hollywood. By all signs, as he sings on Underdog World Strike, he's "undestructable."

Gogol Bodello and Lenin I Shumov appear at the Drake Hotel on Feb. 15. $12 to $15. 1150 Queen St. W., 416-531-5042.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 11 at 7:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Feral Children and Infinite Ghosts

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I wrote another version of this post on Friday, but a crash wiped it out, so here's the punchier version: A couple weeks back there was a thread on ILM comparing Cat Power, Fiona Apple and Beth Orton. Orton generally got ranked last, but she's the only one of the three who's ever really compelled my attention, at least before Apple's Extraordinary Machine. Orton's emotionality is lower-key and not nearly so self-dramatizing. But, as I said in my review on Friday of her new, fourth album, The Comfort of Strangers (produced by Jim O'Rourke), I've always been unsure whether I like her songs as much as I like her, or more accurately the persona or emotional tone that registers in her songs. Yet another of those (semi?) extra-musical factors that colour our responses to sound. In any case, if you've ever cottoned on to Orton, I do think this album's her best since her debut.

Also on Friday, I wrote the weekly Essential Tracks column. Usually I prefer to mix such lists up more genre-wise, but it ended up being rather indie-centric. It featured Petra Haden's a capella cover of one of my favourite songs, Brian Wilson's God Only Knows, the even more extreme exercise in a capella that is the Honda Civic "Choir" commercial, a new Sunset Rubdown track, and one from Philadelphia's Man Man, a band I still jerk back and forth about. (No real relevance between that link and Man Man - I've just been dying to mention DisneyDevo here, although I feel like coming up with any coherent response to them would involve several hours of intensive therapy. Maybe Primal Scream therapy.)

And speaking of completely fucked-up weird shit - Destroyer fans, feast your eyes on this.

Renewed, Orton raises the stakes

Carl Wilson
3 February 2006
The Globe and Mail


Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton (Astralwerks)

★ ★ ★

British singer Beth Orton's career has been blessed and damned by timing: Her 1996 debut Trailer Park offered a novel amalgam of folk music and techno, using fresh techniques to mix acoustic guitars with a more spacious sort of electronica. Her pleasingly gawky, personalized vocal style also answered a growing boredom with the idealization of the anonymous club diva.

Orton was quickly anointed the doyenne of “folktronica” by the press, and the buzz brought her other listeners who fell for the range of feeling in her songs, and the way a hopefulness radiated through all her depictions of emotional burn victims. Fans latched onto it the way people do to Joni Mitchell's Blue; Orton had a similar self-aware vulnerability, if not Mitchell's gift for indelible tunes and lyrical detail.

That it also clicked nicely as dinner-party background seemed like a bonus, but it came with a catch: By the time she made 1999's Central Reservation, with its minor hit Stolen Car, folktronica had become cheapened currency, as many others adopted the template, often with Brazilian or African or French twists. It became the standard Starbucks and hair-salon soundtrack, music by which to check your operating system for the millennium bug. The trend had become a millstone by the time of 2002's Daybreaker. The anxiety to transcend it without abandoning it stuck out all over the album, creating a mess of overdone gestures like a crateful of high-end discard accessories crushing the low-key naturalism of her songs. The project sank.

Soon she'd been dropped by the label that had championed her for more than a decade. In recent interviews she speaks of desperate months in which she had trouble getting out of bed, fearing she was finished. Succour came unexpectedly from a stranger, New York musician Jim O'Rourke. She intended just to hire him as a studio guitarist, but he ended up producing the whole album. Together they adopted a sparse, spontaneous approach that had them finished in a couple of weeks. Most of the tracks are first or second takes.

Those who know O'Rourke as the svengali behind Wilco's experimentally inclined Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or as a collaborator with cerebral noise-rock band Sonic Youth, may be surprised to find the sounds here nearly all acoustic and harmonious. The digital beats are gone, with jazz drummer Tim Barnes on percussion. A veteran improviser, O'Rourke honed in on the simplest, most immediate textures to highlight Orton's vocals. (Savvy listeners might recognize some of the rolling instrumental patterns of his own 1990s solo pop projects.)

As a folk album, funnily enough, it puts Orton in the middle of the moment once again: Comparable 1970s British troubadours such as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, are all enjoying a revival among the “free” or “freak” folk movement of acoustic-visionary young songwriters. The 14 songs, fixed on matters of heartbreak and longing, also include her best performances ever. Although her singing is always emotional, it's usually been checked by cool control, an attractive but limiting English reserve. On this more “live” set, she often lets her voice darken with rage, sarcasm, insistence — raising all the stakes.

Her recent troubles seem to have summoned up past ones, including a youth that was harsh by all accounts: There's a song toward the end of the album about “feral children” fighting off “infinite ghosts,” and these glimpses of the wounded animal make the music more human. There's also an intriguing religious sub-theme to many songs, in which the singer struggles with a lover/tormenter's rather righteous belief in God, which helps expand the scene beyond private pain — immediately evoking the secular world's current crisis over the demands of the devout.

Yet Orton's melodies still tend to wander more often than they punch, and for every striking lyric (“The world's not such a friendly place, is it?/ It can go very cold, very fast/ And for a very long time”) there are several poetic platitudes about sun and sky and love and time. While her voice commands attention every moment, only a few of the songs stick in the mind.

Beth Orton is a curious case of an artist who inspires empathy and affection, but leaves you unsure if you like her music quite as much as you like her. Perhaps the nicest thing about her renewed vitality here is the sure sense that there will be plenty more time to work that mystery out.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, February 03 at 4:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

'So, elevation and takeoff has to be
between 8 and 11 in the evening usually.'
Derek Bailey Postscript the Second

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I was just reading the Jazzcorner discussion of Derek Bailey's death, as I linked earlier, and came across two things I wanted to share. First, just a note that the funeral takes place Thursday (Jan. 5) at 10 a.m. London time, at the City of London Crematorium. And second, Jon Abbey posted an out-of-print interview with Bailey from 2000 by New Zealand writer Nick Cain, which includes an amazing passage with Bailey's thoughts on collaboration, about the "transcendent" notion of free jazz, which he critiques with great clarity, and about the problem of the workaday nature of art-making for musicians. Especially good reading for other improvisers, but worthwhile for anyone interested in jazz and improv. You'll find it on the jump.

From an interview with Derek Bailey by Nick Cain in Opprobrium magazine, which can be found in full on this page in the Jazzcorner forum.

N: How flexible an improviser do you regard yourself to be? For example, when you play with Han Bennink, you sound different to how you do when you play with Cecil or Steve Lacy - how much of yourself do you think you retain when you're playing with various different people?

D: To me, the way I play is the musical equipment I bring to the event. The way I play is what I'm going to work with. But the music, for me, is brought by the other people. There isn't any point in playing with somebody unless they're going to bring music. I'm sometimes accused of ignoring people I play with, which has always struck me as strange, because I find other people very necessary. I don't, for instance, like playing solo, and I'm not that interested in playing solo - doing it or listening to it, or anything. Although most of the gigs I get are solo. I kind of feel that what I do is not complete unless I'm playing with somebody else. They do more than complete it, they provide the basis for whatever we're doing. It starts with the other people.

Particularly in recent years, I've found that the two most stimulating things in playing are difference and unfamiliarity. The playing I've done over the last five or six years has come about partly through accidents and partly through intention, and it's been poking around looking for other situations outside the improvised music field. The best plays are with other improvisers but to take this tool, this way of playing, into other situations, to see how it works, that's important for me. It's always based in improvisation, because that's the way I work but to make it work with other people, who perhaps don't normally play improvised music, that's very satisfying. [...]

N: What I meant was, when you play with people like that, how much do you adapt to them, and how much do they adapt to you?

D: I thought I'd explained that. I can only adapt so far, because it's of no interest to me to go and play with Min Xiao-Fen, say, and imitate the pipa, use a few of her scales and play with her in a kind of quasi-Chinese way. But it is of interest to me to take what I do and make it work in her situation as far as I can, to see if I can make it work, and to see how successful I can be. She's the essential element - without her, I'm just playing what I always play, and that's of no interest at all to me. Or, very little interest. Except as a research thing. So the other people are vital.

N: So you're recontextualising what you do?

D: Yeah, and that's what it's for - to be recontextualised, as you put it.That's the purpose of it. Taking it into a strange, unfamiliar musical situation vitalises it, that's what it's for. And in a sense, that's what it was always for - to play with other people. Coming round over the years to playing the way I do now, from starting out playing conventionally, was in the first place in order to accommodate playing freely with other people. I never thought that playing free was satisfying enough if I used conventional techniques and material. If I was using conventional techniques and material, I would sooner play conventional music. Particularly when I first started playing freely, I didn't want to lose any of the satisfaction I'd derived from playing conventional jazz. So it had to work for me in certain ways. it wasn't just a question of aiming for some emotional oblivion, and passing from this planet into some sort of transcendent state. I wasn't interested in that approach.

N: You mean like the William Parker/free jazz visionary sort of thing?

D: I don't automatically link them together. William is a remarkable player and I've played with him in situations which have little or nothing to do with free jazz. And playing free jazz with William is quite special in the same way that playing free jazz with Milford Graves is special. The genuine article. So, I've got nothing against that shit when it's played by the right people, but it's not the main thing for me.

N: I think the idea of free playing as an ongoing, workaday kind of music is more honest than this notion of free jazz as providing some sort of spiritual elevation and mental takeoff.

D: There are a lot of strange things about playing that way. You rarely choose the time and place when you play, for instance. This - what did you callit? Elevation and...

N: Takeoff. They're not very good terms.

D: They're fine. So, elevation and takeoff has to be between 8 and 11 in the evening usually. And at 11, you have to come down, presumably. And when you do that, do you go home and have a cup of cocoa? And it does depend on somebody giving you a gig. Somebody might ring you up and say: "How are you fixed for February 14th for doing a bit of elevating and taking off down at my club? Can you come over to New York and spend three nights elevating and taking off? Start at 8, don't be late." There's a whole mundane side to playing that I think disqualifies it as an art. It's something different. And you have to do it on the basis of that. It includes art but it's more than that. You get comparisons sometimes with painting. But can you imagine a painter who'd be willing to always paint in a public place between 8 and 11 at night with a bunch of people peering over their shoulder? They invented the studio, for fuck's sake. The idea was to shut everybody off, and then to be alone with their muse. Playing, you can't be alone with your muse - you've got to share it with whoever's turned up. The whole business of aiming for some sort of emotional catharsis when you play seems to me to be a very limiting thing. Its more complicated than that.

N: I find the idea that you can achieve some sort of transcendent ecstasy by listening to free jazz a bit naive. I like a lot of that music, but it's been around for such a long time now that it's no longer necessarily a very radical form of music. It has its own tradition just like anything else.

D: I've got nothing against free jazz the way the early guys played it. It was an exploration. It's much different now to what it used to be 30, 40 years ago. I mean, I quite like active music. I like inactive music as well, but I've got nothing against active music. I don't think there's anything wrong with sweating, if the music gets you to that state. [laughs] But using that as a basis for what you're doing, you're on pretty uninteresting ground. Especially over a longer period. But some people play for that, and if they get satisfaction out of it, fine. My general view of these things is that I don't give two fucks what the others do as long as I can do what I do.

N: In the past you've expressed antipathy towards jazz - why is that? Is it because you resent the way free jazz and improv are lumped together?

D: I don't think it's done any good for free improvisation, generally speaking, to be coupled with jazz. But my view of jazz is that it died about 1956. It staggered on in some quite interesting ways into the early '60s, and then it was resurrected in a rather ghoulish manner in the 1980s. But this is also a personal thing. It was partly to do with my own dissatisfaction with it and my decision, around the age of 23, that I was never going to be Charlie Christian. Before that, I'd probably entertained delusions about being a great jazz player. I decided at that time that if that's what I wanted I should have started in a different place, at a different time, and maybe in a different race.

N: Which of the jazz players did you rate? I know that in the past you've mentioned Albert Ayler.

D: I think he was a fine player, but all the jazz players I've really admired have been conventional players. They had a freedom that was built into the idiom, and once you step outside it, the whole thing falls to pieces... The basis for jazz changed in the '50s. It used to lead popular music, popular music used to borrow from jazz. At some point in the late '50s, I suppose when rock 'n' roll turned up, it was obvious jazz wasn't leading anything. [laughs] That's all a rather lengthy explanation of why I don't hate the stuff, it's just that I'm just not interested in it. And the fact that for one or two free players, it's important to be known as jazz players - while there might be some immediate career advantage in that, because most of the work lies within the jazz world for free players, in Europe, anyway - it's never seemed to be a very productive association. From a free point of view. I think it's much better now, where there's just this mess out there, there's all kinds of shit going down - one area's all based on electronics, another area's based on fringe rock, and so on. I think that's a good background against which a free improviser can work. [...]

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 03 at 2:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

... of the Year

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You know, you're not intending to do it, but then you read all the others and you get itchy.

The top 10 in order, left to right, row by row:

sunset.jpg aerial.jpg has a good home.jpg runtheroad.jpg trapped.jpg congotronics.jpg woods.jpg arular.jpg youain't.jpg drumheller1.jpg

That is: 1. The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree; 2. Kate Bush: Aerial; 3. Final Fantasy: ... Has A Good Home; 4. Run the Road (grime compilation); 5. R. Kelly: Trapped in the Closet pts 1-12 (I really mean the collected singles, rather than the DVD, but this is the only format you can get them in, and of course worthwhile watching too); 6. Konono No. 1: Congotronics; 7. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods; 8. M.I.A.: Arular; 9. Charlie Poole: You Ain't Talkin' to Me (box set); 10. Drumheller: Drumheller.

The next 10: 11. Jon Rae & The River: Old Songs for the New Town; 12. Joel Plaskett: La De Da; 13. Bettye Lavette: I've Got My Own Hell to Raise; 14. Veda Hille: Return of the Killdeer; 15. Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive; 16. Old 97's: Alive and Wired; 17. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema; 18. SS Cardiacs: Fear the Love; 19. Brian Joseph Davis: Greatest Hit; 20. Vijay Iyer: Reimagining.

And 20 more, in alphabetical order: Bjork: Drawing Restraint 9; Blackalicious: The Craft; Richard Buckner & Jon Langford: Sir Dark Invader Vs. The Fanglord; Cadence Weapon: Breaking Kayfabe; John Cale: Black Acetate; Rob Clutton: Dubious Pleasures; Constantines: Tournament of Hearts; Deerhoof: The Runners Four; Destroyer (with Frog Eyes): Notorious Lightning & Other Works; Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Come On Back; Holy Fuck: Holy Fuck; Seu Jorge: The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions; William Parker: Sound Unity; Republic of Safety: Passport EP; Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers; Wadada Leo Smith/Quintus/et al: Snakish; Tenement Halls: Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells; Martha Wainwright: Martha Wainwright; Lee Ann Womack: There's More Where That Came From; Xiu Xiu: La Forêt.

In plain, this was such a rocky year personally (regular readers will have a notion why) that I didn't feel my general music-tracking apparatus was in solid shape. Nor have I had time to do the usual year-end quest and catchup. I haven't even had access to most of my records for the past few months - artists, if you were hoping for a review from me that never came, I'm sorry - your record was probably covered in ash and boxed up in the wake of the house fire, or it became part of the intimidating wall-of-sound that sits atop my desk at the Globe. Next year will be better. (Right?) So my list is both more predictable and more local than one could claim really reflects 2005. (Although to be local to Toronto is certainly a more accurate reflection of this year than most!) No doubt I'm forgetting significant records, but this is a fairly good reflection of what I listened to this year. Was it a good or a bad year for music? I thought it was a poor one, but that's filtered through the dark lens of the year it was for me.

The reason that No. 1 is ranked there, besides that it's an open, empathic and novelistic work by a boundlessly gifted songwriter, is likely that it spoke to these struggles the most directly: "I am gonna make it through this year/ If it kills me." And the number 2 pick offers a generous creative outpouring from someone who has made it through to the deep centre of adulthood without losing her nerve, which is part of what feels at risk in any grim time. I believe I've said enough about number 3. And the rest of the top-rankers, frankly, were pure compensatory pleasure. Wish I'd had more time to keep up with pop music, in particular (actually more time-consuming, since it never gets sent to me - it involves whiling away time watching Much or spinning a radio dial); but certainly also jazz-improv-experimental, electronic-dance, etc.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 20 at 5:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (25)

 

The Greatest Living Ballad Singer

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I have an appreciation of jazz singer ("Little") Jimmy Scott, 80, who's opening for the fine singer Dianne Reeves at Massey Hall next Wednesday, in today's Globe and Mail. Jimmy Scott's is one of the great lost-artist-returned stories of modern times, and his voice, at once masculine and feminine, boyish and worldly wise, is one of the most moving I have ever heard. (Antony lovers and haters alike need to hear it.) The piece emphasizes his music's sadness, but gentle consolation also pulses through his tone. If you're looking for a place to start, try the recent - well, not reissues so much as recoveries - of his once-shelved masterworks, the 1962, Ray Charles-supervised Falling in Love is Wonderful, and 1969's soulful The Source. But Zoilus readers would also be interested in 1998's Holding Back the Years, where he sings songs by Prince, Elvis Costello, Bryan Ferry and even Elton John, as well as (as mentioned in the piece) his 1996 gospel cover of Talking Heads' Heaven. But first, read about his incredible life.

An evocative voice of great sadness

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, December 16, 2005

When 80-year-old Jimmy Scott sings the song he has made one of his signatures, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, it is not merely a lyrical figuration of loneliness, though in Scott's rendition the familiar spiritual blues becomes a cry as bereft as a bark-stripped tree. It is also a literal lament, carrying the knowing listener back to a root tragedy in Scott's life, when his seamstress mother was torn from him in an Ohio road accident and the 13-year-old boy and his nine siblings became leaves scattered to various foster homes.

Many a motherless child grows up too fast, but for Scott, who performs at Massey Hall in Toronto next week, there was a bitter twist: He was born with Kallman's syndrome, a hormonal disorder that interferes with puberty. He would forever be as small and smooth-skinned as a boy; his voice would never drop. For protecting himself in the macho streets and nightclubs of the 1940s, it was a curse. For the jazz singer he was fated to be, inspired by his heroes Paul Robeson and Judy Garland, it was as if the gods had appointed him to a unique destiny.

When people speak of "Little" Jimmy Scott - admirers have ranged from Ray Charles to Lou Reed to Madonna - they describe how his voice channels an elemental sadness, as if pouring the suppressed sob of a ballad right into the listener's body, welling up through your chest into your throat and brimming over in your eyes.

Whether singing his one Top 10 hit from 1950 (as a singer for Lionel Hampton's orchestra), Everybody's Somebody's Fool, or new repertoire such as Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U, Scott makes the notes throb, timed behind the beat as if the words had caught on unseen thorns. In 2000, The New York Times Magazine called him "perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century."

Billie Holiday once called him her favourite singer, and the feeling was mutual: Scott's voice often evokes a more robust Holiday, suspended, floating somehow, over the same abyss into which she disappeared. That rare likeness is a consequence of the most commonly noted strangeness of Scott's sound, its androgyny.

On hearing his male alto, most people assume it's a woman, a fact that made record companies skittish 30 and 40 years ago, besides putting Scott in frequent physical jeopardy. He coped by drinking and (because his development wasn't entirely arrested) marrying the wrong women, repeatedly.

He made a similarly bad contract at Savoy Records, which by the 1960s would neither release his recordings nor let anyone else (including Ray Charles) do so. By decade's end, Scott retreated to Cleveland in a disappearance of his own, taking menial jobs and seldom performing. Rumour had it he was dead. After he surfaced in the mid-1980s to say to the contrary, director David Lynch (one of the white hipsters who have often exoticized Scott) cast him as a ghost singing while a midget dances in the Twin Peaks finale.

Finally, in 1991, Scott captivated an executive who heard him sing at the funeral of songwriter Doc Pomus, a longtime Scott champion. This led to his Grammy-nominated comeback album, All the Way, and since then, watched over by a caring fifth wife, Scott has released a half-dozen albums of standards and new material, and been the subject of a biography and two documentaries. His voice has grown hushed, but still potent: An album of duets with some famous younger fans is reportedly under way.

You could say he's making up lost time, but for Jimmy Scott, the singer and the man, time always seems a little less solid than for others. While he is often said to transverse gender, like a jazz Tiresias, that is a side effect: It's more true to his condition to say his voice pierces the boundary between adult and child. It tantalizes with a yearned-for innocence, yet only experience could make it ache so. It's a paradox harrowingly near the dilemma every love song hides. The most sorrowful word in his set piece has never been "motherless," but always "child." And only in old age is it being widely heard.

One of my favourite later performances is the title track of his 1996 gospel album: Heaven, he croons, "is a place/ Where nothing ever happens." It was pungent enough when originally recorded by the Talking Heads. But perhaps only Jimmy Scott could turn it into a song of praise, for a miracle so awful and so bright, all it can do is come true.

Jimmy Scott opens for Dianne Reeves at Massey Hall on Dec. 21. $49.50 to $69.50. 416-872-4255.

There's also a good interview with Jimmy Scott by Tim Perlich in this week's Now Magazine.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 16 at 12:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Destroyer's Rubies:
'I Passed Off Those Couplets
In Honour of the Void...'

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Yes, the much-delayed post on Destroyer's Rubies by Destroyer aka Dan Bejar. The domestic chaos this fall led me to put this one off, and now the album (due Feb. 21) has leaked all over the interwebbage. The upside is that people can respond with their own thoughts now.

It never occurred to me that the "drinking game" is a sub rosa form of criticism until I saw the notion of a Destroyer drinking game get tossed around on the Merge Records web forum. It brings to the surface everything that's "typical" of its target, and the rules serve as a skeletal portrait of the thing at hand, a kind of recipe. I'll put my own adapted version of the rules on the jump at the end of this post. My point is that Destroyer's Rubies, more I think than any past Destroyer album, would leave you totally hammered: In a sense the surprise is that it is such a characteristic Destroyer album, that it doesn't take some abrupt turn in the manner of Dan's first two records after signing with Merge, This Night and Your Blues, the first a sprawling, noisy and near-improvised rock record and the second an inside-out tesseract of MIDI synth decadence.

Instead, it's taking the spirits of both those records and transfusing them back into the comparatively straight rock form heard on Streethawk. It's probably closer to the record Merge anticipated when they took Destroyer on, the one most fans expected to follow Streethawk. Ryan suggested to me that it's the most "accessible" Destroyer album yet - a funny claim for a disc that begins with a nearly 10-minute-long song with no real chorus, but still a relatively reasonable one.

If I had been told this in advance, I might have felt let down: Why retreat to rock? People take the name Destroyer as a joke - this little fey singer-songwriter advertising himself like Thor - and it is, but no, it isn't. Destroyer always had destruction earnestly on his agenda, a war against the social and aesthetic confines of "indie rock," to break on through to a more imaginatively complex, less compromised zone - which is just the way Your Blues sounded, like a liberation from the empire of electric guitar. Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) told me a few weeks ago that he'd been thinking of inviting Destroyer to tour with him this spring, the deal being that Owen with his harpsichord and string quartet would serve as Destroyer's backing band. Part of me would much rather hear that than a solid working rock band, as Dan's reportedly assembled semi-permanently here. The song Looter's Follies opens with a verse that could be heard as surrender: "You can huff and you can puff/ But you'll never destroy that stuff./ Finally, I see why, I suppose:/ Kids, you'd better change your feathers/ 'Cuz you'll never fly with those/... things." Perhaps meaning, give this crusade up, it'll never fly.

But by the end of the song, he's singing, "I swear somewhere the truth lies within this wood!/ I swear Looter's Follies has never sounded so good!" So the surrender is a feint - it's actually a boast. This is the most assured, least defensive record Dan's ever made; it's "characteristic" because it's so confident in its character. It's not afraid to rock because it's not obliged to rock, and often it doesn't - there's as much chanteur-style crooning and theatricality here as on Your Blues, and knotty instrumental tomfoolery as on This Night - but rather than forming a Brechtian distancing screen, it coalesces into something like the song's "mercurial presence hitherto unknown." (A section hilariously sung, by the way, in an apparently deliberate Bob Dylan imitation - talk about swagger.) In sum, This Night and Your Blues were the manifestos for which this album is the exemplary masterpiece. Those were the journeys into the mine, and now here are Destroyer's rubies. (Now, really, Your Blues was a complete treasure in itself, but as a useful myth, let it stand.)

Nearly every song here achieves the sort of epic form that was hinted at occasionally in past songs such as The Bad Arts, Crystal Country and What Road, dramatic pieces in which there are multiple scenes, themes and characters, variously placed in time and in chambers of memory. The "la-da-da-dee-dai" choruses that appear in six of the album's 10 songs have many functions, and one is to crossfade between stations in a given song.

And while Destroyer still does and doubtless always will embody a polemic, an ongoing debate about the role of art in the world and of the art business in art and Destroyer's own role in all of it... on Destroyer's Rubies it is only secondary - which again suggests the end of the cycle that began on Thief, in which that dilemma was either rhetorically or formally (on Your Blues) a constant preoccupation. It still gets in some pointed sallies - as on the opening track's "Oh, it is just your precious American underground/ And it is born of wealth," and in Looter's Follies, "Why can't you see/ That a life in art and a life of mimicry/ They're the same thing!" - but this album is more about worldly experience, usually considered in retrospect, with fierce passions and regrets. The (mostly) women he sings about and to - Candace in European Oils, the one with "that penchant for destruction in the way you talk" in the transfixing Painter in Your Pocket, even the one identified as A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point - all pulse with personality, rummaging through the wilds of these songs, and are themselves wounded or refreshed there. They're seldom the girls-named-whatever who sauntered into earlier Destroyer songs to serve their rhetorical purposes and then be summarily dismissed.

All of which helps make the album "accessible" to those who don't necessarily have the preoccupations shared by Dan and, I suspect, many core Destroyer fans up till now. But the real reason this album is going to be embraced by many, many people outside that inner circle is that it's so luxuriantly musical, with the full potlatch-prodigiousness of textures and harmonies found on This Night - but where that album was eager to just throw all this music on a bonfire, here it's built up and sculpted. These tunes aren't just settings for Dan's lyrics, supporting sceneries for contemporary poetry in song, they're songs that swell with further song - the da-dada-dum-da's are needed to soak it all up. And you're conscious not only of Dan as maestro but of the independent will of the band members, always in the pocket but bursting to get out: Scott Morgan on drums and sax, Tim Loewen on bass, Fisher Rose on vibes and trumpet, Ted Bois hanging garlands of piano and other keyboards, and Nicolas Bragg and Dan jousting with guitar lines that often rival the singing as lead voices. Music writers may have to give up the "aka Dan Bejar" after Destroyer's name now.

You could argue, and I have, that many of these points are also true of Your Blues, in its "adoration of surface," its orchestral manoeuvres, its immersion in dramatic emotion - but that album had its naugahyde-white synthetic coating, like a plastic bubble to keep it pure and cool. There was a fresh sexiness to that music, and the tactility of the synthesizers made it gleam. But this album is made of rough leather crusted with stones and thorns as well as gems - here, seduction isn't just a theory but a fluctuating-body-temperature sensory struggle in progress, between humans with as much "elementary desire" as pride or positional wariness at stake. Yet those humans are not private enclosures, as in most rock songwriting - they're a mess of historical and aesthetic projectiles, feral political objects, murderer-loving corpses and sacrificial gods. When Dan sings in European Oils, "I made a tomb for all the incompatible selves I could take/ And I, I bought bells to the wake," he's pointing to the (twinned) scene of a crime - massacre or enlightenment, it's up to you - of which the rest of the album is consequence and investigation. (Yes, we're now in the territory of my EMP paper on "bandonyms" and the decentred self, though the "masculine abject" is mostly left behind on Destroyer's Rubies.)

None of which footnoted blather can really touch the language here, which jumps off from the dramatic monologues of Your Blues into a sphere that's practically Shakespearian. The words are such that I can only mix metaphors over them - they could be described with one of the album's recurring phrases: "tall ships made of snow invading the sun." Over and over he's pulling ephemeral bits out of every extant lexical bag, forging them into phrases at a blow. It's the kind of casual verbal sharpshooting you can only do when you can do it blindfolded: While much of the singing is Dan at his most languid, now and then he cockily gears up into rapidfire rounds, as on a verse of Dangerous Woman Up to a Point so accelerated I can hardly decipher it. (It concludes, "It was a trap it was a good time it was hard to realize - oh!") Or on the shrapnel-shedding rocker 3000 Flowers, which flicks its lighter at Ezra Pound ("I was... a fresh face on a dying scene/ One-hundredth of a wet black bough"), then culminates in a striking passage with which I'll end these revels. It reverts to the rock-scene issue, but that's just fertilizer. It begins with a single voice which is then, on the repetition of "And the sky still reigned...," joined by a backing chorus, as though the congregation he's addressing ("the music lovers," eponymous subjects of a Your Blues song) had joined in, showing him up as one (or many) among them, just another destructive wastrel - except this one is Destroyer, and he's the one holding the rubies.

I was Clytemnestra on a good day,
Dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated,
The initiates brought out in tumbrels, shadowed by the dawn.
(Shadowed by the dawn, shadowed by the dawn.)
And like a woman I was kept
As the wealthy American underground wept
At the sight of Rhode Island sinking into the sea.
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like churchgoers...
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like destroyers of themselves.



(See below for the drinking game.)

Epilogue: Destroyer Drinking Game
Adapted from ideas in the Merge Destroyer forum, notably by "foe-free" and "Zeitgoat."

Play Destroyer's Rubies (or other Destroyer album). Take a drink whenever there is:

- Mention of a previous album or song title;
- Recycling or referring to lyrics of another Destroyer song; drink twice if it's a song on the same album; also drink twice if they're from pre-official releases We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge or Ideas for Songs;
- Reference to or appropriation of lyrics from a song by someone else;
- Mention of another band or musician;
- Mention of Destroyer/destroy/destruction - drink twice;
- Reference to music in general;
- Reference to/attack on the music scene or music industry;
- "Meta" lyrics that refer to the song in progress or elements thereof - drink twice;
- Swearing;
- Mention of geographical location - drink twice for mentions of Vancouver, the West Coast, or particular places there;
- Section of song consisting of "la la la" or "la-da-dee-da" etc. (warning: applies to all but four songs on this album)
- Guitar solo that mirrors la-la-la's;
- Mention of a season or month of the year;
- Mention of a specific year or century;
- Line in the imperative form, giving advice or an order - drink twice for advice or order that is cryptically figurative, like "don't ride the silver rocket";
- Line that reverses, contradicts or severely qualifies previous line;
- Character(s) in song quoted (eg. "She tasted of the Christmas wines and said, 'So many things have run through me...' ") - drink twice if the character is specified to be singing the quotation;
- Invocation of a cliche or idiom, however dismantled;
- Use of a woman's name;
- Character assassination - drink twice if of a woman;
- Characterization (hostile or not) of men/boys or women/girls in general;
- Conspicuously long pause (line break?) in the middle of a phrase;
- Falsetto or attempted falsetto;
- Sudden crescendo and/or acceleration;
- Use of archaic or ostentatiously formal or foreign-language term;
- Direct address to an audience by name or collective noun eg. "kids..." or "Contessa..." ("you" doesn't count);
- Reference to visual art or artist(s);
- Literary reference or mention of reading;
- General statement about art/aesthetics;
- Reference to family relationship, eg. brother, mother, husband, bride - drink twice for "sister," or for any plural family reference, eg. "fathers", or for incestuous overtones;
- Reference to United States or Americanness;
- Medieval or swords-and-sorcery-style reference;
- Reference to royalty or feudal hierarchy - drink twice for reference to disillusionment with royalty;
- Reference to legal or political system;
- Reference to religion;
- Reference to a small group or secret society;
- Reference to conspiracy or corruption;
- Reference to honesty (or lack thereof);
- Reference to freedom or imprisonment;
- Reference to drinking;
- Reference to insanity;
- Reference to death or murder;
- Reference to the way a woman moves;
- Reference to bells;
- Reference to the sea or matters nautical;
- Reference to a garden or the woods;
- Reference to the weather, meteorological phenomena, sun or snow;
- Reference to fire or other disaster - drink twice for apocalyptic reference;
- Sudden shift into unexpectedly sweet, tender tone, musically or rhetorically.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 13 at 6:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

'Crowned Myself the Prince of Buzz...'

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As forecast, my piece on Final Fantasy in today's Times is here.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 11 at 4:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (36)

 

A Passel of Print:
Bubbles, CalexIron&WineCo;, Final Fantasy

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Calexico with Sam "Iron & Wine" Beam (second from left)
.... or Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon and Joe Walsh?

Explaining my minimal blogging this week is the maximal (manimal?) quantity of stuff I've got in newspapers this weekend. Today, it's my biweekly bite-sized-ideas column, Thought Bubbles, in the Globe's Focus section. No music content, but it does have an infinite number of typing monkeys (via Toronto poet and blogger Darren Wershler-Henry's worthy new tome The Iron Whim: A Fragmentary History of Typewriting). You can read it here.

Yesterday it was a piece in the Globe's Friday arts tabloid "7" about the recent bonding between the post-twang ensemble Calexico and the indie-folkist Iron and Wine, which you can read here. I like the article, but I assume other critics also often find themselves secondguessing whether they've been too soft or too hard on a given subject? In this case, I may have been too kind to their collaboration In the Reins - because for all the variety and complementarity going on, there are moments where the damn thing veers deep into Eagles territory. Without the bombast, that is. Am I wrong to be more inclined to be wary of how easy the thing goes down than to reassess my bias against the Eagles? I prefer Calexico with more eccentric vocalists such as Lisa Germano (as OP8) or Richard Buckner (on the superb Devotion & Doubt), who really tug at and destabilize their cinematic textures.

Finally there's tomorrow's piece in the Sunday Times - which, I can now reveal to you, is about Toronto's Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy. I'm excited - partly for my sake (it's certainly the highest-profile venue I've ever had) but also because I hope it brings Owen more of the notice he deserves. Linkage coming soon.

The tune whisperer

By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail Review
Friday, December 9, 2005

Not long ago, the mixed marriages of songs known as mashups were the hot digital-music novelty, most famously heard on producer Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, which laid rapper Jay-Z's nodding noggin down on the Beatles' durable musical divan.

MTV took a shot at glitzing up the concept with a concert and album that blended Linkin Park with, again, Jay-Z. The Grammys gave it a dodgier try with a jam between Gwen Stefani, Franz Ferdinand and the Black Eyed Peas. And then the whole craze seemed to recede back into the Internet hobbyist zone where it was done first and best.

The current crossover between indie musicians Calexico and Iron and Wine lies somewhere between a mashup and a traditional collaboration. The two do diverge stylistically -- Calexico being a cinematic big band and Iron and Wine mainly a guy with a guitar -- but they also share a sepia-toned, retro sensibility. Their recent joint mini-album, In the Reins, is based on years-old Iron and Wine demos, which many fans will have downloaded long ago. But the players gathered in person in the studio to record the songs anew.

Iron and Wine, whose mama knows him as Florida-based ex-film teacher Sam Beam, is a tune whisperer, literally and figuratively: His susurrations seem to leak out slowly from somewhere behind his generous beard, like gas out of a pinprick-punctured hose; yet in the process, he's able to entice wild songs to sidle up, nuzzle at his neck and submit to be tamed.

He is one of those critic-proof artists whose fans treat his releases like new chapters of scripture. The first, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a rural-feeling batch of demo recordings, and while there's been grumbling in the pews about the slicker sound of his further releases, few have gone so far as to up and quit the congregation. His cover version of the Postal Service's Such Great Heights, on the ubiquitous Garden State soundtrack, has even become something of an indie classic.

Yet as a miserable apostate I must confess I've never been able to finish an Iron and Wine album at one sitting. The peaceful, easy vocals and unmodulated melodic range can make it feel as if you were perusing a finely written book of poems in which every line ended with the word "blue" -- refreshing at first, perhaps, but slowly the repetition would make the ink swim and fade under your gaze, until you tumbled into a soporific lake of blue blue blue blueblueblueblue bluuuuluuuue . . . and off to sleep.

Arizona group Calexico, on the other hand, is centred around the equivalent of Motown's Funk Brothers or Jamaica's Sly and Robbie for indie music throughout the 1990s -- a rhythm section with a distinctive sound-print, in this case a spaghetti-western twang from the desert or maybe the moon. Their greatest gift is architectural: They seem able to make their auditory geodesic dome wax and wane to the ideal expanse for any given singer, song or ensemble, allowing room to wander but never to flounder.

Joey Burns and John Convertino began in legendary Tuscon, Ariz., group Giant Sand and moved on to back such artists as Neko Case, Richard Buckner, Lisa Germano, Vic Chesnutt, Bill Janovitz and even Nancy Sinatra. And for the last decade as the core of Calexico, they've grown from a shuffling, aw-shucks outfit to an exuberant variety act that takes in mariachi horns and Afro-Peruvian dance rhythms as much as its basic surf-country-jazz.

But here too there's a flaw that causes the attention to waver: Only once in a blue Mexican moon does Calexico manage to haul out a truly substantial song, one that seems like something more than a discarded neo-noir film scenario. So while their music is seldom actually dull, it too can blur into a mass, and often with an overly glib surface.

So the meeting of the two projects could offer two scoops of boring in watery milk, or it could be the perfect remedy for what each side of the collaboration lacks.

Happily, the latter is nearer the case. On In the Reins, Calexico is perhaps a little overcautious but generally livens up the joint with slithering steel guitars and the occasional ranch-torching blaze of brass, keeping me alert while Beam mounts his storyteller's perch.

And he offers Calexico several songs worth staying up for, such as the inside-out Johnny Cash yarn of Prison on Route 41, sung from the point of view of a man who's abandoned his miscreant family in prison due to the love of a righteous Christian woman, though he provocatively admits, "My saviour is not Christ the lord/ But one named Virginia/ Whom I live my life for."

I'd generally advise avoiding the word "whom" in a song lyric, but Beam earns his biblical tone via the devilish details, which make the narrator seem more selfish than saintly, as his parents, grandparents, cousins and son rot in jail.

If only the two projects had joined forces sooner -- and it turns out Beam intended to. He considered asking Calexico to accompany him on his very first album, but it didn't pan out, so his label went with his set of home recordings.

On the tour arriving in Toronto tonight, they edge nearer to live-mashup status, with each act doing a set before Calexico merges with not only Beam, but also his backing road band, for a supersized take on In the Reins. As long as they outfit the tune whisperer with a loud enough microphone, it should be a rich live show. Perhaps next time they can invite Jay-Z, too.

Iron and Wine and Calexico, tonight at 8 p.m. The Docks, 11 Polson St, $25, 416-461-3625.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 10 at 3:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

If Video Games Really Are the New Rock...

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King Kong computer games, 'then' and now.

All the chatter about the new Xbox this week has me thinking about how gaming seems to have usurped much of the glamor and the centrality of music to youth culture. Not that young people don't still care about music. But the great mercurial day-in-day-out conversational hype energy of middle-class-teen culture feels like it's more intimately knotted up with the games they play than with the sounds they hear.

What strikes me as odd is that gaming is more analogous to sports than art. The excitement about finding a perspective on life or a point of identification - the personalized gnosis that seems key to the teenage music-listening experience - doesn't transfer to gaming. Not that the medium can't be artful and adventurous, and I'm sure users form attachments and affective communities related to it. But has anyone ever uttered over-earnestly that a game tells the truth about their lives or that they feel as if some gaming designer would really like them if they could just hang out and talk? (And if they do, why do they?)

It seems to represent a kind of shift into a post-expressive cultural mode - one that seems reflected in pop music as well. Listening to early rock and a lot of early rap, it's remarkable how literally (often excessively) they deal with typical moments and feelings in teenage lives; as both forms develop they distance themselves from that agenda in favour of something with more grandeur. But when I look at 50 Cent, the experience of listening to those songs for the vast majority of young listeners seems to be more akin to inhabiting a video-game avatar, one that rather blankly but with great potency executes a series of moves that represent a vicarious acting-out but seldom even metaphorically refer back to an inner life (as even the most grandiose, Zeppelinesque rock usually has - or maybe not?).

The funny thing is how often I've decried "self-expression" as a crap value for music (or art in general) - my distaste for emo, which seems as a genre like a third-law-of-motion reaction to the anti-expressive trend, is well documented. But when I consider the notion of a gaming-dominated culture where the main translation of personal issues into art generally means their representation as an expressionless vicarious competitive struggle, I'm chilled. It seems to connect to a post-industrial economic model of self as brand and information in ways I find difficult to unpack.

I don't intend any "the kids aren't alright" alarmism here - there's more to youth culture than its entertainments, and music-centrism has its own problems (music accents cliqueishness, it encourages a narcissistic self-romanticization that games don't, and so on). But I haven't heard much conversation about the borders between music and gaming cultures (except for bands doing game soundtracks or adopting 8-bit sounds or whatevs), so I offer these initial thoughts as a spur to better ones.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 23 at 4:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Umlautathon dot UK!
Käte Büsh vs. Motörhead

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I often gripe that a lot of British music doesn't stir me, but today in The Globe & Mail, I celebrate not one but two exceptions: First, a review of Kate Bush's new Aerial, which comes out Tuesday and is like a satisfying plunge into a forest pond you knew from childhood but thought you'd never find again. Only sober second thought kept me from rating it 4 out of 4 stars. Read on to find out why. And next, a piece on the Just Ace of Spades marathon benefit for the Red Cross next Wed. in Toronto, in which the Motörhead anthem will be played some 128 times in six hours by eight different DJs at full volume while participants tick off boxes in their pledge forms. Finally, indie kids invent a charity endurance contest of their own that doesn't require them to rise at dawn with a hangover or strain the lung capacity they've so assisiduously ruined with joints and cigarettes. Read the piece for more astonishing Ace of Spades rockathon statistics and rationales. (For more on umlauts, on the other hand, see the standard reference page on "Röck Döts.")

CD of the Week
This woman's work, old style

Aerial by Kate Bush (EMI)
Reviewed by Carl Wilson
The Globe and Mail Review
Friday, November 4, 2005

★★★ ½

In pop music, absenting yourself for a dozen years is like a novelist or painter vanishing for 60, the field changes so much. After British legend Kate Bush released her worn-out-sounding 1993 album The Red Shoes, she retreated to her island home on the Thames to have a child and generally depressurize from a storied career. It began with her discovery by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour at 16, took off with a stunning 1978 hit based on Emily Brontë's gothic romance Wuthering Heights, and peaked in 1986 with the album Hounds of Love, which finally gained her recognition in America.

During her hiatus, rap conquered the world. Alt-rock and techno, among others, came and went. A generation of female singers emboldened by Bush's fearless experimenting and brainy eroticism emerged, such as Tori Amos, PJ Harvey and Bjork, although they weren't alone - hip-hop innovators OutKast also called her an inspiration, the Futureheads had a hit covering Hounds of Love's title track, and Mercury Prize-winner Antony credited her impact.

Now Kate Bush is 47, looking less like the modern-dance nymphet she once was than like a kindly English aunt. Her return album, Aerial, is finally being released after years of rumour. And seldom has "released" seemed such an apt term, since EMI kept it as tightly locked up as an ex-royal consort in the Tower of London.

But suddenly very little of that back-story matters, for KateBushLand turns out to be barely changed. She seems relaxed and renewed on Aerial, but it's full of the touches that enraptured her fans and made the prigs label her barmy. There's the song in which the value of Pi is sung to more than 100 decimal places, and there's the one about the washing machine. That's actually one of the album's finest, movingly tracing mortality and loss through the domestic poetics of laundry. Sure, the passage where she sings "slooshy slooshy slooshy slooshy" can bring giggles. But Bush knows when she's being funny.

She remains preoccupied with English landscape in its mystic and sensual aspects, and now as a familial setting too. The second disc of Aerial is a cycle titled A Sky of Honey, a dappled portrait of a summer day from dawn to nightfall to dawn again, with particular lingering on birds and sea. With arrangements by the late Michael Kamen at Abbey Road Studios, it shifts from Joni Mitchell-ish jazz to hard rock to Gypsy Kings to histrionic chorales in a genre known only as Kate Bush, and back. But ultimately it does, as she sings, "become panoramic," immersing the listener in colour and more than earning its grandeur.

As it has many songwriters, however, parenthood seems to have lured Bush toward less distinctive subject matter. The Elizabethan-madrigal-style paean to her son Bertie cloys as much as it charms, and other lyrics skirt platitudes that would have been unthinkable when she was a quizzical, precocious youth. But the steeped richness of her voice and inventive melodies mostly prevent banality.

The greater misgiving is that Bush, famously an early adopter of new samplers and synths in the 1980s, has added so little to her palette here. Aside from the first single, King of the Mountain (a winking ode to Elvis, Citizen Kane and, ahem, other famous recluses), Aerial sounds almost like it would have a dozen years ago.

On some tracks, such as the otherwise vivid How to Be Invisible (the recipe: "Eye of Braille/ Hem of anorak/ Stem of wallflower/ Hair of doormat"), dull classic-rock production obscures the virtues. It's a relief when the collection returns to just Kate and her piano, on her sumptuously forlorn tribute to her mother, A Coral Sea. Yet how much more thrilling it would be to hear her explore some new technology.

But that could take another dozen years. What we've got is this flawed but ecstatic experience, Aerial. And once again, nearing 50, Kate Bush is making it sound like most other singers just don't know the secret of life. Listen close.


Going Out: Music
Motörhead madness-athon

by CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail Review
Friday, November 4, 2005


Some people run to help cure heart disease and others walk for breast cancer. Our charitable impulses have given rise to bikeathons, walkathons, swimathons and danceathons. Noble efforts all, but they share one drawback - they're much too healthy and wholesome to be compatible with a more night-crawling kind of lifestyle.

So what about a rockathon?

Next Wednesday, hundreds of people will assemble at the Boat nightclub in Kensington Market in Toronto to hear DJs spin music for six hours. Many will bring pledge forms in which sponsors promise donations to the Red Cross hurricane-relief fund - depending how long the listener lasts.

What's so stamina-testing about six hours of music in a bar? On this particular night, the DJs will play only one song: As the event title promises, it's Just Ace of Spades.

Yes, that's Ace of Spades, the 1980 anthem by British metal band Motörhead, led by lumbering icon Lemmy Kilmister.

And only the original recording will be permitted - no live or cover versions.

In the words of Trevor Coleman, the promoter who recently converted the Boat from karaoke dive to indie-rock clubhouse: "It's like the CN Tower stair climb, except that we're all nerds with atrophied muscles, so instead of enduring physical pain we endure extreme irony."

In six hours, the two-minute-49-second classic can be played nearly 128 times. And it's already a pretty repetitive song: The words "Ace of Spades" themselves will be heard 768 times, and the central rhythm-guitar riff (played 36 times on the record) will be heard 4,608 times over in all its three-chord majesty.

Which makes Just Ace of Spades sound less like a night out and more like some "psychic driving" session out of the 1960s CIA brainwashing experiments at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal. Participants risk emerging convinced that they are "born to lose, and gambling's for fools," or with a pathological phobia that they may "forget the Joker."

From what mental Hades does this devilish act of altruism hail?

"I have to admit," organizer Matt Blair says, "it started as a dare." A friend challenged Blair to get himself fired from a DJ job by playing Ace of Spades over and over and over. That conversation crossed another one about putting on a benefit concert for hurricane relief. When a third friend came up with the notion of pledge forms, Blair says, "it suddenly seemed plausible."

The event is part of a larger project called Indiepolitik, which is trying to harness the energy of the indie-rock scene to more socially conscious causes, beyond token benefit shows. The trick, Blair says, is to incorporate a sense of humour.

"There's a perception of activism that it all has to be doom and gloom. We're trying to counter that. It doesn't mean we're making light of the issues. But if you can approach it from a novel point of view, it brings extra attention."

And why Ace of Spades? "Love Motörhead or hate them, I think if you're looking for a song that is bigger and more powerful than you, Ace of Spades is it. After a few hours, even the biggest fan is going to want to step back."

Indeed, you could call Ace of Spades a Category 5 storm of rock'n'roll.

Reaction to this umlaut-a-thon has been so enthused that Indiepolitik may extend the model to other songs and causes in the future.

Besides the cover charge and pledges, the Boat is donating 20 per cent of bar sales. Blair feels a little sorry for the employees, a captive audience: "The indie scene is a very big fan of novelty in general. But that may not extend to the bar staff. We're encouraging widespread tipping."

The volume, after all, won't be gentle. Lemmy wouldn't approve of that. "It's not the kind of thing you want to do halfway. It might be a cliché to say we're gonna turn it up to 11 - but I imagine we'll start loud and just get louder."

Just Ace of Spades, Nov. 9, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the Boat, 158 Augusta Ave., $5 cover or minimum pledge. For information and pledge forms, visit Indiepolitik.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 04 at 2:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

'They're Planets, Just Like Us'

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The Elliott Smith memorial wall on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles.

Thoughts today on two contemporaries - one who died, a year younger than me, and one who survived, a year older. Listening to their music you always could have guessed which would be which.

Elliott Smith's apparent suicide took place two years ago today. I shared my reaction and reflections with a music-discussion mailing list that day; a week later (Oct. 28) they became the first post on Zoilus. Unreleased studio recordings have apparently been circulating on the net this week.

A live review of a Liz Phair concert was the first thing written specifically for this site, a couple of weeks later. Today I've got a piece in The Globe and Mail about Phair's new album, Somebody's Miracle, in anticipation of her concert here on Sunday. Readers of both articles might notice that I've grown even more enthusiastic about her last album since then, but overall the thrust of both reviews is similar to what I said then: "the perennial devotee's demand that she reliably serve our needs and not fuck up... is an expectation she's never once encouraged or fulfilled before. The degree to which the Liz Phair album is full of wrong moves ... is the degree to which it is in fact perfectly in character."

Comparing the two of them, who both came out of the box with that wary, mocking gaze that middle-class North Americans our age adopted as a spiky covering to fend off a sense of insignificance (compared to the boomers, compared to the metastasization of media that we grew up with, compared to what looked like a culture without time or space for us), Smith always stayed stubbornly, vulnerably in character while Phair became the chameleon, and ever more so in recent years, willing to adapt, grow gills to breathe the same polluted waters on which Smith seemed to choke. (We're going back to that subject of why Kurt Cobain, who was exactly my age, looked like more than just one dead rock star.) Neither choice is ideal. But we don't get an ideal choice. The whole "problem" is a privileged condition. And more than ever, as much as I empathize with and often admire the martyrs, I side with those who want to stay and fight, even if it sometimes means playing possum, slipping on the disguise. It's moving when Destroyer sings, "Don't become the thing you hated." But all kids hate grownups, and I still want to be one, as messy and discouraging as that can be.

Also in today's Globe, a review of the new Freakwater album, Thinking of You...: O Grrrlfriends, Where Wert Thou? Kentucky-based duo Freakwater drew a line in the mud between country traditionalists and the "alt-country" fans of the 1990s. Setting sharp atheistic irony to old-timey string-band music was bad enough; the off-kilter harmonies were beyond toleration. But Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean were only bending the sound to the warped America they knew. On their first reunion this century, they belt out that painfully smart malcontentment with fresh vigour. Slithering textures by Chicago mutant-roots band Califone (electric guitar, pump organ, baritone ukelele) distance the music even further from any trace of purism. And in Bush country, it sounds like an arriving cavalry. (Freakwater plays the El Mocambo on Saturday.)

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Now here's a little savoir Phair. Blogfight connoisseurs, notice the gratuitous M.I.A. reference.

[... continues ...]



MUSIC
A Phair mix in a muted tone

By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 21, 2005

A rising young songwriter recently told me that non-musicians didn't get it: "They think you're plotting out your whole career when actually you're spending hours searching for a rhyme for 'hat rack.' "

I recalled those words as I combed through a dozen years of clippings about Liz Phair. She's just released her fifth album, Somebody's Miracle -- or, as journalists subtitle it, The Follow-Up to Her Controversial Bid for the Mainstream. Among many fans and critics, 2003's Liz Phair met with the sort of heckling that dogged Bob Dylan's "gone electric" tour: "Judas!" Or rather, "Jezebel!"

Some said the Technicolor production on songs such as minor hit Why Can't I? proved the artist who made 1993 alt-rock landmark Exile in Guyville had mortgaged her soul. Others clucked that the salacious lyrics and risqué cover shot were unseemly for a lady of 36, even though those were the elements most similar to a decade earlier.

This is the special flavour of venom spat at women who set their own courses in male-dominated genres. Witness the current Internet sniping at British rap upstart M.I.A. But it's particularly reserved for Phair, who's never been willing to pick a side, as either vixen or waif, arty recluse or ambitious careerist, raw memoirist or myth-making manipulator.

That refusal may be a privileged one, but so is the cult demand that she remain rigidly faithful. The indie diehards remind me of her son pouting at her suitors in the song Little Digger, "My mother is mine." Except that they're not toddlers. Chronologically.

They forget that 1993's Liz Phair was sneered at for being an upper-class schoolgirl from the Chicago suburbs who couldn't play live and was not from the music scene. (All basically true: Guyville was her attack on that world, particularly an alt-rocker ex-boyfriend.) They also seem to have missed the pop leanings of the albums between her debut and her big-budget rebirth.

Phair always had a slippery sense of humour. By giving her last album her own name, was she identifying it with her "true self," or referring to her public image in the third person, as she often does in interviews? Few noticed that in her scantily dressed cover photo she held her guitar so that it formed a slash: "Liz/Phair," as in "Either/Or."

I thought the album a grand romp, second only to Guyville itself. Why Can't I? brashly swiped the sound of Avril Lavigne's teen hit Complicated to address something genuinely complicated, adultery. (After all, Lavigne's persona came down from Guyville, via Alanis Morissette, in the first place.)

My first reaction to Somebody's Miracle, with its more "organic" adult-rock sound, was that it was a failed triangulation, straining to win over both old and new fans. I blamed the backlash for the wall of cliché that is lead single Everything to Me, her blandest song ever. (The blah band-in-rain video says it all.)

But what if Phair was just searching for rhymes for hat rack?

The muted tone might merely reflect her current state of mind as a divorced Los Angeles mom. And some of Miracle makes me gasp. In the title track, she despairs: It seems I may never know how/ People stay in love for half of their lives./ It's a secret they keep between the husbands and wives:/ There goes somebody's miracle, walking down the street.

Being close to Phair in age, I find her passage from the overly knowing cynicism of Guyville to this unsteady humility all too familiar.

The dirty talk and production styles never really mattered. But neither Phair nor her critics seem to see clearly enough that her songs win or lose on distinct melodic hooks and uniquely telling lyrical details. Period.

Take the perfect Liz Phair twist midway through Leap of Innocence, a thumping ode to lost love: "And my mistake/ Was being already married." Or the acoustic Table for One, which rummages through an alcoholic's bottles, hidden in holes in the walls.

Such moments don't quite rescue Miracle from its weaker half. And Phair is at the end of her famous five-album record deal - what if it's not renewed? She has expressed envy for self-employed artists such as Ani Difranco, an option cut off mainly by her early stage fright, which limited her touring. She has beaten it now, so maybe the straight-A student will risk the entrepreneurial route at last.

Meanwhile, the catchiest chorus on the new album is on Stars and Planets, ananti-celebrity anthem that (sounding like John Lennon's Instant Karma) astronomically observes, "Stars rise and stars fall/ But the ones that shine the brightest aren't stars at all/ They're planets, just like us." That is, they're vast unknown spheres, whose orbits happen to catch the light.

I'll mind that thought before I second-guess Liz Phair again.

Liz Phair plays the Phoenix on Sunday, $20.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 21 at 2:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

'Once You Don't Know Nothin,
You Can Do Somethin'

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The Sun Ra Arkestra.

In various editions of The Globe & Mail today, you'll find three efforts from me.

1. An essay on the social and musical significance of the late, superlative jazz eccentric Sun Ra - and the latterday Sun Ra Arkestra's struggles in trying to carry on his legacy. The piece includes an interview with Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, who brings the band to Toronto's Lula Lounge (a very cozy venue!) from Tuesday through Friday next week. [... Read it here ...]

2. A review of the new Tangiers album, The Family Myth. Three outta four stars: As Dorothy found out on her trip in the twister, sometimes you need to go away to understand where you're coming from. After their head-turning 2003 debut Hot New Spirits and the internal turbulence that scuttled the potential of last year's Never Bring You Pleasure, Toronto band Tangiers decamped to that latter-day Oz, New York, to record this third album. And while 1960s garage rock and the Clash remain templates, this set also suggests a savvy update of their home town's wide-eyed, jangling Queen Street sound of the 1980s. If Tangiers once seemed like a clique of bright boys declaring their presence in hooky fits and starts (attracting misleading Strokes comparisons), songs such as Dredging the Harbour and Classless and Green now paint broader landscapes in splatters of oil and musk. They're as worthy of note as Metric or Hot Hot Heat, but the risk is whether the tastemakers behind the curtain can be unfickle enough to embrace the second-last "next big thing" over again.

3. And in the Vancouver edition, a short piece on the Interference: Static X Static festival, which brings Quebec musique actuelle luminaries such as Jean Derome and Joane Hétu together with Vancouver improvisors and international figures such as Fred Frith, Janek Schaeffer and Kaffe Matthews. The piece reflects a bit on the two solitudes of improvisational strength in Canada, in Quebec & B.C. I didn't have space to raise a question often on my mind, which is why those scenes seem so much better nourished than the one in Toronto - if not necessarily in terms of talent, in terms of community and audience development, and also perhaps in the sense of a local stylistic exploration that seems more well-defined and distinct from other places. Some Toronto musicians have argued to me that Toronto does have that; as a more-than-casual but less-than-immersed observer, I don't feel that it's quite gelled, though it's emerging more clearly lately, now that there's more crossover for example between the Rat-drifting group of musicians and the more jazz-based improvisers. (See Zoilus entries past on the group Drumheller, for example.) Is such a coherence even desirable? Certainly Toronto's diversity is a plus. Yet there's something undeniably stirring and emotionally compelling about the Vancouver and Montreal scenes' sense of place and moment. I'd love to jaw more with people about these issues.



marshall.jpg
Marshall Allen.


Sun Ra's stream of consciousness still flowing into the future

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, October 14, 2005


The reality of the "off-the-grid," shunted-aside mass of the African-American underclass rarely breaks through to popular attention. It happened during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and again after the New Orleans hurricane disaster this fall. Each time, the reaction is as if the media's so-called observers had stumbled on a previously undiscovered planet of want in the western cosmos.

Turn that image on its head, to picture a new world of freedom and plenty for those same people, and you glimpse a strain of astro-Afro-utopianism that runs through 20th-century black movements, such as Garveyism, Rastafarianism, the militantly mystic Nation of Islam, and the music of Herman (Sonny) Blount -- legal name at his death in 1993 Le Sony'r Ra, and more familiar on this astral plane as Sun Ra.

Blount "arrived" on Earth circa 1914, in segregated Birmingham, Ala. -- en route, he maintained, from Saturn. Over his 79 years, dozens of musicians passed through his Sun Ra Arkestra in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and, for six months in 1961, Montreal. They recorded more than 100 albums and untold numbers of singles, with titles such as Heliocentric Worlds, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Space Is the Place (also the name of a recent biography, and a documentary available on DVD).

The Arkestra also garbed itself in colourful robes and ram-horned headgear that seemed to come out of a Hollywood Cleopatra epic. It snaked through audiences chanting: "It's after the end of the world, don't you know that yet?" It played unheard-of chord changes, skronked and squealed, and sang "Rocket No. 9 taking off for the planet Venus, Venus, Venus."

In consequence, Sun Ra is often patronized as some sort of jazz Dr. Seuss by pot-smoking college kids intent on getting off on the far-out. Yet, the "myth science" taught by the former big-band and strip-club pianist went deeper for his musicians. They were the descendents of Africans who'd been brought into bondage by ship; maybe another ship -- a rocket, at least of the mind -- could get them out.

"You want a better world, play better music," says Marshall Allen, the 81-year-old alto saxophonist who now leads the Arkestra, which will hold court for four nights at the Lula Lounge in Toronto this week, still wearing its space gear and chanting its mantras.

The Arkestra sails on, Allen says, at Sun Ra's dying request: It was the last tune he called. And Allen composes new repertoire, despite the band's vast back catalogue, because "you have to stay with the vibrations of the day -- it goes around and it's constantly changing."

While Ra was alive, with his constant cosmic jive patter, even appreciative critics generally considered him an isolated sideshow. The story looks different in retrospect. Besides sketching the contours of free jazz a decade ahead of time, Sun Ra and his groups pioneered modal improvisation and the use of electric pianos and synthesizers. Even when they didn't have electronic instruments, Allen says, "you had to take those saxophones and make them sound like it."

The Arkestra adopted African and "world" elements to jazz before anyone else did, and Ra was an autodidact in Egyptology and other esoterica long before it became fashionable Afrocentrism. As Amiri Baraka wrote after Ra's death: "It was Sun Ra and the Myth Science Arkestra that marched across 125th Street with us . . . announcing the 60s cultural revolution and sparking a Black Arts Movement."

Sun Ra's tenor-sax player, the late John Gilmore, was an acknowledged influence on John Coltrane. Pharoah Sanders is a former Arkestra member. Sun Ra's mark is as visible on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (including the likes of Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago) as on the 1970s funk-rock "Mothership" piloted by George Clinton with Parliament-Funkadelic and, by extension, on all jazz-fusion music.

It was no lark to be an Arkestra member. Sun Ra's rehearsals were marathon conditioning sessions that could last days, recalls Allen, who joined in 1958. "You got paid to come to rehearsal -- you might not get paid to play the gig." The edict was that a musician could not play what he knew -- he had to play what he didn't know. Allen puts it in a Socratic aphorism: "Once you don't know nothin', then you can do somethin'."

But the prohibitions went further. Musicians were required to abjure alcohol, drugs and the company of women. From the 1960s on, they were enjoined to live in the group's communal Philadelphia row house. Call it monastic or call it a cult. Sun Ra, who was jailed during the Second World War for his conscientious objection, sometimes described the Arkestra as a non-violent army.

Biographers dispute whether Ra was a traumatized person retreating into fantasy, or a sly satirist fully in command of his metaphors. I suspect it was both, at once escape and assault, just as he was at once an innovator and a traditionalist. Under Allen's more earthbound direction, there's stronger emphasis on the Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson swing standards Sun Ra always loved, plus the "simple melodies" Allen prefers to write, albeit with the Arkestra's "unique attack."

In his 1995 Sun Ra elegy, Baraka called Allen himself "a giant . . . There is no alto saxophonist I know today, or generally, hipper than Marshall." He added: "That this is not common knowledge is depressing."

The living Arkestra's position remains scandalously insecure today, despite wider recognition of its late leader's significance. The economics are punishing when you have to maintain a large band (such as the 14 players Allen hopes to bring to Toronto) as well as the legacy that resides in the communal Philly house where Allen still lives.

"You've got to suffer non-payment of rent in order to buy you an instrument or something you need to play," he says. "The music is for the future -- Sun Ra was saying that then. It was a good thought, that it'd come back around. But what about now?"

The old recordings have been reissued on CD and probably sell better than a lot of jazz does, but Sun Ra's management neglected to ensure any royalties would flow to the band. It's the perennial story of black journeymen abandoned by the music business. New Orleans floods, Sun Ra's roof leaks; the black Atlantis has yet to surface. But Allen will never yield.

"It's the size of your spirit. You can have all the material things, but then you've got to lift your spirit up to the height of the money you've got all stacked up there." He chuckles. "It's a balance thing in this world."

And if this one refuses to provide, you hold that vision of other worlds that will. It's a balance thing, but not, so far, a just one.

The Sun Ra Arkestra plays Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas St. W., Oct. 18 to 21. $30. 416-588-0307.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 14 at 1:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Storytellers, Not Made for VH1

decemberists1.jpg

Today in The Globe & Mail, with a big colourful photo, the following piece on indie rock narrative and its discontents. Along the way, I discovered that thanks to their new album Picaresque I don't totally, completely hate the Decemberists (above) - just 75 per cent of the time - and that it's very, very difficult to put into words the sound of the voice of Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces. I think I half-flubbed it - I wish I'd added to "BBC newsreader" an equal share of PJ Harvey. Plus a dash of a girl of 6 in a school play. And maybe a little eye of newt. Anyone have a more apt, quick, intelligible description? Otherwise, I think this is a worthwhile overview of the paradoxes of layering prosodic ambitions over music - part of the ongoing agonizing over the literary-musical intersection that seems to be the fate of this blog, and I think of anybody who's disproportionately a "lyrics person."

MUSIC
Telling stories with a twist
(Decemberists, Fiery Furnaces, Destroyer)

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, Oct 7, 2005


Imagine Mick Jagger babysitting your kids. Can you see him paging through a picture book to lull them to sleep? No, he'd jump up halfway in, jutting his hips around with gasps and shouts, riffing off the words but never saying how the story ends, keeping them up all night long. What did you expect, hiring Mick Jagger?

Our story-obsessed culture is forever finding new media to recycle the four or five basic plots (hero comes of age, stranger arrives, prisoner escapes, girls go wild . . .). But music has been an exception. [ ... continues ... ]



Modern pop lyrics don't need stories - they're a soundtrack, setting a mood, and too much plot would only distract from the wooing, dancing and posing that have set the pop agenda since the invention of adolescence, somewhere around the age of the flappers. Tale-telling is fine for kids and old banjo players, but when rock 'n' roll goes narrative you get heavy-metal concept albums about dwarfs and hobbits.

Now a new generation is foolhardy enough to take that risk. Groups such as the Decemberists, the Fiery Furnaces and Destroyer, all appearing in Toronto this week, beguile their listeners with at least a whiff of the campfire. Perhaps they've been swayed by the more narrative culture of hip-hop, or maybe they're just creative-writing students gone astray.

That description certainly suits Colin Meloy, the grad student turned singer-songwriter who leads a boatload of musicians in Portland, Ore.'s, the Decemberists. Sounding rather like the Smiths without the cool quizzical distance or the Pogues gone grimly on the wagon, the Decemberists spin yarns in archaic modes, about pirates, chimney sweeps, colonials and scullery maids.

They come off too frequently like coy prep-school-pageant theatricals, especially when Meloy lapses into his fake British accent. Yet they've gathered a following who appreciate the band's strengths -- his endearingly broken-nosed vocals; the occasional dirty jokes; unusual instruments such as hurdy-gurdy and the zesty violin of Petra Haden; and occasionally a song such as the horn-drenched Sixteen Military Wives (on this summer's new, third album, Picaresque), in which quill-pen affectations are swapped for a fresher tone and being "rollicking" stops seeming like a poor substitute for being able to rock.

Still, for a shot of piracy and sea shanties, I'd much rather hear the warped revisions of the Fiery Furnaces (New York sibling duo Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger), in which you could be bobbing in a galleon of white-slave traders one moment and the next be pulling up to a TCBY for a frozen yogurt.

Their use of archetypes seems less a cutesy exercise and much more the delirium of dreams, in which the past is never buried, always clattering up against the everyday. They chase curlicues of imagery or melody with an insouciant disregard for narrative consistency. As with the Decemberists, there's some childhood regression involved, but the Friedbergers' version is more naked and freewheeling rather than fetishistic. What's more, they've got Eleanor's crisp charisma (she sounds like a BBC newsreader, but looks like Patti Smith) and Matthew's diamond-edged, perpetually mobile musical arrangements, with slatherings of brothel organ and White Stripes-ish blues guitar.

They started the band only a couple of years ago, in their late 20s, but they have been making up for lost time. Their coming fourth album is a set of duets with their 80-year-old, glee-club-singer grandmother, forging her personal reminiscences into Fiery Furnaces rock.

After all, if your songs are going to tell stories beyond boy meets girl, best make sure they're not predictable ones.

That's the very essence of Destroyer, the ever-changing vehicle for Vancouver's Dan Bejar, also a part-time member of that city's "supergroup," the New Pornographers. (To the delight of fans, he is touring with them for the first time this fall.) Bejar's songs feature the makings of storytelling -- character names fly by amid battleground and bedroom settings -- but only the makings. There's precious little follow-through; each verse, even successive lines, seem harvested from a hodgepodge of unrelated plots.

Such tricks may frustrate anyone in search of a coherent account of what a given song is "about," but to me Bejar's the most successful of this wave of singing storytellers. Over music equally profligate in its influences (a song might sound like Leonard Cohen, the Buzzcocks splinter group Magazine or an outtake from a Sondheim musical), he writes for an audience already overstuffed with story, who require only the barest allusions to start plot points unreeling in our heads.

The process generates comic and disturbing juxtapositions that actually recall the old-time folk ballads, themselves cobbled together from varied sources: An Appalachian tune might jump from the bit about the murdered maiden to the verse about the elusive cuckoo - haphazard leaps that yielded new poetry.

Every piece of music has a beginning, middle and end, after all, taking it from stasis to agitation to resolution. Our ears don't need a second story to interfere - only a lattice of language to tether music's near-alien beauty to the workings of the human mind.

Destroyer with the New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine, Sunday at the Phoenix, $22.50; The Fiery Furnaces with Apostle of Hustle, Monday at Lee's Palace, $16.50; the Decemberists with Cass McCombs, Thursday at the Phoenix, $17.50.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 07 at 10:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

The Passion of Alejandro

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Today in The Globe & Mail, I have a profile of Alejandro Escovedo, on the mend from Hepatitis C thanks to an extraordinary series of tribute concerts and albums put together in his aid by other musicians, after he had a brush with death without benefit of health insurance. The U.S. health-care situation is madness to me, the main reason I would find it forbidding ever to live there, but the jeopardy in which it places artists really arrests me, since you can be a reputable and quite successful artist like Escovedo and still be royally fucked when it comes to health care - with a large family, he says, he couldn't even afford the reduced-cost health packages offered by the Musicians' Union. The fact that the Democrats haven't addressed this problem effectively is disgraceful (and yes, I remember what happened in the first year of the Clinton admin., but why was that able to happen except a failure of political will/strategy?). I think Americans in some ways don't even know what they're missing. A U.S. visitor came to a party in Toronto with me a couple of years ago and was shocked by the fact that almost everyone there was some kind of freelancer. That couldn't happen in Chicago, she said - most people hold onto a job for the health insurance. The foreshortening of options that represents is severe.

All that said, what Alejandro's been able to make of his plight is inspiring. His work deals so bravely and lyrically with hardship in general that it's not wholly a surprise that he is able to illuminate his own suffering in his art. But it's a real model, somebody who doesn't find easy epiphanies in pain but something much flintier, an earned transcendence.

If you've never seen him, you owe it to yourself to catch him on this tour (he's in Toronto at the El Mo on Oct. 4, as listed in the updated Zoilus gig guide) or whenever possible.

If you have seen him, you already know that. [ ... here's the piece ... ]

The body is weaker, the soul is stronger

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Fri., Sept. 30/05 Page R25


In his urgent, Springsteen-style anthem Five Hearts Breaking, Texan musician Alejandro Escovedo discovers his lost-lover characters under a sky gone black and pleads, "Believe, believe, and everything will be fine."

There have been times the past few years that it was difficult to take his own advice. But he has caught up with the story now.

Hailing from a large musical family, Escovedo began in early California punk band the Nuns, which staked a place in rock legend by opening for the Sex Pistols' notorious final concert. He went on to help invent cowpunk with Rank and File as well as the True Believers, and as a soulful solo artist found his niche in the alt-country boom of the 1990s.

That movement's periodical of record, No Depression magazine, named him Artist of the Decade against stiff competition from the likes of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle.

Like those cult figures, Escovedo, now in his mid-50s, has been through trials. There was divorce and the subsequent suicide of his first wife; months on the road away from his seven children; and his diagnosis in 1996 with hepatitis C. That condition eventually brought on his biggest crisis: He collapsed, vomiting blood, after a show in Phoenix, Ariz., in April of 2003.

He survived, but had to begin a punishing treatment regimen he could ill afford -- because, like many mid-level U.S. musicians, Escovedo had no health insurance. It's a plight Canadians can scarcely imagine. "Universal health care seems to be a dirty word in this country," Escovedo says.

His salvation was the respect of his fellow musicians, beginning in Austin, Tex., where Escovedo is part of the musical pantheon of saints. Benefit concerts were organized across the continent, and two tribute albums were released: Por Vida, with the likes of Earle, Williams, Jennifer Warnes and the Cowboy Junkies doing his songs; and a Canadian equivalent, Escovedo 101, featuring members of the Sadies and Blue Rodeo, among others.

"The benefits were incredible," he says now. "Community is kind of a lost art, so it was really impressive how the musical community came together and showed themselves a force to contend with when it comes to dealing with tragedy, whether it's the hurricane victims [the keyboard player in Escovedo's band is a displaced New Orleans resident] or individuals. I'm forever grateful."

Yet he had to humble himself to accept that help, Escovedo says. "It was hard to take the money. I always felt like I was the guy who did benefits for other people. Eventually my wife convinced me that not only was it helping me, it was helping other people also, just by bringing attention to the disease.

"We need to take care of each other. That's really the core of it."

Some of the artists who pitched in were Escovedo's youthful idols, such as John Cale of the Velvet Underground and Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople. "When I began playing, I tried to emulate what they were doing, knowing it was unattainable to tap into that kind of magic. And then these people play my songs, making them sound like I always tried to but never could."

They found fresh nuances in his writing, and made him feel promoted from student to peer. Now Cale is producing Escovedo's next album, including new songs he believes are his best ever.

But returning to the stage was still an intimidating proposition, with his own appearance and stamina so altered. His jet-black hair had fallen out, his muscles weakened. "I'd always been the one who wanted the band to look sharp and present a real presence," he says, as anyone who ever witnessed his marathon performances knows.

The shows and tours will be briefer now, but he has found another kind of intensity. "I think I've been thrust deeper into the music than I ever was, with a certain determination I didn't have before."

It's an energy at odds with the death-wishing rock romanticism that claimed the likes of the Sex Pistols. "It's like Keith Richards says - if he'd done all the things he's accused of, he'd be dead. Rock 'n' roll does require abandon, but I'm not sure the lifestyle is where you should focus. It's in the music, and the mind . . . to find new ways to say things about society and life.

"To have that near-death experience has given me a perspective I probably never would have had. . . . It has been a blessing, really."

Alejandro Escovedo appears with Jon Dee Graham, Oct. 4 at the El Mocambo, 464 Spadina Ave.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 30 at 12:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Damn & Double Damn

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Misinformed by Stillepost's open-source calendar (trust issues!), I gotta tell you that the Blow/Yacht/Anna Oxygen and now Hank Collective show is not, repeat not, tonight, but Oct. 7.

And underinformed by being out of town and not checking Stillepost, I didn't know that fuckin' Lightning Bolt was in town on Monday night. What was I doing Monday night? Watching Six Feet Under dvds and making a concert calendar. Ahh, bitter irony. I'm never leaving town again. For the lowdown and some post-show smackdowns, check out this thread. Looking forward to the new LB disc, though!

Belatedly, here's last week's column, on Podcasting (and to some extent the CBC).

OVERTONES
Weekend Review

Who needs the CBC when you have lock-out podcasts?

CARL WILSON
3 September 2005
The Globe and Mail

There's a long history of reporters publishing “strike newspapers.” Perhaps the most memorable came when striking critics from The New York Times in 1963 started the New York Review of Books, whose intellectual wattage immediately outshone the paper's standard books section, and still does.

Now a similar urge has catapulted locked out broadcasters from CBC radio into what's been dubbed “the Podquake” — the audio-downloading “podcasting” craze.

On website www.cbcunplugged.com , you find Shelagh Rogers heading off on a cross-country picket line pod-tour, genial Vancouver personality Bill Richardson fuming over how “pissed off” he is, and national reporter Curt Petrovich doing a poker-faced interview with “CBC management” as portrayed by his babbling eight-week-old daughter.

If only CBC normally had such passion. Unplugged is now among the most popular podcasts in the Canadian iTunes store, second only to CBC Radio Three's weekly show of Canuck indie rock.

How far the medium has come since former MTV talking head Adam Curry (known in geekdom as “the Podfather”) launched the first daily podcast last year.

If you're just tuning in, a podcast is an audio file (almost always an MP3). It could be a hobbyist DJing his favourite new music, a couple bickering about their sex lives, or a public radio show. The twist is that you use software to “subscribe” to the podcast so that it's automatically downloaded when there's a new episode, to be heard on your MP3 player (often but not necessarily an iPod) or at your computer, at your convenience.

It mixes aspects of blogging, Internet radio and digital TV recorders such as TiVo. One technology consulting group has projected that in five years, 60 million people will be listening.

Mere months ago, reports on podcasting usually began like this: “Each day Bill Muggertson dashes home from his chicken-plucking job, puts his children to bed, then heads to the garage, where he stammers into a microphone covered in a pink sock (to dampen pops) about his favourite Battlestar Galactica episodes for his 7,000 listeners.

“ ‘I don't get it,' says his wife Bernice.”

That stereotype was snuffed in July when Apple added podcasting capacity to iTunes, the life support system of the iPod (and the service that made paid legal downloads sexy). Podcasting has become professionalized at record speed, with media and marketers desperate not to be snookered by yet another communications revolution.

CBC Unplugged is cited in on-line resource Wikipedia as the first major use of podcasting for “advocacy.” Members of Congress and potential U.S. presidential candidates (such as John Edwards) have already tried their hands at politicasting (podlitics?). Meanwhile Paris Hilton and the Fox network have podcasted to promote movies and TV; NASA has had a podcast from space; and there's podnography (or “sexcasts”), downloadable church sermons (“Godcasts,” including one from the Pope), serialized novels and a ‘cast for every interest from wine to NASCAR.

One corporate radio station in San Francisco has gone all-podcast, placing popular podcasters and audience-submitted recordings on air in a talent-scouting, “Podcasting Idol” spirit.

Public radio has been especially gung-ho — the BBC has many of its finest hours available for web download, and the U.S. National Public Radio network put up a podcasting directory this week.

Considering many podcasters' stated mission of ending radio as we've known it, it looks a bit like the British bringing goodwill cups of Earl Grey to the Boston Tea Party.

But the giddy amateurism of podcasting's founding generation was never built to last. If most people wanted stuttering, winningly self-indulgent culture mavens, college-community stations would get a lot more listeners. The found-art aspect of podcasting has the half-life of a mood ring. Like the most-trafficked websites, the most-followed podcasts will be slicker affairs. Basement hobbyists will recede into the “long tail” of more marginal media.

But as Townes van Zandt once sang, “You're gonna drown tomorrow if you cry too many tears for yesterday.” Podcasting is part of an array of changes rattling the audio world, along with satellite radio, digital radio, the U.S. anti-payola crusade, Warner Music's new downloading-only record label, a recent breakthrough in download-service subscription by Playlouder and Sony in the U.K., among others. And did we ever need them. When CBC gets back to normal, it should set up a podcasting division tout de suite.

The obstacle is, as usual, record companies, who are trying to charge prohibitive music-licensing fees, just as music publishers attempted to cripple early radio. This stalemate has to break.

(One upside is that the quest for “podsafe” music is drawing attention to artists allowing fair use, under alternatives to copyright such as the Creative Commons license.)

The ubiquity of white iPod earphones can't continue on song shuffling alone — most people don't actually like music that much, or that much music. Podcasting restores advice, debate, sports and current events to the portable mix, but demands more distinct voices from each one. And for the tune-obsessed few, podcasts revive the context and commentary a skilled DJ can bring, as I've found on New York station WNCY's Soundcheck program or Toronto critic John Sakamoto's weekly Anti-Hitlist podcasts.

No one's sure how to make money on it yet (“podvertising” or “pledgecasting”?). But for public radio, perhaps the greater challenge is the lonely figure of the MP3 listener, in contrast to the mass broadcast audience. Should a network meant to bind a nation together really assist our retreat into individual sterile white capsules, where we download indie rock and science shows while rejecting, say, the farm report?

Whatever the answer, CBC must be able to manoeuvre. And the lockout podcasts show its employees already are as flexible and adaptable as management says it needs. The deeper fault is in the network's lumbering inertia. When the talent sounds tougher and smarter when it's working against you, for free, the real threat isn't the fine print on their contracts.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 07 at 12:15 PM | Linking Posts

 

O Kinsella, Where Is Thy Sting?

I have no desire to get into a nerd-war, but a couple of simple and amusing points about Kinsella's attack. (Again, see his Aug. 27 entry.) J. Kelly Nestruck actually did a nice job of dealing with WK's dismissal of the article. (Thank you.) Which leaves it up to me to parry the personalized part. [... keep reading ...]

He makes like he's never heard of me before, and it's probably sincere. He's probably forgotten that he actually asked me for help with his book, in this email:

-----Original Message-----
From: Warren Kinsella [mailto:warrenkinsella@XXXXXXXXXX]
Sent: Thursday, August 07, 2003 10:34 PM
To: cwilson@globeandmail.ca
Subject: Hey there

Just read your bit in today's Globe. It depressed me because it said so (apparently) effortlessly what the rest of us can't just pen in a day. Or two or three.

For me, this is a problem, 'cause I'm writing a book about punk for Random House. Would therefore like to take you to lunch to pick yer brain. What say you?

W

The lunch never happened. I said okay, he said he'd follow up (in an 8/8/2003 email that reiterated "I really enjoy your stuff"), no doubt he got busy and lost track, and neither of us thought much of it. But it's a funny-sad case study in human nature that the same critical style that one admires at a distance can so easily become the mark of a "poseur ... prissy arsewipe ... Moron-With-A-Thesaurus" and "nancy boy" when it's directed at oneself. I sympathize, but it's unfortunate.

Aside from the fag-bashing tone (very punk, I'm afraid), none of this bugs me much, because it's such familiar schoolyard anti-intellectual stuff. But I'm disappointed, because I thought Kinsella would be more prepared to engage in a serious discussion of punk's political culture. His book's not brilliant, but it's a hell of a lot smarter than his reaction to criticism.

I don't believe Kinsella's without principles - his work against the far right has been admirable (cf. his previous book Web of Hate). I imagine he saw his Liberal work as an extension of that campaign against the right, and thus of his punk past. But Kinsella doesn't want to talk about that. He just wants to claim I'm "jealous."

His source on my jealousy, his "buddy," is, if my guess is right, kind of a richly ironic one - a former fellow Globe editor who has a grudge against me because we're around the same age and I've done okay in the job while he ended up leaving after an ugly conflict with some of our managers. I actually think his buddy was wronged in some ways, but I'm sure he wouldn't believe that. Oh, and the guy also did some music writing. So if jealousy is the issue... well, I'll leave it there.

Finally - am I a token counterculturalist at the Globe? Sure. You can find me on the same page of your Globe lexicon as "Salutin, Rick," our token Marxist. (And a very talented writer.) But I don't think either of us is wrong to play that role. I don't think my column subverts capitalist hegemony or anything, but if I can use a mainstream platform to get some attention for creative work and ideas that might otherwise go unheard - perhaps to expand the dialogue a bit, and have some fun doing it - that's fine. I'm not the one claiming to be punk. So the Globe and I are in a relationship of mutual exploitation, with me as the reluctant cool-hunter, I guess, and the Globe as reluctant sugar daddy. It will do for now, though maybe not for always.

(In case you doubt the "reluctant" part of the Globe's sugar daddydom, it seems worthwhile occasionally, like now, to mention that my job is as an editor in another section of the paper, and the column is something I do as unpaid extra work. Maybe it's attracting all kinds of "edgy" ad revenue, but I sure haven't heard anything to suggest that. Every week that passes without it being unceremoniously axed feels like a bonus to me.)

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 29 at 3:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (23)

 

The Big Punk Rock Lie (and/or Warren Kinsella)

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Warren Kinsella: running scared, on empty.

It figures: I go out of town one weekend, and Zoilus readers carry on the liveliest debate on the site all summer in my absence. I hope to come back to the pop music vs. pop lit conversation soon, but first, there's the matter of Saturday's column.

It deals with something I've wanted to write about for a long while - as somebody whose views owe so much to the post-punk culture scene, I wanted to grant some equal time to the bullshit of punk, the reasons why its influence is as bothersome as it is beneficial. I had a golden opportunity handed to me with the recent publication of Warren Kinsella's Fury's Hour, a book on punk by a former special political adviser to Jean Chretien. While there's a lot of pretty rhetoric in Kinsella's book (including some quite good stuff) he dodges all the contradictions at his own convenience. Just like punk always has. More to say about what's been lost that way, and also about Kinsella's hilariously hysterical (and disappointingly substanceless and homophobic and anti-intellectual) response (check the Aug. 27 entry), but first, the column itself.

The short neocon trip between punk and Karl Rove

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005

The most intriguing aspect of Warren Kinsella's new book, Fury's Hour: A (Sort-Of) Punk Manifesto, barely makes an appearance between its covers. Which is both rather punk and very self-serving, if that's not the same thing.

It's a lively goulash of potted music history, analysis, semi-memoir and motivational speech. But the people who buy this book don't really need his mini-bio of the Ramones. They want an account of how this prominent late-1970s Calgary punk, a member of The Hot Nasties and proprietor of Blemish Records, ended up a notorious strategist in the Liberal regime of Jean Chrétien. Does he credit punk for the "attack dog" tactics that made him the Karl Rove of the Canadian middle of the road? [...]

Kinsella isn't dim enough to imagine he can dodge the issue completely. Instead, he flips us off: "Yes, I have become that which I once sought to destroy. . . . Piss off, as a punk might say, if you don't approve."

(All very bold, except that Kinsella later rips ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon a new one for having "become the embodiment of all that punk sought to change or, failing that, hoped to destroy." And all because Lydon wouldn't give him an interview.)

Kinsella needn't be so conflicted. He's now a member of another group that also could be called the Hot Nasties -- the North American power elite.

When Kinsella quotes Lydon barking, "If you get in my way, you're going to have a serious bad time," Canadian readers might recall the author's ex-boss's near-identical statement after manhandling a protester. (The throttling itself was more punk than the rationalization.) Even after leaving office, the Chrétien punks continued to show their middle fingers to the public at the Gomery inquiry.

If that seems a stretch, it's because most people, including Kinsella, tend to think of punk as a progressive youth movement. But really, punk is an ink blot -- you see in it what you want. From drunk racist frat boys to anarcho-feminist straight-edge vegan art geeks, all sorts of characters have claimed the mohawk and leather jacket (or vinyl jacket for the vegans) for their own.

Kinsella's shock over this, as in a well-reported chapter about Canadian punks' entanglements in both neo-Nazism and radical leftist bombings, seems risible coming from someone who's just spent 100 pages extolling punk's basis in generalized adolescent rage.

His own high-school crowd took up the cause after reading about the Pistols' supposed antics -- "throwing up on old ladies in airport waiting rooms . . . sounded pretty good to us." Hmm, how could that life-affirming impulse possibly go awry?

Kinsella misunderstands two things. The first is art. Specifically, punk as a late-late modernist art movement. When he responds to the Sex Pistols slogan "no future" by tut-tutting that there really is a future and punks should try to make it brighter (and vote Liberal?), he displays his tin ear for punk's Dadaist paradoxes.

He sneers at artist Andy Warhol's "hippie" (huh?) influence on the New York scene and on the Pistols' despised manager, Malcolm McLaren. Kinsella reviles the Warholian cynical hyper-boredom of early punk, but that attitude was what made it more than just sloppy heavy metal or folk singing on overdrive - its grand negation, flattening every sign and symbol into an interchangeable flux of disdain.

Deep down, the core of punk is the howl of the Freudian death drive, the gestural suicide of an exhausted youth culture - a thrilling annihilation that's repeated till its very emptiness is emptied. This inherent death wish is why the question "is punk dead?" is perpetual and unanswerable. As songwriter David Berman of the Silver Jews encapsulated it: "Punk rock died when the first punk said/ 'Punk's not dead, punk's not dead.' "

Of course, after that initial liberating shock, converts have to figure out what to do with life-after-punk-death. And that's where the contradictions come in.

Kinsella realizes punk was a purgative convulsion against the perceived decadence of the 1970s, but overlooks how closely that origin binds it to the neoconservative backlash that brought putative punk (and Liberal) foes Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney to power. It's Kinsella's second big blind spot.

He enthuses over punk's do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic, for instance. But call it an entrepreneurial work ethic and you've got a neo-con sacred cow. (Vancouver punk Joey Shithead points this out, but Kinsella shrugs it off.) Punk also partook of Cold War apocalyptic fantasies parallel to those that would soon drive the mass revival of Christian fundamentalism -- "no future" meets the Rapture down on Death Drive.

Neo-cons hated the sixties, and punks hated hippies. In many ways punk anticipated the knee-jerk, know-nothing disdain for collective input and consequence that would become standard-issue conservative politics and culture - extreme individualism and atomized democracy.

How great a leap is it from barfing on old ladies to cutting their pension cheques?

Rush Limbaugh is punk, the Oxycontin-snorting, neo-con version of Henry Rollins. The blithely rude Paris Hilton is punk, kid sister to Courtney Love; much punk music now echoes her entitled, self-involved whine.

Punk-in-chief George W. Bush metaphorically gobs on the dead soldier's mother as he blasts past her in his motorcade. And Chrétien figuratively pelts Mr. Justice John Gomery with golf balls in a Kinsella-conceived bit of punk theatre.

Ashton Kutcher, MTV's idiot king of random cruelty, the pope of "can't you take a joke?", gives it its proper name: Our culture has been royally punked.

I'm not denying punk's salutary effects on many lives, including my own. But it's been too loyal an opposition, too close to emerging dominant values, for its own good.

The DIY model remains useful, but it just restates what countercultures always have done. And today, with far broader information within easier reach, white outsider youth culture is finally superseding punk.

By these fresher standards, Kinsella's "manifesto" is merely the nostalgia trip of a punk dinosaur and, oh yeah, total sellout.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 29 at 2:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

The Only Pornographers are
the Pornographers of Ice Cream

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First a note that The Wire, the smart CBC radio show on "the effect of electricity on music" that I've pimped to you in the past is, just in time for the CBC labour lockout, being featured on the Third Coast International Audio Festival's cool-radio site. You can listen to excerpts and read a terrific "behind the scenes" interview with host Jowi Taylor.

Our main bizness this morning, though, is my review of the new New Pornographers album, Twin Cinema, today in The Globe and Mail. I've revised my initial impression of the disc, as I suspected I would. At first I thought it sounded rushed - now I think much of it works well, but it still suffers from a muchness, from too many mixed intentions, with the parts out of balance. This has always been an inherent problem with the band but three albums in, you wish it would be resolved, and I'm not sure the way to do it is for the band to get artier - I've got Destroyer albums for that, but Carl Newman's strengths are pop strengths - clever, left-field pop, but pop nonetheless. I'm led back to The Trouble With Indie Rock (insofar as there is an indie rock). It's a subcultural tendency in which pop bands are led (by whatever cultural habitus and category errors you care to name) to consider themselves in a sense above the form, and therefore miss their opportunity to explore and exploit said form fully. (Not that I think this problem is simple.) In the case of the NPs, that's complicated by the disparateness of the band members and particularly Neko Case's limited availability. And still, with all those caveats, I think the album has a great deal to offer (especially, to reiterate a particular peeve of mine, when the arrangements afford the vocals enough space for legibility).

Whether that justifies my extended ice-cream analogy is up for debate. [...]

CD of the Week
Sweet, savoury, fusion confusion

The New Pornographers:
Twin Cinema

(Mint Records)
★ ★ ★

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, August 19, 2005

This third album by Vancouver band the New Pornographers may get mixed reactions from fans. Say, for instance, that your favourite ice-cream man started infusing his chocolate mint with curry, or layering his heavenly hash with foie gras. Fine, he wants to stretch his gastronomic skills. But prickly fusion cuisine isn't what brought you across town on a hot night to line up at his stall at the fair.

For the past five years, the New Pornographers have been making, as reviewers like to say, "pop music for people who don't like pop music," sourced mainly in the post-psychedelic glam and bubble gum of the early 1970s and in 1980s New Wave. Of course, New Pornographers fans do like pop music; many merely refuse, for elusive sociological reasons, to admit it. But offer cayenne pepper instead of hot fudge sauce, and they might not bite.

The band features three lead singers (Carl Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case), guitars, drums, keyboards and expansive studio ingenuity. On 2001's Mass Romantic and 2003's Electric Version, the approach was to create hyper-pop, songs that sounded like three hit singles happening at once, with almost too many words, too many melodic hooks, too many hot riffs jammed together. They strained the form, testing just how catchy a tune could get before it collapsed, and then doing it again. Most songs exploded from the first note all the way to the final chorus.

Twin Cinema takes the proposition of making non-pop under more serious consideration. Not that it's scant on hooks, choruses and sing-alongs, but they're stirred into a thicker churn. There's a dark complication in even the brightest bonbons here. The album feels more mature, and perhaps more geopolitically aware; several songs teem with threat and conspiracy.

Tunes here tend to build gradually rather than burst into action. A few are subdued all the way through, including two ballads showcasing Case's swooping, sympathetic voice - one the rousing These Are the Fables, and the other The Bones of an Idol, which plods.

With few exceptions, the band discovers new trap doors and stairs within its style without forgetting the route back to surging riffs and bell-ringing harmonies. Newman's Sing Me Spanish Techno and The Bleeding Heart Show and Bejar's Streets of Fire and Jackie Dressed in Cobras are among the Pornographers' best. Edit out the two or three stiffs and you've got a consistently addictive set.

But there are nagging issues. Only one of the three principals, Carl Newman, is fully committed. Neko Case has her alt-country solo career; Bejar's main project, Destroyer, is now signed to thriving Merge Records.

As vocal pinch-hitters, Newman has recruited his niece, Kathryn Calder (of Vancouver's the Immaculate Machines), as well as Nora O'Connor of Chicago group the Blacks. While the variety is diverting, it's no substitute for Case's solar-plexus punch. Meanwhile, Bejar's songs are too few here to lend the disc all the balance they could, yet his writing does show up Newman's flaws - namely, the sense of a centre frequently missing from his songs. (They all perform together on a joint New Pornographers-Destroyer tour this fall.)

Finally, there's the pop perplex: Is it all just too much tinkering around when, with Newman's arrangements and Case's pipes, they could be knocking out hits to leave Kelly Clarkson in the dust? I'm not sure. It's a memorable thing to meet the patent-holder on the curry cone, but the New Pornographers could be the emperors of ice cream.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 19 at 11:16 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Payola, ooh la la

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This weekend's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, titled "Plug It Again, Sam," reflects on the unfolding prosecution of the new payola scandal in U.S. radio, why payola is like the poor ("always with us"), why there's probably no payola in Canada (everybody knows everybody - you don't have to pay your friends off to do you favours), why the FCC inquiry could yet turn into an attack on hip-hop (at least it's not an election year!), and the sweet romanticism of imagining we make our own tastes. Letters of complaint from Canadian radio programmers are rolling in: I do regret the word "hacks," which was too cheap a shot.

By the way, the film alluded to in the first paragraph is the Miranda July movie. And a note on the origins of the term "payola" - articles constantly claim it's a conflation of "pay" and "Victrola," which always seemed weird to me, since Victrolas were outmoded by the time the word was coined. Turns out it's actually a typical example of midcentury slang'uage in Variety magazine. As Kerry Segrave writes: "Variety was quite taken at the time with the ending 'ola.' For example, rather than write 'on the cuff', Variety would style it 'cuffola.' A successful act was a 'boff click' or 'boffola.' " Ah, for the showbizzle of yester-yizzle.

And so, read on ...

Plug it again, Sam
Pay for play is back in the music business

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, August 13, 2005

You and your date come out of the movie house agreeing the flick was bold, buoyant, brave. The next day another couple, people you respect, tell you they both thought it forced. You wonder if you'd admire it so much if you'd seen it with them, or if you'd also be calling it “as aspartame as Amélie.”

Recognize this phenomenon? I call it taste magnetics: People experiencing art together are apt to concur on its merits. When you laugh, I'm more prone to smile. When you flinch, I grimace. We're swayable.

Taste magnetics also helps account for the persistence of payola, or radio “pay for play.” That bogeyman of the music biz is back this week, with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pledging to take New York Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer's investigation national. His first strike already wrested a $10-million (U.S.) settlement from Sony-BMG, with a humiliating dossier of label e-mails begging for “spins” for Celine Dion, Franz Ferdinand and Audioslave, offering plasma-screen TVs, fancy sneakers, plane tickets and more.

Reaction seem split: Camp 1 cries, “Aha! See why the radio is so full of lousy music?” while Camp 2 yawns, “Same as it ever was; you can't buy hits.” Each has a point.

Pay-for-play, according to Kerry Segrave's study Payola in the Music Industry: A History, 1880-1991 and Frederic Dannen's exposé Hit Men, predates not only radio but the record player, too. It goes back at least to the 1880s, when publishers would funnel kickbacks to singers to promote sheet-music sales of certain songs. Soon “song pluggers” were being paid to swagger into saloons and pound out marketable tunes on the piano, whistle them in diners or belt them out in five-and-dimes. In vaudeville audiences, paid-off plants would sing along to specified songs to make them seem popular (just as “viral” agents are hired to phone in requests today).

As influence shifted from singers to band leaders to DJs and station heads, favours and flattery followed. Transitions were marked by crackdowns — the rock 'n' roll-payola hearings of the 1950s, the 1970s FCC drugs-for-play investigation, the mobbed-up promoter trials of the 1980s, and now Spitzer's corporate sting. But payola always comes back in a new form. The latest phase has taken millions out of artists' pockets for “independent promoters” who became the only conduit to U.S. stations.

Yet paid spins guarantee nothing. No one knows what makes a hit. In 2002, Universal spent $2.2-million promoting 18-year-old Carly Hennessy's debut album, but it sold fewer than 500 copies. Payoffs are just a buy-in to the roulette game — and a means of keeping other players out.

Good hardy capitalism, right? Book, grocery and other retailers take payments from wholesalers to give their products special display space. Payola just moves a particular tune to the front shelf in radio's imaginary supermarket of song.

But grocery stores are private. The airwaves are public property, licensed partly to serve the common good. If payola is the American way, it's after the fashion of Halliburton and soft-money contributions.

(The Sony-BMG settlement limited acceptable graft to event tickets, contest giveaways, meals and modest personal gifts — the status quo in Canada. In our small industry, chumminess between label and radio hacks seems enough to stack the deck.)

A promo man's job is to create self-fulfilling prophesies. There are too many decent songs to go around — so if you rig the system so that yours briefly looks like a hit, people may begin to hear it as one.

That process can be bewildering for a fan; imagine being the musician. Ex-Talking Head David Byrne recently recalled that experience on his website diary — the disillusionment when he discovered his band's 1983 hit Burning Down the House was primed with payola. The revelation led him to suspect his own prior tastes, his band's worth and the gullibility of his fans. I think you can hear the resulting sour condescension on some of his subsequent records.

Like Byrne, many of us romantically believe our tastes are original expressions of our souls, but the truth is our fun is fungible, influenced by our friends, background and, yes, fashion. The reason payola keeps resurfacing is taste magnetics: When you consider how easily a cinema companion affects you, how can you claim immunity from million-dollar stealth campaigns? It's remarkable, through it all, that pop music turns out to be as good as it is.

In fact, the anti-payola campaign may make it worse. It lowers costs for major labels, which is good for their artists, but could lead to even less diversity on the radio. Indie record labels rarely can afford to commission promoters, but if they really believed they had a hit, they could ante up — a contributing factor to the recent “rock revival.” Now that option is vanishing. The road is jammed again with well-connected label staff, a resource indies lack.

(Segrave documents a time-honoured pattern: Big labels advocate payola bans to keep costs and competition down. Then they cheat.)

Past payola inquiries have been racially and politically targeted: In the 1950s they shut down upstart, black rock 'n' roll labels; the 1970s hearings targeted Philly soul. While Spitzer has been impeccably unbiased, the tone may change as the FCC brings the case to Washington — and politicians seize the chance to grandstand against hip-hop.

That could dovetail all too neatly with the FCC's planned “decency in broadcasting” campaign, and drown out some Democrats' wishes to discuss how payola is exacerbated by radio deregulation and ownership concentration.

After all, the survival instinct of every large enterprise draws it toward a Mafia state, and the pay-for-play in politics is rich indeed.

Yet this may be the last scandal for radio as we know it. Satellite radio, Internet radio, podcasts and other new audio alternatives are verging on commercial viability — which should come when they invent their own forms of payola, and money again remakes us.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, August 14 at 3:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Big Star: For All You Sister Lovers

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The reformed Big Star, with Alex Chilton third from left. Photo by Tom Erikson.

That headline ought to generate some disgusting site traffic, but for those of you not seeking sibling-incest porn, it's actually a reference to 1970s power-pop band Big Star, who have just announced the release date for their upcoming reunion album, In Space - Sept. 27. Of course, by "reunion," they actually mean Alex Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and members of the Posies, one of the most Big Star-influenced bands around, since key member Chris Bell is long dead. Still, it's the first Big Star record in 27 years, and in celebration I thought I'd post a piece about the band I wrote a couple of years ago when there was a Big Star tribute night being held in Toronto, recapping their career and the myth in which Chilton's enshrined in the "former child star" flame-out archetype. Eyeball it on the flip.

If you do not groove to the guitar-hooks-and-jangle-jangle, perhaps you would prefer some Veronica Mars news. (Also, the Mountain Goats return to Toronto on October 17!)

Entering the cult of the Big burnt-out Star

SCENE
CARL WILSON
20 November 2003
The Globe and Mail

Fittingly, it wasn't a hit. But the very existence of a Hollywood comedy this year called Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star proved the arrival of a new pop-culture archetype.

Reviewers mostly lauded the concept but panned the grating Saturday Night Live leftover David Spade. But what was so great about the concept, really? Somehow in the past decade the fates of ex-Diff'rent Strokes and Brady Bunch personalities have become totemic parables, orgies of schadenfreude in high rotation on the TV-bio hit parade.

What do the bedevilled lives of spotlight-burnt youth have to offer but a wallow in squalor and a cheap punchline?

You can compare it to the "lost genius" phenomenon in pop music. Some fans find nothing more compelling than a gifted artist who due to vice, madness, graft or dumb luck, went unheard and/or wound up in a pool of blood and/or vomit. There seems to be no song, inspiring or insipid, that is not improved by an accompanying fountain of bodily fluids.

In this luckless lottery, Alex Chilton holds a double-or-nothing ticket, as both lost genius and ex-underage star. How much does that bear on the Memphis-born singer's legendary status? What does it have to do with, for instance, the tribute his early-1970s group Big Star is being paid by Toronto bands National Anthem, the Carnations, Galore, Moe Berg, Mike Trebilcock, Precious Little, Gord Cummings and others at the Horseshoe on Queen Street West on Tuesday night?

Chilton is only 16 in 1967 when he suddenly finds himself with an international number-one record, the Box Tops' The Letter. With a voice part Delta bluesman and part teenybopper, gruff beyond his years, he sings "Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane" and becomes a rock star in perhaps the best year ever for rock stars.

A few more minor hits later, Chilton quits in the middle of a 1969 U.K. tour, frustrated at being the pawn of managers and producers. Back in Memphis, he hooks up with a young band led by guitarist Chris Bell called Icewater (now heard for the first time on a new reissue with Bell's earlier band Rock City, both of which stand up fairly well).

They re-dub themselves Big Star and make an album in 1972 called Number One Record. It's a glimmering thing of acoustic and electric guitars, in-the-pocket beats, yelping cries and smooth harmonies, a blend of roots rock with by-then-unfashionable British Invasion polish. But to call band and album ironically named would be an understatement.

Despite rave reviews, record-company troubles mean nobody can find it. Bell quits the band and spirals into depression (until his death in a bloody car crash in 1979). The three remaining members make Radio City, with if anything a finer, more soulful sound and if anything worse distribution. The final Big Star album, the wilder, spacey Third (or Sister Lovers), isn't even released for years. The band is kaput.

Chilton lapses into a decade-long alcoholic haze — cue the vomit — and records erratically. But the extant Big Star platters find their ways into select hands: Cheap Trick admits the influence and in the 1980s, Big Star is extolled by REM, the Cramps (whom Chilton produces), Tom Petty, Robyn Hitchcock, the Bangles (who have a hit with Big Star's most perfect song, September Gurls), the Dream Syndicate . . . and the Replacements, who fill college-radio airwaves with a near-messianic ode called Alex Chilton, in which "children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes round" — "the invisible man" with "a visible voice."

Eventually Big Star's spores scatter so far — from Teenage Fanclub to Guided By Voices and Fountains of Wayne — that they become their own subgenre of power pop. The now-sober Chilton accepts paycheques for occasional Box Tops and Big Star reunions, but still repudiates most of that work. In his own shambling performances he prefers to cover R&B; chestnuts and Italian lounge music. Big Star cruising anthem In the Street becomes the That '70s Show theme (an inferior adaptation for which Chilton is meagrely paid). And a bunch of Toronto bands decide to hold a tribute night.

Deservedly so. The Big Star catalogue is a crash course in the craft and emotional range of pop; the grownup (now 51) Chilton is wrong there. But it's not enough to explain why Big Star became a shibboleth, the name most compulsively dropped in guitar-pop reviews today — with the exception of fellow lost genius Brian Wilson, but at least readers are likely to have heard the Beach Boys.

Big Star is mentioned not just on its own merits but also for a more rarefied version of the frisson that surrounds Gary Coleman or ever-more-creepy ex-child-star Michael Jackson. There is human sacrifice in it, a price to be paid because talent is less alienating when it is punished. Chilton began his career in exploitation, and knows it never changed. He's smart not to play along, as I'm afraid we don't want the best for him.

In his lively book It Came from Memphis, critic Robert Gordon gets it right: "In Big Star's history, fans confront the fear of having something important to say that no one will hear." But then he gets too rosy, claiming, "It's taken 20 years, but Big Star has prevailed. The band's cult status helps listeners realize their lives are not in vain."

The cult would be disappointed to hear Big Star had prevailed; it would go looking for something more satisfyingly doomed. What we ask from our spoiled prodigies and debauched Dana Platos is not resolution or vindication. We look for a damnation nobler than earthly reward. Our lives, after all, may very well be in vain. That's why we're consoled when we hear the celestial hum of some big, distant, burnt-out star harmonizing back, Oh, vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 26 at 4:53 PM | Linking Posts

 

The New Protest Music = Faux-test Music

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Today in Overtones in The Globe and Mail, two very different approaches to putting consumer-society critique to music, which start from a similar place - doing a little forensic investigation of a commodity to reveal its underbelly - but then go into two types of camouflage. In the case of Kanye West's Diamonds from Sierra Leone, the politics are all offloaded into the accessories, the title and the video and the remix, while the main track stays clear of the political element. And in Matthew Herbert's Plat du Jour themes about the politics of food production/consumption are woven deep into the DNA of the music, using sampling and other techniques (above, a shot of Herbert's percussionist playing a drum kit made of groceries, which reminds me of something), but the music itself is mainly abstract and instrumental. It ain't exactly Fight the Power, but in a time when political sloganeering in song is both commercially frowned upon and aesthetically pretty played-out, these "faux-test" song alternatives are a creative counter-strategy.

It also made me think about the limits of mash-ups and sampling in general, which I touch on here, but might post more about later. [... Read the piece? ...]

Stickin' it to the man with just a song title

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
Saturday, July 23, 2005
The Globe and Mail

People of a certain age often demand to know where all the protest singers have gone. But why write a political song when you can accomplish as much with just a political title?

Report on Business, the financial section that keeps it real, informed us last week that the diamond industry is choking on rap V.I.P. Kanye West's latest single, Diamonds from Sierra Leone. Its stark black-and-white video depicts African kids mining for diamonds and an American woman whose hand drips blood after her beau slips a diamond ring on her finger.

West's ire is aimed at “conflict” or “blood” diamonds. Such gems are mined in unstable nations, often in Africa by children under coercion, and the profits used by states and paramilitaries to fund brutal wars. West said backstage at the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia that since he wears so many diamonds himself, he felt obliged to consider their source.

Gem-trade spin doctors quickly got out their tongue depressors: “While we have not viewed Mr. West's new video,” pouted Carson Glover, of the DeBeers-run Diamond Information Centre, “the lyrics of the song certainly do not reflect the tremendous work the diamond industry has done creating a zero-tolerance environment.”

They certainly don't — mainly because outside its title the song doesn't mention conflict jewels at all. It was initially called Diamonds Are Forever, and built on a sample of the rah-rah-diamonds tune of the same name sung by Shirley Bassey in the old James Bond flick. In the lyrics West genuflects to the diamond logo of his label Roc-a-Fella, and otherwise congratulates himself on a very good year of multiple hits and Grammys. That's what you hear in the video.

The title change seems to have come after West's protégé Lupe Fiasco recorded an answer song to the same beat called Conflict Diamonds, pointing out the bleaker side of bling. Then West not only adopted the Sierra Leone title, but recorded a remix (which most people won't hear) in which he does address the issue, giving some of Fiasco's points added verbal flair.

Even in that version, blood diamonds occupy only one verse before West hands the mike to his patron Jay-Z, for another round of Roc-a-Fella pep talk (“I'm not a businessman / I'm a business, man!”).

Yet West still kicked up a ruckus in the diamond biz — where, by the way, Amnesty International says there remain serious monitoring concerns. And he did it without turning out a leaden, didactic single. The gap between his song and his video turns out to be a functional disjunction: Viewers at once take in the message and get their pleasure centres stimulated by West's lighter braggart's opera.

Most songwriters' “political” tunes are some kind of blunderful — what sizzles on the op-ed page or at a rally often goes soggy when sandwiched into metre and rhyme. West's solution of slapping a topical title and image over an otherwise irrelevant song almost qualifies as a breakthrough: Replace protest song with faux-test song and you can have your cake and interrogate its means of production too.

That sort of dietary analysis is the obsession of a less mainstream new record. Plat du Jour, by English electronic musician Matthew Herbert, is a concept album attacking the global food business, after the fashion of books like No Logo and Fast Food Nation.

But overstuffed Bruce Cockburn-style verses about The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialized Chicken (as the first track is titled) are not on the menu. This is an instrumental album — that is, if you assume that 24,000 baby chicks, a chicken being plucked, a dozen organic eggs and a Pyrex bowl, for example, are instruments.

Don't answer till you hear it.

Herbert is a great manipulator of sound samples (he's worked with Bjork, among others), but unlike most producers, he makes it a rule never to sample other people's music, only found sound. On this album, he takes that constraint to the “turbo extreme,” stipulating he can use only samples directly related to the topic of a track.

The tune about bottled water is composed of water sounds; White Bread, Brown Bread samples toast and toasters; another tune uses the collective crunch of Herbert's live audiences biting into apples he handed out (over 3,000 in all); and the last track features a real battle tank driving over a recreation of a meal celebrity chef Nigella Lawson once made for Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

What results is moody or lush or febrile, but certainly not preachy.

There are several exciting implications. While musical sampling like West's use of Shirley Bassey has generated countless possibilities, it's also drawn us into a bit of a mirrored hallway full of music about music, at once insular and escapist. Herbert's field recordings instead point back out into the world.

In concert, as at the Mutek festival in Montreal this spring, Herbert has a drummer playing a kit made entirely out of supermarket products, a farmer's market set up in back and a gourmet chef cooking under large fans on stage to disperse odours timed to the sounds.

It's reminiscent of “industrial” bands 15 years ago dragging sheet metal, shopping carts and power tools up on stage. That approach would seem masochistically redundant today. Extreme sampling in pop, though, has just begun. In 2001, Herbert's fellow Bjork associates, the California duo Matmos, put out the amazing A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, making music from the sounds of cosmetic-surgery operations. But Herbert's explicit political rather than formalist agenda is a twist.

Plat du Jour has one sung lyric, about celebrities letting themselves be used to endorse junk food — a dud. Otherwise it's protest music that, uniquely, “shows” rather than tells. It's a kind of non-verbal musical documentary, especially if you listen while investigating the extensive background material on the website.

Bypass all that, though, and it's simply neat ambient electronica. Most of the sounds are too altered to recognize directly by ear — which makes Plat du Jour another kind of incipient faux-test music.

Next time some smug Sixties holdover asks where the political songs have gone, I look forward to saying they're still around — just being made out of pork sausages, sewage pumps, Coke cans and seven different kinds of pickles.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 23 at 2:53 PM | Linking Posts

 

Kells' Closet (1800's Literary Remix Edition)

A couple of things I had to cut from the "precedents" part of today's column, for yer exclusive Zoil'istic edjimification:

Soul veterans like the Isley Brothers released two-part R&B; songs as far back as the sixties, but that was more for extended-dance-mix and double-yer-profit pleasures than for, like, crazed-soap-operetta suspense.

In fact, Kelly has often duetted in cheater-cheatee scenarios with Ronald Isley himself, who played the cuckold character of Mr. Biggs. Thanks to their work with Kells, the Isleys became the only pop act to put out hits in six consecutive decades. (Or so sources claim, though I wondered about Louis Armstrong.) Many listeners were broken-hearted Mr. Biggs didn’t pop up in Closet chapter 5.

And Drew Daniel - UC Berkeley PhD. student when he's not half of Matmos or all of The Soft Pink Truth - pointed out on ILM the similarity of the Closet suite to the 19th-century craze for verse plays meant to be read (silently or aloud) rather than acted out - which were called, believe it or not, “closet” dramas. So if you're ever asked what Milton, Goethe and R. Kelly have in common, you now have an answer.

It also occurred to me today, opening up my care package from the Internet book store, that Trapped in the Closet is kinda the adult-entertainment version of Harry Potter, with its serial cliffhangers. ... It's R. Kelly's every-flavour beans.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 3:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Kells's Closet Case Cracked

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This R. Kelly mannequin has been all over blogville, but till I went hunting myself I'd never seen this bizarre full-figure shot, which kinda foreshadows the conclusion of today's column.

In today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, I go down the pee-yellow-brick road with the Pied Piper (eww) of R&B;, into the formica-countered Emerald Ghetto of the most stupendously cuckoo pop phenomenon of the century, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet series, the force ('cuz it ain't the feeble single Players Only) that propelled his new album to the top of the charts this week. For once, a celeb accused of dirty deeds actually tries to save his ass not with legalese and smear campaigns but with — can it be? — his art. [... Read it here. ...]

The greatest summer single of ever

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 16, 2005

In 2005, pop music is about anything but pop music. It's about tsunami aid and African debt, celebrity trials and sexual misconduct. Most of all it's about technology, the iPod as ubiquitous cultural feeding tube, the mobile-phone ring tone as 11-second chart wonder.

Or rather, it was, until R&B; singer R. Kelly — in his second decade of multimillion-selling fame, and short weeks before his own imminent sex trial — made pop all about the songs again, thanks to the most off-the-hook summer-single ploy ever.

Coincidence? Not. But if a star has been accused of having issues with drugs, guns, Scientology or — for the most-unfortunately nicknamed "Pied Piper of R&B;" — degrading videotaped sex with very underage girls, I don't want him making talk-show testaments, sham marriages or hurried dashes with umbrella-toting bodyguards to unmarked limos.

No, I want him to court public sympathy by dreaming up entertainment so baroquely fantastic that people will demand clemency just so he can make more, aware it's wrong but unable to help themselves.

In case of emergency, break creative glass ceiling.

So: What about a five-part musical saga involving two married couples, several adulteries, a cop, a gay pastor named Rufus and his secret lover Chuck, a handgun, multiple cellphones, a closet and a condom, set to a water-torture suspenseful score, with each chapter ending abruptly in a cliffhanger with a reverberating string-and-kettle-drum crescendo?

That is the marvel that is R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1 to 5. The epic appears in its full perverse glory on his new, instant-No.-1 album, TP.3 Reloaded. But first segments were released one by one to radio from April to now, to succour the medium in its grimmest, iPod-menaced hour. Kelly aimed to revive the golden-age radio serial. R&B; stations happily played along, making it a hit and, for many of us, an obsession.

(Don't read further if you don't want to know what happens.) (I've never ever felt the need to issue a spoiler warning about a song before now.)

There's also a video, whose TV premiere last week was the top-rated show in BET history. Shot with the cheap back-lighting and dun sets of a daytime soap, Kelly and a group of actors enact exactly the scenarios in the song — like the moment in Chapter 1 when Kelly, hiding from a jealous husband in a bedroom closet the day after a tryst, fumbles with his phone "to quickly put it on vi-i-i-bra-a-a-te!"

The actors mouth the lines as if speaking, but Kelly croons the actual dialogue, and more. It's like a reverse tone-deafness in which all human speech and thought are replaced by the buttery vocalese of R. Kelly.

In Chapter 2, the jealous husband, who is also gay pastor Rufus, uses his own cell to get Chuck to come announce "the shocking truth," their own plan to marry. When he hangs up, Kelly off-handedly sings, "Click!"

And, reader, that's what the whole piece is like! Later, Kelly sings the siren of a police car pulling him over! Don't even ask about the part where Kelly sings to his wife to hurry up and orgasm because he has a leg cramp! And she still tells him what a great lover he is! Let's just say it ends badly! And circuitously!

In the manner of an Andy Warhol movie, it's too knowing to be inadvertent, too earnest to be satire and too bat-guano nuts to make sense. But Kelly, who happens to have the voice of a 21st-century Sam Cooke, bulldozes any and all attempts to maintain an ironic distance with his overcharged delivery. It's not so bad it's good; it's so unabashedly itself that it's beyond bad and good — it's so R., it's Kelly.

One (or five) of a kind though it is, Closet has precedents. The cheater-cheated theme is a staple of Kelly's back catalogue, and the storytelling is like a cannabis-fried version of country-blues ballad Frankie & Johnny or the Persuaders' Thin Line Between Love and Hate, flipping back and forth to Jerry Springer and Desperate Housewives.

It's also an amoral take on the revival-tent-style morality plays that draw throngs of black Americans on today's urban-gospel theatre circuit, the source of last year's minor hit movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman. And this being R. Kelly, there's also a whiff of Boogie Nights-era pornography, all pile carpet and faux-wood panelling.

But the key is radio and TV daytime soap operas — which, like Closet, are domestic, talk-heavy and full of flawed but sympathetic characters, and unfold in revelations and cliffhangers that never resolve the story. Closet has no chorus because it's a soap — a chorus would be a climax, which in a soap opera must be deferred indefinitely. Call it tantric plotting.

In fact, Kelly has already announced that there will be at least five more chapters to Closet, probably more. (Which explains why Chapter 5 makes such a lousy ending — it isn't one.) Embarking on a potentially infinite project is one way to assert your belief you won't go to jail.

Feminist scholars also suggest soap opera's open, interconnected narrative structures mirror feminine social identity. And that's just what Kelly needs. Not only to curry favour with female fans, who love the goofy, homely realism of his erotic imagination (that leg cramp, or the chopped tomatoes in Sex in the Kitchen) and the humility with which he'll sometimes interrupt his horndogging to pay obeisance to family and God; but to dismantle his other face, the hysterically hypermasculine sex predator, and make amends.

Unlike Cooke or Marvin Gaye, Kelly still seems locked deep in his own closet. Closet grazes against cultural taboos — tolerating homosexuality, acknowledging the playa-ho double standard — but as always, Kelly drops it and lets himself off scot free.

So, while the first five (well, four) parts remain the greatest summer single of ever, if Kelly wants his artistic clemency, the next five instalments of Trapped in the Closet better look something like this: Ch. 6. Kelly and traffic cop fall in love; Ch. 7. Now-ex-wife and ex-girlfriend beat down Kelly with own video camera; Ch. 8. Kelly and cop take spa day with Jay-Z, followed by volunteering at women's shelter; Ch. 9. Kelly begins taking hormone therapy; Ch. 10. Kelly adjusts to life as male-to-female transsexual: And I look in the closet! That's my bra in the closet! My bra in the claaaaw-sit! (. . . sit, sit, sit, sit . . .)

Then maybe we'll talk.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 3:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Toronto Unsyncopated

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Branford Marsalis plays Top o' the Senator last year. Photo by Bill King.

In today's Globe and Mail, I offer an obituary for the city's former leading jazz club, Top o' the Senator, and a survey of what's next for jazz venues in the city. I often criticized the Senator for its conservatism, but it was a terrific listening room - and you will not believe the bizarre Vegas-revue kind of plans the new owners have for music there in the fall. There's other good news for Toronto jazz, though - details in the piece. [... Read it here. ...]

Out of syncopation

Top o' the Senator, that finely chilled jazz joint, is gone. The venue replacing it, writes CARL WILSON, has a very different set list in mind

The Globe & Mail
Toronto Section
Saturday, July 16, 2005


Since 1990, Top o' the Senator has been the impeccably dry martini of Toronto entertainment, a place where the finest jazz musicians would take up residency for a week at a time, and waiters would mete out a discreet shushing if you chattered too loud during a set.

Now it's gone, joining the Bermuda Onion, the Colonial, George's Spaghetti House and other ghosts of Toronto jazz past, and leaving the city's jazz aficionados to wonder where the future lies. The walk-up at 253 Victoria St., tucked behind the Pantages Theatre, closed July 4 to the sound of Sheila Jordan singing, "For all we know/ we may never meet again."

"The Senator was unique in that it opened as a dedicated music room," says guitarist Michael Occhipinti, who played there with his progressive big band NOJO. "Most clubs are just bars that at some point decided to have music."

Business had been shaky for five years. The low Canadian dollar put big-name American acts out of reach, neighbouring theatres weren't thriving, SARS cast its shadow and the whole Yonge-Dundas area was going through upheaval.

So, late last year, owner Bob Sniderman sold the club and the main-floor Torch Bistro to an investor group headed by sommelier Michael Sullivan. They're now renovating, to "open up" the room. When it reappears this fall as the Savoy, jazz will be a small part of its repertoire.

Mr. Sullivan wants the club to get younger, more accessible and eclectic to reflect Toronto. But his approach is surprising. While he initially spoke vaguely of world music, rhythm and blues, even a burlesque show, now the plan is for the Savoy to present musical revues of its own creation -- "with a theatrical element" -- from Thursday to Saturday. Each show will highlight a genre, such as funk or classic rock, and run weekly for as long as two months.

The events will be supervised by Craig Martin, the producer of Classic Albums Live, a series of renditions of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley records. Regular concerts, including jazz, are confined mainly to Sundays.

The scheme seems as fiscally dodgy as jazz was, Mr. Sullivan admits. "But we suspect it will work." He'll find out, starting Sept. 23.

In theory, jazz in Toronto should be thriving. It has music students coming through Humber College, York and U of T, a strong summer festival season and the rare resource of a 24-hour jazz FM radio station. Mr. Occhipinti says the situation compares decently with American cities of similar size.

Yet the only remaining club on the Senator model is the Montreal Bistro on Sherbourne Street, which has hosted the likes of Oliver Jones and Diana Krall since 1983. Rumours have swept through town that the Bistro too would close next year, but owner Lothar Lang assures he's simply renegotiating his lease. He has had a difficult couple of years, but he's not giving up.

Jazz everywhere is at an awkward stage. Pop-crossover singers such as Ms. Krall dominate over more boundary-pushing instrumentalists, and hip-hop and electronic music often seem more vibrant to young explorers. "I'm catering to grandparents now," Mr. Lang says.

But the scene is different at the Rex Hotel on Queen Street West, where passing foot traffic and a casual atmosphere supply musicians with full houses of bar-hoppers. If the Senator was a martini, the Rex is a keg.

"It's not a place to play ballads. But it is a fun place to get kind of raucous," Mr. Occhipinti says. "At the Bistro and the Senator, you would lose a little of that energy."

There are other optimistic notes. Last fall, 22-year-old entrepreneur Mark Finkelstein saw a gap in the school-year jazz market and put on the Toronto Progressive Jazz series, which brought heavy hitters Branford Marsalis and Dave Holland as well as the funkier Medeski Martin and Wood to venues in town.

This winter saw the formation of the Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto, a collective of experimental young players who can be found most nights playing inventive sets at the Tranzac on Brunswick Avenue. And this week an intimate new club opened in a warm old Edwardian on Markham Street in Mirvish Village.

The Red Guitar Art Café is a labour of love for jazz singer Corry Sobol. With 43 seats, it's only a third the capacity of the Senator. Here, Ms. Sobol hopes "to represent the entire jazz tradition, from early jazz to the most avant-garde contemporary music," with a "non-elitist, friendly space that encourages people to stretch out a little."

Her emphasis is on local musicians, which seems to be the trend. It's cheaper and, where 20 years ago Torontonians disdained Canadian players, now they draw reasonable crowds. Still, a shortage of foreign visitors deprives listeners and musicians of a valuable source of stimulation.

And the passing of the Senator hasn't altered the basically homeless status of progressive contemporary jazz, in a city where 1950s and 1960s-style bebop and post-bop remain the default.

"When someone like John Scofield or Bill Frisell comes to town," Mr. Occhipinti says, "I look at the audience and wonder, 'Who are these people? I don't see them in the clubs.' But those players get crowds out, and they also win critics' polls. That's something still untapped. If I had money to burn, I'd be opening it myself."

* * *

ZOILUS NOTES: Inevitably, dealing with a subject this broad, you can't include everything, and in this piece the editors cut my mention of smaller but satisfying clubs such as the Trane on Bathurst and Mezzetta on St. Clair, as well as the fact that the Music Gallery - although currently in a dire deficit position and not even presenting much improv and jazz of any kind due to funding problems - has grand ambitions of eventually relocating from its current shared space in a downtown church to be the leading force behind a big new cultural centre, which would not only accommodate their new-music agenda, the fresh avant-pop series, and possibly the Wavelength series too, but also creative jazz and improv. And finally I should add that former Music Gallery jazz programmer Ron Gaskin's unit Rough Idea is still bringing European and American improvisors to Toronto semi-regularly, often at the New Works Studio walk-up on Spadina.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 2:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

"Electricity Made Music Louder and More Often"

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Today's Overtones column in The Globe and Mail covers some ground I've trod on Zoilus before and some new territory: "Phonograph effects," technological nostalgia, CBC's shit-hot The Wire radio series, video-game cover bands, Congo's Konono No. 1, and why it was once thought scandalous to listen to records at breakfast. With special shoutouts to Alex Ross and Brian Joseph Davis. [... Read it?... ]

Pining for that old familiar, synthesized four-minute remix

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
Saturday, July 9, 2005
The Globe and Mail


The sound whirls and wavers, with the thock of skins and wood, the ping and buzz of tin, and shouts of joy at once easygoing and madly driven. It's Konono No. 1, a Congolese ensemble who've made one of the year's most alluring recordings, Congotronics.

Its story goes back 25 years, to when war and scarcity drove masses of people out of the bush on the Angolan border, and into the capital, Kinshasa, including musicians who discovered their traditional songs couldn't be heard in the urban din. So they turned mechanization against itself, dismantling car parts for magnets and batteries, wiring their metal-rod thumb pianos to colonial Belgian loudspeakers, singing into megaphones, blowing whistles and beating hubcaps. The rest is glorious, street-party noise, sounding like nothing, but hinting at everything from reggae to ambient techno.

Had it come out sooner, Congotronics would have been great fodder for the eight-part CBC Radio Two series The Wire: The Impact of Electricity On Music, hosted by Jowi Taylor. Neglected on-air this winter, the series rebroadcasts this summer on Sunday afternoons. It's superior radio.

On subjects such as microphones, tape recording, electric guitars, synthesizers and the Internet, The Wire not only interviews giants such as Bob Moog, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Les Paul; it also splices, loops and enhances the content so that it's matched with form. Each show ends with a remix of itself, by a guest electronic artist -- the sort of conceptual move the CBC's Dull It Up committees usually squelch.

The Wire is one of many current attempts to reassess 20th-century musical technology just as it's being killed off. Capturing Sound by American musicologist Mark Katz is a book focused on "phonograph effects" -- how recording reshaped listening, performance and composition.

Phonograph effects may help explain why 20th-century violinists adopted constant vibrato (it registers better on recording equipment, and suggests a more physical presence); how jazz styles evolved (long solos became prominent with the long-playing record in the 1940s); or where Philip Glass/Steve Reich-style minimalism came from (tape-loop experiments were translated into written compositions).

Alex Ross, writing about Katz's and related books in The New Yorker, comments on the theory that recording helped codify and homogenize classical-music performance standards: "Records cannot be entirely to blame . . . otherwise, similar patterns would surface in popular music, which, whatever its problems, has never lacked for spontaneity."

Perhaps, but where classical music still seems sore over the switch, pop is wholly a child of recording, from its three-to-four-minute song formula (a holdover from the playing time of 78s) to its neurotic drive for novelty, a cyclic reaction to hearing hits replayed one time too many. (As composer John Oswald says on The Wire, "Electricity made music louder and more often.")

Now, when we're nostalgic for a more "organic" or "real" music, it's usually about a previous stage of technical artificiality. For some, it's electric guitars; I've been known to get soppy over the passing of the cassette tape. Meanwhile, many twentysomethings are reviving the theme music of old Nintendo and Sega video games with live cover bands with names like Game Over, the Ice Climbers, the Advantage, MegaDriver and Select Start. In technology capitals such as Japan and California, orchestras have played video-game music.

The original game-console sound is emulated in a newish genre known as 8-bit, after the memory capacity of 1980s computer processors. When Beck, known for omnivorously regurgitating subcultures, had an 8-bit remix done of his recent song Hell Yes, a sharp Internet music writer named Mike Barthel joked that Beck was "finally" appropriating Barthel's own culture, and took mock umbrage: "... You didn't grow up with this, man! You're not down! That's not what 8-bit's about."

By Katz's criteria, MP3s are quite unlike records -- disembodied, intangible, even disposable. But no doubt soon, people will be saying, "Remember MP3s? That's when file-sharing really had a funky, organic feel."

Recorded music has always used every studio illusion to try to sound both live and perfect -- as likely as being at once naked and dapperly dressed. Soon audiences began to expect live shows to sound like recordings. And so, especially on stadium scale, many concerts came to include secret prerecorded parts (remember Ashlee Simpson?) . . . which might be bootlegged, uploaded, downloaded and, by some in the audience, remixed again.

Toronto writer-artist Brian Joseph Davis recently layered together every song on greatest-hits albums by the likes of Whitney Houston, Metallica and the Carpenters, compiling them into one monster track per artist. He then put them on a limited-edition (and kind of illegal) CD called Greatest Hit.

That this is now a non-musician's idea of fun helps refute what early critics of recording, such as U.S. composer John Philip Sousa, feared -- that it would destroy amateur, participatory music.

True, there are fewer singalongs led by Ma and Pa nowadays. Yet it's also become commonplace to hear there's "too much music" being made as people, inspired by the records they love, produce their own cheap CDs, MP3s and mash-ups. So has music become too slick and professional, or too accessible and unschooled?

I can hardly imagine a society in which you could listen to music only in groups, at the theatre or in parlours. Katz says it once was considered louche for a man to listen to his gramophone by himself, or in the morning -- like pouring Scotch on your breakfast cereal. And symphonies had to be broken down into four-minute chunks and flipped over and over again.

A future generation may find it equally unfathomable that music ever came in formats limited to a measly hour, which you bought at shops and had to stow on shelves. Like, why bother?

Whenever you dig down to find the roots, the soil from which a cultural practice has grown, what you find is only more layers of culture, and all the tools embedded in them, as any archaeologist might tell you. So -- unless I'm just brainwashed by my robot masters -- creativity has proven pretty resilient against technology. It erodes in some ways, expands in others. The trick is to recognize the new permutations.

From a distance, the Congo sound of Konono No. 1 seems like a folkway brilliantly adapting and thriving in adverse circumstances. And yet, I bet their parents think they're nuts.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 09 at 3:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Don't Re-Shoot the Piano Player

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This week's "Overtones" - a defence of "datedness," played off against a company that's found a way to recreate and re-record historic piano performances mechanically - has the cleverest headline the editors have given me all year, although actually I wasn't saying don't do it, just not to dismiss the original recordings. After all, in Zenph Studios' Disklavier renditions of Glenn Gould, does the piano hum? [...]

Don't re-shoot the piano player

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 25, 2005


Last week in New York, humankind began to close the gap between concert and séance. A tiny North Carolina software company demonstrated a process that lets you attend "live" performances by dead piano players.

"You will hear," said my invitation from Zenph Studios, "Glenn Gould (1932-1982) perform excerpts from Bach's Goldberg Variations just as he did in 1955; Art Tatum (1909-1956) playing Too Marvellous for Words from a live 1955 party recording; and French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) play a Chopin Prelude as he played it first in 1926. . . . Please let us know what day and time works for you."

Okay, I thought, what about Nov. 21, 1963, so I could prevent the Kennedy assassination while I was at it?

But Zenph hadn't invented a time machine. Nor would a zombie Gould be sitting at the piano. What the company's president John Q. Walker has developed is a computer program that analyzes old recordings and maps a performance's unique traits. The results are fed into a computerized player piano called a Disklavier, which then moves its keys and pedals with the force and duration used by the original musician.

Walker intends to use the Disklavier to make new recordings of music that can now only be heard from old 78s or wax cylinders. What's more, he told The New York Times, when you've analyzed enough of one musician you can generate "rules" about their style. And then your automated Gould could interpret whatever piece you wanted: "Here's Robot Glenn with Takin' Care of Business."

It's a great tool for scholarship. Art Tatum's super-speed jazz improvisations, for instance, all but defy transcription by ear.

But the worms this computerized can-opener unleashes are legion. Once this necrophiliac breakthrough is expanded to other instruments, will living musicians have to compete for concertgoers with ghostly greats? Robot Beatles reunion tours seem inevitable.

But what bothers me most is that the Zenph approach falls in with a common disdain in North American culture for the pastness of the past.

"The fundamental root of the problem is that I don't want to hear a recording," Walker told the Times. Zenph boasts that its method removes "not only noise, hiss and distortion, but even the recording equipment and the quality of the piano itself."

But the recording conditions, a particular piano, even the hiss, are part of the music's baggage, and any re-recorded re-enactment is less rich without them. Recordings are artifacts, and it's fine by me if they sound it.

The tinniness of a 1940s recording is enjoyably different than the dampness of a 1970s one, just as film stock looks different from one decade to another or the pigments of a Renaissance painting are different from a Cézanne, not just in style but because the materials changed.

When Zenph's process was reported in New Scientist magazine, excited readers wrote in saying that further elaborations of the idea could let you re-shoot The Maltese Falcon with virtual actors, according to an exact blueprint. Or repaint the Mona Lisa. But why would you?

Classic songs are often called "timeless" but that doesn't sound to me like praise, any more than "placeless" would. I like the way early Louis Armstrong records sound like 1926. It makes 1926 less abstract, to picture the crude machinery that surrounded him and his Hot Five in a jammed studio in Chicago, making milestones on limited means.

When people complain a record is dated, or often "laughably dated," they're missing half the fun. Old hits seal in wax endangered slang ("you make everything groovy") and social history ("Tin soldiers and Nixon's comin' ").

And each period has its sonic signatures, too. The big Linn drums and DX7 keyboards of 1980s ballads are as much a birthmark as the string sections of the early 1960s or the wah-wah guitar of the 1970s.

All music becomes dated eventually. In defiance of pop slogans about staying forever young, all that is new and hot becomes old and tepid.

The most innovative productions are often the first to go, because new technologies tend to dictate limited vocabularies. In recent years the presets on the Pro Tools software used to digitally edit music have left their chilly, wobbly fingerprints all over the charts (as heard on any Britney Spears single 2001 to present and any number of others).

But even simple acoustic songs will sound out-of-date in 20 years. Ultimately, as Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) said in a panel discussion in Toronto last week, "Software does lock you into an environment, but every artist is already locked into an environment -- their own creativity." Those limits, too, will eventually out.

Conversely, even the most outré sound can be revived. "Lounge" musicians like Martin Denny and Burt Bacharach made a comeback in the 1990s when a new generation recognized the willful audacity of their compositions, once the rock music that had made them sound like cornballs became dated in itself.

Sampling has made it easier to appreciate how these sounds form links of association, and chatter back and forth among themselves. Will today's postmodern pastiches, which tend to treat time as a more non-linear continuum, be less apt to go mouldy?

I bet the way the samples are treated and juxtaposed will betray their vintage. No doubt the Disklavier recordings will soon sound dated too.

People recoil at datedness because it calls attention to the material, to the music's construction -- technically and socially. It messes up the fantasy that music is somehow a direct, unmediated hotline to the soul. And it's an unwelcome reminder that like every trendy sound, every trendy musician dies eventually, and every listener too, with no computerized séance to bring us back.

But at a greater distance, datedness simply becomes history. No one is annoyed that Dickens novels, Bruegel paintings and Bach fugues reek of the periods when they were made. They hitchhike in from that distant country, the past, speaking its garbled dialect, yet still move us in their bizarre, out-of-date, oh-so-human ways.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 26 at 9:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Are You Feelin' Moody?

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Today in The Globe and Mail, a beginner's guide to ESG - the early-80s forerunners of the dance-punk sound of today's Williamsburg, not to mention a black-woman force in a good swathe of early post-punk, house and rap. Lead singer Renee Scroggins was a delight to interview, loudmouthed and full of laughter. (Her contrarian views on sampling alone are worth a listen for us kneejerk it's-all-good types, coming from someone who's been [screwed] there - ESG's UFO is one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop history.) The band's new incarnation makes its first-ever Toronto appearance tonight, a Prideful show tonight at Lee's Palace thanks to the remarkable Will Munro. They're not coming cheap, peeps - Will is taking a big gamble - so if you can make it, do. I hear tell they're better live than ever.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 24 at 4:43 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Who Stole the DJ?

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This weekend's Overtones column in The Globe and Mail riffs off the new movie It's All Gone Pete Tong - a funhouse-mirror look back at the days when Ibiza was heaven and DJs were its deities, that mythical era, the 1990s. So what became of the non-fictional Frankie Wildes (and yeah, he's fictional, despite the producers' viral marketing campaign to plant rumours to the contrary) - and is this the beginning of, dear god, 1990s nostalgia? With contributions from Simon Reynolds - wish I could have used more of his comments. [...]

OVERTONES
Gone the way of the DJ

CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, June 18, 2005

The spike-haired DJ comes plummeting down from the rafters towards his mixing deck, wrapped in a loincloth, his eyes wide and goggling, the clubbing throng shrieking in adoration -- and his bony head circled with a crown of thorns.

That vision arrives early in It's All Gone Pete Tong by Canadian director Michael Dowse (Fubar), a mockumentary set in the fabled nightclub arcadia of Ibiza, Spain, and tracing the similarly plummeting career of a fictional British superstar DJ, Frankie Wilde.

Already tagged the Spinal Tap of rave music, it boogies giddily on the grave of the superstar-DJ era. It may seem like an obscure target. But for anyone ever seduced by that subculture, it's a stroke of sweet revenge.

Star status was repulsive to the electronic-music idealists who crowded marathon dance gatherings, legal and illegal, throughout the Western world. Personality cults were one thing ravers hated about rock: How stupefying to stand around watching some twit howl and waggle his whammy bar - to be a mere spectator! Why shouldn't the audience be performers, in a communal rhythm-trance ritual, usually in the sauna of group empathy inspired by taking ecstasy? The faceless DJ would be the anti-star, animator but not focal point.

Remember, this was during and after the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, when privatization was the panacea. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society; rave utopianism said nothing else mattered. What began as glow-stick escapism became consciously political after the British government made it illegal for groups of people to assemble in the presence of "repetitive" music, and New York city hall - apparently never having seen Footloose - revived hoary "cabaret licence" laws to crack down on dancing.

Meanwhile, DJs took advantage of long hours in the booth to explore new sonic technology. At breakneck speed they whipped up sounds (house, techno, acid, gabba, ambient, jungle, garage) and techniques that would become the DNA of pop songs on the charts today.

Gradually, though, humungous corporate clubs stamped out grassroots ones. Their cash - along with scene magazines that dopily hailed DJs as "gods" - bred the super-elite dance jocks lampooned in It's All Gone Pete Tong. (Tong is a DJ so well known in Britain that his name became rhyming slang for "wrong." He's also a consultant on the movie.)

Stars such as Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Fatboy Slim, Junior Vasquez or even Canada's Richie Hawtin could be flown in and paid five-figure sums to spin for a couple of hours. They could do product endorsements (Dowse's Frankie Wilde wants to put out a brand of hummus) and usually dire studio recordings. Behavioural excesses often followed, which the film recreates in delirious druggy detail.

"I think it is a simple case of hubris and nemesis. [DJs] thought they were going to take over, rule the world," says Simon Reynolds, the British-born, New York-based author of the heady rave music history Generation Ecstasy.

"I always felt that the superstar DJ thing owed a lot to ecstasy -- people would be having these intense emotional experiences on the dance floor, this flood of emotion, and not knowing where to direct it, a lot of that love-energy would go to the DJs."

It's not only that such worship contradicted rave philosophy, which wished away the human appetite for idols. Few DJs had the charisma to live up to it. A crash after all those highs was inevitable, and it came when the nightclub economy imploded, especially in England, in 2002.

The A-list DJs now jet off to ginormous gigs in Argentina or Asia, but new contenders are few. Rock and hip-hop became more dance-friendly (as with the punk-disco trend) while synthesized music got more song-oriented or more experimental (as at Montreal's Mutek festival), or retreated to underground loft and basement parties.

"I think it's all to the good that the DJ bubble has burst," says Reynolds. "Back to self-organizing activity. . . . The DJs aren't stars, because the people on the floor know them, or are often aspiring DJs themselves."

And these days, who isn't? Hollywood actors dabble in it, there are DJ schools, and clubs hold audience-as-DJ events where attendees play their own CDs, tapes, iPods or MP3s. Maybe the superstar DJ was only an evolutionary detour en route to an even more egalitarian model of mixing, matching and mashing up music.

Then again, Spinal Tap, which came out in 1984, failed to rid us of bloated rock stars. And Pete Tong's piquancy has its limits. Its climax, in which Wilde reinvents himself as a deaf DJ, lags behind reality: The British have had "deaf raves" for a couple of years, giving the hard of hearing the chance to feel the bass pound. They even have deaf rappers, rhyming in sign language.

Rather than belated satire, the movie may signal alarmingly premature 1990s nostalgia - what with the current Backstreet Boys comeback and the threatened Spice Girls reunion. The mega-DJ will probably be to future conceptions of the 1990s what key parties are to the 1970s - a barely decodable freak custom from the murky past.

But instant nostalgia does suit the sample-and-recycle ethos of DJ culture. And it's better than no historical awareness at all, when politicians seem to count on social amnesia to grant them a free pass - on the reasons behind the Iraq war, say, or why Canada instituted universal health care in the first place. Right now, an extended mix of Tommy Douglas speeches would sure make me wanna shake it.

A similar spirit informs New York's Paul Miller, better known as DJ Spooky, who performs tonight at Toronto's Drake Hotel. Spooky's no superstar, not even a funky beat-master so much as a conceptual meta-DJ. He has described the DJ's art as "taking elements of our own alienated consciousness, and recombining them to create new languages from old, and in doing so to reflect the chaotic, turbulent reality we all call home."

Perhaps that's what Frankie Wilde means when (in a perfect piece of DJ-blather parody) he stammers about "forgin' it . . . wit' a lyrical smelter." But not likely.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 19 at 4:40 AM | Linking Posts

 

The Disappearance of the Outside?

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Becoming-insider, becoming-outsider: Chusid and the deposed King of Pop.

This week's column is one I've been wanting to write for a long time, on Irwin Chusid's project around the concept of "outsider music." Thanks to Helen Spitzer [typo corrected - sorry Helen!], Chusid was in Ontario this week and I finally got to hear him speak in person, at a gig at the fantastic Ford Plant in Brantford (run by "leader of a small town" Tim Ford), opening for the Republic of Safety. I don't mean to dismiss Chusid - I think he's done a valuable thing by spreading the word on a lot of fascinating amateur artists, and he's a charming fellow, and he put out Esquivel and Raymond Scott records - but I do think his approach is problematic. Consider this piece a bit of a sequel to the sincerity-wars posts of the past couple of days.

Freak show? Sure, like the rest of pop music

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Perhaps it was the elderly Tiny Tim gripping his ukelele for dear life with a rictus grin in the video of a punk band doing a rowdy travesty of his 1960s hit Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

Maybe it was the late Shooby Taylor in 1983, in his sole attempt at bringing his singular hyper-scat-singing-in-tongues act to Amateur Night at the Apollo in Harlem, being booed and then chased off stage by the nasty house clown called the Sandman. (You could have seen it coming when the emcee asked about his nickname, "the Human Horn," and Shooby answered with an unwitting double entendre: "That's what I do - I blow me.")

But somewhere in Irwin Chusid's lecture with video clips, "outsider music" started to seem much less black-and-white than he painted it. [...]

A longtime broadcaster on free-form New Jersey radio station WFMU, Chusid has become the chief popularizer of outsider music, a category he defines in his 2000 book Songs in the Key of Z as music "so wrong it's right."

The book and its two companion CDs include the likes of Taylor, who taped himself bleating "swoop weeeep shap bloo" ecstatically over cuts by John Coltrane, Johnny Cash or even Mozart. There's the Cherry Sisters, the lousiest act in 19th-century vaudeville, and their 1960s counterparts, shambling family band the Shaggs (whose story has been optioned for a Hollywood movie). Maverick composers Harry Partch and Robert Graettinger join sixties casualties Joe Meek, Skip Spence and Syd Barrett (the founder of Pink Floyd).

There are recluses, such as prolific mumble-and-groan rocker Jandek, and dysfunctionals such as the hulking black schizophrenic Wesley Wills (I Whupped Batman's Ass) and the violent Texan manic-depressive and gifted pop writer Daniel Johnston (who prefers singing about Casper the Friendly Ghost).

Chusid has come under a lot of fire for lumping all these characters together: Is it just a freak show? Not long ago Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called him "a tedious ideologue with a hustle." I have my qualms too. So when Chusid went on a mini-tour of southwestern Ontario this week, I headed to the plucky Ford Plant indie-rock club in Brantford, where he was speaking, to find out for myself.

What I found was a greying, soft-spoken fellow laced with contradictions. Chusid admitted he got into the area for laughs in the 1980s, poking fun at weird records on his Atrocious Music show. But in 1991, he met one of his targets, outer-space-obsessed Lucia Pamela, who sang "like an inebriated Ethel Merman." Eccentric as she was, Pamela was sweet and sincere. Chusid reconsidered his attitude, softened his show's name to Incorrect Music and started to emphasize the music's earnest emotions instead of its weirdness.

He parallels outsider musicians with outsider artists such as Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor whose epic word-and-picture saga about an army of naked prepubescent girls (often with penises) in the "Realms of the Unreal" was discovered after his death.

In the art world, the differences between naive folk artists, mentally ill outsiders and the sophisticated avant-garde are a matter of intensive debate. But like his subjects, Chusid has no feel for professional rules -- he's a raconteur at heart. As attacks on the "outsider" label pile up, he seems more inclined to abandon it than to reconcile its flaws.

Like a bad anthropologist, Chusid blithely assumes his attentions are always in his subjects' best interest. But some musicians are upset to find themselves on Chusid's compilations. Unemployed New York music teacher B. J. Snowden, who sings a clumsily catchy tune about her love for Canada's provinces on Songs in the Key of Z Vol. 1, was appalled that everyone else on the disc was so terrible.

Chusid laughs: "Even among outsider musicians there's disagreement on the value of each other's work." But hold on -- there is no "among" here. These musicians all think they're normal, and they don't see what these other weirdos have to do with them. Would you want to be told you're endearingly awful?

He's right that listeners don't come to outsider music merely to mock. It can be moving in its starkness or delightful in its unpredictability. Laughter may be a defensive recognition of how it evokes your own private madness.

But Chusid's roots in record-geek collector culture show up in his celebration of obscurity as tantamount to a moral value. His idealization of outsiders as vessels of purity in a world of phonies is demeaning to everyone: It inadvertently implies that eccentrics are enslaved by drive, never making choices, while skilled musicians are caricatured conformists.

He's hardly alone. Lots of people now assume art is either hustle or pathology. Yet I kept thinking how little divides Chusid's pantheon of loonies from the celebrities he sneers at. After all, in pop culture, there are no standardized credentials the way there are in high art (and increasingly not there either). What's inside or out changes weekly.

As the Michael Jackson trial wraps up, the deposed King of Pop seems about as heavy a bundle of damaged goods as Wesley Willis or Henry Darger - his traumatized, twisted fantasy realm just happened to inspire million-selling albums.

Think of his hit songs: Ben was about his pet rat; Thriller about horror movies; Billie Jean a paranoid ramble about a paternity suit. He might as well have sung about Batman.

Growing up, my generation thought of the obese, reclusive Graceland Elvis as if he were an outsider artist -- which is pretty much how he got started.

And today indie-rock stars such as Cat Power, notorious for her on-stage panic attacks, or Will Oldham, fixated on bodily fluids and death, seem as lumpily idiosyncratic as any itinerant ranter. (Though they may be more fortunate in birth or fashionability.)

Every artist is ultimately self-taught; every person is a self-taught human. "Outsider music" is mainly a reminder that there is no getting out of it: We all blow "me."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 11 at 3:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)

 

Cassette Mythos: Elegy

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The thing I like most about today's column is that the imaginary mix - made only in my head as I wrote - seems totally plausible to me (though I'm not sure about the running times). I'll have to whip up a copy soon and see if it really pans out.

Visit the cassette graveyard.

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Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, June 4, 2005

The bell tolls for the tape. Patented in 1964, selling by the billions by the 1980s, cassettes are now down to less than 0.2 per cent of music sales. While few would sentimentalize the ugly, damnably damageable commercial tape, the homemade cassette mix is another story. Today, a mix tape in memory of mix tapes. [...]

(Side A)

1. Big Yellow Taxi (Bob Dylan, covering Joni Mitchell, 1973): "You don't know what you got till it's gone." In a fast-forward age, the lost paradise is represented by obsolete media: From typewriter to Atari game, low-tech fetish objects murmur of a clunky tactile past seemingly more solid, warmer than the intangible, digital present.

2. Hey Joni (Sonic Youth, 1988): The tape's latest doting tribute is a white slab of a book edited by indie godfather Thurston Moore of New York's Sonic Youth. Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture is a scrapbook where some 50 contributors (from fellow musicians such as Mike Watt to author Mary Gaitskill to designer Kate Spade) paste in track lists, artwork and anecdotes around the totemic mixes of their lives. Like a lot of mix tapes, it's self-congratulatory, but flush with charm.

3. My Little Corner of the World (Yo La Tengo, 1997): In his book Sonata for Jukebox, essayist Geoffrey O'Brien calls the mix tape "the most widely practised American art form," a folkway that serves "as self-portrait, gesture of friendship, prescription for an ideal party, or simply as an environment consisting solely of what is most ardently loved."

4. I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) (Willie Nelson version, 1981): And I'm no exception. For years I made mix tapes to sway romances, friendships and all points between. I learned to finesse transitions: same key, new speed; same tempo, new key; startling counterpoint; found-sound bridge; chill-down; epic climax; quick comic coda.

5. I Cover the Waterfront (Billie Holiday, 1941): I would build narrative arcs, Socratic dialogues between, say, Billie Holiday and the Pixies, triggering a track with one hand while the other eased up the pause button. I'd guesstimate the seconds till the fatal transparent leader tape would end the side and fill them from a compilation I'd bought of songs under a minute each.

6. I Can't Forget (Pixies, covering Leonard Cohen, 1991): I struggled with the etiquette of recycling previously used songs for new recipients, after the title of an early relationship tape, "Once in a Lifetime," proved naive. (Fortunately.) Were the sentiments in fact the same, or was it that new feelings, fresh varieties of love, changed the meanings of the songs?

7. We Have the Technology (Pere Ubu, 1988): In any case, it seemed enchanted to manipulate magnetic tape, the very stuff of real studios, as if you were the next step after producer and engineer and mastering. Somehow, your little black plastic envoy conveyed that churning thing you meant. Track titles became inside jokes with friends. The girl on the answering machine said, softly: "I played that Richard Buckner song all night."

8. Mud (Richard Buckner, 1995): The worst follows after; the songs have said more than you realized. "Be careful where you lie down, boy/ In this bed of roses."

9. Epistrophy (Thelonious Monk, 1948): CDs and iPods can't match the Proustian pungency of the cassette - Dolby hiss, Crayola scent, brittle weight in hand, paper, marker, glue. But I wouldn't trust one to the gnashing gears of my ancient tape deck now. Would you?

10. Computer Love (Kraftwerk, 1981): File sharing, burned CDs and iPods supply the portability of tape without its frailty, so they democratize sonic mixology, beyond the fanatics' club, to casual listeners.

(Side B)

11. Mix Tape (soundtrack, Avenue Q, 2003): Tilting toward extinction since the mid-1990s, mix tapes increasingly turn up as subcultural markers in novels and movies such as Morvern Callar and High Fidelity, even an episode of Friends. Then there's this hit off-Broadway musical where slacker-puppet Kate Monster tries to decode a mix from boy-puppet Princeton: "Sometimes when someone has a crush on you/ They'll make you a mix tape to give you a clue." But why oh why has Princeton segued from My Cherie Amour to Fat-Bottomed Girls?

12. Professor Booty (Beastie Boys, 1992): Meanwhile, the commercial "mix tape" (now usually on CD), the professional hip-hop DJ mix, has become an ever-more-established promo device. "Life ain't nothin' but a good groove/ A good mix tape to put you in the right mood."

13. That's Entertainment (the Jam, 1981): Boutique shops such as Starbucks and Pottery Barn produce CDs that are "like a mix tape made for you" by celebrities such as Sheryl Crow or Moby. Bacardi liquor and Request Jeans put out their own hip-hop-style mixes. "It's an unbelievable branding tool and revenue generator," Errin Cecil-Smith, director of marketing for And 1 footwear, tells Brandweek magazine.

14. One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You Understand (the Notwist, 2002): All of which only makes music fanatics snootier. They find mix CDs inherently inferior because the process is too quick, too easy, fostering thoughtless tune-dumping. To be fair, some rite of passage, of hard-won knowledge passing from hand to hand, genuinely is lost.

15. Love Story (Randy Newman, 1968): For instance, in April The New York Times reported that the leading party favour handed out to guests at weddings in 2005 is the mix CD, generally a lame one because it is aimed at a big crowd, on a clichéd subject, not at particular ears. Said one repeat marriage-mix recipient, "It's like, who cares that In Your Eyes is their song?"

16. Cloudbusting (Kate Bush, 1985): But must knowledge be so hard to come by? MP3 trading can be a more open, fluid pastime, scouring the byways for blissful windfalls (legal or not).

17. I Am a DJ (David Bowie, 1979): "MP3 blogs" where Internet music fans post tunes and commentary daily are like a slow-motion mix, a mash note to readers (legal or not).

18. Most People Are DJs (the Hold Steady, 2004): Sites such as Art of the Mix and Tiny Mix Tapes have members share and compete with each other's mixes, on standard themes - romance, breakup, friendship, intro-to-genre-X, road-trip or party mixes - and more outlandish categories, such as songs whose "titles would make awesome T-shirt slogans," like this one.

19. Mixtape=Love (Viva Voce, 2004): The mix CD may permit laziness, but it doesn't require it. I spent as many hours on a mix CD for my wife while she was away this winter as I ever have on a tape, sifting hundreds of tracks for strands on separation and return, on time's conveyances. Her response was as tender as to any cassette. (But handwrite the track listing: Modernity has its limits.)

20. C30, C60, C90, Go! (Bow Wow Wow, 1980): Whatever the medium, the message is that people want to personalize music, as not just a consumer experience (à la iPod) but a channel from their ears to other minds. If, as this song would have it, that makes the mix "a bazooka" against the music business, so be it. As Thurston Moore puts it in his Mix Tape book: "Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart - nothing will stop it."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 04 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Victo 2005: R&D; On The Human Strain

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At long last here's my review, from today's Overtones in The Globe & Mail, of last week's Victoriaville festival. In general I think it's not ideal to use the column in a reviewing function (I think it muddles up the voice), but I think the Anthony Braxton-Wolf Eyes meeting was a historic enough occasion to merit it. To see the pic of them together, you'll have to buy the paper. On the other hand, a paragraph toward the end was censored by the editors - it's restored here. (Do you think the word "bugger" is that bad?) And I would never have used the fourth word in this headline:

Jazz theologian goes slumming, and makes a bit of history

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
May 28, 2005

It may not go down alongside the day Dizzy Gillespie met Chano Pazo (and invented Afro-Cuban bebop), but a real moment in the history of jazz, or something, went down last Saturday at the 22nd annual music festival in Victoriaville, Que., reconfirming it as the best place on the continent to go get your inner ear realigned.

Having wrung out half its audience to the point of post-traumatic stress, noise band Wolf Eyes said there was time for one more: Did we want Leper War or Black Vomit? The poll was inconclusive, so the trio’s hulking, bare-headed mouthpiece John Olson turned to the show’s guest star: “Anthony?” [...]

And at that, the near-sexagenarian, notoriously cerebral jazz composer Anthony Braxton glanced down at his saxophone, pursed his lips in a beatific smile and eagerly answered: “Black Vomit!” (Olson joked Braxton must have been inspired by their previous night in the hotel bar.)

Within seconds came the shuddering solar-plexus drum blows and the jerrybuilt-electronic chaos of the track from Wolf Eyes’ 2004 album Burned Mind. And the man who in 1971 released the first full-length solo saxophone album in jazz history was blowing madly along.

Though Victoriaville’s festival is supposed to be about tearing up the musical rulebook, in fact it’s swarmed by sub-factions — the jazz elitists, the rock yahoos, the Québécois-prog populists. This year was primed for a bit of a showdown.

Unprecedentedly, director Michel Levasseur had handed some programming duties over to Thurston Moore of New York postpunk band Sonic Youth: Moore filled the third of the festival’s five long days of music with the young brutalists of Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, his own mayhem-bound nine-piece Dream Aktion Unit and more.

Meanwhile Sunday was stacked with jazz heavies such as Braxton, German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet and New York bassist William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra.

(There were also highlights outside either cluster, such as stunning avant-traditionalist Chinese singer and guzheng player Xu Fengxia, the harp and electronics set by Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori, and Kid Koala and Martin Tétrault’s super-charming turntable duet.)

Officially Braxton was at Victo (as devotees call the festival) to play a duet with guitar improviser Fred Frith, and with his own sextet, but his surprise coup was to sit in on Wolf Eyes’ whole set. People giggled about this in the disconcerted way they do when categories come unglued: Why was the black college professor hanging with the white noise dropouts?

Braxton’s always been a divisive figure. Since his 1968 debut album, the Chicago-born musician’s compositions titled with numbers and diagrams put off listeners and critics who thought he was too “academic,” too enamoured with world music and European composers like Stockhausen to be loyal to jazz’s swing and blues. Braxton rightly calls such criticism both “reverse racist” in its scorn for any contribution by whites, and straight-up “antebellum” racist in its conviction that black musicians should be gutbucket-instinctual rather than brainy and cosmological.

But at Victo, where he’s played many times in the past 22 years, and a few similar European festivals, he’s a heroic warrior against the conservative revivalism that’s dominated jazz since Ronald Reagan became U.S. president. It’s a sign of insider status in these enclaves to grok Braxton’s complex systems.

Such supporters can be as much of a burden as detractors: His music isn’t supposed to be some bonsai-tending hobbyist’s pastime. Braxton constructs his arcane mathematical-alchemical structures by collaging musical elements together in a game of musical 3-D chess. He intends the results to resonate with global sociopolitical dynamics — and even magically to alter or undermine them.

Braxton first saw Wolf Eyes at a festival last year in Sweden. He bought up everything at the merchandise table and even fantasized about moving to Stockholm (“as a cook, if I had to”) to study their “vibrational energies,” until he found out they were actually from Michigan. If it wasn’t my imagination, in Sunday’s dazzling show by Braxton’s sextet, amid a swirling mobile of suites that flirted and scrapped and merged with one another, some of the movements already seemed to carry the unbolted-buzzsaw timbral influence of Wolf Eyes.

If it’s startling that this jazz theoretician would fall for a thuggish group with roots in hardcore punk, consider what they have in common: Just as Braxton declares he’s no longer a “jazz” musician (“I have no desire to extend American hegemony”), Wolf Eyes likely would distance themselves from “rock.” Like Braxton, but at a much higher decibel level, Wolf Eyes interlay found sound, past influences and their own eccentric inventions, adding up to a sensibility dualistically divided between cyber futurism and Unabomber-cabin rustic grit. (Although the departure of member Aaron Dilloway seems to have subtracted a few degrees of seriousness.)

And Braxton’s sextet is half of a new 12-piece group that he wants to make his personal permanent ensemble. The idea seems aimed in part at removing himself from the music business to an autonomous realm — much the way the noise artists have built their own underground circuit.

Brotzmann and Parker’s big bands have vision too, of course, but for some reason this week they felt like ghosts of avant-gardism past. After their Sunday concerts, I had to soften my negative take on the circle-dance primitivism of New York’s No Neck Blues Band, whose meandering set did eventually manage to evoke the kind of feral, present-tense presence the jazz groups never cohered enough to find.

The peak in that sense was scaled Monday by Japanese noise royalty the Boredoms, whose closing post-psychedelic communal-rock ritual had a whole arena trancing out in baffling bliss.

So bugger genre and bugger style. Crucial musicians always propose not just notes and chords but social experiments too hazardous for real life — random racial-reassignment cosmetic surgery, suicide pacts, marathon group sex, giving up on language, returning to the ocean — to be staged instead in sound. It’s research-and-development on the human strain. And as Prof. Braxton knows, it can come along in shredded jeans cursing its head off and with sirens in its suitcase as (un-)easily as in any other outfit.

The weekend’s debates were bracing for all sides. To mark the spot with a bold red X, the festival really must issue a triple live-CD set of the many faces of Anthony Braxton at Victo 2005. And they absolutely must title it Black Vomit. Which is funny, you know, but not merely funny.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, May 28 at 1:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Radical Cheerleaders Exposed! (musically speaking)

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The past week's interruption in service was most unplanned. I was at the Victoriaville new-music festival in Quebec and planned in fact to blog from there, but tedious Internet access issues stymied me. (If you've emailed me lately, I haven't seen that either. I'll try to catch up asap.) The festival was fantastique, but I've got to file official copy about same in the A.M. so can't blah blah on about it now. (One little critic-nerd thrill was to meet Byron Coley in person - I was outright shocked how nice he seemed, tho' not surprised he was very funny. A divisive figure, I know, but he's got game you can't shrug off.)

Anyway in the meanwhile my online readers have missed this week's Overtones, and while you might not be all broken up over that, brothers and sisters, frankly I am - it was a pretty good one, on cheerleader music, a genre that you've really really really gotta hear to believe. Our MC for the duration, much to my own surprise, is one Gwen Stefani, whose Hollaback Girl is a single whose cheer-trax-derived pom-pom power just will not be denied. This way to the cheer squad's dressing room. [...]

Gimme a G-W-E-N! Wha'd'ya got?

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, May 21, 2005

The pop star in prime trim is like the top athlete who moves into position to block the ball before it's even thrown: She has a bead on all the bundles of raw social nerves hurtling through the cultural ether.

Gwen Stefani, the bottle-blond No Doubt singer with the supernova solo career, seems to be in just such a clairvoyant phase. Witness how her firecracker cheerleading-themed single Hollaback Girl (from six-month-old album Love.Angel.Music.Baby) landed atop the charts at the very moment the Texas legislature was attracting ridicule for proposing to censure high-school cheerleading squads who put too much sugar in their shimmy, whose chakalaka has too much boom-boom.

The initiative, instantly dubbed the Cheerleader Booty Bill, was introduced by Representative Al Edwards, a black Democrat who blames lascivious cheer routines for fostering teen pregnancy and AIDS. When the bill passed the first vote, Hollaback Girl was hot, ready and waiting to kick up its high-top boots with an unladylike comeuppance: "This shit is bananas/ B-A-N-A-N-A-S!"

And so a snotty rip on schoolyard gossip was catapulted into the status of culture-war salvo. Sure, the bill never was likely to pass the Texas senate. But the California girl in the blue-state short shorts helped make the Lone Star legislators look all the more like the bouncing butts of this joke.

Pause before running any old standby liberal vs. conservative analysis. Remember, this beef is about cheerleading -- the sacrosanct domain of either apple-cheeked spirit boosters or conformist "Plastics" beeyatches, depending which stereotype you subscribe to. Yet here the moralist politician was scowling at America's sweethearts, while the rock-steady rebel was peppering performances with cheer moves by her ever-present Japanese-schoolgirl retinue, backed by a mini-marching band. Who flipped this script?

Backdrop: While varsity-yell leaders date to the 1880s, the full-bloomed pom-pom girl emerges only in the early 1960s. The hotsy aspect Rep. Edwards decries was groomed in his own state, where the Dallas Cowboys introduced showgirl-style dance-cheerleading in the 1970s - a decade that, not coincidentally, saw porn cheerleader character Debbie "doing" Dallas. So far, so retro.

But on the way to the end of the century, feminism actually infected cheering; young women began to regard themselves as more than boy jocks' helpmeets. Human pyramids climbed higher, flips became more flamboyant and tumbles more tumultuous, and the activity began to aspire to the condition of sport. This new hybrid of dance and acrobatics established its own competitions, broadcast on cable, and was bandied about as a potential Olympic event.

All of this may be familiar territory, especially if you saw 2000's Bring It On, featuring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union facing off over cheerleading choreography in what must be the most winsome treatise on race-cultural appropriation in America ever. But you might not have noticed the soundtrack, which demonstrated how cheerleading has also spawned its own genre of music -- and one that is utterly B-A-N-A-N-A-S, far more than even Hollaback Girl herself.

Music tends to get weirder when it's made for applications other than plain listening. Dance is the obvious case, but cheerleading's rapid sequences of steps, gymnastics and crowd teases demand special punctuation beyond the power of any single dance track. Cheer music crams into the space of a few minutes a series of teen-pop hits sped up to chipmunk pitch or slowed down and puréed with snatches of film dialogue, handclaps, foot stomps, bomb blasts, squeals, retro eighties samples for the coach (top groaner: Culture Club's I'll Tumble for Ya), metal riffs, supersonic whistles, inspirational platitudes and techno beats, cranked to the max.

Translation: Cheer music is spontaneously generated vernacular "mash-up" gone wild, without all the music-nerd pretensions.

It often samples from Miami booty bass, the early 1990s electro-hip-hop style that was doggedly fixated on rump-shaking and died out after the prosecution on obscenity charges of its one breakthrough act, Two Live Crew. In fact, cheer may be the only American music to rival the similarly booty-bass-based Brazilian favela funk in its chaotic absurdist hyperdrive, though the squads succumb to clichéd sources too much to hit Rio funk's unpredictable heights.

The mixes can be by the sweater girls themselves, by DJ-wannabe classmates and admirers, or purchased from all-cheer studios such as London, Ont.'s Music4U, or Pennsylvania's Cheerleading Music, which did the cuckoo-for-coconuts Bring It On themes (sample at http://www.cheerleadingmusic.com).

Their effects are almost as disorienting as New York avant-garde jazz composer John Zorn's "games pieces," elaborate structures to force musicians to jump from style to style as if in a Bugs Bunny cartoon score. Cheer music reaches the same point by sheer competitive will-to-giddiness: It's that rare underground-music form free of countercultural self-consciousness.

In the southern U.S., it evolved in parallel with the hip-hop style now known as crunk, which is mostly bass, synth and exhortation. (Or maybe crunk draws on cheer?) It has also cross-pollinated with the lesser-known southern tradition of African-American high-school marching-band music, which now trades rhythms with rap (see the not-so-scintillating Drumline) and is supplying flute, horn and drum sounds to hip-hop by acclaimed producer David Banner and the "chopped and screwed" remix scene that's based -- to come full circle -- in Texas.

Drill in to any morality morass in the U.S. today, it seems, and it won't take long to hit hip-hop culture: It's what's for supper, the racial, sexual and generational fact America finds hardest to swallow. For one thing, the girl next door is shaking her tail feather to a willful new beat, and past stereotypes - virgin, bitch or whore - need not apply. The kids catch the bug from TV and propagate it in the gym. But exactly what it is bringing on, no red- or blue-stater yet can know.

That goes for Gwen Stefani, too. (When I first heard the song, I thought she was singing, "I ain't no Harlem black girl!") But she remains a winning figure for running with the instinct that this cultural backflip is something to cheer about. In fact, it makes her wanna holla.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 24 at 11:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Sunrise, Sunset

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Bedraggled and belated - after last night's much-too-short but still-firey live show in Toronto - here's my piece on The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree from last weekend's Globe and Mail. Eerie symmetries are afloat here, since John Darnielle's latest album is a meditation after the death of his stepfather and my absence from the interweb the past week is due to the death of my father. (The piece was written, unknowingly, the night before.) I don't want to go on much about that, and in most every way, I hasten to add, the two events, the two relationships, have nothing in common. But there is something between older and younger men, fathers and sons, that even in the best cases is a persistent knot to tug on. The Sunset Tree has been in my mind the past week on that level - as well as, of course, making me even more grateful for the gentle and supportive family environment that I had.

More, in all likelihood, on last night's show later today (Chromewaves has a few words, meanwhile). And some Thursday Reading too. But first here's the column, which chews further, I hope productively, on that autobiography-versus-fiction question that was wrassled over here last week. [...]

He's finally confessed, so hold on

Weekend Review
CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
7 May 2005
The Globe and Mail

Long into the night he's been simmering in his own juices. Three or four of us are on an illicit after-curfew stroll in our teenage wilderness of dark residential streets, and it is 1 or 2 a.m. before we circle back to my girlfriend and her brother's house. Their dad waits in the driveway in a kitchen chair, drunk. He means to put the family he tore apart back in order, maybe using the baseball bat in his hands, and his first obstacle seems to be me. But his offspring slip into chillingly well-practised diversionary tactics, enough to ensure nobody gets hurt right then. I get away.

The Sunset Tree, the new album by the Mountain Goats, transports me back to that driveway, and no doubt its stark revelations would stir some of your ghosts up too. There's an irony there: John Darnielle, the freakishly gifted California-born songwriter who records as the Mountain Goats, has always been a vehement crusader against the notion of solo singers with guitars as confessional diarists à la James Taylor.

Adopting his nom de band was one way to distance himself from singer-songwriter clichés. Darnielle also juggles personas in song, ranging from Aztec gods and Roman senators to the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style pair who booze and claw their way across America in a couple of dozen “Alpha Couple” songs.

Darnielle has released literally hundreds of witty, tender, acidic and bizarre songs since 1991, mainly home-taping his hopped-up acoustic guitar and rubbery Jimmy Stewart vocals on a Panasonic boombox. Three years ago the 4AD label finally lured him into the studio and began bringing him to a wider public.

Darnielle's anti-confessional vows were first broken openly on last year's superb We Shall All Be Healed. It drew, elliptically, on a long-ago period of hard drug use and the friends who were lost to it. Sunset Tree goes much further. Dedicated both to Darnielle's late stepfather and to “young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them,” it is unnervingly candid.

A few songs refer explicitly to “my stepfather,” elsewhere known just as “you.” He can be found passed out in the car or on the couch, hurling a glass at his wife's head some time during the Watergate hearings, or a decade later with his bare hands smothering the narrator, who only prays his stereo gets through intact: “It's the one thing that I couldn't live without/ And so I think about that, and then I sorta black out.”

At first the abuse scenes seemed so overpowering I felt Darnielle hadn't left enough open air for ambiguities and double meanings. Was this former psychiatric nurse and youth counsellor doing social work with this album, at the expense of his art? Or had Darnielle become the autobiographer he always warned us about?

But with further listening the trauma scenes came to seem balanced out, as seemingly unrelated love songs revealed themselves as celebrations of even the most neurotic teen romance as a hard-found, meaningful kind of shelter — “locking eyes, holding hands/ twin high-maintenance machines.” Other songs are spiked with cryptic magpies or cherry blossoms and layers of allusion: Who but Darnielle could gather boxer Sonny Liston, the biblical King Saul, Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov and Kurt Cobain's suicide into one tune, and pull it off?

Perhaps best of all, Song for Dennis Brown sketches the day of the death of the great reggae singer and prodigious cocaine addict, with a guitar line echoing Bob Marley's Redemption Song, lyrics steeped in Frank O'Hara ("On the day that Dennis Brown’s lung collapsed.../ School children sang in choirs/ And out behind the chinese restaurants/ Guys were jumping into dumpsters") and a special angle on the album's preoccupation with survival — the question of whether the demons that kill you are also the ones that sustain you, and where that balance lies. (A question that could be posed to the stepfather equally as to his victim.) Earlier on the album, Darnielle sings, “I'm gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” In the region of The Sunset Tree, every hope has that sharpened edge.

Most young songwriters begin with self-expression, confusing the artful with the merely heartfelt. Darnielle held back till he was ripe and ready. He isn't venting inner tantrums, unlike rock-rap groups and emo bands, the true Oprah-age heirs of the confessional singer-songwriters. Instead he sets up recognition scenes, in which dynamics reverse and barriers harden or dissolve, and explores them inside and out.

Most of Darnielle's past charm as a singer came down to unabashed yelling, but he moderates himself here. And producer John Vanderslice has assembled cellos, pianos and other keyboards into by far the best Goats arrangements yet. It's as mature an album sonically as it is thematically.

The record may centre on adolescence, but it begins and ends in the present, with an adult taking stock. In the extraordinary coda, Pale Green Things, Darnielle recounts the moment he learned of his stepfather's death in December of 2003: “My sister called at 3 a.m.,” he sings in a small-hours hush. “She told me how you'd died at last.” Then he repeats, melody rising quizzically - “At last?” - as if to chasten himself for greeting anybody's death this way, even that of his nemesis.

So he summons up one comparatively unblemished memory, of driving together early one morning to the racetrack, his stepfather timing horses as they ran their paces, fragile green shoots poking up through the asphalt.

This is not a song of forgiveness. It's about the larger cycles that make people and things the way they are, cycles indifferent to our judgments, sweeping all before them. So many songs on the album portray the agonizing powerlessness of his youth that this achievement of adult equanimity seems a kind of triumph. But there are no points to be totalled here. Living your life is what matters.

Who knows if this is how Darnielle “really” feels, or how much so? He'd be the first to insist it shouldn't matter where a well-crafted song comes from, only where it goes. But I doubt the unresolved resolution in Pale Green Things would strike so deep if it were just fiction alone.

It may not be aesthetically rigorous, but people do care about the human beings behind the songs — a disc like The Sunset Tree leaves you little choice there, and I wouldn't wish it otherwise. Every human horror and pleasure begins in that craving for attachment, and ends up, perhaps, in the reciprocal necessity of letting go. As Darnielle sings, “Some moments last forever./ But some flare out with love, love, love.”

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 12 at 1:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Girls Gone Wild

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Wild women giving and getting the blues: Diamanda Galas and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

In this week's Overtones from The Globe and Mail, a consideration of Diamanda Galas' epic genocide cycle Defixiones (in performance tonight at the Open Ears festival in Kitchener, Ont.) as an argument for poetry after Auschwitz (and before). Also, by extension, some thoughts about the quality of mourning in "wild" women's voices in general, and what it is about them that spooks people so. (A version of this thesis over on the Other 50 Tracks drew some vigorous disagreement this week, as yet to be posted - what do you think?) Read on. [...]

Her father's curse

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail Review
Saturday, April 30, 2005


As a child in San Diego in the 1960s, Diamanda Galas was given piano lessons and even invited to sit in with her father's lounge band at the Holiday Inn. What she couldn't do was sing: According to her dad's Greek Orthodox convictions, the only women who sang were whores.

Galas grew up to become one of the most dramatically unclassifiable singers on Earth, whose tone can skate from low snarl to banshee wail, from blues to aria, with a twist of crimson lip or an arc of black-painted brow. She has collaborated with free-jazz giants, major composers and even ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. And yet, briefly in her 20s, she fell into prostitution, and contracted hepatitis, as if her father's curse gripped her still.

People remain anxious about women's voices, and not only religious zealots. Over-the-top male rockers like Bono can yelp and groan all they want over bucking guitars, but when a woman's timbre spills outside set boundaries (soothing earth mommy, breathy seductress, ballad belter), she's bound to face mockery and caricature. Consider Yoko Ono, Nina Simone, Bjork, or even native Canadian folk-rock icon Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose warble only got wobblier after she shed the 1960s image she has witheringly called "Pocahontas with a guitar."

Such a wavering vibrato is enough to make many people say a female singer "drives them crazy," as if they still feared witches or the ancient Greek sirens. Galas, now in her 50s, has been labelled a Satanist, a fury, a Goth and any other synonym for "scary" that journalists can concoct. Aside from a short 1980s post-punk vogue, she has found it hard to get stage time in her own country. Even her fans saddle her with devil-woman fantasies.

Mind you, Galas has courted these reactions. She knows there's no way around them, only a passage through. She calls her voice a weapon, and uses it to conquer realms where few others dare to tread. But beyond the "dark diva" persona and extreme technique, she warrants much more credit for having developed a way of interweaving diverse styles, texts and sound design into long-form pieces on grave topics like AIDS, rape, mental illness and torture, such as Plague Mass or Insekta.

(To support those works she also performs radically revised country, gospel and blues songs, and shows up as a special effect on the occasional horror soundtrack, such as this spring's Ring 2.)

Her most daunting subject yet, genocide, is the focus of Defixiones, which she performs in its latest version tonight in the Open Ears festival in Kitchener, Ont. (Visit http://www.openears.ca for details.)

The title refers to lead carvings bearing curses that are placed on graves to ward off desecration. Galas's musical hex is at once a requiem and an imprecation against the erasure of the memory of more than a million Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and Cypriot victims of Turkish massacres during and after the First World War.

Canada's parliament has joined a short list of states that acknowledge the Armenian genocide, though only over the objections of Paul Martin's cabinet. The European Union, the United States and Israel refuse, partly to placate strategically important modern Turkey. But it's also to safeguard the unique status of the Nazi murder of Jews, as if the six million deaths would be diminished by recognition that they did not form a one-time rupture, but part of a recurring pattern of atrocity.

Every situation is irreducible, but designating the Holocaust incomparable to any other event only relieves the world of its moral duties. It makes the oath "never again" and the term "genocide" meaningless -- which is just what they've proved to be in most of the past half-century.

When the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, he could not know Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur were yet to come. Indeed, Hitler himself reputedly scoffed, "Who remembers the Armenians?" when he was preparing the Final Solution. It makes a stern silence (which Adorno's edict is often mistakenly thought to require) no option at all.

No one shatters silences and defies censure like Galas. Beginning from the lore she heard growing up with Greek-Turkish-Armenian-Syrian ancestry, Defixiones figuratively re-members (that is, reconstructs) the atrocities of Asia Minor. Eyewitness accounts by the poets Siamanto and Adonis are linked to better-known poet-outcasts - Paul Celan (using his indelible Holocaust poem, Todesfuge), Peru's part-aboriginal Cesar Vallejo, the murdered gay Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini - as well as fragments from Galas's own previous work on AIDS.

The music layers Armenian liturgy over Greek rembetika tavern music over the African-American slave dirge See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. These connections are forged in a half-dozen languages, accompanied by her own stark piano, all subtly electronically processed.

What results is a poetry of witness that has little to do with any lone rational mind interpreting the past. Instead, a chorus of the disappeared seems to ricochet through her body. It is just the kind of "shudder" Adorno praised in Celan's poetry, a physical effect, beyond representation, that somehow re-enacts the agonies of real bodies falling through the fissures of history.

In this sense its sophistication resonates down into the war-on-terror torture room. Yet one of its key influences is the ancient Greek tradition of threnody or moirologi, in which women would wail and ululate over the grave of a fallen relative, not only in lamentation but to whip mourners up for vengeance. It's a sound heard round the world - for example, in Palestine today. But in modern Greece it was banned as a pagan holdover. Which carries me back to the taboo against singing in Galas's first home.

Is it coincidence that the ululating voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie (who appears at Hugh's Room in Toronto on Tuesday), drawing upon native vocal traditions, also howls in the backdraft of a genocide? Her pious and universalist 1960s anthems (such as Universal Soldier) gave way to the likes of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee which, like Defixiones, is both a litany of death and an urgent petition.

It's as if this sound, this tide in the larynx, were the world's lingua franca of remembrance. This timbre recalls something we don't want to hear, something people will laugh loud in scorn to drown out (forcing anyone who wants to be serious to risk seeming ridiculous first). A sound such as a prostitute telling you she is still your brilliant daughter. Or an Antigone who has seen injustice and will not stop demanding to know what you are going to do.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 30 at 2:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Benny XVI & The Jets

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Later than usual notice of this week's Overtones from Saturday's Globe & Mail, a reflection on some of the "authenticity" issues raised by the EMP conference, with cameo appearances by Pope Benedict XVI, Erik Davis and Jimmy Page. If you were reading the site last week you've already heard much of this, but, hey, enjoy. The delay was due to an illness in the family that took me away from fast modems and other amenities over the weekend - similar gaps might happen here in the future and I apologize in advance for that, but we'll keep on rockin' in the blogworld as much as possible. [...]

The pope had his conclave. I had mine

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 23, 2005

When former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger burst through a plume of holy smoke this week to emerge in his new, David Lee Roth-esque white jumpsuit as Pope Benedict XVI, most of the heckling under the roar of the crowd hung on his opinions on sex (homosexuality, contraception, female priests). The 78-year-old pontiff's views on drugs are also a pretty safe bet. But is the new Pope down with rock 'n' roll?

He answered that question at the Eighth International Church Music Congress in Rome in 1986: Rock, according to Ratzinger, is a pagan tendency that "lowers the barriers of individuality and personality" and lets the listener "liberate himself from the burden of consciousness." In some quarters, that process is known as "kicking out the jams," but the man who would be pope said it makes rock "the complete antithesis of Christian faith in the redemption."

Perhaps, like many people in 1986, Ratzinger was just discouraged by the post-new-wave slump. Otherwise, his stance is rather bad news for Christian rock bands such as Collective Soul, who'd been going on the theory that a heavy backbeat is as fit a vehicle as any for the True Word.

Coincidentally, I just got back from another sequestered conclave, the fourth annual Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, where for three days last week a couple of hundred musicians, critics and academics gathered to swap verbal riffs. The Church Music Congress probably included a lot less swearing, but the Pop Conference also proved to be a hotbed of skepticism about music's capacity to tell a story straight.

The Pop Conference has rapidly become the Kentucky Derby for music nerds, where writers throw down jokes, insights and allusions like rappers at an MC battle. As Robert Christgau, the Village Voice writer known as the dean of rock criticism, told the Seattle Weekly last week: "It's the best thing that's ever happened to serious consideration of pop music, not just in this country but, as far as I know, in the world."

(Serious, mind you, doesn't mean solemn: I missed Christgau's paper, so I don't know quite how the eminent writer's youthful Coasters fandom led to his "first, disquieting glimpses of vulva" — but it was certainly the most quoted, and giggled-over, line of the weekend.)

It was a jolt to be in a place where music talk took over the status usually given to politics and sports, and the topsy-turvy feeling was enhanced by this year's theme: Music as Masquerade: Poseurs, Playas and Beyond.

The presentations dealt with disguise and crossover, with musicians and songs that play-act in order to give listeners pleasure, often the enjoyment of supposing that we too are something we're not — "fake bands" and "fake fans."

The opening plenary was a tribute to a book that could have lent its title to the whole conference, as it did to Bob Dylan's latest album: Love and Theft, Virginia academic Eric Lott's hugely influential 1993 study of minstrel shows and their influence on American pop culture from early country to Tin Pan Alley standards to blues and rock. Blackface, Lott argues, didn't come solely out of whites' hatred and mockery of blacks, but also from suppressed envy, curiosity, longing and desire.

The panel dug into the many expressions of "blacking up" in American culture, from Al Jolson to Elvis to Eminem. Duke University-based panelist Mark Anthony Neal called current "crunk" hip-hop producer Lil Jon "the first Sambo of the 21st century," with his shades and dreadlocks and gold teeth a kind of "crunkface." Yet as University of London professor Marybeth Hamilton asked, "What's at stake when we contend that some cultural forms are more 'real' than others?"

The rest of the 125 papers ventured further into the gap between appearance and reality, touching on early-1900s ethnic mimicry beyond blackface (with "Chink" and "Dago" characters, or stereotyped "comical Jews" singing I'm a Yiddish Cowboy, oddly enough to predominantly Jewish audiences); on Bruce Springsteen posing as the new Woody Guthrie ("Okie-face"); and on how Polish disco producers adapted nationalist folksongs in the Communist era.

African-American feminist rock critics talked about the frustrations of being fans of music they're not "supposed" to care about, like Southern rock and metal (even though their sources are in the blues). Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's guitarist, rhapsodized about Bing Crosby-style pop crooning as a side door for men into femininity, not to mention seduction. Others considered the paradoxes of punk reunions, death-metal symphonies, albino rappers, Mick Jagger's lips, the media's Yoko Ono-ization of Courtney Love, or how learning a new dance can transform who and what you are.

It all reinforced what Lott — who cut a bit of a rock-star figure himself, a hunk with fading blond locks and a soft-spoken, confidential manner — said early on: "Authenticity is always an ideological category. Its only use is to police boundaries."

In the absence of authenticity, though, the puzzle is to understand the listener's sense of "truth." Surely Madonna or Tupac or Miles Davis fans aren't wrong when they feel a song honestly resonates with their lives — not, at least, just because the song is fiction rather than fact, constructed rather than somehow natural-born.

Writer Erik Davis took a step toward answering that quandary in the final Sunday-morning panel, titled Black Mass. In a paper on Led Zeppelin's fixation with the occult, Davis said that whatever "black magic" meant to Jimmy Page, the way he deployed his lyrical allusions and his "Zoso" symbol on album covers and amps paralleled what he did as a studio producer: He used technique, a kind of magic, to suggest there is more there than meets the eye or ear. Fans filled up this mystique with their own meanings, just like the televangelists who spun Zeppelin records backward and found cryptic messages.(As Davis quipped, "We may need to talk about a Christian turntablism.")

Benedict XVI might not have liked it when Davis — drawn up to his full height in Hammer of the Gods T-shirt, straggling beard and leather pants — opened up a book Page once published and barked out an incantation to summon a demon. But surely the church's latest pop star would recognize the method — a bit of theatre, shot through with artifice and its own vexed history, in which a figure in strange costume invokes a mystery, and makes spirits rise.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 25 at 1:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Anatomy of Smooth

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Groan. Overtones this week appeared with an all-wrong headline and an all-wrong photo (Diana Krall rather than, as it should have been, Andy Bey, pictured above). It makes a man kick walls, but then again: You have to think that if the editors didn't get what you were driving at - didn't see that a pic of Bey was demanded, were inspired to give you nothing but a wimp-ass headline - then maybe you didn't drive at it hard or head-on enough. See what y'all think: This week's essay is a sympathy-for-the-devil exercise, wriggling around to try to see what people see in Smooth Jazz. It's a direct edible-oil-byproduct of an earlier Zoilus post where I pissed all over this weekend's Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards event, and the subsequent spanking I got from John at Utopian Turtletop. And with that we return to our previously scheduled hiatus, which will last till midweek. [...]

Who was I to criticize John for his Smooth Jazz?

By CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 9, 2005

How do you tell a knee jerk from a goosestep? I had to wonder after I received a press release for the first annual Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, which take place in Oakville, Ont., tomorrow.

"The genre is new to Canada, but the music has been serenading the world for decades," the announcement read. "Kenny G., Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson are but a few icons to have led the way." America's most profitable radio format recently has gained stations in Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. Now there are awards to match.

Diana Krall leads the nominations, but there also will be special honours for Benson. Other contenders include Eddie Bullen, Brian Hughes, Marc Jordan, the Clayton/Scott Group and Alexander Zonjic.

My gut reaction to most of these mellow, melodic artists is akin to eminent critic Gary Giddins's one-sentence review in 1998: If such "narcolepsy-inducing performers persist in calling this Muzak-lite 'jazz,' " wrote Giddins, "jazz should sue."

So when I heard about the awards (the Smoothies, perhaps?) I mused on the Internet about making a mock bomb threat. Just as tastefully, I came up with a Terri Schiavo joke: "Q. What do you get when you combine 'Canada' and 'Smooth Jazz'? A. I don't know, but its living will says to remove the feeding tube."

My friend John Shaw in Seattle, one of the most thoughtful music listeners I know, rightly upbraided me. He reminded me how I've railed in print against hierarchies of "high" and "low" art, a divide "prejudiced against audiences whose sensibilities differ from the critical consensus," using trumped-up criteria to judge music without really listening.

"A cry of 'death to that genre,' " John wrote, "shuts off discourse and attempts to shut ears. . . . All [it] says is, 'I can't relate to that at all; therefore those people must be chumps."

John added, on his blog (http://utopianturtletop.blogspot.com), that he enjoys some Smooth himself: "After a stressful day at work, flipping on the Smooth Jazz station gives me the deliciously absurd fantasy that my spouse's '82 Datsun (which I typically drive) is a sleek new sports car, and I have lots and lots of money and a much better clothes sense. It doesn't always cheer me up, but it often does. I like the bouncy post-disco rhythms. I like the slick-sound-sculptedness of it. . . . Smooth R&B; and Smooth Jazz are music of class aspiration."

He had me: In last week's column, I defended the materialism of mainstream hip-hop on similar grounds. A little research revealed that Smooth Jazz is the one genre that attracts equally high numbers of black and white American men and women, across classes and regions. (The Democratic Party should be so inclusive: Bill Clinton was, in so many ways, the Smooth Jazz president.)

Yet Smooth has given jazz fans fits since the 1980s, when it was created on various small U.S. radio stations that played soft pop such as Sade, "Quiet Storm" R&B;, light mainstream jazz standards and remnants of 1970s jazz-rock fusion, funk and disco. It was consolidated by a consulting group called Broadcast Architecture and taken up by stations whose "Easy Listening" audience was beginning to tune (or die) out. A successful format begets labels and musicians to cater to it: A mongrel genre was born.

Smooth's rise has come at a rough time in jazz, and as the one subgenre in which many players make a decent living, it easily invites resentment. Critics complain it's not jazz at all, just as swing-era purists decried the "sweet jazz" of Paul Whiteman's dance band. Similar charges were aimed at cool jazz, soul jazz, Brubeck, bossa nova, the tropical brass of Herb Alpert and Chuck Mangione, and fusion itself -- most eventually accepted to the tradition, and all influences on Smooth Jazz.

Damning all music that happens to carry a certain label is like meeting one sibling and dismissing a whole family tree - or nation. Yet so-called wallpaper music even has its own intellectual pedigree. French composer Erik Satie advocated "furniture music," and producer-conceptualist Brian Eno championed "ambient music." Setting a background mood, they said, is at least as noble a function as setting a marching beat.

Detractors call Smooth soporific, simplistic, anesthetic. Fans simply flip the adjectives around - soothing, minimal, escapist - and they can (and do) enthuse about Smoothies such as Boney James and Dave Koz in exactly the superlatives any bop fan might use about Mingus or Monk. Taste is surreal that way.

I've long projected a fascist face onto Smooth's smoothness: The gleaming train glides along on perfect time to drop you off at the Playboy Mansion, where Chardonnay and plastic-surgery-sculpted models await. (Tune out! Tune out! Tune out!) But that's not how the music exists in real life. How much more oppressive it seems to mock John just for unwinding, even fantasizing, after a day of alienated office work. Why deprive people of their chosen cultural mellowers? "Edge" without purpose devolves into mere pissiness.

It isn't that knotty new forms should not be promoted. But might Smooth actually help? At least these listeners don't spurn the very idea of jazz. The gap is not infinite, for example, between Krall singing standards and real-jazz singer Andy Bey's latest album, American Song.

At 64, Bey is a five-decade jazz veteran, who in the 1950s toured in a trio with his sisters Geraldine and Salome (now a beloved pillar of Toronto's music scene). He would go on to belt out tunes for many greats, notably Horace Silver. John Coltrane called Bey his favourite vocalist. His own hero, though, is Smooth godfather Nat King Cole.

Bey vanished and taught in Europe through the 1980s. He resurfaced in New York in 1996 with a newly hushed sound, as well as the revelation that he is gay and HIV-positive. This reckoning with himself seems to widen within each song, making him perhaps the most arresting jazz singer today: His languorous lines curlicue through Duke Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss as if his voice floated through a garden, pausing over the scent of every syllable, riding the heat and breeze within each interval.

Personally, I still don't want to hear music so slick and oleaginous that it slips by, frictionless, leaving no trace, no mark. Bey is not yet radio's idea of Smooth Jazz. But his silky, viscous notes sink through your pores; his dark absorbent tones draw out feelings as salt does a stain. Abrasion, that 20th-century badge of musical nerve, can't achieve that. For such a seduction, you've got to be smooth.

Andy Bey appears April 13-15 at the Top o' The Senator in Toronto.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 09 at 2:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

I Got a Couple Past-Due Bills, Won't Get Specific

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Well, kids they can't all be aces. Today's Overtones in The Globe and Mail, riffing off the news that McDonald's is trying to solicit name-checks of the Big Mac in hip-hop lyrics, has a lot of notes and bits and ruminations about product placement and hypercapitalism in hip-hop, but I don't think it comes strongly to a conclusion. This is what happens when you let yourself overresearch and start writing at 4 a.m. with a 10 a.m. deadline - at some point the text begins to swim before you and your point can get lost in the undulating waves. I still think it's worth a read, though.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 02 at 3:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

"Is This A Two-Thumbs-Up Mountain?"

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Yesterday in The Globe and Mail, a review of the new Beck disc, Guero.

Today in Overtones, it's CBC's 50 Tracks (and The Other 50 Tracks) versus the iPod Shuffle in a look at the standoff between the selecters and the sensualists about whose mode of listening rules. And: Zoilus-household secrets revealed!

OVERTONES
Weekend Review

Shufflers versus list makers

CARL WILSON
26 March 2005
The Globe and Mail

Books in my house are arranged in two ways: My shelves are split into poetry, fiction, non-fiction and music books, ordered alphabetically by authors' names. My wife's books are scattered like ex-mob informers under the witness-protection program. If she has five J. M. Coetzee novels, they are in three different bookcases. To find one, she browses her whole library and often ends up reading something else altogether.

My excuse is that I come from a family that includes three professional librarians. My wife, on the other hand, is the one who has written two books, perhaps with all the alphabetizing time she's saved. When I first noticed her biblio-anarchy, I assumed she just couldn't be bothered. But she was as attached to her (non-) system as I was to mine.

While we think it charming in our case, this division represents two different approaches to culture — and like other kinds of extremists, the camps are growing further apart. Consider two current pop phenomena, the iPod Shuffle and CBC Radio's 50 Tracks.

The cataloguing instinct has given us the hits charts by which the music business runs, obviously. But such lists are too evanescent for fans who prefer to debate sweeping rankings such as the Top 50 Bassists of All Time. This year, the vast Canadian middlebrow class, myself included, has been sucked into that mentality by 50 Tracks, broadcast every weekday morning for the past couple of months, and wrapping up today with a five-hour countdown.

Passionately piloted by musician-broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, the program's mission was to select the 50 “essential” Canadian songs, broken down by decade. Songs were nominated by guest experts and voted on by thousands of listeners, democratically confirming the supposed indispensability of Neil Young, Alanis Morissette and Rush, but not excluding outliers such as D.O.A.'s Disco Sucks, a song sung by a guy whose last name was Shithead.

The program is part of a wave of CBC list-making Event Programming that includes a radio show that judges which Canadian book you must read each season, and the Greatest Canadian television series. This is what the CBC does instead of exiling hot young things to tropical islands to commit adultery. Eschewing cruel contests over marriageability, parenting, business acumen, worm-eating or modelling, politely anal Canada makes reality shows about lists, about canons of cultural significance — in other words, about Canadian identity.

I think 50 Tracks turned out well as a historical roundup, though if I were a young Canadian drum 'n' bass or hip-hop fan, or a francophone, I doubt I'd be so sanguine. (Only one French song made the list, Gilles Vigneault's Mon Pays.)

Still, I could not resist last week when Ottawa public-relations consultant Keith Serry, who runs the music weblog Pregnant Without Intercourse ( http://pwi.blogspot.com ), invited me to join his daily on-line series The Other 50 Tracks, in a panel of six journalists, bloggers and fans.

What exactly is “other” about it? We might be an even less diverse group than the CBC panels. But we discarded the notion of “essential,” making for a more kamikaze run. Serry granted us a limited veto over one another's choices. (The Tragically Hip and Rush have been kiboshed, while the Weakerthans and Nomeansno survive.) Our debates are unedited for obscenity, length or civic responsibility, and we need not spend half the time bantering with Shelagh Rogers. In general, the sight of a randomly self-appointed body wrestling over a brazenly arbitrary list lends a necessary tinge of satire.

Lists can be a way of coding an aesthetic manifesto in a culture hostile to both manifestoes and aesthetics. They're a thought-provoking device and raw material for analysis. (You need charts in pop history the way you need lists of French kings to study Europe.) But mainly they're a crude way of bringing some of the oomph of sport to cultural conversation. More darkly, they risk implying that one song or book can be measured objectively against another — and that accumulating, ranking and quantifying information constitutes a genuine engagement with art.

At the opposite pole is hit gadget the iPod Shuffle, a slim plastic tube the size of a raised middle finger to the concept of cultural context. Like the ubiquitous iPod, it's a portable player loaded with digital files of your musical collection. But the Shuffle then spits out songs at random. It doesn't even have a display screen to say what's playing. Its slogan is “Give Chance a Chance.” It is hostile to best-of lists, trivia, hierarchy and human agency. To fulfill its nature perfectly, it would be loaded up for you by a stranger. Or a cyborg.

The Shuffle subordinates you to your songs, the way my wife's disordered shelves mean her books surprise her again and again. It's an Internet surfer's aesthetic — songs are discovered, downloaded (with misleading information, with no information), taken in and then tossed away. There's a purity of experience, making language a void and sound a drug.

Existentially, perhaps we inhabit a shuffleverse, a passing parade of intense, inchoate sensations and surfaces. But art is also social and so is (despite occasional autistic excesses) the list maker's desire to know where and when a song comes from, to whom it relates, what influence it's had.

Music fans seem to be splitting up into shufflers versus list makers. If only both sides, like my family's bookshelves, could coexist lovingly. My favourite Web cartoon, Cat and Girl by Dorothy Gambrell ( http://www.catandgirl.com ), has a strip on the theme:

Bespectacled-feline Cat and hipster-hairstyled Girl are hiking up a mountain for a picnic. Girl complains, “IQ, ERA. Music charts, movie reviews and Zagat. Viewing the world but only seeing the rankings and numbers. . . . How many stars do I get for waking up this morning? Is this a two-thumbs-up mountain? . . . Forever quantifying. How lame is that?”

“Eight,” answers Cat, and takes a bite of his ice-cream bar.

The 50 Tracks countdown begins at 1 p.m. today on CBC Radio 1 and 7 p.m. on CBC Radio 2. See http://www.cbc.ca/50tracks/ .

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 26 at 12:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

"All I Ever Think About Is Politics and Sex"

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"I like to work, I like to fuck/ My mind is my body and my body is a truck!": Republic of Safety. (Photo by Aperture Enzyme, from the RoS website.)

Today in The Globe and Mail, a profile of Maggie MacDonald, singer of Republic of Safety (who launch their new disc at Stones' Place tonight), and, as the headline puts it, "Our first indie-rock prime minister?"

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 19 at 2:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Steady Merkin' & Lekman Lurkin'

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D Double E, coming Sat. night to B-Side.

Today in The Globe & Mail, I offer my beginner's guide to grime, the taste sensation of the naughties, with the unleashing of the super-ear-spanking Run the Road compilation and Toronto's first-ever grime show this weekend.

(Update: There's an error in the version in the newspaper, which omits Tyler Comerford's role in organizing and financing Saturday's show along with Luca Lucarini. I've amended it here and requested a correction in the Globe. Mea culpa.)

As well today's paper has a little plug for Sweden's Jens Lekman, who's winding up his North American tour with a weekend in Toronto, hanging out with his road friends The Hidden Cameras, at Wavelength on Sunday. Word also comes this morning that Lekman will be melding with Republic of Safety, taking the mic in Maggie MacDonald and Jonny Dovercourt and friends' fledgling band tonight at 12:30 at the El Mocambo as part of the Dynamite Soul party. You can listen to Lekman rarities here, or peruse his amusing interview with NOW's Sarah Liss.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 11 at 10:16 AM | Linking Posts

 

Everything Infects Everything

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In today's Overtones column in The Globe and Mail, a consideration of the post-exotica of the Sublime Frequencies international found-sound, radio-collage and field-recording record label, including an interview with label head Alan Bishop (of the Sun City Girls) and a celebratory head-trip to Beirut in the thick of the Cedar Revolution. Relevance to MIA debates and much else: Paul Gilroy's notion of "Demotic Cosmopolitanism" - cosmopolis from below, not rootless.

World music that scares Starbucks

Maverick micro-label Sublime Frequencies interrupts the ubiquitous smoothed-out Global Café Groove with a shrill needle scratch

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
5 March 2005
The Globe and Mail

You wake to the clock radio's blare at dawn in your rented room in Beirut, hung over from toasting the collapse of the Syria-backed cabinet, the seedling of the Cedar Revolution. You hear the party continue outside, a clatter of flag poles, bootfalls and laughter — as tinny Egyptian disco from a passing car drowns out the tape by Lebanese diva Fairuz that your landlady bought during the protests, at the big Virgin Megastore facing Martyrs' Square. Upstairs your neighbour, the Syrian gypsy, is wailing away on his buzuq.

You won't find this sound sequence in the Sublime Frequencies CD series. But among the nearly two dozen transcultural releases so far from the maverick Seattle music operation, there is I Remember Syria — a ragtag tapestry of Arabic nightclub pop, militant broadcasts, “duelling cassette kiosks” in Damascus, a chat with a closeted gay in Aleppo — so why not I Remember Syria's Puppet State?

Frankly, the topic would be too tidy. Sublime Frequencies prefers to duck certified news and sanctioned culture, taking back alleys into the global fray and spying through the painted-over peepholes: “Sounds that are not supposed to exist,” they testify, “are everywhere.”

Beginning with Radio Morocco in 2003, this micro-label has issued heat-treated shortwave and FM fallout from India, Java, Sumatra and Morocco; combined folk tunes and boogaloo from pre-and-post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia; and made cut-and-paste audio triptychs of Tibetan streets or the bumpy itinerary of a Malian bush taxi. It's also released four DVDs including Burmese spirit rites, Thai country fairs and burlesque shows, and remote Tuareg nomads dancing in the deserts of Libya. For a start.

“Hopefully our releases inspire people to . . . not continue to be dependent upon so-called experts for definitions and analysis of events and cultures,” Alan Bishop, who runs SF with his brother Richard, tells me by e-mail. “Most experts have an agenda that is not always apparent” — sometimes even to themselves — “therefore expert opinions should never be trusted.”

Field recordings of site sounds and “ethnic” music go back to wax recording cylinders, but it's a checkered past. It enabled, for instance, white rock rip-offs of rural black bluesmen. (Not to mention: Moby.) So ethnomusicologists, like anthropologists in general, now tread gingerly around issues of consent and representation.

By comparison the Bishops come on like a guerrilla faction. They are, after all, two-thirds of the cultish underground band, Sun City Girls. Since the early 1980s, in over 100 recordings and much rarer live manifestations, the Girls have become notorious for dressing in masks and shrouds as they improvise ersatz-ethnic ecstasies.

Compulsive travellers, they began collecting sound souvenirs way back — Radio Morocco was based on tapes Bishop made in 1983. They harvested capriciously, sometimes clandestinely, and that hasn't changed now.

Their discs, such as Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma), are packaged between lurid, colour-copied covers, without many program notes, little bundles of wild sensation. The DVDs likewise roll without narration or other guidelines to moor the viewer.

“It removes the predictability and familiarity of the experience,” Bishop says. “It stimulates thought that may not be possible without disorientation. That's always a good thing. The opposite is too available.”

At that very moment I get a message from a PR firm proclaiming “Bob Marley Travel Package Launched In Jamaica” — Island Records' guided tours to “funky” landmarks of the rebel musician's life, such as where he once lay recuperating from an assassination attempt, now conveniently serviced by Aveda spas and boutique hotels. Nothing's too good for Babylon's weary, ganja-deprived overlords.

“World music” has come to mean such gilded reverence for genius (lionized apart from his otherwise-disposable culture), or else using “ethnic” sounds to ornament dance beats suitable for hair salons and Starbucks. Sublime Frequencies interrupts this smoothed-out Global Café Groove with a shrill needle scratch. It eschews hero-worship in omitting biographies, and depersonalizes the music itself via a jump-cutting psyche-haze of styles, an electrified collective tech-gnosis. It puts culture first, yet does not prefer village to metropole, old to new, live to tape, ecology to politics or even talent to fever. All sounds are created equal. Everything infects everything. Other labels edit out arrhythmia, obscenity, violence; the Bishops may well edit them in. Alan's radio edits, especially, are somehow both immersive and jarring — an ambient music of spastic noise, a warm bath in liquid ammonia.

Though it uses genuine sources, Sublime Frequencies' perverse élan nudges a lineage of phony exotica. Westerners from Gauguin and Debussy, to 1950s orchestrators Les Baxter and Martin Denny (who died this week at 94), to the latest ethno-techno DJs have long used trumped-up tropical stylings to conjure up Shangri-La, mostly in terms of sexual licence. (Dig the whole trip in David Toop's far-out history, Exotica.)

Bishop's liner notes can indeed get hot and bothered about the “rawness” of a song. He's apt to say things like, “I want music that's baked in seductive ovens and served on a crumbling colonial mattress of swirling cobras distilled under a thousand consecutive moons of drone-erotic hip swivel.”

Well, who doesn't? But the Bishops don't mistake developing nations for lost Edens of a more authentic humanity. Rather they love catching culture when it's changing, adapting in some kookily unforeseen way, faking its way through. Instead of fetishizing roots, they find sound en route, between cities, between tongues, between media. “These people are us,” Alan insists. “There is no separation. . . . People are crazy and weird everywhere,” America more than included.

“People all over the world are being socially engineered to trivialize those who are different from them. The price is paid in stacks of human corpses.”

The Bishops' passion for hybrid and heteronym might be illuminated by the fact that they themselves are half-Lebanese, raised in the Arab 'burbs of Detroit. Collaborator Mark Gergis, who recorded I Remember Syria, is half-Iraqi. Between them, they joke, they make one whole Arab. It's a short trip from that border state to realizing everyone is exotic. An act of observation, like taping, can also be autobiography.

That doesn't explain away the ethical considerations. (Bishop says the label has people researching credits, but the task may never be complete.) But at least with all the marks on these audio maps smudged out, westerners can't use them to claim ownership and mastery of the territory.

Many of these recordings come from tsunami-hit countries. While Sublime Frequencies is not preservationist in intention, its jaggedness foregrounds a sense of jeopardy — that anything can be swept away, that everything is ephemeral, let alone any one listener's sense-memories. But these tapes skip forward more than they loop back.

When Bishop was taping his way across the Middle East, a man named Muhammad encouraged him to call them Radio Palestine in hopes of some day having a similar regional network — one partly intelligible across localities, but equally compelling when it isn't.

British race theorist Paul Gilroy could have been describing this week's events in Beirut when he wrote of “the challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below, rather than imposing it downward from on high . . . [conceptions of humanity that] go beyond [tolerance] to a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”

Gilroy calls it “demotic cosmopolitanism.” But you could call it a sublime frequency.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 05 at 3:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Win Your Oscar Poll! (At Least In One Obscure Category)

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Overtones is back in today's Globe and Mail with a little look at the world of film-score fandom, this year's Oscar nominees and why it's not necessary to think movie scoring is a dying art (maybe). Why scores rather than original songs? Dude, this year's song nominees suuuuuuuck - except the songs from Motorcycle Diaries and Les Choristes, which don't have a prayer because they're not even in English. The songwriters should save themselves on tux rental. At best, the crappy ballad from Phantom of the Opera (added just to qualify for the award) and the crappy bar-band song from Shrek 2 will lose to the crappy Christmas song from Polar Express: I figure even Hollywood types are more likely to have bought a Josh Groban album this century than a Counting Crows one (at least those who haven't actually dated Adam Duritz). Zach Braff should have gotten a new song from the Shins for Garden State so there'd be something to watch for (a la Elliott Smith in 1997). (Wow, that's a long time ago now.)

Update: It turns out you can be too cynical about the Oscars - at least to some degree. The voters surprised me by selecting Uruguyan music star Jorge Drexler's Al otro lado del río from The Motorcycle Diaries, making it the first Spanish-language song to win the award. On the other hand, the Oscar producers proceeded to butcher it by having it sung by that well-known singer Antonio Banderas, slapping his thighs and braying, accompanied by orchestra and by Carlos Santana in full blues-guitar-wank mode. It was horrible - so much so that when Drexler accepted his Oscar, he used his acceptance-speech time to sing a verse of the song so that viewers might get some idea of how it actually went. Drexler was pissed off that he wasn't allowed to perform the song in the first place, and the choice of Banderas prompted the film's director, Walter Salles, to issue a protest and its star, Gael Garcia Bernal, to boycott the ceremonies. Slate had more on the story this (Monday) morning.

Otherwise: the Oscars were as boring as ever. I totally owned the six-person Oscar pool at the little party I attended last night. And the column's Finding Neverland score prediction nailed it. [...]

Listen, the score's about to change

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, February 26, 2005

I probably learned about the existence of film scores via Star Wars, no detail of which was too picayune to fascinate little boys. What struck me was not just the theme (and its tarty disco remix) but the teeter-totter jazz of the "cantina" music: It was only background, yet its burbling rhythm was somehow key to the impact -- surreal, giddy, a bit scary -- of that famous space saloon.

I soon came to take incidental music for granted, as most moviegoers do. But when Lukas Kendall had his own version of that epiphany, it changed his life.

At high school in New England, Kendall got so into adventure and sci-fi film scores that he launched a newsletter. His first, single-sheet mimeograph had a readership of 10. Fifteen years later, the operation has moved to Hollywood, grown a thousand-fold and become Film Score Monthly, America's only soundtrack periodical, and even Film Score Daily on-line.

The pages of FSM fairly hum with clubhouse lingo such as "Mickey Mousing" (music following screen action too exactly). Asked to describe a typical score fan, Kendall laughs: "Male, and -- I don't want to say 'geeky,' but -- 'on the thoughtful side.' "

I'm always envious when I run into such overdeveloped micro-niches, like George on Seinfeld: "I'd love to be a buff! What do you have to do?" Yet what buffs often do is get in so deep they turn to dust: Erstwhile soundtrack swami Kendall has been too busy supervising FSM's lost-classic CD reissues to hear a single one of tomorrow's Oscar-nominated scores.

Meanwhile, in 2004 three Hollywood sultans of scoring passed away -- Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, The Man With the Golden Arm), David Raskin (Laura) and Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, Chinatown and the deliciously out-there Planet of the Apes). Even their loyal heir apparent, Star Wars maestro John Williams - who has amassed five Oscars and 42 nominations, including one this weekened for the latest Harry Potter movie - is in his 70s.

No wonder FSM is full of obits these days. Yet it also needs to get busy discovering that next genius from Taiwan, if it wants to have anybody to cover in five years.

"The thought and structure that used to go into movie scores has gone out the window," Kendall claims. The booming volume and special effects of 21st-century film allow little space for musical subtext. He adds: "Because pop music has taken over all music, the aesthetics are different. People can't listen to something intricate and have it mean the same thing."

Now hold on. Yes, too many movie soundtracks are overrun with celebrity hits and media-conglomerate "synergy," and the Dolby age is inhospitable to quietude. But anyone who thinks pop and intricate are opposites hasn't heard pop in a long time, given today's hyper-layered productions.

Film music need not be concert music's poor cousin. As Kendall says, "Moment to moment, film scores tend to be more direct, more accessible than classical music, evocative rather than adhering to a formal musical structure. It's like classical music in a blender . . . . The form is not a symphony or a sonata -- the form is a film."

But that form's impact is evident across all fields of music, symphonic or not. Musicians boggle at the matter-of-fact way movies peddled dissonance, electronics and non-western sounds way back when. Jazz players play variations on Italian masters Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, while rap and dance are riddled with spy, sci-fi, blaxploitation and gangster film samples. Composers such as Philip Glass are eager to write scores and orchestras to play them.

In fact, turning trash to silver and silver to trash, film music has been a complex sort of pop all along. There are new composers capable of applying that ethic to 21st-century sounds with the kind of bite Bernard Herrmann brought to Psycho. Unfortunately, you won't find them in this year's Oscar pack, except perhaps the Lemony Snicket score by Thomas Newman (whose clanging, sinewy work you can also hear on Six Feet Under).

And that's the point. The film buffs' nostalgia problem is significant only because at heart the industry has the same affliction: defining quality as the repetition of 40-year-old gestures. Confronted with new ideas it seldom can distinguish between innovation and cheap gimmickry.

Among the actual nominees, I'll back Newman. But I suspect Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's airy-fairy airs will net Finding Neverland (a Best Picture underdog) a consolation prize. James Newton Howard's atmospheric The Village would be more deserving, but the film flopped. Really, anything but John Debney's mega-selling, ham-fisted The Passion of the Christ would do, even giving up and handing it back to Williams.

Who cares, though, when pop producer Jon Brion was passed over for both I ♥ Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two loftily abstract but tuneful settings for unravelling realities? Not to mention further-out "cleffers" such as Wu-Tang Clan sonic sculptor the RZA (who has scored for Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch) or ex-Devo singer Mark Mothersbaugh (Wes Anderson's movies).

As well, no doubt to the horror of FSM subscribers, the vitality of film scoring is moving to other media. As Kendall says: "You can only be innovative when everybody, including the people with the money, wants it to be innovative." And that place now is in the video-game industry, whose revenues overtook movie box-office years ago and whose sonic ambitions extend way beyond the old bloop-bloop-bleep.

This year's hit Pixar cartoon The Incredibles, for instance, got its cool swing (and rumoured near-nomination) courtesy of Michael Giacchino, who cut his composer's teeth on computer tunes. And next week brings the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell game with a specially commissioned, feature-length, preying-mantis-creepy score by Montreal-based electronica producer Amon Tobin -- as well as a soundtrack CD.

Just as rappers or pop bands campaign to expose music on video games - "the new radio," they call it, in heavy rotation in tens of millions of teenagers' bedrooms and dens - more formally ambitious composers, too, might now gain the ears of gamers for hours and days on end. Already, in Japan, music from the Final Fantasy game series tops the charts and is the subject of tribute albums. In North America, PlayStation concertos may not get the red-carpet treatment this year, but the standards of excellence remain to be set. There are rumblings in the cantina, and the score-keepers ain't seen nothing yet.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 26 at 1:14 PM | Linking Posts

 

Hey Yo Yo Yo, I Need An Empire To Overthrow

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Eye namechecked Zoilus today for tipping their tech-media column off to the recent Radio 3 concertathon, which to be fair other bloggers mentioned as well. (Eye also makes a good point about the concerts' indiecentrism.) But more is afoot at CBC-3, and right now it's looking to be a typical Mother Corp. case of billing a castration as a "streamlining" - the always-tasty weekly web magazine feature reportedly being eliminated, the several related websites being folded into one (which may be okay), and vague bloviations about how they're gonna take up more airwave space, which we will believe when we hear and maybe not even then. Employees are rumoured to be grumbly. More to come.

Final Fantasy Watch: Dear Owenophiles (and Owen), I'll have a mini-review of the Final Fantasy disc (that link's the new website) in tomorrow's Globe & Mail. And I will rock the extenda-mix metacommentary here - although dude has not seen fit to send me a lyric booklet, so at best it will be rife with misquoting, at worst seething with resentment. (In fact I was all ready to be disgruntled that the screamier songs are not on the album, but rumour has it this mortal sin of omission is to be remedied by some upcoming seven-inches. How can you complain if Owen has seven inches?) (Oops! Mmkay! Bye-bye!)

I hadn't understood why this was such an amazing week for live music - in the sluck and muck of mid-February Ontario despond - until I twigged that it was Reading Week. Tonight alone, for instance, T-dotters (other than me, stuck in my cubicle) can choose between the Soweto Gospel Choir, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with Osunlade, Brazilian Girls, Shivaree, The Silt, Alex Lukashevsky/Sandro Perri/Doug Tielli, Hangar 18, Sarah Slean and Jorane, Apostle of Hustle and Kings of Convenience, among others - see the Zoilus calendar for details. Then next week the place goes dead again till spring fling or something. It seems like a good occasion to recycle my old Ethnic Heritage Ensemble piece from back in the '02. I hope it gets your hips bumpin' down to Supermarket to check out the mighty Mister El'Zabar tonight. He deserves it and you do too (poor dears you work so hard!).

* * *

Jazz's bump, howl and moan of history

CARL WILSON
SCENE
21 February 2002
The Globe and Mail, R6

If the name has a didactic ring, that's just because the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble started at a time when educating yourself and making great music weren't clashing goals. Kahil El'Zabar is the percussionist and conceptualist behind the Ensemble, which dates back to his return from a sojourn in Ghana in the early seventies. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, a social pressure-cooker that steamed out billows of blues, bebop, gospel and R&B.; By the time he was 16, in 1969, he was playing drums behind the likes of tenor great Gene Ammons, innovative pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and soul singers like Donny Hathaway. [...]

Abrams was also the founding president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) -- the south-side avant-jazz research-and-development society that gave the world the Art Ensemble of Chicago -- and El'Zabar quickly became a student there. A few years later, at 24, he would be president himself.

The AACM was one of the black arts groups fertilized by the heady mood of self-expression and revolutionary politics of the time, and a keen interest in Africa was de rigueur; often the Art Ensemble drew as much attention for its dashikis and face paint as for its incendiary improvisation. El'Zabar, besides changing his given name from Clifton Blackburn Jr., decided to go to West Africa to study drumming with the teachers of his mentor, Harold "Atu" Murray (now a sometime member of El'Zabar's Ensemble).

The instruments he mastered there -- the sonorous earth-drum and melodic kalimba (thumb-piano), for instance -- would become his most important tools. At the same time, he has said, the Africans pointed him back home.

"Many of the teachers there said my experience in the States was valid in itself. And that's how the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble came about. The lineage of African traditions was passed on in the Western world. And America made a great contribution to the world through jazz, which was informed predominantly by the African-American experience. I wanted my music to have both of those important elements, the traditional African and the elements of my experience growing up in the States. That's why I called it the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble."

Amid the annual rhetorical merry-go-round about Black History Month -- that it's ghettoization, as if the ghettos hadn't existed to begin with; that it lets people ignore these issues the rest of the year, as if they didn't already; or, more insidiously, that it's a revisionist gilding of the lily -- the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's take is bracingly urgent and clear.

It takes its spiritual tone from tribal music as well as from American gospel, but it's equally informed by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and gutbucket Chicago blues. The vitality and breadth of black history is in its every bump, howl and moan.

The group was founded as a 13-piece, but El'Zabar quickly pared it down to a trio, where his drums are the stomping legs and the undulating torso and the two horn players -- trombonist Joseph Bowie, best known for his hardbodied dance band Defunkt, and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins -- are the whirling arms.

By going without bass or piano, the EHE shifts the emphasis from chordal changes to rhythmic ones. With the horn players doubling on additional percussion, the beat is the subject and the melody (often built on a short riff) more a running conversational commentary. The feel wouldn't be unfamiliar to fans of Chicago house and other beat-crazy techno music.

El'Zabar's Chicago grit rescues the EHE from the more sanctimonious, New Agey overtones of some Afrocentric jazz, the airy flute-and-rattle stuff that can give conga drums a bad name. His own urban inheritance is as much a part of the story as any borrowed mythos. His tunes alternate meditative titles such as Ancestral Song with juke-joint tags like Papa's Bounce or Loose Pocket.

Also a poet, actor, arranger (he even had a hand in the Broadway version of The Lion King), professor and community arts activist, El'Zabar yields no intellectual ground to anyone in the more cerebral Manhattan scene. But for him, no head without heart, no heart without backbone, no backbone without a growling belly: History never dries out, and it never stays still.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 17 at 5:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Montreal Miracle Explained, Cancer Cured, Etc.

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Take the Arcade Fire, the Juno nominations, the Canadian music industry, the Montreal-is-the-new-cheddar-cheese hypewave, the Wavelength anniversary, Richard Florida and David Byrne, chuck 'em in the blender and punch "pulverize." And there you have it, today's Overtones column.

(By the way, you know writers don't pick their own headlines, right? The earlier version I saw, "The world is listening, but we're not," was more to the point.)

[...]

Someone please throw some Arcade Fire on the Junos

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
Sat, Feb 12/05
The Globe & Mail, Toronto

In the past two weeks, the two new solitudes in Canadian music were mapped in bright relief.

First, Montreal's sturm-and-strings rock brigade, the Arcade Fire, took Manhattan: The band made a madcap appearance (with helmeted percussionists drumming on each other's heads) on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. They sold out two large New York clubs, with scouts, critics, fans and David Bowie in the house. The second night -- in perhaps the most surreal, sugar-cereal-sweet moment so far in Canada's indie-music renaissance -- their encore of the Talking Heads' Naive Melody was joined by David Byrne himself.

The New York Times followed with a Sunday Arts cover story proclaiming Montreal music "the next big thing," naming the likes of Stars, the Dears and Sam Roberts. Spin, Interview and Rolling Stone magazines are joining the chorus.

Comparable worldly strides have been made by Vancouver's Hot Hot Heat and New Pornographers. Toronto has Broken Social Scene, Death From Above 1979, and the Hidden Cameras (cultivated partly by the weekly Wavelength concert series, celebrating its fifth anniversary this weekend). Not to mention Canadians abroad such as crooner Leslie Feist or various electronic-music whiz kids.

But then on Monday came the annual Juno Awards nominations. And like blue-state Democrats whose exit-poll high came crashing down in November, Canadians were served notice that our "best artists" still were supposed to be Bryan Adams and Céline Dion. The likes of the Arcade Fire were shunted off to the token alternative categories, not included in the April awards broadcast.

In Canadian music, the revolution will not be televised.

This isn't the annual gripe about the Junos being square. The awards have made a remarkable turnaround since their 2002 takeover by glitz-loving CTV after, sad to say, three decades of parochial CBC broadcasts. It was an inspired initiative to add more performances and, with much foofaraw, to change cities each year (St. John's, Ottawa, Edmonton and, this year, Winnipeg). The ceremonies are now watched by nearly as many Canadians as tomorrow's U.S. Grammys will be, and that's amazing.

Last year's triple win by Sam Roberts also caught the nation off guard, and this year the non-conformist Toronto rapper k-os got three nods, and Feist two. The new adult-alternative category, with nominees such as Rufus Wainwright, is another sop (what are the other alternative nominees - babies?), but at least the Junos try.

No, the alternative ghetto exists because Canadian radio and our U.S.-branch-plant major record labels remain timid, lumbering beasts. Nearly all the artists above are on tiny indies here, with bigger deals abroad. Feist broke through in France. The Arcade Fire is on North Carolina's Merge. Broken Social Scene is on Mercury U.K.

Most aren't even tempted to sign in Canada. As David Byrne posted in his on-line diary after his Arcade Fire gig, "The question is, can the larger labels that are courting them do better? . . . [Maybe] they're doing all right where they are."

The damage is to the national culture. If you haven't heard these artists, it's because no one is promoting them on Canadian radio. After decades of radio regulation and industry sponsorship, Canada still lets Americans sell our culture back to us, as in Neil Young's or Joni Mitchell's day.

Toronto's Evan Newman is one of the few insiders to speak out. As an employee at V2 Records, he wrote an open letter to his industry peers in September asking how they could let the rising indie stars pass them by. Then he quit to start his own management firm, where he advises clients such as Toronto band Tangiers to sign abroad.

"The majors here are looking for the Canadian equivalent of U.S. acts. They aren't interested in nurturing a distinctly Canadian sound," Newman told me. They want cash cows to slide unnoticeably between U.S. hits on radio, he said, corrupting the spirit of Canadian-content rules. When Juno time comes, they spin wheels to get their latest one-hit clones onto the list.

The trouble isn't that major nominations are based on sales - the Junos would wither as a showcase of unknowns. True, the figures used (of recordings "shipped" by labels to stores) are very open to manipulation, but even if the system were reformed, the airwaves would still be flooded by disposable signees whom the labels pump for a year or two and then dump, such as Canadian Idol winners.

If that push were given to more unique Canadian voices, Newman contends, the public might embrace them, too. But no one dares.

Such tunnel vision is hardly restricted to Canada. And there has been progress. Vancouver's Nettwerk continues to discover the Sarahs and Avrils. Warner Music has made daring moves like signing hip-hop maverick Buck 65. Other majors have made side deals with indies, or created "incubator" imprints such as Universal's MapleMusic, trading aid to promising newcomers for an option on future partnerships.

But this country could do better. More than ever - maybe thanks to immigration, travel, the Internet - Canadian artists are sophisticated, not split between lonely poets and provincial cheeseballs. The world is noticing, yet Canada hasn't.

America will always best us at big, dumb, dazzling stuff; the Brits will always be more louche and arch. But as the Arcade Fire's flare signals, Canada may be the country that makes arty stuff the masses can love. It's not just our Leonard Cohen roots. It's what we are becoming. And I don't say so purely out of "true patriot love and la, la, la, la, la," as Halifax rocker Joel Plaskett sings.

The New York Times writer flailed around trying to explain why Montreal is so fertile. He went on about downtrodden anglophone minorities (with an egregious comparison to South Africa, while overlooking the many francophones in the bands). He mentioned a recession (that happened 15 years ago) and low rents (which actually have skyrocketed). Why Montreal, why Canada, why now? Really, he had no clue.

A better answer is secreted amid the jargon in a report by the consulting firm Catalytix submitted to the city of Montreal last month: "The Montreal region has been experiencing a shift in its economic base since the early 1990s," the authors write, "from classic industrial to a creativity-focused business mix more dependent on ideas and innovation than on natural resources or transportation cost."

They add that Montreal "ranks in the Top 5 North American regions in terms of employment growth over the past five years; in 2003, it ranked first." So much for the starving-grotto theory. In fact Montreal artists are getting a little of the new wealth, helping them start labels, artist-run nightclubs and festivals such as Pop Montreal, Mutek and Suoni per il popolo.

Catalytix is run by bestselling American author Richard Florida, who made "the creative city" a catchphrase in city halls across the continent. Montreal ranks second among the 25 largest North American cities in the relative size of what Florida calls the "super creative core," the demographic that works in high tech, science, media, education and the arts. And who comes first and third? Toronto and Vancouver. If we don't screw up, that's our distinct Canadian future. (All American cities rank lower, from Seattle to New York.)

It doesn't mean just pointy-headed esoterica, with no old hoser stomp. Canuck humility lives. Our musicians like their audiences. They form (broken) social scenes. They perk up for melodies, dance beats and sing-alongs. They put sticky peanut butter in their bitter chocolate, populism in their conceptual art.

Overhype and backlash be damned, this is not the flavour of the month. It's the new Canadian cuisine. Industry scaredy-cats can lap it up or go hungry. As the Arcade Fire sang to Conan O'Brien, "If you want somethin', don't ask for nothin' " - and as David Byrne sang to the Arcade Fire, "I guess that this must be the place."

* * *
P.S.: Evan Newman talks some more about these issues on his blog. The New York Times article on Montreal is here. Here is the schedule for the Wavelength anniversary shows. David Byrne's diary is here. And here's the Richard Florida group's report on Montreal.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 12 at 5:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

One Mango, Extra Salt and Pepper

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This week's column will seem unusually familar to Zoilus readers, tho I think the points are taken a half-step further: A review-essay on M.I.A.'s show this week in Toronto. (And for what I don't cover: Enjoy your stay. Scroll to midpoint on that thread, from which the above pic is swiped [thanks!] if you are in the mood to debate the Tamil Tigers' terrorismness, tho I hope the piece below stages my suspicion that she leaves the point deliberately unanswered.)

Gilmore Girls gossip also gratefully accepted. Is Logan just Tristan redux? I think he's more, but maybe he's just cuter, if not as cute as, er, Pushkin? Um, relevance-stretch - recent soundtrack highlights? [Never mind, back to MIA...]

But where's she 'really' from, they ask

By CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, February 5, 2005 - Page R5


It's easier to take in the scene -- the small, pretty woman in blue silk waving her arms and shaking out her long black hair on the lip of the stage; the gaggle of young things on the floor stretching out to her in response; the media cameras separating them, bobbing above the front row like robotic birds in a dance of their own -- by watching it all in the long mirrors that line the wall of the Drake Hotel Underground in Toronto. The dark liquid reflection seems more real, more coherent, somehow, than the actual event.

Maya Arulpragasam, the London-based singer known to a growing international following as M.I.A., feels the reality gap too. Once the cameras have done their thing and gone, she asks that the stage lights be brought down: "I feel like I'm in a school talent contest," she remarks. When the spotlight's glare is attenuated, the stiffness begins to melt out of her 28-year-old limbs and she settles down, settles in, at least as much as she will on this Wednesday night.

M.I.A. has the kind of looks and body language that command attention, the kind that get you signed to a record deal on the spot, for example, when you bring your homemade demos round to the record company down the block (London's XL Recordings).

If in Wednesday's set she sometimes seemed not to know what to do with her charisma, remember it was her first show in North America and, depending what you count, one of the first full-fledged concerts of her life. Her backing DJ (and rumoured new fiancée), the American producer Diplo, occasionally had to wind tracks back so she could find her cues. (After Toronto's warm-up, they headed to Los Angeles, and tonight they take Manhattan.)

M.I.A.'s career so far is a topsy-turvy one. After about a year in the business, she has hardly played live, but she has the ears of record execs, the press, even the marketing industry: Apple is running a contest in which you can win an iPod Shuffle that plays her upcoming debut album, Arular (due Feb. 22), and is decorated by hand with the art-school graduate's signature psycho-tropical graphics, which also were projected on the walls of the Drake as she performed. (Her entrée into show biz was doing graphics for Britpop band Elastica.)

Part of the reason she looks better in the mirror may be that she's more used to the cameras than to the crowd; she seems better scaled to a screen or a frame. People distrust that quality (as preshow chatter about "hype" at the Drake attested) especially in an enviably beautiful young woman with her own blend of musical genres and a ton of fawning reviews.

They ask where she "really" comes from, whose creation she is, even though the only bandwagon she is jumping on is one built of lumber scavenged from every sound she's ever heard, and booty repirated from pirate radio. (Many listeners first encountered her on a mix she and Diplo released last year called Piracy Funds Terrorism.)

When The New York Times asked her to name her favourite current tracks in a feature last weekend, she chose Jamaican dancehall, American hip-hop, British "grime" (a salad of harsh ping-ponging electronic beats and patois-laden rap) and Puerto Rican reggaeton. Her own music contains fragments of all those styles, stripped down to buzzing minimalist grooves over which she rhymes in a saucy schoolyard sing-song style.

But this is no rootless child of privilege browsing in some kind of global sonic supermarket. Rather, M.I.A. is a profoundly uprooted person. Until the age of 10 she lived in Sri Lanka, where the father she never knew was a leading figure in the Tamil Tiger guerrilla army, and she and her siblings lived in hiding with their mother, dogged by the Sinhalese government from village to village in secrecy and poverty. They made it to safety in England as refugees in 1986, where they lived in a housing estate and her mother took in sewing.

Music and art were key to Arulpragasam's process of crossing over into urban Western culture, and you can still hear the journey in her songs: She mixes references to civil war and revolution with lines about dating and sex and nonsense-syllable chants. This discomfits people. On the business side, MTV has demanded she clarify what she means in her single Sunshowers, which refers both to the PLO and to putting "salt and pepper" on her "mango," before they'll play the video.

Meanwhile, some fans complain that she doesn't seem to have a clear political agenda -- as if a straight political line has ever come across well in music, especially in pop music, a mixed-up, bastard form if it's anything. (Remember those early-nineties "industrial" remixes of Noam Chomsky lectures? Surely nobody wants to go back there.)

M.I.A.'s music is beguiling because it is confusing. Rather than embrace an existing genre or a given persona, whether sexpot or thug or Third World intellectual or sensitive painter, she asserts her right to all of them. She finds in pop's wild hybrid tendencies a readymade machine to take on all these questions of identity -- to belabour my metaphor, a mirror inside a mirror.

It would be much more artificial for her to produce some kind of Sri Lankan roots music, or British dance music in some heavy "insider" style. In London she's a foreigner; in an airport line in the Blair and Bush era, she's once again the suspected terrorist she was as a child. Yet when she returns to the country of her birth with her education and her pop connections, she is a Westerner. She is only an insider to the outside, and she can't be "with us or against us" for anybody.

That's why, even in its current rough-draft form, her presence and sound have such urgency in 2005. More than ever in history, we live in a world of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced and stateless persons -- tens of millions of them -- yet in culture and politics alike, we often demand proofs of loyalty or authenticity, the kind of identity card people like M.I.A. simply can't produce. Hence her stage name.

In such a mosaic, looking for coherence seemed the wrong impulse. So I turned my eyes away from the Drake mirrors to watch Arulpragasam do Amazon, a song in which she imagines herself kidnapped and held for ransom. Listening to it on Arular, and considering abduction was probably a real risk in her childhood, the song seems an act of defiance, turning a nightmare into a liberating action fantasy.

But, live, when she shimmied toward the crowd and sang the chorus, "Hello! This is M.I.A.!/Would you please come get me?" the plea began to turn into a pop star's love cry: Hello, world, this is M.I.A. -- come dance with me, come sing with me, come on to me, come and get it. And the room roars back to her.

In M.I.A.'s music, the displaced world calls out for company as much as for rescue, the outside teases the inside, and abduction is a sort of state of grace. It isn't blindly optimistic: She knows firsthand that any "universal language" is a myth, that every kind of music, just like every village or council estate, has its own codes meant to keep you in and others out. But as one of the millions with no home, no single idiom to call her own, she is almost forced to make pop, the music that's always found in translation.

And then, as for any aspiring pop star, our attention is her ransom.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 05 at 5:24 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Indie Rock Death 3: This Time, It's Technological

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"Waaaah! Stop hurting indie rock's feelings!!!!": Garden State

As promised, the sequel. Declaring indie rock "dead" is as inherent to the existence of indie rock as heavy-rimmed glasses and bad haircuts, but I do think it's different now: In the past, it's always been about some jades saying they were bored, there was nothing good anymore. But as I discuss in today's Overtones column for The Globe & Mail, what I mean is that the indie model, the independent record label and the "scene" as alternative community, all that is being so changed by the Internet and file-sharing (meaning wide access both to information and to the means of production, even in remote areas, and all the cultural mixing that entails) that the "indie" infrastructure and ideological apparatus is beginning to rust from the inside and crumble from without. This is a Good Thing. (Note: This piece owes something to the Popmatters article about "the O.C. effect," which I read thanks to Aaron.)

Afterthoughts: This "incubator" campaign among the Big Four record companies deserves close inspection and tracking. And does anybody know if there's a Net-wide music-downloads chart, where you can find out the most-downloaded songs of the week or month (or day!?), at least commercial downloads? Lots more to consider there - my designer Bill's reaction is in yesterday's comments section. Whatcha think? [...]

Grow up, Pitchfork. Indie bands have

OVERTONES
By Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Sat., Jan. 22, 2005

For much of this young century, Omaha, Neb.'s indie-rock prodigy Bright Eyes -- whose mama named him Conor Oberst, and who was still in his teens when the calendar flipped to the 2000s -- could do no wrong.

He could con his fans with brazen lies, like a tall tale of a younger brother who drowned in the bathtub; he could come close, for real, to dying of alcohol poisoning; he could be photographed smooching Winona Ryder; he could put out a seven-record box set; he could even commit poetry.

Still, the fanzine praise would flow like champagne, and the cat-eye-glasses-wearing freshman girls would hang his saucer-eyed photo on their dorm-room walls, and no one would complain except their would-be boyfriends down the hall, who would insist over beers that he wasn't as good as Interpol, but confess late at night in on-line LiveJournals that he was better.

Yes, Oberst could get away with anything -- except making a decent living. Whether it's Bright Eyes, Wilco or "O.C. effect" beneficiaries Death Cab for Cutie, when indie stars dip a toe in the mainstream, they risk the ire of their former biggest fans.

When Bright Eyes (who played Toronto last night) managed to top a Billboard singles chart with not one but two separate songs in November, the indie-scene "it" website Pitchforkmedia.com headlined its bulletin, "Black Thursday: Bright Eyes Dominates Billboard Singles Chart: Universe Reveals Plan to Self-Destruct."

Editor Ryan Schreiber, 28, peppered his account with asides such as, "we're hesitant to report it" and "surely this is the news that sent Arafat over the edge." When staff at Oberst's tiny independent label Saddle Creek said, "This certainly shows great promise," Schreiber interjected, "Yeah -- for a world smeared in shit and horsegore. Am I right, people?"

This is the way, too often, that indie rock treats its heroes. Schreiber was kidding, but only half. His curdled incredulity was consistent with Pitchfork's tone toward all culture tainted by mass popularity, with the old indie habit of retreating behind concentrically embedded moats of sarcasm.

Yet Pitchfork, a nine-year-old basement operation out of Chicago that this week premiered a pricey redesign, is itself among the most popular of Web pages, with 115,000 visitors a day, eyeballed more often than many porn sites. If Schreiber needed a culprit in Oberst's success, he might have gazed into the reflection on his computer screen.

Pitchfork's accolades certainly made the career of Toronto rock collective Broken Social Scene, catapulted from obscurity onto the international circuit by a 2003 review that called its album "the Holy Grail for people like us" and rated it 9.2 out of 10. In September, P-fork sounded the alarm for Montreal's the Arcade Fire; for the next week, stores everywhere couldn't keep it in stock.

But Pitchfork's influence alone can't explain why 2004 was chock-a-block with hits by bands nobody expected to get famous.

Uncharacteristically upbeat single Float On gave U.S. band Modest Mouse (which came on the scene in 1994) a million sales of its prophetically titled album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Scottish glam-guitar groovers Franz Ferdinand are nearing two million albums sold. Death Cab and Interpol each sold a quarter-million. Stranger still, Death Cab electronic side project the Postal Service nearly half a million.

And after Natalie Portman told Zach Braff in the movie Garden State that New Mexico pop philosophers the Shins would "change your life," sales of their Oh Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow spiralled to similarly great heights.

How can this be, when conventional wisdom dictates indies can never break 100K? Garden State is a clue: Exposure often came in films, ad soundtracks and TV shows. A handful of U.S. commercial stations have gone to "alternative alternative" (or "neo-rock") formats, such as Los Angeles' Indie 103.1. But they haven't had the impact of teen soap opera The O.C., whose music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas has put Death Cab, the Shins and many more in prime time.

Directors and ad makers like indie rock because it sounds cool and comes cheap. Music supervisors in their 20s and 30s are thrilled to oblige.

Few other forms of music regard money as though it were infested with plague -- imagine Aretha Franklin worrying she was selling "too many" records! -- and indie is finally getting over its Marxist-holdover idealization of poverty, give or take a few Schreibers.

But to be fair, everybody knows how badly it turned out, artistically and financially, last time "alternative" went nova, in the early 1990s. Today's indie rock isn't nearly as defined a style as grunge, but as it crests, the global music conglomerates -- of which there are now only four -- will muscle in and copycat it. Many bands would rather stick with a small label and license out songs than gamble a career on a corporate contract.

Business arrangements apart, though, is indie really a genre? There's always an underground of experimentalists whose music is to pop what conceptual art is to comics, or abstract poetry to a mystery novel. Neither side is superior (I mean it), but you don't approach them from the same angle.

Yet the indies taking off now are just idiosyncratic pop that didn't happen to be fashionable when smart dance beats and dumb rock ruled. The Britney Spears/Limp Bizkit generation is reaching an age of restless introspection, and seeking music to match. (Don't worry, they'll come back around to Britney, first with nostalgic irony and then to get down at their gay weddings. Limp Bizkit, blissfully, will be lost to time.)

The mainstream industry long ago lost its will to nurture songwriters who may take years to hit their stride, as adept as it is at assembling crack teams for dance smashes. So some of the Big Four are offering deals to have indie labels act as "incubators" for rock and hip-hop talent they may want to market in the future; they've even begun to set up branches to manage that process, though wise artists will stay suspicious.

Meanwhile technology is short-circuiting outmoded fetishes of exclusivity and obscurity. If you discover (or make) something superb, you put an MP3 up on your website; next week it may be on The O.C. (The emerging paradox is that the more downloads a band gets, the more albums it sells.)

Isolationist indie ideology is looking like a Cold War relic; it was a hollow rationalization for the impossibility of access to broad audiences. Today, artists can ride the "long tail" of culture - they can thrive in a relatively marginal niche if they put the word out widely.

For a politically minded performer such as Conor Oberst, that's more exciting than singing to the smugly converted. And as the snob factor lessens, the mutual resentment between (ex-)indie and other genres may ebb away.

Good riddance to old insular indie. It doesn't mean the death of alternatives, but a fresh declaration of independence. Pound that Pitchfork into plowshares: Open up your bright eyes, Ryan Schreiber, and let your universe explode.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 22 at 4:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Failure's Always Sounded Better: Bright Eyes

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I could have been a famous singer
If I had someone else's voice,
But failure's always sounded better:
Fuck it up, boys, make some noise!

(Bright Eyes, Landlocked Blues)

In today's Globe & Mail, a consideration of the metamorphoses of Conor Oberst - from self-wary indie-crush squeeze toy to self-(less?)-aware rock-star-in-the-making (above, the most roxx starr foto of him I could find) - and a semi-contrarian defence of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the performative poptronica one, over I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, the chin-stroke Emmylou-Harris folkie one, between his two new albums.

Tomorrow's column actually serves as Part the Second of this piece, expanding out from Bright Eyes' nova-going to all the "indie"-type bands that have suddenly become mainstream, and the reactions to same, and considering whether indie rock is a genre or a politics or a business model or a myth. (Featuring gratuitous Pitchfork-bashing 4 yer pleaszah.) [...]

Bright Eyes and sleepless nights

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, January 21, 2005

The year 2004 was Conor Oberst's annus mirabilis, in a life that often sounds like a string of anni miserabili, at least in the hundreds of songs the 24-year-old has penned since he began performing more than a decade ago.

The Nebraska-bred singer better known as Bright Eyes went everywhere, man. He moved to New York; flew to Nashville to record with Emmylou Harris; started an Internet-based music label called Team Love; and toured with the anti-Bush Vote for Change campaign in the fall with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, who gave him a flea-market jacket as a souvenir.

Then, in November, Bright Eyes became the first artist since Puff Daddy in 1997 to have songs in the top two spots on the Billboard singles chart simultaneously.

The media tend to exaggerate that last achievement, as the gossip mills did when a shot of Oberst kissing Winona Ryder surfaced in 2003 (it was a friendly buss, he says, and they never dated). The chart in question measures only purchases; since practically no one really buys singles, first-week sales to hard-core fans were enough to earn the double-header. The primary Billboard chart factors in radio play, an arena where Bright Eyes poses no threat to Avril Lavigne as yet.

Oberst's songs would fall as awkwardly as soliloquies from Hamlet between the mall-rat anthems on rock radio today. Indeed, they mimic Shakespearean self-interrogations, pinballing from hubris to humiliation, from extended metaphor to explicit obscenity, in verses that overflow their rhyme schemes and choruses that often forget to arrive. The music rests on punky folk-rock that fans of both Neil Young and Green Day might embrace, but beware - harps, organs, horns and parade drums are apt to erupt any minute.

The two November singles were a tease for this week's unveiling of two distinct Bright Eyes albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. They are his first full-lengths since 2003's Lifted, whose 200,000 sales were startling for a record on Saddle Creek, the indie label he founded at 14 with Omaha friends.

The new discs were heralded on Sunday with a front-page New York Times arts-section review (following a breathless Times Magazine profile of Oberst two years ago), and similarly reverent treatment elsewhere. There will be tours and videos for each album, with a break in the spring to open for R.E.M. in Europe, and the cries of "boy genius" and "new Dylan" from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine are unlikely to abate.

And so are the catcalls. In September, a St. Louis paper nominated Oberst one of the "Ten Most Hated Men in Rock." This year no doubt it will get even hipper to denounce the new discs as either (a) more whining Oberst self-indulgence, which the speaker "always hated," or (b) a sellout of his sensitive prairie solitude, which the complainant "used to love."

If being Conor Oberst seems an exhausting proposition, you're right: The common theme of both albums is not getting any sleep. Digital Ash is a night-prowler's suite, bedevilled by death and the vast cosmos, with an insomniac synthesizer mewling like no Bright Eyes album before. I'm Wide Awake takes place amid lovers' sundappled bedrooms, protest marches and hangovers at dawn, set to acoustic guitars and Emmylou Harris harmonies. On one, Oberst risks waking up as a cockroach; on the other, sunrise might find him turned from a puppet of his own art into a real boy.

I'm not sure what to make of this sudden compartmentalization of his bipolar sensibility - except that, in its way of getting us talking, it's another phase in his main metamorphosis, from cult indie crush to bona-fide rock star.

Most critics, who prefer I'm Wide Awake, overestimate Oberst the writer, who has plenty of gifted rivals, and underrate Conor the performer, who holds his own beside the far-out vocal expressionists of hip-hop. Yes, he yelps and howls less here, in more formally balanced songs. But calling that "maturity" seems like pressuring van Gogh to go easier on the colour.

Oberst usually undermines his own confessions, vocally and verbally, showing that his excesses are more theatrical than therapeutic. In art, unlike life, extremism of thought and feeling is no vice. For that I bless the messiness of Digital Ash, which restores ridiculous Goths such as the Cure to their rightful place among Bright Eyes' ancestors, while the ghost in Hamlet cries, "Remember me."

The transformations of Conor Oberst are far from over. I do regret that both discs contain less protest than he's hinted at. As on Lifted, which may have been rock's fullest encapsulation of post-9/11 anxiety, he mixes personal and political, but not as fiercely as in concert staples such as When the President Talks to God. A genuinely mature Bright Eyes album would explore the wilderness of the world more than the Importance of Being Oberst -- but then again, is that what rock stars are for?

Bright Eyes plays the Phoenix tonight (410 Sherbourne St., 416-323-1251) with Coco Rosie and Tilly and the Wall. The show is sold out.

-----------------------------------------------

SUPPLEMENTARY: My article about Bright Eyes and the Nebraska scene from when Lifted was released (on the first anniversary of 9/11, a connection whose relevance apparently escaped me at the time).


Omaha: Where the wild things are

SCENE
Carl Wilson
12 September 2002
The Globe and Mail

Omaha, Nebraska: It's the birthplace of both Malcolm X (whose family was driven off by hooded Ku Klux Klansmen) and Johnny Carson (whose wasn't), the home of an insurance company that sponsored the 1970s' most iconic wild-animal TV show. It's cornfields and urban sprawl, conventioneers and beef-factory farms. It's the boardroom of the badlands, on the way from no place to nowhere.

Now, according to Time and Jane magazines and the L.A. Times, Omaha is the new Seattle or Minneapolis or Halifax - the next big temporary thing. Something in the water has bred a crop of mutant indie bands, higher than the tallest ears of corn, roaring louder than the most hormone-maddened bull in the pen.

The hype centres on the tiny Saddle Creek label, which hosts the Faint, Lullaby for the Working Class, Azure Ray, Cursive and especially songwriter Conor Oberst, with his group Desaparecidos and his solo project Bright Eyes, which comes to the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on Sunday.

No doubt all the Nebraskan contradictions mentioned above did help pump the pressure under this geyser of creative noise: As Oberst has put it, the Saddle Creek musicians had to support each other just to survive. But you could say the same of any hundred self-nominated "armpits of America," with their own inventive cliques. It's really Oberst who's making 2002 Omaha's year.

From the title down, Bright Eyes' Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is prolix, absurd, overdone and captivating. At 73 minutes, it's more than twice as long as Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish, which came out in February, a series of hard-driven, heart-rending punk anthems about (no kidding) land use, zoning and superstores.

Oberst is all of 22, and has been working the vein of his own despair as a songwriter for nearly a decade. He's drawn comparisons to everyone from Kurt Cobain to Emily Dickinson - I'd add Winnipeg's Weakerthans - but most frequently, by the likes of Rolling Stone, to Bob Dylan, whom he resembles in little but wordiness and nerve.

With 13 songs that go on for eight or 10 minutes each, Lifted is a messier, less satisfying affair than 2000's Fevers and Mirrors. But it doesn't matter. Even when the lyrics indulge Oberst's ambivalence about the cult idolatry and industry praise, his voice mesmerizes in twists and turns from melodic croak to operatic howl. Like almost any good art, it bypasses questions of pretense - if you can make it feel like a pleasure and a surprise, why not put on that mask, or rip it off melodramatically? Go ahead and tell me something trite, if you make it feel alive.

What does Lifted sound like, then? Sometimes a rambling, mumbled monologue to an acoustic guitar strum that justifies reference to Dylan's Freewheelin', sometimes an early-sixties Nashville production with a string section, sometimes a punky squall with a bright organ backup and a chorus, literally, of drunks in a local bar. On his current tour, he's bringing a 15-piece orchestra, a typical rock kiss-of-death that from him seems like just another exercise in going over the top for the sake of the thrill ride down.

Stories come in and out of view, with Oberst scribbling notes across the margins: "The last few months I have been living with this couple/ Yeah, you know, the kind that buy everything in doubles . . . and I am thankful/ That someone actually receives the prize that was promised/ By all those fairy tales that drugged us . . . Will my number come up eventually?/ Like love is some kind of lottery/ Where you scratch and see what is underneath/ It's 'Sorry,' just one cherry/ 'Play again,' get lucky."

Press and fans have made much of Oberst's depression, but here it's leavened by variety as he graduates from teen angst to undergrad philosophy. Yet the stereotype has always been belied by his phrasing, vocally and verbally. I wouldn't call it glum so much as caring. If there's such a thing as post-irony, this is it - knowing that being disengaged is no choice at all, without feeling obliged to play along with snares and shortfalls and out-and-out lies.

It isn't cynical, this music argues, to refuse to forget what you know. Whatever credit or blame Omaha deserves, Oberst seems to find there a sense of love without pity, which makes his diary start to seem like everybody's autobiography - where you can't wait to read the next page.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 21 at 4:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

They Aren't the World

Today's Overtones column, about pop stars' roles in charity and especially the "charity single" and especially tsunami relief, was especially difficult to find on The Globe and Mail's website this morning. Wonder if someone was offended?

I hope you won't be - no slagging of the public's generosity was intended (it's obviously great that the CBC's telethon on Thursday raised $4-million-plus), just a reconsideration of how we're led and by whom in our attention to global crises.

One point I didn't manage to work in is that it's gratifying when these benefits include some kind of nod to the culture of the people you're trying to help out. Someone remembered Ravi Shankar opening the original rock-star benefit show, the Concert for Bangladesh, in an account of last week's big benefit in Halifax which was opened by Indian musicians Aditya Verma and Subir Dev. In Toronto, today there is gamelan music for the cause at the Indonesian embassy, Qawaali musicians Shahid Ali Khan and Ravi Naimpally play the Gladstone on Jan 21, and Small World Music is organizing an Indian Ocean benefit on Jan 27 at the Lula Lounge with Autorickshaw and Tasa. As the Iraq war reminded us so starkly, every war, plague or natural disaster is also a cultural disaster, yet also breeds new culture. (See the Zoilus concert calendar for details on those shows.)

I also recommend my friend Doug Saunders' column in the Globe today for a case study in the ways in which Western "help" (in this case, food aid) can sometimes be no help at all. (Unfortunately you'd have to be a Globe online subscriber to read it.) [...]

On comes the charidee, pop goes the piety

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, January 15, 2005

The charity single is a benighted pop-music genre that cannot really descend into self-parody because self-parody is where it started. But with every passing year, the form -- which the Brits (whose consolation prize for a lost empire has been a national instinct for sarcasm) call "charidee" -- becomes more of a travesty.

As if the suffering inflicted by one of the most severe natural disasters of the age were not enough, the world is now threatened with the recording of a tsunami-victims benefit single by an ensemble that includes Boy George, Sir Cliff Richard, two of the surviving Bee Gees, pop-jazz star Jamie Cullum and Olivia Newton-John. The song is by ex-BBC radio DJ Mike Read, whose other current project is a stage musical about the Village People, but whose sense of camp remains insufficient to grasp why recording a song called Grief Never Grows Old, and with a cast whose achievements mostly date to the early 1980s, may be ill-advised.

It seems churlish to look askance at the outpouring of celebrity compassion occasioned by the tsunami. Rock band Linkin Park kick-started its own charity, Music for Relief, with a donation of $100,000 (U.S.). Musicians have also led fundraising efforts such as the Canada for Asia charity broadcast on the CBC this past week (featuring the likes of the Tragically Hip, Rush, Blue Rodeo and Air Canada's own angel of mercy, Celine Dion); the Concert for Tsunami Relief starring Sarah McLachlan and Avril Lavigne in Vancouver, on the CTV network on Jan. 29; and in the United States, today's Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope on NBC, with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Mary J. Blige, Eric Clapton and dozens of other boldface names.

Clapton is also appearing at next week's mammoth Millennium Stadium benefit concert in Wales, and may contribute his song Tears in Heaven for a U.S. charity single being organized by American Idol judge Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne.

On a more humble scale, Toronto DJs have been holding what seem almost like daily fundraising dance parties. The indie favourites Broken Social Scene have sold out tickets for a benefit show. All sides of the Halifax music scene came together in a concert that raised $80,000 earlier this week. And other cities each have their tales to tell. It's all part of the massive public response that boosts one's general view of humanity.

But it's also marked by humanity's flaws, such as our collective inability to pay sustained attention to more than one issue. The disaster-relief effort creates a misleading sense of satisfaction when you consider our failure to address less sudden global crises, such as the AIDS pandemic killing millions in the developing world, and the thousands of people who die daily of preventable starvation and disease -- not to mention the genocidal emergency in Sudan that the tsunami has swept off the front pages, or the unnatural disaster of Iraq. Tsunami relief has proven an attractive cause because it seems free of human agency and unattended by political controversy.

Most pop stars are bandwagon-jumpers by nature. They make their living on trends. It's tough to stave off cynicism when the same celebrities now lending their manicured hands to tsunami relief were, 30 seconds ago, adorning their wrists with yellow plastic "stay strong" bracelets or red "Kabbalah threads" or whatever colour of ribbon is in vogue at awards season.

This attraction to feel-good gestures infects the music itself as well. Charidee anthems are usually written in Hallmark-card style, full of homilies and general exhortations to "care." They are protest songs in which all friction and specificity is supplanted by kitsch, focusing on the audience's own emotions rather than any broader responsibility.

The usual defence is that "it's better than nothing," but after 20 years of charity songs -- including some of the best-selling singles ever -- it's high time to question the model. At best, they call attention to neglected issues, but that doesn't apply to the tsunami crisis. With the costs of recording, manufacture and promotion, they are an extremely inefficient way to collect and disburse funds.

And you can't help resenting it when rich celebrities ask for more of an average fan's money for a whiny new song rather than, say, donating royalties from their own hits -- which at least are likely to traffic in pop's strong suits, sensuality and outrageousness, rather than strain to achieve pious earnestness, which pop music does so badly.

No wonder there are websites such as http://www.bandaiddilemma.net, which urges viewers to buy multiple copies of the latest charity single and then send in pictures of themselves crushing, burning or pan-frying it.

I'm reminded of the Conan O'Brien talk-show sketch about "Famous Helping People" (featuring Sting) recording a benefit song first and figuring out the cause later. Or The Simpsons episode in which Krusty the Clown (and Sting) sang We're Sending Our Love Down the Well to aid a child supposedly stuck in a Springfield well, rather than going down and rescuing him. (It was actually one of Bart's pranks.)

There was a real-life echo of that satire in last month's Sudan-benefit remake of the British Band Aid single Do They Know It's Christmas?, which used the lyrics of the original 1985 famine-relief song unchanged. As a result, besides the general cultural chauvinism of its titular question, this "nostalgia charity project," as Mark Thomas called it in The New Statesman, suggested that hunger in Darfur is being caused by drought rather than the murderous raids of government-sponsored militias, and that the victims mostly needed food, not the intervention the world still hasn't mustered the will to make. One activist compared it to telling people in a burning building not to worry because snacks are on the way.

Even the original single (and the copycat American We Are the World and Canadian Tears Are Not Enough) was criticized for blaming the climate for the Ethiopian famine, rather than the country's postcolonial political situation and the structural flaws of the global economy.

Yet there was an upside: When one participant, U2's Bono, found out that African nations were giving the West just as much money in debt repayment every week as the Live Aid concert raised in total, he dug deeper. Over the next 15 years, Bono educated himself and became a serious lobbyist for the Jubilee 2000 debt-forgiveness campaign, which has done more for Africa than any charidee concert or single.

People jeer at him for it, but Bono has the guts and imagination to deploy his celebrity to pressure elected politicians, including Prime Minister Paul Martin, to demand that they take on real leadership instead of leaving it to pop singers. Live Aid founder Bob Geldof has been doing the same.

Debt and other macro-economic (and environmental) issues are similarly relevant to Southeast Asia's current plight. People may get nervous when charity is politicized. But the know-nothing populism of the typical charidee effort risks exacerbating global problems. It's a phony comfort we may have to sacrifice if anything is to change, and it could bring at least one other benefit for humanity -- less music that sucks.

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Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 15 at 12:32 PM | Linking Posts

 

The Counterfactuals of Bleep

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In today's Globe and Mail: The Overtones Guide to Music Jargon. If telling you what "ragga" means insults your cognoscentiness, you might wanna skip this one, though it has its share of tongue-in-cheek. Still, two caveats: 1. I know there was already a band called Tsunami. That's them at top, starring Jenny Toomey. But now there will be many many more. 2. It was strictly inaccurate in the "rockism" entry to say rap doesn't "romanticize authenticity"; hell, that's all it ever does. But it doesn't do it on an "individualist" basis, which was the context. The better summation: Rockism= romantic modernism. The other arts are over it, oh lord, why don't we?

Omitted: Extinct terms for 2005: Glitch (not as dirty as "bleep," plus no one care), backpack (if it now means "Kanye" it sure as crap doesn't mean "underground"), Torontopia (at least without Montrealshangrila), anything-"izzle" (isn't Bush opening his inaugural speech with a "fo'shizzle" joke, or am I wrong?). Free jazz and indie rock: So damn dead.

What's still in play? Read on. [...]

A guide to music jargon

By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, Jan 8, 2005


Check this out. Here's part of an actual sentence from an actual music critic's recent review of 2004: "Whereas most neo-electro-house is minimal . . . Brooks is a maximalist to the core, suggesting an alternate path bleep could have taken, incorporating Hyper-On Experiences' spastic bricolage and deep house's sensurround production."

Rather than journalism, this may sound like a dada performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. Yet, as technology causes music to mutate ever faster, and former niche genres migrate into the pop charts, inevitably the process brings in da noize, brings in da jargon.

If you somehow didn't find time in 2004 to ponder the counterfactual mysteries of bleep (hmm, how might bleep be different if JFK had survived?), never fear -- the Overtones Jargon Glossary is here to pump you up to talk music in 2005. This neologistic abcedary is regrettably incomplete, but I suspect you can survive not knowing, for instance, of the alloy of Gary Glitter glam and Teutonic electronics briefly hyped last summer as schaffel. So let the lexiconjury begin.

Audio Blog. Music blogs (sites where people post links and chatter) have been chugging along for years, but in 2004 the Internet went gaga for bloggers who let visitors listen in on selected songs each day -- like having everyone over to listen to records, rendering critics a tad redundant. Ottawa's Said the Gramophone was the original non-U.S. audio blog, and kick-started Montreal band the Arcade Fire's conquest of 2004.

Bit Torrent. Napster's Revenge: New file-transfer tools made it easy to download bands' entire discographies, undetected, leaving the music cops spinning their wheels.

Bleep. Not the sound that masks naughty words when a Snoop Dogg track is on the radio, but the avant-electronic style formerly known as glitch, composed of patchworks of malfunctioning-machine noises. Near obsolete, as half the Top 40 now has similar banged-up beats.

Booty Bass. Any music -- American crunk, Brazilian "baile funk" -- built on 1980s Miami bass and its android-rump-shaking groove. (Remember 2 Live Crew?)

Breakcore. Dance music and industrial-noise samples radically blenderized for maximum disorientation. Comes in dance-floor and art-house. Winnipeg's Venetian Snares is a favourite; also Philadelphia's Duran Duran Duran (at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on Friday), whose debut disc, Very Pleasure, will give not-very pleasure to fans of the just-double-Duran'd 1980s band. I consider renaming myself Carl Carl Wilson Wilson.

Creative Commons. Alternative to copyright for creators who want to grant other artists permission to sample and build on their work. Participants include the Beastie Boys, Gilberto Gil and David Byrne.

Crunk. Southern U.S. rap style marked by booty bass, rap-metal-style racket, 1980s synthesizers and, if it's hitmaker Lil Jon, yelling "yeeeeaaahh" a lot. Critics either admire its aural intensity or loathe it for trashing rap's (New York-bred) verbal tradition. Melded with R&B; balladry, in which case it's known as CRunk & B or Bubblecrunk, it yielded 2004's biggest hit, Usher's Yeah. A new low in product placement: Lil Jon's Crunk Juice was both an album and a beverage.

Dancehall. Heir to Jamaican reggae, a thudding bass-and-patois form a.k.a. ragga, it's come to permeate all other dance genres, despite even worse sexual politics than hip-hop. "Riddims" often recycled among various hits.

Dance Punk. New York-based indie rock is fixated on the moment when disco-new-wave fusions left off in the early 1980s. "Teaching the indie kids to dance again." Well, better than 2001, when every band sounded like a lazier Blondie. Key discs: !!!'s Louden Up Now and a three-CD compilation by producers DFA that puts the "over" back into "kill." Talking Heads still did it better. (Cf: Slippery People.)

Desi. Ragga-fied hip-hop filtered through South Asian migration, Bollywood movies and bhangra beats. Huge in 2003, due for resurgence in Asia-aware 2005. Listen for an especially wild U.K. variant, Galang, by Sri Lanka-born M.I.A.

eai. The new-new-thing in jazz/improv -- "electro-acoustic improvisation" or "lowercase" or in Japan, onkyo, or "the New London Silence" or "Berlin reductionism." Usually quiet and still (but not always) coaxed from disassembled detritus of the digital era -- "empty sampler," turntables without vinyl, "no-input mixing board." Names: Kevin Drumm, Keith Rowe, Otomo Yoshihide. Boutique labels: Erstwhile, Grob, Hibari.

Emo. Boys whine about girls over slam-bamming punk guitars. Not advised for those over or under 16.

Grime. Fusion of U.K. dance with U.S. hip-hop, pirate-radio tracks like a dozen video-game soundtracks playing at once, crunkish yelling but in heavy London accents. Available in North America mostly via Dizzee Rascal albums but more diverse compilation, Run the Road, due in March.

Grindcore. A giddy extreme of blazing-speed metal crunch from bands such as Pig Destroyer and the Blood Brothers. Dare we say crunk metal?

Handclaps. Now a staple in every genre except Baroque organ.

Hyphy. San Francisco-area brand of crunk, boasting spontaneous street parties called "sideshows." One to watch: the Federation.

iPodspace. Critic Justin Davidson's label for where the music "happens" when you rock your earbuds -- a cyberspace built for one. Also: Podcasting, sending music and talk out to audio subscribers' iPods via the web, is the latest harbinger of doom for radio.

Kwaito. South African hip-hop, along with baile funk, dancehall, desi and other postcolonial urban frontier beats, proves "world music" is a tougher (and better) nut than Peter Gabriel ever cracked.

Laptop. Top DIY instrument; acoustic guitar of the mid-noughts.

Mash-Up. Two or more songs by disparate artists recombined into new ones using (usually) home-studio trickery. Trend has long since crested but gained publicity in 2004 due to The Grey Album, a middling mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles by Danger Mouse -- because doing anything with the Beatles gets noticed, at least by the courts. Genre slain, late 2004, by MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups, Vol I., Jay-Z and Linkin Park.

Mix Tapes. Now mixed CDs, still the method of choice for releasing hip-hop sounds to the streets; in 2004, fans often complained official albums (by Cam'ron, Kanye West, Ghostface) were weaker than the mix tapes put out to generate advance buzz.

Muzik Mafia. New blood in Nashville, Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson, bringing a New South cockiness that's part rock, part hip-hop and part proud hillbilly freak parade to the Red State country capital, a town at its best when it is its own alternative.

New John Peel, The. Everyone knows the late BBC announcer and Peel Sessions producer is irreplaceable, so they'll keep nominating replacements. (Think "New Dylan.")

Noise. As anti-musical music genre, goes back to 1913 Futurists, but lately a beloved element in a range of genres and even all by its ear-splitting self.

Northern Europe (New Britain, The). Mounting geyser of talent from Finland (Fonal records), Sweden, Norway (Annie-mal, and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra).

Paris (New Berlin, The). Canuck musicians have been pitching camp in Germany for years. Now, led by Leslie Feist and Buck 65, the compass needle swings back to the old-school expat magnet.

Psych-Folk. White-kid collectives in animal disguises, muse-maddened troubadours, narcissists and intrepid introspectionists, across the Western world -- sometimes it seems like a daring acid test, other times hippie redux. It ain't over till the fat lemur sings.

Reunions. Après les Pixies, le deluge: Unpopular-music legends Gang of Four, Slint, the Wedding Present, Van der Graaf Generator, Erasure, Kate Bush, Camper van Beethoven make comebacks in 2004-05. Holding out for Scritti Politti reunion.

Reggaeton. Puerto Rican dancehall/salsa/hip-hop hybrid watching from the wings.

Ringtone. Big new source of music-biz revenue - hit songs become boop-beep-bip rings you download to your cell phone. There's even a Billboard chart. (Snoop's Drop It Like It's Hot is this week's No. 1.) Do labels now assess potential singles on whether they'd sound good through a thumb-sized speaker at the bottom of your purse? And is that so bad?

Rockism. Delusion that all musicians are best measured as rugged individualists, as if all groups were the Rolling Stones (and as if the Stones didn't have producers and never played disco). Used to cudgel pop, dance, rap and other un-rock that doesn't romanticize "authenticity." Nearing extinction (thanks in part to a New York Times rhetorical-meteor strike this fall) but still distressingly hale.

Sizzurp. Cam'ron's cognac-based purple punch, mimicking cough syrup, outdoes Lil Jon's Crunk Juice in audacity and colour-saturated screwed-upness. Which also goes for their music.

Tsunami. Tasteless yet inevitable new band name of 2005.

The Letters U through Z. Totally out of fashion in 2005.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 08 at 3:10 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Great Hoser Music, Ancient to the Future!

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Scott Thomson.

In today's Globe, I've got a piece about members of the Toronto improv-music scene's new initiative, the Association of Improvising Musicians [of] Toronto, or AIMT, an outgrowth of the Leftover Daylight series (which is on tonight) and its Interface project. The organization is launched with a series of concerts next week.

Will we look back upon this as a turning point, when the city's own AACM or LMT - or at least its NOW/Coastal Jazz - got its start? Might it have the long-lasting effects of CCMC and the Music Gallery, and eventually lead to Toronto gaining its own version of the Casa del Popolo and Sala Rossa in Montreal? Just mebbe. I'm also interested in the educational role of the organization, in schools and in public - the AACM's outreach to urban youth could be a model; in the long run the improv scene in turn would gain, with a (needed) increase in cultural diversity.

What I like best about AIMT is its intention to be outward-looking in a city that is too often self-enclosed, which can sap the urgency and demandingness out of the art made here (improv music included). It's better when the stakes are high. AIMT member Rob Clutton has some interesting reflections on this syndrome within Canadian culture. What matters is to keep kicking at that can, eh? Get the inside story. [...]

Mavericks unite

By Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Friday, January 7, 2005

It's enough to summon up the bad old political joke: "Uh-oh, the anarchists are getting organized."

Improvisers are the libertine faction of the musical world, demolishing the familiar buttresses of time signatures, chords and melodies and daring to reinvent music itself on the spot. At first an outgrowth of the free-form jazz solo à la John Coltrane, in the past half-century improv has become its own global genre, boasting as many styles as there are musicians to play them, from screaming chaos to near-silence and from politicized earnestness to zany slapstick. It's difficult listening but, at its best, unrivalled in suspense and surprise.

Toronto improv has blossomed particularly in the past half-decade, with creators in their 20s and 30s running shows in bar backspaces and art galleries, and events such as the annual 416 Festival. Now, these mavericks are taking a different kind of risk: They're amalgamating in the Association of Improvising Musicians, Toronto (AIMT), a non-profit organization complete with a mission statement and board of directors.

AIMT is being launched with a series of fundraising concerts this coming week, showcasing more than two dozen musicians in the new generation of Toronto spontaneous-music makers the association is mandated to promote.

"There didn't seem to be many organizations doing what we've set out to do," says guitarist Ken Aldcroft, a founding board member of AIMT. "There are new-music organizations and a good infrastructure for straight-ahead jazz. The opera and the symphony have people who get money for them. We're trying to get a little piece of that pie to stimulate our scene."

Mostly excluded from mainstream clubs and festivals, the phases of improv in Toronto tend to be governed by series such as the defunct Ulterior and Rat-drifting nights, the sessions at the Idler Pub in the mid-1990s, and currently the Leftover Daylight series run by Aldcroft and fellow board member Joe Sorbara at Arraymusic in Liberty Village on alternate Fridays, tonight included. (The other room of choice these days is the Tranzac Club on Brunswick Avenue below Bloor Street, where, for example, drummer Jean Martin and vocalist Christine Duncan present the debut of their seven-piece Barnyard Drama Orchestra this evening.)

AIMT will create continuity between these series, whose survival often hangs on the tolerance and goodwill of landlords and bar managers.

It's far from unprecedented. The milestone in Toronto free-improv history was the founding of the radical performance group CCMC (slogan: "No Tunes Allowed"), which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2004 with a current membership of composer John Oswald, poet Paul Dutton and artists Michael Snow and Nobuo Kubota. In 1976, CCMC members took a pragmatic leap of their own and founded the Music Gallery, still (despite difficulty holding on to venues) the city's chief presenter of undomesticated sounds.

Yet changing fashions and fickle funders have pushed the Music Gallery away from jazz and improv, toward formal composition and, lately, experimental indie-pop. The younger crowd has a healthy relationship with its elders -- Joust, with Oswald on sax and AIMT board member Scott Thomson on trombone, plays the York University Art Gallery on Wednesday -- but past structures have sagged.

Internationally, too, collective organizations have played a vital role. Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (usually called the AACM) was founded amid the 1960s Black Power movement, incubated the Art Ensemble of Chicago and is still an important provider of youth education and artist development. The London Musicians' Collective (LMC) began in 1975 and currently sustains an annual festival, a magazine, year-round concerts and "the world's best radio station," ResonanceFM.

Canada's most successful take on that model directly inspired AIMT. Founded in 1977, the artist-run NOW Orchestra has set the course of Vancouver jazz so strongly that the city's biggest festival is packed with homegrown improvisers, who get to match wits with the best foreign talent. When NOW guitarist Ron Samworth visited Toronto as part of Leftover Daylight's Interface series in April, he encouraged players here to follow suit.

"I think the main goal is to interact with the world," says bassist Rob Clutton, the AIMT board member best established in the jazz, improv and even folk music communities of Toronto. (Percussionist Nick Fraser rounds out the board.) "This scene can seem kind of isolated. We want to raise awareness of what's going on outside here, and of what's going on here for the outside."

The first priority is to expand the Interface program, which brings high-profile improvisers from elsewhere to play with Torontonians, to spur artistic development and connections. AIMT also plans outreach programs in Toronto schools, as well as public workshops. Other goals (a new venue?) can wait. "Anybody who wants to be a member, is a member," says Clutton, but there are no general meetings -- which could cause tensions over representation, but does bar the sort of factional warfare that once hobbled the Marxist-leaning LMC.

On a deeper level, AIMT could help to dispel "the notion (or reality) that to exist as an improvising musician in Toronto is to be a dabbler, a hobbyist," Clutton says.

He cites E.K. Brown's classic 1943 essay "The Problem of a Canadian Literature," which said "a colony lacks the spiritual energy to rise above routine . . . because it does not adequately believe in itself. . . . A great art is fostered by artists and audience possessing in common a passionate and peculiar interest in the kind of life that exists in the [place] where they live."

Toronto still fails too often to muster that "passionate and peculiar interest." What to do? AIMT suggests we improvise.

The AIMT concerts are Jan. 13 at 319 Spadina Ave., and Jan. 14 and 15 at the Arraymusic studio, 60 Atlantic Ave. $15. For more details: AIMT.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 07 at 1:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

2004 In the Rear-View

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Zoilus' artists of the year: John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Nas, Joanna Newsom

From today's paper:

Music awards selected by an academy of one

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

The Globe & Mail
Saturday, Jan. 1, 2005

Is every year as uncertain as 2004 was? Is it always so hard to track which events matter, or identify what subject is on the table? Probably, but it was more palpable this year. Even in music, it seemed doubtful any sound would outlast its moment, as each week brought new thrills and abominations.

Music was more plentiful, polyglot and multivalent than ever; boundaries blurred between genres, and even between mainstream and margins. It wasn't a year of consolidation, but of intense, risky conversation.

As a side effect, year-end lists that try to rank Atlanta rappers against French chanteuses and Canadian indie-rock bands have never seemed so absurd. It's not apples and oranges but pineapples versus cough syrup. Most efforts stink of tokenism. In the digital era, a year is too slow to download; yet for posterity it's way too soon to know.

So instead of an overall list, welcome to the first annual Overtones Music Awards, in 22 categories, as selected by an academy of one. [...]

The New Year's Champagne Toast. Of course, I have favourites. Nothing captivated me quite like the Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed, an elliptical, six-string roman à clef about speed freaks, paranoia and incomplete redemption. John Darnielle's songwriting has grown out of willful classicism into a driving inevitability.

Runner-up: The most delightful surprise was The Milk-Eyed Mender by California's Joanna Newsom, whose exacting folk poetry and torrents of heavenly harp offered a far-sighted antidote to the sorts of compulsions Darnielle chronicled.

But if Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, were a song, it would trounce them all.

The Golden Pimp Cup. Other MCs grooved more, rocked harder or twisted their tongues into more ticklish contortions, but Nas's sprawling, uneven Street's Disciple reaffirmed his place as the most substantial voice in mainstream hip-hop, just when it needed him most. Meanwhile, Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album delivered the sonic knockout Nas sometimes flubbed.

The Keepin'-It-Surreal Gold Rope. From the fringe, British MC Dizzee Rascal on Showtime and U.S. duo Madvillian (MF Doom with Madlib) on Madvillainy worked musical miracles with sounds and syllables so improbable they might as well have been bedsprings and sausage.

The Escape-from-Rock-City Diamond Keychain. Destroyer, Your Blues: Vancouver's Dan Bejar relocated from the retro guitar theme park to a make-believe liberated Europe of penny-candy synthesizers, parade drums and erotic existentialism. His sometime collaborators Frog Eyes unplugged their merry-go-round rock for the shivery, claustrophobic Ego Scriptor.

The Boys-of-Melody Tiara. Pop-electronic hybrids are everywhere now, but on Hamilton, Ont., duo Junior Boys' debut album, Last Exit, the beats were complex enough for London and Berlin, the songs as swoony and unforgettable as a first kiss. Toronto's Hidden Cameras, meanwhile, created ever more perfectly perverse clap-along pop anthems; Mississauga Goddam earned its Nina Simone reference.

The Red-State-Feminist Blue Ribbon. And where were all the women? They certainly weren't made welcome in hip-hop. But they were busy revitalizing country music. Honky-tonk queen Loretta Lynn led with the generation-jumping Van Lear Rose, produced by the White Stripes' Jack White. And she found an heir in Gretchen Wilson, whose Here For the Party shook up country's past and future in tequila with a twist of lime. (Yellow ribbons: Allison Moorer, The Duel; Iris DeMent, LifeLine.)

The Outlaws' Black Hat. Meanwhile, the country boys' best came from far outside Nashville's limits, with the Drive-By Truckers' combustible The Dirty South (Southern rock meets gangsta) and Canadian Fred Eaglesmith's best disc in eons, Dusty, constructed of car parts, skating-rink organ and sorrow.

The Emotional-Daredevil Medallion. California's Xiu Xiu (Fabulous Muscles) shares it with Toronto's Les Mouches (You Mean More to Me than 1,000 Christians) -- feelings so raw, they're pornographic.

The Laminated Souvenir Postcard goes to Blocks Recording Club's Toronto Is Great!, whose all-day launch concert was the live event of my year, and Arthur magazine's definitive psych-folk anthology, The Golden Apples of the Sun, compiled by Devendra Banhart.

The Historical-Revisionist Platinum Platter. New York's 1980s genre-bender Arthur Russell found posthumous fame with the release of The World of Arthur Russell, as well as World of Echo and Calling Out of Context. Also: DNA on DNA; soul revelation Candi Staton.

The Geographical-Revisionist Golden Compass. Brazil went wild on Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats and the white-bread mecca revealed its R&B; past on Night Train to Nashville.

The Golden Globalism Award. Also from Brazil, Caetano Veloso killed America softly on A Foreign Sound. The internationalist mash-up massive convened on DJ/rupture's Special Gunpowder and DJ/rupture vs. Mutamassik.

The Jazz-and-Beyond Amber Spyglass. Big event: The Tzadik label's John Zorn 50th Birthday Celebration series marked an overdue retrospective. Andy Bey's American Song put other standards singers to shame. Plus: Peter Brotzmann/Joe McPhee/Kent Kessler/Michael Zerang, Tales Out of Time; John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost, Discrete Moments; David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters, Gwotet; Erik Friedlander, Maldoror.

The Hugh McIntyre Memorial Medal. In honour of the late bassist of London, Ont., chaos pioneers the Nihilist Spasm Band: Wolf Eyes' Burned Mind turned the kids on to good, wholesome, horrible noise.

The Golden Laptop for electronic soundscaping: The brutalist, Tim Hecker (Montreal), Mirages; the romantic, Christian Fennesz (Vienna), Venice.

Art-Punk-Reunion Cash Prize. Mission of Burma, ONoffON: Best reunion album ever? Frank Black Francis: Amid the Pixies-comeback hoopla, Charles Thompson challenges devotees with broad variations on his greatest non-hits.

Art-Punk Purple Heart. No reunions necessary -- they just never stopped: Amsterdam's the Ex, Turn; David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest.

The Ivory Lab Coat for Rock Reinvention. The Arcade Fire, Funeral. Oneida, Secret Wars. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat.

The Neglected-Poet Laurel. Sam Phillips, A Boot and A Shoe. Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather. Richard Buckner, Dents and Shells.

The Overlooked-Canadian Brass Tap. The world embraced many of our best, but missed Eric Chenaux and Michelle McAdorey's tangled and intimate Love Don't Change, and Black Ox Orkestar's bold Yiddish broadside, Ver Tantz?

The Most-Dissed Subtle Knife. Tom Waits, Real Gone: Rappers get to take rhythm to the limit. Why not an old master? Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music: Indie-rock fans mistake its gorgeous Nashville lushness for a punchline.

The Bronze Angels (Most Problematic). Brian Wilson, Smile: Is a re-enactment of a masterpiece also a masterpiece? Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill: Time heals, but like many of 2004's wounds, this one will take a while.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 01 at 5:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Scrooged Up

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Today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail: "God rest ye same old Christmas carols." [...]

God rest ye same old Christmas carols

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, December 18, 2004 - Page R4


In pre-Victorian England, Christmas caroling was regarded with alarm. Drunken wassailers staggered from door to door in high-class neighbourhoods and barked out tunes to shake down the toffs, demanding handouts before they'd move on.

In North America today, carols serve the same function, but with class positions reversed: Corporate barons use them to harangue the population to overextend its annual overconsumption binge, with the harassment duties delegated to the media.

All over the continent in recent years, radio stations have been switching over to all-holiday-music formats weeks and weeks ahead of Christmas. The trend really took off in the United States in 2001, for comfort after the shock of the terrorist attacks. When ratings soared, an industry fad became an instant tradition, with stations vying to become a market's "official holiday station" or "the preset station in Santa's sleigh" or whatever cutesy euphemism for Most Aggressive Seasonal Exploiter they could dream up in their mercenary little sugar-plum heads.

You might assume it's an American thing, like keeping a flag in the front yard. But it turns out that when it comes to Christmas, Canadians have a comparable thirst for treacle, so sleigh bells ring 24/7 from coast to coast. In the U.S., there is at least the established kickoff at Thanksgiving, though some stations have been pushing it back almost to Halloween. Canadian radio doesn't have any such excuse.

If you don't hear it on radio, you get sapped with a steel-toed stocking full of fa-la-la's if you go out shopping, since retail outlets also act as pushers of orchestrated cheer. In the U.S. this year, chains have gone so far as to hire techno and hip-hop DJs to remix Christmas chestnuts for a hipper, more spending-spurring amphetamine rush at shops such as Pottery Barn and Old Navy.

I am not trying to kick the crutches out from under Tiny Tim here. I am fond of Christmas. I feel a warm anticipation each year of sitting around the fireplace with my family drinking too much liqueur and exchanging gifts to, yes, a soundtrack of seasonal standards.

Yet oddly enough, we prefer to do it some time around Dec. 25. The new Christmasathon is like me showing up at my parents' door in late November, shouting, "Hey! Where's the turkey?" and refusing to leave. I find the manic hurry a nerve-wracking reminder of mortality, with time accelerating and hurtling us toward the grave at the speed of Santa's overnight circumnavigation of the globe. A whole month collapsed down to a single day -- why not just rename December "Christmas" and be done with it?

All-Christmas radio stations' ratings rise because some desperate souls whose lives offer too few tidings of comfort and joy park their dials there, and no one objects lest they be accused of hating children and cookies and love.

Commercial radio counts on the fact that most people don't especially care about music. It plays tunes large numbers will tolerate, rather than music you have to engage with. It turns out that many people tolerate White Christmas day in and day out more contentedly than other music. Only we eccentric few gnaw desperately at our knuckles and become cruel to our loved ones. So holiday music wins.

Yet it also loses. It loses its charge, its close tie to the occasion. If you drank eggnog every day for a month, by the time of that ritual Christmas Eve toast around the tree it would make your stomach churn.

As well, the industry chokes the ingenuity from holiday music. Musicians do their best to revitalize it: Each year brings soul, punk, bluegrass, jazz and other versions of the classics, original Christmas-in-prison country weepers, and archival finds such as the 1939 calypso tune Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning (on Dust-to-Digital records' terrific collection, Where Will You Be Christmas Day?).

But radio plays only the blandest. Aside from the latest Pop Idol covering Winter Wonderland, the freshest tune you'll likely hear on holiday radio now is the 2004 remake of the Live Aid single by the forgettable British pop stars of 1984, redone for the benefit of Sudan by the forgettable British pop stars of today. It's a masterpiece of Christmas hubris. By the missionary-minded chorus, "Feed the world/ Let them know it's Christmastime," I'm fantasizing about Arab musicians banding together to help downtrodden English dockworkers by recording the charity single, Do They Know It's Ramadan?

A similar embrace-and-conquer mentality surfaces in the self-consciously hip Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah album from the TV series The O.C. It extends the tendency to treat Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas, which would be very broadminded if it didn't contradict everything Hanukkah actually is.

The paradox is that I'd love it if radio really were much more seasonal and topical. Can we have work songs on weekdays, travelling music in summer, storm songs in the rain, political songs when there's an election on? No. Radio today is centrally programmed, timid and barely responsive to local developments, so cookie-cutter Christmas kitsch is all we get.

Earlier in December, Canadian radio stations could be delving into the nation's vast store of winter songs. Instead of the (shudder) Barenaked Ladies' Christmas disc, they could play recent tunes such as the beautiful Snow Falls in November by drowsy-voiced New Brunswick chanteuse Julie Doiron; the jagged Cold Hands by Toronto's hyperactive Creeping Nobodies; the old-time country ode Let's Fly South from Toronto string band the Backstabbers; the ice-storm themed Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) by Montreal 2004 breakout band the Arcade Fire; or the chilly electronics of Outdoor Silence by Tinkertoy.

For spirituality, they could look to Toronto singer-songwriter Kyp Harness's mystic balladry on The Miracle Business, or the gnosis-tinged Christianity of Royal City's Little Heart's Ease.

But right this minute they should be playing the crucial 1980s Montreal band, the Nils. Founder Alex Soria began playing gigs at 14 with older brother Carlos. Their songs helped shape Canadian indie music, and influenced U.S. postpunk groups such as Husker Du, as far distant as Minneapolis, despite drug problems and other ill winds that prevented their name becoming better known. Early Monday evening in his home town, Alex Soria reportedly was hit by a train and killed. He was 38.

So, Mr. or Ms. DJ, please, lay off the Nat King Cole for a few minutes and queue up River of Sadness by the Nils. The world spins on, and it's not all snowmen and gum drops, even at Christmastime.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 18 at 12:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Helter Stupid

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O what a tangled Web: In this week's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, a merry chase through a mad melange of digital music, intellectual property, mash-ups and U2-related corporations' proud 13-year (at least) tradition of acting like dipsticks.

Sorry for the later-than-usual weekend column post. There's snow, it's been icky, I went to the movies. You? [...]

Who says irony is dead? Apple, apparently

By CARL WILSON
Saturday, December 11, 2004
The Globe & Mail Page R4


In a splendiferous show of good corporate humour, the legal department of Apple pitched in on an artist's Internet prank this week, contributing the crowning touch to his satirical work about digital music and copyright issues.

Either that, or Apple proved it has absolutely no trace of a whit of a ghost of a hint of a sense of irony. Which way do you bet?

Here are the facts, Mac: Last month New York artist-programmer Francis Hwang bought an iPod, one of the shiny new cross-promotional, black-and-red "U2" editions of Apple's psychotically popular line of digital-music players and stocking stuffers. It came engraved with the Irish rock band's signatures and loaded up with the bestselling new album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Then Hwang loaded in seven additional albums, all by the California group Negativland, and craftily modified the packing box so it read "Unauthorized iPod U2 vs. Negativland Special Edition," bearing photos of both groups. On Nov. 30 he put the set up for sale on eBay, with a proper legal disclaimer. It got nine bids, peaking at $455 (U.S.), before eBay shut the auction down on Monday, citing a complaint from Apple about intellectual-property rights.

It was the perfect punchline to Hwang's elaborate inside joke. To get the humour, you needed to know that in 1991, U2's label - Island Records, now part of the Universal Music conglomerate - sued Negativland and its indie record label SST almost out of existence over a single called U2.

The track was a sound collage of, among other elements, U2's then-hit I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with behind-the-scenes tapes of disc jockey Casey Kasem of America's Top 40 sputtering obscenities after someone called in to dedicate the song to a dead dog named Snuggles. It was hysterically funny.

Equally hysterical but not so amusing was the litigious force the rock behemoths unleashed against this dire threat to U2's existence. Negativland had been juxtaposing comical fragments for years, partly to provoke critical media analysis, so it tried to use its own plight as a case study. (See the snazzy video documentary The Letter U and the Numeral 2, or the book Fair Use.) But its "culture jamming" was no match for mainstream culture's gnashing gears.

Thirteen years later, Universal executive Jimmy Iovine said in a press release, "U2 and Apple have a special relationship where they can start to redefine the music business. The iPod along with iTunes is the most complete thought that we've seen in music in a very long time." Knowing U2's secret history, Francis Hwang saw a way Iovine's grand thought could be even, well, completer.

"With the continuing legal battles over the sampling and copying of music," he wrote in the text accompanying the auction, "there has never been a better time for such a tribute to the impact of technology on the flow of culture."

Hwang's "artful mash-up of the forces of corporate megarock and obscure experimental music" nodded to Negativland's significant early defeat in those battles. It was a commemorative act, in a struggle over who owns cultural memory and has a right to build creatively upon it. On the Internet, collective memory tends to win. In American legislatures and courts, it usually loses. The public domain seems to shrink year by year.

This time, though, experts say the law is on Hwang's side. He was careful not to include the banned single on his iPod, though you can download it from Negativland's website. In a report in the on-line Wired news service, California lawyer Scott Hervey observed, "He's just reselling the box that the goods came in."

Have pity on poor, confused Apple. In a business so compulsively fixated on piracy that police raids have been ordered on small children and grandmothers, no wonder Apple forgot it's legal to resell an object you own. Even if you modify it. Apple, for instance, purchases metal, wire, plastic and programmers' ideas, "mashes them up," as the kids are calling it, and retails this remix as a "computer."

Don't get dizzy, but here's another twist: As quickly as Hwang's eBay fun was spoiled on Monday, U2's spree atop the pop charts was cut short. After only a week at No. 1, How to Dismantle. . . was knocked out by Jay-Z/Linkin Park's Collision Course, the first product of MTV's new Ultimate Mash-Ups series. Like Apple's iTunes downloading service, it's the legit rip-off of a black-market model.

On the dance floor or on the web, "mash-ups" are made by DJs or computer hackers, descendants of Negativland who splice disparate songs together into new patterns. Jay-Z's raps are a favourite ingredient: In fact, Downhill Battle, the anti-music-industry non-profit to which Hwang was planning to donate his eBay gains, made its reputation promulgating a DJ Danger Mouse mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album called the Grey Album in an Internet protest early this year.

Jay-Z is finally taking his revenge with Collision Course. Trouble is, while fanciful hackers match his vocal flow to unlikely music such as Queen, Pavement or the Bangles, Jay-Z himself settled for Linkin Park, a guitar band that gained fame by mixing the quicksilver verbal wit of hair metal with the complex melodic invention of gangsta rap. (In case anyone at Apple is reading, that was irony.)

I guess the new flavour here is to do the mash-ups live. But I've actually been running a club series myself all year in Toronto billed as a "live mash-up night," where musicians from clashing backgrounds converge. Think I should sue MTV? True, someone like Danger Mouse might sue me in turn, but then Negativland could sue Danger Mouse. . . . Justice at last!

Meanwhile, Jay-Z is safely lawyered up, about to become an executive at his label Def Jam. Which just so happens to be another subsidiary of U2's Island/Universal.

And there you have it, the fervid, paranoid entertainment world of 2004, an intellectual slave plantation where all ideas are property and all their owners also own each other.

It cries out for more debate. But, of course, if you repeat anything you read here to anybody, Snuggles, I'll see your ass in court.

Further reading/listening:
Francis Hwang.
Negativland.
The secret history of mash-ups.
The Grey Album, Grey Tuesday and Danger Mouse.
Downhill Battle.
Jay-Z becomes Def Jam president.
My series, Tin Tin Tin.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 12 at 3:15 PM | Linking Posts

 

Hugh By Nature: RIP, Hugh McIntyre (Nihilist Spasm Band)

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"After all, when you eliminate the scale, the key, the repertoire, the category... the traditional rules, and even the breaking of the rules, what is left? We can only rely on each other."

I know Zoilus has been seeming like a deathblog this week, but unfortunately I've received word of another passage that cannot go unmentioned.

Yesterday, Hugh McIntyre, the gentle-giant bass player of the nigh-on-mythic Nihilist Spasm Band, joined former bandmate Greg Curnoe in the realm beyond noise, in the soft perpetual No. Hugh, who died of congestive heart failure, surrounded by friends in London's Victoria Hospital, would have been 68, I think. Until recently he was still playing with the NSB, as the band's mantra has it, "every Monday night."

The NSB are arguably the founders and certainly among the longest-running projects ever in contemporary noise music, beginning in 1965. Hugh was the band's fulcrum, wielding his handmade three-and-a-half-string bass, giving rhythmic drive to its shrill anarchic whirl, and declaring where each "song" would start and stop. What will become of the NSB now is uncertain, though no one should underestimate the project's own stubborn, autonomic will to live.

Many people knew Hugh and the Spasm Band much better than I did - I met him for a few moments here and there and caught the band now and then. But the NSB's heirs are in the Japanese noise scene, such as Merzbow and Hijokaidan; their admirers in bands such as Sonic Youth: "All these people who sort of put themselves on stage and want to be super rock stars. ... There's no way they can ever attain the majesty that Hugh has on stage," said SY's Thurston Moore in 1999.

And then there's my friend Ben Portis, who for years ran the innovative No Music Festival in London, centred around the NSB. Between them, they brought me to a deep appreciation for what the NSB has achieved, in Canada and around the world, all the while opposing any notion of "achievement." And just what a model they are for a way of life. I have written a couple of pieces about them: One when No Music was held in New York in the aftermath, as it turned out, of Sept. 11, 2001; the other when the crosscurrents of Canadian art, music and noise were spotlighted at the last No Music festival and interrelated exhibitions in Toronto.

I encourage you to read them, but also I hope to get permission later today to post an email circulated by Tim Glasgow, a sound engineer, musician and close associate of the band (and of Sonic Youth), beautifully describing and paying tribute to Hugh's passing. Watch this space - it will give you a more direct sense of the man and his cantankerous but expansive, extraordinary character. A sad loss for Hugh's friends and collaborators, for Canadian culture and for music, art and noise lovers around the world. [...]

Anarchy in the U.S.
The Nihilist Spasm Band of London, Ont., tried out their legendary recipe for cacophony on New York, CARL WILSON writes

The Globe and Mail
16 October 2001

A giant, electrified "kazoo," with klaxon horns soldered on. A "violin" without strings. Club-like "drumsticks." Cooking pots, water pipes, thumb pianos, a bass "guitar" strung with half-lengths of piano wire.

Using such handmade implements, the half-dozen-plus non-musician musicians of the Nihilist Spasm Band have laid waste loudly to the pieties of placid Southern Ontario, every single Monday night in London, for 36 years.

Almost without their knowing it, it has made them living legends, the unholy godfathers of a worldwide underground of "noise" musicians -- audio artists, rock and jazz players and assorted sonic storm kings -- that stretches from Tokyo to Toronto to that other London, the one with the Queen. And on this past weekend, they congregated with those admirers at the avant-jazz Tonic nightclub in Manhattan, for a special New York edition of the No Music noise festival, which had a three-year run in their home town.

"New York is a proving ground," says festival curator Ben Portis, a thirtysomething London-born artist who has collaborated on No Music and other projects with the Spasm Band for the past several years. "If the NSB is to have an enduring legacy, it has to demonstrate that under scrutiny of demanding ears -- and challenge standards that unfortunately are all too usual in New York City. 'Free music' there is not as free as it could be."

An unusual situation for a collective whose history is defined by not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. "We are immune to fashion because we are self-motivated," says John Boyle, who plays drums, kazoo and other instruments in the band. "We depend on each other because, until recently, we were the only practitioners of our genre. The fun of creating is the payoff. It's still fun. As long as that is the case, we will continue, whether or not anyone is paying attention."

For a very long time, hardly anyone was. The Nihilist Spasm Band was founded in 1965 by Greg Curnoe, the well-known London visual artist, as a kazoo chorus to provide the soundtrack to an experimental film. In a burst of the harrowing kind of enthusiasm that characterizes them to this day, the little band of nonconformists decided to make noise-making an ongoing avocation. And so the regular Monday-night sessions began, in any London space that would have them, in front of friends or family or no one.

The NSB sound was inspired in part by the New Orleans "spasm bands" that made street-corner music on jerrybuilt instruments amid the ferment of early jazz, and by the dadaists and futurists of modernist art (besides Curnoe, drummer-"guitarist" Murray Favro and Boyle himself were all painters). They looked back to 1913, when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring enraged his audience, when Futurist Luigi Russolo published his Art of Noise manifesto in Italy, and Marcel Duchamp composed his first piece of music using games of chance.

But more important was the group's collective rejection of Canadian inferiority complexes, a determination to make something original, individual and local, not copycating any trends abroad. None of the members have any musical training, and they build their own instruments to specifications that render them physically incapable of playing something, like a scale or a chord, that would be dictated from outside.

Curnoe died in a bicycle accident in 1992, and so, as the band puts it, "plays less often" now. The other members have resisted the pressure of parenthood, day jobs and bouts of ill health to keep their tradition going, Monday after Monday. "There's an old joke," says "violinist" Art Pratten, a former newspaper press technician, "that you have to do more than die to get out of the Spasm Band."

Gradually, as the members retired from careers as librarians, doctors and teachers, they've been able to devote more time to a project they learned was not as obscure as they'd thought, and mix with people who had found their rare old records and considered them an inspiration alongside the likes of Duchamp or radical composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Among the highlights was a 1996 tour to record and perform in Japan, documented in Zev Asher's documentary about the NSB, What About Me?, which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. They have played to eager crowds in American cities such as New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago. They have collaborated -- as they did again this weekend -- with musicians like Sonic Youth guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, and they recently recorded an impressive double CD, No Borders, with eminent free-jazz saxophonist Joe McPhee.

And from such connections the No Music festival was born. "The band members discovered a sympathy and context with other musicians for the first time," says Portis. "The idea was to invite some of the NSB's new friends to their home turf. The festival, conceived as a one-off, was so successful in every respect that everyone wanted to do it again. And so it pushed ahead as an annual event."

The festival was based at London's Forest City Gallery, and its range is amply documented in several multi-CD sets recorded there, especially in the late-night "Interplay" jam sessions. But after three years, Portis says, "My sense was that the festival had exhausted its possibilities in London, as we were all fatigued and the audience had reached a plateau."

When the New York offer came last winter, Portis -- who has lived in New York state since 1997 -- jumped at it. "And it appealed to the Spasm Band because they have so much conviction in what they have been doing for the past 36 years. They have something to prove, and not much time left to prove it."

That's why, on the weekend, musicians such as Ranaldo, McPhee and Moore, the noise collective Borbetomagus, pianist Cooper-Moore as well as Toronto's long-running improvisational group CCMC (artist Michael Snow, sound poet Paul Dutton and composer John Oswald) were shaking Tonic's rafters. Sadly, the Japanese artists cancelled out in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing.

"The Japanese artists bring a different mindset to performance, more meditative and mindful of general spirit," says Portis. "This was the principal reason for their withdrawal -- a celebration of their art would be anathema at present."

One wonders if anyone else feels that way. Is a festival of chaotic noise, usually considered confrontational and abrasive, what New Yorkers need to hear right now?

"This is very constructive music," he says, "with an expertise in rubble, piecing together shattered musical bits, already in a state of crisis. I expect it will be effective, inclusive and attuned to what people are feeling. . . . From the outset, the Nihilist Spasm Band always mirrored geopolitical folly in personal foible -- they are more relevant than ever."

The New York festival is likely a one-time event. Boyle says he likes "the guerrilla format of reappearing in a different location each year, if that's possible. It would parallel the Internet-related internationalism of the phenomenon." And, of course, even if the festival dies, the Spasm Band won't be affected.

"The band will go on until there is no one left to play," says Pratten. "Every Monday night."

* * *

Music, visual art and the shrieks that bind them

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Sept 25, 2003

Music and visual art are estranged siblings, each wanting what the other one's got enough to stir lifelong resentment. They stirred first in the same cave, we assume, one daubing blood and fruit juice up on the stone and the other picking up a couple of rocks and knocking them to a beat; and they both eventually got sent to the same schools, groomed and jargoned up to the eyeballs and earholes into respectability.

But when they each hit that awkward 20th-century rebellious stage, music went mostly one way -- out of the concert hall and into the nightclub -- and art mostly the other -- deeper into museums and universities.

Art had mostly resolved that low culture could be absorbed into the higher spheres (once properly deconstructed), and music had mostly decided that even the most arcane theoretics could be applied to dance hits (given a snappy genre nickname).

Music is the gregarious party animal, art the wallflower with the better-appointed apartment. Not that some of music's friends aren't agoraphobes and that artists never break plates over their patrons' heads, but the general rule has reasons enough.

One of the most powerful is that visual art usually involves a singular object you stare at in studious contemplation, while even the most outlandish, room-clearing musical abomination is readily reproduced on a mass scale, and can be heard by hundreds at once, many of them inclined to bump or slam or headbang against each other.

Those facts have outmanoeuvred the contrary inclinations of pop-loving artists and obscurantist musicians again and again. Can't help the way you came out, kid. You're just big-boned.

But there are black sheep, and you can find a whole flock in the Soundtracks art exhibit touring Canada (and opening bit by bit this month in seven different Toronto galleries) and at the No Music festival tonight through Saturday at the Forest City Gallery in London, Ont.

In Soundtracks, for instance, you'll discover that such grey or late eminences of Canadian art as Michael Snow and Greg Curnoe devoted themselves for decades to making unruly music as well. For both -- pianist Snow with the Artists' Jazz Band in the 1960s and CCMC from the 1970s to today, and drummer Curnoe with London's Nihilist Spasm Band from 1965 to his death in 1992 -- music could be a communal and political balance to the solitude of painting, sculpture, writing and (in Snow's case) experimental filmmaking.

At No Music, you'd find that the Spasm Band carries on with its weekly sessions of painter John Boyle blowing kazoos into car horns and Murray Favo and Art Pratten playing their hulking sculptural guitars and mutant violins, and retired high-school teacher Bill Exley still bellows his nonsense poems, as they have every Monday night since the mid-1960s.

Around them, from as far away as Seattle and Japan, is gathered an admiring horde of chaos-music-come-latelys who regard these paunchy retirees as founders of the Noise revolution. And a curiously high number of visual artists are among those anarchic faithful.

The festival, now in its fifth and likely final year, is organized by Spasm Band friend and fan Ben Portis, a contemporary-art curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario (and a co-curator of Soundtracks) and among the performers this weekend are not only Michael Snow and his frequent crony in art and noise Nobuo Kubota (architect, sound poet, founder of the Artists' Jazz Band) but American artists Gary Hill and Paul McCarthy as well.

The former is one of the most prominent video-installation creators on the planet, the latter a notorious art-world provocateur: You currently have to pass through the crotch of McCarthy's giant, inflatable black-rubber sculpture Blockhead (modelled partly on Popeye and partly on Pinocchio) to enter the Tate Modern in that other London.

Hill has appeared at No Music before, juggling sound the way he does in his video soundtracks. McCarthy, however, is a coup.

Best known for enactments in which beloved characters such as Santa Claus or Heidi are caught in flagrante delicto and smear themselves with ketchup and mayonnaise in lieu of excreta on the ruins of sets of Gunsmoke or A Family Affair, McCarthy's actually been a noisemaker for years, but he seldom airs his screeching, burping and squealing outside the Los Angeles scene.

It's tempting to think the festival's eponymous directive -- No Music -- is the passkey, that in a margin from which tempo, melody, harmony, every trace of song is banished, there's enough disdain for the commoner to make the art denizens comfy.

A glance at the rest of the Soundtracks roster says otherwise. The folk-music kitsch the Group of Seven embraced, as documented at the McMichael Gallery, and the affectionately snooty pastiches in most of the installations to be shown at the Power Plant and elsewhere show how the art mainstream gets more het up about shoplifting pop iconography and sentiment for art's arch ends.

But noise had its beginnings in the Futurist manifestos and Dada happenings of the teens and twenties. It was incestuous crossbreeding. The artists can't help checking on how the grandkids are doing, and what they find -- for instance in the squall of Japan's extraordinary Incapacitants and Hijokaidan, both flying in for No Music this year, or in Michigan's Wolf Eyes and Brooklyn's Black Dice (who run with the indie-rock kids) -- looks strangely familiar.

While structured music casts its lot with storytelling, comedy and romance, noise is more apt to achieve the perceptual warp: The Incapacitants' storm of dentist-drill shrieks and car-crash wreckage is overwhelming enough that the senses bend and tangle. You begin to see sound paint the air in slashing strokes. It is visual, aural, practically surgical, and can be as lonesome as hearing a chant from the depths of Rothko's reds. As lonesome as a family reunion.

Read More | News | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 07 at 1:45 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Apparitions and Vanishments

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Video killed the radio star. Now, it seems, video is feeling remorseful about it and has come back to make amends. The phenomenology of the music DVD is today's topic in Overtones, under a headline the editors apparently chose out of a deep unconscious desire to see me strung up by gangs of Zeppelin fans from the lampposts at dawn. [...]

Why concert DVDs like Zeppelin are just wrong

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

Saturday, December 4, 2004
The Globe & Mail

A crowd of people floats in a field of white, staring out at you. By twos and threes, in overlapping waves, they fade slowly in and out of sight, clothing materializing on nude bodies, an old man evaporating into a little girl, ghostly specimens of a mute race of spectators, sole witnesses to their own disappearance.

That is Arc of Apparition, a recent DVD by Canadian musician-composer John Oswald. Ignore the soundtrack, a multilingual collage of whispers on a separate CD - the way the bodies, faces and colours emerge and dissipate is music enough, a chorale of fog and cloud. Silence seems its natural habitat.

Oswald's piece may be the only recent meeting of musician and DVD you could call quiet. The industry fanfare has crescendoed into a hallelujah chorus, as the DVD nearly reverses the decline of global music sales. The take on music videos rose 27 per cent in the first half of this year over 2003, when it was 67 per cent higher than in 2002.

I've resisted thinking about DVDs, given how gadget talk has colonized leisure: The ages of swing, rock, soul, punk and rap somehow led into the eras of the CD, Napster, iPod and ringtone. But going from audio to video is more than a gizmo transplant. It's a realignment of the senses, with eyes eclipsing ears.

If it mostly sells video, is it still the "music" industry?

The DVD boom is partly collector-mania - once they've sold everybody all the Beatles stuff over again, the bubble may pop. You don't play DVDs while doing dishes or (I hope) driving. Concert DVDs, such as last year's Zeppelin, are the most popular and most wrong - trading the outsized spectacle and audience camaraderie for close-ups of old rockers doing their "guitar face." Video reduces idols to bad actors.

Still, for those too young, old, poor or isolated to attend concerts, it's a step. At least, unlike download-and-delete MP3s, DVDs request your time and attention.

Indeed, for music lovers, this is one ginormous geekfest. Just as CDs ushered in a reissue frenzy, and downloaders treasure rare tracks, DVD dredges up a bonanza of obscure documentaries, interviews, TV spots and concert films: Want to see the infancies of post-punk units Wire, the Fall, the Birthday Party (with Nick Cave), Galaxie 500 or the Young Marble Giants? They're out there. Plus all the extras: To hear Public Enemy's Chuck D. comment on the 1972 "black Woodstock," you need the new Wattstax DVD.

Jazz and other improvised musics should benefit - audio alone seldom transmits their true jolt. Despite its self-conscious direction, for instance, the performances on a recent disc about improv giant John Zorn unleash such inventive force you could forget to breathe.

DVDs provide pop musicology: Calexico's live disc, for example, includes a short film on one of the Arizona band's major influences, mariachi. Along with the Internet, DVDs are turning every listener into an armchair historian, making music journalism almost redundant.

This summer, Toronto indie fan Randy Chase put out a "DVD zine," Electrical Tape, with ingenious featurettes on local artists such as Les Mouches, the Creeping Nobodies and Ratsicule. Smart interviews and live footage open up this next-door alternate universe in a way print could never match. Every town should have its own Electrical Tape.

Yet the medium also can transport you to music scenes far off in miles or years: Glimpse the late African legend Fela Kuti in concert; meet Cuba's Company Segundo; or encounter Atlanta's druggy drag-queen answer to Tom Waits and Patti Smith, who died of AIDS a half-decade ago, on a lovely DVD called Benjamin Smoke.

That film is part of the burgeoning subset of DVDs devoted to musical outsiders - the Residents, the staunchly anonymous San Francisco art-rock clan who pioneered music video (their 1980 Commercial Album has now mutated into a DVD); loincloth-clad street busker Thoth; never-was disco-punk prodigy Gary Wilson; the odd souls who sent their messed-up verse to a post-office box to be turned into "song-poems," as told in Off the Charts; and so on and on.

Why? Video, unlike music, is largely a narrative form, and weirdoes make better stories than stars: All successes are alike, but every failure fails in his or her own way.

As well, too many DVDs market themselves as a "backstage pass" for "all access" to, say, Jay-Z, or to see the Who "live." They hype the artist's presence, but can deliver only image, because mass-market art isn't about presence. It's about absence. The maker is missing, a gap, an other, a lover the fan surmises into existence. Recorded music is an ideal case, a disembodied sound saturated with information but holding even more back. The camera risks flattening that effect into banality. But these eccentrics contain such a surfeit of mystery that scrutiny doesn't drain it away.

The farthest of the far-out may be Jandek, a pseudonymous Texan musician, subject of the new DVD, Jandek on Corwood. Jandek is all absence: Since 1978, he's put out 37 albums of unpleasant moaning and tuneless guitars on his Corwood Industries label. No one quite knows who he is. With hen's-teeth-rare exceptions, he does not play live or do media: He is all ears and no eyes. He inspires endless speculation in his tiny band of devotees: Is he a sociopath? A millionaire?

Missouri filmmakers Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler shot 24 Jandek cultists, but never the man himself. He is represented by an unmade bed, a shrouded moon, a leaf-bare tree. He does send them a note: "You may not get all the answers you want. It's better that way."

Exactly. With his blasted-heath persona and opaque art, Jandek has made himself the blankest of screens for our fantasies, fears and desires - the ultimate rock star, so pure he is no star at all, fading in and out of sight like a dream, like the figures in John Oswald's video. As Jandek sings in The Place: "We all appear and then dissolve,/ Like an image presentation./ An annoying, glancing, piercing eye,/ And solitude that just won't quit."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 04 at 4:10 PM | Linking Posts

 

Notes on Hip (II)

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Some points that didn't get made in the mad whirl of this weekend's column: As I said, in John Leland's Hip: The History, a sound analysis of the wend and way of "hip" through the past few centuries comes to a fishtailing anticlimax when he hits the slippery turf of the present day. Seems as though Leland is at his best filtering through the received wisdom, and has trouble with material that's not old enough to come predigested.

So he lopes through obvious observations of the ubiquity of the signifiers of the old hip - delayed marriage, loosened social ties, sexual openness, etc etc. - especially in "rebel sell" advertising. Yet of course what was hip in the past nearly always becomes the appropriated common coin in the marketplace of the next generation - that cycle has been fairly consistent for a century. He also notes that the "white nigger" status past white hipsters vied for is now a suburban trope, the "wigger," equal parts minstrelsy and actual racial realignment.

But he snoozes on the globalization of hip that's being brought about by a couple of forces - first the huge access to cultural information that the Internet allows, and second actual economic globalization, which is accelerating change, creating a global elite and a global ghetto, those populations repeating the urbanization patterns that western people went through in the 20th century but at hyperspeed and a previously unimagined scale, which is hot with its own cultural piracies and fusions. (See previous posts on "shanty house" and like noize.) I think "hip" is going to have more and more to do with being jacked into that stream of invention and evasion - and to the extent that "hip" is an interesting category at all (and I agree with Leland that, considered as the channel between mainstream and margin, the productive mistranslation of symbol and sound between the two, it's really interesting), what's hip in the next half-century will pose a real challenge to the smug alterna-whateverism of the North American indie-activist-small-press-etc-etc hipster that's thrived the past quarter-century. (Edited to add: Aaron's observation that crunk and the Nashville Muzik Mafia both hail from "red states" touches the same moving target.)

So here's the hip replacement: Leland shoulda called his last chapter "When Hips Collide," (referring both to the aforementioned clash and to doin' the bump, which is eternally hip), rather than dwelling on trucker caps and other stupid ephemera. In fact, speaking of trucker-hat planet, Leland might even have mentioned Vice magazine's ongoing, infuriating campaign to make open racism and sexism "hip" again - from a global ghetto perspective, perhaps that will prove sadly prescient.

Given Leland was a hip-hop journalist for years, you'd expect him to do better on these subjects. Then again, he's also a former editor of Details; from that p.o.v., the book's a helluva lot sharper than you'd expect.

Further listening: The new Afrika Bambaataa disc shows him still rockin' the world party with sounds from all over you cannot help but bump to. He's a million in hip-hop years but he sounds younger than all the bucks. And Peter Margasak (veteran crit from the Chicago Reader) has a new all-terrain-vehicle, a blog called Worldly Disorientation that's proving to be a good road guide to the whomp of the global ghetto, as well as the world's politer and less perilous precincts.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 30 at 1:24 AM | Linking Posts

 

Notes on Hip (I)

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What's up, docs and dockettes? Today's column, hot off the grill. I know this one's kinda loony tunes (Mrs. Zoilus tells me it helps to read it twice, but who reads an article twice?). Clarifying footnotes to follow.

* * *

HIP AND SUAVE AND BADDER THAN BAD

The men of the Handsome Boy Modeling School seldom make whiteness an explicit subject. You have to read between the tracks

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
Saturday, Nov 27, 2004
The Globe & Mail

Bugs Bunny zooms over to the Handsome Boy Modeling School in his stretch SUV, Elmer Fudd's limo zigzagging behind in hot pursuit. (Old habits, like old rabbits, die hard.) Soon Bugs is reclining on a salon chair in a silk robe, waggling a carrot like Groucho's cigar and yammering orders for a proper "ear grooming."

"I know I said 'asymmetrical,' doc, but watch dem clippers! And d'you mugs have any fleur de sel for dis here cancer stick, or do I have to burrow all da way back to Cannes?"

Bugs was having his carotene-saturated blood changed in Switzerland before Keith Richards was a glimmer in Muddy Waters's eye, but lately he's been taking it easy. He does cameos, but mostly concentrates on charity work -- research to cure cliff plummet, rifle-knot backfire, anvil-related indentation and other ills inflicted in his wild days. He's giving some back.

"My apologies, sir," his stylist pipes up. "But to tint the highlights, I need to know, um: Are you black or are you white?"

"Well, back in the day . . ." Bugs begins, then shrugs. "Eh! You know. Not as white as the Mouse, not yet. Mebbe as white as you are."

"Pardon, sir, but I'm not -- "

"You hoid me, doc. Now make wit' dat hare dye."

Bugs won't be fenced in, not since he read New York Times reporter John Leland's new book Hip: The History, in which Bugs features as America's Most Animated. Leland's survey ranges from Walt Whitman to DJ Spooky, but for one chapter (called "Hip Has Three Fingers"), he lingers over the streetwise ways of jazz-age cartoons. Bugs, he writes, "navigated the gulfs between high culture and low, male and female, power and sass." Not to mention straight and gay and, of course, black and white.

The book's sustaining insight is that hip is a pure gone-crazy product of America -- Euro-America and Afro-America forever stalking and outfoxing each other, the nation's sick compulsion, and mother of all its invention.

The term goes back further than Bugs guessed: Hip dates to the 1700s, imported by slaves as hepi, "to see," and hipi, "to open one's eyes," in the Wolof tongue of coastal Gambia. Similar passages brought in cool, dig, jive and honky: From slave lore on to blues, jazz, rock and beat poetry, hip has been the inside language of outsiders, the lexicon of camouflage and parody, a concealment that reveals.

What Bugs digs most is his depiction as a modernist trickster, in the line of jesters and "wascals" going back to the African hare deity who quick-changed into America's Br'er Rabbit. A society invents tricksters to undermine its own rules, so it can move on, says Leland, bringing up Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Richard Pryor.

And now there's hip-hop, with its roots in the rhyming-insult showdowns known as "signifying," after a trickster type called the Signifying Monkey. No wonder Eminem's 8 Mile character was named Rabbit, Bugs thinks. ("Note to self: Could I mebbe make a buck off that?")

But Eminem also marks the spot where Leland's engine runs off its rails: the present. He suggests multiculturalism has demoted whiteness to just another self-aware ethnic performance, a kind of "whiteface." (Besides Slim Shady, trucker hats come up a lot.) But if white hipsters are post-white, does that make hip blacks post-black? Bugs freestyles his critique: "That tar baby's stickier than taffy/ So this guy ducks the issue like Daffy." It's as if Leland just gave up and went for the happy, rainbow-coloured ending.

For 21st-century Hip Studies, ambi-racial Bugs much prefers the approach here at Handsome Boy Modeling School. The proprietors are hip-hop trickster-producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator -- albeit, in false moustaches, as Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather.

Their hallmarks were set in 1999 with the cult album, So . . . How's Your Girl? -- goofy sketches, scrunchy sound collages and guest stars galore. They impersonate suave clotheshorses, but "handsome" here is code for a rereading of hip. As the booklet in their new disc says, "It's a handsome thing, you wouldn't understand" -- a zinger even more pungent when paired with the album's title: White People.

It's full of pink-complexioned guests such as Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle), Cat Power, Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park), Jack Johnson and even John Oates (as in "Hall and"), plus a few Saturday Night Live has-been comics. Whiteness is seldom an explicit subject (save in the sly Julee Cruise-Pharrell Williams duet, Class System), but the question hangs flapping on the line between the tracks.

In the video for the album's classic-sounding lead single, World Gone Mad, rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien's brown face breaks up through the surface in a box full of white Styrofoam packing peanuts. Jamaican singer Barrington Levy croons a heavenly hook, and Del drawls, "The situation's bad, not meanin' good," reversing Run-DMC's milestone 1986 hip-hop chant, "Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good."

"Heeeyyy," Bugs breaks in. "Leland says 'Bad meaning good' goes back to slave plantations, too: Say you said a runaway slave was good, that was trouble. But if you said he was bad, who could prove you meant good?"

So what's up with Del? "Ehh, maybe he had enough doubletalk."

Consider last week's demise of a classic hipster, Ol' Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan. He lived the off-kilter addict's life, transfigured it into his wild performances, and what does he get? Just an inadvertent audio obit in the illicit, Queen-meets-hip-hop mash-up that's all over the Web these days, A Night at the Hip-Hopera: It has ODB rhyming over the riff to Another One Bites the Dust.

By giving gorgeous, funky makeovers to cheese-rockers, yet playing their own shtick for anything but cool, it's as if Handsome Boy shuffles hip's racial deck: "This century, how about you come up with raw material and we do the appropriating?"

"Yep, that's the ticket, doc," says Bugs, shaking out his coiffed head and chomping down on his carrot. "I figgered that out a loooooong time ago."

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 27 at 2:13 AM | Linking Posts

 

Horrified Observations of Horrified Observers

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Have you heard about this group Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment, who are giving people (mostly) old rock albums if they get rid of their Ashlee Simpson discs? In this week's Overtones, such forces of smug condescension meet the spirit of idiosyncratic eclecticism .... and the wrong side dies. Witness the showdown.

Who are they to say that Britney's trash?

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

The Globe & Mail
Sat. Nov. 20, 2004

This week only, The Globe and Mail offers a reprieve to the good people who have been duped into buying "classic" rock: Turn in your substandard albums by U2, Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead and we will supply superior CDs by Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears.

If this deal sounds ridiculous, it should, since I by no means intend to honour it: Who am I to tell you what's substandard or superior? And what would I want with your stupid Led Zeppelin albums?

Yet if I made the exact opposite appeal, as a coalition of cultural smugs in L.A. and New York did this week, it seems I'd get a tastemaker's bouquet.

A group called Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment (HOPE) has garnered ovations from Rolling Stone to the BBC for offering to exchange any CD by lip-synch-scandal singer Ashlee Simpson for "one of a higher entertainment quality." Egged on, they expanded the trade to Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Linkin Park and "any boy band."

HOPE admits lip-synching is a red herring: It's been all over music for decades, mostly to permit acrobatic concert choreography. Their beef is "low quality." Measured with their own Qualitometer.

The daring crew's proposed substitutes are safe, canonized 1960s and 1970s rock and soul stars. The few fresher offerings include Neil Hamburger, a standup comic whose shtick is that he's not funny - oh, I bet Britney fans are going to like that tons more than dancing to the percolated beat of her hit Toxic.

When HOPE first began punking celebrity culture, it targeted Paris Hilton, who is renowned due to what Daddy rakes in and a talent on view only in a fuzzy clandestine video. HOPE picketed her "book" signing with placards: "Why are you famous?" and "I'd rather watch a Stephen King porn than read a Paris Hilton book."

That protest seemed like a clever attack on the wealth-worshipping cult. This one is just a bunch of stiffs looking down on other people's ideas of fun, specifically HOPE's "entertainment and media professionals, students, journalists and citizens" (read: insular honkies pushing 30) sneering at the pleasures of teenaged girls: Shut up, little fillies, making us antsy with your semi-orgasmic squeals. Sit down and nod along to old hippies. For four hours. I said shut up.

Another group, called You Have Bad Taste in Music, is more direct: They attend pop concerts in army helmets and shout abusive slogans through bullhorns at the crowd in the parking lot. It's much like the Bush regime's foreign-outreach program, You Have Bad Taste in Religions and Political Systems.

I dislike some of the music on these groups' hit lists, too, just not on principle. Some is gaudy, body-wriggling pop joy; some ain't. But their stunts are only smarmy genteel sequels to Disco Demolition Day in July, 1979, when a mountain of disco records got torched at a Chicago baseball game and the smoke cut short a double-header.

Disco was indeed oversold then, as teen-pop is now. But the vitriol is never so caustic when we're flooded with weak rock. The backlash always seems the worst when the top tunes are being made for black people, girl people and gay people: "Disco sucks, dude."

That 1979 campaign forever smeared one of the most technically, rhythmically inventive genres in pop. Lingering discophobia was one reason that techno, house, jungle and other 1990s innovations never broke big in North America. Likewise, today's rockin' reactionaries are missing out on the producers who fill the best bubble-gum chews with startling flavours of dissonance, sliding slantwise beats and psychotic sonic comedy.

All us would-be snobs could take a lesson from a recently rediscovered patron saint of the open ear: Arthur Russell was a classically trained cellist, rock and folk fan and composer from the cornfields of Iowa who spent much of the seventies studying Indian ragas, befriending Allen Ginsberg, curating performance art and nearly joining the Talking Heads. But as a young gay man in New York in the mid-seventies, one night he inevitably ended up at a disco.

Beyond the throbbing sexuality, Russell heard a universe in the reverberating drums, ululating divas and hand-claps of the anthems at Paradise Garage and Studio 54.

Soon he was collaborating with disco producers to mix his own silky, drifting compositions into big-beat banquets such as Dinosaur L's Go Bang and Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face, underground classics at last available on 2004's The World of Arthur Russell. Now they'd call it "Intelligent Dance Music," but Russell would snap back that dancing was always pretty smart.

He also crossed over the other way, smuggling disco's looping hooks into his minimalist experiments, speak-singing along with his wired-up cello in a way, as his friend Philip Glass said, nobody's done before or since. He said he was after "Buddhist bubble-gum," a goal best realized in the vast oceanic flutter and cerebral lullabies of 1986's World of Echo, finally out on CD this month (with a haunting DVD). Pop variations occupy a less-consistent archival disc, Calling Out of Context.

Russell was sadly forgotten by the time he died of AIDS in 1992; the loss is just being recognized. Yet he was also a maddening tinkerer, forever revising his music and leaving it incomplete. What remains is like a torn notebook of half-remembered dreams of steamy dance clubs and cloud-covered aeries. The wending melodies suggest someone blithely tossing away his heart's desire, and then at the last second stretching out, diving to rescue it.

Russell's story cautions against ever presuming to know what history will consider trash. And that gives me hope against HOPE.

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 20 at 1:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Everybody in da Shanty House

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Today's Overtones column is a whiplash tour of recent Brazilian sounds from Caetano Veloso, Arto Lindsay (with a detour into DNA) and baile funk. I'm indebted to Matt Woebot and his idea of Rio funk as "shanty house" and "post-world-music," quoted at length toward the end. The girl from Ipanema comes in for some sassin'. Read it now ...

Getting back at phony Braziliana

By CARL WILSON
Saturday, Nov 13, 2004

If you're making a trashy art-house movie, an easy way to signal which sultry damsel will become the obscure object of desire is always to strike up a little bossa nova when she saunters into frame - ideally Astrud Gilberto singing Girl from Ipanema.

Sure, it reduces Brazil's vast musical vocabulary to one suggestive swish, but that's the kind of shorthand Western pop culture loves to make out of "world music" -- an African choir for pious Third World suffering, the twang of a sitar for heading into the mystic, whole societies ground down to grains of spice.

As technology compresses geography, though, increasingly both sides can play that game. Since American dominance comes with ever-higher stakes, the rest of the world is hijacking ideas with a fervour.

The process comes under scrutiny on the latest album from Caetano Veloso, a giant from the bossa-nova era through his leadership in the sixties upheavals of tropicalia (when rock-influenced innovators were jailed or exiled for offending the military government) to today, when populist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's reform agenda is stymied by foreign debt and internal division. A Foreign Sound is Veloso's first album entirely in English, at once a tribute to and an interrogation of American popular music.

The album begins with Carioca, a piece of phony 1930s Braziliana concocted for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Flying Down to Rio, for which the stars never even flew down to Rio. Veloso performs a similar search-and-rescue mission on kitschy old Feelings - originally written by a Brazilian (Morris Albert) passing himself off as an American in Paris.

And he gets his revenge for decades of being called "the Brazilian Bob Dylan" with a rattlingly syncopated cover of It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) that makes Dylan seem merely the American Caetano Veloso: "Even the president of the United States," he sings with a wink, "sometimes must have to stand naked."

The disc's title is lifted from a line in that song: "So don't fear, if you hear/ A foreign sound in your ear." Veloso's gambit here is to remind Western listeners that, to most of the globe's population, Hollywood movies are foreign films and English is a foreign language.

His point is not to vilify English. Many of these are songs he loves. As Veloso told Parisian newspaper Le Monde, "I don't have a simplistic vision of imperialism: Tropicalia aimed to take account of the complexity of things. But, against the logic of winners and losers, dear to American puritans, my preference is to present original human experience."

In another interview, he cautioned: "If one thinks that he can mix anything with anything, he's in danger of getting lost. But nowadays you can't really avoid facing it. Even if you just concentrate yourself in a national, closed, stylistic world, you're just responding to the necessity of recognizing mixtures and the dialogues of styles and cultures. It is the era of comparison, that you can put things side by side and suggest surprising comparisons that will change your way of thinking and feeling."

One of the most surprising dialogues comes with his cover of Detached by the obscure New York "no wave" noise-rock band DNA. From the original's snarl of electric guitar, one-finger bass and yelps, Veloso produces an orchestral arrangement that sounds like an atonal composition by Edgar Varese or Alban Berg.

The twist is that the singer and guitarist of DNA was Veloso's American friend Arto Lindsay, who grew up partly in Brazil as the son of missionary parents. After a brief, firefly flash of notoriety on the early-1980s downtown-Manhattan art scene - available for the first time in its full kinetic glory on a new CD, DNA on DNA - Lindsay followed an artistic path that led him back to Brazil on a sort of quest of personal decolonization.

Since the mid-1990s, he's released a series of superb discs sung in English and Portuguese to a sinewy sine wave of electrified samba, with lyrics of metaphysical, erotic abstraction and a backbeat borrowed from hip-hop and funk, with DNA's spasms of white noise reduced to an occasional accent. He's also become a producer in Brazil, and (along with fellow former art-rock geek, David Byrne) an envoy to northern audiences for many of the country's greatest talents. Yet Veloso cheekily reminds his friend of his least-Brazilian phase.

Meanwhile, on Lindsay's latest album, Salt, I detect a bit of the metallic clatter and streetwise stamp of Brazil's latest wave of stylistic mutation, hailing from the hillside shantytown slums in the north of Rio, the favelas. The latest, rawest example of Brazil getting its own back from American pop culture is favela dance music, known to music mavens by monikers such as carioca funk and funky do morro ("hill funk"). In its native land it's just plain "funk," but it doesn't sound much like the genre an American would identify - it's funk as in sweat, not style.

The current popular phrase is "Rio baile funk," after a new compilation of "favela booty beats" assembled by German music critic and DJ Daniel Haaksman, one of the hottest musical fetish objects of this fall. It offers a taste of the sound heard at the all-night parties or bailes attended by hundreds of thousands of people every weekend in Rio since the 1970s.

These bailes are subject to gang violence, police raids and the kind of middle-class dread that generates urban legends (often reported as fact in the Rio press) of copulating conga lines and underage orgies. Yet it's worth remembering that samba itself, now considered the apex of Brazilian sophistication, was born in the favelas of the previous century and got exactly the same sort of official contempt and harassment.

For years, baile DJs played mostly American soul music, but in the late 1980s, one DJ Marlboro is credited with having introduced Rio to Miami bass - the rump-shaking electro sound of 2 Live Crew and other salacious Florida party bands. What sounded good banging out of the tricked-up car stereos of teens cruising the strip in Miami was even better from the mammoth speaker systems that are the pride of the bailes. Before long, partygoers were adding shouted rap to the beats in Portuguese, along with technically crude samples of samba and other pop hits, accordion, sirens and car horns.

The Miami sound was swiftly eclipsed in American hip-hop, so that over the next decade baile funk became a Brazilian exclusive. Now it's coming full circle: "Favela chic" parties have begun popping up in London and Paris, with the London DJs of Slum Dunk releasing their own Carioca Funk compilation next week. Haaksman has noted the irony of a German collecting a Brazilian sound that appropriates the Miami bass inspired by New York electro that was influenced in turn by German 1970s computer pop like Kraftwerk.

North Americans may have taken to the sound of digital samba from the likes of Bebel Gilberto and Juana Molina. But by comparison, that's merely Girl from Ipanema Goes to Mars. Baile funk doesn't whisper "Come hither." It screams "Shake it!" and shimmies till it shakes off everything, most of all its own beleaguered poverty.

Internet music writer Matthew Ingram, better known as Woebot, positions baile funk in a global phenomenon he calls "shanty house" music, together with the "grime" (à la Dizzee Rascal) of London housing projects, and the twists on hip-hop from South Africa's kwaito and the desi of the South Asian diaspora.

It's "the new strain of post-world-music," he says. "The concept of 'world music' is inextricably intertwined with concepts of the natural, the earthen and the rooted. However, the new wave of global urban music is mercilessly hooligan in its agenda, synthetic by choice and necessity, often produced in a crucible of urban existence, yet more extreme, precarious and violent than that which characterizes the temperature of New York, London, Berlin."

Woebot speculates that this desperate edge will keep pop from assimilating shanty house. And yet earlier this year, a bastardized version of baile funk by hip-hop artists from elsewhere in Brazil, remixed by Fatboy Slim, became the soundtrack to a Nissan SUV commercial; and desi is already all over recent R&B; hits.

As Veloso said, it's an era of "surprising comparisons" - and the ferocity of favela funk makes you wonder if it could become an era of surprising comeuppances. Meanwhile, you may find more than a few "foreign sounds" creeping into your own body English. But they won't be swaying compliantly in the tropical breeze.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 13 at 4:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Middle America's Dr. Seuss-Gone-Porno Nightmare...

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.... is our Youtopia. And other post-elekkktoral phantasies. In this week's Overtones - starring Animal Collective, above, and all their furry-nonconformist, post-ballot-boxing comrades - as you'll find out on the flip.

C'mon everybody, clap your paws

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail Review
Saturday, November 6, 2004

Well, so much for the human race.

If the events of the past week have left you feeling dazed and misanthropic, there's a musical movement ready and waiting to help you cheer up and drop out of the whole damn species. New York duo Animal Collective supply its manifesto on their recent album Sung Tongs: In a manic chant over a powwow-style drum beat, they babble, "Everyone is welcome, everyone is welcome/ Tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers . . ."

And with that, the two young animorphs who call themselves Avey Tare and Panda Bear usher in the new era - where everyone can join the party, so long as you walk on four feet (flying, crawling, drifting, flowing, blowing, hopping and digging are also copasetic) and are therefore ineligible to drive, shop, serve in the military or otherwise screw up the world.

Just at the moment, that sounds mighty fine to me.

Animal Collective, performing in Montreal and Toronto later this week, is one of the best and most prominent representatives of what's quickly becoming an international network of atavistic musical eccentrics, variously dubbed new folk, free folk (as in "free jazz"), anti-folk, acid folk and perhaps most commonly psych-folk, as in psychedelic. In a cover story last year, Wire magazine called it "the New Weird America."

Most of the artists hail from the blue states, especially California, where the old-time countercultural whiff of sandalwood incense hasn't completely faded from the air. Devendra Banhart got Britain talking with a TV appearance in May in which he sat barefoot on a Persian rug to sing his gnomic folk koans. He brings his shaggy vibe to Montreal and Toronto this Thursday and Friday along with Ben Chasny, the haggard guitar-picker who goes by the handle Six Organs of Admittance.

Another bestially named New York group that's in Canada next week, the Animentals (also known as Oriental), wears animal costumes and uses motion sensors to trigger its electronic noise, "all creating the mood of a magical forest" (on Monday at Rancho Relaxo in Toronto). The next week, Sufjan Stevens arrives in Montreal and Toronto, his gentle hymns dedicated alternately to Christ and to each of the 50 states, and Animal Collective associate Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti tour comes on like Syd Barrett gone New Wave.

Keep an ear cocked, too, for Joanna Newsom (the 22-year-old San Francisco harpist whose The Milk-Eyed Mender is one of the year's best albums), White Magic, Josephine Foster, Espers and CocoRosie; in Canada there's the Silt (member Doug Tielli plays the Tranzac in Toronto tonight), Eric Chenaux and Michelle McAdorey, Victoria's Frog Eyes and the communally minded multitudes of the Montreal music scene.

The movement is musically diverse, with the further-out fringes sounding like all the experimental rock and jazz of the last 40 years shaken and baked -- some, such as New York's Black Dice and Michigan's Wolf Eyes, even sound like extreme Japanese noise. But others reek of Donovan, Nick Drake, John Fahey, the Fugs or the Holy Modal Rounders, the winking holy-fool folkies reincarnated in people not yet born when woodland-creature camouflage was last any sort of viable option (except when backed by high-voltage machismo, as in the trippier moments of Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull).

The Incredible String Band has actually reformed to mark the moment, currently touring the U.K. with Newsom. These are the outsiders who took footpaths less travelled after Bob Dylan's electric guitar supposedly assassinated the "folk boom."

Pop culture has its own ecology, with no dead ends, only detours. Every style ever voiced goes on murmuring forever, until one day it suddenly stops sounding goofy again and becomes exactly what people need to hear. It's a reassuring proof of the resourcefulness that keeps our scavenger race in coconuts and funeral songs on this cosmic Galapagos.

The psych-folkies, with their rabbit masks and names like the Jewelled Antler Collective or the Skygreen Leopards, are city and suburban kids imagining their way into the consciousnesses of vegetables, mammals, insects and swamps -- writing songs from the perspective of the teeth of a crocodile or the hair of a badger, creatures they've probably never even seen in real life. They're moved by the same environmental and animal-rights ideals many young people now hold far dearer than any old-paradigm ideas of left and right, with both raging sentimentalism and startling humility. If this keeps up, the next civil-rights movement will be to give ducks and moose the vote.

And why not? They couldn't do much worse. In the U.S. election this week, it seemed somehow the distinction between gay marriage and Islamist terrorism got lost, both muddled into what heartland Americans seem to feel is a world gone mad.

Just as it defies their common sense that suitcase bombs could be left on the sidewalk of Main Street, so does the idea of two guys sealing their vows with a kiss. The very suggestion flips them out into surreal visions of an overwhelmed natural order: "What's to stop three men and two women from getting married? What's to stop someone from marrying their dog?" And from there, what's to stop talking ostriches from running for Congress? What's to stop drinking fountains spewing palm oil? What's to stop refrigerators laying eggs and penguin orgies breaking out in line at the bank?

In the work-play of the psych-folk collectives, the penguin orgy is in full swing, and the little tuxedo-clad dudes deserve some mood music. Amid all the fretting over how to kowtow more abjectly next time, how to "frame" issues for people who think "moral values" involve who sleeps with whom but not where you drop your bombs, there's an enormous relief in finding these freak-flag-flying anthems. These musicians have opted out of the culture war by decamping for an imaginary time zone where it never even began.

While the Democrats take their beating from the fundamentalists and promise to do better, the psych-folksters cruise the interstates in vans loaded down with sparrows and tree frogs, their speakers blaring: "It's all true! We'll build our crazy Dr. Seuss-gone-porno utopia no matter what you do! And guess what? You're not invited!"

Maybe it's the political equivalent of pleading insanity, but right now we can use the reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in democracy.

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 06 at 4:19 AM | Linking Posts

 

I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to W.'s World

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This week's column tosses off a few choice curses for the faith-based presidency and gives thanks and praise for those who sing god's protest songs (Iris DeMent, Buddy Miller) and twice as much for those who locate their faith in "the reality-based community" (The Ex, The Mountain Goats). Check it.

GOSPEL MUSIC FOR THE BRAVE

Overtones
by Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Oct. 30/04

'Faith-based" has been one of the shibboleths of the era since George the Younger started pimping it as the cure-all for social services in his first election campaign. Joan Didion debunked it then as code written for market-fundamentalist hypeware: As cooked up in conservative think tanks, "faith-based" translates into "let them eat Salvation Army cake."

But the term kept metastasizing over the last four years, until in the delirium of the current U.S. electoral contest, the word FAITH -- spelled out in Hollywood-sign-sized letters alongside Puritan preacher John Winthrop's shining city on the hill -- seems to swim above us in the clouds, a gigantic hanging chad about to fall, guillotine-style.

With one side of the political spectrum having pitched its tent on God like an oil driller on a wildlife refuge, opponents of the Bush administration begin to accept their lot is to be cast out of the ranks of the righteous. As a result, like many nonbelievers, I find myself increasingly irritated with religiosity, though I know you can't fight intolerance with intolerance.

The new Iris DeMent album comes as a blast of oxygen into this moral smog. Lifeline is the first disc in eight years from a country artist whom no less than Merle Haggard has called the best singer of her generation. The Way I Should in 1996 provoked controversy with protest songs such as Wasteland of the Free, directed in part against the first Persian Gulf war but also against "preachers dealing in politics and diamond mines."

When the current Iraq conflict began in 2003, DeMent told a live audience she could not bring herself to sing, a gesture that drew vitriol from talk-radio hosts and death threats in the mail.

This year, though, she's putting out an album of gospel hymns. And I'm sure it's no coincidence that it is being released on election day, Nov. 2.

DeMent grew up in a large, strict Pentecostal family from Arkansas, singing sacred music in church and at home. "I never had that 'born-again' moment," she says in a moving interview with David Cantwell in the latest issue of No Depression, the alternative-country magazine. "It was just the environment I grew up in."

She broke with the church and now considers herself a sort of agnostic Christian. "When I think of Jesus," she tells Cantwell, " . . . I think of the human struggle and of someone who is a good example of how to make it through. So when I sing [in Lifeline's opening track, I've Got that Old-Time Religion] that 'I'm glad Jesus came/ Glory to his name,' I mean it."

Lifeline is a tribute to the formative songs DeMent says she returns to for comfort in troubled times: She has struggled for years with writer's block, so she is singing these songs instead of her own. DeMent sings with the full-throated twang of white Southern gospel, an oboe-like timbre with which she can pierce all emotional defences and leave you weeping like a child. And she delivers the likes of Hide Thou with Me and God Walks the Dark Hills with a new, mature command.

The one song she did write here, He Reached Down, recounts the stories of the Good Samaritan and of Jesus defending an adulteress from stoning -- a Jesus who was no scold or holy warrior but a healer of the outcast and the impoverished. The song insists on the humility appropriate if everyone is equally a sinner.

The White House remix of the Hallelujah Chorus tends to drown them out, but DeMent's is not the only voice in this dissenting choir. Nashville singer Buddy Miller has put out Universal United House of Prayer, whose refusal to separate divine love from the human kind makes it one of the most effective protest albums of the year, built around a forceful country-soul cover of Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side.

Such singers can serve up a moral conviction startling to those of us who hail from the Universal Mixed-Up House of Ambivalence. It's a refreshing reminder that the Christian duty of care can be expressed as a passion for social justice and conscientious pacifism.

I am reminded of my misgivings, though, when DeMent sings the hymn I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World: The religious always have an out that makes even matters of life and death petty by comparison. I do want to get adjusted to this world -- and elect well-adjusted leaders to help me adjust it in turn -- because this world is all I think I've got. The course of events in Iraq is what happens when a guy with his eyes on the heavens figures he doesn't have to sweat the details.

That makes me part of what a Bush aide infamously called the "reality-based community" -- people who base their ideas on observing and analyzing what's actually happening. The administration's perspective, he said (he said this!) is, "We're an empire now. . . . We create our own reality."

This is faith-based the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was "based on a true story."

So as Tuesday's judgment day draws nigh, I'll also cock an ear to some music that invests its faith in reality. Over a quarter-century, Dutch anarchist punks the Ex have done their best to get adjusted to this world with dogged curiosity about all its cultures. Their recent double CD Turn includes Huriyet, an Eritrean independence song from "an area . . . where Christians and Muslims have been living in peace together for centuries."

In the Ex version, hard-chopping electric guitar meets steady hand claps and a lilting chant by percussionist Katherina that's somehow both rousing and implacably calm, celebrating what the Eritreans achieved without erasing the pain endured. The title means "freedom" -- this is what it really sounds like when it's on the march.

And Against Pollution is one of a couple of tunes that flirt with redemption at the end of We Shall All Be Healed, a song cycle about a tweaked-out gang of drug addicts by inspired North Carolina-based songwriter John Darnielle, who records under the nom de band the Mountain Goats.

As the cryptic ballad snakes along its six-stringed way, the singer finds himself saying the rosary in a church, "'cause something just came over me." What's driven him there is his part in a liquor-store shooting, and the eerie way everything around him seems to be rusting when there's never any rain. He has a vision of "the last days," in flashes of sunsets and stars, when "We will . . . see ourselves for the first time / The way we really are."

Darnielle's anxious tone intimates that this is as much threat as promise, and there is always a surfeit of excuses, faith or no faith, not to look ourselves full in the face. If you can summon the raw nerve for that -- as Darnielle does, as does Iris DeMent's unstoppable voice -- does it matter whether you name it a revelation or a reckoning?

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 30 at 1:19 PM | Linking Posts

 

Parking Meter Watch

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Sorry this didn't come earlier - I was just wandering along minding my own business when WHAM, the biggest traffic spike ever hits, thanks to the Slate link via Alex Ross, and meanwhile I'm editing 10 million stories for the Globe's big special project this weekend and can't participate. The 24-hour infotainment universe sux.

But maybe some stragglers will still be into the discussion.

Alex says: "I'm not so sure Chronicles reveals Dylan's early '60s political period as opportunistic or aestheticized. There's a deep nostalgia for the entire folkie universe, page after page on its characters and lore. The book doesn't delve much into politics as such, but the Old Left's earnest convictions—Communist, socialist, New Deal, what have you—seem inseparable from the funky realness of the scene."

One thing I appreciated about Alex's big Dylan piece in the New Yorker was that it got at how strange it is to be a non-boomer on this subject matter. I think Dylan's pretty obviously an Empire State-sized 20th-century cultural figure, but if you read the boomer reviews from England, especially, on Chronicles, you'd get mockery of his claim to have "rock'n'roll roots," for example, because they all knew he'd only ever been a folkie, and if you hear the average person around the office that age talk about him, usually they think of him almost exclusively as a protest-song singer (bizarre considering how short that part of his career really was) - he's frozen in their memories in one dimension. If this is frustrating to hear, I can only imagine how it is to live through, and I can't blame Dylan for using the biggest, weirdest axes he could find to chop that icon to pieces. Consciously or not, he hated Bob Dylan The Voice of a Generation so virulently that he was willing to go stark ravers to banish him, and religion and whiteface etc etc were all escape plots gone wrong.

Chronicles - like his last album, and maybe the one before that - could only come when he felt he'd made his break, that the madness was over. It's only now he's willing to admit that folk music (in essence including pop music) was his original religion and always would be, that he loved folk songs' use of Biblical language more than he ever loved the Bible (he doesn't say so but the implication's etched deep between the lines of Chronicles), that he loved how socialism and civil rights animated a folk narrative more than he ever loved the sounds of ideologies clashing.

So [...]

... any claim on Dylan's part that he was being opportunistic is, I think, another evasive manoeuvre. But the aestheticization is just who he is - if he's a preacher and a prophet he's a preacher of words not of messages, a prophet of poetry not of revolt.

Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding ... It was life magnified. It was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn't enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time. It was a huge story but hard to come across.

I think this is where his politics catch fire: In this sense that these songs were supposed to connect to the "trends of the time" - to the Ricky Nelson he was oddly mesmerized by, to the way the Civil War was still alive around him - and that he glimpsed that he could be the one to make that happen.

But does that mean, as John suggests on Utopian Turtletop that Dylan was "a good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was"? I don't think so. I think, especially from reading Chronicles, that he pretty much was a kid from the sticks who didn't know much of the world - he strikes a tone of awe about the communists and anarchists around him in the Village, indicating that often didn't know what they were on about. I think he didn't have the energy for issues the way he did about stories and songs and poems (including ones about issues). I think he always had a different, visionary horizon held up to his causes, something closer to the way that Burroughs and Frank O'Hara were political - it was a poetic politic, always shooting for that fifth dimension, even if it could only be attained by passing through the door to greater justice in this one, if you catch my meaning. People who summed him up as a civil-rights guy or an anti-war guy were stopping on the first lilypad when he wanted to hop skip and jump across the Styx. And once he had he didn't give a shit about that first lilypad anymore. The trouble is just that the revisionist in him was given to wishing that lilypad out of existence.

Alex says, "On the other hand, the cynical-radical mid-'60s period, in which Dylan made such a nasty break with the Old Left, is hardly touched on. It's like a nightmare he can hardly bear to think about."

We have to assume future volumes are meant to address this, but: Radical? Yes. Cynical? Is it cynical to travel out beyond the boundaries of everyone's expectations or is it hopeful in another way (even if you yourself can't make it back)? Is that actually nasty?

The most revealing bit on politics in Chronicles comes right after the Civil War-era-newspaper-obsession passage, and I think that's just where it belongs - it portrays Dylan and his friend Len Chandler as two kids reading the papers and talking about how to write topical songs, and you catch Dylan reading the newspapers of the early sixties with much the same epic bafflement with which he read history:

Reputable psychiatrists were saying that some of these people who claimed to be so against nuclear testing are secular last-judgment types - that if nuclear bombs are banned, it would deprive them of their highly comforting sense of doom. Len and I couldnt' believe this stuff.... Semantics and labels could drive you crazy. The inside story on a man was that if he wanted to become successful, he must become a rugged individualist, but then he should make some adjustments. After that he needed to conform... Len and I thought this stuff was idiotic. Reality was not so simple and everybody had their own take on it. ... I hadn't yet begun writing streams of songs as I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd - there was a certain consciousness of madness at work. Even the photos of Jackie Kennedy going in and out of revolving doors at the Carlyle Hotel uptown, carrying shopping bags of clothes, looked disturbing... The dominant myth of the day seemed to be that anybody could do anything, even go to the moon. You could do whatever you wanted - in the ads and in the articles, ignore your limitations, defy them. If you were an indecisive person, you could become a leader and wear lederhosen. If you were a housewife, you could become a glamour girl with rhinestone sunglasses. Are you slow witted? No worries - you can be an intellectual genius. If you're old, you can be young. Anything was possible. It was almost like a war against the self. The art world was changing, too, being turned on its head. Abstract painting and atonal music were hitting the scene, mangling recognizable reality. Goya himself would have been lost at sea if he tried to sail the new wave of art. Len and I would look at all this stuff for what it was worth, and not one cent more.

Now, some will complain that I elided Cubans and Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson from that section - but then I also left out Genet and feminism and a pretty list of "new modern-day phobias" and the Chicago Blackhawks. With rare exceptions I think his political songs were written with that same jumble of metaphors devouring reality devouring metaphors, the Mississippi rolling on behind them past the righteous and the wicked and the ravenous and weak. I guess finally the question is whether he saw those songs as political (rather than "topical") the way they ultimately have been received, and the biggest problem in answering that is that so many people have the mistaken impression that they were there. As we get historically further and further from that conventional wisdom we'll have a better and better sense of how to read him and hear him, just the way we forget whatever political contexts Shakespeare's plays come from, obvious as they once might have been, and take them for the ever-rearranging puzzles that they are.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 20 at 7:15 PM | Linking Posts

 

Derrida: The Rock Opera

Overtones appears today in its new Saturday-paper berth. I think I reached the end of the piece without ever mentioning its inspiration, actually - I was thinking of Bush's attacks on Kerry's expressed wish that terrorism could be reduced to the acceptable level of "nuisance" it seemed pre-9/11 - a desire I think reasonable people could widely be expected to share - but which Bush of course finds repugnant because it is less than totally triumphal, less than an all-transforming, End Times eradication of the unambiguously evil by the unambiguously good. This put me in mind of how fables are constructed and deconstructed, and from there to the current resurgence in the concept album and the ritual posthumous humiliation of Derrida by the same media conduits who routinely represent Bush's mythology with only the most restrained critique.

Read the column.

However, I don't claim to be an expert on Jackie D. - I'm hoping this weekend to get a chance to rent the most unlikely movie, but for further reading, there's been a lot of wonderful work on the, uh, internets, and some in print, in the past week-plus. The New York Times made up a bit for its own disgraceful obituary (which The Globe reprinted) with this op-ed (which rocks) and this music-related piece.

Here's a disorderly abcediary of other places to check out:
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u....

[...]

The old long-player still has some spin

By CARL WILSON
Saturday, October 16, 2004 - Page R7

The concept album is back with a vengeance -- but what is it avenging? It could be the much-discussed, much-deferred death of the album itself. Or, with a little imagination, it could be the death of Jacques Derrida.

The existence of the album has been threatened on one side by downloading (witness this week's announcement that the iTunes MP3 store is about to come on-line in Canada) and on the other by the high art with which hip-hop-inspired producers have been gracing the singles chart, yielding so much instant gratification that it's made the album look like a pokey old hobbyhorse.

But in the past year or two, musicians of every description have set out to prove the old long-player still has some spin. One of this fall's biggest hits is Green Day's American Idiot, a "punk-rock opera" in the rock-star-equals-Christ lineage of the Who's Tommy, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Pink Floyd's The Wall: Everykid "Jesus of Suburbia" (also known as Saint Jimmy) goes adrift in the conformist swamp of American culture, taking potshots at George W. Bush all the way.

Other conspicuous examples have come from Elvis Costello (The Delivery Man, part southern-gothic fiction, part tribute to southern American music); Neil Young (Greendale, a "novel"-cum-musical about eco-consciousness); reformed 1980s college-radio band Camper Van Beethoven (New Roman Times: Noam Chomsky via Monty Python); British rapper the Streets (A Grand Don't Come for Free: bloke mislays a thousand quid, grimy adventures ensue); and Montreal's Arcade Fire (Funeral: an indie-rock rhapsody to life after several deaths).

Green Day's mini-suites on American Idiot are partly patterned on the Who's innovative sixties suite A Quick One While He's Away, which also helped inspire the baroque Blueberry Boat by American brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces. This delightfully non-linear narrative about, among other things, pirates, colonialism, catty high-school girls and the global cellphone market is already spawning analytical Internet concordances worthy of Finnegans Wake.

Triple-guitar army the Drive-By Truckers have picked up where Randy Newman's 1970s southern-culture concept album Good Old Boys left off, with Southern Rock Opera and this year's The Dirty South; American hip-hop trickster MF Doom constructs suites around alternate identities such as Victor Vaughn and King Geedorah; and up a few hundred floors in the tower of song, Brian Wilson has finally completed Smile, the long-lost Beach Boys "teenage symphony to God" that spurred the Beatles to dress up Sergeant Pepper in ragged conceptual garb.

Though it wasn't much of a concept album, Sgt. Pepper did the most to popularize the form, which is as old as the album itself: As soon as longer playing times were available, jazz composers such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus took advantage of the space to elaborate their ideas.

The practice was imported to pop with "theme albums" such as Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (late-night blue ballads), Johnny Cash's Ride This Train (songs about trains) and the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe (songs about cars), and then subverted by the likes of Frank Zappa and the Who.

But in the 1970s, when every second album seemed to be based on half-digested gobbledygook from Hindu scripture (Yes) or Ayn Rand (Rush), punk rock rose up to skewer the bloat. Long-form works instantly became uncool and with rare exceptions stayed that way until recently.

I think there's more here than artists rallying around a product format. That's the kind of explanation you only get from pundits who can't see beyond the music business.

There's probably some nostalgia in it, for musicians weaned on the epics of the 1970s -- witness institutions such as the Boston Rock Opera, which has been staging affectionate revivals of the likes of the Kinks' Preservation and Queen's Night at the Opera.

More strikingly, though, the way it's picked up momentum since 2001, it's almost as if the concept album had risen directly from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The prevalent themes are political, arguments the singers couldn't contain within a single anthem. In fact, the turn to long form seems like a counterattack on a culture of sound bites and oversimplification, in which all the layers of world events are stripped down to a few comforting words or a belligerent "bring 'em on."

What's Derrida got to do with it? After his passing last week at 74, many of the newspaper obituaries for the French philosopher were as misleading as George Bush's attacks on John Kerry: They portrayed the theorist of deconstruction as a slippery Frenchy who thought there was no truth. That way, they insinuated, lies the gas chambers.

In fact, Derrida's method always revealed a surplus of truth, an excess of meaning in every statement that could be more illuminating than the apparent moral to any fable. Those obits were like intellectual attack ads, the sort of propaganda his theories -- created by a French Jew born in colonial Algeria -- forcefully undermined.

While the worst, most self-satisfied pop epics merely present a mirror image of the kind of grand narratives Derrida found suspect, the best deconstruct as much as they fabricate: Using music's unique repertoire of echoes and inversions, they can unpack possibilities within an idea, rewriting a song from several angles, re-sounding a melody in another key, as if to show that, as Kerry said in one of the debates, "the truth is always more complicated than the president would have you believe."

It's a characteristic irony that Derrida's vanished just when loud voices are claiming it's more important to be certain than to be smart. When we most need a champion of the contingent, the tentative, and the complex (one with more nerve, frankly, than Kerry), Derrida challenges us with his absence, the voluminous silence of the burial mound.

Somebody ought to write a rock opera about that, in the style he so richly modelled -- extended play.


Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 16 at 12:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Guelph Fest's Fantastic Fiasco

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My colleague Mark Miller offers an account in today's Globe of the blowout that went down Friday at the Guelph Jazz Festival. But here's my point of view on one of the most memorable, bad-ass improv shows I've ever seen, which saw a music festival strung up by the weakest wet-spaghetti strings in its own braid of good (or you may say, goody-two-shoes) intentions.

[...]

Mark gets some things right: "Sainkho Namtchylak, a noted singer who improvises in Siberia's Tuvan tradition, was a half-hour into an unhappy, tuneless wail at Chalmers United Church on Friday night. She stood with arms firmly crossed, the picture of defiance, and more than once made a display of consulting her watch, as if to ask, 'How much longer?' At no point did she respond to the tremendous rhythmic undertow generated by the two others on stage, New York bassist William Parker and Chicago drummer Hamid Drake."

Namtchylak's "wail" was actually a drone, and rather than tuneless it was melodically relentless, the same three notes repeated with little variation. (It even could be defended ethnomusicologically, but that would be disingenuous.) Good portions of the audience were walking out and others were buzz-buzzing in their pews, including some beside me doing so in full speaking voice as if nobody could possibly be listening to this - even though Parker and Drake were turning in, off on their own, one of the best sets I've ever heard them do.

At that point, the hapless MC for the evening, one David Burgess, was sent in by festival staff (and according to fest media liaisons, at the demand of other musicians to bail Hamid and William out) and began waving from the side of the stage. Mark was again accurate about what happened next:

"After a moment's confusion, she stopped the performance and reluctantly stepped down to shouts of 'Stay, stay, stay' from the audience. She herself could be heard to ask, 'What is freedom then?' In time, the audience prevailed. Back in place, Namtchylak aired her grievances against the festival and against life in general."

What Mark leaves out here is that after Namtchylak's rant - including some clear charges, like that she wasn't picked up the airport, and some incomprehensible ones - she stood there uncomfortably as tension peaked and members of the audience began shouting out, "Where is the festival director?" and other requests for someone from the extremistly community-minded festival to respond to the complaints and to the awkward situation. There was an utter vacuum. Ajay Heble, the festival's chronically visible artistic director, was for once nowhere to be seen.

Finally, William Parker began playing a golden bowl that produced a calming ring and the focus turned (near unwillingly) back to music. And here's where I differ in the extreme with Mark's account. He says, she "began singing again, this time a little more tunefully but still with some apparent distraction. It was Parker and Drake who gave the music what contour it had."

Obviously Mark would not have enjoyed Namtchylak's performance no matter what. What she did in the ensuing 45 minutes or so was a textbook case of kicking ass and taking names, Tuvan-shaman style. I have a bunch of recordings of her singing, tho I've never heard her live before, and this show outstripped anything I expected. It was furious, virtuosic and encyclopedic, from screams and overtone sequences that seemed likely to splinter the wood of the church if not cause it to burst into flames, to birdlike fluttering melodies that could have turned your blood to fog, and everywhere in between and sometimes - this being Tuvan throatsinging - simultaneously. An incantatory stream of hyperspeed syllables was perhaps most memorable, partly for its pentecostal fire of labial and glottal cascades and partly for the impression (shared, if conversations after the show are any indication, by the whole crowd) that she was putting one mother of a curse on us all.

(Mark claims that the audience cut her off at the end with its applause, but it seemed clear to me the musicians themselves chose their end point - long after their allotted time ran out.)

Parker and Drake served as able accompaniment at that point but their glory was in the first set, while Namtchylak seemed to be throwing the game. I will maintain to all comers, that first section was worth hearing for the bizarre contrast of her inertia and their dynamism - a supremely interesting combination if you closed your eyes to her scowling and just listened to the sound - and I think it's a very weird call to make at any point to decide that an improvisor is doing the "wrong" thing, even if you know that she's doing it to piss you off. That has to be saved for the retrospect.

Still, as Mark said, they were damned if they did stop her and damned if they didn't, and given what we got next, I'm selfishly happy they did.

What I'm not glad about is that they behaved like such passive-aggressive Canadian wimp-ass pissants about it after they took the action. And, though I don't know what the details of what happened beforehand, that they were foolish enough to give this notoriously touchy performer - who is after all from an arctic wasteland that was until recently mostly a place Soviet authorities banished people to, and is only lately a celebrated source of indigenous vocal magic - cause for irritation in the first place. As a friend said, "If they'd been dealing with Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton, you know they'd make damn sure that nothing like that got screwed up."

Given Namtchylak's position in her musical culture - an utterly unique one far beyond the range and experience of any other Tuvan singer - that comparison seems apt. And so why did it happen? For all Guelph's self-proclaimed "progressive" character, you have to say it is partly because she's a non-western woman who doesn't command that same respect, because as a result people are ignorant about her stature.

Which made it quadruply nauseating that Burgess - who till that point I could forgive because he was the fall guy, the festival's sacrificial lamb - addressed the issue in his intro to the next set (by Andrew Cyrille's great Pieces of Time drum choir) by saying, "We try to bring cultures together and ... the results are not always peaches and cream," or some such patronizing turn of phrase, blaming what took place on interculturalism itself (!) rather than mismanagement and miscommunication. What a TORRENT OF SMARM! The conflict wasn't between Drake, Parker and Namtchylak, Mr. Burgess. Yes, there was cultural friction, but it wasn't artistic. It was between the festival and the performer. It was between her and you.

I have a stake in the whole mess because I'm all over the festival's program materials: "It's the kind of event that makes you imagine music can change things," I'm quoted. Friday night that was both realized - in the frisson of excitement and of shit actually going down - and betrayed, in the mealymouthed nonsense that was used to defuse it.

Mark says, "This then is Guelph jazz: a place where fans defend on principle an artist's right to perform poorly" as if that were patently absurd. But how do you have free improvisation without that principle? How do you have art, whose history's a sum of brilliant mistakes? The disappointing thing is that it's a place where you thought the festival would defend that principle too.

What is wrong with Guelph has long been that the risks it takes are too dictated by ideology and not enough by art, too directed towards community feel-good moments and not enough to making your spine go gelatinous. Don't get me wrong: For a scrapbooky Ont. college town, the Guelph fest is a fucking brilliant and improbable coup, but after so many years in operation it also needs to take off its Birkenstocks, put on combat boots and wade out into the deeper muck.

Here I'm down with Mark's conclusion, if not with how he got there: "How deliciously ironic, then, that an event that takes such pride in being so high-minded in matters of theory could turn so heavy-handed in the cold face of a little reality."

Bottom line is that conflict is a good thing for art and for thinking, especially in the near-fatally confrontation-phobic Canadian arts, and I think what happened Friday is going to help the festival grow up, if they dare process the experience in a way that isn't purely self-serving. Friday they were on the self-serving path but there are a lot of smart critical people around the fest whom I hope will demand better.

That said, another less enlivening conflict, also involving Mark Miller, came on Saturday during the keynote talk by Archie Shepp, which was mainly an enjoyably circuitous exploration into how improvised African-American music (he doesn't use the word jazz, which he considers insulting) carries the legacy of African culture. But repeatedly he referred to Mark's book Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada by analogy to a story about a carful of bigots rolling down the window to yell "Nigger!" at Charlie Parker on a street corner.

Shepp's anger was over what he considered the book's undue emphasis on Parker's drug abuse compared to his music. I haven't read it, but I do know Mark's work in general and I think the implication that he's a racist is straight-up guff, slander and bile. I also think I can understand why Shepp feels that way - he's seen enough racism from the jazz press, enough misunderstanding of the music far and wide, that he doesn't waste time with a fair trial.

But if Mark's book does overemphasize the druggie angle, I'm afraid he's only falling prey to the same temptation as scribes on Ernest Hemingway, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, you-name-'em, always have and always will give in to, which is that the sordid stuff makes better copy. It is much easier to document and describe than artistic process, heritage and inspiration, so substance loses out to substance abuse.

It is taken too far, and absofuckinglutely it is endemically overdone in treatments of black artists, a kneejerk pathologizing reflex. But that doesn't mean books about Parker should just omit his smack problem either. (See Gopnik on biographical criticism below.)

Though he spoke with rich eloquence, Shepp remains the sharp provocateur he always has been: The accusation of Mark was a tangent from another point, but when he realized it was getting a rise he dug into it. I don't blame Shepp; he has reason for his pique, and his verbal grenade did its job, to percuss the point home. Racism is a question white critics of jazz have to take very seriously; we may never casually absolve ourselves of those underlying biases.

But Mark didn't deserve to be cast as the bête blanc here. His career has been one long, self-sacrificing demonstration of devotion to this music in all its forms, and whatever our other differences, I will stand up for his integrity.

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 13 at 11:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Jeremy Greenspan: The World Is Not a Fuckin' Subway

Here's the full text of my interview with Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan. It's unusual to talk to a musician who so clearly engages with music on the sort of fan-critic level, willing to apply that mode of analysis to his own music. I thought he was a terrifically likeable guy, and we had a great conversation, but then I stop and think about the soulful, detailed music Junior Boys make and am all the more impressed that it all flows out of the hyper, self-effacing kid I was chatting with on Tuesday. I think the transcript makes a respectable contribution to the general, amusingly burgeoning body of Junior Boys scholarship.

You're back in Hamilton? I thought you'd moved to Toronto.
I lived in Toronto for a couple of months. I went to McMaster - I did a double major - multimedia, computer programming for the humanities, and then comp. lit.

When I think of Hamilton, I think of a rock'n'roll kind of place. How did you get into dance and techno?
There's a long history of electronic music in Hamilton. I guess because of the proximity to Windsor - at least closer than Toronto is. There used to be a record label here called Steel City that was part of Plus8. They used to do parties in Hamilton when I was just a kid - and all the big DJs from Detroit would come up to that. But I got into electronic music as a teenager, listening to a lot of sort of experimental industrial things - Coil, Thirlwell and that sort of stuff. Hamilton's not that rock and roll, not really.

Where did you learn to program beats? [...]

I always liked synthesizers even as a kid. I started doing this kind of music probably when I was, again, a teenager. I had studied music as a kid, playing piano and guitar, and when I first went to high school we did a little bit of things with - back then, we had really crappy synthesizers, and an Atari computer to program them. I learned little tiny bits about how to work a studio and do engineering when I was a little bit younger from going to friends' places and seeing how it was done. But the main thing was that I moved to England when I was 17 and got a job at a recording studio.

When we were first doing music on the computer it was a very different thing. The software options were not nearly as easy to deal with as they are now. It was basically using wave editors, sound editors and literally trying to paste things on top of each other and it was really hard. You had to figure it out mathematically - take a tempo and figure out where to position different drum hits.

What were you doing in England? Was this after high school?
I was in England for a year. It was during high school. I took some time off, and worked for a recording studio in Birmingham. Mainly I did "demo deals," bands would come in off the street to make a three-track demo and I'd do that. But the studio mostly did Muzak, like elevator music.

I guess for that they'd have to be fairly well equipped.
It was a fairly good learning experience. I lied to get it. It was pretty funny. I looked a lot older than I was and had a fake resume and all this stuff.

How did the Junior Boys get started?
I started it with my friend John. [Credited as "Johnny Dark."] At the time I was listening to a lot of R&B; and UK garage, and I was also listening to a lot of New Wave.

How did you get into that?
I started listening to it in England because the guy I was living with was kind of a crazed fan - it was before it had its revival - he was a real ardent fan. He was about 10 years older. He played me stuff - he was a big fan of John Foxx and Gary Numan and stuff like that. And I didn't know it really. I was born in 1979. I wasn't old enough to remember it. So I heard it for the first time at 17.

But I was also listening to a lot of current dance music. UK Garage, and along with that a lot of the elements of R&B.; So I had this idea of making garage songs that incorporated elements of new wave, a colder and more synth-heavy aesthetic. So we did a couple of songs like that together that were more dance songs. Then I got more interested in structuring things less like dance music and more like real songs.

Why was that?
It was the influence of new wave and synth pop. I think there was a period perhaps where people were afraid of songwriting because the whole energy and philosophy of the dance music movement was based on mixing records and on DJ shows, and so much of that is about building on loops, and a minimal approach to writing music in which you have these songs that are really malleable and don't have to be played from start to finish. People really got off on the energy of that. Songwriting was a bit taboo at the time I started thinking of doing it. Ultimately I thought it was what I was kinda good at, that I had an aptitude for songwriting and that I should go with that, thought I could do more interesting things. It seemed fresh and exciting.

I've always loved pop music. The energy I got from 80s new wave was the idea of doing pop music that incorporated all the latest technologies and the most avant-garde appraoches to doing sound and I thought that was kind of lost in pop music.

It's pretty common in hip-hop and R&B;, though.
I don't rate R&B; as highly as I did in the late 90s - at the time I thought R&B; was doing all the interesting things in terms of writing songs that I felt reflected the moment in history. On the radio you could hear rock bands doing music that I thought could come from any era.

I'm much more excited in doing stuff that is rooted in the moment and could only be made now. That's why I get turned off when people say I'm doing something retro, because what was exciting about the 80s was how forward-looking it was. I'm very dedicated to using tools that are available at the time they're available.

So much of songwriting has to do with the things that you're using. The machine writes half of the thing --

Sure, even if the machine is a piano.
Right, even if it's a piano, the machine writes half the thing for you. And anyone who says it's not is lying. The tools that you decide to use dictate in so many ways the song you're going to write. Especially with computers. Often you're just facilitating something to happen that you never would have anticipated, some chance happening, some glitch in the design - software writers are as much songwriters as anyone.

Do you think this interest in songs specifically is a cultural thing, that because you're a white Canadian, even with all that dance-music experience, the Song retains a kind of cultural pull?
There's a hunger always for songwriting. I think there was a naivete to thinking that songwriting would somehow go away, that you could build a culture that was only going to be programming loops and DJs performing. Even when I was a DJ, buying records - what you're really listening for are hooks. I also think that in dance music a lot of the energy that was there that slipped away, people might be looking for something new.

The return to songwriting ... I think it's important that there are people who are doing songwriting that's using what's available. We can't let the radio songwriting be there for people who just use the same old structures, the same old formulas.

Definitely I come from the world of dance music. It's funny for me because since the record came out a lot of the reviews and the people who've been interested are from the world of indie rock, which is a world I know nothing about. People will say things about bands - it sounds like this band - and I don't know, I've never heard it. I don't mind because those bands sell more records than electronic records. But the energy and attitudes are ingrained to me. How old are you?

About 10 years older than you, so I heard all the new-wave synth stuff when it was new.
Right, but when I was a teenager that was the real prime rave era of the early 90s. Whereas I think some people who've been influenced by that kind of thing may have come from the world of indie rock and been influenced by that stuff. I come at it the other way around.

So - what happened next?
[John and I] did these songs together - the first ones don't appear on the album - and he also ended up cowriting a bunch of songs that do appear on it. I'm talking basically four years ago, late 90s, turn of the century. We had done these songs and I had decided I should try some different labels and see if they're interested. I did what most people do, send a bunch of unsolicited CDs to labels and got no response.

What I did get was discouraging. A lot of people didn't like it at all. I would send it to labels that I thought were interested in new wave, the electroclash thing - one response said "we don't put out R&B;" or something like that. And others would say, "This is too 80s." So I was at school and I figured I should just get prepared to go to grad school - which I'm still hoping to do someday - so we gave up.

But meanwhile a friend of mine in England, who I met when I was there, put the songs up on a website - hyperdub.com - and I started getting these bizarre emails from journalists who wanted to hear the demo. I sent one to this guy in Australia, to pretty famous journalists - people definitely important in my world, like Simon Reynolds and Kodwo Eshun, I knew who these people are - and what happened was that we got this weird response on on-line blogs.

John had moved to a different city - he's got a career in the video-game world - I think he's moving back to Oakville now - and I got this call from Warp Records: "Who are you? We're interested in putting things out." I called John but he wasn't interested. The guy from Warp was Nick Kilroy who now runs Kin - he said, "I want it to be on my own label." So I basically had to start the band as myself and write an album. With John we only had about four songs. So I did, either by myself or with my friend Matt [Didemus], who had engineered the tracks I did with John, so he knew them.

When you say you write together, does that mean you brought the basic music and lyrics and then you arranged them together, or the whole thing together?
It depends on the song. I really do like co-writing songs. So I really do think the songs I've done with Matt and the songs with John are different from each other.

Can you give me an example?
Well... a song that I wrote with Matt. Under the Sun has a real Matt influence, a real lush and dense kind of feel - that's the direction I'm moving towards myself now. Whereas with John, that stuff had a more sparse electro feel, like High Come Down. I guess I am the principal songwriter - if you were to strip them down to melody, chord changes, I do most of that. But beyond that point it's very collaborative. It's almost impossible for me to say "that bass part is mine, that high hat's his," that sort of thing.

When did you realize that people were talking about you all over the Internet? How did you react to that as it developed?
The whole thing happened rather slowly. When I first heard from Warp I thought that's amazing. It took a really long time for our first EP to come out. Things moved slowly and steadily. The most shocked I've been is probably right now - things are really fast and weird.

Weird how?
Weird like I've got to do three interviews today. Earlier today I had to record myself saying hello for Spanish radio: Hola!. [Laughs.] That's pretty high up on my weird-o-meter. But most of the time it's been, every so often, every couple of months, something crazy will happen, and I'll kind of get used to it and then something else completely crazy will happen.

Do you have a sense, a theory of what it was people grabbed onto so much about the music?
Well, anybody who makes music intrinsically likes what they do, or at least I hope so. I think most people like what they do. But I think I had a really positive feeling about what I was doing. That it was really different. It's everybody's hope that they can do something - it's kind of less about being creative than it is sort of about discovering something.

You don't create it, it wasn't all formed in my head, you just kind of luckily fall upon different combinations of things. I knew the whole thing took on its own shape and sound, that it was no longer garage tracks - and I was really excited about it, because this is something I've been looking for too, it filled a gap that in my own mind I would like filled. I think I would be excited about it if I heard it.

It's hard to talk about these things because you feel like a bit of an ass. I kind of knew that on some level that there was a mathematical equation it was fitting into, breakbeats plus synthesizers plus this equals good. It's timing, I guess. I don't rate the record as highly as a lot of people do. I wasn't surprised people liked it, but I was truly surprised by the reception it's getting.

Now, it's already out in England, but not domestically, right?
It's been kind of embarrassing, the fact that it's just not out in Canada. The majority of the country can't get the record. I don't even own a copy of it.

Do you have a sense of how it is selling over there?
I think the copies that have been made are selling fine. But this is a start-up label. I don't think he ever anticipated the kind of response that we got. When we first discussed doing a record the numbers we were talking about are a fraction of what, now, everybody hopes to sell. It would have been nice to have released everything at the same time. A lot of people complain the distribution isn't good, but we never anticipated it. Our North American distributor at the moment is a very niche market distributor - Forced Exposure - a good distributor but, you know, they put out Venezuelan foot drummers.

Do you entertain fantasies of this becoming something played on pop radio?
Yeah, but - some people say this but I mean it - I don't relish the idea of being successful in those celebrity kind of terms. I don't think I'm the kind of person who could deal with that. So we try to distance me the person from it - but if we could do the kind of numbers that means, without all that, it would be great. I don't think it's something that couldn't be on the radio. I don't make anything so abstract and weird that average people ca't listen to it and understand it.

But then the guy who runs Kin recently had a weird run-in with a major label, and the guy said "Nick, this thing is going to be huge but get the boys to re-record everything and take out all the weird stuff and clean up the vocals." A lot of choices I made in recording this, I made a lot of specific choices about how it was recorded - partly with the vocals - where I knew that a major record label wouldn't do that. Things like gating the vocals and doing autocorrection of the tuning, I'm perfectly capable of as an engineer, but didn't want to do.

Why?
I liked that kind of humanity in the vocals - you can hear the breaths and the fact that I had a cold. Most of the vocals were done in very few takes. We used really high-end microphones but didn't use the approach to recording vocals that a slick production job would have done - we didn't autotune, we didn't filter and gate the vocals so that you wouldn't hear the sybillants and breathing. My favourite singers are people like Neil Young and Mark Hollis [of Talk Talk] that you can hear every mistake they make.

It's a soul thing, it's a kind of humanity thing - and I like the contrast. For the most part we don't use any organic instruments, and those we do are filtered through software - I wasn't interested in doing this thing where you write songs and put a vocoder on and sing about really inhuman things, being a robot and drinking martinis. I wanted them to have real feeling to them, a really human sense.

Are these "singer-songwriter" songs, personal in the way of that tradition, or is it something else?
I don't emotionally identify with the songs, with the lyrics. For me songwriting is primarily about music. Vocals are not an afterthought, not at all. But the lyrics and the vocal performance have to adhere to the rules of the song, to emphasize what's going on musically. It's not a purely aesthetic choice - I don't want it to seem like they're phony but they're not coming from some ... a lot of the songs are kind of pathetic, sad and pathetic and lonely, and it's more that I feel something from that kind of lyrics, they resonate with me, so I make the choice to write them. It's not like I'm heartbroken and I let it all out in a song.

I've been thinking about that, in terms of genuineness. I'm listening to a lot of seventies, MOR kind of music, and I was listening to the Band - they sing about the South, and that's stuff they haven't really experienced, but it's not like it's not genuine. It's something that you think will resonate with people. I wanted to write pop songs, songs that were about emotion, but I didn't want them to be cliched. There are two things I really hate in lyric writing - the first is cliche, and if you write love songs that are off kilter, that are about someone who is paranoid, or pathological, or a stalker then you can avoid cliche.

The other thing I hate in lyrics is lyrics that are just a string of nonsense, abstract words. You hear a rock band on the radio like Our Lady Peace - they have this song about Superman, and it ends with him repeating "the world is a subway." What the fuck does that mean, the world is a subway? If you can't say in one sentence what you're song is about there's a problem.

Or at least it is if what you're thinking about is the pop-song tradition.
Yes, and one of the tricks people in rock music have done is to write songs that avoid being about anything, these philosophical bullshit songs that, if you listen to the radio, they are about nothing. But if you're not going to do that you have the problem of writing from experience - which I didn't want to do because I am too boring. Or you can just write a love song, which firstly is kind of boring to do, and secondly is incredibly difficult to pull off and not feel like an ass, I don't know how people do it.

So this was my option. I have fun with them. They're not tongue in cheek, but - well, Birthday for example was written as a joke, and even now to myself I find it ridiculously funny. I think most songwriters probably have their own takes on their songs that may be different than what anyone else gets from it.

Has it been difficult to develop a live performance? What's your approach to that - do you have any models?
I resisted at first. I'm not going to lie, the reason we are doing it is to sell records. Everyone agrees that the best way to promote a record is to play live shows. Outside of a select number of people that hasn't changed much in the music business. At first I felt it was a real bummer. I thought, "I'm not a band, we don't have any way of doing it." But surprisingly we've had a lot of fun. It's been fun and been a real challenge to do the songs live. Some of them sound quite a bit like the record and some have been completely reworked. It sounds a little different. We did a lot of subtle things in these recordings that are lost when you're doing live shows, but it's okay.

We didn't have any models. I saw how my friend Dan Snaith, Manitoba, performs live - our show is a lot different than his, but some of the ways he technologically went about doing it - putting some of his songs together as a live thing - we looked at. But he's got two drummers, we don't have any drummers. We also took some influence from really early performances of New Order. They were playing live instruments with sequencers and that's how we did it.

Do you do anything performance-wise to stage it, or just whatever comes?
It is very much about what comes naturally. There's no affectation in terms of stage presence. We are putting together some sort of video background kind of thing. I'm glad to say - I'm a kind of person who's grown up with an abnormally large amount of phobias and I'm glad to say playing live so far has not been one of them. I feel very comfortable.

Is this a full-time thing for you now?
Well, I don't know how long this thing is going to last. I'm not making very much money at it, and my intuition is I probably won't for the next year or so. I'm convinced the second album will be panned and that will be it and I'll go take my GRE exam. But who knows - maybe I'll have six albums or ten albums.

Well, what's coming up just in the next year?
In September we have the CD release, and we're going on our first tour of the United States - a CD release party, and then we're going on tour. Oh, and we're going to Brazil to play a festival. So it's live concerts. It's a bit of a bummer in that if I had my way I'd probably have the second album done now.

So will you not get back to the studio this year?
Oh, no, not that. I would like to have a second record out early next year.

Since you're so aware of how this particular music was what was wanted at the moment, do you worry that if things are delayed, the material will get dated?
No, the stuff that's already done, I don't worry about it dating... I think that - this might be a particularly Canadian thing - I have the luxury of not being pressured as part of a scene, especially in dance music where there's so many niche things, so many microthings and so many rules. And I don't have to be part of that. In that sense I don't worry that much.

But I truly believe every musician has a shelf life and I want to get on with it. I know every band has only so many albums before they start to suck, and I fully intend on sucking at some point. You'll know once I start bringing in the Celtic band and the children's choir.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 09 at 12:28 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Ixnay on the Ovelay: Stephin Merritt, Continued

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I'm seeing the Magnetic Fields tomorrow (Fri) night in Toronto. Will try to review. Meanwhile, as sorta-promised, here are some of the things SM talked about that didn't make it into the piece. Some of it is probably better than what did, I'm chagrined to say. (Also see the bottom of the interview for further notes from me and others on i and other things under the sun.)

On continuity/discontinuity between 69 Love Songs and i:
"I wanted to continue doing a variety show. I didn't want to make it as varied [as 69LS] because it wasn't going to be three hours. There was an album made in the early Sixties titled Music to Break Any Mood which deliberately set moods and then shattered them. It was a really great record. But I didn't want to make that again. It would end up being unified by a 'soft-rock' approach, though of course none of it actually sounds like rock."

[...]

In several interviews after 69LS, Merritt said that pop was bankrupting itself, and that his next interest would be in trying to invent forms that were still pop but not just a repetition of the same forms. This album definitely doesn't do that, so I thought I'd ask what became of that idea.
"I haven't come up with a new musical form. What I have come up with is much more variety than other people. ... We're not doing anything new, what we're doing is using variety show as a genre. We were using love songs and now we're taking the variety aspect and running with it. I wouldn't presume to claim that this is doing something new."

I asked if he concerned himself with the relevance of what he was doing to contemporary currents in music, culture and politics, and whether there was any implicit critique in his approach, especially as it relates to i. (I was thinking of its more exaggerated retro feel, for instance, or the "i" concept itself.)
"Not in any way that i'm conscious of, no. ... I listen to pop music of the last 100 years and a lot of it responds to music from a few decades earlier. Most people have wide-ranging record collections -- why pretend that that's not the case? There are very few people who only like one genre of music or one period anymore, and I bet these are not people who buy a lot of records anyway, so why concern yourself with them?"

I said: Outside of 69LS your albums seem to be concept albums only in the light-handed way that Frank Sinatra's or Ray Charles' albums in the fifties and sixties would be, where a theme like late night or girls' names or what have you would be selected and then songs are drawn from the repertoire that loosely fit around the theme. Is your own songbook so wide that you're able to do that - can you treat yourself as a repertoire - or do you have to write to the theme?
"I distinguish between concept albums and theme albums. Songs for Swinging Lovers is a theme album, In the Wee Small Hours is a theme album. I generally choose themes that I've done something in before, so I may have songs in my trunk. I have a notebook full of unused songs. But I do write songs for the albums."

How do you distinguish between what songs, which lyrics, will go to your different bands? Has the definition of a Magnetic Fields song changed since 69LS?
"I usually write songs for particular projects. I have no definition for Magnetic Fields songs. Future Bible Heroes has a sort of science-fiction atmosphere that we can't sustain in the Magnetic Fields because we're switching it up from genres and periods. The synthesizer approach of FBH goes well with science-fiction lyrics, so I rarely do those in the Magnetic Fields. I use more horror there. And in the Gothic Archies. I'm speaking of genres in the sense of movie genres. With something like She-Devils of the Deep the song lyrics didn't really exist without movies. A lot of Future Bible Heroes Songs are like that. Papa Was a Rodeo was a Roger Corman movie."
(As I say in the piece, I don't really buy the claim that there is no definition of a Magnetic Fields song, anymore.)

Do you see pictures or try to get the listener to see pictures when you write, lyrics and/or music, as opposed to approaching it in terms of pure sound, themes, and the sound of language?
"I write a lot of different types of songs. One of the variables is whether there's a lot of visual imagery. Sometimes I am definitely trying to create a picture in people's minds. But you can't create pictures with music, other than with novelty sounds like the pop of champagne corks. I suppose you see pictures when you hear a harp. And hearing Black Sabbath you may well think of what Black Sabbath looks like - marshall stacks, long-haired people. You hear Black Sabbath and you don't visually conjure up the Cowsills."

Do you have any feeling of being too canny about your craft now, finding solutions to problems too easily - is there less a freedom of feeling than when you were starting out as a songwriter?
"I've been thinking recently about how on the first MF album I was doing almost exactly what i'm doing now. I used to leaf through the Alan Lomax compilation, Folk Songs of North America, and the first Magnetic Fields album is not a straightahead rock record but electronic settings of very folk-like songs - it genre-hopped wildly. I think my songwriting's gotten better, my lyrics have gotten better, but I don't think I've actually changed what I'm doing very much. I've only recently realized that, though."
I think this is revisionist, somewhat. Magnetic Fields songs used to have a little more to do with the surrealist aesthetic for which the band was named, and they had a certain consistency of synthesizer approach for all the albums leading up to Get Lost, which began a shift towards the acoustic-based Great American Song concept that developed on 69LS and if anything, hardens on i. It's not uniform, as yet, but close to. And folk song and Tin Pan Alley lead in very different directions even if they both have a formal accent.

You've been working in a bunch of theatrical forms - is that more of an attraction for you right now, even than recording albums, maybe? If so, why?
"Last week i was doing a workshop for a new one, My Life as a Fairy Tale, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen that will play in New York, Florida and Copenhagen next year. It's also with Chen Shi-Zheng ... I can't say what it will be like. We only just started. The instrumentation seems to be bassoon, pi po, some chinese woodwinds including a zhang - which is a cross between a flute and a church organ - and Stroh violin, which is like a violin with a victorola horn attached."

Yeah, I say, Tom Waits used Stroh violins and violas on Alice... What did you find interesting about chinese opera - how did it combine with your own style?

"I grew up on Brecht and Weill, and Brecht basically cobbles his theatrical style together out of Chinese opera, so it was not unfamiliar to me. I like non-western instruments, I like the collision. I wanted to do it that way and Shi-Zheng wanted an entirely Western instrumentation, and I won the coin-toss. But I wouldn't want to be doing it with entirely Chinese instruments. Chinese music can't be performed in English - it doesn't work that way, and no one really cares anyway - it's very basic and uninteresting, like Row Row Row Your Boat. I didn't even bother listening to the traditional music for Peach Blossom Fan. I just went ahead and did my own: marimaba, chinese hammer dulcimer, steel pan drums like caribbean music, and upright bass. Oh, and a marching band bass drum. And a lot of singers, some of whom were trained and some untrained. And nine ukeleles, singing a song about ukeleles, so that was fun."

Did you have any degree of involvement in writing the book for it?
"I think that's a professional secret. I think that's indiscreet. So: I had no hand in it whatsoever."

Will there be a cast recording of Peach Blossom Fan or Orphan of Zhao?
"We're right now working on recordings - not sure when they'll be out."

You have so many of these projects on the go - is this the real drift of things?
"I just have the chance to do them now. I want to expand what i do. It's not so much to move away from anything but to move towards everything else."

What about doing the Brill Building thing - have you tried to sell songs to other pop singers?
"I think that whole approach is dead outside of nashville. People hardly ever cover each other's songs, except for movie themes and Nashville. And even in Nashville it's not as common - half the country top 40 is original songs by the singers now."

That's not quite true.
"Well, they don't really like gay New Yorkers to come down to Nashville and write songs for them. Though maybe I could start a trend."

I'm sure there are a few down there already. But what about R&B; - they still buy songs...
"[silence]"

How about R&B; or soul singers?
"[silence]"

Well, industry stuff aside, who would you like to cover your songs, ideally, a particular pop singer or - ?
"Oh, all of them."

What would you do if you didn't write songs?
"I'd learn." [Pause] "I could go back to journalism."

There's no attraction to other pursuits at all?
"Certainly writing songs is what I'm best at."

Did you quit doing journalism because it was getting awkward being a musician and writing about musicians? (I find it awkward talking to you and then going off and talking, as it were, behind your back.)
"Yes. I didn't want to savage anybody who I was going to see backstage the next day. And I didn't want to write blandly."

What common misinterpretation of you and/or your work do you most dislike?

"Since I stopped reading my press I don't know what people think i'm up to. I know people have largely stopped using the phrase 'indie rock' in response, but we're now getting, in the Chinese operas, we're getting the equivalent - 'folk opera.' Drives Shi-Zheng crazy. He thinks it's racist. Anything non-european is folk, Europeans have a monopoly on high art. He thinks it's racist. So I'll pick 'folk art.' "

Some questions I didn't get to ask. Future interviewers, consider them 'open source' --

"Who's the audience among whom you'd most love to have your songs catch on, different than the collegiate audience you're typed with now? teenage girls, bollywood movie fans in india, eastern-european businessmen?"

"Is visual art important to you? who are your favourite artists, why?"

"At Harvard you studied the built environment, industrial and urban landscape, an influence that showed up on Charm of the Highway Strip among other places. So: What do you think should happen at ground zero?"

"What aspect of the built environment most needs to be written about in songs right now? Video-screen billboards? Airport security stations?"

"You wrote a list for Time Out of the best recordings, one a year, of the 20th century. What are the best recordings of the past four years?"

"What's the question you most hate being asked? - You asked Marc Almond this once, adding that everybody hates being asked that."

Supplementary materials
Stephin Merritt's list of the best recordings of each year of the 20th century, as concocted for Time Out.

What he really thinks is the best, aside from "Cheeze Doodles!", as related drunk in a bar, according to some guy on the interweb. (Scroll down one-third of the way or search "merritt".)

A debate I wish I'd been able to get into in the column. The 'folk opera' stuff above seems relevant. And the R&B; silence.
First S/FJ goes apeshit at Merritt. Then Matos does too, more calmly.. Various people at TMFTML go apeshit back. Then Franklin Bruno brings some much-needed perspective. (search "merritt" again). So S/FJ chills out a little. And ... the matter drops.

What I wrote to Aaron today:
"It's always hard to interview your personal heroes, and he's reasonably high up on my list of great songwriters, even if I liked him more back when he was doing surreal synthesizer cheeze-scapes instead of tasteful chamber pop and more imaginative scenarios, pre-69LS. I mean, 69LS is one of my favourite albums ever, but its use of cliche is part of the exercise - a part that he's now somewhat fixated on at the expense of other things - Holiday and Charm of the Highway Strip use cliches much more lightly, and are much more full of fresh imagery. 'I Wish I Had An Evil Twin' or 'In An Operetta' are both merely competent recitals of hoary ideas that he doesn't put to much unpredictable use. The exception is 'Irma,' a song so tough to absorb in the context of the straightforward stuff around it that I couldn't figure out how to work a mention of it into the column."

Other people who wrote about Stephin Merritt around Toronto this week:
1. Mike Doherty
* His piece contains the valuable information that the band pronounces the album title as a short "i" as in "it" - or, I would add, as in, "Stephin," which supports my contention yesterday.
* Also contains Merritt's hilarious suggestions that (a) if we removed radio censorship, for awhile every song would go, "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck!" but then everyone would get tired of that and it'd be back to normal; and (b) that if he had to place another song in the album's alphabetical order after "It's Only Time," it could have been called "Ixnay on the Ovelay." That titled really really really should have been a song on 69 Love Songs.

2. Sarah Liss
* Who is very nice but, um, WRONG when she says, "i is arguably stronger musically, featuring live instrumentation and lovely arrangements in place of Merritt's twee synth noodling"

3. Mary Dickie
* who should just be commended for getting something about the big queer Magnetic Fields into the Sun

4. Vit Wagner
* whom I've picked on enough this week

5. And Tim Pratt from the Detroit Free Press, whose Q&A; includes this revelation I haven't seen elsewhere:

A: The songwriting was a little more challenging than I'm used to because I have a new rule that I'm only using two rhymes.

(Thanks to Chromewaves for those last few links.)

And now I'm going to bed. (Well, actually I'm going to leave the office, where I've been writing this, get a cab, go home, read a bit and go to bed... Hey, for a moment there this felt like a blog!)

"I was writing our dreams down, making maps of an unseen plane;
and I noticed anomalies that you'd rather not see explained."
- The Magnetic Fields, "Jeremy"

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 01 at 11:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

(Nellie McKay) Is She Tough or Not Tough Enough, Really?

Today's column is fairly harsh on Nellie McKay, so I want to talk a bit about the one song that especially convinces me she does have a possible future as more than a very agile prancing pony.

Generally I've been annoyed by all the comparisons drawn between McKay and Randy Newman, one of my most cherished songwriting heroes. There are some obvious convergences in their allegiance to the history of American song and especially American piano music, and their common political outspokenness and wry senses of humour. But if that's all there is to it you might as well be comparing McKay to Van Dyke Parks. Or hell, Dick Van Dyke.

Where Randy and Nellie part company is in McKay's solipsism. Her inability to get out of the way of her songs goes beyond being a tic, turning her into a one-ingenue debating society in which, surprise, she almost always wins. [...]

The young Newman especially, gifted and afflicted by quite a different psychology, made it his business to remove himself from his songs, and part of why he spent so long so misunderstood was the difficulty listeners had separating the "I" in his songs from the singer himself. Usually, as I think is now more widely understood, the perspectives of the songs were an ironic turn away from Newman's own, all the way from slightly askew and exaggerated to the crude diametric opposites.

Some of his early portraits of racists were all too unsubtle that way (as in Yellow Man or even Sail Away, which is saved by the doubled irony of being set to truly grand, majestic music) but by the time he'd reached his masterpiece Good Old Boys he had mastered the ability to attack both the Other and himself, to butcher reactionaries and liberals in the same swing of his songwriting scythe. Each line would refract and twist the one that preceded it until the vulnerabilities of his subjects were laid bare in an operating theatre in the round.

McKay's version of satire doesn't even get as far as Newman's early caricatures. She can never resist interrupting to interject a literal denunciation, a "gotcha," just at the moment when she might have pulled off a nice move. When Eminem does this, he's rescued by the fact that all his moves are so unsettling. McKay, whose opinions are very much parallel to any others at the democratic-socialist dinner parties where her fans play her records, needs much more slyness if she hopes to upset our digestion.

But in the song I'm thinking of, Really, the formal slowness and the conscious use of her storehouse of popular-song knowledge stays her hand just long enough that the song is given a chance to creep up our shoulders, slip into our ears. It's only right when we're beginning to wonder what it's up to that it lets loose and sinks in its fangs.

It begins in a Porter-Gershwin-Sondheim rhetorical form that will recall a thousand 1930s ballads, a sense memory the melody encourages: "Am I sad? Not sad enough, really/ Am I mad? Not mad enough, clearly..." At this point it could be a tune about the deflating, anticlimactic end of a love affair. But then it makes its first pivot: "Am I complacent, completely lacking in sincerity?/ Yes, indeed I am."

In a brisk next few lines, she establishes that this is somebody faced by a social problem, a beggar in the street, who realizes he or she isn't doing enough about it: "What can I do? What can I do?"

From verse to verse McKay ups the ante: "I feel sympathy, empathy, it's just that I'm super-busy right now, really." (That "super" is a perfectly struck note of false overstatement in today's demotic.) "I don't know why I'm such a shit/ I realize this doesn't help a bit/ But what can I do, what can I do?"

And then in the coda, she reprises the start: "Am I bad? Not bad enough, really/
I feel angry and upset/ I could write you a small check..." until at last she breaks through to the direct and brutal truth: "Look I wish you luck/ And here's your buck/ It's just that I'm a yuppie fuck/ Yes indeed I am/ Really."

And this is where the serial shifts in levels of language set off their effective little personal-political quake: Her yuppie is not a stereotypical go-getter with a martini and expensive cigar. Rather, it's someone who does not consider him- or herself a yuppie at all, but a "compassionate" liberal who feels too consumed by neurosis, too overwhelmed, to act for any sort of justice.

The final shift might be too broad - but there's some fun in that, and it drives home a point you might not quite expect: This person is not nearly so weak as she pretends. In the end, she bluntly prefers self-hatred to any threat of actual self-sacrifice; in fact, her well-tended self-hatred only camouflages how much she loves herself, at the expense of all the world.

Now that's a deft little number. It unspirals with a patience and craft that Newman (or the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt) could admire. Formally (not substantially) it reminds me of a Newman song such as Same Girl from 1983's Trouble in Paradise, in which it becomes clear in the turnaround that the guy singing this rapturous sentimental ode to his longtime lover is actually the pimp who's keeping her hooked on junk and on the streets, year after year.

What's more, Really goes at the solipsism that is McKay's very own weakness, and unlike almost all her other songs (Sari being one notable exception) makes no manoeuvres to separate herself from the object of her attack - she graduates from me-versus-them to me-versus-us, which to my mind is a far more potent and credible attitude, and one that does much more to uphold the old cabaret tradition's take on irony, which wasn't just savage but self-deprecating - because to protect yourself from your own perspicacity, you've gotta put blinders on. Cabaret was fiercely against any willful blindness - even if it was just an eyepatch meant to protect your one good eye. (It was, after all, the first post-Freudian age.)

Really, unlike McKay's other tunes, doesn't damper its flame just because she might get scorched in the process. It gets her out of the debating club into the open air of song, where ideas aren't bought or traded but allowed to burn like flares. If she has more like this in her, I'll take it all back. As I wrote today, the trouble is whether her fire will get the oxygen it needs while she's in the confusing artificial sunlight of the fame she so compulsively desires.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 24 at 8:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Erik Friedlander, unexpurgated

dgf

The rock band I was playing with had a drummer and I took her on a date there to see Stan Getz, this group he had that was an unsuccessful attempt at being 'modern.' After the gig the drummer went to talk to their drummer and I talked to Harvie Swartz, who calls himself Harvie S. now. I told him I was playing cello and he said he'd written something for cello. So he had me over to this loft - and that was the beginning. I started playing with Randy Brecker and a lot of well-known musicians. We performed at Seventh Avenue South. It was mindblowing. I was in way over my head.
A little advantage was playing an instrument that was rarely seen in jazz. My contribution was very tailored. I was painfully aware of what I wasn't able to do, but he was cagey enough to create a role that added to the music in a big way. I was playing a lot of the melodies, but I wasn't a featured sololst or anything. I wish I could go back and do it again!
After that it became kind of an onslaught to become a more accomplished musician. I needed to get my classical playing together, and I spent 10 years just refining my classical approach. I was getting jobs working orchestras, commercials, movie scores. It was a case of 'be careful what you wish for.' I got very busy but got more and more miserable because I had no creative outlet.
A group I joined, a trio called Framework, started playing the Knitting Factory after that. I started meeting Marty Ehrlich and Dave Douglas and John Zorn, and that opened up a whole situation for me... My job was to try and open up possibilities for myself in each of those groups. Then the next step was to create my own bands.

Me: Can you describe the differences, aside from personnel, between your groups Chimera and Topaz? Is Chimera still active?
EF: It's not really. It's more like seeing them on the timeline. Chimera was an early band and there was certainly a lot of compositional ambitions I was wrestling with. It was good for me, creating improvising structures without a percussion instrument. You need to figure out ways of stretching out, soloing, accompaniment, an inseresting build, to get a lot of energy without drums. But then I found that I didn't want to be playing cello in anything people were calling 'chamber jazz.' I couldn't stand that. So I chose to move on to something with more drums. I've gotten compositionally more savvy, can do more with less. My most recent band record, Quake, has much fewer notes per tune. The band is looking at five lines of score that they use to play six or seven minutes of music. But the seed is still there.

Me: Your band work all has a lot of international or multicultural sources and influences. Did that begin from working with Dave Douglas and John Zorn, who are also known for that approach?
EF: You know, you're in - Montreal? no, Toronto - and when you're in a big city, you're just surrounded by streams of input, musical, artistic, worldly. It's just part of your life. Working with Zorn, working with Dave Douglas, influenced me a lot, but it's also part of what 21st-century life is about. Also I look it as my job to search for inspiration. I've got to find it, not just sit back and wait for it. If I'm gonna find it in Bali, in Persian music, in pop music, then that's what I'm going to do.
Me: Is there anyth