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'They're Planets, Just Like Us'

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.)


Now here's a little savoir Phair. Blogfight connoisseurs, notice the gratuitous M.I.A. reference.

[... continues ...]

A Phair mix in a muted tone

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 21 at 02:32 PM | Comments (8)


'Once You Don't Know Nothin,
You Can Do Somethin'

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 Allen.

Sun Ra's stream of consciousness still flowing into the future

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 14 at 01:14 PM | Comments (3)


Storytellers, Not Made for VH1


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."

Telling stories with a twist
(Decemberists, Fiery Furnaces, Destroyer)

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 07 at 10:48 AM | Comments (4)


The Passion of Alejandro


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 30 at 12:08 PM | Comments (2)


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?


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.)

Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 29 at 03:07 PM | Comments (24)


The Big Punk Rock Lie (and/or Warren Kinsella)

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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 29 at 02:29 PM | Comments (4)


The Only Pornographers are
the Pornographers of Ice Cream


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)
★ ★ ★

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 19 at 11:16 AM | Comments (6)


Payola, ooh la la


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, August 14 at 03:16 PM | Comments (1)


Big Star: For All You Sister Lovers

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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 26 at 04:53 PM | Comments (0)


The New Protest Music = Faux-test Music


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 23 at 02:53 PM | Comments (0)


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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 03:20 PM | Comments (2)


Kells's Closet Case Cracked

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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 03:12 PM | Comments (4)


Toronto Unsyncopated

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 02:33 PM | Comments (12)


"Electricity Made Music Louder and More Often"


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 09 at 03:42 PM | Comments (2)


Don't Re-Shoot the Piano Player


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 26 at 09:53 AM | Comments (2)


Are You Feelin' Moody?


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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 24 at 04:43 AM | Comments (2)


Who Stole the DJ?


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. [...]

Gone the way of the DJ

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.

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 19 at 04:40 AM | Comments (0)


The Disappearance of the Outside?

irwin.jpg jackson.jpg
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

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."

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 11 at 03:11 PM | Comments (13)


Cassette Mythos: Elegy


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.


Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape

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."

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 04 at 01:56 PM | Comments (4)


Victo 2005: R&D; On The Human Strain


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, May 28 at 01:09 PM | Comments (5)


Radical Cheerleaders Exposed! (musically speaking)


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?

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.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 24 at 11:57 PM | Comments (5)


Sunrise, Sunset


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
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.”

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 12 at 01:39 PM | Comments (6)


Girls Gone Wild

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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 30 at 02:55 PM | Comments (2)


Benny XVI & The Jets


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 25 at 01:12 PM | Comments (1)


The Anatomy of Smooth


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?

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 09 at 02:29 PM | Comments (11)


I Got a Couple Past-Due Bills, Won't Get Specific


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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 02 at 03:09 PM | Comments (1)


"Is This A Two-Thumbs-Up Mountain?"


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!

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 26 at 12:23 PM | Comments (5)


"All I Ever Think About Is Politics and Sex"

"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?"

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 19 at 02:55 PM | Comments (1)


Steady Merkin' & Lekman Lurkin'

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 11 at 10:16 AM | Comments (0)


Everything Infects Everything

Cambodiancass.jpg palestine.jpg princessnicotine.jpg
radiojavaback.jpg sumatra.jpg syria.jpg

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 05 at 03:40 PM | Comments (1)


Win Your Oscar Poll! (At Least In One Obscure Category)


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 26 at 01:14 PM | Comments (0)


Hey Yo Yo Yo, I Need An Empire To Overthrow


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 17 at 05:19 PM | Comments (3)


Montreal Miracle Explained, Cancer Cured, Etc.


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 12 at 05:07 PM | Comments (7)


One Mango, Extra Salt and Pepper


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 05 at 05:24 AM | Comments (3)


Indie Rock Death 3: This Time, It's Technological

"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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 22 at 04:40 PM | Comments (2)


Failure's Always Sounded Better: Bright Eyes


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

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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 21 at 04:11 PM | 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

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.


Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 15 at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)


The Counterfactuals of Bleep


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 08 at 03:10 AM | Comments (7)


Great Hoser Music, Ancient to the Future!

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 07 at 01:58 PM | Comments (1)


2004 In the Rear-View

john darnielle.jpg nas4.gif newsomx.jpg

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


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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 01 at 05:40 PM | Comments (1)


Scrooged Up


Today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail: "God rest ye same old Christmas carols." [...]

God rest ye same old Christmas carols

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 18 at 12:15 PM | Comments (2)


Helter Stupid


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

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.
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.

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 12 at 03:15 PM | Comments (0)


Hugh By Nature: RIP, Hugh McIntyre (Nihilist Spasm Band)


"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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 07 at 01:45 AM | Comments (1)


Apparitions and Vanishments


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


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."

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 04 at 04:10 PM | Comments (0)


Notes on Hip (II)


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.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 30 at 01:24 AM | Comments (0)


Notes on Hip (I)


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.

* * *


The men of the Handsome Boy Modeling School seldom make whiteness an explicit subject. You have to read between the tracks

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."


Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 27 at 02:13 AM | Comments (0)


Horrified Observations of Horrified Observers

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?


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.


Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 20 at 01:36 PM | Comments (3)


Everybody in da Shanty House


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 13 at 04:05 PM | Comments (1)


Middle America's Dr. Seuss-Gone-Porno Nightmare...


.... 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

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.


Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 06 at 04:19 AM | Comments (0)


I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to W.'s World

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.


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?


Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 30 at 01:19 PM | Comments (0)


Parking Meter Watch


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.

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 20 at 07:15 PM | Comments (0)


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 16 at 12:52 PM | Comments (1)


Guelph Fest's Fantastic Fiasco


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.

Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 13 at 11:46 PM | 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.

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 09 at 12:28 AM | Comments (1)


Ixnay on the Ovelay: Stephin Merritt, Continued

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...

How about R&B; or soul singers?

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"

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 01 at 11:41 PM | 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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 24 at 08:40 PM | Comments (1)


Erik Friedlander, unexpurgated


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 anything especially helpful in looking at foreign traditions for the cello, being able to look at techniques from non-western stringed instruments and so on?
EF: Sometimes. I'm not sure if it's the cello or just whatever sounds I respond to. There have been things I've tried that haven't worked, but in a writing zone, when I'm looking for inspiration, I have a certain set of eyeglasses on that screen out what I can't use. But I suppose those stringed instruments are more idiomatic to the cello than trying to be a saxophone, even if it's just a certain way of playing a violin.

Me: What effect do you think you can achieve with solo performance and recording different than an ensemble?
EF: I'm waiting to discover that. There is something about solo performances, I don't know if it's just the cello or what, that when I sit down to play, people pay attention. But I've only done maybe five solo concerts. What I try to do is what I do with any group, to find stuff that will work and create a concert that has some variety - a performance that tells it's own story. I have 11 concerts in 12 days now, so I'll know a lot more after that. One thing is that it demands as much as I can do to make musical sense, because it needs variety. I have to pizz[icato], I have to bow, to use all the techniques on both of those, use mutes... The last thing I want is to be thinking to myself, 'Oh God, that's kind of like what I did last time.' Whereas with a band I can create orchestration - this is cello and bass, this is cello and alto, I have percussion, I don't have percussion.

Me: You've started to work more in scoring films and television. Is that a financial concern or is there something about the form that interests you?
EF: Oh, I completely love it. Working with pictures. And working with radio too, there's someone I'm doing music for radio drama with. It's similar to any other composition, but more overtly about telling a story, which is what's so attractive to me in creating music. But also with my background, my father [Lee Friedlander] as a photographer, there's something about scoring a picture.... I feel I have a rapport with it. To bring out, to etch what's happening with the picture in the music is so satisfying to me, setting up an event with the right music.

Me:It seems there are more and more cellists in the improvising world. Do you all talk to each other, or is there a sense of competition for scarce work?
EF: There's so little work for anyone. We're all struggling for whatever we can do. It's hard for everybody. It's always nice when I see another cellist. We're not exactly accepted like a guitarist or sax player.
Me: I notice you have cello lessons and tips on your website.
EF: I'm trying to reach out. A lot of people are going to music school and graduating and there's a huge disconnect between what they really want to express and what they're actually doing.

Me: Do you think the mood, the politics and general situation in the city since 9/11 has changed the New York improv commmunity in any way?
EF: Things are just much harder now. I'm not sure. Some people latch on to being very political, but many who've never been motivated by that, they haven't changed. I think it's harder to make records, get them out, sell them. People are having to take more jobs, teaching, that's just a dampening effect on everybody. At the same time I think it's interesting to see Myra Melford going to teach at Berklee, and things like that. People are doing what they have to do, but the community is still here. It's as much about economics as anything. All the work we had in Europe has more or less disappeared. People are having a hard time sustaining it. And yet, even five years ago I wouldn't have been able to tour the U.S. this much, so I find this [solo tour] kind of heartening. I was talking about this with someone the other day, that there's so much ability to recreate instruments using synthesizers and so on, maybe there's been too much of the same and people are ready for something different. I was amazed when I went to Austin [for SXSW]. I was dreading I would be like a bug on the windshield there... but as long as I had the energy, they were way into it.


Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 15 at 12:49 PM | Comments (3)


Destroyer's Yves Klein Blues

"Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock and roll," sang John Lennon on the Beatles' Yer Blues. But on his own Your Blues, Destroyer's Dan Bejar feels free to hate his rock-and-roll without any urge to self-destruction. He just kisses it off and moves on.

There were several reasons I didn't review Your Blues in the newspaper.* At the release date, I was still, after a month of listening, trying to figure it out. As a longtime friend and champion of Dan - sometime New Pornographer, all-the-time Vancouver bard of Canadian self-cancellation transformed into Spanish-tinged quixotic crusade - I felt a responsibility I never normally feel to get the interpretation right. Especially when he'd done something this substantial, this undiscountable.

The existence of this post is a white flag I am waving to say that I have given up trying. But that also means I succeeded, because this music is calibrated exactly to force that surrender. [...]

Right now, maybe more than ever, music and the other arts are indicating no sort of collective purpose or direction. Is this a sign of weakness or health? Your Blues marks the point when Dan, who has been consumed by such dilemmas as much as anyone, decides to call it an opportunity, and seize it. He takes it, in fact, to the hilt, but in tangents so difficult to track or decipher that we're left dazed in our search for where exactly that hilt may be located. That is, the kind of "good" it manages to be, in daring lapses of taste that are not by any means ironic, isn't any kind we're familiar with before we hear it.

First, it is not at all rock music. Mind you, I don't think anything Destroyer's ever done is rock music, with the exception of the previous, Destroyer-as-band album This Night (which is shit-hot rock music) and some of the weaker stretches of Thief (which are not).

But most past Destroyer has been rock that negates itself, rock evoked in its absence and probable death with an elegaic approach. This album is the positive embrace of something else.

Scott Walker and John Cale are acknowledged templates, but Harry Nillson and Frank Sinatra also come in, as does a rotation of English mid-1980s synthesizer bands.** Equally important are the cast albums of various Broadway musicals, Camelot predominant among them. The theatricality jumps out at you. This is Dan's most scarily bold set of vocal performances ever - opening track Notorious Lightning makes sure you know it, with its final two minutes of a full robot parade band oom-pah-pahing away while Dan tries out every growl and gasp he can find in the phrase "And someone's got to fall before someone goes free!"

More offputting still, the almost fully synthesized music (with David Carswell and John Collins doubling him on Roland XV3080 and Kurzweil K2600) is like the gods dropping down from the painted scenery on high and turning out to be made mostly of Brie.

The idea that this is Dan saying that all life is artifice, mentioned in many reviews, is kindergarten stuff: Destroyer's assumed that proposition since the first album, We Shall Build Them A Golden Bridge. But in the past the relationship to the artifice was much more rueful and awkward. It's the joyful embrace, the Cocteau-like adoration of surface - the knowledge that in music, poetry or painting surface is depth, irony is earnestness, text is subtext, embraced without angst - that distinguishes this album from everything he's done before: All artifice is life.

How did he get there? This Night served its purpose by expunging all the political posturing, the self-consciousness about pop and anti-pop that burdened Streethawk and Thief. Now Dan has been able to assume his actual burden, the timeless one of the poet who wants to be an entertainer, the entertainer who wants to be a poet, and the dreamer who wants to be a revolutionary. He puts away boyish things like the future tense. Instead it's, "The new world has arrived - just look at my costume! And by the way, I really love music." (Thus The Music Lovers, his confessional piece revealing that his past love-hate stance toward music - like most hatred - was only excess love all along.)

The present tense has been mostly absent in Destroyer outings except as an occasion for regret, ever since the inspired but collegiate City of Daughters in 1998. Past and future had all the juice. What real time's return suggests is that here, for that first time, friendship, sex and love are palpable as more than farces. A line like "I lay myself down to observe your gilded jeans hit the ground" comes and goes in a flash but it is erotic for real while it's there, no boyish shock tactic. Suddenly Destroyer is not a rock or an island, since nobody worth knowing actually is.

Other old strategies vanish in the process. No fake women's names, for instance. The imaginary girls' names in his old songs weren't just dodges but insults; an imaginary Holly outstripping an actual Anne. That joke's over.The fake city names - Oakland, Warsaw, Berlin - do much more to expand the music's metaphoric universe. As he sings in What Road, "Able, willing, ready/ Fuck the Spiral Jetty!/ Tonight we work large!"

(Art-world humour -- like this reference to Robert Smithson's famous earthwork - also replaces a lot of the music-world satire of albums past, which seems more outward-looking and curious, while still keeping to his old adage, "you've got to stay critical or die." ... Not that there's none of the old, clever twists on fanzine jargon: "Your backlash was right where I wanted you/ Yes that's right I wanted you ... too," being the obvious instance.)

This album isn't free of his characteristic emotional skittishness and I wouldn't want it to be. But by the time it reaches What Road?, there's that chorus that counsels, "So quick let's go/ It's time for a ride/ The future is yours/ No, wait, I lied/ It is not yours/ It is a replica/ Of scattered ash/ And the road the rain's on." There, the skittishness isn't just present, it's accounted for: No, wait, it's life, not art. And if that's the way Destroyer's headed, bring on all the outdated midi-synthesized solos you can, because I want to be in the orbital satellite bedroom where this conversation can take place, for the duration.

Different ears will get attached to different elements. It might not stick the first time, but play it four or five times and then don't be surprised if it becomes difficult to listen to any pop music that is not Your Blues. You'll be one of those "submarines [that] don't mind spending their time in the ocean." Because it feels like that's what you were built for.


* P.S. The other main reason I didn't cover this album in the newspaper, by the way, was very newspapery: Some of the songs on it were written for a musical called All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, to be staged in some future year in Toronto. And that musical was written by my wife. Now, I think life is one big conflict of interest, so in my opinion disclosure is everything. Still, it's one thing to divulge in a review that the artist is a friend of yours. But to have to say that your family hired him to create much of the album seemed too complicated a situation to ask the Globe to take on. I feel sure I would love this album even if I had never met anyone involved, but in reality, my affection for it is also a deep fraternal pride, my love affair with these songs also a family affair. It's unprofessional in the very best way. And that's why we have the Internet.

**ALSO - About the 80s synth bands (Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen pointedly not among them; instead think of, for instance, Japan): These bands have always been the reason for the remnant of a once-upon-a-time-affected accent in Bejar's voice that's been mistaken by every critic on earth for a David Bowie imitation, when it was in fact an imitation of various imitations of David Bowie. If I could retroactively sit everybody down and play them a David Bowie album immediately followed by a Destroyer album, half the verbiage in the Destroyer press kit would immediately vaporize.

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 31 at 06:10 PM | Comments (1)


Fate Healers: The Mountain Goats' 12 Steps into the Valley of Death (and 13 Steps Back)

A drug, all romanticism aside, is nothing but a delivery system for a chemical. Just as cigarettes have been engineered by the tobacco industry into burning arrows that carry nicotine to your brain with the greatest possible speed and intensity, crystal meth is a ruthlessly efficient system that slams d-methamphetamine into your cells, ripping raw bleeding chunks out of your metabolism, reasoning, life expectancy and heart's desires along the way without a whisper of apology.

John Darnielle, the man who is The Mountain Goats, produces music on much the same principle - as simply the most brutally effective delivery system yet devised for what he really wants to propagate: Poetry. [...]

Like David Berman, Dan Bejar or Chuck D (or, yeah, that obvious big D), in another time and place Darnielle might have written epic verse. But now it's 700 years after Dante, and almost nobody including me has eyes big enough for The Inferno or The Divine Comedy, much less to take in any new verse epic not yet validated by the mossy aroma of old books and defanged devils.

And so these latterday bards are led to ask why anybody would deal plain old drugstore pharmaceuticals, once the crystal meth of literature had been synthesized and imperfected by rock and its successors.

The Mountain Goats began their plummet from the heights of Olympian obscurity in the early-nineties L.A.-area hometaping scene: Blahblahblah "lo-fi" blahblahblah "4-track," but Darnielle actually went further, preferring to make do with a shopping-mall boombox, because he is an extremist. He is an extremist of small things and an extremist of the beautiful, an extremist of esotericism and populism in equal measure and, as his new album makes just short of graphically plain - because he is also an extremist of the sidelong, an extremist of the subtle, a paradox that contains the whole point of John Darnielle - he has been an extremist of the just plain extreme as well.

Some people don't understand why this trafficker in acoustic-guitar, solo-voice epiphanies is also the number-one dealer of death metal to the intelligentsia, in his guise as one of the best music critics alive. Those people should have a close listen to We Shall All Be Healed, an album that could be remixed to the music of Slayer and sound perfectly natural. (Maybe we could take this one up with DangerMouse). Not because WSABH's lyrics are about blood and demons - not literally - but because as its action proceeds, all its voices and characters are probably listening to Slayer, bickering about Slayer, having sex and passing out to Slayer and then having sex to Slayer again...

... presuming they still can have sex, which seems improbable. These are the kinds of people who don't wake up, they come to.

The vocals aren't death-metal vocals, either, but they are shouted as much as they are sung, as they have been on the hundreds and hundreds of songs Darnielle has released under The Mountain Goats banner, mostly on cassette, in the past 12 years. I'm not sure Slayer can be credited for the shouts, considering that (according to legend) Darnielle took the Goats' name from the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song Big Yellow Coat while he was working as a nurse in a California state hospital.

Nurse? Yes, besides being a classicist who often sprinkles Greek and Roman (and, since he is from California, Aztec) allusions through his lyrics, he has been a mental-health-care worker, until recently at a home for abused youth in Iowa: Darnielle and his wife Lalitree just moved to North Carolina, leaving that day job and perhaps all day jobs behind him, as seems plausible since he is now on a lengthy tour and has the support of 4AD, an unlikely Mountain Goats label given its lush-mellow reputation but there you are.

I bring up the mysteries of his occupation(s) only because: 1. Information accumulated in that group home may well have helped inform the content of this album; in my imagination, it may in some sense be his farewell note to those kids. (Recent shows have reportedly included tearful dedications to his former wards.) 2. Whatever his official accreditation, the term "lay practitioner" describes John Darnielle's persona in every way, from the spiritual to the clinical to the carnal.

Darnielle has now released two albums on 4AD, though in his compulsive way he has put out other stuff under other auspices and monickers in the same period. The 4AD discs are distinguished, most obviously, by the production: Full-band arrangements, more careful dynamic tweaking, the indicators never going wildly over into the red or dropping off into the inaudible. This produced the predictable kneejerk outcry, which seems finally to have passed. (If you, dear reader, are still crying, then go to your baby crib with the other babies and leave us grownups to talk. We'll bring your pablum and Kill Rock Stars vinyl in later.)

The other mark of the 4AD discs is that they are concept records: Mountain Goats albums often revolve around a geographical centre or theme, but both 2002's Tallahassee and this year's WSABH feature cycles of songs with consistent characters enacting particular dynamics in a consistent setting, or at least as consistent as Darnielle's sidelong-extremist sensibility permits.

On Tallahassee the characters were Darnielle's well-known "Alpha Couple," the boozing, battling, arson-prone marrieds whose misfortunes already had been chronicled in such songs as Alpha Double Negative, Alpha Incipiens, Alpha Desperation March, Spilling Toward Alpha and Going to Dade County.

The album was, and maybe remains, Darnielle's opus; it closes out the cycle with a portrait of betrayal, dependence and fatal rationalization in bitten-tongue-in-cheek acid, yet fully in the round, in some of his most remarkable melodies and sharpest verse: "I am drowning, there is no sign of land/ You are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand/ And I hope you die/ I hope we both die" - No Children, a title which, after that, seems like an imperative understatement.

On WSABH, the players are less figures in a Greek tragedy than those kids in the prefab round the corner, where Don Delillo's the landlord. They have no name and little precedent in Darnielle's corpus, though I think inevitably they will be referred to as "the tweakers," thanks to one of the album's most memorable choruses, in first single Palmcorder Yajna: "And I dreamt of a house/ Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out/ And the headstones climbed up the hills."

The dream in question arrives while the group (better described as a "pack")sleeps off a binge in a Travelodge, after unnamed but clearly chemical rituals. "Tweakers," for the uninitiated, is not a cute endearment but a term for crystal-meth users. They're caught in a more passive suicidal struggle of their own; indeed, they might be the Alphas' non-existent children. In the middle-8 of Palmcorder Yajna, Darnielle echoes the Tallahassee lyric quoted above, but with teen bravado: "If anybody comes to see me/ Tell 'em they just missed me by a minute/ If anybody comes in to our room while we're asleep/ I hope they incinerate everybody in it."

That's the second song, and past that gate all the aces of spades are on the table. The preceding opener, Slow West Vultures, strikes me as a kind of overture. Darnielle has acknowledged that this album is his first real foray into autobiography, and in the first song he seems to be hesitating on the threshold and pondering the ethics of this kind of entertainment: "We do what we do all for you/ All dressed up, black hat and white cane/ Slowly circling the drain," he drawls across textures, even sound effects, to rile the purists - breaking the Goats' sonic mould as much as it will be broken here, severing some ties with the old style for the sake of a voice at once more artfully distanced and closer to home (which is not a contradiction but the same thing).

Then Palmcorder Yajna zooms in on the scene: "Holt Boulevard between Gary and White," the Travelodge, the tweakers with "reflective tape on our sweatpants" who "comb through the carpet for clues," the group fever interrupted only by the paranoid dreams. On this album you will seldom if ever get out of this room; the cussedly cheerful major chords rush ahead of you up ramping high notes, blurring and taunting the way the days do when you fall off the calendar and out of time.

Then we slump back in the couch to watch The Exorcist, in one of the album's weaker songs but best titles, Linda Blair Was Born Innocent. By the time the movie's over neither the actress nor us slackjawed children are innocent anymore.

Letter from Belgium marks the first of two mysterious allusions to Belgium on this disc, but mainly it's part 2 of Palmcorder Yajna: We snap out of our video nod and flinch at the light leaking in through the tinfoil-covered windows. One reviewer snarked that the opening lines - "Martin calls to say he's sending old electrical equipment/ That's good, we can always use some more electrical equipment" - are a lame imitation of past Darnielle lyrics like Going to Georgia's, "The most amazing thing about you standing in the doorway/ Is that it’s you and you’re standing in the doorway."

But the tautological device here operates utterly differently: I get what that old lovelorn line's about, but I have no idea what the "electrical equipment" is or why, and would frankly rather not know. It's not a lyrical loop but a lyrical trainwreck, a conspiracy writ crooked, a theory of incoherent desire and a full-stop refusal to explain, as much an avoidance as the key lines in this song: "When we walk out in the sunlight we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes/ When the real reason we don't like it is that it makes us wonder if we're dying." The program is to make sure everyone we know is down there with us so there'll be no inconvenient questions.

In the next song, The Young Thousands, barges are pulling into the bay, "bearing real suspicious cargo" - the electrical equipment? Shit, is this happening? The song can't tell you, or is blackmailed into secrecy, but for diversion it musters up the cadences of a communal anthem, the enchanting sound of deluded stoned radicalism, Bertolucci's sleepers, pleasure as revolution - and is that so deluded? "There must be diamonds somewhere in a place that stinks this bad." Like Billy Joe Shaver, they're just young lumps of coal who are gonna be diamonds someday, or so they pray, glimpsing the distant gleam of eventual escape.

But then someone does escape, and the diamonds do not sparkle, only glare: Your Belgian Things, the most lilting, Gallic, romantic song here, sounds like a traditional lover-moving-out song, except that the men who come for the departing one's possessions wear "biohazard suits." Soon it becomes clear that the leaver has left or tried to leave not just a house and lover but "the bruised earth." The piano hammers nails in the coffin block chord by block chord, mocking anyone who thinks that the piano somehow renders the Mountain Goats less honest, less ready to walk the plank of a song. Really they've just made the risks bigger by stepping into a less cozy and cozened community; but Darnielle understands the sense of abandonment; we all yearn for our imaginary friends. "I wish you had a number where you are/ It's hard with no one here to help me through it," the survivor sings, wishing there were phone lines in the grave, and maybe that he could get his own extension.

In Mole we discover that the "Belgian" girl isn't dead but handcuffed to a bed in intensive care. The protagonist (whom I am trying to stop calling "Darnielle") comes crawling up out of his bunker, begging her to run away with him to the desert and "live carefree." Sweet impossibility. The guitar is sarcastically sympathetic, barely deigning to offer enough backup sound to get through the song. The piano is a nurse, looking in, checking up, smiling in pity, then suddenly demanding "information."

Then the backslide into Home Again Garden Grove - an old-school style MGs guitar-pounding rant in which the protagonist is heading somewhere and is constantly revising where, ranting of how his high-school fantasies of becoming "fugitive warlords" are now reduced to "shoving our heads straight into the guts of the stove." He's reached the end of his line.

In the delicate All Up the Seething Coast we seem to be in a rehab idyll, bluesy low guitar riffs under a recitative about grapefruits piled with sugar, and the sounds of chirping birds. (An important clue: back in the motel or basement apartment or wherever this album used to be, there'd be no birds, and certainly no open window to hear them through). Our hero's getting out "and a thousand dead friends can't stop me."

To my ears the rest is denouement: Quito, a 12-stepper's hymn to ice-cold water, in which Gilgamesh meets haiku and the New Age, a fiddle on board to sound more ancient doubts; and two strong, ruefully loving looks back over the shoulder, Cotton and Against Pollution.

You might begin to think Darnielle's just toeing the recovery-movement line, but then he comes out with, "This song is for the people/ Who tell their families that they're sorry/ For things they can't and won't feel sorry for," and you know that his compassion has limits, the limits of an extremist who knows the sharp edged gap between truthfulness and any claim to a given truth, who knows Death Valley from the Valley of Death. On the precipice of mawkishness, the healer heals himself, veers back from the waiting arms of Oprah at the hairpin curve.

Finally comes song (or step?) 13, characteristically reconditely titled Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of: The survivor is metamorphosed back into criminal - is he a free man dreaming he's a convict or a convict dreaming he's a free man? Either way he makes his rhetorical breakout even as the bars clank shut in front of his pockmarked face, concluding that while judges and dead friends both "send your dark messengers to tempt me/ I come from Chino so all your threats are empty."

I could say a bit about Chino, Calif., here, but I'll refer you to various Richard Buckner tunes instead. This perversely blank marching song is here to forbid us any smug intimacy with the tweakers as they indulge in their last-minute rock-out, as if to say: "44 minutes and you think you understand, you know what's happened here? You don't know shit." It's a Trojan Horse of epiphany, a sunburst with nothing inside.

So what to make of all this? A feral gang of crystal heads in a motor inn does not sound nearly as universal a subject as a couple in a hellish marriage, and it isn't: WSABH won't affect most people as direly and directly as its predecessor did, and it will take longer for listeners to find their place in it, to settle in around the fire (which Darnielle just happens to have built with books from your library and a few sticks of furniture while you were out, didn't think you'd mind) and take in the tale.

First: Its craft is the equal of any Mountain Goats project. With contributions from Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue, Jenny Toomey, Extra Glenns) on many instruments, as well as producer John Vanderslice, frequent MGs bassist Peter Hughes, violinist Nora Danielson and others, the music is more nuanced and varied, a better needle for the drug.

Listen again.

Second: The story works as horror movie and farce, as Tallahassee did, but this time for anyone who has struggled with addiction, with friends' addictions, even with addictions to friends. From what I can see (checks around room) those are goddamn common experiences. And WSABH addresses drugs with and without all romanticism aside: Glad it's over and glad it happened, glad for the deeper foundations it built on to the self, the storage lockers of experience - even if you never go down there again, nevermore push the last button on the elevator, and give thanks in every syllable for every day you don't - still unable to regard it with regret.

Listen again.

Third: At another level it addresses the lost eras within our lives, the times and people that disappear behind us as we go, the "what the hell was that all about" with which we look back from the relative safety of later years. In this it is as universal as a chapter of the Odyssey.

And again.

Fourth: We Shall All Be Healed is an inspirational-sounding title but the album it names ain't buying the message. Some of us healed, maybe. But we're not all getting out alive. And those of us who do heal will never henceforth be whole, never unscarred, no matter what, never.

Fifth: I wonder what happened to ____. And what about _____. I hated that asshole. I hope he's not dead.

And by that fifth thematic subbasement you've got this album and it's got you, and the poetry is in your veins, spiking and peaking and hooking you forever. Now, you filthy tweaker, go make amends to everyone you've ever wronged.

(Or first go here, Darnielle's extraordinary Web project to supplement the album. I would have mentioned it earlier, but I knew you might never get back.)

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 17 at 04:24 AM | Comments (3)


Elliott Smith: "Here it is, the revenge to the tune..."

Such a strange sad way to go — to stab himself through the heart — that it sounds like a line from one of Elliott Smith's own grimmest songs. Smith was one of the most gifted pure songwriters of his generation; his melodies and harmonies to my ears outdid nearly anyone else's attempt to follow in the Beatles/Beach Boys compositional line: Even a tunesmith like Joe Pernice sounds flat by comparison, and Smith never resorted to pastiche and parody the way, say, Stephin Merritt does (however brilliantly).

Yes, I loved Smith's portraits of despair — the subject that, despite myself, most moves me as a listener, the subject that no doubt explains why I am addicted to song. His lyrics gave a slow spin to the coin, turning its face from gentle empathy to the pitilessly frank, the two inseparable sides glinting past each other like estranged comrades at arms.

But I hoped that the next album, which was constantly receding beyond some blue horizon, might show that he was moving past that, for the sake of potential new listeners and for his own sake most of all. Disturbing reports about his behavour at concerts gradually wore down my optimism. But I wasn't prepared for this to be the coda. As Pavement sang, "The joke is always bad, but not as bad as this."

Like a lot of people, I'll never forget the proud subcultural thrill of seeing him on that Oscars broadcast, calling out to Miss Misery in his high, forlorn chain-smoking-choirboy voice. For a few minutes it was like a coming-out party for mope rockers everywhere, indeed for melancholy boyhood in general: Look, it said, this is the poetry that just may lurk between the stooped shoulders of that kid who can't stick up for himself, that mailroom or data-entry employee who shuns the sunlight of raises and promotions, the ones who won't Just Do It in the brash new order. I envisioned the youngest daughter in some Singapore family leaning in toward the television as the song continued, a scruffy German teenager stopped with beer can halfway toward his mouth in his dark rec room, two Iowa twins nudging each other wide-eyed, a million "what is this geezer doing on TV?" moments.

While I seldom give a damn about success or failure in show biz, I wanted Smith to be able to follow up on that unique interlude, because I thought the world could use him. Now it will be difficult to listen to his work as anything but a suicide note in chapters.

That won't stop me from listening, because I could never pass up the chance to hear songs as great as 2:45 a.m., I Didn't Understand, Division Day, Waltz No. 2 and their like just once more, and once more again. But there will always be an admonition sighing between the bars, a warning not to confuse catharsis with the romance of self-destruction, because through those gates is a ground where every precious thing goes to waste.

"What a waste" was the first thing my colleague John Sakamoto said when he passed along the awful news to me today. It's the truest, maybe the only thing to be said.

"They say that God makes problems
Just to see what you can stand
Before you do as the Devil pleases...
And give up the thing you love.
But no one deserves it."
— Elliott Smith, Pitseleh

r.i.p., and xo,
carl w.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 28 at 11:42 PM


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