by carl wilson

Get Jolie-Laide with Dead Machines

This week's theme is TOKEN POSTINGS! Let's begin with the above ugly-pretty poster for the Aug. 17 gig by a pretty-ugly band, the Wolf Eyes spinoff lovecore duo Dead Machines (listen), as a reminder that while Zoilus naps, the August gig guide continues to be updated. The latest additions include highlights from the Tranzac for the month, including a great every-Thursday-night Drumheller (see Zoiluses passim) & Saint Dirt Elementary School (read an archival column of mine featuring St Dirt, on the jump) double bill, and tomorrow (Wed.) night, song-singing by Ryan Driver (of the Silt [scroll down] and many other bands, and also mentioned in the piece on the jump) and Sandro Perri (the artist formerly known as Polmo Polpo), which should be delicious.

(Thanks to board posters for the Dead Machines info.)

For elbow-licking music, look beyond pop

Thursday, June 12, 2003
The Globe and Mail

It's a fact: It is physically impossible for you to lick your elbow.

Another fact: After that last statement, it was very funny to watch you all try.

Likewise, it seems nearly impossible to talk about humour in music without turning into a fatuous point-misser. As Andy Falkous, singer-guitarist of the bitterly hilarious and hard-rocking Welsh band McLusky, put it recently, "It's difficult to have humour in music without coming across as comedy hats and nipple references." The history of the "joke band" is not an amusing one, even if that band is not the Barenaked Ladies. (The only thing worse than a joke band is a joke band's love songs.)

Yet if you spend time around musicians, almost all they do besides cadge beer tickets and say "Whadya think of that new White Stripes?" is try to crack each other up. Even Pavarotti no doubt warmed up the other two tenors before a show with a hearty round of dick jokes. Too little of that day-to-day humour transfers into the music.

Especially non-verbal humour. Pop songs are meant to fulfill expectations; a sudden, slapstick key change or banana-peel slip on a wrong note is funny precisely because it up-ends the expected. The performer chances looking silly, even incompetent, to those who didn't get it. In the computer-processed, note-perfect imaginary universe of today's hit music, that would blow the whole scam. A clever turn of phrase is all right, but nothing that risks actual laughter. (Which is why Neil Young and Bob Dylan are treated like special-ed cases, except their most sentimental stuff.)

On aesthetic grounds, this is to get things exactly backward. American composer Charles Ives wrote in his kickass Essays Before a Sonata (1920) that in music, "Comedy has its part, but wit never." Wit, he said, is "a kind of indoor, artificial mental arrangement of things quickly put together and which have been learned and studied -- it is of the material and stays there, while humour is of the emotional and approaching spiritual."

In the gamut of human emotions, knowing winks and giddy cheer are just not as basic and true to life as a convulsing belly laugh. Ives may be a bit hard on poor old wit (ask Elvis Costello), but any song that sounds like the official Whimsy page in the New Yorker is miles behind one that incites listeners to try to lick their own elbows -- or eat their own heads, as that exquisite comedian John Cage's infamous silent piano piece was sort of designed to provoke.

If you have no sense of humour, you're not taking life seriously enough. The entertainment business takes nothing seriously but itself. So for real elbow-licking music you have to escape pop for what we used to call the avant-garde -- but don't, now that most musical experimentalists no longer see any army worth leading or any enemy even showing up to the fight. Too practical and busy for old modernist slogans, they loosen their spines and play around in sound like it's a sandbox, burying the dour reputation of the dead avant-garde in the process.

Toronto band Saint Dirt Elementary School, for instance, named its first album Hangin' Out with the Kid Who'd Eat Anything for a Dollar, summing up an omnivorous spirit that dares to be juvenile. For months it's been playing every Thursday at the Tranzac club on Brunswick Avenue, plus other gigs around the city's bustling improv scene.

With a roster of guests that often threatens to outnumber the eight core members, the band is like a lively house party, where the trumpet player's likely to be hitting on the hostess, the bassist is propounding outlandish theories and the drummer has a lampshade on his head. Mostly in their 20s, the group is led by Myk Freedman on lap-steel guitar, an unconventional instrument for jazz, whose notes slide and wobble about irreverently. It's hard to be too solemn when your main melody line sounds like a drunk trying to find the keyhole in the door.

The style recalls the Sun Ra Arkestra -- at once one of the most innovative groups and biggest practical jokes in jazz history -- with a dash of Henry Mancini's theme from The Pink Panther. A Freedman piece such as Dogs Are People Too sashays in like a burlesque version of a Thelonious Monk tune, but then Tania Gill's organ flips into the heliosphere and Ryan Driver starts blowing on pieces of balloon rubber between his thumbs and we're at the Star Wars cantina debating sock puppets with Liberace.

Saint Dirt shares members with anarchic improv orchestra the WoodChoppers Association and with quick-change jazz-pastiche artists Zebradonk, who appear at 10 p.m. Wednesdays in June and July at Ting, a hush-hush downtown spot. (Ask around.) Ryan Driver, meanwhile, plays in a dozen other ensembles, including seriously funny trio the Silt and the current title-holder of Weirdest Band in Town, The Reveries.

The Reveries, who've released Blasé Kisses on the new Rat-drifting label, play jazz standards. Eric Chenaux and Doug Tielli each play guitar, while Driver has his balloon "thumb-reed"; Chenaux also blows harmonica while Driver plays bass on a sawed-off ruler and Tielli plays the saw. But each member also has a cellphone speaker in his mouth, through which one of the other players' instruments is being amplified -- so you hear the music coming out of their mouths.

At the same time, all three sing the songs together, slowly, stretched to over 10 minutes whether it's Moonlight in Vermont or Rodgers and Hart's My Romance. But their vocals are hampered by the speakers, and by the cords hanging from their lips, making them sound, well, developmentally disabled. To complete the picture, their drool is running down the wires.

The only parallel I can think of is Quebec duo Undo (Alexandre St. Onge and Christof Migone), who at a festival in London, Ont., crammed their mouths with tinned snails and ate them with medical video-cams and microphones down their throats. But while that was a conceptualist freak show, the Reveries' music is really very pretty. In its woozy, Ella-on-Quaaludes way, it reveres and revives the original tunes, but reels them back to the body, amid all its ungainly, embarrassing excesses. The beauty may even be heightened by the impediments, levitated out of the songs into pure, messy abstraction.

Ives wrote: "We like the beautiful and don't like the ugly; therefore, what we like is beautiful and what we don't like is ugly -- and hence we are glad the beautiful is not ugly, for if it were we would like something we don't like."

The Reveries are right in the thick of that sentence, sitting there with poker-straight faces, because they know the punchline: If you can't lick your own elbow, get a friend to lick it for you. With luck, it'll tickle.

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 09 at 4:15 PM | Linking Posts




Zoilus by Carl Wilson