by carl wilson

April 30, 2005

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 for details.)

The title refers to lead carvings bearing curses that are placed on graves to ward off desecration. Galas's musical hex is at once a requiem and an imprecation against the erasure of the memory of more than a million Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and Cypriot victims of Turkish massacres during and after the First World War.

Canada's parliament has joined a short list of states that acknowledge the Armenian genocide, though only over the objections of Paul Martin's cabinet. The European Union, the United States and Israel refuse, partly to placate strategically important modern Turkey. But it's also to safeguard the unique status of the Nazi murder of Jews, as if the six million deaths would be diminished by recognition that they did not form a one-time rupture, but part of a recurring pattern of atrocity.

Every situation is irreducible, but designating the Holocaust incomparable to any other event only relieves the world of its moral duties. It makes the oath "never again" and the term "genocide" meaningless -- which is just what they've proved to be in most of the past half-century.

When the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, he could not know Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur were yet to come. Indeed, Hitler himself reputedly scoffed, "Who remembers the Armenians?" when he was preparing the Final Solution. It makes a stern silence (which Adorno's edict is often mistakenly thought to require) no option at all.

No one shatters silences and defies censure like Galas. Beginning from the lore she heard growing up with Greek-Turkish-Armenian-Syrian ancestry, Defixiones figuratively re-members (that is, reconstructs) the atrocities of Asia Minor. Eyewitness accounts by the poets Siamanto and Adonis are linked to better-known poet-outcasts - Paul Celan (using his indelible Holocaust poem, Todesfuge), Peru's part-aboriginal Cesar Vallejo, the murdered gay Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini - as well as fragments from Galas's own previous work on AIDS.

The music layers Armenian liturgy over Greek rembetika tavern music over the African-American slave dirge See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. These connections are forged in a half-dozen languages, accompanied by her own stark piano, all subtly electronically processed.

What results is a poetry of witness that has little to do with any lone rational mind interpreting the past. Instead, a chorus of the disappeared seems to ricochet through her body. It is just the kind of "shudder" Adorno praised in Celan's poetry, a physical effect, beyond representation, that somehow re-enacts the agonies of real bodies falling through the fissures of history.

In this sense its sophistication resonates down into the war-on-terror torture room. Yet one of its key influences is the ancient Greek tradition of threnody or moirologi, in which women would wail and ululate over the grave of a fallen relative, not only in lamentation but to whip mourners up for vengeance. It's a sound heard round the world - for example, in Palestine today. But in modern Greece it was banned as a pagan holdover. Which carries me back to the taboo against singing in Galas's first home.

Is it coincidence that the ululating voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie (who appears at Hugh's Room in Toronto on Tuesday), drawing upon native vocal traditions, also howls in the backdraft of a genocide? Her pious and universalist 1960s anthems (such as Universal Soldier) gave way to the likes of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee which, like Defixiones, is both a litany of death and an urgent petition.

It's as if this sound, this tide in the larynx, were the world's lingua franca of remembrance. This timbre recalls something we don't want to hear, something people will laugh loud in scorn to drown out (forcing anyone who wants to be serious to risk seeming ridiculous first). A sound such as a prostitute telling you she is still your brilliant daughter. Or an Antigone who has seen injustice and will not stop demanding to know what you are going to do.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 30 at 02:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


April 29, 2005

Live Evil

I Like It When You Tell Me What to Do: Rat King author Maggie MacDonald as shot by the Queen's Journal.

First read this: Yesterday's Times piece on rock radio is a good wake-up slap for anybody who mixes up the current rock revival with, say, grunge. Still, seeing that Arcade Fire brigade out all through this week makes you wonder if the shift away from radio and CDs (to Internet, iPod and other ways of listening) makes the indie boom look smaller than it really is.

A few fast reminders & announcements of live Toronto highlights this weekend: Maggie MacDonald's Rat King: First-ever full-length public reading, with slides and songs, of this agit-prop-'pataphysical stage musical by Maggie from the Hidden Cameras, Republic of Safety, Dating Service (ex-Barcelona Pavilion). Scenes from Rat King were first staged on the opening night of my Tin Tin Tin series last year. Sunday at the Cameron House, 5 pm, $5 or pwyc.

Tonight: Patty Griffin at the Mod Club, Joel Plaskett at Hugh's Room (also Saturday and Sunday!), Matt Masters at Mitzi's Sister with the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, and Deep Dark United at the Tranzac.

Saturday: Quinsin Nachoff's New Horizons Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and Negativland and Diamanda Galas at the Open Ears festival in London. (See tomorrow's Overtones.)

Sunday: Negativland in Toronto at the Drake Hotel.

Me, I'll be in Montreal, where I might go see Caribou, Junior Boys and Russian Futurists tonight but more likely will go see Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls) tomorrow. I'll check in at column time tomorrow but otherwise, smell ya Monday.

Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 29 at 10:07 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 28, 2005

On Looking Into a Pile of Promo Envelopes


Anybody else heard this new collaboration between DJ Spooky and Dave Lombardo of Slayer, Drums of Death, featuring Chuck D., Dalek, Meredith Monk, Vernon Reid and others? Just looking at it makes me afraid it's going to splooge all parties involved with glutinous sticky humiliation. Should I be?

The Maximo Park album? I would've passed it by without a blink, not least for its pointless umlautage, but Franklin likes them so much (see item #4), I'll haveta ... what's the audio equivalent of "scope it out" - for giving something a quick scan with your ears? Something more vivid than "give it a listen" or "check it out"? Suggestion box is open.

Jaga Jazzist is now, with new disc What We Must, just "Jaga." We would like to express our support. I personally never have been able to bring myself to listen to a Jaga Jazzist record because their name was so repulsive. (Yes, I am like that.) But a Jaga record? Sure, I'll taste a spoonful... I wonder if it's a tribute to Mick Jagger's accent? Prob'ly not.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 28 at 05:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


Thursday Reading: Toronto Edition

In the funny papers: Arcade Fire reviews from across the Toronto-newspaper universe - the Globe (which mistakenly calls Final Fantasy a "Montreal act," I guess because the writer noticed Owen playing in the A.F. - T-dot reprazent!!!), the Sun and the Star (timex-accurate description from Vit Wagner, who tortures me with the news that Final Fantasy and Gentleman Reg did a Mariah Carey cover before I got there!). None, however, answers the question on my mind: What kind of name is Win, anyway? Is it short for something? Or is it just, y'know, very self-affirmative?
Also in der Globe, my cubicle homie Guy Dixon talks to a very nervous Thomas Mapfumo.
Dave Morris in Eye on Negativland, at the Open Ears festival in Kitchener on Saturday and in Toronto at the Deep Wireless festival (more on it in the future) on Sunday. See also Dave M.'s always enjoyable weekly 'net-trawl, Totally Wired.
Mike Doherty in Eye and Geoff Chapman in the Star on Quinsin Nachoff, sax player with a strong ensemble here on Saturday.
Josh Ostroff in eye chats with Dizzee. Meanwhile, Tim Perlich in Now leads with his asshole in his own Dizzee Rascal interview (the fact that he was once busted for pepper spray possession is somehow evidence that he's dumb?!?!). It's sad that this has now become typical Perlich. A decade ago he had one of the country's best sets of ears.
Ben Rayner chats with Dan Snaith (Cariboo/ex-Manitoba).
Ashante Infantry on a Hot Docs fest movie that goes behind the scenes in the valley of the video hotties.
Greg Quill on an Eighties Toronto flashback, the revival of the Poetry Sweatshop.
And last, but most, Miss Liss talks to everybody involved in the 20hz fiasco - Abbas Jahangiri still won't admit any mistake, and ludicrously claims "I am Mother Teresa"! (Uh, yeah - the Christopher Hitchens version.) Some sharpie at Now also nails the perfect headline: "Everybody Hz."

I'll try to make Thursday Reading a weekly Zoilus feature from here on. I'll be back later tonight with some selections from outside the city limits. To start with, see Christopher Porter fuming on Darfur (I'm writing about Diamanda Galas's Defixiones for this weekend's paper, so genocide is also on my mind). And via Alex Ross, here's the original text of the Pope's notorious comments on music, which we've all been blabbing about. Hey, is Joey Ratzinger any relation of Wumpscut's Rudy Ratzinger? Maybe that's what got him so agitated.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 28 at 04:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


April 27, 2005

Dance in the Police Disco Lights

The Arcade Fire's designated spouses. Not from last night: Simulation via Bradley's Almanac.

The first night of the Arcade Fire's three-night stand in Toronto last night was like a mass debutante ball for the indie kids (and the, well, not-so-kid-like writers who love them), the elegant old Music Hall upholstery around us, the subway car on the way home seeming like a capacious limousine or school field-trip bus, and love-all-around seasoned to taste. A hard call to pass up the Undertones and Wedding Present, but it was memorable - even if the show hadn't been great it was enough just to look at the two teeming floors of fans, to think Jesus, there are two more sold-out nights like this! and marvel.

Mrs. Zoilus and I were very sad to miss Final Fantasy (had to hit a family birthday party), and didn't get entirely won-over by Montreal's Wolf Parade (felt like a shmoopier, more Cure-like junior Frog Eyes, but they had chawm; we generally figgered it was a bigger venue than they're ready to command - mind is still set on "open"). It'd be silly for me to go on about the A.F. here, but live is definitely where it all comes together for them - I like about half the songs on Funeral plenty, a couple (Tunnels, Laika) I adore, but I loved the huge anarcho-family-jamboree vibe last night, like early Hidden Cameras shows but more theatrical and less participatory. They strike such great tableaux, with a strong dynamic of frozen stillness versus chaos and perfect timing switching from one to the other. Misc. points: Huge drum sound, somehow no matter who's playing them, which is crucial to the parade-ground feel; it must be tough to be away from home so much - six months more or less straight, they said; Win announced that he's just become a permanent Canadian resident (he's from Texas), to much crowd cheerage. Cue closing processional out through the centre aisle, there goes the band, there goes the band, da-da-na-naaaa-na, there goes the band.

What's the name of that broader-shouldered band member with the perfect poses who so joyously molests drums and cymbals and bandmates? The one who disguises himself as a musician but is more of a dancer-provocateur? He's totes an eye magnet, as are of course Win and Regine. We married people love to see the cool marrieds up there - you see, it is romantic, it is epic, yon naysayers. 'Tain't no thing like listening to their tenderly wobbly, steel-drum cover of This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) with true love at your side, chillun: "I can't tell one from another/ Did I find you, or you find me?/ There was a time/ Before we were born/ If someone asks, this where I'll be/ Where I'll be." Amen.

As Win freely admitted last night, they're a very sentimental band.

Speaking of which: I'm now giving the Mountain Goats' new Sunset Tree its first audition, on my broken office earphones (only the right ear works - does that somehow influence which hemisphere of the brain is hearing the songs, or does it just make one woozy?). Initial weather reading: Intense. Reportage tomorrow after the other ear gets redress.

Also: Douglas Wolk provides another example of how music-industry contortions c. 2005 as a whole and Toronto's own 20hz/Stillepost squidfuck run parallel.

Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 27 at 05:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 25, 2005

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.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 25 at 01:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 22, 2005

Famous & Dandy Like Amos & Andy


Today's Internet Scout Report includes a pointer to a repository of World War I sheet music that led me to an even more exciting resource for all those researchers who - as we saw at EMP last week - are working on minstrel and other early musical representations of (quasi)-black music: Brown University's online collection of African-American sheet music 1820-1920. The image above is the cover of the booklet for 1901's Don't You Never Take No Ten Cent Drink on Me by John Queen & Hughie Cannon (New York: Howley, Haviland & Dresser). The back page is an ad headlined, "Are You Tired of Coon Songs?" There seem to be hundreds more where it came from.

After my EMP reports, a couple of people asked why there suddenly is so much work on minstrelsy now. It's difficult to offer any single explanation. Sean offers a good general outline of the territory: "mostly because American musical culture has always been a culture of collision and fusion between black and white. Blackface is one of the hard bits of evidence of that. So's the banjo. So's jazz. So's all of it. It's never been the fashion to write about it. In fact it's anti-fashion, anti-trend, and some of it's very ugly. It's just a truth that's always been hard to talk about." But that doesn't quite answer the "why now" question. First, it's important to realize that by "now" we actually mean since the early 1990s, and especially since the publication of Eric Lott's Love and Theft, the groundbreaking work in the field.

Lott would the guy to ask, but I would hazard that for some scholars it's a roundabout response to the identity politics of the 1980s: It reached a point in all the debates over "appropriation of voice" and so on that the underlying implication was that people from different racial/cultural backgrounds (among other points of difference) could not speak to or with regard to one another without being accused of grave sins. This de facto segregation was incredibly intellectually and politically frustrating, especially at a point where the prevailing theoretical currents (Derrida, etc.) made it clear how eloquently and loudly difference itself speaks, and how meaning arises more from the friction than from any unitary position.

Meanwhile, in cultural history, there was an ongoing revision of the kind of myth of progress in pop history that "rockist" assumptions had drawn, as the cycle of appropriation and assimilation of black styles by white pop culture, the violence of that process and the complexity of its outcomes, was traced further and further back. Rock romanticism was being undone by that analysis, and minstrelsy just began to look like the founding moment of the whole thing, I suspect. (I also suspect that future scholarship will start looking at the roots of the roots, the pre-history of minstrelsy, as the beat goes on.) And it's also probably important that minstrelsy as an official institution was now almost a century in the past, so it's a much less touchy subject, perhaps, than it might have been a few decades earlier, when living people might have felt more overwhelmed by the spectre of blackface. (Although it's amazing how much it persisted in the most raw form in a lot of local American regional cultures - white high schools doing minstrel shows as recently as a couple of decades back, and so on.)

Also, since minstrel shows (and medicine shows and revival tents and the like) are at once a founding moment in American pop culture and tantalizingly close to the start of music-recording history, the more people looked the more they found its influence in every form - a skeleton in the closet of every genre, explaining a lot of the connections between blues and country and ragtime and pop that many people were keen to understand. And of course exciting work breeds exciting work, so people followed up on what was being done.

Finally I wonder if it has to do with the rise of hip-hop, as well - a wild strain of American culture that stood to one side of the blues-soul tradition, provoking investigations of its sources in further-back vernacular culture. Hip-hop also became a nexus for all the usual hard questions about the relationship between black culture, white culture (if you think there is such a thing) and commercial culture, and the minstrel show is pretty much the most stark and unassimilable image of that tension there is. The fact that all this work began before there was a character such as Eminem or the "wiggas" (an ugly term that's vanished now that it's gone from subculture to mass culture) - and even before the arguably self-caricaturing "blacked-up," hypermasculinized figures of gangsta rap and after - shows how closely wired to the zeitgeist the minstrel scholarship is. A look at Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a fraught but fascinating film, certainly helps demonstrate why blackfaced minstrels might be on our collective minds right now. And a lot of the Pop Conference papers demonstrated that minstrelsy, if not pictured in a monolithic way, also offers a model for the perversities of cultural encounter in loads and loads of other cases. As Lott says, "It's usually tricky to specify where minstrelsy or obvious cultural appropriation stops and something different and fresh begins."

In fact, I started my own EMP paper like this: "Every cultural moment invents its own ancestors, calls dusty figures out of the wings of history to model the latest in anxieties and desires. In the past decade in music discourse, blackface minstrel-show stars such as Emmett Miller and Bert Williams have suddenly become our contemporaries, crooning I Ain’t Got Nobody, cracking chicken-coop jokes and telling a tale of American longings for other selves, of pop’s original sins, of changeling babies and cuckoo’s nests."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 22 at 12:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 21, 2005

20hz Is Dead, Long Live

A Hallmark card from ex-20hzer "Franks2000inchTV".

Following up yesterday's post, has turned into a giant lease-breaking party with everybody dancing and smoking and setting the sofa on fire, while the new landlord frantically tries to whitewash over the damage and pretend nothing's happening, censoring and deleting posts and banning members like crazy, and everyone is packing up their apartments and moving their crates and crates of albums over to Stillepost, a slightly tough name to remember and a place that could use some sprucing up (maybe we could rewire those fonts and put another layer of wax on the icons, honey?), but be it ever so humble, there's no place like a non-censorious, communally managed home.

Pretty entertaining. So does this spell ElMo boycott, folks, or are we keeping the issues separate?

(Update: In response to Ms. Liss's comment, I should say that I'm not advocating a boycott - I just wondered if it had come up. My viewpoint is, Mr. Jahangiri is already reaping what he's sown, he'll lose his bundle and no further action's really needed. However: 20hz ex-members, I advise you to remove your info from there - I couldn't figure out how to delete the profile, so I just changed the email address to a non-existent one. You don't want him using/selling the mailing list.)

Update update: Because shit is a bit out-of-hand getting, let me re-re-clarify: I think a boycott would be a bad idea. I also don't think anybody's thinking of one. There are few enough venues as it is. Sorry I mentioned it. There are good community-connected folk booking good shows at the El Mo, all the time, such as tomorrow's Russian Futurists CD launch. Masia One's M1 Academy happens there. Etc. etc. Jahangiri himself books some silly nonsense that kinda drags the average down, but that's no worse than, y'know, the Drake, with whom I have had my own unholy congress. Meanwhile, 20hz lies in ruins and Stillepost is getting rolling on its training wheels, so that mission's taken care of. We now return you to your friendly neighbourhood cultcha scene, already in progress.

News | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 21 at 03:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


April 20, 2005

On Home Towns, Actual and Cyber-Style


Take a virtual walk through the downtown of my childhood home, Brantford, Ont. What can I say: These pictures somehow feel like they explain a lot about me.

Meanwhile, the on-line home of Toronto's indie scene,, seems about to fracture into a whole mess o' competing Internets - which one will be left a rust-belt ghost town? Well, I wouldn't go putting the family fortune into, the new self-styled pseudo-Pitchfork of Canadian indie rock, owned and operated by Abbas Jahangiri, who previously endeared himself to the Toronto music community (uh, not) by taking over one of the most storied nightclubs in town, El Mocambo, and proposing to turn it into a two-tier dance studio. He gradually backed off of that plan and returned it to existence as a music venue, with a spotty but not heinous programming record, and we were about to go all soft on him until he decided to swoop in (after the Spin and NY Times and other media stories that mentioned it) and buy up 20hz, which till now was owned by Brockville indie promoter Ryan Mills and run entirely internally. While Jahangiri claims he plans to leave the message-board community alone, the cheesy features page (full of stolen content and press releases) runs against the grain of what the boards are about, and his one-way communiques on-board (and suddenly appearing yes-men avatars praising his vision) didn't gain sympathy: The likely outcome is that the membership will abscond to the alternative site already under construction, the 20hz name will recede from relevant memory and Jahangiri will be left with an asset of fairly dubious worth and none of that oh-so-capitalizable street cred.

The stupid part is that Jahangiri could easily have built a show-info and band-promotion site much like 20hzmusic under a name like, say, Mocambo Music, provided a useful service for people looking for complete and interactive show listings and other music info (so I wouldn't have to do it!) and taken a respectful and respectable, and probably profitable, place in the community. But as he did in the battle of the Elmo, Jahangiri - who often really seems to have his heart in, if not the right, at least a non-evil place - proves himself tone-deaf to the etiquette and sense of community investment and ownership in cultural institutions, which doesn't have much to do with who's holding the deeds. Now, I just hope that all the different cities and towns with community boards - most of all the link between Montreal and Toronto - aren't lost in the transition. (There's predictable talk of a split on the Montrealshows-linked board, but no good reason given - one poster joked that they should all meet on the Charlottetown board to work it out, except that there is no Charlottetown board.)

There's a cultural-history 101 lesson here about how major labels and other industry entitites treat the grassroots, but like Jahangiri, few of them ever seem likely to learn it. So fan/musician communities continue to manoeuvre to preserve and produce autonomy, and each new evasion results in new cultural moments, and the merry dance proceeds apace at least until new paradigms render past industrial models hollowed-out shells like my hometown - and erstwhile indie kids eventually burn out and move to the outskirts of such towns to make babies and commute and the place turns into just another suburb....

News | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 20 at 05:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)


The Last EMP-anada

Shayla's photos from EMP. I'll stop going on & on about the conference now, unless something especially compelling comes up, but wanted to mention that if anybodies want a copy of my paper, I'll send one along, but only on the QT - it's still up for revision and publishing-attempts sometime down the road.

Also just found out that I didn't get to meet the other Torontonian in the EMP-house. (Her subject was, "What Are YOU Doing Here? The Trials and Tribulations of a Black Female Metalhead.") Laina, hope we can correct that sometime locally. Update: Oh, and you too, Del.

But mostly: Read This.

News | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 20 at 02:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 19, 2005

That Was Pop

Image by Kai Althoff, aka Workshop.

Because I haven't gotten 'round to the promised final Pop Conference wrap-up (sleep deprivation, work and last night's Trampoline Hall intervening), and because I'm about to get bizzy repurposing the material into this weekend's column, I direct your attention to Franklin Bruno's own EMP review, and not just because he says nice things about my paper in it. Also: I apologize sincerely to my fellow Fake Band panel members that I was still editing my paper while you were talking. It's been awhile since I wrote anything in this style (and length) and so the process was more purgatorial and Sisyphean than it oughta have been... Otherwise the paper felt like it went well, a small crowd because it was a high-traffic time slot, but plenty of crowd response and post-discussion. Ann Powers was especially helpful in directing my attention to the question of whether part of the reason songwriters might use band aliases is also to direct sexuality away from themselves in the rock-audience dynamic. (Ann was contrasting Smog to Cat Power, for instance, whose handle distances and come-hithers simultaneously and thereby moves to enhance rather than erase sex magick.) What started as a paper about a poetic strategy - the band name as a way of problematizing subjectivity - has become a paper in some ways about the abject masculine at the 1990s fin de siecle... I've still got lotsa refining to do on it.

Notice Franklin's mention of the Dance Off, which took place at the War Room: I don't know that I would have summoned the nerve to tag along if I'd known that Drew Daniel was a former go-go dancer on top of being a musician (Matmos, Soft Pink Truth), producer (Bjork), conceptual artist and PhD student, given that Jessica Hopper and Julianne Shepherd were such already-obvs dance-floor pros, but Franklin and I got our older-schlub moves on just fine. (I am the "guy with a beard [Jessica] did not know" - sorry, I am shy with the introductions, and normally I just have stubble.) In general my one main criticism of the Pop Conf is that the social convening is not so well done - an opening cocktail party is basically just like everybody showing up in a bar, and the closing-night gathering asked everybody to come watch (more!) performances, rather than finding ways to promote interaction. Same goes for panels, where we could be encouraged more time talking to one another (as on the opening night plenary) as well as to the audience. We decided lunchtime dance parties would be the best first step!

Footnote to musicologist Peter Mercer-Taylor's grand gloss on Cradle of Filth at "Black Mass" Sunday: Would it make any difference if they were named Shitcrib instead? (See fourth item.)

Best shopping moment: Out on the S-town on Sunday afternoon, finding a CD by Workshop, the semi-non-existent band that was the subject of David Grubbs' intriguing paper during our panel with ear-tickling excerpts that made me want to track them down. I thought it would take a couple of weeks of Internet trawling - nope, Yog Sothoth just jumped up into my hand. Serendip-dip. You can hear some Workshop here.

I was chuffed to meet so many people (including, hors-conference, John from Utopian Turtletop and Jake London, and to see Don and Deb and Lisa from P2 and stage an occupation of Jim Cox's house). But I was sorry I didn't manage to talk to many others, usually due to my own reticence, for instance (with some links to their own post-EMP posts where possible): Sasha (dude, you kept slipping away like a white shadow); Douglas Wolk (whose paper I had to miss, but was from all accounts terrif); Keith Harris (whose paper on how Springsteen lost touch with his audience by shifting out of Jersey voice into Okie voice, and basically talking down rather than to people, and how that contrasts with Toby Keith's political savvy, I really enjoyed); Jess Harvell; Matos, who generously posts his paper, which I didn't get to hear; and everyone else, of course, but with more complete-strangers I at least have a better excuse. I'll try to be less lame next year: And I'm pretty sure I will go again next year whether I'm giving a presentation or not - there's really nothing like this conference, and I hope that should the EMP's fortunes falter (which does seem a possibility) the pop-hop-soul-a-roll-ademia writing massive will find a way to carry this event forward, no matta. It was energizing, inspiring, enlarging. Oh yeah, and exhausting. Zzzz. Later.

Update: Barbara at Flaskaland rounds up the EMP roundups much more thoroughly, although she doesn't seem to be distinguishing previous years from this year.

News | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 19 at 04:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 18, 2005

Zoso, What's It to Ya?


I'll have a wrap-up of the Pop Conference a little later in the day, but for a teaser, here's a link to a bit of what Erik Davis was talking about in yesterday (Sunday) morning's closing "Black Mass" session, the infernal technologies of Jimmy Page, from his book in the great 33 1/3 series of little books about albums, which now has its own blog. I'm no Zeppelin fan, but Davis managed to make me feel like one, with (as Ann Powers said yesterday) his very rare ability to get deep into these kinds of mythos without losing his "secular head." The excerpt, however, doesn't give you the part where Davis (skinny, bearded, "Hammer of the Gods" t-shirt, leather pants) opened up an Aleister Crowley book that Page's short-lived publishing house reprinted in the early 1970s and shouted out the incantation to call forth a demon to do his bidding. Or Davis's best line, after we watched a very funny clip of a televangelist playing Zep records backwards: "Now, this is in 1981... I think we need to begin to talk about a Christian turntablism."

News | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 18 at 11:07 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


April 16, 2005

Pop Confab Day 2

Ghoulardi, spiritual father of the Cleveland 1970s nouvelle vague: See notes on David Thomas's EMP lecture, bottom of this post.

Quick notes from today's proceedings of the Seattle EMP Pop Conference on "Music as Masquerade". After the all-together-now luxury of last night's opener, it was sad to have to choose among three or four panels in each time slot today, so it became less of a full-group shared experience. But without the simultaneous scheduling, of course, there'd be no room for the likes of me. In general, though, the quality of the work is really high and the diversity and passion of the presentations remarkable. And plenty of nice chats with good people along the way.

This morning, I caught Krin Gabbard discussing how Miles Davis's collaborator on his "autobiography," Quincy Troupe, rewrote the transcripts of Davis's interviews, in a way to black it up (worse grammar, more "motherfuckers") and in another way to massage it to serve the self-presentation Davis wanted to make of himself in late life, as the tough but wise old mentor - Gabbard backed this up with a few clips from the remarkably awful Davis movie Dingo, in which Davis plays an old trumpeter who rasps out cryptic aphorisms and encouragement to a young Australian trumpet player trying to make it in Paris. It went right onto the must-see list. In the same panel it was Eric Lott, again, discussing the 50th-birthday live concert by Frank Sinatra at the Sands in Las Vegas, where his patter repeatedly slides into blackface humour (basically imitations of Kingfish from Amos'n'Andy), in part as a strange way of reaching out to his backing band led by Count Basie, and in part as an invocation of black masculine exoticism (as well as "Dagoface" Italian-American working-class realness) to ward off anxieties about aging, the theme of many of the songs he sung that night. Lott wound up with a striking anecdote, too, that at Sinatra's birthday 30 years later, at 80, there was a tribute with star after star singing songs associated with Sinatra - closed out by Bob Dylan, who did his own Restless Farewell (which Lott joked is kind of Dylan's My Way). That seems rude until you find out that Sinatra specifically requested it. Said Lott, "I cannot imagine Frank Sinatra ever sitting down and listening to early Dylan, given their places in culture and society at the time. But that's what makes these masquerades and exchanges so complex." (Someone in the audience later suggested that Sinatra's daughters probably turned him on to it, which feels like a nice homely explanation, but I'd add that musicians almost always are listening to unexpected things and that this should go high on your list of things to like about musicians.) Julianne Shepherd rounded proceedings out with a jeremiad about the done-wrongness of Courtney Love, the new Yoko Ono, the object of an American snuff-film fantasy and moral jeremiad all at once. I wasn't quite convinced that Courtney's in-our-faces meltdown is as much an Artaudian aria of self-liberation as Shepherd wanted to claim, but the point that she is hated as a woman and mother for exactly the mirror image of the irresponsible behaviour that is romanticized and celebrated among male rock stars was smack (pardon the expression) on.

By the way, yesterday when I said Eric Lott's hair was flowing white tresses? That was a strange mental leap. He's actually a greying blond and while it's kind of dramatically present, "flowing tresses" would give you totally the wrong picture. Psychosocial analyses? Wait, don't tell me.

I enjoyed the lunchtime chat about music blogging, featuring Geeta Dayal, Tom Ewing, Jess Harvell, Jay Smooth and mod Michelangelo Matos, but most of it doesn't seem recappable - it was more conversational and banterly, appropriately enough. A couple of thematic hot points: Why is music blogging such a boys' club, when Livejournal, for instance, is loaded with girls and women and one of their top topics of conversation is music? Consequent to that - does the blog-crit-sphere tend to reproduce the conditions of the music press? Do magazines still matter? Who reads blogs? Are we just talking amongst ourselves or is there a non-blogging audience, or does that not matter? Are MP3blogs just a coolness contest? What does your mom think of your blog? And are music bloggers, for some reason, unusually likely to be estranged from their fathers? That seemed to be the pattern on the panel. (It doesn't apply to me.)

I caught a great paper, with video illustrations, by Daphne Carr, on "Disco-Polo" in Poland - the Eurodisco-meets-folk/polka hybrid sound of the Polish sidewalk vendor and wedding dance - but didn't keep notes. She had good stuff on the city mouse-country mouse dynamic but also on the temporal displacement of the immigrant - Polish-Americans still listen to disco-polo while in Poland itself it's basically dead and scorned. Then rushed down to the JBL Theatre - which I realize I keep presuming is named for James Brown in some way, but is probably not - to miss Hua Hsu's paper on Duke Ellington and orientalism and come in partway through Josh Kun's Abie the Fishman, which was a mindblowing, totally beyond summary, riff on Jewish identity, passing, "audio Zeligism as the dominant mode of American Jewish musical performance" and, of course, Dylan, climaxing with a says-it-all audition of Dylan's Talkin' Hava Nagila Blues, in which after saying, "Here's a foreign song I learned in Utah," the ex-Zimmerman basically chokes out the words "Hava Nagila" syllable by syllable tortorously once and then lets out a cowboy yodel. Read Kun's precis and be sorry you missed it. Kun had a strong complement in Jody Rosen's paper on the "Hebrew comedian" circuit - a kind of Semitic minstrel show with the weird twist that it was mostly done by Jews and for Jews. Rosen gave a neat analysis of the entertainment as a transitional rite of the immigrant casting off old identities and rising "above" them, and offered cool musicological analyses of tons of great 78 recordings, mentioning plenty more with titles such as I'm a Yiddish Cowboy by "tough-guy Levi," Under the Matzos Tree, Oh Such a Business! (A Herbaic tale of Woe) and more.

Finally there was the heavy duty panel, "Lessons in Mayhem," featuring Drew Daniel of Matmos (and the Soft Pink Truth, and UC Berkeley) giving a supersonic-brain-flight rapid-fire talk on a Germs reunion/re-enactment concert featuring the actors who were going to play the Germs in an upcoming bio-pic as well as the surviving Germs (minus the suicide Darby Crash) and an audience of survivors and wannabes of various kinds. "Where does the spectacle ever stop?" Daniel asked, quoting a friend who said, "Now we can all jerk off to the futility of his life, as art." Daniel multiplied the mirror imagery and doubleness of the situation like a master prestidigitator, winding up with a video of himself getting a "Germs burn" (the fan shibboleth of a cigarette burn on the wrist), talking about the constitutive wound of mourning and melancholia and the effort to reject and hold on to a loss. Greil Marcus was up next, arguing that cover versions today of old blues and folk songs by Son House and Dock Boggs done by people like the White Stripes, the Eagles of Death Metal and even John Cougar Mellencamp have escaped from the tendencies of the sixties folk revivalists and are actually pretty good, in part because they don't attempt to be reverent - they can be irreverent, astonished, amused, angry, just about anything else, and thereby find their way somewhere closer to the "black holes" within those songs - rather than stumbling into the blackface of the righteous mimic.

And it all wound up (for me for the day) with David Thomas' indescribably hilarious and transporting and enraged and amused paean to Cleveland mid-sixties monster-movie TV show host, the unhinged genius Ernie Anderson aka "Ghoulardi" (later the announcer voice of the Love Boat). There were (and in some places still are) many TV horror hosts, but Ghoulardi was the most original (no fake Bela Lugosi accent etc.): He spoke in Mad-magazine hipster profundities, wore ridiculous fake costumes, blew things up live on TV with firecrackers, dropped his own image into the midst of the movies they were showing, once repeated WHAT ME WORRY for 10 minutes straight in different inflections on air ("tedium as mayhem"), mocked local media commentators and suburban areas and generally, said Thomas in a long, performative speaking-in-tongues tirade accompanied by surf-guitar instrumentals and video footage of the Ghoulardi show so rare that it can hardly be said to exist, inhabited the "rebel without a cause mask," the hypnotic Flibberty Jib Man who undid all assumptions about art and trash, the reliability of the media and the linearity of narrative for a generation of middle-class Cleveland-Akron adolescents - who just happened to go on to form bands such as Devo, the Electric Eels, Mirrors, the Cramps and Thomas's own Pere Ubu. "We were the Ghoulardi kids," says Thomas, dropping into a dog-whimpering whisper. They came to an avant-garde "unencumbered by pretension, elitism and dogma" and gravitated to rock music because, he concluded, stomping, writhing, mopping his face and complaining "my eyes are sweating," rock "provided the most readily available medium through which to pursue artistic mayhem." After a standing ovation, a stunned crowd then attempted a question and answer period, during which Thomas repeated the denunciations of punk rock he's been making for a quarter-century, made fun of audience member's questions and pounded his head against the table. It was just sublime.

Curious footnote, by the way: Besides being the spiritual father of Pere Ubu, Ghoulardi in real life was the father of the boy who grew up to be the movie director P.T. Anderson (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love). Makes sense to me.

News | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 16 at 12:31 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


April 14, 2005

Pop Goes the Zoilus


How's everybody been? I'm writing from the Courtyard Marriott in Seattle, where I'm presently residing at the graces of the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, the fourth annual Critapalooza of academics, critics and interwebbers at the weirdo Gehry building here. It got swimming this evening with shmoozing and edibles followed by an opening panel revisiting Eric Lott's Love and Theft, the landmark study of minstrelsy and American culture that was published 12 years ago. Sean, you so should have been there.

I'm sure I'm not the only one blogging the Pop conf., and I'm not promising minute by minute updates from the rafters a la the political conventions, but I'll share notes with you from time to time. The first thing you need to know is: Everybody here is still working on their papers. I am still working on my paper, which is why I am here in my hotel room rather than attending tonight's David Thomas and David Grubbs show. (They are both giving papers at the conference, tho, so I'll see them in their more elocutionary guises.) I was talking to Jody Rosen (of the Nation and various websites and a book about White Christmas and one he's working on about the Glass Harmonica), who hasn't finished his paper (which he's giving tomorrow) , told me he went up to introduce himself to Eric Lott and say he was looking forward to hearing Lott's paper, and Lott said, "Me too, if I ever finish it." Welcome to EMP, the home of procrastinators, self-second-guessers and last-minute inspiration.

I'd write more about tonight's panel if not for the homework issue, but it was terrific, with everyone paying tribute to Lott's book's importance (as Bob Dylan did when he named his last album about it - Lott said he's calling his next book Blonde on Blonde). Sasha Frere Jones couldn't make it because his plane was grounded in San Diego(?) - I suppose he'll arrive tomorrow. Eric Lott cuts quite a figure, a hunky type with long flowing white hair. Marybeth Hamilton talked about how anxieties around minstrelsy were later carried over to "race" records, which also were considered not black enough (even though they were made by black artists) compared to field recordings etc. "What is at stake when we contend that some cultural forms are more 'real' than others?" W.T. Lhamon praised Lott with a little tinge of envy (he was working on minstrelsy simultaneously and Lott got there first), talking about how even the questioning of authenticity that happens in minstrelsy studies still uses class and race as stable categories - he talked about minstrelsy as lumpen culture that substituted blacks for the Macheath thug figure in English music hall, making this image of American blackness imaginatively "white" at the core. Daphne Brooks testified for George Walker, in the black minstrel team with the more famous Bert Williams, who wrote about being a black person watching white people play black people in 1906, a reversal of the minstrel "primal scene" of T.D. Rice picking up Jump Jim Crow from a black street performer. Guthrey Ramsey Jr., both a black scholar and a working jazz-R&B-funk; musician, talked about overinterpretation and the overlooking of practicalities in theory, and asked why it's okay for English singers to sing Italian opera but not okay for white people to sing the blues.

Elijah Wald presented some amazing stuff on other ethnic impersonation of the time, quoting a review from a black newspaper saying, "the famous Chink impersonator performed... his Dago is equally strong," and talked about black people doing Jewish imitations. It would take too long to explain but he had a great last line: "I'd like to see a world where I can imagine looking at the top bands in alt-country and punk and them not all having to be white." Then Allen Lowe discussed the minstrel show in the context of the medicine show, the emergence of the professional songwriter, and its relationship to a "sweet music" side to black musical traditions.

Mark Anthony Neal went to town on the subject of Li'l Jon as a blackface clown, what Jeff Chang calls "crunkface," going so far as to call Jon "the first Sambo of the 21st century," and crunk as post-hip-hop, but then he allowed for the fact that crunk functions as dance music, not narrative music, and does it better than any other hip-hop, and that has to be taken seriously - perhaps Lil Jon is a trickster figure who can be followed by a new innovator, a Pied Piper ("not the R. Kelly kind") who, the masses having been led to the dance floor, can lead them from there to somewhere better. Jason King followed up with some scary stuff about race and technology, such as virtual reality that would let you actually "try on" ethnicities and Virtual Performing Program software that would let producers put the "DNA" of any given singer's voice into any song ("you could have Aretha Franklin rapping 50 Cent's whole catalogue"), combine voices, etc., so that the next Sam Phillips wouldn't have to wait for an Elvis to come along - he could just synthesize them.

In a last-minute intervention, Ned Sublette also presented some findings on 18th-century minstrelsy in England and Colonial America, discussing British black-imitator Charles Dibdin, who played a character named Raccoon in a ballad opera and one called Mungo in The Paddock (a huge British hit in the late 1700s that toured the U.S. - Thomas Jefferson would have seen it), and presenting a remarkable Dibdin song called Negro Philosophy about the slave trade, which seemed to me likely to be a post-colonial-war anti-American song by implication, all about white Americans beating slaves and fathering children on their wives (the word "cuccold" even appears in the lyrics).

The question period that followed was a bit scattered, with such a huge panel. Robert Christgau asked something about authenticity and honesty, rather aggressively, and the panel voted unanimously against the concept of authenticity although a couple still claimed that there's such a thing as "inauthenticity" (which seems contradictory to me - the point is that you cannot draw this line). Lott said, and I think this is right on, that the idea of authenticity is only ideological, only used to police boundaries, and that truth or honesty is more an affect than any isolatable quality.

Finally Eric Weisbard read Sasha's emailed comments, which were very suggestive. He talked about DJ Shadow and Diplo, white people who became known as DJs for their expertise and love of black music - but notes that when they each made their own "proper" albums, the music was suddenly loaded up with white signifiers, strings and guitar samples and the like. He asked if these artists are so aware of the argument around appropriation that they don't feel free to express their love (because how can it be distinguished from theft?), and that this may be bad news for pop music, which in America has always been all about this fraught exchange.

That's all for now, folks. Back to writing hell. Let me know if you're into this reportage and I'll keep it up tomorrow, in some measure.

News | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 14 at 11:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)


April 09, 2005

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 (, that he enjoys some Smooth himself: "After a stressful day at work, flipping on the Smooth Jazz station gives me the deliciously absurd fantasy that my spouse's '82 Datsun (which I typically drive) is a sleek new sports car, and I have lots and lots of money and a much better clothes sense. It doesn't always cheer me up, but it often does. I like the bouncy post-disco rhythms. I like the slick-sound-sculptedness of it. . . . Smooth R&B; and Smooth Jazz are music of class aspiration."

He had me: In last week's column, I defended the materialism of mainstream hip-hop on similar grounds. A little research revealed that Smooth Jazz is the one genre that attracts equally high numbers of black and white American men and women, across classes and regions. (The Democratic Party should be so inclusive: Bill Clinton was, in so many ways, the Smooth Jazz president.)

Yet Smooth has given jazz fans fits since the 1980s, when it was created on various small U.S. radio stations that played soft pop such as Sade, "Quiet Storm" R&B;, light mainstream jazz standards and remnants of 1970s jazz-rock fusion, funk and disco. It was consolidated by a consulting group called Broadcast Architecture and taken up by stations whose "Easy Listening" audience was beginning to tune (or die) out. A successful format begets labels and musicians to cater to it: A mongrel genre was born.

Smooth's rise has come at a rough time in jazz, and as the one subgenre in which many players make a decent living, it easily invites resentment. Critics complain it's not jazz at all, just as swing-era purists decried the "sweet jazz" of Paul Whiteman's dance band. Similar charges were aimed at cool jazz, soul jazz, Brubeck, bossa nova, the tropical brass of Herb Alpert and Chuck Mangione, and fusion itself -- most eventually accepted to the tradition, and all influences on Smooth Jazz.

Damning all music that happens to carry a certain label is like meeting one sibling and dismissing a whole family tree - or nation. Yet so-called wallpaper music even has its own intellectual pedigree. French composer Erik Satie advocated "furniture music," and producer-conceptualist Brian Eno championed "ambient music." Setting a background mood, they said, is at least as noble a function as setting a marching beat.

Detractors call Smooth soporific, simplistic, anesthetic. Fans simply flip the adjectives around - soothing, minimal, escapist - and they can (and do) enthuse about Smoothies such as Boney James and Dave Koz in exactly the superlatives any bop fan might use about Mingus or Monk. Taste is surreal that way.

I've long projected a fascist face onto Smooth's smoothness: The gleaming train glides along on perfect time to drop you off at the Playboy Mansion, where Chardonnay and plastic-surgery-sculpted models await. (Tune out! Tune out! Tune out!) But that's not how the music exists in real life. How much more oppressive it seems to mock John just for unwinding, even fantasizing, after a day of alienated office work. Why deprive people of their chosen cultural mellowers? "Edge" without purpose devolves into mere pissiness.

It isn't that knotty new forms should not be promoted. But might Smooth actually help? At least these listeners don't spurn the very idea of jazz. The gap is not infinite, for example, between Krall singing standards and real-jazz singer Andy Bey's latest album, American Song.

At 64, Bey is a five-decade jazz veteran, who in the 1950s toured in a trio with his sisters Geraldine and Salome (now a beloved pillar of Toronto's music scene). He would go on to belt out tunes for many greats, notably Horace Silver. John Coltrane called Bey his favourite vocalist. His own hero, though, is Smooth godfather Nat King Cole.

Bey vanished and taught in Europe through the 1980s. He resurfaced in New York in 1996 with a newly hushed sound, as well as the revelation that he is gay and HIV-positive. This reckoning with himself seems to widen within each song, making him perhaps the most arresting jazz singer today: His languorous lines curlicue through Duke Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss as if his voice floated through a garden, pausing over the scent of every syllable, riding the heat and breeze within each interval.

Personally, I still don't want to hear music so slick and oleaginous that it slips by, frictionless, leaving no trace, no mark. Bey is not yet radio's idea of Smooth Jazz. But his silky, viscous notes sink through your pores; his dark absorbent tones draw out feelings as salt does a stain. Abrasion, that 20th-century badge of musical nerve, can't achieve that. For such a seduction, you've got to be smooth.

Andy Bey appears April 13-15 at the Top o' The Senator in Toronto.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 09 at 02:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)


April 07, 2005

Veda Hille in XTC

vedahille.jpg with_andy.jpg

O.K., not exactly. But that somewhat porny headline indicates that we interrupt this Zoilus hiatus to bring you the news that our friend and songmaking icon Veda Hille has been signed to APE Records, the new label run by XTC's Andy Partridge. It makes perfect sense that a man who once referred to his own band as "ninjas of the mundane" would fall for Veda's work, which consists in leveraging extreme poetic pressure onto tiny everyday objects (melodic and conceptual) until they gleam like prehistoric resin. (Veda would belong in any survey of music that perpetrates theory by other means.) Canada's own ninja of the mundane releases her next album, Return of the Kildeer, on April 23 with a big Vancouver show (at the Van East Cultural Centre), followed by a tour with a show in Toronto on May 5 at the Lula Lounge, and all over. The album guests include members of P:ano, guitarist Eric Chenaux, cellist Peggy Lee, and singers Selina Martin, Christine Duncan, John Millard, Oh Susanna, Kim Barlow and more. It includes pieces from a song cycle about East Vancouver (with some lyrics from Carl Sandburg) as well as two from The Death of the Finance Minister's Mother, a play about now-prime-minister Paul Martin by Zoilus confrere Sean Dixon. Veda's also on a new album by a little Vancouver ensemble named Duplex!, which presents "rock songs for kids", includes three bona fide kids aged 3 to 12 (joining the Pacific Northwest pre-teen band trend), and is almost too adorably titled Ablum. Can't wait to hear that. (Details on P:ano and Duplex! here.)

News | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 07 at 05:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


April 06, 2005

Thumbelina-Sized Hiatus


Probably not much blogticipaction in the offing for the next few days, as I'm bearing down on some toadish deadlines. Then again, my attention is easily attracted by flitting butterflies.

News | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 06 at 06:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


April 05, 2005

The Gelb-man Cometh (Plus: Juno II, more)


A little bird from Thrill Jockey tells me today that Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand fame, Calexico accomplice, etc.) will play a solo show at the Horseshoe on April 21. In my experience, a Gelb solo show is a supercalifragilistic Thelonious Monk-meets-Mississippi John Hurt-meets-Kerouac kinda spontaneous human combustible shambles, a confusion of entertainments not to overlook. Watch the gig guide for further detailing of the hood and tailfins.

In today's Globe my colleague Robert Everett-Green offers a fine consideration of the results of the Junos on Sunday, beginning with the reflection that "the 34-year-old awards show can still surprise," passing through the fur coat of Elisapie Isaac of Taima ("possibly the most glamorous woman in Canadian music") and the "suffering body" of Neil Young, and ending with the thought that, "This year's swerve toward the margin, commercially speaking, could become next year's singing telegram from those who have already won in the marketplace." The copy editors muddy the issue, though, by claiming in the headlines that what transpired represented "the indie scene's domination" and on the front-page throw, saying something like "the Junos go indie." Of course, the Junos had done nothing of the sort - none of the major winners was actually still on an independent label.... Well, with the exception of Feist, but you can bet that she wouldn't have done so well at the Junos if she were just with Arts & Crafts and weren't already on Universal in Europe and on the Cherry Tree imprint of Interscope in the U.S. Not to take away from her (or A&C;'s) accomplishments, just to say that the Junos have only changed so much - which is why any expectations of Juno bling for the Arcade Fire, who are not only indie but on an American indie, were always dubious. (See Zoiluses passim.)

Housekeeping: Our daily reminder that CanCon-tentious proceedings continue on The OTHER 50 Tracks, some Zoilus readers' misgivings notwithstanding. (Will this become the Canadian music blog equivalent of the Gomery inquiry? Pity our poor corrupted " 'Nuck" souls.)

News | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 05 at 12:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


April 04, 2005

The Not-So-Soft Boys (Plus: Juno Who)


If you ever had doubts that the Sadies are Canada's current, twangy version of the Funk Bros. - that is, the backup band supreme - you can lay 'em to rest. ATG announced today that Robyn Hitchcock will follow up his guest appearance on the Sadies' last album with a Toronto show billed as "Robyn Hitchcock & His Sadies." The relationship, which began with a meeting at the Calgary Folk Festival and a gig in Winnipeg, is one of several collaborations Hitchcock's sought out, after a long dismal slide in quality in his solo work - including the Soft Boys reunion and his recent album with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The Sadies, of course, have made like an instant band for Neko Case, Jon Langford and Andre Williams and who-knows-how-many-others on stage and stereo in recent years. (The show's at Lee's Palace on May 28, All Ages, doors at 7 pm, tickets $26 $17.50 adv, on sale now at Ticketbastard, Rotate, Soundscapes & the Horseshoe.)

Zoilus would like to thank the Junos for not adding to the well of Canadian self-hatred this year. Special congrats to Feist and k-os, as well as to jazz winners Hilario Duran and David Braid (fine, if not mindblowing, choices). Arcade Fire was robbed in the album-design category. And while I see no reason to prefer Billy Talent or Sum 41 to Shania Twain (quite the opposite) or even, really, Sarah Harmer to Sarah McLachlan, Avril remains a far sight superior to Alanis and the further we can distance ourselves from the Dark Days of Celine, the better. And though I didn't catch it with my own peepers, I was glad to hear that kd lang represented for Neil Young, to whom every decent human being, creeping beast and sparrow on the wing wishes a swift recovery, after his recent minimally invasive ministrations from interventional neuroradiologists. (I don't know about you, but I get chills at the very word ... aneurysm. Eek.)

For the 40th straight year, the Nihilist Spasm Band won no Junos. Adding injury to passive neglect, the NSB was for the first time in those many decades also vetoed at The OTHER 50 Tracks. Oh, NO Canada! ("Home of Diefenbaker, who gave his life!") I have threatened to secede and launch "The OTHER Other 50 Tracks" in retaliation. Who's with me?

News | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 04 at 05:18 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)


April 03, 2005

April Show(er)s

nobodies.jpg You're welcome. It's the Zoilus April Toronto music calendar, on the jump, including shows by the Gris-Gris! Regina Spektor! Lee Konitz (the worst publicized show of the year! it's on Thursday! I just heard!)! The Weakerthans/Constantines/other cool kids! Phoenix! The Creeping Nobodies (pretty poster above)! The Lenin i Shumov CD release (jittery excitement!)! Out Hud/Hella! Anita O'Day! Ike freakin' Turner! Handsome Boy Modeling School! Andy Bey! Stars/The Organ/Wooden Stars/Montag at Exclaim!'s party! Angels of Light with Picastro! The Shins! Martha Wainwright! Grandmaster Melle Mel in a Beat Street tribute! Semiconductor! Joel Plaskett! Laurie oh-my-gosh Anderson! Negativland and Diamanda Galas and more in Waterloo! The Wedding Present! The Undertones! The Arcade Fire/Wolf Parade/Final Fantasy times 3 nights! Dizzee Rascal! Toronto jazzer Quinsin Nachoff with Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger (and two local violinists)! And just announced today: Snoop Dogg!

I think that it is finally spring. [...]

Corrections & additions welcome. Zoilus-approved shows are marked with a *star. Special picks are **double-starred. If it's not starred, it may mean I don't find it especially thrilling, or just that I don't know or am not sure enough to recommend it. Listings will be updated weekly. All info subject to change - this is a casual effort, please do call the venues. Sources include the Toronto board, Eye, Now, Greg Clow,,, Soundlist, The Whole Note, Toronto Life and ye olde email.

** SNOOP DOGG - The Docks
** THE ARCADE FIRE, WOLF PARADE, FINAL FANTASY => Danforth Music Hall, $20 Afterparty w/Wolf Parade at the Silver Dollar.
** CARIBOU (formerly Manitoba), SINGING SAW SYMPHONY => Horseshoe, $12
* GREG MACPHERSON cd Release, FEMBOTS => 360, $8
* Small World Music presents ALESSANDRA BELLONI (Italy) => Lula Lounge, 9 pm, $15
* KISS-KISS, BANG BANG (Copenhagen) => Rex Hotel (April 27, 28)
* ALESSANDRA BELLONI => Lula Lounge, 9 pm, $15
* DEREK MILLER, GEORGE LEACH => Club 279, 8 pm, $10
TRASH CAN SINATRAS => Lee's Palace, $15
Montreal-Toronto "indie band exchange" w/ ? => Drake
GENE DINOVI W/DAVE YOUNG => Montreal Bistro (April 28-30)
KIKI MISUMI => Top o’ the Senator (Apr 28-May 1)
TERROR, COMEBACK KID => Reverb, $12.50
MISSISSIPPI HIPPIES cd release => Hugh’s Room, $17
FERN LINDZON JAZZ QUARTET => Montreal Bistro, 9 pm
TERROR, COMEBACK KID => Reverb, all ages, $12.50
Esprit Orchestra fundraiser w/ HOGTOWN RHYTHM & BLUES REVUE, DANNY MARKS => Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West, $25-$100

** PATTY GRIFFIN => Mod Club, 6:30 pm, $25
** DEEP DARK UNITED   => Tranzac, 10 pm
* CHRIS CAWTHRAY (percussion), METHUSELAH (Chris Banks, Dafydd Hughes, Don Scott), VICTOR BATEMAN'S PORKBONE (Bateman - bass, Eric Chenaux - Guitar, Jean Martin - Drums) => Arraymusic Studio, 610 Atlantic Ave., 9 pm, $10
* CLUB V w/ DJ Will Munro => Lee's Palace, $7
KIKI MISUMI => Top o’ the Senator (Apr 28-May 1)
Marvin Gaye/Luther Vandross Tribute w/ TBA => 360, $12
BLUE ROOM cd release => Silver Dollar, 9 pm, $7
DAVID GOGO => Healey’s
Salsa Friday w/ CACHE => Lula Lounge, doors 7 pm, dance class 9 pm, show 10 pm, $10 ($45 w/dinner & dance class)
GENE DINOVI W/DAVE YOUNG => Montreal Bistro (April 28-30)
GODDO 30th anniversary show => Club 279, 9 pm, $10
MATT YORK, PETER KATZ, JARET KOOP, TOMI SWICK cd release => El Mocambo, $15

** ARRAYMUSIC presents GIROGIO MAGANENSI CONDUCTS (conducting-meets-improvisation new music with ensemble, toys, electronics) => Glenn Gould Studio, talk 7:15 pm, concert 8 pm, $7-$20
** QUINSIN NACHOFF (Toronto, sax) w/ ERNST REIJSEGER (Holland, cello), JOHN TAYLOR (UK, piano), NATHALIE BONIN & PARMELA ATTARIWALA (Toronto, violins) => Royal Conservatory of Music (90 Croatia), $15
* "Rave of Doom!" breakcore/noise w/NWODTLEM, CRUSHKILL, DIR:Z, SKEETER & $NOOTY => Ear Raid HQ (address announced 24 hours before on, no cover, 9:30 pm, byob
* "Rec Room" w/ DJ's JARED C., mROBOTO, MIKEY APPLES => Clinton's, $6
CARLOS DEL JUNCO => Silver Dollar, $12
KIKI MISUMI => Top o’ the Senator (Apr 28-May 1)
Salsa Saturday w/ EVARISTO MACHADO => Lula Lounge, doors 7 pm, dance class 9 pm, show 10 pm, $10 ($45 w/dinner & dance class)
INTRADA BRASS fundraiser for St. Stephen's Community House => Grace Church On-the-Hill (300 lonsdale), $25
GENE DINOVI W/DAVE YOUNG => Montreal Bistro (April 28-30)
THE UGLY BUG BAND   => Tranzac, 10 pm
"RE.GENERATE" w/, DJs THE DUKES, PAT DAVIS & THE GENTLE PEOPLE => Salem's Lift, 136 Geary Ave. (entrance off Salem), 10 pm, $15

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 03 at 02:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


April 02, 2005

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.

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


April 01, 2005

I Love You All This Much

I miss the 90s indie royal consorts.

Much to share later this afternoon, but first I have to go make some overdue contributions to The Other 50 Tracks. There's a lot to read there, and Keith hasn't even posted my first veto yet! (You should get to see that tomorrow - to my intense satisfaction, I got to be the one to squelch the Barenaked Ladies.)

Who's going to hear Harmony Korine talk tonight? Looks like I won't make it, but I'm going to try to watch the webcast, and then I'm going to see Fred Loberg-Holm et al at Arraymusic. As a warmup for Mondo Korine, someone on 20hz steered me towards Montreal's The Letlowns, who offer a download of their song titled, yes, Harmony Korine (listen). I like it, all wiggly Pavement guitars and mid90s cuddle-gazecore vocals a bit like Zoilus favourites the Spinanes (Rebecca, Rebecca, wherefore hast thou forsaken us, since that nice-but-not-quite-all-that Ruby Series album?!) in what seems to be a simulated conversation between Harmony and Chloe back in the day about what to wear to a party. Sometimes it's great for music to be just footnotes to time, modest and unassuming and sweet.

Family trivia: Gummo is Mrs. Zoilus's favourite movie. Will Korine ever step up so much again? That smattering of mattering, the brief sparkle at the turn of the century, the Sevigny-Korine Era, seems so far off and unreal.

News | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 01 at 02:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson