by carl wilson

December 21, 2005

Tiny Mixed Feelings

I'm intrigued by this list, as well as the many new-to-me names in this one, and these all look better than the records I got this year, and this is remedial education for those of us who were looking the other wrong way.

Otherwise, with Zoilus' 2005 list hung (see below) by the chimney with care, that's it for posts for the next week or so. I'll be online but in and out of town, and using some of the time to refresh the links and other side pages. Keep discussing this year's music (or next year's!) in the comments boxes - I'll jump in if the spirit moves me - and we'll chat again before New Year's. Peace and festive pleasures to you all meanwhile, and (I don't say this often enough) ... thank you so much for reading. It would have been a real drag if nobody showed up.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 21 at 03:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)


December 20, 2005

... of the Year


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 20 at 05:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (25)




Not so much for the holidays, but in general: The indispensible WFMU blog links us up to a 1972 Captain Beefheart video that's revelatory to those of us who have mostly images of Don Van Vliet as a somewhat older man lodged in our heads, while unfortunately being a performance of a song that's not much good. Much better is the TV ad for The Spotlight Kid which is a great example of topsy-turvey marketing: The point of this commercial isn't, "This album is good," but, "This album will confuse your square friends and family." Not a noble tactic, but an effective and amusing one.

Also, since Finland is the next "it" country in underground music (I'm not kidding: If 2005 was Canada's year, 2006 may well be Finland's), get yourself or your aspiring internationally-unknown-frontperson friend or relative prepared now by learning to sing in Finnish. (Via Paul Collins, a favourite nonfiction writer I'm delighted to see blogging.)

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 20 at 03:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


December 17, 2005

Robot Ponies: This Year's Xmas Hit


I finally saw Laura Barrett, much talked about since her guest slot at the Final Fantasy gig at the Boat in November, perform in person last night for the first time. It was in the casually festive environs of the Greg Collins Christmas Concert (which wound up with a crazy mass-participatory dance-confetti-glitter-mosh extravaganza animated by Robocopp), but the scary-smart sparkle, warmth and stealthy humour of Laura's songs, beautifully sung and accompanied on kalimba, were more than evident. A little bit reminiscent instrumentally of Joanna Newsom, whose harp style is African-influenced (and Laura's kalimba style in turn is classically-influenced), but Laura's singing, while somewhat quizzical, is more straightforwardly pretty. And I was reminded that Laura's hit-in-waiting Robot Ponies, which you can hear on her MySpace site, is in fact a Christmas song, almost an entire stop-motion animated Christmas special in three minutes:

Christmas Eve, 2053
Underneath every little girl's tree:
A robot pony.
Comb their soft and luscious nylon fur.
Listen close, hear their clockwork hearts whir.
Robot ponies.
They feed on plastic bags cut up like lettuce
Right out of your hand. Things get out of hand
Unless you use one of 20 pre-set functions
To make them understand, make them understand:
You know best. You know best ...

Of course, it all ends badly. Or at least creepily. It's kind of a cyborg Velveteen Rabbit story. With swearing.

Laura is performing all over the place lately (provided that place is Toronto). This week you can see her Tuesday at the "band bakeoff" at Rancho Relaxo or Thursday at the holiday benefit show at the Silver Dollar. (See the gig guide.)

Also last night, far less seasonal but still terrific new material from Pyramid Culture, the all-female beats choir that sings about science. More in future (for instance a rumoured plan for a split single on which Pyramid Culture would cover Robot Ponies and Laura would cover P.C.'s Pantherdog), but for now I'll just say: Catchiest song of 2005 about parasitic fetal twins.

| Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 17 at 11:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


December 16, 2005

Check that Maxim!

Writing about music is not "like dancing about architecture." It's like architecture about dancing.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 16 at 09:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)


Canada Seeks Silver Jews,
With Paly of Six Argent and Gules
on a Chief Azure, a Lion Passant

David Berman's the Silver Jews, whose latest album might be on my best-of-the-year list if I were going to make one, are embarking on their first tour in the history of Judeo-Christian civilization. It transpires in March. While it hews northeasterly, thus far it does not cross the border. Brave Toronto promoters! Unsheath thy cellular phones from their scabbards and bring yon silvery semites to our citadel on this their arduous journey! For damn sure!

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 16 at 04:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


The Greatest Living Ballad Singer


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

An evocative voice of great sadness

The Globe & Mail
Friday, December 16, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 15, 2005

'Please Don't Wake Me From This, My Golden Slumber:
I'm Proud to be a Part of this Number!'

For those who can't face an absurdly extensive exegetical text (see below) without a lip-smacking taste of the original scripture, Said the Gramophone is now proffering a download of the title track of Destroyer's Rubies, with somewhat less fevered commentary. Other songs are available hither and yon, but you'll have to play hunter/huntress.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 15 at 04:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


December 13, 2005

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And while Destroyer still does and doubtless always will embody a polemic, an ongoing debate about the role of art in the world and of the art business in art and Destroyer's own role in all of it... on Destroyer's Rubies it is only secondary - which again suggests the end of the cycle that began on Thief, in which that dilemma was either rhetorically or formally (on Your Blues) a constant preoccupation. It still gets in some pointed sallies - as on the opening track's "Oh, it is just your precious American underground/ And it is born of wealth," and in Looter's Follies, "Why can't you see/ That a life in art and a life of mimicry/ They're the same thing!" - but this album is more about worldly experience, usually considered in retrospect, with fierce passions and regrets. The (mostly) women he sings about and to - Candace in European Oils, the one with "that penchant for destruction in the way you talk" in the transfixing Painter in Your Pocket, even the one identified as A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point - all pulse with personality, rummaging through the wilds of these songs, and are themselves wounded or refreshed there. They're seldom the girls-named-whatever who sauntered into earlier Destroyer songs to serve their rhetorical purposes and then be summarily dismissed.

All of which helps make the album "accessible" to those who don't necessarily have the preoccupations shared by Dan and, I suspect, many core Destroyer fans up till now. But the real reason this album is going to be embraced by many, many people outside that inner circle is that it's so luxuriantly musical, with the full potlatch-prodigiousness of textures and harmonies found on This Night - but where that album was eager to just throw all this music on a bonfire, here it's built up and sculpted. These tunes aren't just settings for Dan's lyrics, supporting sceneries for contemporary poetry in song, they're songs that swell with further song - the da-dada-dum-da's are needed to soak it all up. And you're conscious not only of Dan as maestro but of the independent will of the band members, always in the pocket but bursting to get out: Scott Morgan on drums and sax, Tim Loewen on bass, Fisher Rose on vibes and trumpet, Ted Bois hanging garlands of piano and other keyboards, and Nicolas Bragg and Dan jousting with guitar lines that often rival the singing as lead voices. Music writers may have to give up the "aka Dan Bejar" after Destroyer's name now.

You could argue, and I have, that many of these points are also true of Your Blues, in its "adoration of surface," its orchestral manoeuvres, its immersion in dramatic emotion - but that album had its naugahyde-white synthetic coating, like a plastic bubble to keep it pure and cool. There was a fresh sexiness to that music, and the tactility of the synthesizers made it gleam. But this album is made of rough leather crusted with stones and thorns as well as gems - here, seduction isn't just a theory but a fluctuating-body-temperature sensory struggle in progress, between humans with as much "elementary desire" as pride or positional wariness at stake. Yet those humans are not private enclosures, as in most rock songwriting - they're a mess of historical and aesthetic projectiles, feral political objects, murderer-loving corpses and sacrificial gods. When Dan sings in European Oils, "I made a tomb for all the incompatible selves I could take/ And I, I bought bells to the wake," he's pointing to the (twinned) scene of a crime - massacre or enlightenment, it's up to you - of which the rest of the album is consequence and investigation. (Yes, we're now in the territory of my EMP paper on "bandonyms" and the decentred self, though the "masculine abject" is mostly left behind on Destroyer's Rubies.)

None of which footnoted blather can really touch the language here, which jumps off from the dramatic monologues of Your Blues into a sphere that's practically Shakespearian. The words are such that I can only mix metaphors over them - they could be described with one of the album's recurring phrases: "tall ships made of snow invading the sun." Over and over he's pulling ephemeral bits out of every extant lexical bag, forging them into phrases at a blow. It's the kind of casual verbal sharpshooting you can only do when you can do it blindfolded: While much of the singing is Dan at his most languid, now and then he cockily gears up into rapidfire rounds, as on a verse of Dangerous Woman Up to a Point so accelerated I can hardly decipher it. (It concludes, "It was a trap it was a good time it was hard to realize - oh!") Or on the shrapnel-shedding rocker 3000 Flowers, which flicks its lighter at Ezra Pound ("I was... a fresh face on a dying scene/ One-hundredth of a wet black bough"), then culminates in a striking passage with which I'll end these revels. It reverts to the rock-scene issue, but that's just fertilizer. It begins with a single voice which is then, on the repetition of "And the sky still reigned...," joined by a backing chorus, as though the congregation he's addressing ("the music lovers," eponymous subjects of a Your Blues song) had joined in, showing him up as one (or many) among them, just another destructive wastrel - except this one is Destroyer, and he's the one holding the rubies.

I was Clytemnestra on a good day,
Dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated,
The initiates brought out in tumbrels, shadowed by the dawn.
(Shadowed by the dawn, shadowed by the dawn.)
And like a woman I was kept
As the wealthy American underground wept
At the sight of Rhode Island sinking into the sea.
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like churchgoers...
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like destroyers of themselves.

(See below for the drinking game.)

Epilogue: Destroyer Drinking Game
Adapted from ideas in the Merge Destroyer forum, notably by "foe-free" and "Zeitgoat."

Play Destroyer's Rubies (or other Destroyer album). Take a drink whenever there is:

- Mention of a previous album or song title;
- Recycling or referring to lyrics of another Destroyer song; drink twice if it's a song on the same album; also drink twice if they're from pre-official releases We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge or Ideas for Songs;
- Reference to or appropriation of lyrics from a song by someone else;
- Mention of another band or musician;
- Mention of Destroyer/destroy/destruction - drink twice;
- Reference to music in general;
- Reference to/attack on the music scene or music industry;
- "Meta" lyrics that refer to the song in progress or elements thereof - drink twice;
- Swearing;
- Mention of geographical location - drink twice for mentions of Vancouver, the West Coast, or particular places there;
- Section of song consisting of "la la la" or "la-da-dee-da" etc. (warning: applies to all but four songs on this album)
- Guitar solo that mirrors la-la-la's;
- Mention of a season or month of the year;
- Mention of a specific year or century;
- Line in the imperative form, giving advice or an order - drink twice for advice or order that is cryptically figurative, like "don't ride the silver rocket";
- Line that reverses, contradicts or severely qualifies previous line;
- Character(s) in song quoted (eg. "She tasted of the Christmas wines and said, 'So many things have run through me...' ") - drink twice if the character is specified to be singing the quotation;
- Invocation of a cliche or idiom, however dismantled;
- Use of a woman's name;
- Character assassination - drink twice if of a woman;
- Characterization (hostile or not) of men/boys or women/girls in general;
- Conspicuously long pause (line break?) in the middle of a phrase;
- Falsetto or attempted falsetto;
- Sudden crescendo and/or acceleration;
- Use of archaic or ostentatiously formal or foreign-language term;
- Direct address to an audience by name or collective noun eg. "kids..." or "Contessa..." ("you" doesn't count);
- Reference to visual art or artist(s);
- Literary reference or mention of reading;
- General statement about art/aesthetics;
- Reference to family relationship, eg. brother, mother, husband, bride - drink twice for "sister," or for any plural family reference, eg. "fathers", or for incestuous overtones;
- Reference to United States or Americanness;
- Medieval or swords-and-sorcery-style reference;
- Reference to royalty or feudal hierarchy - drink twice for reference to disillusionment with royalty;
- Reference to legal or political system;
- Reference to religion;
- Reference to a small group or secret society;
- Reference to conspiracy or corruption;
- Reference to honesty (or lack thereof);
- Reference to freedom or imprisonment;
- Reference to drinking;
- Reference to insanity;
- Reference to death or murder;
- Reference to the way a woman moves;
- Reference to bells;
- Reference to the sea or matters nautical;
- Reference to a garden or the woods;
- Reference to the weather, meteorological phenomena, sun or snow;
- Reference to fire or other disaster - drink twice for apocalyptic reference;
- Sudden shift into unexpectedly sweet, tender tone, musically or rhetorically.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 13 at 06:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)


December 11, 2005

'Crowned Myself the Prince of Buzz...'


As forecast, my piece on Final Fantasy in today's Times is here.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 11 at 04:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (36)


December 10, 2005

A Passel of Print:
Bubbles, CalexIron&WineCo;, Final Fantasy

Calexico with Sam "Iron & Wine" Beam (second from left)
.... or Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon and Joe Walsh?

Explaining my minimal blogging this week is the maximal (manimal?) quantity of stuff I've got in newspapers this weekend. Today, it's my biweekly bite-sized-ideas column, Thought Bubbles, in the Globe's Focus section. No music content, but it does have an infinite number of typing monkeys (via Toronto poet and blogger Darren Wershler-Henry's worthy new tome The Iron Whim: A Fragmentary History of Typewriting). You can read it here.

Yesterday it was a piece in the Globe's Friday arts tabloid "7" about the recent bonding between the post-twang ensemble Calexico and the indie-folkist Iron and Wine, which you can read here. I like the article, but I assume other critics also often find themselves secondguessing whether they've been too soft or too hard on a given subject? In this case, I may have been too kind to their collaboration In the Reins - because for all the variety and complementarity going on, there are moments where the damn thing veers deep into Eagles territory. Without the bombast, that is. Am I wrong to be more inclined to be wary of how easy the thing goes down than to reassess my bias against the Eagles? I prefer Calexico with more eccentric vocalists such as Lisa Germano (as OP8) or Richard Buckner (on the superb Devotion & Doubt), who really tug at and destabilize their cinematic textures.

Finally there's tomorrow's piece in the Sunday Times - which, I can now reveal to you, is about Toronto's Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy. I'm excited - partly for my sake (it's certainly the highest-profile venue I've ever had) but also because I hope it brings Owen more of the notice he deserves. Linkage coming soon.

The tune whisperer

The Globe and Mail Review
Friday, December 9, 2005

Not long ago, the mixed marriages of songs known as mashups were the hot digital-music novelty, most famously heard on producer Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, which laid rapper Jay-Z's nodding noggin down on the Beatles' durable musical divan.

MTV took a shot at glitzing up the concept with a concert and album that blended Linkin Park with, again, Jay-Z. The Grammys gave it a dodgier try with a jam between Gwen Stefani, Franz Ferdinand and the Black Eyed Peas. And then the whole craze seemed to recede back into the Internet hobbyist zone where it was done first and best.

The current crossover between indie musicians Calexico and Iron and Wine lies somewhere between a mashup and a traditional collaboration. The two do diverge stylistically -- Calexico being a cinematic big band and Iron and Wine mainly a guy with a guitar -- but they also share a sepia-toned, retro sensibility. Their recent joint mini-album, In the Reins, is based on years-old Iron and Wine demos, which many fans will have downloaded long ago. But the players gathered in person in the studio to record the songs anew.

Iron and Wine, whose mama knows him as Florida-based ex-film teacher Sam Beam, is a tune whisperer, literally and figuratively: His susurrations seem to leak out slowly from somewhere behind his generous beard, like gas out of a pinprick-punctured hose; yet in the process, he's able to entice wild songs to sidle up, nuzzle at his neck and submit to be tamed.

He is one of those critic-proof artists whose fans treat his releases like new chapters of scripture. The first, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a rural-feeling batch of demo recordings, and while there's been grumbling in the pews about the slicker sound of his further releases, few have gone so far as to up and quit the congregation. His cover version of the Postal Service's Such Great Heights, on the ubiquitous Garden State soundtrack, has even become something of an indie classic.

Yet as a miserable apostate I must confess I've never been able to finish an Iron and Wine album at one sitting. The peaceful, easy vocals and unmodulated melodic range can make it feel as if you were perusing a finely written book of poems in which every line ended with the word "blue" -- refreshing at first, perhaps, but slowly the repetition would make the ink swim and fade under your gaze, until you tumbled into a soporific lake of blue blue blue blueblueblueblue bluuuuluuuue . . . and off to sleep.

Arizona group Calexico, on the other hand, is centred around the equivalent of Motown's Funk Brothers or Jamaica's Sly and Robbie for indie music throughout the 1990s -- a rhythm section with a distinctive sound-print, in this case a spaghetti-western twang from the desert or maybe the moon. Their greatest gift is architectural: They seem able to make their auditory geodesic dome wax and wane to the ideal expanse for any given singer, song or ensemble, allowing room to wander but never to flounder.

Joey Burns and John Convertino began in legendary Tuscon, Ariz., group Giant Sand and moved on to back such artists as Neko Case, Richard Buckner, Lisa Germano, Vic Chesnutt, Bill Janovitz and even Nancy Sinatra. And for the last decade as the core of Calexico, they've grown from a shuffling, aw-shucks outfit to an exuberant variety act that takes in mariachi horns and Afro-Peruvian dance rhythms as much as its basic surf-country-jazz.

But here too there's a flaw that causes the attention to waver: Only once in a blue Mexican moon does Calexico manage to haul out a truly substantial song, one that seems like something more than a discarded neo-noir film scenario. So while their music is seldom actually dull, it too can blur into a mass, and often with an overly glib surface.

So the meeting of the two projects could offer two scoops of boring in watery milk, or it could be the perfect remedy for what each side of the collaboration lacks.

Happily, the latter is nearer the case. On In the Reins, Calexico is perhaps a little overcautious but generally livens up the joint with slithering steel guitars and the occasional ranch-torching blaze of brass, keeping me alert while Beam mounts his storyteller's perch.

And he offers Calexico several songs worth staying up for, such as the inside-out Johnny Cash yarn of Prison on Route 41, sung from the point of view of a man who's abandoned his miscreant family in prison due to the love of a righteous Christian woman, though he provocatively admits, "My saviour is not Christ the lord/ But one named Virginia/ Whom I live my life for."

I'd generally advise avoiding the word "whom" in a song lyric, but Beam earns his biblical tone via the devilish details, which make the narrator seem more selfish than saintly, as his parents, grandparents, cousins and son rot in jail.

If only the two projects had joined forces sooner -- and it turns out Beam intended to. He considered asking Calexico to accompany him on his very first album, but it didn't pan out, so his label went with his set of home recordings.

On the tour arriving in Toronto tonight, they edge nearer to live-mashup status, with each act doing a set before Calexico merges with not only Beam, but also his backing road band, for a supersized take on In the Reins. As long as they outfit the tune whisperer with a loud enough microphone, it should be a rich live show. Perhaps next time they can invite Jay-Z, too.

Iron and Wine and Calexico, tonight at 8 p.m. The Docks, 11 Polson St, $25, 416-461-3625.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 10 at 03:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)


December 08, 2005

Alert! Hot Jazz Tip

I've just heard that the Sabir Mateen Quartet is playing Toronto tonight. Sabir is a monster free-jazz sax player, who's played with Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon, Sunny Murray, Horace Tapscott, William Parker, Hamid Drake and the guerilla jazz-noise quartet TEST. Tonight's group features another prominent Cecil sideman, Raphe Malik, on trumpet as well as Raymond King on piano and Ravish Momin on drums and tablas. Toronto's Mark Hundevad will guest on vibes. The gig is at the Cabbagetown Community Arts Center, 454 Parliament St, just south of Carlton, at 9 pm, $20. I can't go. But you should.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 08 at 03:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


December 07, 2005

Are We Calling It 'Art Rock' Again?

It's better than the term indie, anyway. Even though I've been using that term all over the place this week. Not sure I'm going to get to Destroyer today, but wanted to mention in advance that I've got a piece coming up in The Globe on Friday and another in (ahem) the Sunday New York Times.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 07 at 04:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)


December 06, 2005

Quiet around Here

Yeah, and sorry. Many deadlines. Updating the gig guide. Going to see Harry Potter in IMAX (yeah!). Sometimes feeling like this. Promise to make it up to you sometime tomorrow with a full-on Zoiluxclusive preview of Destroyer's Rubies, okay? Meanwhile, go debate the morality of Neutral Milk Hotel bootlegs or something...

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 06 at 09:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


December 02, 2005

Gaming Aesthetics, Reloaded
(now with Auto-Critique!)

Don'tcha think Supermario looks suspiciously like Gramsci with a fake moustache?

Sorry, I was overtaxed and fuzzy when I wrote last night's post. The line saying "more complex emotional experiences may come along" was off the mark: I'm aware that, as folks in the comments said, they're already out there. Besides, art isn't about your feelings.

The question to me is not whether games can be art - of course they can, altho like nothing else before they flicker between the poles of art and sport. (Particle or wave?) Rather it's that even at their most artful they seem depersonalized, decentred and fragmented - very much in post-death-of-the-author mode - and this seems worth examining especially if you see them becoming the predominant form of art/entertainment, as may not be yet but certainly could happen. On one hand, it's the revenge of theory: Sure, we critiqued auteurism as a way to deligitimate the power it conferred on hegemons, but did we realize how we'd miss the author once it was gone? (The proposal that gaming wholly makes the player the author, while not baseless, seems somewhat wishful thinking on a similar order to the further-out LangPo Marxist claims that negating syntax all but forces the reader to become a revolutionary agent. The distance this falls short of the truth should, I think, also inform the artist's practice.)

Nicholas Rombes recently argued for the "rebirth of the author", which isn't wholly viable, but relates to the concerns I expressed about gaming and "post-expressive" culture, which may have just been an alarmist way of describing our happy, prosperous, hypermediated land of Decentred Subjectville. The value of music as the pivot point of youth culture, if it really ever was so, would never have been so much the content, narrative or otherwise, of the songs (although that's a factor); it was having musicians as alter egos, as delegated representatives, as olympian deity-projections, etc., for people in the process of making up identities (ie. all of us, but adolescents with special intensity). You could argue that in fact with its interfaces and avatars gaming is an even more explicit version of that process, but in some ways by foregrounding that, gaming sets itself at a greater distance from what for simplicity's sake I'll call "the real world," whether that's school, dating, politics, family or doing coke off a hooker's rack. With music, the relationship to "reality" might be mostly playacting, but it seems like a useful fiction.

One hypothesis might be that what gaming lacks compared to music is not art but artists: Not of course that no one is credited or known for making them but that those people are not apotheosized as heroes, villains, human instantiations of creativity. (Is there a game designer people love the way I loved Tom Waits when I was 16?) More importantly, they're not in the game, the way that a pop musician is both actor and director, in a sense both form and content. Almost certainly, gaming needs more and better criticism, discourse that focuses less on technology/sales/'wow' factor than on aesthetics and romance. Some exists, but it seems yet to reach critical mass. Or perhaps the gaming audience wouldn't be interested. Perhaps I'm just hopelessly modernist in a postmodern world, or perhaps there's reason to preserve some of that modernist heroic ideal, within critical limits.

In other words, if the author does not exist, it still may be necessary to invent her.

PS: I know I'm grasping around in an area I don't know much about. Frankly, I haven't got the hand-eye coordination to get much into gaming. But I'm interested, so fill me in where I'm wrong.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 02 at 03:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (16)


December 01, 2005

Gaming Aesthetics: Arguing With Tears


Sorry, no time to compile Thursday Reading this week, though I highly recommend Torontopians pore over the fine Fembots feature in Now today. Otherwise:

Came across a Clive Thompson video-gaming column from Wired a couple of weeks ago that's at least tangentially relevant to the games-as-art/culture discussion: "Can a Game Make You Cry?". As soon as the question is posed, the answer's pretty obvious: Sure. Clive provides some intriguing examples and survey data, but then comes round to his conclusion, "You can't argue with real tears." And that seems patently untrue. Imagine if the title of his column were "Can a Long-Distance Telephone Commercial Make You Cry?" The answer to that one (if you are as soft a touch as I am) is also yes. But I don't expect any wave of profoundly artistic Bell commercials.

A better question might be "Can a Game Make You Reflect?", using reflection as shorthand for the concerted working of intellect and emotion that art is able to call forth. I think games can do that, too - also on Clive's site, I note with intrigue the new Nokia game Airport Insecurity, which is "about inconvenience and the tradeoffs between security and rights in American airports," as well as a machinima (game-based animated movie) about the riots in France that Clive (who wrote about the form for the Times Magazine this summer) says is the first machinima he's seen that had more going on than mere parody. No doubt you could even convert that film back into a game that involved you vicariously in the riots but also raised empathic, social and other questions along the way, the same way an action movie with a political subtext can do. And, finally, this meta-discussion about game censorship.

For now a commercial game seems more likely to go manipulatively for the waterworks - by killing off a sweet, cute character for instance, and backing it up with swelling synthesized strings. Now, even that may seem a leap forward for most computer games (ever read about the high rates of autism among kids in Silicon Valley?), and more complex emotional experiences might come along in time. But tears? They're not enough.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 01 at 10:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


Far From Final Fantasy


Sorry for my extended absence, which left us all prey to the never-ending Ninjas debate. I submitted my book proposals to 33 1/3 "yesterday," by which we mean in the middle of the night. Subject matters? Either Celine Dion or Pere Ubu, and I am so for serious. (Hmm, maybe I should do a joint book on them...)

In the course of other work, I discovered something I have to share with you, which is the first ever music that Owen Pallett (aka Final Fantasy, guest of the Arcade Fire, ex-Les Mouches) composed for public consumption. Owen was 13 and the pieces were part of the soundtrack of Traffic Department 2192, a video game designed by his older brother, John Pallett-Plowright. After Owen told me this, I did a little searching and discovered this MIDI page: Owen wrote "Menu", "Vulture", "Intro 2" and "Death." His brother, who played cello, wrote "Satair." The rest were written by the game's credited composer, Robert A. Allen. (When I showed him the page, Owen cautioned that "these MIDI files are 'updated' versions of the originals. The originals were much lower-fi and sounded, frankly, far better. MIDI will lose the little details and instrumentation.")

Some background from Owen (whom I hope won't mind my sharing the story with you): [...]

"My brother, John, at the tender age of 16, was signed on by a couple of university students to do artwork for the game Jill Of The Jungle, which became a small hit in the Shareware gaming industry. The company, known at the time as Potomac Computer Systems, had released a few successful (and great) games. Their most famous game up until that point was a game called ZZT, which allowed players to design their own worlds and adventures; something that was fairly innovative at the time.

"While John was working on Jill, I was using ZZT to design a game called The Golden Tiara (not realizing the obvious effeminacy of the title at the age of 12). The game had a lot of original music in it, as well as some classical music arranged for computer. I uploaded it to EXEC-PC, a large BBS at the time, and thought it would likely disappear forever.

"John's next project was Traffic Department 2192. He started it when he was 16 and finished it when he was 18. There was a composer for the game, Robert A. Allen, but John and I did some composing as well. This was prior to MIDI and MOD, very primitive composition for very primitive sound cards. John's composition was great, just great! I think he's only ever written four pieces of music in his life and they were all awesome. My stuff wasn't nearly as good, but I was only 13, so... I think John and I wrote four songs each, Robert did the rest.

"Anyway, the game tanked. Potomac Computer Systems didn't promote it well. They changed their name to Epic Megagames (later, Epic Games) and became one of the most celebrated PC game developers with their game Unreal... which pioneered the birth of the 'games as sports' movement. All my brother's friends from those years are now millionaires, no joke at all. [...]

"So, years later, John and I search on the internet to find that Traffic Department 2192 has a small fan base. One of John's hovership designs (the Hornet) was turned into a LEGO design. The game is difficult to get running on newer machines, but it's nice to know that some people are making the effort. John was heartbroken that the game never took off the way he had hoped.

"And The Golden Tiara, despite it's incredibly childish plot (it reads like it was written by Adrian Mole, with spelling mistakes, unending melancholy and a wretchedly sad ending), it was picked, years later, as the favourite game by the developer of MegaZeux, a ZZT offshoot. Small peanuts, but I was thrilled."

And the rest is history. If anybody finds an online archive of Owen's Ultimate Sissy Game, The Golden Tiara, I'd love to see it.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 01 at 03:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson