by carl wilson

January 31, 2006


It turns out Kurt Cobain had the idea for a lounge version of Smells Like Teen Spirit a long time before anybody else did. And he sang it on Top of the Pops while the rest of Nirvana goofed around not-pretending-to-play. (Granted it's lounge music via Ian Curtis, but it's still a very lounge/Elvis-in-Vegas kind of vocal.)

(Later: A little further on this. Cobain's ability to pisstake spontaneously on the song is suggestive that the reason SLTS attracts so much of this remake energy, and there's way more than I linked above, incl. most recently T.opiate's beloved Laura Barrett's kalimba cover of the Weird Al version, is that the multigeneric identity is actually coded into its creation, that the sarcasm of its vision of rebellion was always directed at the rock myth of which it has been claimed as final messianic avatar and that the swinging melody is in some ways key to its implicit critique, which is more traditionalist than Cobain's ever presumed to be, with his junkie lifetime membership in the boho nihilist club, which is always gonna be counted for more than his decisions, for example, to marry and have a child, despite the addict-logic compulsion of the former and the voluntary choice represented by the latter. And yeah, I know it's tiresome to be still retro-interpreting Cobain, but.)

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 31 at 08:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)


Animals Think They're Pretty Smart

Mr. B. and his "What Is It?" tree.

David Byrne's albums since the late 1980s have had their ups and downs, but his blog is consistently worthwhile (for instance, his recent musings on the idea that we might all just be fooling ourselves into thinking we have personalities, as a kind of mental support system comparable to the apparently built-in impulse toward religious faith, which you might argue is just an evolutionary shield against murder/suicide). But ya gotta check out these tree drawings he's made, apparently a future possible McSweenys book. As he describes them, "a kind of humorous disjointed scientism of the mind heaves into view." And humorous disjointed scientism is great on waffles. The Music Tree breaks the subject up into the categories "What it is" ("body language speaker," "sex catalyst," "personality annihilator," "heartbreak device," "time machine") and "What it's made of" ("sparse events," "frequent repetitions," "subliminal messages," "gimmicks") to create a kind of graphical representation of the immense surprise and unlikelihood that music works at all.

I was being interviewed for a teevee show about music writing and blogging today, and among my staircase moments afterwards, I thought that my answer to the question, "If writing about music is such a non-lucrative career, why do it?" should have been that precisely because music is so abstract and inimical to verbal capture, it opens up an infinite field to write across, an unending series of creative near-or far-misses - and because music is so insinuated in everyone's personal lives and consciousnesses, it burrows tunnels into every subject matter, making it a subject that potentially permits you to write about anything and everything in the world. But then again, I thought, that could be said of writing about food or clothing or a hundred other things. You could do it even if you were covering the scrap-metal industry, and it would be all the more dazzling because more unlikely. At least with scrap metal you probably couldn't fall back on writing a lot of articles using the words "angular" and "seminal."

Then it occurred to me that the real TV answer should have been, "Because it still pays better than writing poetry."

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 31 at 07:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


January 30, 2006

Let's Talk About Love


Apologies for having vanished up the spout all week: I was distracted by a miscellany of bright shiny objects, including last night's shows by Laura Barrett and Bob Wiseman and others, at the Boat, and then Dollarama and the "secret" set by Cursed at Wavelength. They were all a pleasure, but particularly Hamilton, Ont.'s Cursed: I think it's been about eight years since I saw a live hardcore band, and Cursed rebaptized me in blood and filth with such loving care that for a moment I flashed back to the time when I regularly sought out the sensation of feeling my body forcibly shaken by such music (which is closer to techno, like gabba, in a way, than to song-based rock - and the way Cursed play it, on the edge between HC and metal, not unlike the opera either). It was amusing too to see the more mild-mannered of the art-pop Wavelength kids' eyes bugging out and their heads wobbling, unsure whether they'd loved or hated the experience.

Anyway, while I've been gone there's been some news - which some of you have gleaned already: I'm going to be writing a book for the 33 1/3 series of books-on-albums. In my case, it's about what may seem a highly unlikely object of study: Let's Talk About Love by Celine Dion. I could explain why, but I'd rather let you puzzle it out for now. (Speculation welcome.) Suffice it to say I'm very excited about the project, which is going to be the most challenging bit of music writing I've ever done. And I'm also thrilled, and relieved, finally to be losing my livreginity. (The first of many atrocious bilingual puns to come in the Celine-fixated future, folks...)

Meanwhile, catching you up a little, I had a feature in the paper on Friday about the Untitled exhibition at the Diaz Contemporary gallery, curated by the terrific Toronto artist Kelly Mark, featuring sound-and-music-related art by artists including Dave Dyment, Pete Gazendam, Adad Hannah and (Zoilusian favourite) Brian Joseph Davis (the " target="_blank">10 Banned Records, Burned, Then Played project, which has been much blogged about around the Internet, in fact). The show is on till Feb. 11 and worth a visit. (Read more here.)

Also in Friday's paper, I reviewed the new Rosanne Cash album, Black Cadillac, an immensely stirring collection of reflections on family, love and loss (prompted of course by the recent passing of her father, Johnny Cash, mother Vivian and stepmother June Carter Cash). It's so much better than the last, Rules of Travel, which I now realize I overrated just because I was so glad to have Rosie back, but was too tempered and polite. This here is the real thing, the best since The Wheel from the artist my friend Gordon calls "the gal who put the cunt back into country."

And on Saturday, I had the latest instalment of my rather irregularly appearing Focus section column, Thought Bubbles. Which actually includes a couple of spoonfuls of music content this time around.

The art of noise

Friday, January 27, 2006
The Globe and Mail, R26

Perhaps it's the era A.D. (After Downloading) that's made music such a popular theme with visual artists, since it permits the studio-bound to cultivate their fixations - revisiting teenage pleasures or gathering fresh droplets from music's bleeding edge - without straying too far from their workbenches.

On the other hand, with music now freed from its confinement to round vinyl or plastic discs, from the garter-snake-brown noose of tape and even from the localized limits of the broadcast radio signal, perhaps there's a counterimpulse to recapture the sonic genie, to invent new material forms to bottle it.

Toronto artist Kelly Mark has assembled a dozen such efforts, several sparkling and some drab, at the Diaz Contemporary gallery as Untitled: Thoughts about Sound, Music, Silence and Confusion.

Not all the works involve music; any free-range noise is fair game. In fact each piece is about what is absent as much as what's there. No answer comes to break the stalemate in Doug Lewis's "I Dunno" Game - in which three stereo speakers faintly mumble the Ouroboric formula, "What do you want to do? I dunno, whadda you wanna do?" like disembodied slackers on some unseen stoop.

And Amazing Grace is missing in action in Pete Gazendam's There Shall Be Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth, a headphone piece in which a tongue clucks out the rhythm and tones of the inspirational hymn. Since it's dated 2001, it's tempting to take the piece as a manifestation of faith lost, or at least at a loss for words, after Sept. 11. But the tense, sardonic hollows of this mouth music seem unlikely to harbour such easy affirmation.

For a few works, what's missing is a reason to exist. The music box in a tin pail offers merely cute tinkling and the implicit pun on "carrying a tune in a bucket." Scottish artists Beagles and Ramsay's video of bald-wigged losers glumly reciting Madonna lyrics is the kind of condescending goof that mars too much art piggybacking on pop culture: mediocre BBC sketch comedy.

Much more knowing is Adad Hannah's video Band Practice. It seems at first to be a still image of a rock group in rehearsal in a grotty warehouse space. But soon you see it's a moving picture, in which models strain to hold frozen poses, such as the drummer bent over his crash cymbal. It sends up the clichés of rock photography, but also pays tribute to the workaday band, rehearsing hard to stay in stereotypical place. Dynamic suspense, composition and colours repay the viewer for lingering over its unlikely objects of contemplation.

Dave Dyment, an artist who frequently focuses on music, provides a centrepiece with White Noise, which reproduces all the sheet music from the Beatles' 1968 "White Album" in white-on-black silkscreens that are layered until they form a near-total white field, just like the cover of the album. It cocks an eyebrow at the overexposure of the Beatles, yet emulates their classical grace. The sight automatically suggests sound, as if all the music had congealed into a sonic wash - in fact, for me, the reflex brought on by the image was so clear that the recorded element (which does just that) seemed redundant.

Not so the mix of sound and vision in Brian Joseph Davis's 10 Banned Albums, Burned, Then Played. Davis is a multimedia artist fluent in the codes of music and pop culture. As a writer he's recently been praised for Portable Altamont, a collection of prose-poetic hysterias and hallucinations on celebrity.

This new installation works as advertised: Davis has taken 10 records that have been subject to censorship - from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to the Dead Kennedys and the raunch-rap of 2 Live Crew - put them ritually to the stake, and then returned them to the turntable. The charred remains hang on the gallery wall, while the music's sputtering remnants play on headphones. (The project also can be found on-line at

It's cheeky, but not only that. The sounds show the physical weakness of art in the face of force, but also the resilience of mass culture (no matter how many Beatles records offended Christians burned, after John Lennon's infamous "bigger than Jesus" gaffe, there would always be more). In fact some of the records sound positively funky even after they've been ravaged and warped down to scratched, skipping snatches.

Even more striking is the oddly apt - and texturally gorgeous - sculptural magic the flames have worked on each artifact. The edges of Louie Louie have melted and hardened into a protective carapace nearly as thick as its garbled (but not really obscene) words. Early 1960s comedy album The First Family is ripped apart by a second assassination, sequel to the one that turned its Kennedy-era satire into sacrilege. The green band across the cover of the Sex Pistols album has been scorched right into the vinyl underneath, lending the pockmarked tar a cadaverous tinge.

Whether purposeful or poetic accidents, these are details only the assured explorer can stumble upon. Davis is enough at ease in pop to embrace the confusion of Marks's (un)title: He has a nose for what may linger after any attempt to bind that hobgoblin has dispersed to data smoke in a binary wind.

Untitled runs to Feb. 11 at the Diaz Contemporary Gallery, 100 Niagara St., 416-361-2972.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Monday, January 30 at 06:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (20)


January 24, 2006

Digital Watercoloured Memories...

The Rat King by Maggie MacDonald at the Alchemy Theatre last weekend. From left: Jeremy Singer, Reg Vermue and Magali Meagher, about to consume their mother's remains. Photo by Lee Towndrow.

The Internet, that virtual communal diary, that thief of dreams, turns out to be loaded with fragments of my experiences the past week.

1. The Rat King. Above a pic from a set by Lee T. of Maggie M.'s The Rat King, which I caught at the Saturday midnight show, which given its cannibalism, mutant rats, zombie sisters, shipwrecked sailors and other B-movie imagery, along with music by Bob Wiseman that was surprisingly often reminiscent less of Brecht than of Little Shop of Horrors, seemed quite apt. I largely agreed with my colleague Robert Everett Green about the show's virtues and vices, though I thought Jeremy Singer (of the Hank Collective) deserved more recognition for the way he came alive in the second half, striking uproariously third-wall-busting switcheroos between razamatazz and menace in the musical numbers. There needs to be a soundtrack release of this one, as several of the MacDonald-Wiseman tunes, such as Germinal Man and Magali Meagher's courting song (as the Girl) to the Boy, "Even if you have no talk, you can talk to me," were sterling hit-parade stuff. There were some very slow-crawling patches, especially in the first several scenes (there should be more singing, earlier); the scenes with the zombie-ghost sister really need rethinking; and for me the resolution of the play was broadly unsatisfying (the ribs pictured above should really belong to the Boy; the alternate path taken felt quite muddled in the staging). A more radical rapprochement between the Girl and the rats seems called for by the play's internal logic; the choice made instead is a bit pat. The Ratbot never amounted to much; it ended up as barely even a MacGuffin; more of a red herring. In these ways the show was a bit disappointingly conservative, insofar as a post-apocalyptic fairy tale in rhyming couplets can be. And certainly some of the amateur acting detracted from the line-readings, as much as it made this production far more charming and involving than much professional theatre. All those caveats aside, a new production in a bigger house or a longer run, perhaps with an assist from the pro's, and certainly with the more complete pit band Bob told me he'd like (and as Robert says, maybe amplification), is more than warranted, and I do hope that possibility is somewhere in the air.

2. Laura Barrett. I will use the excuse of Sunday night's Wavelength experience to point out that the mp3 blog I Guess I'm Floating has a full set of mp3s documenting Final Fantasy's performance at the Over the Top event a couple of weeks ago, discussed in Zoiluses previous. If nothing else, listen to the performance with Laura Barrett of her song Robot Ponies (again, see the past) which sounds smoother than I remembered, though it does omit the crucial final verse. Not so the beautiful version heard on Sunday with Laura's new guest bassist, who had a great limber sound and gave good bottom end to the kalimba's plucky music-box sound, although we still adore it on its own. Laura's WL debut was a triumph, with a packed house at Sneaky Dee's falling into a respectful silence for at least the first 20-plus minutes. The girl's got a sneaky kind of star power. It's certainly testament to the oddness of the Torontopian moment that her nerdgasmic songwriting and demure style have been so immediately embraced, but the musical sumptuousness of the work would be tough to gainsay no matter where. Word is going to spread faster than anyone expects. (And not just because I'm going to spread it.)

3. Trampoline Hall: Last week's all-15-year-old edition of Tramp. Hall was a delight, as this slideshow (also by lensmaster Lee T.) should demonstrate. Several not-too-fugly shots of yours truly even pop up along the way, much improved by proximity to beautiful women. So, the primary quality of 15-year-olds forced to give lectures (on shortness, Christianity and their English teacher) to a bar full of adults? A straightforward forthcomingness near-unimaginable in their elders. Primary shortcoming? Much the same: Subtlety, context, sense of paradox are not early-adolescent strong suits, it seems, while for most of the regular 20/30-sumpthin' TH crowd, they are almost paralyzingly everpresent. Funniest line? I think host Misha's off-the-cuff claim, inspired by the fact that the night's programme was for the first time ever not printed on paper but in the form of a CDR with video, that people born in the 1990s have the ability to read digital media without any computer hardware: "If you don't yet have the perceptual upgrade, you'll be able to download it from our website later this week." Best post-show discussion (next to requests for info on the Ninja High School and Barmitzvah Brothers music I played at intermission): On how North American evangelical Christianity posits that a "personal" connection with God can be struck up by a simple egocentric act of will ("accepting Jesus Christ as my personal saviour"), etc., while far older monastic and other traditions emphasize the great self-sacrifice, humility and rigor that are required to achieve that relationship - and how this problem can be applied to other senses of vocation (political, artistic, ethical) - that this culture denies the very real possibility that you must reject a certain worldliness if you intend to dedicate yourself to a countercultural ideal. On the other hand, perhaps there is a quietistic strain to those older traditions, intended to ghettoize the misfits and prevent them from actually effecting any change. Now: Apply to "underground" music, "political" art and performance, etc. (If you cannot do so, you can download the upgrade from Zoilus later this week.)

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 24 at 07:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)


Of (i)Tunes and Tangibility


Read Frank's fruitful thoughts and even more fruitful links on the devaluation of music via its disembodiment. I'm downloading far more than I used to these days, ever since I redid the Zoilus links page and provided myself a better browser's guide to the MP3 blogs, and I am experiencing that devaluation and accumulative fetish, to my own distaste. Angry Robot, a blog I've never read before but will now, is particularly cogent on the relationship of this phenomenon to the iPod mania - the iPod itself substitutes for the album as an attractive object to which you can attach emotionally. (AR's also smart about the Buddha Machine and the Ghostbox series - no coincidence, as the Brit bloggers have been discussing, that these themes of spectrality and hauntings might be linked to a project dedicated to restoring a corporeal presence to its music.)

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 24 at 04:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (23)


A Political Time-Out

Jack & Olivia gettin' down.

Well, that wasn't as bad as we feared. (Warning: Music and culture content in this post will be minimal, though not non-existent.) Yes, we've got a wolf in beady-eyed sheep's clothing in the Prime Minister's Office, but it's a government whose room to manoeuvre is limited, and the jump in NDP seats was terrific, though I wish they'd broken 30. (Congratulations to Jack and Olivia, a goofy, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time but still lovable pair.) The danger now is that because all the other parties recognize the lack of appetite for more elections, they'll spend a long time compromising and not holding Harper to account, letting him accomplish mostly benign things (I do support the GST cut, which would be a progressive measure - the GST is a regressive tax, remember? - much preferable to the income and corporate cuts Harper actually wants, and the ones Martin implemented while ignoring the standing Liberal promise to phase out the GST). What we need is a mess that robs Harper of credibility so that he can't parlay this eked-out win into a majority next time around. Luckily, his inexperienced caucus as well as Harper's own arrogance can be counted on to create embarrassments in fairly short order. Who the hell will the next Liberal leader be? There's a conspicuous shortage of true talent in that pool. Brian Tobin and Frank McKenna, yucch. Nobody outside Toronto and Montreal is going to vote for Ignatieff. Thumbelina Stronach, who always sounds like she's running for student-council president? Pshaw. But then who?

A particularly happy development for local culture vultures is that the copyright flap in Parkdale (along with Gomery, and her own freaked-out behaviour) seems to have helped kibosh Hollywood stooge Sam Bulte and put the NDP's impressive Peggy Nash in her place. Although of course, when Jack Layton said in his victory speech last night, "We will take your hopes to Ottawa," one could only react by saying, "No! Wait! I like my hopes! Don't take them to Ottawa - that's where hopes go to expire. Leave them here!" When it comes to federal politics, you gotta stay critical or die.

By the way, in response to the chatter in yesterday's comment boxes: I don't think Stephen Harper's Christianity is the scariest thing about him. He isn't Stockwell Day. (Stockwell Day is still Stockwell Day, unfortunately, and soon to be a member of cabinet.) What's worst about Harper is that he's an absolutely ideological neocon on the Newt Gingrich/Mike Harris model who considers Canada an effeminate Northern European welfare state that must be made a decentralized, deregulated macho playground for capital, with minimal safeguards for the marginalized and underprivileged. He forbade his candidates to talk about abortion in this election but has no compunction about his plans to reconfigure Canada into a dysfunctional patchwork of underserved, undereducated backwater corporate dutchies. And he's going to begin pulling the bricks out of the foundation in the most understated way as if there is no longterm plan, and the media will cover it as though it's eminently reasonable, they way they did with Mike Harris, and the public won't realize the mess they're going to have to clean up until it's very late. Yes, gay rights and women's rights are under threat, too, but not so much while they're in a minority position and have to curry favour with the Bloc and the NDP - it's just important they never make it to a majority. What worries me more immediately is the surrender of our foreign policy to the U.S. agenda, when the Liberals had already screwed up this country's tradition of foreign aid and human-rights support to an unconscionable degree. I can't believe nobody made this an issue in the election. Canada's problems all pale in comparison. (Yes, Olivia, child poverty at home is shameful, but the plight of Africa is far more so.)

And unfortunately I bet that one of the areas where the Cons can safely test out their incremental strategy is in the arts. The Liberals never officially budgeted the announced Canada Council funding increase. Expect that to disappear in a puff of amnesia. They despise the CBC. Et cetera. The way the vote fell last night, the political map presents us with urban Canada versus the exurbs, small towns and rural areas (except in the Maritimes), reminiscent of the red-blue split south of the border; expect that cultural gap to harden. However, there is a bright side: Canada is much more urbanized than the U.S., in fact, so the cities aren't going to be so easy to shut out.

Finally, I'm disappointed that the consensus still remains that the NDP is not a viable federal governing party. The Cold War is over, after all. If half the world can elect social-democratic Labour governments, so can we, and you'd think that this year's situation, with a discredited centrist party and a mostly unwanted right-wing party, would have been an ideal moment for a more substantial surge on the left. I'm not a member of the NDP and likely never would be - their utopia is not quite mine, and I often think democracy would be improved without a party system - but it's sad that even Jack Layton never broached the suggestion that Canadians finally take a chance on putting the third party in charge. (Also, you nearly-five-percent who vote Green - do you actually know their platform? Do you realize the NDP has a more solid environmental policy and that Canadian Greens are actually a centre-right party on every other issue?)

This concludes this free-time political announcement, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled Zoilus.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 24 at 03:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (21)


January 23, 2006

A Black Monday

Too grim today about the apparent spite-driven nosedive of Canadian democracy to chat about music. Canadian readers, if you haven't gotten out to vote yet, please do so, and don't allow the media hype about momentum and landslides to turn your head. I'll be back tomorrow to discuss The Rat King, Laura Barrett and other weekend music experiences, and no doubt to kvetch about the state of confederation. Till then, fingers crossed!

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, January 23 at 07:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)


January 20, 2006

Obligatory Destroyer Update:

Cover art for Destroyer's Rubies, due Feb. 21.

Pitchfork today linked to Zoilus in confusing ways while penning what felt like an instant-message conversation about Destroyer, but the item is worth reading for the following bits of Bejarian news (which I am about to share with you, thus making said item not-worth-reading again): "DB hopes to unleash a record by his band Bonaparte ('It features some of my best axework ever,' sayeth Dan) and started practicing with a new duo, Hello Blue Roses, in preparation for a Valentine's Day debut. ... [Bit about Owen Pallett, misinterpreted from previous postings on this site, excised.] .... Bejar also has designs on forming - drumroll please - a bona fide Canadian indie supergroup! He'll join the likes of Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes) and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown) to record an album this February, due out someday via Jagjaguwar. The boys have yet to settle on a name..."

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 20 at 03:28 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


Do They Know It's Chxzyqwerbazgfyzzt Time?

Nurse with Wound associates: The Elton John/Sheryl Crow/Bono
of completely fucking doomed fundraising projects.

Perhaps the least-commercial charity record of all time is upcoming from David Tibet's Durtro Jnana label, a five-count-'em-five-CD set titled Not Alone, with proceeds going to Medecins Sans Frontieres aka Doctors Without Borders, and particularly the group's crucial efforts in the AIDS pandemic in Africa. It's currently available for preorder on the label's website.

The set is about as successful as conceivable in assembling "big names" who don't actually sell any records, from the ranks of noise-rockers, minimalist composers, industrial-blaggers, freak folks and fey crooners. Among the contributors of, mostly, previously unreleased tracks: William Basinski, Angels of Light, The Hafler Trio, Nurse With Wound, Jim O'Rourke, Jad Fair, Linda Perhacs, Richard Buckner, Matmos, Thurston Moore, Keiji Haino (with the marvelously titled fleeing panic-stricken shriveled equal temperament), Shirley Collins, the Shockheaded Peters, Marc Almond, Vashti Bunyan, Coil, the Bevis Frond and Charlemagne Palestine. And those are the better-known of the lot, but for a few: When they go all crazy and poppy, it's Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian (okay, a little commercial), Bonnie Prince Billy, Devendra Banhart, Antony & the Johnsons, Damon and Naomi (does anyone buy Damon and Naomi records new? or is it all promos that end up in second-hand shops? no offence meant, I love D&N;, but I suspect nobody pays full price for their discs) and Teenage Fanclub (maybe the catchiest band ever to sell next to no records, at least after the Pernice Bros.). The most famous person on it is probably Allen Ginsberg. Who is dead.

Perhaps the critical mass of excellent artists, the heft of the set, the economical price ($25 U.S. plus $8 postage, or little more than $6 a CD total), the hand-assemblage etc. will mean MSF sees some profit? I hope so, as it's mostly high-quality music for a tremendously vital cause, but the approach contrasts comically with the standard Bloated Superstars on the March approach to charidee music. Mightn't it have been smarter to assemble super-rarities by each artist and set the price in the steeper, collectors' range? Or is that strategy extinct in the age of complete rare albums on instant demand? So dig deep into those scruffy pockets, Wire subscribers. You are the world. You are the ch%*#/:/#%Nfal_iy9n.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 20 at 01:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)


January 19, 2006

The Rat King:
Tin Tin Tin's Red-Whiskered Stepchild


Newer readers may not know that throughout 2004 I ran a monthly series at the then-newborn Drake Hotel in Toronto called Tin Tin Tin, which put together musicians from different bands, scenes and genres to play together in multidisciplinary ensembles. Sadly, I didn't have the time to keep it going, though I always nurture hopes for a revival someday. But even better is this week's debut of Maggie MacDonald's The Rat King, a full-scale indie-rock-opera that got its start as a set at the first Tin Tin Tin. The cover story on Maggie in this week's Now weekly kindly acknowledges my part in kickstarting it (thanks, Sarah), but the reason you should care is that it's a grand hodgepodge of Brechtian theatre and The Cat in the Hat with an underlying environmental-apocalypse theme and tunes by musical director Bob Wiseman, with a cast featuring members of the Hank Collective, the Phonemes and Gentleman Reg. Not sure how many tickets are left for the run between now and Sunday, but surf over to the show site to find out. Let's hope it sees a well-funded revival in a larger theatre soon, tho given Toronto theatre's general risk aversion, I wouldn't hold my smog-choked breath. Meanwhile, I'll be at the Saturday midnight show.

Also in the funny papers today, Eye Weekly presents its annual critics' poll. For some reason, neither I nor any other Globe critic received an invite to participate this year (I asked, and Eye says it was an oversight, not any kind of submerged newspaper-war torpedo), but it's still worth a glance as the only true hoser counterpart to the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. (Rumour has it this may be the Eye poll's final year, which would be a shame.) This round's top raters are unsurprising, save perhaps their order. From numbers 1 to 10, the album victors are Broken Social Scene, MIA, The New Pornographers, Sufjan Stevens (yawn - okay if I start just calling him Sufferin' Succotash?), Antony and the Johnsons, the Constantines, Wolf Parade, Bloc Party, Sleater-Kinney and, bringing up the pale, somewhat tokenistic rear, Kanye West. The singles winners are perhaps equally predictable but sound much more like the 2005 that was, to me: Kelly Clarkson, Kanye (for Gold Digger), Madonna, Franz Ferdinand, Amerie, LCD Soundsystem tied with Metric (for Monster Hospital), Spoon (for I Turn My Camera On), Gwen Stefanie (Hollaback, of course), MIA (Bucky Done Gun), and The White Stripes (My Doorbell). R. Kelly's unforgivable absence is due, I'm sure, to vote splitting between the dozen parts of Trapped in the Closet, a dilemma all 2005 pollsters should have anticipated and corrected for.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 19 at 06:27 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (30)


January 18, 2006

Geoff Berner's Phony Gall

Berner (left) v. Eaglesmith: Now, who here is supposed to be the pretentious one?

I've seen British Columbia's Geoff Berner perform once, opening for Billy Bragg, and was distinctly unimpressed by his cliched tunes, forced humour, desperate stage manner and occasional moralistic stridency (unlike Bragg's usually quickwitted, wordplay-rich style of communicating a political message, though he certainly has his clunky moments too). But since Berner isn't particularly successful, I saw no point in bitching about him. Until now.

Manitoba campus-community DJ Jeff Robson has just posted a song of Berner's called Phony Drawl which is apparently an attack on Fred Eaglesmith, focusing on the fact that Eaglesmith speaks with a southern-style drawl when in fact the south he's from is southern Ontario. This, to Berner, is justification for a long, droning (in a terrible Fred imitation), unfunny and contemptuous screed. Now, before I go on, I realize that Berner is bound to accuse me of lacking a sense of humour, the usual refuge of talent-short comedians who abuse their artistic license to conduct glib drivebys under cover of "satire." Berner's smart-assed cocktail of envy and class condescension is a toxic drip in the cultural well. As insignificant as it is, though, I won't stand by and hear one of the country's hardest-working and most underappreciated artists smeared.

Besides being essentially unlistenable, the song is peppered with lines such as "So I sing about guns and horses/ Not my university courses," a barb that might stick to a lot of would-be Johnny Cash Juniors in the alt-country scene but reveals total ignorance of Eaglesmith's actual background, which involves (among other things) a fundamentalist Christian rural upbringing with eight siblings, a foreclosed family farm, a farm of his own, and no college-town airs. Berner is probably one of those westerners who doesn't realize that there's anything more to Ontario than the greater Toronto area, but making Eaglesmith out as some sort of fraud is idiocy. Sure, he's got a crafted stage persona, but his motivations and targets with that persona are always complex and surprising and absolutely with a political consciousness (and not a very subtle one, though apparently too subtle for Berner), somewhat in the manner of the great sly-hick comedians of country tradition. The drawl, meanwhile, is a distinct blend of an actual southern Ontario country accent and the unavoidable effects of singing country music for 30 years (listen to a veteran American power-pop singer and tell me you can't hear the British traces in their voices, intentional or not), along with the fact that Eaglesmith spends a couple of hundred days in a typical year south of the border. I could go on.

But, more to the point, Eaglesmith has written a hundred songs easily greater than anything Berner will ever conceive in his life, and his pathetically pennyante concern with Fred's "authenticity" betrays the worst kind of second-rater's envy. (And typically Canadian envy, too, I'm afraid.) Sing a song about Dylan's phony drawl, why don'tcha, Geoff? It would be much more accurate - and even more irrelevant.

Berner performs with the much better Barmitzvah Brothers on Friday night at the Rivoli. By coincidence, the Barmitzvahs (led by the sparkling Jenny Mitchell) are quite skilled at writing teasing songs with pointed subtexts, directed at real people, without making jerks of themselves. I hope Berner's listening. I believe the Barmitzvahs are on first, so if you go, show up early. And then leave early too.

My Globe profile of Eaglesmith, which addresses some of the misperceptions of Ontario reflected in Berner's song, is on the jump, along with a more recent short piece. [...]

Sworn enemy of the Volvo set
Fred Eaglesmith pens gritty, hardscrabble music that doesn't kowtow to the artistic bureaucracy

Carl Wilson
17 August 2002
The Globe and Mail

Fred Eaglesmith isn't the kind of guy you'd peg as a collector. It's hard to picture the gruff musician, with his hedge-clipper haircut and muscles swelling out from the sawed-off sleeves of his checkered shirt, fussing in a kitchen hutch over commemorative plates and spoons. But in fact he is stowing away a little memorabilia.

"One of the things I've started doing lately," the 45-year-old tells me over coffee one muggy August afternoon, on a blink-long break from the perpetual tour that has brought him to more than 170 gigs this year alone, "is I steal signs from the music festivals. Especially the ones that are misspelled. But the thing is they're all rules: 'No this,' 'No this,' 'Can't do that.' When I get older I'm going to display them. I'm going to put it all in a gallery somewhere and call it 'Folk Festival.' "

Then, like one of the truckers or trainmen in his songs, Eaglesmith opens up the throttle. "Woody Guthrie - who to me is the father of folk music really - he would have had no rules. But this is what happens to culture in Canada. Culture in Canada is now run by the Volvo set. And they want it nice and they want red wine or white wine with it. They don't want it gritty."

In fact, Eaglesmith has been tearing down the taboos of Canadian music since the start, nearly 40 years ago, when he first saw Elvis Presley on TV and knew he'd found his calling - much to the chagrin of his hardscrabble-farming father and evangelical Christian family on the outskirts of Brantford, Ont. No wonder he called his first album, in 1983, The Boy That Just Went Wrong.

It wouldn't be until the 1990s that Eaglesmith would take up that rock 'n' roll pulpit in earnest; first, he hopped trains across the country and made his own disastrous detours into agribusiness. Yet when he finally turned to music full-time, he quickly become a cult idol for his four-minute novellas of wild women, desperate men and punishing landscapes - with "Fredheads" signed-up on several continents and meeting daily on the Internet, 11 albums selling at a steadily increasing pace and a concert schedule more brutal than Bob Dylan's infamous "endless tour," criss-crossing the continent almost weekly in a cantankerous bus.

Most recently Eaglesmith played for thousands outdoors at New York's Lincoln Center and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. "Yep," he says, laughing, "we got out from behind the chicken wire for a little bit." Not to mention several decidedly unruly festivals fully devoted to his music, including his annual charity picnic near Port Dover, Ont., which takes place this weekend.

Yet even before all this began, in his early 30s, he already had recorded a dozen classics, mostly about the destruction of Canadian agricultural life.

A cover of one of them by singer James King is a hit right now on U.S. bluegrass radio stations: "Thirty years of farming/ Thirty years of heartache/ Thirty years of day-to-day/ My daddy stopped talkin'/ The day the farm was auctioned/ There was nothing left to say." Not bad for a kid who, he says now, "hadn't found [his] voice" when that song was written.

But something did shift. One day the awkward folksinger, whose rural elegies recalled the dust bowl photographs of Dorothea Lange, suddenly started cranking out amped-up rockers about drinking, drugs, the highway patrol, arson-fuelled love affairs and rooftop snipers. What happened was the United States. He had driven down to Nashville to try to sell some songs, and a wire had gone live.

"America's so exciting, you know. There's so much edge, every time you cross the border. I was so poor and I was driving down to Nashville in my old Lincoln Continental all the time, never knowing if I'd make it. I bought it for a thousand dollars, and it was the longest car allowed in those days. . . . I'd just stop at all these gas stations, and it was so edgy. I don't feel it anymore because I go there so often. But I really felt those people."

And they felt him. Eaglesmith didn't sell any songs to the Garth Brooks crowd, but, with his band the Flying Squirrels (including Canadian folk legend Willie P. Bennett on mandolin a la Hendrix), he started selling in droves to audiences in hardtack American nightclubs. A series of new albums were given a junkyard-chromium sheen by producer Scott Merritt, another Brantford-area cult songwriter. And Eaglesmith had honed his forest-fire stage persona - part standup comedian, part country tear-jerker, part preacher, part punk.

"In America they started talking about the songs as literature," he says. "I'd never thought of it that way but it was what I had aspired to." Word soon spread that he was the northern heir to the Texas songwriting tradition of Willie Nelson, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, etc. And it has continued to spread.

In a difficult economic climate, more album orders are arriving than ever, his European audience is exploding, and his band is playing ever-larger venues. The insults come only at home. While he venerates the Canadian song tradition represented by Gordon Lightfoot or Ian Tyson, Eaglesmith constantly vexes its bureaucratic gatekeepers. A couple of weeks ago in Canmore, Alta., a festival put up him and his five musicians in one small suite. When he asked apologetically for a little privacy, the promoters fumed at his "egomania."

"And then I go to Bellows Falls, Vermont, or wherever, and it's all, 'What can we do for you?' I get pissed off. There was a big Stan Rogers tribute at this festival - and thank God - but if Stan had been there you bet he'd have gotten his own room. You know why? Because he's dead. And that's how it works in Canada. If I was dead I would have gotten my own room."

He disparages the Canadian music industry and the CBC for ignoring young artists, and a granting system that favours polite, "conservative liberal" baby-boomers who are good at filling out forms: "It just keeps mediocrity in business." He fantasizes about holding a festival where no one over 30 could perform, himself included. "It'd be magic."

The irony of Eaglesmith's cross-border conflicts is that his characters actually are very Canadian. Not the Canada you usually find in our novels and movies, but the Canada on the edges of out-of-order towns in southwestern Ontario, people muttering darkly about the Indians or the income tax, with a six-pack for company.

"Exactly!" he says. "I'm a regionalist. I feel so lucky to have grown up in the south - southern Ontario. The cops are so crooked there . . . the prejudice is so honest . . . And you drive out on the roads and you see these little innocent brick houses with people on the porch, and then another one a mile later, and then another. It's like nowhere else. People think it's all Toronto and that's not true."

That localism is the real backbone of Eaglesmith's "honorary Texan" status. It underlies many songs on this year's Falling Stars and Broken Hearts, such as Cumberland County, an improbably moving monologue by a snowplow driver having a nervous breakdown. "I like that guy because he's just burned out. He doesn't even have a reason. He's not on drugs, he's not drinking." The habit he has to shake is his job, which makes sense to Eaglesmith, whose own career can seem an isolating addiction at times. He lives in Port Dover, on Lake Erie, and when he's home he drives out to do maintenance on the ingenious wind-and-solar-power system at the nearby farm that houses his ex-wife and children - one of the prices he's paid for his vocation.

Amazingly, he writes about a dozen songs a week, and some of his favourites arrive in the middle of the night, forgotten till he looks in his notebook in the morning. He has been striving to shuck off cleverness in favour of plainspoken lyrics that might take many listens to yield up their subtext, even to him. "When you start out as an artist, you write a part because it sounds right, and later on you find out that thing is called a 'bridge.' It's a bit of a loss of innocence. It was better when you didn't know the trick."

It is a risky road. After 1997's critical breakthrough, Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline, for instance, he needed relief. "The songs were so intense for so long. I read that Dorothea Lange, after she was done with a project, just shot picture postcards. And I thought, I'm just gonna do that." He wrote novelty songs such as Big Hair and White Trash, which delighted and offended people, mostly for the wrong reasons. "I was trying to do something else there, something more poignant. ... Sometimes my ideas are better than they are," he says with a laugh. "Sometimes they're great ideas, but they just aren't any good."

He admits the same might apply to his last two studio albums. Fifty-Odd Dollars in 2000 was an odd attempt to fuse bluegrass and surf-guitar that "nobody got";the new album was intended as a "last-gasp" tribute to country music, except he found he couldn't stand the cliches he meant to eulogize. "Things is Changin' . . . again," he says, paraphrasing the 1993 album title that marked his first transformation from folky to force of nature.

Most visibly, Eaglesmith and Bennett's long-time fellow Flying Squirrels have been replaced by players in their 20s. Together, he says, they are "brailleing" their way toward new styles. He's also become suspicious of his own overdeliberate approach to recording - "What is production and when is it relevant? - so he may begin to make quick, dirty recordings of his hundreds of unused songs. "We'll just see in 10 years if I'm right."

Meanwhile, he'll be on the road, uprooting expectations and building up his collection. "My mother used to say, 'Idle hands are the devil's playthings,' " he says. "I'm not good with idle hands."

* * *

Four Nights with Fred Eaglesmith

Carl Wilson
The Globe and Mail
Friday, November 19, 2004

Sometimes singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith gets tired of singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith. Not that he swears off being the black-sheep son of a rural Ontario preacher man, the rebel laureate of foreclosed farms, pill-dazed truckers and other busted ways of life. But he's logged hundreds of shows a year over the past few decades, recruiting his international brigade of "Fredheads," and he's not a man who likes to get bored. So he's invented Freds for every occasion.

You can witness several in a four-night stand at Hugh's Room (Nov. 24 to 27, $20, 2261 Dundas St. W., 416-531-6604): first, intense and solo; then turbo-charging bluegrass with the Flathead Noodlers; then easing in to the Flying Squirrels' slap-and-tickle country-folk; and finally rocking out on Saturday with the Smokin' Losers' diesel-powered twang. (All these bands are made up of the same guys.)

Another Fred altogether is audible on his newest self-released album, Dusty, matching a cheap Wurlitzer "Funmaker" organ to a pricey string quartet for a cockeyed carnival-tent remake of the sixties' Nashville Sound -- but with songs as sharp and bleak as Springsteen's Nebraska. That's the trick: No matter what style Eaglesmith chooses, he makes the truest sounds you ever heard.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 18 at 02:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (30)


January 17, 2006

Hot & Bloggered

The dead air is the consequence of work being done to ready our house for market, fattening it up like a pink pig. Wanna buy a house?

Plus: In musical news, in case you haven't read it elsewhere: Destroyer with Magnolia Electric Co. March 25 at Lee's Palace in Toronto, with many stops elsewhere too. I was a big Songs:Ohia fan but I'm less enthusiastic about the jammier Magnolia reincarnation of Jason Molina's mojo, but will give it another try for Destroyerness's sake. I'm excited that this will be the first time I have seen Destroyer as a full and proper band, rather than Dan as a soloist or with a makeshift backup group. The ridiculousfuckingly good Destroyer's Rubies is, of course, out Feb. 21.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 17 at 03:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)


January 13, 2006

((Music)) (No) /Endgame/


Marcello, essential as always, on Derek Bailey, a few days back. Some comment after absorption, if there's time.

Also found out a bit behind the news: March 8 at Sneaky Dee's in Toronto, Whitehouse with Wolf Eyes (plus Awesome and 10,000 Watt Head). $11. Holy fargin' shit. Dates are also planned in DC, Manhattan, Montreal, Providence, Cleveland, New Haven, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Lansing, and Austin, according to Whitehouse's label.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 13 at 05:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


This Modern Love
Never Did Run Smooth

Members of the St. Kitts String 4tet, with Final Fantasy on Wed. night. Photo by Suckingalemon.

Well-tempered (heh) review here of Wednesday night's Over the Top Festival launch with Great Lake Swimmers, Akron/Family and Final Fantasy w/ Laura Barrett & the St Kitts String Quartet. I wasn't sure whether I'd post about it, but the mood is upon me now.

I know much of the audience loved A/F, but my feeling at the end was "not enough Akron, too much family" - that is, no keen sharp unsentimental vision a la Devo, no greasy machine parts, and too much clannish drum-circle testosterone-sweaty boy bonding. I like the pretty-melody/galumphing-noise-racket dyad as much if not more than most people - it's probably the formula for most of my favourite music - but A/F's better songs don't sustain the meandering, self-expressive emoting stuff. They just lose me. I admire their energy and I suspect a lot of the younger folk at this all-ages show were seeing a kind of free-form spontaneity that could serve as an inspiration to liberation, but I felt like the final (badly staged) midfloor singalong about "freeing the colours of space" or whatever summed up too much of the conceptual weakness and self-flattery of the band. I enjoyed some of their post-prog rocking-out, though, and one singer has a very beguiling voice, so I'm not dismissing them. Just expressing my impatience, especially with their disregard for their given stage time, which put Final Fantasy in a tough spot as the evening had worn on excessively. Great Lake Swimmers played gorgeously, with Tony Dekker's voice seemingly descending in mist from an unseen cloud cluster rather than from his lungs or chest... And the Final Fantasy set, including a seat-of-the-pants-luscious harpsichord duet with Laura Barrett on Robot Ponies and the closing cover of Bloc Party's This Modern Love, was terrific, both for what clicked (especially the new rearrangements of Has a Good Home cuts with the St. Kitts String Quartet, for whom the mix was unfortunately a little thin compared to last summer's semi-legendary Music Gallery show) and for the daring adventures that didn't (primarily, the harpsichord having gone inevitably out of tune in the sweltering packed hall). What detracted from the experience was, unfortunately, Owen's obvious frustration with the technical problems - which led him to keep giving the audience signals that he felt the show was horrible, which clashed heavily with our collective feeling that we were having a grand time.

Sometimes those old-fashioned showbiz virtues really are virtues. If you're going to keep telling the audience "this sucks shit," better that you stomp off stage in a huff and leave us with a story to tell. Otherwise we're left feeling, "Wait, am I some kind of patsy to be enjoying this?" Owen is ultimately too charming for things to get ugly - and he rescued the mood by the end - but it did get awkward. The path of the risk-taking perfectionist, as Vit Wagner says in that review, is a hard gravel road - still, it's the path to glory too. (I was telling O.P. afterwards about Pere Ubu's patented "Reality Dub" method, in which they amp up the mood at shows by more-or-less faking an onstage disaster, stopping in mid-song so David Thomas can throw a tantrum - and then start again at the absolute peak of their rocking abilities, simulating a miraculous recovery, all just to get the audience's adrenaline up - and also to provide camouflage for any genuine disasters that might take place...)

Graham disagrees with me about Akron/Family vs. FF. And cover-version king Copy, Right? has video of a different performance of Owen's Bloc Party number, with drums by (I think?) semi-official "second Fantasy" Leon Taheny Jan Phillip Janzen (?). I do adore covers that rescue songs from renditions I find too coarse or poppy, and allow me to appreciate their occluded emotional force.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 13 at 04:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)


Pole Position


Check it out: Just discovered this photo of a mid-1980s band from Warsaw, apparently called Zoilus. According to the caption, they played guitar, drums, sax and vocals, but I have to suspect there's a bassist absent from this pic. And possibly a trumpet player: Notice the T-shirt on background vocalist Ireneusz Biedrzycki, second from left? Sweet. What are the chances of my ever finding one? Never mind one to fit me? As slim, I suspect, as a Polish rocker in 1986.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 13 at 12:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


January 12, 2006

Copyrights & Political Wrongs


Copyrightgate in the Parkdale parliamentary race continues to occupy the local blog scene, including sage analysis from Ottawa legal expert Michael Geist, who has created a Copyright Pledge for politicians and is offering to debate Liberal candidate (aka showbusiness stooge) Sam Bulte (looking judicious, above) on the issue, after she said she won't let "pro-user zealots" intimidate her. That's it, Sam, and don't let those pro-voter zealots get you down either! That's just the public, and you've got special interests to protect.

There's further coverage at Online Rights Canada, and first-hand reporting on this week's Parkdale all-candidate meetings from Joey, who also has video. As well, Boing Boing is still on the case with word of a shop-window protest against Builte from indie used-and-new-book-and-record store (a species sadly vanishing from the landscape in part due to the digital revolution, but that doesn't stop 'em) She Said Boom.

For the record, I don't think that everybody should be free to traffic online in copyrighted music in vast quantities for commercial gain with no renumeration to the rights holders. But I think there should be a great deal of leeway for personal use and that once the line is crossed, the legal punishments should be in proportion to the crime, and individuals should not be financially drawn-and-quartered in the public square to set an example to the rest of us sinners. Declaring war doesn't advance a balanced view of cultural properties, rights and freedoms, and it certainly doesn't promote public sympathy for the just concerns of creators and their agents, or any nuanced sense of the blend of individual and collective cultural input into the creative process. Bleah.

And it's extraordinarily annoying to have to wage this little battle with a Liberal candidate at the very moment when my real main concern is that Stephen Harper's gang of crypto-Republicans are about to take over the country like they were waltzing into a bar.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 12 at 12:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)


January 11, 2006

' I even love some of our magically ugly architecture.'


Kat Collins (née Gligorijevic) of Toronto bands the Barcelona Pavilion, Republic of Safety and Pyramid Culture (and spouse of Ninja High School's Matt Collins, and occasionally, as above, found disguised as a raccoon) is interviewed today on Indiepolitik about concept bands, her Torontopia documentary, her novel, and subverting the urban grid. Zoilus endorses every word. Friggin'tastic.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 11 at 12:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)


January 10, 2006

Influence Peddling is Killing Music (in Parkdale)


Canadian readers may already have read this story, but it's worth mentioning that, in an electoral riding (um, that's Canuckistanian for "district") just down the road from me, Parkdale-High Park, file sharing has emerged as a campaign issue. More specifically, music-industry campaign donations intended to encourage Liberal canadidate and potential future Heritage Minister, Sarmite Sam Bultes, to push for legislation that would make U.S.-RIAA-style lawsuits against downloading miscreants possible in Canada. Because there are Canadian grandmas, single moms, 12-year-old girls and dead people out there getting away with murder, presuming that "murder" means getting digital copies of Sum 41 songs. As Boing Boing noted today, local musician and net-label entrepreneur Neil Leyton (pictured above) is speaking out on the issue (as he's actually been doing for quite some time).

Ah, sweet copyright: Which will be the first country invaded and occupied to safeguard a small combine of multinational corporations' control of the human wellspring of ideas?

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 10 at 11:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


January 06, 2006

Only Connect ... Better
(Plus: Neko revisited)

How did you spend your Friday night? Me, I spent it finally doing the long-planned renovation of Zoilus's LINKS page. It took time, but I think you'll find a much more useful and sleek and comprehensible resource than it was before.

If your reaction on scanning through it is, "Where the fuck is my site! Carl and I have been corresponding for ages and he's linked to it before and, and, and ..." (or if you're an active Toronto music blog/site I haven't linked, because I am trying to be fairly all-inclusive on that level), please email. I'm sure I've forgotten some crucial ones. Please also get in touch about any errors or broken links. Now, on to updating the "In Print" page, and the whole site will be in proper New Year's fettle.

Meanwhile, on a less self-centred note, allow me to direct you to this nice page of lyrics and illustrations relating to Neko Case's upcoming album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I saw Neko's show at the Rivoli in Toronto this week (and chatted with her for a future Globe piece, the day before) and can only second Frank's and Chart's accounts of it as a superb set, despite Neko's woozy flu. Music aside, backup singer Rachel Flotard is the best banter partner Neko's ever had, even beyond Kelly Hogan or Carolyn Mark, and way better than Carl Newman, owing largely to Flotard's matchless comic deployment of the word "dude", and that giraffe-scalps-man anecdote that Frank mentioned is in fact the most amazing-horrific-hilarious story I have ever heard anyone tell at a concert. (It should be on a This American Life episode.) The crush of bodies in wintercoats in the packed, packed club compromised my enjoyment (and my oxygen) just slightly. And hearing the new songs live just confirmed how enchanted and well-calibrated they are. It's going to be tough to wait till March to start discussing this album with everyone. But meanwhile it's holding a mirror up to my grim January mood... such as these lines from Dirty Knife (not nearly so narcotic without music, but):

So suddenly the madness came,
with its whiskered, wolven, ether pangs.
He locked the door and he shut the blinds,
he lay down on the floor and he slept like iron,
while the dirty knife worked deep
into his spine.
The blood runs crazy ...
He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze
the wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes,
but they squared him frozen where he stood
in the glow of the furniture piled high for firewood,
and the blood runs crazy ...


| Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 06 at 10:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)


Turning Lemons into Daiquiris

The greatest record of all time? See second paragraph.

I wrote the Essential Tracks column in today's Globe and Mail, featuring three instances of musicians making the most of their limitations - Derek Bailey and his carpal-tunnel syndrome (or, as it turned out, worse), Laura Barrett and her homemade EP, and Jim Guthrie and his credit-card commercial.

Speaking of lists, Matt Woebot's recent bold presentation of The 100 Greatest Records Ever is fascinating. Although it doesn't really live up to his claims for it (particularly of avoiding obscurity - I hadn't heard of nearly half of them, though I know that's partly a UK-vs-North-America issue), the literal application of the term "record" is refreshing - it runs the gamut from singles to 12"s to full albums, mainly selecting the medium that's most appropriate to the genre (for instance '80s-'90s dance music is a 12" form while post-1960s rock is album-oriented). The passion is palpable, the visuals dazzling, and the choice of Pere Ubu at Number 1 is deeply gratifying to me, though I might argue for Dub Housing instead. If you were building a collection, Matt's list would make a superb starter's guide.

Also there's a different kind of year-end roundup this week - of experimental and "outsider" releases (as much as I dislike that term) - from Doug Harvey in the LA Weekly.

Later: Jason Gross's annual and ever-essential collection of the year's best music writing from newspapers and online sources (but not magazines, where the Da Capo series gets its better content) is now available at My column on payola from the Globe in August gets a nod in list number 2, for which I'm very grateful. (Globe articles by my colleagues Liz Renzetti and JD Considine also appear in that list.) My favourite set is actually his fourth, "Amazing Stories in and of Themselves," which provides a useful review of issues that mattered in music in 2005. I would quibble with some of his picks for worst writing, though - Stephen Metcalf's solid (if not so original) Clash essay in Slate doesn't deserve to be ranked with David Yaffe and Josh Levin's genuinely lame pieces in the same zine. Nonetheless, he does us all a huge yeoman's favour each year by holding up these gems and/or coal lumps for a second appraisal. Thanks, Jason.

While we're on about the year in writing, we should note with regret the endpoints of Franklin Bruno's Konvolut M. and Tom Ewing's New York London Paris Munich, two of the mo'better blogs that ever wuz. But otherwise there's a lot of new and renewed scribbling (ok, typing) action in the musosphere to be happy about, including the comebacks of old faves like Woebot and the Church of Me. (See links page.)

By Carl Wilson
The Globe and Mail
Friday, January 6, 2005

After 12 Weeks
Derek Bailey, from Carpal Tunnel (Tzadik)

At 75, influential British guitarist Derek Bailey was diagnosed with carpal-tunnel syndrome, which left him unable to hold a guitar pick. In fact, it was a sign of the neuro-motor disease that would claim his life early Christmas Day. (His funeral was Thursday.) But first he released one last disc, an aural documentary of himself slowly reinventing his stabbing, atonal improvising style to pluck by thumb. This final cut rings with a fresh-won clarity - a pungent coda for a maverick thinker for whom each musical moment was a battle, but there never was a war.

Deception Island Optimists' Club
Laura Barrett, from Earth Sciences EP (order via Barrett's MySpace)

Recent University of Toronto grad Laura Barrett accompanies herself on resonant African kalimba (or "thumb piano") while singing lilting melodies that recall Tin Pan Alley, but with a serrated edge. At least six types of ambiguity spring traps in this ostensibly utopian ditty.

Hands in My Pockets
Jim Guthrie (CapitalOne commercial or in full at Guthrie's site)

Toronto songwriter Jim Guthrie has a wry, disarming voice and a ruminative way with words. But this winter he's turned to the noble, near-lost art of the jingle, penning a TV-ad tune that has Canada humming, though its nonsense-rhyme lyrics have zilch to do with credit cards. It may be too catchy for its own good: The bouncy title phrase has been adopted as a taunt by anti-Liberal protesters, and even as a hired gun, this indie artist would likely be appalled if his gifts also ended up lending credit to Stephen Harper.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 06 at 12:18 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


January 04, 2006

Hands in His Pockets


Continuing today's trend of expanding on things mentioned on Chromewaves: I didn't know till Zoilus reader (and ex(?)-Hidden Camera) Justin Stayshyn told me that Jim Guthrie had written a jingle for a Capital One credit-card commercial called Hands in My Pockets, which has become a bit of a cult item. Jim, you may or may not know, is the immensely charming singer-songwriter of Three Gut releases such as Morning Noon Night and Now More Than Ever (and of late a member of Islands with two former Unicorns). He recently put the full-length version of the jingle on his website - it's pretty hilarious, with the infectious chorus and then totally throwaway verses (with a tune that somehow reminds me of the Mr. Clean jingle): "Downstream triple cream/ Surgical team, a love supreme/ All the things I’ve seen/ All in a dream/ Hands in my pockets/ Birds sing, jet stream/ Laser beam, I know the queen/ All in a dream, walking around/ Hands in my pocket." Subterranean credit-bankruptcy blues.

I don't think musicians can be condemned for taking advantage of this means of making a living, but I'm so much more in favour of artists doing tunes specifically for commercials than of folks selling their "real" songs to ads, which risks ruining them forever. (Not that they often get to pick these days.) One of my favourite "albums" of 2005, in fact, is a compilation CD that Douglas Wolk sent me (based on his Pop Conference presentation in Seattle last year) of everyone from Ray Charles to Joe Tex to The Who doing Coke ads. What gouda cheeze! Now, I may prefer artists to vet the ethics of companies they work for, but unless you're collaborating with, say, arms merchants (who don't tend to have ads, much less poppy jingles in ads), everybody has to draw their own lines on that matter.

But there has been one unfortunate bit of political fallout in Jim's case: Apparently protesters have begun singing the tagline, "Hands in my pockets, hands in my pockets, hands in my pockets," at Liberal campaign events, with reference to Liberal cash-funnelling schemes - and, no doubt, as a tax complaint. I hope for Jim's sake that doesn't become a big election trend. I expect he'd hate to think he helped the Conservatives get elected. It'd be a Toronto-scene version of the Reagan-era Born in the USA debacle. Don't worry, Jim, we know you can't help writing such catchy hooks.

You can read my two-year-old interview with Jim, if you like.


Mope rocker toys with, get this, hope

16 January 2003
The Globe and Mail

Jim Guthrie's star may be rising in the field mockingly known as "mope rock," where lank-haired guitar boys make bedroom tapes, mumbling tunefully about how everyone hates them, especially girls. But his personal notion of his music is unexpectedly upbeat.

We're chatting by phone about his new, sophomore solo album, Morning Noon Night. "It's not like I feel I have the pulse of anything new and current with this record," says Guthrie. "It's just me ripping pages out of a sonic diary that I've been writing over the past three years. They all sound different but they all have kind of the same kind of emotional place, which is, um - hope."

Seemingly startled at the thought, he immediately backtracks: "Well, hope through despair, I guess. Who even knows . . ." But the more I listen to his elusive music, the more I think he got it right the first time.

Like his partner Aaron Riches in the acclaimed Toronto folk-rock big-band, Royal City, Guthrie writes many songs that could be summed up in the category "When Bad Things Happen Within Good People." With titles such as Evil Thoughts, Trouble and Days I Need Off, he chronicles cranked-up nights of insomniac nerves, wasted afternoons that float past on cannabis waves, romantic rendezvous where both parties are tongue-tied and paralyzed, and darker depravities and doubts left unnamed.

Yet something glitters underneath that should be a more frequent force in art, but often just ain't - the sense that it all ends up fine, because he can sing a song about it. When Guthrie mopes, "I'm no good at making the first move," next he has to smile: "But I guess I did, by telling you/ And leaning in."

His biography explains some of his faith in the power of saying so. Raised in an older suburb of Guelph, Ont., where he was "left to his own devices" and got his first inspiration "from any kind of crappy recording," he was surprised when he moved into the centre of town in his late teens to find a critical mass of kindred attitudes. He got a show on the university radio station, where he'd play cassettes people recorded at home and brought to the station, often on the day of the show.

The way he recounts it, you can tell it was his own golden age. "I felt like I was giving a voice to the voiceless: 'We'll put on shows, and we'll make our own songs for our friends and we'll have Jim play them on the radio.' . . . We were kind of pushing one another too. It was like a daily blessing. It was just ongoing, and you just did it -- it was like, we all ate, we all slept, and we all made 'home rock.' It wasn't like you were working on a big album. It was just: 'Here it is.' "

That Guelph scene yielded an extraordinary number of talented songwriters, and it inculcated excellent habits: being creative with whatever comes to hand ("if I only have a chair and an empty beer case, then that can be the drum kit"); working without rules; writing when the mood hits, morning noon or night, and editing later; and treating everything as a beginning, not an end. "If you have the feeling, then the tape will hear that, no matter what."

In his home recordings now, which he overdubs with other musicians later on, Guthrie says he's "always trying to chase the initial inspired moment. I usually end up working with my first take or two - even if I realize I could have made the song a lot better. You have to write eight really bad songs to write one really good one. Any time that I think I've failed as a composer, I think: 'There's always another song.' "

That process eventually lead to a "proper" album, 1999's A Thousand Songs, which also launched the Three-Gut record label - the name was a schoolyard taunt, reversing the syllables of his surname. The record was embraced and the label, with bands like Royal City, Cuff the Duke and the Constantines, went on to become one of the biggest forces in Toronto indie music.

Rather against the spotlight-shy singer's will, success eventually brought him to the Ontario capital -- a move described allegorically on Morning Noon Night in a wonderful, jump-bluesy tune based on the Brothers Grimm fable about minstrel farm animals, the Bremen Town Musicians: "Don't be a chicken," Guthrie encourages other kids from the sticks, "turn musician."

"In the original story," mind you, "they end up in a shack just outside town, playing all night, and never actually make it to the city. That's probably more like where I'm at, in my heart."

Still, as he hits his late 20s, it's a shack with an ever-improving view. Royal City, like friends the Hidden Cameras, just got a distribution deal with legendary British label Rough Trade that should lead to European touring. But Guthrie laughs: "Back when I was 18, if I'd read all this press we've been getting, I would think we've gotta be making a million dollars a year. But we're all still using our wits to get through the day."

One of his wittier stratagems has been to use an obscure program for the Sony Playstation as a primary instrument -- many of his songs are, retro-futuristically, composed and arranged on a kids' video game. The layering of its fake-orchestral bleeps within his very intimate songs (which recall U.S. mope icon Elliott "Miss Misery" Smith) creates an expansively paradoxical emotional palette.

"I know the feeling I want is a lot huger than just my little guitar and my voice, and this is a cheap alternative to a computer," Guthrie says. "A lot of the sounds are really awful - it's a really stiff set of rules to work with - but maybe that's part of its charm. I've learned to bend the rules. It just kind of proves how exciting it is to live in 2003. It seems so remarkable to me. In no other time would you be able to make this kind of music with a toy."

You couldn't ask for a more profoundly uncool optimism. And Guthrie isn't even overly wedded to his homespun ways. For upcoming shows (including South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., this spring) he's struggling to translate the Playstation sound to his new live band, with violin and cello, including Royal City, Rockets Red Glare and Hidden Cameras players. And with a government grant in hand, he's also about to make his first full-fledged studio album, due out by November.

"You just become wiser about the whole myth that surrounds rock and popular music in general. I feel like it's my job to steal a bit of the myth and magic back."

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 04 at 06:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (21)


Sadiesfest: Valentine's Comes Early

Oops, wrong Sadies.

Frank already mentioned it, but with more complete information, here I come up the back road:

THE SADIES FEST: A weekend LIVE Recording with JON LANGFORD (Mekons-Wacos), and another John with no "h," the man with exploding blues, JON SPENCER (the most surprising of the guests, though also to me the least exciting), the Jayhawks' GARY LOURIS, NEKO CASE of Neko Case (whose new album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is, I'll tell you now after two-and-a-half listens, her best certainly since Furnace Room Lullaby and maybe her outright best, just stunning), the great KELLY HOGAN (who appears on Fox Confessor, naturally, but really really needs to make a new album of her own immediately!), the GOOD BROTHERS (aka the Sadiesdads), members of BLUE RODEO, and other guests TBA. Fri Feb 3 and Sat Feb 4, Lee's Palace, 9 pm, tickets $25 advance at Ticketmaster/ Rotate This/ Soundscapes/ Horseshoe, on sale Fri. Jan. 6.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 04 at 05:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


January 03, 2006

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N: So you're recontextualising what you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 03 at 02:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)


Bailey Postscript

There are some nice posts up at the Words and Music blog from Leicestershire, including downloadable sample pieces for those unfamiliar with the late Derek Bailey's work.

Also wanted to point out local trombonist Scott Thomson's cogent review of Ben Watson's unfortunately (but perhaps inevitably) tendentious Bailey biography.

I'm wondering, given Bailey's significant influence on a lot of young Canadian improvisers, whether there's been any thought of a local tribute event, perhaps at the Tranzac sometime this month? (That's called backseat programming.)

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 03 at 01:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


January 02, 2006

16 Shells from a Twenty-Ought-Six
Plus: Derek Bailey

RIP Derek Bailey.

I'm misquoting the Tom Waits song in the headline (it's actually a 30-ought six, but since I won't be here in 3006, what the hell), but consider that a 21-gun salute to the arrival of the new year, giving 2005 a swift sour kick in the ass on its way out the door. Of course such a sentiment will never be universal, but I'm amazed the number of people I talked to this week who shared the experience of 2005 as a monument to suck. Let's just not speak of it again.

I'm still doing housekeeping - the January gig guide is up and I hope to do some renovations on the links page this week - but wanted to pop in and say happy new year, and also note the most significant musical event over the holidays, the sad passing of British improv guitarist and thinker Derek Bailey on Christmas Day in London, of a motor neuron disease, at age 75. I think there is some tendency in the memorials to overplay Bailey's innovations (which mostly had easily mapped genealogies) - what mattered most about him I think was the degree of commitment and intensity he brought to his project at every possible turn and, for someone sometimes pigeonholed as a dogmatist in his approach, his neverending eagerness to explore every possible context, from Pat Metheny's jazz-fusion to butoh dance to pirate-radio drum'n'bass DJs to tap dancing to Japanese noise .... For someone whose own stylings were so stark and nettled, he turns out to be a surprising model of recombinant cosmopolitanism. A few of the worthwhile tributes I've read in the past week include the Guardian obituary, Gavin Bryars' reminiscence, Steve Smith's true-fan testimony, a brief but thoughtful post by Nate Dorward (who makes a very telling comparison of Bailey and Samuel Beckett), an appreciation in LA Weekly, the Jazzcorner discussion, and a tribute on Bagatellen, including this very apt line (especially given Bailey's final album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which documents his efforts to find ways to keep playing despite his deteriorating condition) in the comments box: "There is material for music everywhere in everything. It was once possible to keep different. It is still possible to die trying."

Here are two audio tributes from the mighty WFMU, here (three hours' worth!) and in briefer form at the end of this show. The WFMU blog (correctly identified as one of the gems of the Internet in Dave Morris's year-end column in Eye, which also kindly mentioned Zoilus) also pays tribute and offers a video clip of Bailey playing outdoors in Japan for some young students in concert with butoh dancer Min Tanaka and with the sounds of the landscape around them.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, January 02 at 01:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson