by carl wilson

April 30, 2006

EMP preliminotions

My EMP liveblogging plan did not click, as readers have guessed. I didn't get my paper finished soon enough to recap day 1, and since then there has just been too much action. Which is a bad blog thing but a good life thing. Dull days at the desk are better for this medium.

I will do a thorough recap later - I've been taking notes for you, my friends - but a couple of initial randoms: First, in relation to my talk about "guilty displeasures," someone asked me tonight about current Nashville country, and I said that while I like some of it, my barrier to embracing it has always been (besides some production values) its centralization of an American style of masculinity - which I said that as a Canadian I have always found alienating. This led to a big talk about what I considered the differences between (the typical) American masculinity and (the typical) Canadian masculinity, in a group with only one other Canadian. After the fact, I thought the word I would use about U.S. masculinity is "unapologetic." While Canadian masculinity is not as deprecatory and miserablist as British masculinity, even the macho version of Canadianness is marked by an ongoing texture of parody and self-undercutting that to a Canadian is noticeably absent in the prototypical American version. I would add that the Canadian machismo is also hard for me to handle, and that Nashville is full of reconsiderations of masculinity as a text, regret and guilt and sentiment being a big part of that, but that it's not doubtful of the starting line in the same way. I'd really like to hear if I'm just being a crazy alienated adolescent about this, or if I'm articulating something identifiable to other men. (American femininity is different too, but I think maybe the ways in which gender is occupied, ironized and questioned as part of the texture of character in both countries trumps the national aspect, so that the gulf between the men is more conspicuous?)

Second, to jump on the only controversy of the week, I disagree with Jessica about what transpired at the opening panel talk with Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. It wasn't the most dynamic discussion of all time, but it was actually quite good humoured and smart. And for anybody who's ever interviewed Stephin, as I have, it was glaring how he was receptive and engaged in a way he's not when he deals with the press. But as for the "racism"? The way I recall it, L.D. Beghtol brought up the fact that Stephin's said that Zipadeedoodah is the only successful happy song, and that prompted Stephin to say that he likes the music in Song of the South, "which is really hard to see now, for obvious reasons." I'm paraphrasing, but I certainly wasn't left with the impression of him celebrating Uncle Remus. And while you could critique the music in that film as being part of the minstrel legacy it uncritically perpetuates, you'd have to take into account the ways that legacy has been reconsidered, at EMP itself last year, as a much more ambiguous and complicated thing in its relationship to black culture, before you could label an appreciation of anything related to it as racist. I'm glad Jessica has agreed to reconsider.

But on the closer-to-home aspect of him talking about Celine Dion as if she were non-white: It was a gaffe, in its way, but a fascinating one in context. Of course, Celine is white, but Stephin was discussing production style and technology, and Celine is in many ways produced and positioned as if she were in the same niche as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey - as if she did R&B; - so he was just choosing the most awkward case for his point, which was that in that genre, highly mediated production for "entertainers" is not considered out of place the way it is for rock or white singer-songwriters. (He contrasted it with Belle & Sebastian's work with Trevor Horne, which I think was a case of them deliberately transgressing that line, but never mind.) And he was using Celine because Drew Daniel had brought her up first as an example of highly compressed, mediated production. But the point was odd because Stephin was saying that it's a basically racist perception of entertainers versus artists: That artists in non-white genres are just here to entertain us, so their production authenticity doesn't matter - they aren't individuals.

To me it was all telling about how Celine exists: First, that she's a white artist whose niche would not exist without a black precedent. (Is she the Elvis of power-ballads?) Second, that she's an entertainer rather than an individual. (She is entirely on-board with that role.) And third, that even though people know that she's French-Canadian (there's no category of Quebecoise here), her foreignness and, I'd argue, her class renders her ethnically Other in an American context, so "non-white" (did he ever actually say "black"?). Stephin's blunder was still a blunder, but it was an exemplary one, not a crazy one. If Celine were Lebanese, things might not be wildly different; if she were a pure white anglo American, her career would be nearly unthinkable. (And if she were black, it would also be radically different.) This entry is ultra-parenthesized because these questions are hard to address directly; I'm still unsure of how they will be dealt with in the book. So, sure, she's "unblack as hell," but doesn't that locution indicate it's impossible to say she is "white as hell", too?

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 30 at 05:18 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 21, 2006

Invisible Man


I'm disappearing to finish my much-mentioned EMP Pop Conference paper, unless something arises about which my piehole absolutely cannot keep shut. Have a fine time (the gig guide is up-to-date, if you're in Toronto and want ideas). I'll reappear next Thursday to blog live from the conference, as I did last year. Tah-tah.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 21 at 03:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


April 20, 2006

The Party of Special Things to Do


The camel wore a nightie...
At the party of special things to do
When the stiff wind blows
The flag don't wiggle
In the party of special things to do

Big doin's in the old town tonight, and thereafter: Tonight, you are already late for the Just School's Out! Marathon, featuring Alice Cooper squealing about teachers and dirty looks over and over again for charity. (See Zoiluses past on the Ace of Spades marathon.) That charity being the Regent Park School of Music, which is one of the city's best musical causes, even if it did take them weeks to pick up the piano we were donating to them last month, damn near preventing me from moving at all, and they only managed it when I actually arranged the movers myself. Despite all that, they remain a worthy cause!

I met the Ace of Love
She took me to her plantation
For love without separation
In the party of special things to do
It could happen to me
It could happen to you

Then tomorrow night, I recommend you while away your Friday night listening to Japanese noise in the Images Festival's event with the Ziggyesque title Some Cats from Japan, featuring the above-pictured Atsuhiro Ito playing the Optron, which "outputs amplified noise discharged by fluorescent lights." You know that uncomfortable feeling you get in unhealthy office buildings? Now you can pay to re-experience it as art! Along with Boredoms cohort Kanta Horio playing electromagnet and paper clips, and Taeji Sawai "with the use of bugs or effects like bugs produced by large amounts of high quality data." All curated by prominent Japanoise artist Aki Onda. Be there or be me, stuck home working hysterically on a Pop Conference paper.

I met the Ace of Love
She said I want you to go
To a party of special things to do
And when you're through
I'll be right here waiting for you
Here take these sparks
So that my distant cousins can get along with you
Watch out for the Mirror Man
And Elixir Sue

I also haven't had a chance yet to mention the new Brian Joseph Davis project, Yesterduh, ongoing at Mercer Union. Brian's latest brainstorm is to have his unwitting victims come into a specially constructed recording booth in the gallery, and sing Yesterday from memory - karaoke without the training wheels, as it were. "You will have a headset with a feed of an instrumental version of the song to assist with melody and timing. You will be paid $5 for a take. Please, NO PRACTICING." (Note: When you think about it, it's obvious that the feed actually does not assist, it just makes it more difficult by forcing you to keep in tune and in time or else.) It's a mash-up that happens only between you and the song, a remix created involuntarily by your brain. There's many a slip between the neuron and the lip. The results are to be compiled onto a CD with both individual and "choral" versions of the most-covered song in popular music history. The CD will be launched May 24 with entertainment curated by Vigilante Justice, the teen hungerforce (featuring members of Ninja High School and other bands) that performs early 90s techno classics a capella, which first assembled to play at my Tin Tin Tin series. Ah, incest, so romantic! I will report more on Yesterduh when I actually have subjected myself to its roboticized whim.

When I got to the party of special things to do it wasn't hard to find Elixir Sue. I met all the cards, the wild cards, the One-Eye Jills, the Red Queen. She turned her head, you know what I mean, she turned it back and said, "I got a brand new game I want to lay on you..."

Finally, a moment of silence for one of Toronto's very best bands, Lenin i Shumov, who perform what they claim will be their final show on Saturday, April 29, at Michael's, 566 Queen West. My horror at this news - especially given that the show takes place during the conference, so I will not even be in town! - is mitigated only by the fact that the chief Leninist, mad mindbomber Eugene Slonimerov, carries on his fever dreams in new "Afro-beat death-metal progressive rock" group Rozasia. You can currently hear a rough mix of their EP on their Myspace site.

I met them all
At the party of special things to do
When I was done
I was far from through
I returned to the Ace of Love
Now wouldn't you?

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 20 at 07:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


April 19, 2006

Pallettwatch, Day Whatevs


More interviews with Owen Pallett aka Final Fantasy keep cropping up online, but the must-read this week is the maddening-but-hilarious ILM thread about some people's seemingly wholly earnest shock and horror at the title He Poos Clouds (in which Owen kind of misguidedly intervenes...). This in an era when there's a show on TV in which a cartoon lump of shit can be treated as a beloved symbol of Christmas?

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 19 at 05:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


Moment of Silence: The Village Voice

News is rapidly breaking that the dismantling of the remaining identity and integrity of New York's venerable Village Voice - the founding paper of the alternative press, folks, however much bashed-about by changes of ownership over the years - is pretty much complete. Not only have they fired the likes of veteran investigative reporter James Ridgeway, but now music editor and writer Chuck Eddy (one of the more influential critics of the last decade, I'd argue), who helped lead the protest supporting Ridgeway. Reports also seem to indicate that "dean of rock critics" Robert Christgau has lost his editing position, though perhaps not his writing position. News on this remains fuzzy. Eddy is being shitcanned, they say, for being "too academic," which is amusingly incongruous for anyone who's read him, and somehow seems to be a way of saying he covered too much country and heavy metal too thoughtfully (?). (See ILM thread ad infinitum.)

While the Voice music section has become a lot more telegraphic and less indepth this decade, it still helped define the territory. And one has to wonder how much more of this is coming - what's going to happen to the film section? The Voice Literary Supplement? Etc. And that's aside from the landmark this sets in the process of the chain-syndicating of the once "alternative" press, which is rapidly becoming a cookie-cutter lifestyle publication niche that barely even pretends to being anything more than a shopping guide for downtown hip-white yuppies.

The only comfort being that as it reaches this nadir, a new wave of alternative publications surely will emerge to take its place. Wistfully I hope some of them actually take the physical form of ink on paper.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 19 at 05:30 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


Well, So Much for That Idea

Yuki: In Japan, they have understood 'bad bands' all along.

Bad Bands: An Idea Whose Time Has Come - To Be Mangled Beyond Recognition. It's all right, though. I think only a couple-dozen people ever got this one. (The dismemberment of Torontopia, an idea hundreds of people understood, has been much more painful.) Double-capital-B Bad Bands should be much less like Bunchoffuckingoofs and much more like White Noise.

Everyone: Stop telling the Internet your good ideas. They're not safe there.

Coca-Cola: Stop stealing whatever is left. (Although the Jack White Coke ad is very good - perhaps my favourite White Stripes anything since the Gondry Lego video, and even better than the same director's original take on the idea, which you still ought to watch. Who can tell me more about Yuki?)

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 19 at 04:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)


April 18, 2006

Blogging è Mobile


I forgot to link on the weekend to my piece from Friday's Globe and Mail - a contribution to the weekly "Essential Tracks" list, an all-Canadian one this time around with Toronto's Glissandro 70, John Millard and Alex Lukashevsky (the first solo outing from the leader of Deep Dark United), as well as Vancouver's Mecca Normal. All four of the albums these come from are standout records, but I want to mention the Lukashevsky disc in particular as one that shouldn't pass you by. I went for a more representative song, but my favourite track here is the cover of La donna è mobile, the famous aria from Rigoletto done as it's never been done before. Like many covers on otherwise entirely self-penned albums, it can be taken as a sotto voce manifesto, in this case proclaiming both the grandeur and operatic absurdity Lukashevsky seeks via an economy of means, and the way the other songs may connect to the suspicion that "woman is fickle" and that the man who invests too much in romance becomes sad, mad and dangerous to know.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 18 at 05:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


April 17, 2006

Font of Ideas: 'The Black Menace'


Last week, I asked about the similar retro font use on the new Darren Hayman and last year's Rodney Graham albums. An answer in the comments led me to Pet Sounds, which led delightfully to this Behind the Music flash-movie parody: Behind the Typeface: Cooper Black. The link bounced around the nerdosphere a fair bit when it came out a couple of years ago, but it's new to me.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 17 at 01:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


Pallettwatch: 'Gotta Dig Up Every Secret Seashell'

Final Fantasy at The Man Show at the Music Gallery earlier this month.
Photo again shoplifted from Suckingalemon.

Reading about taste, Henry James and Celine Dion over the weekend, with breaks to watch reruns of the cancelled Joan of Arcadia, which was almost quite a good series, put me very much in a Final Fantasy mood: Joan's theme of attempting to envision what divine intervention in mundane life would really be like is quite parallel to He Poos Clouds' use of Dungeons and Dragons as an axis of playful-serious exploration of magical thinking in real life, and out of that the instinct for faith and supernaturalism even in self-conscious moderns who've disavowed it. (The taste, Celine and James connections I leave you to draw for yourself.) I generally feel rather free of magical thinking; that is, until I consider my relationships to art, language and romantic love: On Joan, God says of the latter, "Some of my best work." Which is rather a sinister remark when you consider it. Too bad the series uses Joan Osborne's One of Us as its title theme, a song I've always despised; it lies on so many levels, from sanitizing away the supernaturalism of God to using religious sentimentality as a shortcut to compassion - divinity as a reason to love humanity is a half-assed cover for misanthropy and also a particularly slimy kind of bet-hedging. (Better be nice to that stranger - he might be a "slob," but what if it's God? Feh.) The series itself is more sophisticated, in the way it counterposes Joan's strange divine connection with her father's police work (which is very much figured as a struggle with evil and corruption) and most of all the unusual emphasis in nearly every episode on science as a kind of ongoing education in the miraculous. It's just too bad the scene-by-scene writing and acting aren't better - the God-incarnations are always verging on platitudes, and it hasn't got the depth of My So-Called Life or the wit of Buffy, so it's kind of limp as a high-school show, the core level needed to knit everything together.

But returning to Final Fantasy: There are a couple of nice new interviews with FF aka Owen Pallett that have appeared in recent days. There's also this mini-essay on He Poos Clouds and video-game-inspired art on The Ratio, which considers a dynamic of predestination and indeterminacy worth developing in relation to our earlier conversations about gaming and art.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 17 at 01:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


April 16, 2006

Poll Positions

Frank Kogan: Definitely more interesting than Metacritic.

Aaron's "Best Band in the World" formula has the simple brilliance of many good inventions: It starts from the premise that the jobs of a good pop-music maker are, "First, making vaguely interesting music. Second, getting people to like them." It then expresses the combination of these two factors by assigning a value to the highest Billboard chart position the artist's latest work attains, and that artist's rating on Metacritic. (Which is certainly the only exciting thing I've ever seen anyone do with Metacritic.)

There are a couple of obvious things wrong here, though, even if we ignore the aspect of only rating the random rock bands Aaron's chosen to put on his list. (Ghostface's latest album, for instance, would rate higher than any of them, wouldn't it?) But I'll accept that he's just demonstrating the system rather than doing a full-scale study. There's also the fact that the whole system is stacked in favour of "album artists" as opposed to "singles artists." Which is a flaw inherited from Metacritic. (Using Pazz & Jop instead, for instance, could remedy that one.)

But much more crucially: Calling what charts measure "popularity" is mostly fine, but what the hell makes a high Metacritic or Pazz & Jop rating a reliable indicator of "interesting" music? It's equally possible that the music simply conforms to the critical consensus, which arguably is less interesting (even "vaguely") than what is more divisive. Rather, it seems to be just a measure of another form of popularity. (The fact that Eminem ranks lower on Metacritic than the White Stripes does not seem incidental.) I'd rather choose one great critic - for fun, let's say Frank Kogan - assign a numerical value to all of his opinions and add those to the chart numbers. Frank's interest is more interesting than any aggregate interest.

But then the list itself might become too interesting - because it would reveal how little agreement genuinely exists on what "interesting" means.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 16 at 03:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (39)


April 13, 2006

I Meta Her at a Party...

Fine reading from Wayne about the critical/scholarly potential of "musically expressed ideas about music," although I feel compelled to point out that quite apart from technology, this method has been widely practiced for, well, ever, by musicians themselves. From formal composition, in which innovations are nearly always implicit comments upon and refutations of previous composers' methods, and likewise in jazz, through to blues about the blues to half the rap ever rapped and anything based on a sample, music about music is damn near as common as music about anything else - and its best quality is that it can be about other things while always being about music too. (The best line I've ever heard on Destroyer is that Dan Bejar is "the hardest-working music critic today.") Wayne's certainly right that sampling and splicing and mashup technologies open exciting vistas for those whose aspirations aren't so much to make their own songs as to reveal perspectives on existing music. But it's a sad comment on the academy that this could be considered such a radical move that Wayne's nervous about how they'll take it. As Wayne acknowledges, even those techniques can't make writing about music obsolete - music certainly does resist verbalization, but that's where half the fun is.

Anecdotal annex: I remember turning in a mixed tape of songs chosen to reflect upon a novel for an assignment in a high-school English class; the teacher didn't totally get it, but he appreciated it. Later, I was in teachers' college and turned in a set of collages instead of an essay about a novel for an exercise that was purportedly about going through the evaluation process on an assignment with the teacher, as a training tool. I wanted to see what the teacher would advise doing when a student took a non-traditional approach. I got my answer: She failed me. And I dropped out of teachers' college the next day. Granted, maybe I make better mixed tapes than collages. And maybe the collages shouldn't have been pornographic - I thought the novel was sexist, and chose a rather blunt instrument to express it.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 13 at 06:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)


Inside Joke for Mountain Goats Fans

Well, it's finally happened. One assumes they were drunk.

PS: Explanation.

PPS: Of course, since it's real, it's not actually funny.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 13 at 02:30 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


April 12, 2006

Prototypical Band Name of 2006

If you are looking for that big online buzz score, we highly recommend you name your next band, "The Black Horse, Wolf Mountain, Bear Island Shout Shout Yeah National Dance Parade Collective."

You're welcome.

(General idea swiped from Sneaky Feelings.)

Brief analysis: The indiesphere prefers anything categorized as natural to anything categorized as human, and groupings to individuals, especially when the groupings are expressing blind enthusiasm.

Extended analysis: The indiesphere is fond of expressing its desperation to find innocence in imagery that until quite recently might have read as fascist.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 12 at 05:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)


April 11, 2006

Darling Buds of May

My arm hurts, which must mean I've just coded another month of the gig guide. But it hurts less than it used to, which must mean I have had help from Zoilusian special agents Erella and Chris. Thanks, guys. The preliminary May listings are up. There are some great events happening, covering the gamut from Willie Nelson to SUNN 0))), but I'm sure the list is missing plenty. Feel free to email or comment and tell us what to add. We always like to hear about our weird typos too. No, honestly.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 11 at 08:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


Little Crib of Horrors


iPods for babies? "iTods"? Oh, why not just get them baby Hummers (as if the strollers weren't enough) and baby financial-news networks and call civilization over with? Just say go fuck yourself, Fisher Price.

If your child is feeling left out because you are all the time wearing your iPod and not hearing what she is saying, the answer is not to buy her a little sprite's iPod all her own, the better to deafen her and induce social disorders. The answer is to stop being such a wretched excuse for a parent and take off your freaking iPod. Gawd, I hope this is a media hoax, but it's not, is it?

Which seems like an opportune time to note that the dearly beloved Sean Michaels of Said the Gramophone seems to be a regular (and, I assume, paid) contributor of worthy material (although not this item) to the aforelinked Wired-magazine music blog, Listening Post. But he keeps it awfully quiet. So quiet not even a toddler's iPod could hear. About which, if I haven't made myself clear, go to hell.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 11 at 06:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


The Humid Summer Air
Pulls at the Ring in My Snout


Just found out today (I've been distracted) that there's a new four-song Mountain Goats EP - in Australia only, so far, though I believe it may be downloadable on iTunes and eMusic and such. It's called Sail Babylon Springs and seems more of a miscellany than a signpost toward the next full album, though there are whispers of the rumoured monster-myth themes (see the quote in this post's title), as you can learn from the Girlpants transcription of all the lyrics. You can hear a sample, the Monkees-jaunty cheatin' song Alibi, over at I Guess I'm Floating, and the Trembling Blue Stars cover Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise at The Rich Girls Are Weeping. But what you really must hear is not on the EP, but a live track in an earlier Rich Girls post: the Goats' cover of The Boys are Back in Town by Thin Lizzy in a medley with one of the greatest songs ever, R. Kelly's Ignition (Remix). Ambrosia of the greasemonkey gods! I never realized the Thin Lizzy song was so much like an early Springsteen tune.

Other news bits: I've heard that Zoilus has converted at least one previously uncorrupted soul over to Pere Ubu fandom, so I'll pass along the news that proto-Ubu-reunited unit Rocket from the Tombs is apparently going into the studio to record new material this month. Given that the RfTT reunion always seemed like a doomed clatch of longtime mortal enemies, it's lovely news. Plus, the rawk. As well, the new Ubu album, due in September, is reportedly an album entirely of love songs, and as such the beginning of a new "cycle" (the past few albums have fixated on themes of geography, culture and film noir). It will be interesting to compare it to the last love-song cycle in David Thomas's work, an extended narrative on marriage that stretched from the solo Monster Walks the Winter Lake (one of my favourite albums of all time) through the first Ubu reunion album The Tenement Year and the underratedly "commercial" Cloudland and Worlds in Collision. The new disc's title is under wraps because David Thomas suspects it will be controversial and doesn't want to bother with flak till he must. ... Does anyone else find it deliriously funny that there's now a Pere Ubu MySpace?

Canadians jealous of the treasures of the recently much-discussed troves of 78s and cylinders of early American music that are now online should be aware we have our own equivalent: the Library of Canada's Virtual Gramophone. On brief inspection, I mustly sadly acknowledge that our forbears' music was nowhere near as racy, as usual, as our American cousins'.

Wait, when did Amazon suddenly turn itself into a blog for authors? I just noticed this when I was looking up the latest 33 1/3 release, Kim Cooper's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and I have to say I think I'm ag'in' it.

Also new, for we few, we proud, we neglected fans of Hefner (or The French) is Darren Hayman's new EP, Ukulele Songs from from the North Devon Coast, following up from his recent album, Table for One. The cover font is curiously reminiscent of the one from Rodney Graham's Rock is Hard - coincidence, or are they both referencing something else I can't call to mind?

Finally, I'm often dubious of flashmobby projects, but must admit that an Easter Egg hunt through Kensington Market does sound fun.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 11 at 02:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)


April 10, 2006

Pallettwatch Update


Latest in a continuing series: Official lyrics for Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds:

For every pretty note your reddy voice has sung
Do we believe in devils?
Winged men? The healing pow'r of love? No.
Enchantment? Social justice? No.
Dead child actors in a white, white world above? No.
Then why are all your songs about the things that don't exist?

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 10 at 02:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


Birth of the Uncool:
Notes on Schmaltz (3)

I hadn't noticed that the "competition" also ran a smooth-jazz feature this month until writer Mike Doherty pointed me to it. (See previous discussion. May I take credit for having gotten this ball rolling last year, or is it just that the Smooth Jazz Awards have gotten better at calling attention to themselves?) Mike's point in the opening about the general reassessment of the uncool is quite cogent - you could add fusion, bubblegum, prog-rock and hippie folk to his list, which includes "easy-listening music (through the lounge revival), '80s teen-pop (through Schooldisco club nights), and 'smooth' soft rock (through the cult internet TV hit Yacht Rock)." What makes smooth jazz a more contentious subject, aside from the generally embattled condition of jazz these days? It's that unlike all the others mentioned above, it's not over. It's not a revival. So there is no generously nostalgic forgiveness extended towards it. It's more in the position of teen dance-pop (though at least the latter has a more aggressive squadron of defenders), or of my chosen burden, Celine Dion. But I think the erosion of the bulwarks against uncool music is real. My Pop Conference paper will be about why it is also important.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 10 at 01:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)


Live Music Report Report

Apparently it's been around since 2004, but I'd never seen this local site, The Live Music Report, until this morning when I heard it had a review of the David Rempis Percussion Quartet's guest appearance in the Leftover Daylight series on Friday, which I missed in order to catch They Shoot Horses Don't They and the video-game-music tribute show. Looks like a fine venue to help keep tabs on jazz, classical and world-music activities around town.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 10 at 12:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


April 09, 2006

Brass, Buttons 'n' Bows (feat. Pallettwatch!)

Balkan Beat Box, left, and Owen Pallett, still aka, for now, Final Fantasy.

With perfect timing to coincide with the past few days' talk about They Shoot Horses, Don't They and "circus punk", the redoubtable Mr. Josh Kun comes on with a grand NY Times piece on the global brass band. There may be plenty of albums that are arguably ruined by strings, but there are few kinds of music that cannot been improved with the addition of a horn section (except the obvious watered-down-Clarence-Clemons-sax trend of the Eighties, and even then I'm not sure most of that stuff would have been any better without its saxophonic spray-on cheeze). A rock band comes on with a trumpet player, they've immediately got my attention. Just thinking of examples that have appeared on this site the past couple of weeks, Russia's Auktyon would lose half its wild gypsy-ska flavour without its horns and sound more like the unfortunate Aquarium; and then there's that heart-puncturingly gorgeous (French?) horn solo on Billy Bragg's Levi Stubbs' Tears - one of those horn parts so key to the feeling of the song that the singer will do a pursed-lip horn-mimicking rendition of it live if a horn player isn't available. I could go on.

To give strings their due: I've just obtained a copy of Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds, coming out May 9. It's as giddy a leap beyond Has a Good Home as forecast - but dense enough that I want to do some more listening before I start bloviating (or blogviating). You can join me in my listening if you look, f'r'instance, here or here. Warning: Don't expect indie-pop. Later: I forgot to mention that Final Fantasy performs in Toronto today in The Man Show, curated by Owen himself at The Music Gallery, with Matias, Mantler and Mortimercy, at 4 pm (already past, actually) and 8 pm.

Also, some people are wondering where Owen's MySpace page went, and the answer is that something got Murdoch-era MySpaceTM spooked about legalities around the name "Final Fantasy" and they pre-emptively and summarily disappeared it. But there has been no lawsuit, and I'm sure some workaround will be dreamed up tout de suite. I sometimes lapse into glossolaliac meanderings on what Owen might rename the project if he ever did get sued, leaving out the frequently nominated Penultimate Fantasy: Vile Pantsdisease? Phial Phantasm? Filial Bananaseat? Fidel's Panda Sneeze? Clearly I am no help here.

Side dish: I'm so happy to learn that what's brought Canadian (and specifically Toronto) music into Marcello's life is a new love. Anyone who has followed his writing mourning Laura through music and prose can only be moved and warmed to know that there's joy in his life again. A bright augur for the rest of us. A hint to his unnamed Canadian amour: I'd be thrilled to read Marcello on Final Fantasy.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 09 at 02:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


April 07, 2006

They Shoot Horses & Prince: 'These wonderful,
wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping!'


Today in The Globe and Mail, I have an article about They Shoot Horses Don't They, the post-punk marching band from Vancouver - making hay (sorry) of the parallels between their sound and the mood of the 1969, kickass, dance-marathon movie from which they took their name. There are similarities to Frog Eyes or Wolf Parade, but more to the anarcho-squat bands I used to call "circus punk" in the early '90s (the Ex, Dogfaced Hermans, pre-Tubthumping Chumbawamba, and to some extent No Means No, Rhythm Activism, etc.). TSHDT plays Toronto tonight @ Sneaky Dee's, along with the Creeping Nobodies and Anagram - a dance card you couldn't beat with a riding crop. (Read it here.)

Plus, here's a clip of the band in action. But more eyeball-slurping is the video for Sunlight by band artist-in-residence Julia Feyrer.


Also in today's Globe, I have a short (and belated) review of Prince's new album, 3121.

Incidentally, the Vancouver edition of the paper also has a Destroyer profile, not by me but a Vancouver writer hitherto unknown (though it sure feels like I've read it before). Still, Dan's always wryly quotable: "I have probably grown more comfortable with my role as singer, whatever absurdity that role might inhabit. ... So there's kind of a swagger to the music, I think -- even if it is a tipsy old man swagger." And then: "I haven't gone out and bought a summer home or anything. ... But I've got a man on it."

I also noted this piece a few days ago about "circuit-bending music". Agents, does this merit further investigation?

Horses' mad, brisk gallop

The Globe and Mail
April 7, 2006, R19

In the hypnotic 1969 Sydney Pollack movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a ballroom floor full of disparate Depression hard cases (most memorably Jane Fonda) dances out a gruelling month-long marathon that can lead only to a cash prize or death by exhaustion, all for the diversion of callous crowds of punters.

Now, examine the eight radiant faces of the young Vancouver band that takes its name from Pollack's film. They don't seem like they've seen much material want. But they've got a similarly crazed determination to ride a rhythm through the noxiously spoiled faith and usury pervading their era. Their own unlikely deliverance will come howling, shaking maracas, tooting horns, banging on pipes and jitterbugging till it falls to pieces.

Though the Emily Carr art-school grads share some of the post-punk, neurasthenic-preacher cadences of Victoria's Frog Eyes or Montreal's (B.C. expats) Wolf Parade, the sound swirling here has more to do with high-school band class. They start their songs neatly marching and wind up swarming over themselves as the paired-off Noah's Ark of two-by-two beats breeds and becomes a house divided against itself that somehow still can stand. It's an endless fusillade of friendly fire.

The best precedent might be the experimental house bands that came out of 1980s anarchist squats - Scotland's Dog Faced Hermans, Holland's the Ex and England's (pre-Tubthumping) Chumbawamba, or even British Columbia's own No Means No - who all had the same exuberant way of turning junk piles into punk Big Tops, despite the dark rodentine gnawings from below. That's a movement that still has too few followers - among them Toronto's Creeping Nobodies, who share the stage with They Shoot Horses in Toronto tonight.

On this, the most extensive tour in the band's couple of years of life, They Shoot Horses are using their cannonade of energy to convert idle spectators into rambunctious mobs, with all the efficiency of revival-tent veterans. But on Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, their first full-length album (as a rare new signing these days on pivotal northwestern U.S. indie label Kill Rock Stars), the funhouse mirror seems turned inward: The yelling sounds more like a bayhound's yelp, the emergency less in jest. You notice for the first time how vocalist Nut Brown's poetic slogans, full of cracked antitheses, hardly ever slow down to squeeze in words of more than one syllable, as if time and breath were both too short.

And you begin to wonder what kind of inner isolation makes the frantic polymorphous togetherness of They Shoot Horses so urgent: Like many of the other jamboree-sized collectives making music across Canada lately, the band could be called just They They They They They . . ., a cry craving for a "we" to echo back.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with the Creeping Nobodies and Anagram, tonight at Sneaky Dee's, 431 College Street, $7.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 07 at 02:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


Where You Lead, I Will Follow...

TV eye: Sonic Youth, Gilmore Girls, Joe Pernice.

This one is especially to irritate some of my TV-hating readers: First came the news that Toronto-resident singer, songwriter, novelist and poet Joe Pernice is making an appearance on The Gilmore Girls, which was using indie rock (and other obscurities such as Claudine Longet) as mood music long before The O.C. Pernice will be one of the guys-with-guitars auditioning to fill in for series regular Grant Lee Phillips (ex-Grant Lee Buffalo) as "town troubadour" while he goes off to open for Neil Young - a nice bit of wish-fulfillment-fantasy for Phillips, I'm sure. The show has used Pernice Bros. songs (Clear Spot, Weakest Shade of Blue) on its soundtrack before. Now, I hear that Sonic Youth is recording a track specifically for the same show - the season finale, May 9 - and that Sam Phillips (who does the main music for the show), Yo La Tengo and, weirdest of all, Sparks are all going to show up in the episode.

All of which pales beside the fact that Sebastian Bach (ex of Skid Row) is an ongoing character on the series, playing a burnout rock guitarist who joins Lane's high-school band because a real rock band would keep him away from his wife and baby too much, but still gives'er 200 percent at every gig. The guy ends being the soul of the band, ridiculonkly sweet-funny. You have to catch the scene earlier this year where he sings Hollaback Girl at a bat mitzvah.

Almost makes up for three-quarters of this season's storylines. Almost.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 07 at 01:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


April 06, 2006

Hail and Farewell

Congratulations to our friends Sheila Heti and Kevin Connolly for their nominations for the Trillium Book Award. (The New York Sun this week called Sheila's Ticknor "one of this year's most enjoyable and formally impressive books.")

And RIP to John Cage student and performance-art "happenings" pioneer Allan Kaprow. Yes, it was all his fault.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 11:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


Danger, danger! Meta-meta-criticism ahead!


I didn't find out till just now, but Popmatters has been running a series all week about the 33 1/3 books, the set in which my book on "love, bad taste and Celine Dion" is coming out next year. Particularly interesting is Rob Horning's critique from yesterday of the whole project. He's certainly right to say the emergence of books-about-albums is trackable to the endangered nature of the album form. I'm intrigued when he seems suspicious of the reverence and experticization inherent in the canonization process, and even when he levels the accusation that the books may serve to "de-pop-ify" the albums in question, so that "art becomes art history." (But there's actually no way around that; if the art is going to outlast its moment, it's going to become historicized - and better history than mere nostalgia.) My book is definitely meant in part to counter the canonizing tendencies of the series. But...

[... if you keep reading, you're as nerdy as I thought! ... ]

But then Horning veers off into what seems like an elaborate intellectual variation on the "don't ruin my music by thinking about it" kneejerk move. He loses me when he says, "Taken to its logical extreme, this position threatens to make all albums more or less the same: it makes them all arbitrary raw material for the critic's churning mind. ... The critic's own fertile mind usurps whatever richness was inherent to the specific artwork... threatening to make the album itself virtually irrelevant. ... it obviates whatever specific intent the musicians may have had, renders that and the album itself as ultimately unknowable."

If a book is going to do that to a piece of music, frankly, either you've got a pretty weak album or a supernally powerful critic. First of all, any claims of intent by the musicians are much more likely to eclipse and conceal the inherent qualities of the art than whatever a third party says. Second, how many people do you think read these books, compared to how many hear the music? Third, any such effect is likely to be temporary - for example, Greil Marcus's unfortunate effect on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, with all his "old weird America" guff and making folk music seem like a mere set of footnotes to Bob Dylan, becomes less and less pronounced the more people hear the reissue of the box set. Anyway, arguably the guiltier party is Smith, for appropriating all those folk singers into his own decidedly exoticizing art project in the first place. (I hasten to add that in Marcus's better books, such as Lipstick Traces and Mystery Train, he enhances the effects of the Sex Pistols and the Mekons and Elvis and Randy Newman without so much as bruising their capacities to be heard independently of his theories and afresh by each listener.)

It's all conversation, but hopefully good conversation. In the long run a work of art just is ultimately unknowable, and that's why each one of them is grist for all of our fertile minds. Aren't those two of the reasons we love art? Of course they are, as I think Horning realizes when he suddenly comes out in favour of the books at the end of the piece.

Popmatters' pieces also include interviews with series editor David Barker and Pet Sounds petting-zookeeper David Fusilli, as well as reviews of the Pet Sounds, Sign o' the Times, Kick Out the Jams and other volumes. Not comprehensive, but fun.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 10:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)


Smoove It On Over:
Notes on Schmaltz (2)

Kenny G.: The jazz that dares not speak its name.

In today's Globe and Mail, my colleague J.D. Considine (who's blogging a bit more now that he's the Globe's new jazzman) returns to a subject that I wrote about in my column at this time last year: "Smooth jazz."

Coincidentally the Daily Show had a smooth-jazz joke on its mock special on race last night: Jon Stewart said that despite the sharp racial inequalities surfaced by, for instance, Hurricane Katrina, "it's also a fact that no nation on earth is as integrated as ours. Let's look at the fruits of that effort, for instance, jazz - music created by black people, which they shared with everybody. And I mean" - flashing up a photo of Kenny G, like the one above - "everybody." (You can see the clip, for now, under "Afrospanicindioasianization" here, about halfway in.) That quip has thick cultural layers, because smooth jazz is very much a racial matter - though, as I'll get to at the end, not quite the way Stewart's jibe suggests.

I was bemused in J.D.'s piece to find guitarist Jeff Golub trying to claim that "All 'smooth jazz' is, really, is a moniker for contemporary jazz." What bugs non-smooth musicians and fans is the way the industry has turned "contemporary jazz" into a euphemism for smooth, an erasure of everything else current in jazz. But overall, in my queasy position of self-appointed champion of schmaltz (if smooth is schmaltz) (and just how did this happen again?), I say J.D.'s done the right thing by mounting the case for the defence much less ambivalently than I did.

However, Bob James - who is a huge smooth success and recipient of a lifetime achievement award at this year's Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards (oh, please, can't they be called the Smoothies?) - is being disingenuous when he blames commercial radio/record companies for editing out the solos, which he says gets "deep into the danger zone." Clearly he's chosen to go along with such choices, so if he really does believe that erodes the integrity of jazz, he has to share that blame.

James also missteps, I think, when he compares today's smooth to "the roots of jazz" in "dance music and popular music. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman - they played for dancing. It was the popular music of its time." All true, and a point I've often made in discussing hip-hop and techno crossovers with jazz. But smooth is by and large not at all a music for dancing. It is a music for relaxing and for dinner parties and for seduction. None of which is bad, but it's not a populist move in a class-based sense. It doesn't take jazz back to being the social music in which it had its roots. Rather it is an extension of the way jazz has been used by upper-middle-class people since the 1950s - but with the excision of all the intellectual content that was the justification for the move away from social dance music in the first place. A demand that jazz return to those roots doesn't lead to smooth jazz. It leads, maybe, to today's Cuban-jazz revival.

And that's where the case that "smooth jazz" is bastardizing the jazz legacy has force, because it hasn't got either the musical experimentalism or the social populism that are arguably the two legs on which the tradition stands. Which doesn't mean it's illegitimate, or that it isn't a part of the jazz family tree. But it's a tough knot to untie: Part of me thinks that it would be better just to call it Instrumental R&B.; (For more on these matters, see Christopher Washburne's essay, "Does Kenny G. Play Bad Jazz?: A Case Study" in the Bad Music collection, which I discovered after last year's column.) Another part thinks it helpful that there remains a commercially viable genre under the jazz rubric: If smooth/pop-jazz were reclassified, the bolder jazz might just find itself not the artsy margin of a larger genre but a defunct category, more like polka.

One sure thing - to get back to Jon Stewart's point - is that smooth jazz is fascinating sociologically: According to radio-station surveys, it has at once a more affluent audience and a more racially diverse one than practically any other genre. At this point in history, it seems to me almost like a "hopeful monster," a mutant survivor and reminder of the arrested 1960s to 1980s evolution of the U.S. black middle class, a perversely bland soundtrack for the wildest American dream of all, the process of integration strangled by Reaganism and its aftermath.

Note: I am willfully misusing the term "hopeful monster" here, since smooth was by no means a spontaneously generated phenomenon - it came right out of jazz fusion on one hand and 1970s R&B; on the other. But I'll swipe it in that scientifically sloppy way writers do, because Smooth does seem at once monstrous and, in some lingering way, hopeful.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 03:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (23)


April 05, 2006

The Milk-Eyed Mender Meets the Yankee Reaper

Joanna Newsom, left, gets an assist from song-cycle maestro Van Dyke Parks.

Pitchfork brings the news (a month after it first surfaced over here) that Joanna Newsom's new album will feature arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. Which feels kinda like casually mentioning that Leonard Cohen's next album will be made into a film by Ingmar Bergman. In other words: Holy shit.

Newsom you mavens probably know - if not, see Zoilus posts past.

Parks, for the uninitiated, is probably most notorious as Brian Wilson's collaborator and lyricist on Smile, much to the displeasure of Mike Love and other Beach Boys. Yet there's far more to Parks than that. Now in his early 60s, Parks might be called the Jon Brion of his generation: He produced, arranged or played on records by Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Harry Nilsson, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Little Feat, Mighty Sparrow and many more, most lately Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright. But Parks has also put out an underrated series of albums of his own, almost all eyepopping, folklore-based conceptual suites such as Song Cycle, Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper. (In the Seventies, Warner Music was so outraged his records hadn't found an audience that it reportedly ran ads berating the public for its bad taste. Needless to say, it didn't help.) Parks falls in the lineage of great American sophisticated primitives, like Charles Ives or Aaron Copeland or Vachel Lindsay, but in a West Coast hep-cat key. He says he has a new solo album on the way - which would be his first in a decade, since 1995's Orange Crate Art - but he says in the Bandoppler interview:

"I'm very happy as an arranger ... it being my favorite musical job. I'm now arranging for harpist/vocalist, singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom, on her second CD. She's marvelous, and modest. I've never had a bigger challenge, or more joy in discovery."

Some fans may worry that orchestral manoeuvers in the Parks will strain the fragile bone structures of Newsom's harp-borne songs. But those fans don't know what she's been up to lately: She's been leaning toward 10-to-15-minute extended suites, making a song-cycle maestro such as Parks a pluperfect collaborator, especially since there's so much California in her own rolling, dappling lyrical journeys. You can hear live performances of this recent material here on the all-around remarkabubble Milky Moon fansite, which goes fathoms beyond Drag City's parsimonious and scarce-updated official vessel.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 05 at 12:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)


April 04, 2006

Flaming V.I.P.s


This might be Zoilus's first-ever Cute Kid Moment. But on the occasion of the Flaming Lips' visit to town tonight, their first headlining show here in a decade (they've been here opening for others, and in 2003's anti-SARS, um, benefit? rally? kiss-in?) - I couldn't resist sharing with you this photo of Zoilus volunteer Erella Ganon's 12-year-old daughter Celeste posing with Lips mainman Wayne Coyne. Just adohwable. Let it also serve as tribute to Erella and her fellow Zoilusian galley slave Chris Randle for their sweat'n'toil keeping the site's Toronto live show guide up to date: If it weren't for them, I'm not sure I'd be able to sustain it. Erella says Celeste is, "a budding punk-rock filmmaker" who "has made six or seven little stop-animation shorts on her own, using her toys."

As justification, here are two battlebotting reviews of the new Lips joint, At War with the Mystics: The Guardian pro and the Village Voice anti. I find the latter more persuasive, on David Marchese's writing alone: "Neocon call-outs (the mystics of the album's title) and lazy lyrical jibes at passé targets like Gwen and Britney epitomize the album's tired ideological currency. But the main problem isn't lyrical inanity—it's how steadfastly the music hems to pro forma notions of the awesome and the sublime." And: "Back when the Lips were just a scraggly gang of young Okies with heads full of acid and a fondness for fuzz, they weren't so concerned with effing the ineffable." Which simply rings with more conviction than the Guardian's, "The Flaming Lips have just found more sophisticated ways of messing with listeners' heads."

But I have a pre-existing bias against the Lips, who have long brewed up too much post-Floyd/Zappa, Barenaked-Ladies-on-Acid goof-syrup for my tastes. It would be fantastic if they totally converted into a children's group, following in what I hope remains the permanent direction of They Might Be Giants. Let this photo be an inspiration!

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 04 at 01:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (16)


April 03, 2006

Flattery Will Get You Linked

Zoilus has been included on the CBC arts website's roundup of "English Canada's best arts and entertainment blogs," for which I'm grateful. (They're in alphabetical order, so scroll down to the bottom... Hey, what's wrong with reverse alphabetical order now and then, hmm? [I've been saying this since I was a child whose name began with W.]) All fine company, of course, though the reprinted example of my post-Vegas blah-blah-blah seems rather short of being a "typical" post. (I can just imagine CBC site readers thinking, "Zounds! I simply must get more lame jokes about showgirls!") I also bristle at the "Wilson prefers indie rock, but dabbles in everything else" remark: I don't prefer indie rock to free jazz/improv or country music, for instance; what emerges here has more to do with my evolving sense of dialogue with readers than what I exactly prefer. Also, most of the artists covered here wouldn't call themselves indie rock. But that's semantics. Granted, though, in hip-hop I totally own up to dabbler status.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 03 at 03:30 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)


Byrne & Eno's Danish Cartoon?

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts on vinyl: The new reissue is at once enhanced and,
for surprising reasons, incomplete.

Like Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee, I was one of those kids whose mind was squeegeed by the sonic collages of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in the eighties, when samples and loops were still a startling sound. And now it's reappearing at a time when samples and loops are like toast and jam, in a deluxe Nonesuch edition for its 25th anniversary. (It was released in 1981 - I caught up with it several years later, because of age and because that's the way it was in Brantford back then: Decades tended to arrive about five years late.)

For those unfamiliar with it, it was a work of imaginative "fourth world" anthro-tapeology, maybe comparable to today's Sublime Frequencies found-global-sound compilations, but set to Remain in Light-stylee grooves. It's sometimes referred to as the first sampling record, but that's a myth ...

[ ... more on the album and the removed track Qu'ran, on the jump ... ]

Better to see it as a descendent of the tape-spliced samples of musique concrète going back to the early postwar era, an aesthetic imported to pop by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the White Album's Revolution No. 9 and followed by many others. Then of course there's the vinyl-based sampling of Jamaican dub and early hip-hop. My Life's historical claim might be better staked on being among the first to bring those two streams together - along with Holger Czukay of Can/PiL, who studied with concrète giant Karlheinz Stockhausen, and imitated his use of shortwave samples on Canaxis 5 (1969), then combined that approach with his love of dub in his solo Eighties stuff.

Bush of Ghosts been aped since then on a thousand industrial-techno and worldbeat-with-monks tracks, but it still sounds fresher and more bloodyminded than its imitators. It uses the found voices mostly as an occasion for a twitchy, paranoid relationship to intercultural experience, rather than the sneering-angry template of industrial or the swoony-tourist model of worldbeat -credible perhaps to Byrne's and Eno's shared capacity to fix a quizzical alien eye not only on foreign others but upon their "own" cultures. Not that it's immune to some of the same critiques of cultural appropriation and decontextualization, but it makes a damn strong case for the practice.

Given this bloodymindedness, I was surprised to find out this weekend on the fine Ten Thousand Things blog that one of my favourite tracks on the album, Qu'ran, has been omitted from most of the CD re-releases of the album, including the new Nonesuch. The problem was its use of taped samples of scriptural chanting from mosque services, which drew complaints from official Islamic groups. Since the early reissues came out around the time of the Satanic Verses fatwa, the label or Byrne and Eno themselves - it's unclear - chose to avoid the risk of getting Rushdied. Ten Thousand Things lets you download the original here. There are two odd things about this case: First, the kind of Quranic chanting that's on the track is, as far as I understand, broadly acceptable listening material for faithful Muslims, outside the most extreme sects - it's not remotely blasphemous on the level of Rushdie's parody or the infamous Danish editorial cartoons. The accompanying music is quite demure by the album's own standards. It's those standards that might be the sticking point: Far more implicitly critical are the album's treatments of Christian radio preachers and even a demon exorcism, similar in effect to the use of preacher samples on Remain in Light's famous Once in a Lifetime. (The better-known legal issue around My Life have to do with the evangelical preacher Kathryn Kulman, whose estate demanded the removal of her sermon from the exorcism track The Jezebel Spirit - it forced the delay of the album replaced with another radio evangelist, and the original has surfaced only on a rare Italian bootleg. Eno has said the delay was ultimately fortuitous, as they made Remain in Light with the Talking Heads in the interim, an experience that informed the final reworked version.) In other words, then, there's an equal-opportunity scepticism toward religion that pervades the record, far less blinkered and ethnocentric than, say, the Danish cartoons. Given the centrality of these issues today, it's at once understandable and unfortunate that the added tracks on the reissue don't include the restoration of the original, quite respectful-sounding Qu'ran. (I'd be interested to hear counterarguments though.)

There is good legal news about the album, though, which is (as Boing Boing reported last week that Byrne & Eno have placed two tracks under a Creative Commons license and are allowing others to download and remix the components of those songs. (In a similar spirit the reissue cover is a kind of remix of the distinctive Peter Saville original.) Perhaps this presents opportunities for inventive mischief as commentary on the Qu'ran question?...

Stray thoughts: Given the U.S.-evangelism-versus-the-world subtext coded into the album's DNA, the title has acquired a double meaning in 2006. Also, I wonder how many people have ended up reading Amos Tutuola's novel as a side-effect of this record over the past 25 years.


Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 03 at 10:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)


April 01, 2006

He's Got a New Spell:
Billy Bragg Seeks a Post-Marxist Language

Billy Bragg live in Toronto, photo lifted from Chromewaves.

Because I've been too busy getting ready to move house to do anything else, and because I keep seeing him pop up on radio shows and in the press all over North America this week, I thought I'd run the full text of the Billy Bragg interview I did a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of his new, early-years, nine-disc box set Volume 1 and accompanying tour, for a short piece in the Globe. And I do mean "full." The boy does go on. (Can we still call him that, now he's pushing 50?) But he's really a joy to interview, as you might suspect from his live patter. This is especially for Frank Chromewaves, who requested it (and also reviewed his Toronto show).

Topics covered: James Blunt, British National Party, Bob Dylan, Clash, "Spandau fucking Ballet," nostalgia, Bragg's upcoming book on multiculturalism, July 7 subway attacks, Marxism, class analysis, social antennae, fatherhood, Miner's Strike, Red Wedge, Live 8, resemblance of Sudbury to moon, productivity, Connecticut car parks, cynicism, role of the artist, Suzi Quatro, The Weakest Link, suntanning at Lake Tahoe, where the answer is.

Warning: May contain unreconstructed rockism. (See comments about "Roxy Music fans.") Nobody's perfect.

You can download his new song Bush War Blues (an adaptation of Leadbelly's Bourgeois Blues) here, and some mp3s of a recent gig in Massachusetts here.

Now, finally, on to the interview...

This new box set [Volume 1] is at least your second retrospective in the past few years. [His last release was a best-of called Must I Paint You a Picture.] Is that your idea or the record company's?

It was about time we put out some kind of a best-of, which was a couple of years back. And then Elektra in the US got lost in the corporate shenanigans ... someone folded Elektra into themselves. And the end result was that I ended up with my entire back catalogue in a big hole. My rights reverted to me. The good people at Yep Rock, which is a label down in North Carolina, said they'd like to put out my back catalogue. So I got a new deal for my back catalogue. So that really was the way I turned this out. This year I've been writing a book on the subject of identity politics, carried on from the last album [England, Half-English], and it was an election year. So as there was nothing else coming out this year, they offered to put it out now.

When you listen back to those early albums, what do you think of the guy you hear?

It's the alternative James Blunt, isn't it? No, look, I can't apologize enough for that, you can only take so much, we had to retaliate in some way for Jack Johnson, we had to retaliate.

Really, I listened to the first couple of albums in my car when they first sent the re-press down to me and I thought they were as powerful as anything. They've still got that edge to them. And I stand by the sentiments. I think probably because I didn't go in for that big 80s hair and clothes and production, because I did do it the way I did it.

I can remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, it was in the middle of Glam Rock. I swapped a copy of the Jackson 5’s greatest hits with a mate for it, and it was a complete revolution. I’d never heard anything so raw and so empowering. So I’d like to think a 15 year old or 19 year old hearing what i do against the backdrop of - or someone who’s into the alternative singer-songwriter thing that's going on now, Devendra Banhart and those guys, would hear what I do as an urging to get back to the strength and power of song rather than production.

Do you miss the passion for songwriting, the songs just pouring out, of those early years?

I think when you're trying to break out, to get a career, you have to have a fever, you can't do it any other way. You've got to fire it up. You've got to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I was so angry - looking back, Spandau Ballet seems like kind of a stupid thing to be angry about. But I'd been in the audience at Clash gigs. I thought we were going to change the world, and it had come to nothing. A bunch of Roxy Music fans had taken over. And I really knew that if I was going to hear the songs I wanted to hear, I was bloody well gonna  have to do it myself.

But writing the book this year has been a similar sort of thing. It's been a real challenge. I had the same feeling about it, that I must do this, that I felt compelled. The British National Party, a fascist, racist party, suddenly won a council seat in my home town. I felt compelled to not just make an album, that wouldn't suffice, I'd have to go further. It's a completely different discipline. It took me a year or two to figure out how to picture it. It's a lot of similar feelings.

I can remember the first moment when someone in the music industry, a journalist, said my songs were good. You got this feeling, “I can do this.” And I've had several moments like that with the book, when someone else makes you feel justified you've got something worthwhile to say. Whether it's in a song or in a book. In that sense I think I am as driven. Still in the barrel, still looking for Niagara Falls.

Your albums do come slower now. Is it harder to write about marriage and fatherhood than about dating?

I tell you what I think it is: My focus on doing things I think are really worthwhile are much broader now. I knew that the election was coming last year, and realized I'd have to go out - because I'd been campaigning with parliament on trying to get constitutional reforms in the House of Lords, and I knew the time the labour party would be most conducive to that was before an election. And then the BNP had won this council seat so I've been out doing gigs against the BNP.

Then in September there was a song I wrote with a woman in a hospice, for a charity called Rosetta Life. They sent me into a hospital to write songs with terminally ill women, hospice users. We got some local musicians, including Robbie Mcintosh who plays with Norah Jones. And it got to no. 11 in the charts. And that's just as worthwhile. There are these things to do. But back then, I only had one focus, to tour and make records, and consequently everything else in my life suffered to do that.

I am definitely as engaged as I was back then. But making records is not - and never really was - my main concern. Doing gigs, engaging with local politics and national politics, has been my concern. And trying to work out ways to do that - not just ways that were different but ways that engage me as well. The song we recorded and got released - that was just a product of six weeks of songwriting workshops at the hospice. But when it got going, the response was so powerful, people contacting the radio stations who had faced similar poblems and so on. That took up a big chunk of my time as well.

Have you become less idealistic, and more pragmatic?

The world has become less ideological, whether I like it or not. The great watershed for me was in the early ‘90s - whether that was because I became a father, or because the Cold War ended, or because Thatcher was assassinated by her own party. Any one of those would have changed me. But still, if you look at the box set, the ratio of love songs to political songs is 2 to 1 or 3 to 1. But I still have lots to write about with regard to relationships.

Is it harder to be a poet from that less assured point of view?

As a communicator, you have social antennae that pick up what's happening that make you want to write about something. The reason I wrote about Thatcherism in the eighties and am writing about identity now, that's because that’s what the antennae were picking up.

With England, Half English, it was hard because traditionally the left have shied away from any sense of belonging, or those kinds of abstract things. My fans are internationalists, and I'm an internationalist. But the end of the Cold War freed us from the language of Marxism, which I think is redundant now, and leaves us to try and find new ways to articulate the way we'd like the world to be.

Your audience has grown older along with you - do you worry about being a point of nostalgia for their own idealistic youths?

I do, especially in England. You know, when the audience wants me to play Between the Wars, sometimes I do play it. But as with all topical songs it’s the context in which you play it, and sometimes there is the right context. But I always remind them that I don’t miss the ‘80s, I don't miss Thatcher, Reagan, the Soviet Union and Spandau fucking Ballet. I want to look forward. The essence of a culture that's vibrant is to respect the past, but live in the present and concern yourself with trying to make a better future. Doubly so when you're a parent. The whole reason I want to write about identity and make a case for an inclusive sense of it is because I don't really care about where you're from or what your background is. I care about how my kid is going to get along with your kid.

What happened last year on July 7 was incredibly divisive in that sense, of multiculturalism.

I was going to ask what effect you thought that had on the social climate in England.

One of the responses was the question put forward by reactionary newspapers, that this was somehow the fault of multiculturalism - which was their coded way of saying if these people weren’t here we wouldn't have this problem. Their answer was to try to restore “British values.” But nowhere could I find a definition of what British values were or are, and neither could I find a real definition of what multiculturalism is. These two leviathans are set against each other in a way that no one can agree on what they mean. The debate has been warped in that sense.

By the same token, I may not have anything in common with the men who did it, except that we both have British passports. So I have to address that: Why did someone who grew up in the same culture as me feel so marginalized? What made them feel so outside of our community? They didn't just blow up anglo-saxons. They blew up young Muslims on that train too. So if they're against diversity, then maybe i'm against them, too. Maybe they're just like the BNP. We have to discuss that with the people who feel angry at how they are treated in our society.

Figures such as Gordon Brown have made an issue of Englishness, and I'm glad about that. But people like Brown have to understand that Englishness means absolutely nothing without social justice. If you want an inclusive society where people are at ease with each other, you must first have social justice.

What does social justice mean to you - is it economic justice?

I think it can only be delivered by collective provision, as a society. You say, “We as a society believe everyone should have free education, free health care. Everyone should have access to decent affordable acommodation, housing.” As a society we all have to contribute to that. And there is such a thing as society despite what Thatcher said. This is what Britishness means.

(He excuses himself to kiss his son goodnight.)

Education, health care, housing. That’s what I was writing about in Between the Wars. That's what the miners’ strike was about. Those are the things that make me proud to be British, about what my country’s achieved. Those three things, though Thatcher tried to destroy them, and they're still hot potatoes in politics.

I think they’re the big political issues anywhere.

I don't expect these to be uniquely British problems. I'm fortunate. I get to travel, I've seen things, I've been places - to Sudbury, Ontario, or to Penticton or up in Newfoundland. I’ve seen a great deal of Canada and I feel fortunate in that. I’ve seen parts that are unspeakably beautiful and other bits that are pretty mesed up. I've been wowed by it and taken aback by it. When I say I love my country, it doesn't mean i hate your country. I can admire it socially and topographically... Although there are places like Sudbury, Ontario, I can’t say I’ve ever seen nothing like that - Sudbury looks like the moon. And this one place in Connecticut. At least Sudbury has an excuse, it has the nickel mines. This place in Connecticut was just a car park. It didn't have that excuse.

Do you hear a new political music coming from younger musicians now?

I think there's a willingness to address issues, but not capital-P politics in the way we did in the 1980s. That was of a time, because of the miners’ strike, the pressures Thatcher was putting on. We were forced to go perhaps beyond the reaches of where pop music sometimes goes. Rock bands that aren't necessarily political will have stalls in the foyer for causes they support. They'll do gigs for stuff that's political. But it's humanitarian-political rather than ideological-political. You couldn't do it the way we did it.

Well, surely there are ideological pressures in America right now.

Yes, well, in America there's a tradition - this meeting of show biz, rock’n’roll and politics. The last tour I did there, though, was in support of a campaign against corporate ownership in media ownership, and there was politics in that. I was there to say, “This is bad for international artists as well.”

I'm going to be on tour in April sponsored by the unions in Britain, going to towns where the BNP could win elections in May. I'm not sure you could put together a Red Wedge anymore. But I came into politics through Rock against Racism in 1978 so I keep faith with that issue. I keep faith with the Clash, in some ways. And you know, there's young kids who get involved in that too.

At this point do you still think political music is still able to have meaning, or has it become kind of rote? A lot of people are cynical about celebrity activism.

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that the enemy of those of us who want to make a better world is not conservativism, nor is it capitalism - it's cynicism. And unfortunately the Labour government go around stirring up cynicism. I know I have to choke back my own. I know from experience you can't change the world by singing songs on a stage. Only the audience can change the world. But you can draw their attention to an issue, as we will in April against the BNP. Or you can draw people together in solidarity, to express their solidarity with like-minded people so they don't feel they're on their own.

But most importantly, wherever you are on a given night, in any context, whatever the subject - love or politics - you can offer the audience a different perspective. That’s always been my criteria for writing a song. If I’ve got something to say that I haven’t heard said in a debate, then I'll write about it. Or bring it from another place into a song, which is what you do as a troubador. But I think that's the most you can do.

I know that's what happened to me when I went to Rock against Racism. The world was the same as it was when I was coming over on the train, but it had changed my perspective forever.

How did you feel about the Live-8 concert as a rallying point? Is it useful for all these rock stars to come out on stage like that, is it neutral, does it put people off?

I don't think it sets it back. If people expect to solve world poverty by having a few gigs in Hyde Park, that's obviously ridiculous. But people who expect that have overblown ideas of what can happen. But if you accept the role of the performer, to drum up a crowd and for that crowd to feel they're not the only people in the world hwo feel like this - I think it's been proved popular culture can be used to set the agenda, not to solve the problem but to set the agenda. That chimes in nicely with the role of the performer, to ask the right question rather than to deliver the answer. Because as we all know, the answer is blowing in the wind. That's already been sorted!

I think that one of the things that excited people about you early on, especially maybe in North America, was that you talked explicitly about class, which is kind of an unspoken subject here. It was there in your accent and your sense of humour, and for some people it may have been the first time they’d thought in those terms. Now that you’re less of a traditional socialist, do you think class analysis still matters?

I think social background does define so much of your life, what your expectations are, still. The language of Marxism, I don’t think really makes sense to people anymore. But the issues that it tried to address still need addressing. Although the idea of class is unfashionable, the reality is that the education that you're likely to get, your prospects of standards of living, even your length of life, all are affected by your social background. As long as that's true, class will always be an issue.

But the debate about multiculturalism is where those of us who want to create a better fairer society are now engaged. By standing up for diversity, equality, egalitarianism, we're opposing those people who demand a hierarchy, a racial hierarchy, a gender heirarchy, a social hierarchy. These are much broader strokes than we used to use. But we're trying to construct a new language to deal with these problems.

If capitalism won, then why are so many people starving in China? Why is the North American steel market still not open to European steel? These issues are still to be resolved. But I think writing about a “socialism of the heart” is as potent as writing, “There is power in a union.”

If you were to say to someone you want to live in a socialist society, you'd have to spend a lot of time explaining. But if you say you want to live in a compassionate society, I think everyone would understand. They'd still want to know how it works, but as an idea, compassion perhaps has a stronger resonance with people at the moment.

So, what are you up to next, besides this tour?

The book comes out in October, at the same time as Volume 2 of the box set, which brings it all up to date. And then I suppose I'll have to make another record. It's all been a bit of a sabbatical from songwriting, so when I do pick up the guitar now I have new ideas. I'll be trying some of them out in Toronto. I'd also like to come back to Canada in the autumn and start in Vancouver - I'm aware it's been a while since I've been done some shows across the country.

Last year my son changed from junior school to high school and I really wanted to be there for that. A good part of parenthood is just being there. So I thought it would be a good time to write the book as well. I'm really fortunate that people are still interested in what I have to say. I feel very very privileged. I would hate to lose that. It's just a question of trying to articulate that just because I haven't been in town doesn't mean i'm playing golf with Lord Cub or living at Lake Tahoe getting suntanned. I'm doing what I do, but it takes on different shapes, and I think it should.

You try to refine what you say and say it in a way that's more precise. I'm a communicator, and songwriting is the main way i do that. The book was a monumental challnge and I kinda needed something like that. Partly because if I’d done another record then, I would have just made England, Half-English volume 2, because that was still the main thing that concerned me, and I don't think that was the way to go. But until I dealt with this issue, it was where the fire was and I had to go address that. I was getting quite confident i could articulate it, because I’d been going around explaining where the album was coming from, explaining why this is important now.

(Billy tells me there’s a show on TV in the other room about glam - Slade and Suzi Quatro. He starts to make a joke, then stops.)

No, don't write anything bad about Suzi Quatro. I went head to head with her on The Weakest Link - and I beat her. So now every time I see her I feel guilty. ... I did it because my mum watches that show, and it's not every day, when you're Billy Bragg, that you get to do something your mum is gonna care about. And finally it got down to Suzi Quatro, me and this opera singer. And it occurred to me all of a sudden that I might win. My wife said she could see the moment: “You were just breezing along and then all of a sudden your eyes got wider and you gripped the lectern.”

And you know, nothing I've ever done got more comments at the school game the day after it was broadcast. You wave the red flag incessantly for 20 years, not a peep. Go on The Weakest Link, and suddenly everybody knows you. It's a fucking strange world we live in.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 01 at 12:47 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson