by carl wilson

May 31, 2006

Foster Grants and Genre Goggles

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Just found out about one of the more underpublicized gigs of the month, Josephine Foster's appearance at the Silver Dollar on Thursday night. (Along with the ever-beloved Pony da Look.) I was unsure for awhile about Foster's warbly channelling of such spirits as Hazel Dickens, Joan Baez and Karen Dalton, but her latest, which hitches up those folky influences with Schubert lieder, shivers its timbres down the spine right into the lumbar, creating a magnetic pull I can't help but follow. Pied-Piper effects predicted for a live show. Hear some samples via this page and read up a bit over at the Gramophone, which has been loaded with great finds this week. (Later: Purty pictures.)

Unlike Zoilus, I realize. Sorry - I spent yesterday morning up at a conference of music librarians at York, trying to talk with them about how they ought to bring some "avant-folk" like Foster or doom metal or "alt-this-and-that" into their collections (the organizers' agenda) while also trying to hint that the new weird America to be found in the pop charts has just as substantial a claim on their attention (my agenda). So I slapped together a 20-minute talk on the social, ideological, musicological and creative aspects of genre, and then we auditioned a lot of hard-to-classify music and tried to play guess-that-genre with it. And since then I've been working on a profile of The Creeping Nobodies for the Globe on Friday (when they have the launch of their absorbing new disc, Sound of Joy at the Horseshoe with the Wharton Tiers Ensemble). All of which has kept me away from the keyboard.

Meanwhile go read Frank's site for news and views on events such as the upcoming Broken Social Scene/Dinosaur Jr. collaboration (for charity) and links to charming interviews with Rachel from Visqueen and so on. Go elsewhere for news of the due-in-August Mountain Goats full-length, Get Lonely. (Shades of Elvis Costello's Get Happy!?) Read Dave saying "why's everybody quitting just when it gets interesting?" (good point! my bet: intimidation). And while we're link-happy, how-the-hell did I miss Mike Powell's Stylus review of Destroyer's Rubies way back when? Honestly one of the best pieces on Destroyer ever, I'd say, and a very sympathetic guide for the perplexed: Destroyer’s Dan Bejar practically shits where he eats; he’s a parasite. Which Powell is then able to turn around into praise. Terrif.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 31 at 02:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

May 29, 2006

Outtakes from the Auto Da Fe

A few worthwhile entries in the annals of the Merritt/rockism/critics-suck/no-you-suck kerfuffle that I missed earlier can be found at Jeff Chang's and Jason Gross's and Mike Powell's places. They're mostly a week or two old now, but they all share a frustration with how much these conversations alienate non-music-geeks, including the non-geek parts of ourselves. Partly terminology is to blame: I've come to realize I feel pretty much humiliated any time someone says the word "rockism" out loud to me - like on the CBC last week - the word serves more as a barrier than a doorway to an idea that would be more coherently expressed as "anti-pop bias," for example. (Which avoids those awkward explanations of how rap fans or jazz fans or classical fans can be "rockist.") These phenomena are worth noting, but I'd maintain that if you and your friends enjoy talking about something, then it's worth talking about - just don't expect anyone to get it if you start going on about the same thing at dinner at your auntie's. But then there's the other part, where a critical interrogation of our own tastes messes with our ability to be passionate fans, unequivocal proclaimers, etc. We could say, sure, it's uncomfortable to realize your own embeddedness in ideology and social dysfunction, but suck it up. But in fact that question of where, once your gut reactions are shown to be trained reflexes, you find any grounding to argue for what you love - that is the one that keeps me up at night. Jeff and Josh say you should follow a taste and a critical practice that vibrate with making a better world, but that smacks of "it's good because it's good for you," a confounding of moral good and aesthetic good that would just make us the lefty equivalent of the PMRC. Mike and Jason sense that and back away hard, but into what corner? (Later: And of course I missed Simon going at exactly that question ten days ago, too. Battle fatigue, friends.) To be perpetually continued.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 29 at 01:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Here Comes the Sunn0))), Again

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There were many bright spots in this weekend's Sunday Times Magazine piece about art-metal by John Wray, despite its predictably narrow focus on Sunn0))) and, peripherally, other Southern Lord bands, and despite the even more predictable angle of "look! metal isn't just by dumb people," which is annoying since, as I said in my own Sunn0))) piece a couple of weeks ago, metal has always been one of music's most intensely autodidactically intellectual genres, as its preoccupation with mythology and arcana gives blatantly away. It would be more accurate to say that Sunn0))) and kin mark a level of self-consciousness at which metal becomes not just intellectual on its own terms but able to translate it into conventional art-world-intellectual terms, less of an outsider form - a dynamic you can hear the musicians negotiating in their interviews. But it still had much to offer: First, everything about Boris, a band I don't know very well, thrilled me, with its upper-case (rawk) and lower-case (experimental) identities - it's great when double-neck-guitarist Takeshi enthusiastically suggests that Metallica ought to try the same thing. Then there's all of Sunn0)))'s dancing around how much they are kidding with the robes and fog and Satanism - they get how funny metal is but also think it can be seriously valuable, which is just the right blend aka philosophy of life. It's very endearing when O'Malley can't quite bring himself to say that "Southern Lord" is a metal term for the devil, or when Anderson says that the robes function as not only costumes but a kind of performative isolation booth - they help shut out the audience, i.e., the embarrassments of being on-stage, while also giving the audience pleasure by heightening that same silliness of the proceedings - and when he takes umbrage at the idea that he's not into melody (an understandable assumption to take from the band's drone-based sound) and says how much he loves Stevie Wonder. (It's less endearing when the writer feigns - I think it's feigned - surprise at their interest in formal minimalism, as if that weren't obvious in the music. It's pandering to the very reader prejudice the article is purporting to upset. Several times in the piece I wondered how much the magazine editors influenced such moments.)

But most intriguing of all is the way O'Malley taxonomizes the audience. This passage is worth quoting in full:

"Three basic types of people come to see us play," O'Malley told me. "First, the people who are really into experimental music or metal — the passionate music lovers; then you've got the spectacle crowd, who come for the robes and the smoke machines; last, you have a group of people who are more interested in the physical aspect of it. Those are the people who are just like, I'm going to stand at the front of the stage for an hour and a half — can I take it? Will I wet my pants? Will I puke? I'm going to be at the very front, in front of these amps for 75 minutes, and then when it's done I'll feel liberated, or I'll feel like I've beaten the band or whatever, no matter how tortuous it is." I pointed out that it's fairly uncommon for a band to divide its fan base into the aural, the visual and the tactile: I'd expected him to make a distinction between metal and experimental-music fans. O'Malley nodded politely, then did his best to bring me up to date. "In the past three or four years, since the point when the Internet started becoming the primary source for discovering music, the lines between different styles have really begun to blur." He spread his arms as he said this, looking at me almost slyly, as if he were about to perform a magic trick. "There's so much access to so many different types of music now, it's no wonder that people aren't categorizing themselves so sharply. It's pretty awesome, really."

These are the sorts of insights you can only get directly from musicians themselves - not the Internet stuff, which I think we're all realizing but was articulated particularly well there, but the notion of looking at audiences less in genre-sociological categories and more in functional terms of their relationship to the music. Because I happened to watch Julien Temple's Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury tonight, which includes a great piece of archival footage of Shane McGowan and a girlfriend as punk fans singing Anarchy in the UK, it occurs to me to think of the old Pogues audience this way: Not just as a mixture between Irish-folk fans and punk fans, the way the music explicitly suggests, but as divided between the people who came for the drunken party and those who came for McGowan's poetry and the musicianship; this captures more about the experience of being at those gigs, and the clashes between factions of the audience, than the genre reading does. It's a kind of reception analysis reminiscent of the way cultural-studies sociologists like Simon Frith, or someone like Christopher Small, have looked at musical events: A 360-degree view of how the trappings around the (small-m) music actually form the social category of what we mean by Music. (Small calls it "musicking.") It's a question I plan to ask more musicians in interviews in the future - what do you observe about your fans, when you are on the road, that might be different than critics' armchair speculation? I'm often relatively uninterested in doing interviews, because I'm not very into writing personality-profile journalism, but that sort of data seems extremely critically fertile, and unavailable unless you're able to go to many of a band's shows in person.

PS: This was also one of the occasions when you wonder how much the Times the newspaper and the Times the magazine communicate, as Jon Caraminica did an extensive, strong piece on art-metal in Arts & Leisure (picked up in the Herald Tribune) last year. I'm not complaining - each had different strengths, and I guess you can't expect that readers will have read the prior piece - but it reinforces the suspicion of disconnect.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 29 at 03:18 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

May 26, 2006

If You're Gonna Do It Once, Then Do It Now

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The song Vacation by Republic of Safety has long been my unofficial Torontopian anthem - on the one hand it's got the tried-and-true exhortations to DIY that go back at least 30 years in punk-boho ideologibberish but still are the part that stand up: "You don't need a dime and you don't need a plan/ Just write your book and start your band." Class this in the category of Shit That Needs Saying on the Regular. But the particular slogan of "don't wait for vacation" stitches across time into space - the idea of it's not something that happens elsewhere, at a better time, in some romantic place - the utopian gesture is yours to make and inhabit here and now. Now the song is the centrepiece of a four-track EP by the new lineup of RoS, which has lost its double-lady-bassist-rhythm-section mojo but definitely improved its studio chops since the last EP, Passport. (Which, however, includes the band's very best song, I Like to Work.) The new disc is produced by Don Pyle. I still wish, especially on the second half, that they'd thrown more fire (known in the trade as "compression," perhaps) on Maggie's voice - the stylish scorch of her live stage presence still isn't in these tracks, though the insouciant curl of her lip is. Still the sound in general impressively incubates the erotics of the instrumental interplay. (And whispery background vox is always a pleasure multiplier.) Whaddya want, a RIYL? Okay: Republic of Safety is for fans of Sleater-Kinney, Mission of Burma, the Gossip, Khia, Kelis, Valerie Solanas, Abba and the Archies, as well as democratic socialism and assymetrical federalism. You can mainline it tonight in Montreal at Club Lambi and tomorrow (Sat.) in Toronto at Sneaky Dee's. I give it eighteen pineapples with dynamite inside out of twenty.

Meanwhile maybe tonight I'll see you on the Santa Cruz? What are you wearing? See the gig guide for further options, comme d'habitude.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 26 at 02:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Axis of Essential

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Iannis Xenakis with DJ Spooky.

Today in The Globe and Mail, I have a very straightahead little piece about the SoundaXis festival, with its themes of music, acoustics, architecture and Iannis Xenakis, which runs June 1-11. As well, I fly the friendly skies of Essential Tracks again, this week featuring Ray Lamontagne's cover of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy (apres lui, le deluge), Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland on Promiscuous, Beirut's Postcards from Italy and Twentieth Century, a track from the new Pet Shop Boys album, Fundamental.

But more interesting in today's Globe are all these efforts by my colleagues: Robert Everett-Green gives three-and-a-half stars (out of four) to Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds ("he's both a tease and a truth-teller, and as usual that's an unbeatable combination"), and also explains the pooka; Jennie Punter profiles American composer Elliott Carter, the nonagenerian master who makes a Toronto visit this weekend at the Music Gallery and the Glenn Gould Studio; and Guy Dixon profiles Amy Millan, the Stars/Broken Social Scene singer whose solo album Honey from the Tombs comes out this week. I had a strong identificatory reaction to what she says at the end of Guy's piece, about her musical cohort: "We're all in our thirties, and we didn't think we were going to make it. We didn't think anybody would ever give us any money or care. We had nothing to lose because we already lost." Something in there about why the new-emerging generation of "indie" musicians may be different than the last - it is coming from a different realm, not necessarily of aspiration but of expectation; not worse or better, but unlike. They haven't had this experience of outliving their idea of themselves.

City of sound

By Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
May 26, 2006

Goethe famously called architecture "frozen music," but in the upcoming SoundaXis festival, the two forms melt one into the other and go shimmying out into the life of the city. The festival, June 1-11, is the brainchild of a coalition of new-music groups, with an ear to Toronto's cultural megabuild.

The boom is not just a change to the visual cityscape, they suggest; those new museums and galleries and halls will also be filled with sound -- not only music, but a community palavering about what it could be.

The timing is ideal for a city that's become newly eager to explore its own utopian potential, whether in salons and books, "psychogeographic" rambles through unexpected alleyways, illegal rock shows in abandoned warehouses or guerrilla games of tag between the bank towers.

SoundaXis has taken as its patron saint the notoriously knotty Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001. Xenakis, when not busy being maimed fighting in the Greek resistance to the Nazis, was trained as an architect and engineer, who collaborated with that great-and-terrible-Oz of modernism, Le Corbusier, on building projects in postwar European reconstruction.

Acclaimed Xenakis biographer Nouritza Matossian plays a prominent role in the festival, which coincides with a three-day symposium on his legacy at the University of Guelph. (Other related scholarly events include the Subtle Technologies conference on "Responsive Architecture" at Innis College and an Architecture/Music/Acoustics conference at Ryerson.)

While Xenakis's music was put together with daunting math, in another way his perspective makes uncommon sense: Taking his cue from architecture, he looked at notes and rhythms as unimportant in themselves, merely bricks and mortar that ought to vanish into larger, macroscopic shapes and patterns. This was a reversal of many of the serialist games modernists had been playing for decades, and Xenakis probed the implications to their explosive hilt.

By the late sixties he'd achieved no small vogue in hip culture -- his oracular obscurity made him a bit of a Marshall McLuhan-like guru -- and lately he seems to be undergoing a revival. Not only do his ideas rhyme with new thinking such as chaos theory, the old charges that his music was "inhuman" because many of its processes were calculated by computer (IBM gave him special access) seem laughably quaint: A composer now is no more bound to manuscript paper than an architect who designs on AutoCAD.

And so, along with guests such as renowned French harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka (who will play music Xenakis composed for her), the festival will host the likes of Jaron Lanier, a musician better known as the man who coined the phrase "virtual reality."

For every analytic bull session or high-toned event (such as June 11's concert for four string quartets plus light show), SoundaXis also offers direct encounters between listener and locale, from opening fanfares in the atrium of the CBC to a "Sonic Boardwalk" on Ward's Island, Sarah Peebles's surprisingly poignant found-sound compositions from a walk through Tokyo, spontaneous "X Marks the Spot" performances in public places or a weekend that treats the Ontario College of Art and Design's new table-in-the-sky addition as an acoustic playground.

In June 8's "Four Lines," local improvising musicians (Peebles, Rob Clutton, Nilan Perera and the band Barnyard Drama) will lead listeners on a sonic chase across the city by foot, bike, TTC, laneway, shopping cart and any other transport they please, converging on that evening's featured concert. It's a usefully gritty event amid proceedings that might hover too much in rarefied air to get the city's full musical measure.

But that's a small caveat about a multifaceted festival that could make some significant renovations in how you hear your world.

For complete schedules see http://www.soundaxis.ca.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 26 at 10:56 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

May 25, 2006

Now I Long For:
Yesterduh, and Hydromel

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Aki Onda sings Yesterduh.

Last night's Yesterduh closing party at Mercer Union was a real hootenanny, preceded by a Test reading (organized by Mark Truscott) featuring Stephen Cain and Lisa Robertson. Since music is our business around here, we'll take Yesterduh first for 100. As I've mentioned, this is the latest audio-art outing by Zoilus stock character Brian Joseph Davis. The conceit was to bring random gallerygoers into a recording booth and have them sing Yesterday, the most-recorded pop song ever, from memory to a backing track. The results are now available for your online listening pleasure (?), including a few solos (one of them by Aki Onda, another by Darren O'Donnell) and a big edited-together choral version; more audio will be added in future, I hear. I don't need to tell you how enjoyable it all is - just go enjoy it. And then there was beer, and dancing, and everyone feeling they should be going home and getting some work done but nobody going, and more beer and great standing-out-on-the-sidewalk conversation, and Jonny Dovercourt's Jesus-year birthday, and Vigilante Justice the a capella techno band doing Dee-Lite and C+C Music Factory, and more beer.

Now backing up to the reading: Steve Cain's stuff was yer quality gaz, auto-club map shreds out of the gas bar en route to the collapse of the oil economy - i've enjoyed his sneaky way with northern politics for a while - but what we were all perty near aflutter about was that this was Vancouver poet Lisa Robertson's first reading in Toronto in something like five years, and also the launch of her new book The Men, which smelt like a Memorable Occasion, like this is a book we will be reading for a long time, and while all Robertson's books deserve such designation (Debbie: An Epic, XEcologue, The Weather and, most of all for me till last night, Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, which by the way may be reissued in the not-too-distant future), listening to The Men felt somewhere in the neighbourhood if not right up in the driveway of one of those storied readings of Old where something lasting first trotted forward to take a bow. (I'm not sure it's possible to open the door of that building anymore so the driveway will have to do.) The secret is someplace in the collision-and-merge Robertson alludes to in her ministatement between "all the ambivalence, doubt, and tenderness of the human," and "I remain angered." It's quite something to take on the brief "to defamiliarize both who, and what men are" but something else actually to have done it. People are going to be jealous. No wonder she kept it in cool storage for five years before publishing. Me, I felt a funny-sickly hesitation at the end to clap too loudly lest I give myself away. The Q&A; afterwards was anticlimax although I admire Mark's will to do it; it began promisingly thanks to his first question, with both poets talking about where the categories of "Language poet" and "Canadian poet" might scrape, crack, massage or miss each other (and Robertson further about how the old Objectivist -> Tish -> Kootenay story of west-coast Canadian lines might be its own kind of crock), but then devolved into typical "do you write with a pen or a computer" reading questions with which the poets coped nobly. And what nobody asked was the thing we all wanted to know - what is hydromel? The word appears several times in The Men, serves as some kind of sacrament or corrosive, and it was promised that there would be some served (so it is something you serve?) at the full-book reading Robertson is apparently doing at the Scream lit fest in July. But nobody yers truly included had the gumption to ask.

Answer: Just as the name suggests, hydromel is "a mixture of water and honey"; when it ferments, it becomes mead aka honey wine. Now you knows. The Men is published by BookThug and there is a sample here.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 25 at 03:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

May 23, 2006

Grrrrrumble

Post crashed. I hate it when this happens. I'll muster up the will to recreate it later, perhaps, but meanwhile: Victoriaville reports, anyone? Here are a couple to get you started. Wish I had gone: I flaked out on some off-Victo events this weekend, too. Simple explanation: It's actually May that is the cruellest month around here; you have to correct for climate. I did go to the Charlie McAlister show Friday night as promised; some elementary organizing errors saw him being thrown off the stage by the management of the club 15 minutes into his set, because it was 2:30 in the morning, by which point nearly all of the audience had also departed, and McAlister himself didn't seem very "on." It was worth the whole night to witness the return of Matt Smith's Nifty - just ridiculously, casually virtuosic in a ready-to-hand way, not that far in fact from what Matt's fellow ex-Mouche, Owen Pallett, achieves in Final Fantasy, but with a different sensibility. (And a similarly ungoogleable handle.) You?

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 23 at 05:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

May 19, 2006

Zoiluscast

No, I'm not becoming a pod person, but will be coming at you via the old fashioned means of The People's Radio on Monday (Victoria Day) on The Arts Tonight. I'm on a panel hosted by Nora Young with Toby Black (ex-Maow guitarist now living in the T-dot) and Colin McKenzie (ex-Murderecords, ex-Cinnamon Toast, ex(?)-Perimeter Records, filmmaker and mensch in Montreal), talking about summer music and genre discrimination/guilty pleasures/rockism, and playing toonz. It's on at 10 pm (est) and lasts 35 minutes. Yeah, you'll be watching fireworks and getting schnockered. But now at least my mom knows.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 19 at 05:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Local and Immediate News

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Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown are off the bill for the show tonight at the Opera House. Islands, Cadence Weapon and Busdriver are still playing, but this makes much less of a megashow. The reason is bizarrely fucked: These two Canadian bands are somehow not being readmitted to Canada after their dates south of the border. They are being detained by the U.S. government for causes yet unknown. Is that actually legal?

If you want a refund you are advised to return to "your point of purchase." I am mostly heartbroken that the kids who come out for all the buzzy bands are missing their opportunity to be converted to the church of my beloved Frog Eyes. But I am still going out of professional obligation (personally I'd rather be seeing Charlie McAlister). (Update: Nah, I'm not going. I will go see Charlie McAlister.) For other options see the gig guide - and also tonight you could check out Backalley Jukebox, the queer indie-music video smorgasbord.

Also note Dave Morris's piece on former Coltrane sideman Rashied Ali (playing tomorrow afternoon), which is online at the eye site but wasn't in the weekly's print version.

One more thing: Aaron points us to MuchMusic's newest VJ, Hannah Simone, whose background is surprisingly pointy-headed, which is okay by them because she is a babe (see above). But beyond all the UN posts and Lloyd Axworthy-book-research, the thing I'm most struck by is that she comes to Much via campus-community radio (CKLN in Toronto). When was the last time that happened? Ever? Also - her bio tells us her sign, her ethnicity (Indian-German-Italian-Greek-Cypriot!), her preferred music (no surprise to see M.I.A. in there), her globe-hopping path (London-Calgary-Saudia Arabia-Cyprus-India-Vancouver!), her fave-rave social issues, but I wonder where her family sits culturally. Has Much ever had a Muslim VJ? Anyway, the betting pool on how long it takes her to be snapped up by Newsworld is now officially open.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 19 at 02:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Ubuthentic

I missed Richard's post earlier in the month reflecting on Pere Ubu's David Thomas and his take (at EMP and in interviews, etc.) on rock and authenticity. But since we've been talking Ubu in some of the comments down below, let me recommend it as a good read, albeit one with which I mostly disagree. I posted a long comment on Thomas there, which seemed better than doing so here.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 19 at 02:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

A Little Vomiting Music, Maestro

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It feels, with one thing and another, like months since I've done any actual, you know, music writing. What better way to reimmerse than with a full-body dip into the blackened tar of the genre known as doom metal? I've got a feature today in The Globe limning out some thoughts on Sunn0))), the Kasimir Malevich of metal bands, who play the Music Gallery on Monday. (Read it here.) Also in today's Globe, I take the wheel of the Essential Tracks column, with squibs on songs by Michigan's NOMO (post-techno-post-Fela-post-Ra-free-funkestra), London's smartie-teen Internerd springtime lollipop Lily Allen (next big thing or next Amy Winehouse?), the single from the new Wiley album (you can still hear it over at DJ/rupture's place) and a blues standard by Irma Thomas (from her post-Katrina album After the Rain).

This is not just music to vomit by

BY CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 19, 2006

Rock has died and been revived so many times now that no one should be surprised if some part of it behaves like a true zombie, dragging its ravaged limbs along under compulsion from some cruel and absent puppet master.

Like garage, post-punk and a dozen other rock offshoots, heavy-metal music is back in the near-mainstream, returned from its much-mocked big-haired 1980s phase to its earlier roots as the home of rock's most earnest self-taught intellectuals, with the bad-boy appeal of Satanism serving as cover while you read a lot of books about conspiracy theories and the supernatural.

The rigid genre distinctions that sustained metal fandom through the lean years seem to be breaking down amid its new popularity, as the genre absorbs adherents of goth and puppy-eyed "emo" punk. But along with such commercial successes as bands like My Chemical Romance, or the Ozzfest and Sounds of the Underground tours, the genre is also developing its own art-minded counterculture, with groups that take metal's concept-album tradition to new heights, or may draw heavily on the 1990s Japanese noise-rock underground. And these groups are attracting an audience of listeners who may not normally consider themselves metal fans.

At the forefront is the guitar duo Sunn0))), who perform Monday. (The name is pronounced just like "Sun." The 0))) isn't a word but a pictograph, showing the heavenly body radiating three waves of light.) It's led by guitarists Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, who also founded the new art-metal label Southern Lord Records, with a changing cast of collaborators.

Sunn0))) certainly doesn't eschew the grand guignol of metal's past. They perform theatrically cowled in druidic robes, they are prone to song titles such as Flight of the Behemoth or Bathory Erzebet - and on that latter song on their latest album, the vocals were recorded with the singer confined in a coffin locked in the back of a hearse.

But this band is to most metal bands what colour-field artists are to painting - just look at their last three album titles, White1, White2 and Black One, for a hint. Like Russian painter Kasimir Malevich's 1915 painting of a black square, Sunn0)))'s music distills something essential from the form but takes it to such an extreme that it becomes almost another medium.

Specifically, Sunn0))) is about guitar frequencies. There's little concern for song form or rhythm and certainly (and this it has in common with such long-standing subgenres as death or thrash metal) not melody. There are no drums. Vocals make only rare appearances. Rather, Sunn0))) produces long, slow, deafeningly loud drones that sound a little like a Black Sabbath album skipping so that just one chord plays over and over again. It's what you get when faith in the unifying rebel myth of rock has collapsed, and the anatomists come to pick over its corpse.

Yet if you open your ears, the music is not tedious. O'Malley and Anderson have a beguiling command of timbre and texture, keeping the crackle and buzz of their sound mobile even as the harmonics barely budge. They seem constantly to be urging the groaning, slow-grinding music forward, and the effect can be trance-like, particularly at the extraordinary volumes the band favours in live shows.

Indeed, Sunn0)))'s main preoccupation is not so much with music as with the physiological ramifications of noise - they're turning metal from music to take drugs by, into sound that acts as a drug in itself. They linger particularly around what are called "sub-bass" frequencies, a range that has long been studied by military strategists and scientists as ripe for weaponization. Fans like to boast that they've gone to a Sunn0))) concert and nearly lost control of their bodily functions: The band has even complained that they're tired of fans vomiting at their shows, as if it's become drearily de rigueur.

But closer to its core, Sunn0))) is not a juvenile gross-out game - their vibrations can bang your head into the kind of meditative state that monks spend years trying to master. As Malevich wrote in 1920, "perhaps the black square is the image of God as the essence of his perfection" - or what's really going on between the devil's horns.

Sunn0))) is at the Music Gallery at St George-the-Martyr Anglican Church, 197 John St., on Monday. Sold out.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 19 at 10:33 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

May 18, 2006

Hum of Life

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May's been sleepy. Not that there hasn't been a copious amount of music to hear and gigs to see, but few of these occasions felt like sharp skewers poking into our asses commanding that we not sit or snooze but rouse to action and descend upon the musical venues of the land like art-devouring locusts. It was restful. I liked it. But now the pause's pregnancy is done and cultural quintuplets are popping out all over. Er, I mean, here's some stuff what is going on. (And by the way, that Times piece today kinda sucked.)

That sordid Santa in the pic above is one Charlie McAlister, who's had a certain renown in the basement-tape-swapping world for almost-decades, but isn't someone I ever expected to be able to see just by dropping over to, say, Rancho Relaxo. Or Oasis. Tonight. And tomorrow. But since new Toronto label Smash the Clock is putting out two McAlister releases - one a comp and the other a new'un called Poppin' Grapevine or Floundering with P.P. Roobenz. McAlister's often positioned as a folk-art or "outsider" type, since his music sounds like it's been made out of vinegar and baking soda and maybe some sideburn shavings scraped from the bottom of the sink by Daffy Duck, but instead of the problematic baggage of illness and alienation and rejection that often accompanies such labels, I get a sweetly average vibe - not that McAlister's music is run of the mill but that he seems just like a creative guy who's hanging out and enjoys tickling his imagination to see what it will cough up, with a psychologically healthy lack of censorship. And contrary to a couple centuries' worth of bohemian propaganda, there's nothing boring about being healthy and robust. Tonight's bill is especially good - he's playing with Lenin i Shumov successor band Rozasia, Alex Lukashevsky of Deep Dark United (whose solo disc Connexions is one of my favourites so far in 2006) and Smash the Clock flagship band Broken Tree Fort. (I'm less familiar with tomorrow's openers, The Corners, Hoover Party, Tradition and Nifty, but I'm sure they're all, you know, nifty.) Six bucks each night or ten bucks for both, Rancho tonight and Oasis tomorrow, 8 pm'ish. You can download the entirety of earlyish McAlister cassette Sardine in Bastard Suit here and find your way to other McAlisterama here and at Catsup Plate. Highly recommended is Mississippi Luau a concept album in which the Old South and the semi-fictional Polynesian idyll somehow merge: "Then the monkey flipped the switch/ and the robot went insane/ slashing at the sailors/ with a bamboo cane."

Speaking of Lukashevsky, he and Ryan Driver (of the Silt and whatever free-improv band you want to name) are performing as "THIS and THAT" on Sunday afternoon at the inaugural edition of the Tranzac's new Kids series - which I'm guessing is a little bit of an outgrowth of the talk at the Wavelength anniversary panels a couple months ago about the lack of indie-culture programming for families hereabouts, in which case, yay us. Doors at 1 pm, show 1:30 till 2:15, and the price is a family-friendly whatever-the-hell-you-want.

While you are feeling cool about your life in Toronto, however, do not forget that off in the wilds of dairy-farming Quebec, the Victoriaville festival of musique actuelle is busy being cooler. Its programming this year is mainly some distance from its avant-jazz roots, following up the turn toward noise that became conspicuous last year. (But longtime Victo-watchers will know that trends develop staggeredly there if at all, so next year it could be all about Jean Derome again.) Due no doubt to the health issues the grand imperial impresario Ron Gaskin has been having, there is no official "VTO" (Victoriaville-Toronto) second-cousin of a semi-festival this year to console us, as there was in the past several years. But Ron has managed to bring at least one Victo artist here - he's just announced that on Saturday night at 9 pm, Chicago's Rob Mazurek's project Mandarin Movie will be at the NOW Lounge - with the killer lineup of Mazurek, Alan Licht, Steve Swell, Jason Ajemian, Matt Lux and Frank Rosaly. It's described as "full frequency audio assault" with "the brutal metal industrialism of God and the electronic freakout of Merzbow." Toronto improv'ers Ken Aldcroft/Evan Shaw/Joe Sorbara open, and it'll cost ya $10-$15 to get in the game. Other Victo spinoff events coming this week: Sister Ray presents Keiji Haino (with Knurl and Chris Worden) at the Drake next Wed., and the Music Gallery offers Sunn0))) - whom I write about in tomorrow's Globe - on Monday with, I believe although it's been kind of hard to discern, Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi opening (though that show is already sold out).

And oh god there's more but I am getting exhausted, so here is a message that was sent to me: "The Hum is a radio-based performance piece by sound-artist Kathy Kennedy. It's at the Drake Hotel, sun. May 21 from 1:15-2 pm (and surrounding Queen St. area). We're looking for as many people as possible to come with a working portable radio and tune to 103.1FM. (A few batteries will be available). You are the audience and the participants. C'mon all you circuit-bending, technofilic closet-singers! In fact, everyone is a participant since we all play a part in the ambient soundtrack of life. No, seriously we do. Everyone should hum along to the broadcast soundtrack. Humming is a way of improving your listening. Its also a form of internal massage since sound waves are vibrations. Did you know that its been scientifically proven that humming can cure sinusitis? The more radios that come, the further we can spread the hum. See you outside the Drake at 1 pm this Sunday."

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 18 at 03:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

May 15, 2006

Pitying Merritt, David Thomas Generously
Offers Up Self as New Whipping Boy

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Above, the cover of the upcoming Pere Ubu album. Quotes on the unreleased disc so far: Charliedontsurf of Ubudance: "Well ... it looks like ... it seems that ... i have to say : forthcoming album is the ******* BEST ALBUM OF THE BAND, EVER!" Zouba, moderator at the Pere Ubu Foundation email list: "I've been mum on this so far, but um: Charlie is completely correct. This is clearly far and away the best piece of any of the 'modern' ubu era releases. Stellar." Track titles: Two Girls (One Bar), Babylonian Warehouses, Blue Velvet, Caroleen, Flames Over Nebraska, Love Song, Mona, My Boyfriend's Back, Stolen Cadillac, Synth Farm, and Texas Overture.


Remember that this is Pere Ubu we're talking about here, which means that (a) album title may not indicate album contents; but (b) there is no guarantee that the songs are not about why David Thomas hates women. Which is not to say that he does; but that to whatever extent he does or sometimes does or from a certain angle does, or even if he does not at all, he would not hesitate to argue it if it suited his purposes. (Another of the strangely unremarked-upon aspects of his paper at EMP, besides the "fact" that only Americans can play rock, came when he said that in order to be protected from the distortions of media, the secrets of rock'n'roll must be preserved and kept among close-knit "bands of brothers." I think he added something to indicate that he was using the gender-specific term deliberately, but I can't recall the wording now.)

Not sure who/what that is in the cover image, although it reminds me of the detail from the Mona Lisa on the cover of The Da Vinci Code.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 15 at 02:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Merritt Postscript: Zip-a-dee-doo-Dad

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Left, Scott Falk with his sister Gale, in Hawaiian garb.
Right, his son Stephin Merritt, with ukulele.

One last entry to the Stephin Merritt file before I move on. This is something I meant to post ages ago, before this bunfight even happened, but there's more point now: Go check out the site of Merritt's father, Scott Fagan - it's friggin' wild (thanks, Michael Barclay, for pointing the way). Fagan was a folksinger in the '60s folk revival, then a singer-songwriter with enough cachet that Jasper Johns did a painting of one of his records, then wrote an anti-music-industry rock musical in 1970-71 and, he claims, was blacklisted from the biz. He then retreated home to the Virgin Islands, where he had grown up, and has stayed there doing music in a sort of Jimmy Buffet vein ever since. (He and his mom were abandoned by his own musician father; Fagan says he was raised by a succession of "black alcoholic stepdads"). Somewhere along the line, he found the time to have an affair with Merritt's mom, but it ended before Merritt was born in 1966. The two have never met, but I gather that Merritt grew up aware of Fagan while Fagan has only found out about Merritt fairly recently.

The fact that Merritt was actually spawned by a sixties singer-songwriter makes him a ridiculously literal case of what I argued in my "bandonyms" essay last year is the pattern of 1990s solo artists rejecting the heritage of confessional 1960s-70s singer-songwriterism, in part by adopting band names in the place of their own. Merritt's archly ironic voice provides more such distancing. Yet if you listen to some of his birth father's music you'll catch some surprising presentiments of Merritt's own sound. In most of Fagan's music the similarities are smothered by the "islands" vibe, but you can hear it in ballads such as Where My Lover Has Gone. Except that when Merritt does it, it's much more tongue-in-cheek, as I discussed in an earlier post about his Brecht influence, camp, etc.

But Fagan is also intriguing when you're talking about the racial coding of Merritt's music: There's been a lot of jawing about the thoroughgoing "whiteness" of the Magnetic Fields and other Merritt projects. Well, here he has a father (though absent) who was raised in a black environment and does heavily black-influenced music. Fagan's earliest demos, in 1963, were full of Harry Belfafonte-ish numbers such as Maryann or Rum and Coca-Cola, not to mention something called Shame And Scandal (In de Family). He carried that influence through his hippie-songwriter period and then went back to it full-swing, as you can hear on most of the tracks on his website, such as La Beiga Carousel/Tutsie. You can debate the legitimacy/ickiness of Fagan's blue-eyed-Caribbean style as much as you like, and I don't know how much Merritt knew of his father's music, but: If you grew up aware that your father is this sorta white-rasta guy who sings in dialect, not to mention a self-styled musical genius who happened to leave you and your hippie mom to fend for yourselves, perhaps you would feel there's something unappetizing about white songwriters who piggyback on black culture, and become inclined to look mostly elsewhere for inspiration? You might, in fact, come to have kind of a harsh line on crosscultural appropriation (viz. the Merritt: "White blues" is "fundamentally racist" sub-fight), and therefore steer far clear? Just a thought.

There's been some interesting side-conversation about whether white people should be condemned for being attracted to "white culture," if black people should be criticized for listening exclusively to "black music." That's too simple, but maybe leads to a better question: If we are critical of mainstream America for ripping off black culture as its own (see "rock'n'roll"), why can a songwriter also get shit rained down on him for scrupulously avoiding that move? Rip off black culture, and you're a thief; don't, and you're a musical white supremacist. Granted, the Tin Pan Alley, post-disco europop (esp. Abba), new-wave and country performers who are Merritt's main musical wellsprings all drew on African-American music to a degree. Everything mixes; there is no original source. But the Scott Fagan factor might at least suggest what Merritt is trying not to do, and why his motivations may be far from the ones being imputed. Which, once more, is by no means a story about how tastes are just meaningless accidents of chemical pleasure; but does testify to how scrambled the genetic (and ideological) material of any aesthetic might be.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 15 at 02:00 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

May 12, 2006

I've been wondering when this would happen

Program note today at WFMU: "Stephin Merritt joins Monica today at noon for a celebration of the song 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.' My, oh my, it'll be a wonderful day."

The interview should be available at 'FMU's online archive sometime in late afternoon.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 12 at 11:20 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

May 10, 2006

The Birdies Are Saying What I Want to Say

In the midst of an almost criminally sane and balanced look at the rockism-poptimism wars in Slate today, Jody Rosen cites my EMP paper. The second-most-pleasing aspect is that he's chosen the lines that are the crux of the piece for me. But the most pleasing is that I think with his reference to "The Celine" he was smuggling in a sneaky shout-out to the Zoilus comments box! (But Jody - what, no link?) Intentionally or not, Jody's timing also serves as a little teacherly nudge at why people should stop the hell with the name-calling already. (To which, by the way, everyone concerned has recently (more-or-less) agreed, without abandoning the deeper point. Hoorah. Because you only have to check the reader response to yesterday's Slate piece to find a lot more cream-filled-centre cryptoracist reactions to hip-hop than Stephin Merritt's - though there was also this smart contribution - or look here for even more wack comments, after a post that - while making reasonable points, especially bringing Matisyahu into the subject - goes on ahead and calls Merritt a "fudge.")

But enough about me and that and those. In honour of Jody's semi-defence of semi-rockism, please find herein some juicy pastrystuffs of Zoilus art-rock favourites discovered today on YouTube:



Pere Ubu performing Birdies live (circa 1980?) from the new-wave doc Urgh! A Music War. If you've never seen David Thomas perform, do not miss this. (If you have, I don't need to tell you.) Rumour has it, by the way, that the upcoming new Ubu album is their very best since the "classic" mid-to-late seventies period. If true it would, automatically, make it the best album of the year (on formal if not sociological grounds, anyway). I'm inclined to believe this hearsay in part due to further hearsay that indicate serious private turmoil, which has always produced extraordinary results from him in the past. I recognize the scurrilousness and aesthetic dubiosity of that leap however. (I also recognize that dubiosity is not a word probably.)



Destroyer, currently holding the album-to-beat title, performing Looter's Follies at at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle last Friday (May 5/06).



Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett) doing The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead at the Music Gallery in Toronto in April. I hesitated to post this one because it's fuzzy and doesn't include the beginning of the song, so you miss the whole Owen-constructs-backing-track-before-your-eyes alchemy, but was convinced by the backs of the audience members' heads bobbing up and down throughout the song. I would so buy DVDs that featured only footage of audiences listening to music.

Other Final Fantasy live videos and many more Toronto-scene pics and vids (including Zoilus at a Wavelength panel a couple of months ago) can be found at Aperture Enzyme.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 10 at 02:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

May 09, 2006

Zipadee-Deja-Vu

Bizarrely, Slate magazine has seen fit to weigh in on the EMP-conference-inspired "Is Stephin Merritt a racist?" (not-really-a-)debate. (See previous Zoilus coverage.) I'm afraid Sasha and Jessica have earned the drubbing they take there, but the writer, John Cook, goes too far: First, it's not true that no one can have any idea what Merritt's other tastes in music are; he was a critic for Time Out for several years, and has frequently commented on music in other venues, and, more importantly, since he is an artist who works in pastiche, his musical interests are quite thoroughly and complexly documented in his music (the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, etc.). That they tend to the paler side of the pop and non-pop traditions is fairly obvious. The question is what to make of that. Cook claims that suggesting "one's taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent" is "dangerous and stupid." He's right, but the crux there is the word "intent" - unless your tastes in music run to white-power bands, of course very few people intend to express racism via their listening choices. But Cook's implication is that tastes cannot be "interrogated" at all, whereas in fact the patterns in our tastes (and, as I argued at EMP, distastes) have a lot to say about our identities. We instinctively know this. That's why people ask each other what kind of music they like when they're, say, on a first date. "I can't stand that pretentious jazz shit" or "I hate that cheesy teen-pop pap" are statements of self-definition as much as they are statements about the music. Listening near-exclusively to white artists doesn't mean you hate black people, but it may well indicate a sense of distance from and perhaps a lack of curiosity about black experience. Likewise, for some listeners, gangsta rap very well might be a way - as Merritt has suggested and Cook stops short of agreeing with - of indulging racial(ist) fantasies of black masculinity, engaging in a fatal-attraction tango of admiration and repulsion. For other listeners, it may not be that at all. The narratives of taste are rich but very slippery; any attempt to boil them down to a moral indictment (in SFJ and Jessica's case) is bound to be as foolish as trying (as Cook does) to wish them away.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 09 at 05:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

May 08, 2006

Help Wanted: Jazz Edition! Plus Other Shit

With all the help that Erella and Chris have given me on the gig guide, I'd like to put out a call for one additional Zoilus squad member: Anyone interested in specifically helping out keep the jazz club listings up to date? (That is, the Tranzac, Arrayspace, the Red Guitar, Rex, Montreal Bistro, etc.?) They're a bit harder to track than most, and it would be a relief to the current listings team. This would take a couple of hours of niggling typing-and-formatting work some weeks - other weeks would be lighter. But it would help ensure that live jazz gets the exposure in the guide that it should. I'll get in touch with a few who volunteered in the last go round, but do email if you're fervently keen for this particular mission not-so-impossible.

Other notes for the day: RIP Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, who died this weekend, far too soon, in his late 40s. I always hoped to see the band play live, and I suppose now I never will.

A good interview with Scott Walker in The Guardian reminds that his new album The Drift is imminent; check out its elaborately beautiful website, complete with streaming odd-io.

Follow up all the fruitful links in this post by Drew LeDrew. (Not counting the one to Zoilus's EMP coverage, for which, my thanks.)

Final Fantasy fans might want to check out Corey Dargel, who perches somewhere in the musical universe between Owen and the Magnetic Fields and, no doubt not coincidentally, is touring with him in England this week. Bonus service: Corey will write a custom-made love song for "your significant other, son, daughter, sibling, celebrity crush, pet, or whomever else." The songs will be provided to you in completed and karaoke-ready versions, and also included on a planned 2008 album called Other People's Love Songs. Resemblances to Momus's Stars Forever project may or may not be deliberate, but they are delightful. The whole notion is such a neat, and profitable, rebuke to the self-expression model. Songwriters! Express other people's feelings!

Finally: The season finale of Veronica Mars - the show for which, far more than The Sopranos, I got digital cable - runs tomorrow. I am on tenterhooks: Even though this season was not as scorching as the first, the essential magic of the show is certainly intact. Fans or would-be fans, check out the heroic skywriting fan campaign being mounted to ensure that there is a Season 3.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 08 at 04:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

May 04, 2006

Yuppie Band Name Alert

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What's with these bands called Editors, or Architects (or The Architects)? It's the flip side of the Wolf/Bear/Eagle names, I suppose. But what's next - "Personal Finance Consultants"? Why not just say what you really mean and call yourself Eyewear?

A better name for a band would be Customer Service Agents. Or Offshore Call Centre. Or just the Temps. Although I have to admit I'd probably like a band that named itself the Translators.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 04 at 02:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (34)

 

May 03, 2006

Avant-Meaford

I may not make it to Victoriaville this year, but this summer event on Georgian Bay looks like a smackin' fine experimental sugar substitute, Aug. 4-7: Tony Conrad! Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten)! Knurl! Aki Onda! Gary fucking Wilson! (Pictured above!) Who's camping with me? Damn! (Thanks to Erella for the tip.)

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 09:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

EMP 4 & Final: Quote-Unquote

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EMP 2006 - nothing but the hits. (Continued after the jump, as a courtesy to readers who don't care.)

Besides everything quoted below, there was Ann Powers riffing lyrically on Kate Bush, Rapunzel and ultrafemme new-wave hair; Robert Christgau and Sean Fennessy on how flagrantly offensive coke rap (Young Jeezy, Lil' Wayne, the Clipse) ended up becoming a trap-door through which they experienced their relationships with their fathers - for Christgau as an unexpected vehicle of catharsis after his dad died (one of his only experiences with an actual "guilty pleasure," he says); for Sean as a window into his drug-cop dad's world (followed by a very confusing Q&A; in which it was debated how literal the coke dealing is and what its economics would be, and why anyone is bragging about selling coke when coke has gotten so cheap); Michelangelo Matos on the song Love Child - and being a love child (see yesterday's post); Daphne Carr taking pleasure in shaming the critical world by doing a hilarious pastiche of all the inaccurate ways critics use "art school" as an epithet; Elijah Wald on Louis Armstrong's love of Guy Lombardo (a "guilty pleasure" most of us aren't old enough even to understand as shameful); Baz Dreisinger on Jah Cure, the convicted Jamaican rapist who sings sweet loverman songs of regret from within his jail cell thanks to a prison-rehab program; Alex Ross's off-festival guided tour through 20th-century notational music; Jalyah Burrell's contentious position that Mary J. Blige has started pandering to her white audience (her best line: "Black people who express love for Kate Bush or John Mayer are positioning themselves as cities on a hill") and Jabali Stewart's rallying cry for black people reclaiming rock as "fearless vampire killers" (the vampires being white appropriators of black history and culture); and Sarah Dougher's unsummarizable conflicted tour through her experience as a left-feminist experiencing catharsis through patriotic Nashville country (whose best line was about the song Riding with Private Malone: "I'm crying to a song about a magical car") (I think I cried three or four times during her presentation, which included Dougher playing recordings of tons of the songs but also sometimes singing them herself).

I missed at least that many good papers, such as Geeta Dayal's talk on the neuroscience of guilt-and-pleasure, Drew Daniel's How to Sing Along with Sweet Home Alabama; Franklin Bruno on his guilt about what's become of indie rock (its conversion from bohemia to petit-burgeois business model, mainly); JD Considine on J-pop; Jody Rosen's rescheduled talk on ragtime; and Douglas Wolk's talk about YouTube and "The Numa Numa Dance," which drew a standing ovation while I was oversleeping.

This year's conference was a guilty pleasure in its own way. I loved it, but it felt less sharp and focused and challenging than last year's. Many of the papers were smart and informative but not so pointed. Is this perhaps because people only want to go so deep talking about shame (see Stephin Merritt quote below)? Perhaps because with the Chuck Eddy firing at the Village Voice and other shakeups in the field there was less desire to argue amongst ourselves and more desire to applaud and support each other (this is Ann Powers' theory)? Or because this subject matter doesn't jack into the really divisive issues in criticism right now, the way last year's minstrelsy-and-masquerade theme did? I'm not sure. It could have. (I had thought David Thomas, not Merritt, would be the guest rock star who made everyone furious.) Anyway, it gives Eric and Ann and other organizers plenty to consider when setting up next year's conference. For which I can hardly wait. No matter what, this conference is helping to change some of the face of pop criticism, by educating us, by informing us what others are up to, but perhaps most of all by moving the goalposts, giving everyone who attends a new imagined audience - this network of brilliant readers and peers to serve as a standard. Not to mention a great place to workshop one's book ideas. And now here's some semi-random one-liners.

Stephin Merritt: "Western harmonic music is a system of thwarting and rewarding the expectations of the listener. Undercutting the pleasure only heightens the pleasure. If you've ever had sexual relations, you'll know what I mean."

[On what he learned from doing 69 Love Songs]: "I discovered quantity is quality."

[On falsetto]: "When there's a break in the voice you can't tell if you are laughing or crying. I've discovered this trying to sing at a show in Colorado, at high altitudes. The body starts heaving, huhh-huhh-huhh, and you just choose whether to laugh or to cry, since we're conditioned to associate it with one or another. ... This is also why men cry at Wouldn't It Be Nice by the Beach Boys more than women do - because you are subvocalizing along with the song without knowing it, and when you reach the falsetto break, you subconsciously feel like you are already crying."

[On why he subverts genres]: "Because I'm embarrassed." (He added that this is also why Andy Warhol did everything the way he did.)

[On the difference between shame and embarrassment]: "You can talk about embarrassment. You cannot talk about shame."

Drew Daniel. [On shame and the conference theme - guilty pleasures - which was Drew's idea]: "Last year's conference was all about masquerade, about how pop allows you to escape who you are. I was inspired by this quote from Emmanuel Levinas who said that 'shame is the experience of being riveted to your being.' " (To, as Levinas also said, " that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I is oneself.") "Musical pleasure resembles shame in that you can't control it."

[On the French band Nouvelle Vague, which covers punk and new-wave classic in a faux-bossa-nova style]: "Nouvelle Vague don't just beat the dead horse of punk - they liquefy the dead horse and serve the dead horse as a smoothie."

[On camp]: "At this point, if you're shooting for camp as a gay person, you've already lost." (Followed by a comment I didn't quite get down on how straight people use camp - like the Mamma Mia stage musical - at this point as a kind of "relief" from heteronormativity - that is, in a way, as blackface... queerface?)

Tom Smucker: "The Carpenters represent the thought that maybe Phil Spector and Mama Cass had 'gone too far.' But Karen's voice is the 'maybe.' "

[On Lawrence Welk's music and its fusion of all forms of "postwar fun"]: "It was about a musical family; it was a music about mainstream social cohesion. It wasn't about an inner life, which is what makes it horrifying to rock audiences. ... You can't 'flip' his music because there's nothing there on the inside." .... [And for those who say affectionately, 'I used to watch it with my grandmother']: "That's not a guilty pleasure, that's a temporary suspension of aesthetics for valid reasons of sentiment." (The loneliness of Karen Carpenter, as one of "Lawrence Welk's children", he went on to say, is that she has no musical family - she's just driving through the suburbs with her brother in an expensive car.)

[In the Q&A;, discussing Karen Carpenter's big, Neal Peart-esque drum kit, in which she almost entirely used just the snare and one tom, Eric Lott says]: "That seems like another aspect of her self-denial - you have this huge kit and you're not playing it!"

David Thomas (whose talk was delivered so theatrically that nobody broke through the screen of his performance to question some very questionable assumptions). "Rock is electrified folk music. It is not catholic but parochial, not a wide tent but a narrow road. It is in the blood."

[On the Tuvan region of Yaktusk]: "Land of the mammoths, frozen as they chewed buttercups." [On the band Cholbon from that region]: "Their sound was closer to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon than Pink Floyd ever accomplished. Put aside questions of cargo culture. You wondered why Pink Floyd had never owed up to their debt to the Yakutian rock scene."

"There's no alternative to meaning."

"The corollaries of datapanik: 1: Dataflow is imperative. 2: Judgment is evil. 3: Everything is true. Datapanik muffles the voice of geography."

"The answer to 'Can foreigners play rock music?' is no. No. Not under any circumstances. But sometimes they can sure sound good if they don't try."

[In the Q&A;] "I don't believe that human beings think. Sound is the basis of consciousness. But I can't explain that now. This is just the result of not having had a job for 35 years."

Seth Sanders. [On a Slayer-inspired murder in California] "The girl's family sued Slayer, who responded that they hadn't even done the necrophilia rite!"

"Everything modernity takes away, it gives back on its own terms."

David Grubbs: [On what John Cage didn't understand about recordings]: "Records make accidents happen." (By providing a frame that makes chance visible/audible.)

[Quoting John Cage, when someone offered him a middle-row seat at a concert so he'd get better acoustics]: "Imagine, sound being 'better' in one place than another."

David Sanjek. [On Nashville Sound recordings that provide effervescent music with peppy background vocals by the Anita Carr Singers for bleak lyrics about not wanting to live anymore]: "It's the commercialization of mood swings."

[On music fans who value the tragic stories of dysfunctional musicians]: "The word 'schadenfreude' grants these lookyloos way too much dignity."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 07:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Whitey Don't Surf

Cogent additions to the Stephin Merritt/taste-and-whiteness debate from Simon, stressing the crucial role of masculinities in Merritt's thinking. No debate from me, just yes, yes, uh-huh, yes. Though Merritt's passive-aggressive persona (musically fertile, interpersonally difficult) is in its own way plenty macho.

Totally unrelated (except for the white!): The CBC is expanding its podcast frontier, which is a laudable development but still way stingy compared to U.S. National Public Radio's efforts in the same vein. The score is now CBC, 1; NPR, a bazillion.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 05:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

EMP 3: Supremes (Beyond Good & Evil)

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Love Child's pioneers, the Supremes: See link to Matos's EMP paper, below.

I don't think I've met Ali Marcus but I appreciate what she said about my EMP paper. She really got it, which compels me to answer her kinda surprising inference - "that Wilson is a person who, when asked if human nature is basically good or basically bad, would choose the latter." No, if I had to guess, I'd say good and bad only exist as bounded human concepts - that "nature" is indifferent to both - and that if you step back from a human paradigm, neither word is meaningful. Ali says, "To believe that a primal, innate, subconscious force within us is there because of repression and therefore is fundamentally negative, is not something I am capable of." Contra Freud, maybe, our repressed subconscious forces aren't necessarily evil; I think we can be as afraid of positive drives - such as empathy - as we are of impulses to violence or lust. (Later: Er, not that lust, or even violence, is negative in every circumstance.) Repression is a survival mechanism run rampant, ignorant of the realities of our lives; if it worked better, social order - fascist or utopian - would be totalizing. Instead we are disruptive, for good and ill. It's not that what's repressed is the real truth of the world; it is just a jumble of displaced pieces of the puzzle, fitting and misfit. Or that's my current feeling, anyway.

Ali also has a set of other reports from EMP that cover much of the action I'd have blogged if I'd managed it. Elsewhere online, so far, you can read Michaelangelo Matos' remarkable Love Child paper (which brought people to tears), and others I missed in person by Josh on righteous fundamentalist toonz, Nate on '70s white soul-rock, and Maria on figure-skating music. Part 4 - highlights from my notes - tomorrow.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 01:30 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

May 02, 2006

EMP 2: There's No Such Thing as a Zipless Doodah

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Race, taste and pleasure: In this corner, an offensive old Uncle Remus image;
and in that corner, Stephin Merritt's childhood hero, Bertolt Brecht.

Is anybody still reading this mother? I'm back for real now. I'm going to have more notes on the Seattle EMP conference later today but first ...

Chatter continues on the EMP-generated Stephin Merritt/Song of the South controversy I mentioned on the weekend, which I meant to point out (as Sasha does) was a continuation of a previous sizzler in blogland (look down toward the end of that post, under "A Debate..."). It's worth noting this followup from Sasha via Douglas Wolk at the time. Now Jessica posts Drew Daniel's letter on the subject, which squares with my recollection of events. Jessica persists in conflating liking Zipadeedoohdah with liking the whole movie, despite Merritt's explicit separation of the two, and then using that liking to indict people of racism, which, I'm sorry, is knee-jerk and wrong. But she also links to Joshua's post on the relationship between tastes and exclusion and social affiliation, which is very near the core of my Celine Dion project.

Without posting too many spoilers for the book, my argument in my EMP paper was that if poptimism means liking what you like and disliking what you dislike without apology to anyone else's standards, that's a better starting point than using an artificial rockist set of virtues, but it's going to run into the problem of where those "gut" tastes come from. I told the story of growing up in a very white but also quite urban southern-Ontario town, and that when I was 11 or 12 I would tell people that musically I liked "everything" - and then say "except disco and country." Looking back now I can see that "disco" meant "all the African-American music on the radio" (I liked jazz; hip-hop mostly hadn't reached Canada yet) and that country did pretty much mean "hick music" to me. That these prejudices were both ethically unacceptable and musically idiotic only became clear to me after I'd left my home town.

Now, was I racist in any other sense of the word? Consciously, quite the opposite. And I wasn't classist in the terms of my setting either: I was very middle-class, but in a high school where social circles were often defined by class, my gang of weirdos was the one where those barriers at least partly broke down, with alienated bookworms and smoking-area badasses making common cause (though there were misunderstandings and hurt feelings that happened that did have a lot to do with class along the way). But I was still sheltered from the much broader differences of a wider world, and actually was racist and classist in ways I didn't yet have personal experience of. I thought my "good" tastes were natural and objective, which they weren't, and that's a problem I'm still working out. I'm using as a case study and vantage point my more recent distaste for Celine Dion - who has a mindfuckingly mixed-up class and ethnic position as a white non-anglo-american semi-R&B; ballad singer. (As I've said, the fact that Merritt's gaffe was about Celine was exemplary, not trivial.) When we call ourselves "open-minded," what are we letting pass in one ear and out the other?

Tastes always involve such stories, is my argument. It's fascinating that this fight has happened about Merritt's taste, because he explicitly said in that panel that he didn't believe that musical taste was related to identity - he was responding to Drew's stories about what his "straight" punk teenage life in Kentucky had to do with being queer. Merritt (who's also gay, of course) said he'd always listened to all kinds of music (hmm, what was his "except"?) and did not see how it accounted for anything. And yet elsewhere in the panel he was talking about how he'd been exposed to Brecht and Weill by his folkie mom growing up, and acknowledged its influence. If there's ever been anyone whose whole public persona, musically and nonmusically, seems like he was taken to Bertolt Brecht operas as a kid, it sure is Stephin Merritt - and that also accounts for how one might value a song such as Zipadeedoodah. (Merritt's (non)-relationship to his hippie-folk-musician absent father is also a compelling subject, everything to do with my paper last year on "bandonyms" and the singer-songwriter, but I'll save that for a later post. For now...)

I often quote Townes Van Zandt, who said there were only two kinds of music, "the blues and Zipadeedoodah." Townes was a (country-)rockist, so he said he liked the blues; Merritt is a Brechtian ironist down to his bones, so he says he prefers Zipadeedoodah while very well knowing its ties to a racist narrative, because he automatically reads it ironically. He also likes disco, while hip-hop, a more blues-lineage music, has never surfaced in all his genre pastiches, to my knowledge. (Totally unconfirmed untrue report of upcoming collaboration with Snoop Dogg notwithstanding.) Not that the blues and hip-hop aren't full of ironic levels, and Merritt appreciates and to some degree uses them, but his whole project is to queer them into other sorts of ironies, ones to which I happen to respond strongly (i.e., there's nothing happenstance about it). Nothing racist about that, except that it takes advantage of a structural societal racism that gives him (us) the privilege of putting his (our) attentions elsewhere. As Angela says in My So-Called Life, "How come he gets to be the one with other things on his mind?" What are the ethics/politics of having other things on your mind? (Put another way: How much responsibility do we bear for the circumstances of our birth?)

Specifically what is assumed in a reflexively ironic relationship to music, and by extension to your subjectivity, and what does it exclude? For one thing it might assume that you have easy access to a legitimized subjectivity, that it is not something you are still working to claim, but something you are free to discard or disavow. And thereby bypass genres and artists and people for whom constructing and claiming a subject position - and escaping an objectified one - is still a priority. This came up in the discussion period regarding catharsis - Merritt had asserted that catharsis in art is "embarrassing." ("Always?" asked Ann Powers. "Yes. No. Yes and no," said Merritt.) Someone in the crowd pointed out that achieving catharsis in soul and gospel, for instance, is quite the opposite - it's something to be celebrated. (Consider Celine's awkward straddling of these two sets of expectations.) Does it matter, does it help, that Merritt foregrounds his whiteness, and his ironic relationship to it, in his music, as opposed to all the white-boy-blues-rockers who try to sidestep it or wish it away...?

Merritt had as many insights about aesthetic issues as anyone else at EMP, and I think nearly everyone's tastes closely examined would betray similar sets of blinders and backstories. Perhaps because he's quite defensive, and less used to being in this sort of setting, what he was unwilling to cop to was more conspicuous. But for a conference about "guilty pleasures," it seemed, with important exceptions, that there was more of a collective will to discuss pleasure than to take a hard look at guilt (and/or shame). Every pleasure has an ethical ambiguity, a responsibility suspended or elided; there's no such thing as pleasure without complication or consequence, what Erica Jong called "a zipless fuck" and Walt Disney called zipadeedoodah. The fact that the only one whose guilt really ended up on trial was Stephin Merritt seems like a very convenient sort of catharsis - the subset known as scapegoating.

PS: Hear pieces from Merritt's new album, Showtunes - highlights from his semi-Chinese-opera collaborations with director Chen Shi-Zheng - here.

PPS: Years ago, pre-69 Love Songs, I was vociferously arguing in print that mainstream pop singers (with conventionally good voices) ought to be picking up Magnetic Fields songs to cover. That sounds a bit naive in retrospect, but it's gradually coming true: First, there was Peter Gabriel's cover of Book of Love for the soundtrack of the Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shall We Dance?, and now upcoming is apparently a take on When My Boy Walks Down the Street by Ashlee Simpson. For extra credit, guess what the reaction's gonna be.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 02 at 03:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson