by carl wilson

December 22, 2006

Tall Ships Made of Snow, Invading the Sun

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"Ice sailing, Toronto Harbour, 1912," by John Boyd, Archives of Ontario.

In today's final episode of the Slate Music Club, I go ultrapatriotic and try to introduce U.S. readers to Destroyer, Final Fantasy, Laura Barrett and Blocks Recording Club, while also making encomiums to Matmos and Howe Gelb, and sniping a bit at Nickleback, Dylan and Girl Talk. (Main regret: How did I get through that whole series without ever mocking the Decemberists?) I know it's the start of the holiday weekend, but keep an eye peeled for Ann Powers' final installment later today, in which she tries to respond to some of the rockist hateration we've received from Slate readers in "The Fray" - relevant for anyone who's been following this thread in the Zoilus comments.

Aside from that, later I'll post use the player below to hear the 1998 Giant Sand Xmas song that Gelb played at the show here last week, Christmas Everyday (Maybe It'll Help), and I'm on my way out to make sure my family doesn't get stuck with, like, nectarines for Xmas. Have a happy one if you're celebrating it (and if you're not too), and we'll catch you back here after Boxing Day.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 22 at 12:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)

 

December 20, 2006

Year-End Clearance: Top 20 Albums + Singles

Okay, it's official: The music blog world's year-end rituals have burst the bounds of rational exchange and have become a full-on listmaking orgy. For that reason, I am going to do this with minimal fuss & exchew illustration and justification.

Zolius: Top 20 Albums of 2006

Not likely to surprise regular readers very much (with a few exceptions), what follows are the albums that captured my attention most strongly or longest in 2006. How they overlap with what is according to some cosmic metric "best" or "most important" is a matter of conjecture. Dozens of others bubble beneath the no. 20 mark (from Howe Gelb to Kode9 & the SpaceApe to Agalloch to Eric Chenaux to Bob Dylan to Charlotte Gainsbourg to Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa's Raw Materials) and thousands of others I never got to hear.

1. Joanna Newsom, Ys
2. Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast
3. Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies
4. Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar
5. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
6. The Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
7. Xiu Xiu, The Air Force
8. Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds
9. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
10. Anthony Braxton/Wolf Eyes, Black Vomit
11. Junior Boys, So This is Goodbye
12. The Mountain Goats, Get Lonely
13. Richard Buckner, Meadow
14. Scott Walker, The Drift
15. Matthew Shipp, One
16. Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor
17. Beyonce, B'Day
18. Lily Allen, Alright, Still
19. Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac
20. Tom Ze, Estudando o Pagode

Zoilus: Singles of '06

Using the old-fashioned definition of "single," plus a few allowances for MySpace, iTunes and YouTube, here in no strict order are some of the tracks that I bobbed, strolled, danced, shouted, laughed, sighed and (in the case of the first, my genuine no. 1) cried to in 2006. As for favourites songs? That's just beyond my ability to calibrate at this point. They shuffled a lot in this most changeable of changeable years.

The Mountain Goats, Woke Up New; Beyonce, Irreplaceable; Lupe Fiasco, Kick, Push; Prince, Black Sweat; Willie Nelson, Cowboys Are Secretly, Frequently (Fond of Each Other); Ne-Yo, So Sick; Clipse, Ride Around Shining; Lily Allen, Alfie; Simon Bookish, Terry Riley Disco; La Plage, Coupe de Boule (Zidane); Justin Timberlake feat. T.I., My Love; Lil Wayne, Georgia ... Bush; Cansei de Ser Sexy, Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above; Christina Aguilera, Ain't No Other Man; Cham, Ghetto Story; Ghostface Killah, Shakey Dog; Gary Allen, Life Ain't Always Beautiful; The Raconteurs, Steady as She Goes; Nelly Furtado feat Timbaland, Promiscuous; Neil Young, Let's Impeach the President.

Elsewhere, some online 2006 mixes you should hear: Sean's always-indispensable best-songs list; Marathonpacks' four-volume year-ender; and Paper Thin Walls' collective mixes, which notably includes T-dotopian songstress Laura Barrett's Robot Ponies (and a little interview between her & Douglas Wolk about the song). I feel like I have to count Laura's EP as a 2005 release, but if I hadn't, it would be on my list too. As it is, her 2007 release on Ta-Da! is atop my roster of anticipated records for 2007.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 20 at 7:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Champagne for my Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends

My latest post in the Slate end-of-2006 Music Club is up now. Amusingly, in the selfsame moment that the group of critics is all raising a glass of bubbly and singing, "ding-dong, rockism's dead," the posters in Slate's "The Fray" reader's forum are doing their damndest to prove us wrong by attacking us for discussing pop: "This is the place where the reviewer tries to compensate for his lack of taste and failure to keep up with music culture by waxing poetic about the merits of Timberlake and Nelly, not where we talk about actual music (as in art rather than manufactured entertainment) or artists who write their own songs."

For those whose poptimistic patience is limited, though, my post today actually does talk a lot about non-pop - it gets into country, metal, the Mountain Goats, jazz, breakcore and noise. And my final post, out tomorrow or Friday, will probably talk mostly about Canada.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 20 at 1:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (22)

 

December 19, 2006

I Ain't Got 'Snobody

Today in The Globe and Mail, I have a review of Sunday night's show by Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) and his Ottawa-based 'Sno Angel project, which features the Voices of Praise gospel choir. Here's a video of the group performing in Manchester earlier this year:

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 19 at 4:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

December 18, 2006

Wiping the (Floor with My Adversaries at) Slate!

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The Clipse: Consensus picks of the Slate '06 crew.

As forecast, the Slate Music Club - feat. Jody Rosen, Jon Caramanica, Ann Powers and me - begins its annual general meeting today. So far Jody's discussed the "slow-motion collapse of the record business" in 2006, as well as country music and "Morrissey-goes-mall-rat" bands like Panic! at the Disco, while Jon's lauded the Clipse and My Chemical Romance. We've all tacitly agreed not to discuss Gnarls Barkley (will our defences hold?). My first post is up next.

(4 pm: Ah. There it is.)

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 18 at 12:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

December 16, 2006

Masters of their Domains

There's a nice piece in The Globe today about my friends Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis's apartment gallery (where I gave my "Make Your Own Bad Band" talk-shop) and other examples of in-home art spaces created in Toronto, private spaces turned into hybrid public ones. I like the way that Brian and Emily talk about their year-long experiment - that it's not as much for its own sake as to help provide a model that other people might take up.

As a toast to them, I offer the following celebration of domesticity, a 1960s Scopitone of an answer song to Roger Miller's hit King of the Road, by Jody Miller (no relation so far as I know). I've been in a video-posting mood lately (is it the holidays?) and this is, as my friend Matt said when he pointed it out, the best video ever.

| Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 16 at 6:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

December 14, 2006

T-Dot Thrillz: Make Out With Tomboyfriend Tonight

A quick but fervent reminder that tonight is the one-and-only performance of The December Show: Big in Afghanistan, the sequel to 2004's fondly recollected The November Show choreographed by Margaux Williamson with music by Ryan Kamstra, now reincarnated by Margaux Williamson with Ryan Kamstra's band Tomboyfriend, whose Wavelength debut last month was much discussed on this here blog. It's described as "a fun, poetic, ghoulish, plotless little rock show that flies like the Bob Hope Show in reverse."

A rough video preview of one of the numbers, in unplugged form, below. (Patience - it takes 30 seconds or so to get going.) It's at Buddies in Bad Times at 9 pm, $8; Ulysses Castellanos, whom you might know from his heavy-metal "ghost of Yorkville" street performance during Nuit Blanche, opens.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 14 at 3:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

We Apologize for Any Inconvenience

I realized just today that some of you might have been checking Slate all week for that end-of-year roundtable I mentioned. It's actually been bumped to next week - sorry for the late notice.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 14 at 2:46 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

December 12, 2006

'Dark Things Will Happen to Them Anyway'

Stephen Merritt on an Atlanta morning show last month, promoting the Lemony Snicket tie-in album, and not exactly happy to be there:

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 12 at 5:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Musicking: Sciatic Skronk and Complaints Choirs

When I talk about participatory musical culture, the easiest example to bring up is the church or community choir. At the State of the Arts launch a few weeks ago, it came up that one of the fanciest high-end instrument stores in Toronto was originally founded to supply equipment to ethnic church-basement bands and choirs downtown, of which there were hundreds in the much-smaller city at the time. An amateur choir looks like one of the most pleasurable hobbies you could have, but there aren't many comfortable choices for a younger music lover. There are serious-as-hell classical choirs which require a level of skill and work to achieve results beyond what many hobbyists can muster. And then there are church choirs, which leave out the seculars, and cornpone nostalgia choirs. Given those options, no wonder more people are likely to start just-for-fun garage bands - but those are usually just clumps of friends, not anything big enough to connect you to a wider circle. One of my favourite things about The Hidden Cameras early on was their deliberate evocation of church folk choirs, though they've now moved away from that source in sound and concept. From time to time some other artist will use elements, such as Howe Gelb's recent collaboration with a gospel choir (with whom he'll be in Toronto this Sunday) on his excellent 2006 disc 'Sno Angel Like You. But the amateur-society choir still could use a makeover for the 21st century.

Here are two twists on choral cliches that I've run across in the past week. One is an unusual seniors' choir called the Young @ Heart Chorus in which you'll see oldsters taking on unexpected repertoire such as Radiohead or, in the below clip, Sonic Youth - which must be comforting to the aging members of SY, that rest homes across the land are being made ready for their eventual arrival. The style reminds me a bit of its opposite, the Langley-style elementary-school pop-music choir. Except rather less energetic. Or polished.

Another has been circulating on the 'net for a while and was covered in this recent Guardian story: The phenom of "complaints choirs," which began as an art project in Helsinki and has been emulated (or is in the works) in other cities around the world. Hearing mundane kvetching about civic inconveniences ("the employment agency only needs Java programmers ... tramline three smells of pee") in four-part harmony is amusing, as witness the Finnish original below, but it also immediately suggests potential variations: A choir could substitute for the community newspaper and sing about local bylaws and zoning variances; academics could found a Critical Choir that would harmonize on genealogies of micropolitics and close readings of Mary Shelley; fans of Lost could get together and set their FAQs about confusing plot twists to music; indie-rock kids could chorus about how they disliked the Shins back before disliking the Shins was cool...

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 12 at 3:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

December 8, 2006

Hey, Big Blender, Blend a Little Time with Me

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I've neglected to mention that I'm writing occasional reviews for that bête noir of the rockcrit biz, Blender. Their snarky list-features & such aren't always my thing, but they've got an A-list crew back in the disc review section, with writers such as Douglas Wolk, Erik Davis, Chuck Eddy, etc. Since they keep all the reviews in their online archives, you can catch up on my extramural activities: Here are my Blenderized takes on Ratatat's Classics, Beck's The Information (probably wisely, they nixed my first draft's lengthier conspiracy theory about the album as a Scientology coming-out party), and Toronto's own Tokyo Police Club.

PS: In other capsule-review news, Christgau's Consumer Guide is back (yay!) on MSN (sigh), now with hotlinks (ooh). High score: Dylan (yawn). Highlight: A defence of OutKast's Idlewild (hmm!).

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 08 at 12:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

December 7, 2006

Slated and Enchanted
(Plus: Greil & the Ubu Grail)

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David Thomas of Pere Ubu at a festival in Moers, Germany, in 2005. Photo © Jorg Kruger.

Pardon the silence; I'm busy chatterboxing it up in the other room, exchanging opinions on the state of music 2006 with my fellow roundtablers in the Slate Music Club. I was tickled to get the invite from my confrere Jody Rosen, Slate's lead music critic, and incredibly chuffed to be in the company of Ann Powers (critic for the L.A. Times, formerly with the NY Times, co-organizer of the Pop Conference, author of Weird Like Us and occasional blogger) and Jon Caramanica (Vibe music editor, more active blogger and frequent contributor to the NY Times and various magazines).

I'm also a big fan of the online pen-pal roundtable format, which Slate is adapting from its popular year-end "Movie Club" discussions. So much so that I think I might organize some similar back-and-forths on Zoilus in 2007. But this particular discussion will begin appearing in Slate early next week, probably Monday. (It won't include my actual best-of-the-year list, which will be a Zoilus exclusive, darlings.)

While I'm preoccupied, those interested in blogfights should go Dave Morris's summation in Eye on ReviewMeGate. And in the same venue, there's also Brian Joseph Davis's pithy review of the new Greil Marcus joint, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice*, which I just finished reading myself. People are rightfully leery of Marcus these days, but this one, in an oblique way his book for the Patriot Act era, is his best in ages, probably since Lipstick Traces, with terrific chapters on Philip Roth and David Lynch - his Twin Peaks thesis, about Laura Palmer as a lost member of Bikini Kill, is just one of the inspired leaps. And I'm compelled by his thesis/tone-poem about the persistence of an imaginary America that's constantly being betrayed yet defined by that very betrayal, bound at once to the highest democractic ideals and to the freedom, even obligation, to casually murder whatever stands in your way - and the way American art invokes this shadow America in the mode of prophecy.

But Brian's right that the chapter on David Thomas of Pere Ubu, which structurally is supposed to be the climax, is a letdown. I've concluded that it's near impossible to write well about Pere Ubu because David Thomas (who was a critic before he was a performer, remember) has already done all the criticism for you - while he does it in his own inverted-mirror language, he's outlined his themes and theories, narrated the definitive history of the band, and explained the principles behind every bit of Ubu's methodology. He even provides the cultural-studies material, explicitly connecting his work to the history of American transcendentalism (in Thomas's version of Moby Dick, he is both Ahab and the whale), film noir, folk music, the Beach Boys, MC5, 1960s TV horror showcase hosts and the geography of sound.

This leaves the would-be Ubu critic two options: Either come at it from an entirely contrary, non-David-Thomas endorsed angle, which would be difficult for Marcus because his motivation to write about Ubu is all of the same stuff Thomas talks about (and to be fair, Thomas also has acknowledged the influence of Marcus's Mystery Train on his own thinking); or do original biographical research and try to find personal material of the kind Thomas refuses to disclose, which would be (a) tough to do; (b) invasive for no clear purpose; and (c) not Marcus's strong suit. (I'd love to read a Peter Guralnick book about Pere Ubu. But that's never gonna happen.) So what Marcus does is do a fine job of recycling all the already available material within his own framework, and telling a few nice stories, but it doesn't have the kinetic juice, the thrill of discovery, of the rest of the book.

Moral of this parable: Aspiring cult artists, if you're looking for a model of how to control exactly how you go down in history, follow David Thomas: What you do is use a cryptic-sounding, larger-than-life language, frequently repeat "it's your job to interpret the stuff - my job is only to make it, and I am better at my job than you are at yours," and then proceed to point by point explain every single thing about what you are doing, and document your explanations exhaustively on the Internet. Diabolic brilliance. (And by the way, while he might say otherwise, Thomas didn't just start this strategy later in life in response to being widely misunderstood. He was airing his manifestos in interviews from the very beginning.) The downside is that if you follow it, it means there will never be a good book written about you in your lifetime. Besides Marcus, excellent critics like Jon Savage and Simon Reynolds have fallen at this hurdle. (Clinton Heylin did better by just compiling oral history, but it's not criticism.)

* I'm on the hunt for better places to link for books and music than Amazon or Indigo: I'd love to find a Canadian store or two that is independent, has a deep catalogue, and takes orders online. A Canadian version of Powells, for instance. Is there such a thing? I'm guessing no.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 07 at 5:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

December 6, 2006

Conference of the Nerds

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A bit late, but good to see The New York Times catching up on one of the most interesting niche-corner musical developments of the year: The jazz-blog massive's amazing group effort over the summer, led by Dave Douglas and Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus to correct the jazz historical record, by creating its own canon of significant jazz albums released from 1973 to 1989 - basically a period that typical jazz talk has shoved off the map as some sort of barren and benighted age. You can read the full list here. (Or in wiki form here.) It's by no means definitive (for instance, as someone notes in the comments, the disc shown above, one of my favourite jazz albums ever, is missing). But it provides most of the signposts needed to decode what the hell happened in this supposed Jazz Dark Ages - and a nice reminder of what blogs collectively can accomplish when they're not just snarking at (or ignoring) one another.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 06 at 5:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Hock the Bells

The Cybercrib offers a glum report on last night's "Rock the Bells" show in Toronto, hyped as including EPMD, Redman, Raekwon, Smif-N-Wessun, Supernatural and DJ Kool - only half of whom were actually there. And that was just the start of the trouble. The review of this fiasco ought to be reproduced as a "what not to do" case in the promoter's handbook. If only there were a promoter's handbook.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 06 at 4:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

December 5, 2006

Revivalists Dance the Mutation

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I've neglected (except in the gig guide) to share the news with you all that beyond-legendary Hamilton, Ont., band Simply Saucer is having its first reunion gig ever, 27 years after the band broke up, and a full 30 years since it recorded its sole album, Cyborgs Revisited, a set of demos and live recordings the band never released during its existence. The news has broken elsewhere now that Saucer will be playing the Casbah in Hamilton on Dec. 28. I'm a bit ambivalent about the news: Very much like Rocket from the Tombs (probably the band in the world most similar to Saucer in both sound and stature), or the Beach Boys' original Smile, Simply Saucer is a group whose essence in some ways is that barely anyone ever saw them, their recordings were unavailable for decades, and those bootlegs that existed seemed like only a hint of the full hulking body of strangeness that was the thing itself. When such a group reunites (or such an album is re-recorded), a closely related facsimile comes to stand in the way of the original enigma. When a ghost story is made real, some larger cultural reality is erased; it seems unfaithful to the specificity of time and place. What's more, as with Rocket from the Tombs, the new Saucer is only partly the original band - inevitably in these cases, some members either can't or won't participate, so you get substitutions, which again distort the picture.

But then when the reunion actually happens, sometimes the portion of reality it is able to capture is so powerful in itself that these quibbles fade. Mission of Burma, who put out one of the best rock records of this year, are probably the supreme example. But Rocket from the Tombs are an extraordinary thing live, too - it is as if the bodies of these aging men, David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), Cheetah Chrome (of the Dead Boys), Craig Bell and the rest, are supernaturally possessed by the spirits of their teenage selves. The garbled fury and cultural cross-signals that enabled them to cross an unseen threshold to a previously undreamt-of sound, all of that becomes present and manifest, and in the strangest way the most obvious and right response to the puzzle of their own existence, in a manner you just can't get from decades-old recordings. (And we'll see what happens when the promised new RftT album is completed.)

So two cheers for the Saucer reunion, and you can bet I won't miss it.

In celebration, I'm posting a Globe and Mail column I wrote about Simply Saucer three years ago, when Cyborgs was first reissued on CD (which includes the phrase "Simply Saucer, wisely, has never reformed..."). It's a pretty good one, if I say so myself - having been a kid in the same chunk of Ontario when Saucer was busy burning out its roman candles, the subject goes to my gut. Er, Torontonians will have to pardon the not-quite-warranted optimism in there about the then-new Distillery District. It's after the jump, here. Hope you enjoy.



Vomiting up prophetic punk in Hamilton

SCENE
CARL WILSON
22 May 2003
The Globe and Mail

The scenario is hard to imagine: A hot Saturday afternoon in June, 1975, with shoppers coming out of the Jackson Square mall in Hamilton holding paper bags of polyester pants and living-room-yoga sweats. Over their heads, on the roof, stood a quartet of young men looking like any other gang of jean-jacketed greasers wandering the downtown alleys, but pounding guitars to cosmic death, with outer-space effects from a crude synthesizer, and singing about Hitler's love for Eva Braun: "Ah-hah, ah-hah, I'm cyanide over you."

The band was Simply Saucer, already two years into its Syd-Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground-inspired trip to the dead ends of rock'n'roll and sounding like nobody else in Canada, almost nobody in the world. And the roof of Jackson Square was the greatest height to which they would ever aspire.

As the story is told in long-time supporter Bruce Mowat's liner notes to Sonic Unyon Records' new reissue of Saucer's Cyborgs Revisited, the band led by singer Edgar Breau endured from 1973 to 1979 in a Hamilton that barely acknowledged its existence and a Canadian music industry that actively feared and loathed it.

Punk rock in the later 1970s only confused matters - the group cut its hair and hired Teenage Head guitarist Sparky Park, got a couple of opening-slot gigs in Toronto (notably for Pere Ubu, by all reports blowing the fearsome Cleveland avant-garage band off the Horseshoe stage), and released the only record of its lifetime, the 1978 single She's a Dog. But the band didn't really fit in with punk, either, and was too old to care; a year later, the mothership self-destructed.

It was another decade before Mowat managed to get the songs SS recorded on that rooftop and at the studio of Hamilton boys Daniel and Bob Lanois out on vinyl, feeding a legend that had already, by some channel no one can explain, circulated among unpleasant-rock-noise fanciers around the world. But Cyborgs Revisited, now embellished with outtakes from the band's later years, is pretty obviously one of the best Canadian albums ever.

Like a handful of other bands in Cleveland, New York, Detroit and Munich, Simply Saucer drew together the wisps and wraiths of proto-punk from the sixties. Against 1970s rock machismo and folk-rock sanctimonies, they vomited up a prophetic blend of Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Brian Eno-era Roxy Music, psychedelia and late-adolescent rec-room nihilism, which a quarter-century later still smacks the ear like a squawling newborn with a slight case of demonic possession.

Each band that stumbled on this mix did it in absolute isolation, and yet they sound remarkably alike, the same string-snapping Planet of the Apes guitar chords and embryonic Moog technology underlying similar B-movie poetry and premature millennial panic. ("In the future," Breau tells the crowd on one of the live recordings, "unless you have a metal body, they're not gonna allow you to walk the streets. No kidding.")

Hamilton may have seemed an unlikely wellspring for the songs of a future that was not to be, but so did Cleveland, which eventually had a half-dozen such bands, locked in an incestuous, cannibalistic cluster that nearly made up a scene. These armpits were the only places this music possibly could come from. If the groups had anything in common, they were middle-class delinquents, petty thugs making music because they were nerds at heart, Bigfoot fans and conspiracy-theory bookworms not quite up for actual crime.

I was just 9 when these songs were recorded, but the ambience sounds familiar immediately: Anyone who grew up near the shores of the Great Lakes, where the filthy factories already looked like relics but the info-age commerce to replace them was yet undreamt, would recognize the miasmic stink of despair and dispossession and, its impulsive opposite, the nervous rush of groundless optimism: "We're gonna dance the mutation!" Breau proclaims in one song, in his best Lou Reed-as-hoser drawl. Beauty, eh? Beauty, yeah, in spite of everything.

After the split (and amid struggles with heroin and other elixirs of escape), several Saucer members went on to other groups. Breau plays acoustic-based music now, and on Wednesday he makes his first appearance at the Horseshoe in Toronto since that infamous 1978 gig. But Simply Saucer, wisely, has never reformed, its sound rusted in place like an old silo full of lug nuts and broken gears, solitary as Frankenstein's monster, towering over a wasteland that's long gone.

Most of the real landmarks of the industrial era were torn down, paved, painted over in pastels, but not all. In Toronto, the exciting exception is the distillery complex on the east side, buildings lately rescued by developers as a centre for arts groups. This week's Distillery Jazz Festival, which begins today and runs through June 1, offers the Toronto public its first chance to wander through the rummy caverns of the former Gooderham & Worts, while listening to dozens of the city's most unruly ensembles playing every variety of jazz - music that is itself a knotty little industrial-age holdover.

I confess that the most romantic part of me wishes the distillery still churned out hard liquor, or went on standing deserted, an empty repository for anxieties and wishes real architecture never allows. A city needs its blank spots, back roads, ghosts. But the rest of me has never been more thrilled. If it is creatively run, not overly prettified or tamed, the distillery district can not only make Toronto a richer place, but refute our cultural amnesias, showing that decrepitude isn't ugly, there are no dead ends, and obscurity is only what we've forgotten or don't yet know.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 05 at 6:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Rare Crate Digger's Classic: Wanda & the Cupcakes

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Last weekend, as previously announced, I did a talk and workshop at the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1, around the bend and across the street from me in beautiful downtown Parkdale.

The game was this: I talked for about 10 minutes about participatory culture and Toronto's notorious "Bad Bands" - offering the Barcelona Pavilion, who were playing after me, as the original Bad Band - and then told the audience that they were all going to experience this for themselves, as they were about to become a bad band. Borrowing a leaf from local Bad Band, Dollarama, I brought out a table full of $1 musical instruments - pie plates, toy tambourines, noise makers, baby rattles, and a few ringer instruments (a Casio keyboard, a toy saxophone, a melodica) that I borrowed from friends. We got three volunteers to be the lead singers. Everyone had been asked to make up a band name and write it on a slip of paper, and we drew one at random - it turned out to be Wanda & the Cupcakes. Which made the next part tricky, as the next step was to derive a "band concept" from the name. The rules were: 1. All songs are about cupcakes. 2. Everyone in the band is named Wanda. 3. Vocals at all times. (Except perhaps for No. 3, these are exceedingly unpromising band concepts.) I broke the crowd down into smaller groups to write lyrics in about five minutes. Then we came back together, "rehearsed" and then "performed" the resulting "song," managing immediately to violate all of our rules.

If nothing else, it demonstrated that being a Bad Band is perhaps not as easy as it looks. After the performance, I asked Barcelona Pavilion to serve as the critics (deliberately messing with the roles of audience/performer/listener/critic in the participatory-aesthetics spirit), and they proceeded to denounce the exercise in stern ideological terms. Then they played and we drank.

Overall the event would be kindly termed an "interesting failure," I think. I hope the majority of people had fun. At the least, it was good experience for me in leading group activities, which I have not done since I taught summer camp or tried to direct plays, all of which was a very long time ago. I'd like to do more of it, even though the whole terrifying effort causes my soul to leave my body and not return for a couple of days.

You can listen to the results via CCL1 co-proprieter Brian Joseph Davis's downloads page: Here is the rehearsal and here the performance. Each take has different virtues. But in either case they are few. In case you feel the impulse to sing along, which is doubtful, below are the lyrics.

Lisa Foad is My Hotrod

She's half Jewish, half gentile
And the gentile has prevailed
She grabs a matchbook,
Drops to her knees
This is a girl who clearly never sleeps

(Chorus) Photographic naturalism
I'm out of it as a guy
Lisa Foad is my hotrod
Not even in the case of Jasper Johns
Aaaaannnnd she wears glasses

Cupcakes are my wolfsbane
And honey, I'm a wolf
But everybody wants something
They will never give up
They will analyze
You are so pretty

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 05 at 5:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (20)

 

December 4, 2006

For Those Who Watch the Mountain Goats
Like a Soap Opera

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Rachel Ware and John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats, at Pitzer College on Saturday.
Photo © Chris Bellew, 2006.

Many Short Posts Day continues. I couldn't let this event pass without being noted: This weekend at his alma mater Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., John Darnielle aka The Mountain Goats did a semi-secret surprise show in the Gold Student Center, with a couple hundred people in attendance. The setlist was pretty extraordinary, ranging across the whole Mtn Goats history - he opened with I've Got the Sex and encored with one of my most beloved never-recorded Goats songs, My Favorite Things. (I can't resist quoting the lyrics: "Champagne bubbled up through the neck of the bottle/ Sweet sounds came out from the radio/ It was John Collll-trane/ Goddammit!/ I love John Coltrane!/ You danced across the living-room floor/ You kissed me once and then you kissed me some more/ You had your arms around my neck and it felt real fine/ And then your ankle knocked up against mine/ And resonated in my bones/ Like the precise crisp drumming of Mr. Elvin Jones/ Goddammit! I love John Coltrane!")

The newsworthy part is that for six songs in the set, he was joined by ex-Mountain Goat (and ex-cetera) Rachel Ware - the former Peter Hughes, if you will. As far as I know, Darnielle and Ware haven't played together in public anywhere since 1995, so it's heartwarming to hear of the reunion. He reportedly said that he'd like to make the homecoming show an annual event to the gathered students and fans, who then ran home to get bootlegs up on the Internet.

PS: John D. picks a fistful of albums on the theme of "escapism" on Emusic.

PPS: Later, the same person who took the above photo put some videos of the show up on YouTube. They are a blast to watch.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 04 at 8:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Top Tens (& a Record that Won't Make Them)

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I had a lengthy list of subjects to get to today, and the sun goes down before I've half cracked it.

Frank Chromewaves, on the other hand, the blogscape's leading early riser, beats the rooster to the crowing once again, by posting his 2006 top 10 list before December's even showered or brushed its teeth. Happy to see Neko Case on there, and I had just put aside those Land of Talk and Early Day Miners cd's last night for a revisitation. Extra points for nifty baseball-card graphics of his picks.

Via an ad on Frank's site, I just learned that there's a new Residents album, with the aptly repulsive name of Tweedles, and even more repulsive cover art (see above). Someday, when the judge asks my mom, "How did this boy go so wrong?", part of the answer will be, "He was exposed to the Residents at a dangerously impressionable age." MuchMusic used to run Residents videos in its early days, presumably just because in the mid-80s there weren't enough normal pop videos available to run. (Some of those videos are now in the collection of the MoMA.)

Jandek gets a lot of play for his supposed anonymity, but we actually know a lot more about him than we do about the Residents, who may or may not be the same Residents who began their unsentimental journey more than 30 years ago. Most of the Residents music of the last decade or so that I've heard hasn't been especially compelling, but I will always stump for their '70s and '80s sounds and vision - the ethnografaux Eskimo, the mash-ups-avant-le-lettre of Third Reich'n'Roll, the one-minute-ditties of The Commercial Album, and on and on. The backstory of the new one, if remotely true, is intriguing: A rich fan in Romania flew them over to record in his studio, and they incorporated local street musicians, a travelling circus, and the Film Orchestra of Bucharest into the proceedings - which concern a sexually predatory clown, as the album graphic hints.

I am banally amused to discover there is a Residents MySpace. Banally, because I shouldn't be surprised. For a group that proceeds artistically about as uncommercially as possible, they've never missed any means to make a buck.

Here's the video that especially brainsmacked me in adolescence: Hello, Skinny.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 04 at 5:06 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Salut Hello: Getting the Montreal Story Right

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Call Me Poupeé in a tableau typique de domestique de Montréal.

An article that should have been written a year ago, but finally appeared in The Globe this weekend: Chris Frey's bang-on piece on the francophone side of the ballyhooed Montreal music scene - and the fact that the most significant thing about that scene is that there no longer really are francophone and anglophone sides. The same thing was dramatically in evidence to me at Pop Montreal this fall, and is the single greatest shift I've seen in Montreal music culture since I first lived there long ago (in the Og Records era, which Chris's piece, perhaps alone among all the Montreal-scene articles of the past couple of years, pays its due). That breakdown of the lingo divide is clearly part of the reason why Malajube was able to become the first French-Canadian rock band to gain significant attention outside the province in a long while, particularly without singing in English. Chris's article will introduce you to some other artists worth your time who are rockin' en francais. My only complaint would be that he doesn't mention the very significant electronic and experimental scenes in Montreal, which breached les barricades linguistique first, and still tend to a higher average quality than the majority of Montreal rock (although they haven't been all that attention-grabbing in 2006).

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 04 at 2:48 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Guest Post: Opportunities
(Let's Make Lots of Money)

Zoilus assistant Chris Randle weighs in on some topics growing out of last week's uTOpia 2: State of the Arts launch and discussions. (The opinions below are his; not all of them are mine.) I'll be back later this afternoon with posts on various and sundry - CW.

I was also at the uTOpia launch on Sunday, though I sadly missed most of Carl's panel. The scope and excitement of the discussions were obvious, though, and one running theme that particularly struck me was the dilemma of arts funding. Standing outside, I jokingly floated a dating service to pair starving artists up with rich would-be bohemians; put Harper's income-splitting plan to good use! As Carl already noted and expanded upon, moderator Misha made fine points about how we could act as patrons instead of a mere audience. A consistent undercurrent in uTOpia II is the flowering of participatory culture, where everyone is neither consumer nor owner but stakeholder. That can take as ambitious a form as Blocks or the simple above-and-beyond support of a beloved artist. I don't exactly have the expertise to sketch it out on a blog-post napkin, but surely it'd be possible to start a network to match up artists (or musicians, writers, filmmakers ...) with those willing to help them? A band member could leave her kid with a fan working from home; a director could film on a location provided by a sympathetic landowner. Or do Craigslist and Stillepost already allow that, piecemeal? That kind of grassroots support makes far more sense and seems far more helpful to local culture than government tax breaks for Hollywood movies or miserly grants that can't even pay a gallery's rent (for an elegantly low-key solution to that, read Natalie de Vito's uTOpia essay); but then, I think a lot of official aid for the arts has certain fundamental flaws.

The CRTC leaps to mind like an especially bloated toad. Have all those Canadian-content requirements on the airwaves done any good since CDs were a novelty? Most mainstream radio stations simply play what the biggest record companies offer up, like mold filling a crack in the wall, stuff EMI's and Universal's Canadian affiliates could shove onto the air anyway. It ain't Cadence Weapon who profits from that ossified environment; it's Massari and his exquisitely-sculpted facial hair. Before that vitriol pegs me as a card-carrying Conservative, let me explain. I was captivated by Kate Carraway's brilliant, mordant essay "The Secret Capitalist" in the new uTOpia, where she dissected the (for lack of a better tag) indie impulse towards lefty poverty and confessed her own weakness for sensible day jobs and bourgeois comfort even while yawning from last night's show at the office. I have a lot of sympathy for that. My ideal is to work not just as a writer but as a comics writer, and you might as well try and get rich with a dowsing rod, so the identification is more philosophical than one of lifestyle. I might not aspire to blast The Blow from my corner office, but I sure do have an interest in unconventionally individualist thinkers/economists like Robert Anton Wilson or Friedrich von Hayek.

One of the latter's central tenets seems germane to this discussion: that government regulation, control, etc. tends to be less efficient and more arbitrary than the invisible skeins of collective private organization. The Four Seasons Centre just went up, with the help of many millions of dollars in public funds. From where I'm sitting, the ballet and opera it's hosting are barely less niche than poetry or video art; but the former have the good fortune of rich and influential fans, not to mention the political benefit of being performed amidst grand architecture, and so get tons of cash as opposed to pennies. But why couldn't there be a central space for poetry in Toronto? Why couldn't a fraction of the $100-million-plus in Four Seasons funding have paid the mortgage on that? Or, hell, why not even give it all back so a guy has an extra ten bucks to buy some band's T-shirt at the next Wavelength? All these seem more attractive to me than the current approach of content regulations and rusted, sporadically gushing spigots.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 04 at 1:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

December 1, 2006

T-Dot Thrillz: This Weekend in the Rec Dept.

Two Zoilusian events going on this weekend: First the aforementioned Centre for Culture & Leisure event tonight at 8 pm sharp, where I am opening the set for Barcelona Pavilion. This will be an interactive "talkshop." If you're coming you're invited to bring "little instruments," as the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to say, i.e., toys and noisemaking junk. Some will be on hand but if you have them to bring, it would be a boost. (Be prepared to share.) It's going to be fun, I think, and even if I suck, Barcelona Pavilion will rule, so it's a no-lose proposition.

Second, I will be on a panel at the Power Plant on Sunday afternoon at 2 pm. Here's the dish:

Sunday 3 December, 2 pm
SUNDAY SCENE
Panel Discussion: "Uber-Cool at the Record Store"

Toronto's record stores knit together the city's music and artistic communities, functioning in a similar way to the artists' bars and nightclubs of 1980s Cologne. Globe and Mail music columnist and Zolius blogger Carl Wilson, Soundscapes record store buyer Jason Copplestone, and other notable guests give us an insider's look at concepts of community, collectivity and coolness at Toronto's record shops.

Does that claim about record stores (and, ugh, "coolness") seem as off-base to you as it does to me? Come and we'll twist it into some more usable tool. The event's had near zero publicity - I forgot about it myself till a few days ago! - so it'd be nice if you showed up to hang.

Sorry, that event's been cancelled.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 01 at 2:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Cap'n Jackin' Pop Will Get You High Tonight
(in the Statistical Rankings, That Is)

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As the Times reported yesterday, the newbie Idolator website has stepped up to offer an alternative to the Village Voice's long-running Pazz & Jop annual critics' poll, by creating the "Jackin' Pop" poll. The move comes in response to calls from many in the critical community - including me, both on this site and on the I Love Music online message boards (currently on hiatus) - for a boycott and replacement of P&J; since the Voice fired both the poll's creator, Robert Christgau, and its presiding spirit of recent years, Chuck Eddy, earlier this year. The Voice was for decades the hub of intellectually rigorous and musically wide-ranging pop criticism in North America. The new owners' move was explicitly to get rid of the intellect and the range, so to my mind they've forfeited the credibility to be the place critics collectively "meet" to assess the year past.

I do think that function's important, partly to perpetuate dialogue and partly for the historical record: The P&J; serves as the best marker of critical reception we've got: If you want to suss out the profile of a year in pop history, you look at the Billboard charts and the P&J; for that period and you've got the best quick time capsule you can crack. Sure, maybe in the future something like Metacritic will turn out to be the true substitute, but P&J; so far has had a bigger sample and a grittier, grainier texture, with all of the correlations to critics' individual ballots and their comments. And on the consumer side, I still know plenty of people who use it to pay catch-up on the previous year's releases. Music fans still like lists, and P&J; is the list of lists.

The initial talk of a boycott was met with predictable "it's not worth politicizing" complaints, but from a critic's point of view, there's also a straightforward professional issue: If you play along with two of the most respected and senior voices in the entire rock-crit field being treated this way, you send publication managers the message that you're a doormat. Freelance and staff writers get plenty of opportunity to show editors and publishers how little power we have on a daily basis - why reinforce that imbalance by volunteering to do unpaid work to help a writer-hostile publication put out one of its highest-profile and most prestigious products of the year? It just seemed blood-stupid.

I thought Pitchfork might be the ones to raise their hands, but on ILM they said that they considered it then decided to stick with their own staff poll, preserving the site's default insular quality (which isn't entirely a bad thing). I've been agnostic on Idolator so far in its few months' of existence - it's an entertaining site, with decent taste in music, but the quick-hits-and-gossip model inherited from its Gawker parent, plus mp3s, isn't exactly a direction I'd cheer as the future of music criticism. I really hoped that Paper Thin Walls would volunteer, as the place where Chuck Eddy and some of his stable of writers have migrated sinice the Voice firings, and one with a more essayistic bent. In general, it'd be more comforting if the new poll were happening in a venue with a bit more of an established berth, one that you could feel more sure would still be here next year.

Still, Idolator has started off right with a name paying tribute to the lame-o handle of the poll's predecessor, and Idolator made an especially savvy move by picking Michaelangelo Matos, the former music editor of Seattle Weekly and the text portion of Emusic, to oversee Jackin' Pop. Not only is Matos a total list-head who'll apply scrupulous, persnickety math to the exercise (which is a necessity), he's a widely respected writer (viz his super book in the 33 1/3 series on Prince's Sign o' the Times, among many other great pieces), and someone deeply embedded in the critical community. Unlike GW Bush, he really is a uniter. In fact, as a younger person with more of a dance-music background than Eddy or Xgau, he's likely to broaden the base of critics, to get more non-rock people, which may help make the ultimate results more varied and surprising - maybe Bob Dylan and the Hold Steady won't win after all. Many thanks to Matos, who has reportedly been banned from Village Voice Media/New Times, his former employer, for his troubles.

It remains to be seen how many critics participate - people from the daily newspapers and regional weeklies who don't get as involved in intramural discussions or dabble on the Internets. (Did Eddy take his contact list with him, and is he going to share?) The Voice has resolved to keep holding P&J;, so this year at least we'll have two versions to compare and contrast - all more grist for discussion, which is the true pleasure of these rigamaroles in the end. And maybe they'll convince Christgau to present his annual dean's address as part of the package, in his inimitable oft-convoluted but always insightful manner? Everyone bitches aout it, but I'll miss it if it's gone.

Speaking of lists, by the way, the new issue of Exclaim has their annual best-of list, one of the more comprehensive in Canada. And here it is December. Let the games begin.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 01 at 11:23 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson