by carl wilson

October 31, 2007

33 1/3'ing: Powells

I've neglected to mention that Powells Bookstore's website blog has been featuring a series of guest posts by authors of the 33 1/3 books. Haven't read them all yet but they're looking as varied and enjoyable as the books themselves. My guest post is coming up sometime in November.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 4:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Adult Alternative?

feist-live.png

A couple of days ago, in Pretty Goes With Pretty's latest take at trying to unearth what it really is that Sasha/me/Jess/everybody have been bitching about in re: blogrock, he brought it back around to an earlier post of his that I'd never seen about the transformation of indie-under-mini-maxi-rock into Adult Alternative, using the obvious case of Feist as an instance. This gets very near the nub of what I was suggesting in my Slate piece. Coincidentally, I also just received the following email from Steve Kado of Blocks Recording Club, with whom I've been writing back-and-forth about these issues the past week:

Steve says: "i'd argue that we do have words for what we're talking about there are actually even radio formats for most of it: 'adult alternative' 'college rock'. seriously: what else is 'the national' or 'the hold steady'? that is college rock, or alternatively: it's college rock for 30 year olds who never outgrew college. never mind that we might want to feel different about it (or someone might), that it's "more than that". the violent femmes, archetypal college rock are also "more than that" - they are a kind of canny and clever acoustic post-punk band, but what did that add up to? college rock.

"i think that the main problem is that ideas of 'taste' are actually trying to manipulate the vocabulary surrounding what are basically very standard categories - in part out of shame or a desire to be 'above' shame. or maybe more accurately: the pejorative associations that 'calling a spade a spade' would produce would render the products 'unmarketable' in part because it would highlight things about the intended and enthusiastic audience that would not help them warm to the product."

Both Steve's and PGWP's words bring me back around to the question that animates much of my book. It involves playing devil's advocate against my indie-and-class position from Slate, but: What is the nature of the stake so many of us have in disliking conventionally pretty music? In the book, talking about Celine, it's in the context of "adult contemporary" (formerly MOR, "middle-of-the-road" music). Here, it is "adult alternative." In both cases it's easy to label it as "dinner music." Well, what is wrong with having music to have dinner by? Mightn't that in fact be one of the times that you most need some music to listen to, music to which you can chat along or else sit and chew and sip your drink and listen contemplatively, but music that is not going to disrupt and upset your digestive system or your conviviality with your dinner companions?

Not saying that I don't feel my knee jerk hard against "dinner music" too, against its unsexiness or decontextualizedness (my biggest complaint against Feist and against New College Rock in general, symptomatic of global-economy cosmopolitanism, but even then, perhaps too absolutist a value), its supposed complacency etc. But it is a rather strange prejudice just to take for granted, no? And I think the parenthood question in PGWP's post is very germane here: Is the reluctance to say, "Okay, I like some Adult Alternative music," owing to some atavistic fear that we are approving music that our parents might also approve of? If so, how moronic is that?

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 3:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

'The Global Cipher'

While parsing the definition of "hater" is all jolly fun, it can be nice to look out beyond our blogospheric navels, so I recommend to you Jeff Chang's new feature about international hip-hop in, of all places, Foreign Policy magazine, along with an interview with a Shanghai hip-hop promoter.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 31 at 1:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

October 29, 2007

A Reality TV-style Challenge

Using this LimeWire post as your entry point, but being sure to read Jess Harvell's blistering Idolator screed and however much of the comments section you can stand, see how much music-blogorrhea you can ingest before you pass out. When you wake up, you will never want to use the Internet again.

John Darnielle's response calmed me down a bit, getting all historical-perspectivey. It is true that today's relentless Positive Energy is only the flip and decidedly preferable side of yesterday's Overwhelming Cynicism. However, I think the main conclusion to be drawn, despite all of last week's slapping around of the term, is that we would be better off to stop talking about "Indie Rock" at all, not only for literalist reasons (much of it is not independent and when it is, the thing that it is independent of is a music industry that's not particularly scary unless it's suing you; as well, a lot of it is not rock music), but because the use of the term invokes the image of an underground culture organized around music, which was once an extant reality but has not in fact been one for most of this decade if not longer. (Arguably there are current musical undergrounds, but indie is not one of them.) To clear our vision on that matter would be helpful in bringing down the reading on the Delusional Barometer a few notches.

As far as the state-of-criticism issue in general is concerned, John's final paragraph on LPTJ is very much in the sprit of the last chapter of my book, where I address this question at length, so I'll leave that for another day. Suffice to say that it is a reductive and much too easy answer to think that to reclaim a robust sense of criticism is to expend more energy on the pointing out of flaws, just because that's the literal meaning of "criticize." The ratio of praise to blame is barely at all germane to what makes good criticism. In any case, more specifically, dear Idolator, I really like you, but between this and last week's Oink merry-go-round, it does get mega-meta-grim around there sometimes. Thank you for relieving the gloom with that life-restoring Robyn video.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 29 at 4:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

October 26, 2007

Gig Guide Note

For those who've despaired of it of late - I've just spent all day getting the gig guide back up to scratch for November. It is now full of mood-lifting information. Indulge. December will go up soon as well. Tips, corrections, etc. of course continue to be forever welcome. (See links to yer left.)

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 26 at 5:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

October 25, 2007

Prevost and Found: Interface It

I'd hoped, but haven't managed, what with all the hoohah, to write a more substantive post this week about Eddie Prevost, percussionist and longtime central figure in the British free-improvisation scene, who this week is taking part in an "Interface" series with musicians from AIMToronto, which began last night. Since I haven't had time you'll have to make do with the Wikipedia entry, which is a perfectly serviceable intro to Prevost's illustrious career, and with my wholehearted urging that you go out to Somewhere There and/or the Arraymusic studio tonight and tomorrow and catch him in action.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 25 at 3:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

October 24, 2007

'[Indie] Is Poisoned by the Vanity of Its Audience'

Without directly referring to the discussion here/on Slate/in the NY'er, Matt Perpetua took the whole argument to a grouchier extreme the other day on Fluxblog. He's only half-right, but wow, does he ever nail that half to the wall:

"When it comes to art that is practically defined by it falling on the outskirts of the mainstream, the audience is almost always going to be comprised of people just waiting for the right moment to get into backlash mode. They kid themselves into believing that they sincerely care about the art, but what they really love is the social capital of hipness, and can't afford to put too much of themselves into something that may become unfashionable. This is the real problem, if we're going to be very honest -- at the root level, indie/alternative/college rock/blog rock/whatever you want to call it is poisoned by the vanity of its audience, and as a result, the industry built around it will always be unstable, and the culture around the music will be dominated and debased by swarms of self-styled experts attempting to one-up one another. As a wise man once said: 'This ain't a scene, this is a god damn arms race.' "

(Likewise, viz Clap Clap.)

And Wayne Marshall as always has extremely cogent things to say.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 24 at 2:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

October 22, 2007

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 2

A few more scattered points before I let this drop:

e) One of the most articulate commenters in Slate's "the Fray" objected that Sasha and I were each "fetishizing authenticity." This is a good question. My first demurral would be that you can't talk about these "big picture" things without making reductive generalizations, which unfortunately makes it easy for readers to take away points that you weren't actually making. (This happened to Sasha too.) To sufficiently qualify and evidence all the points would require a book-length treatment, maybe a really boring one. These were broad-brush pieces. However, I'm not saying that working-class music is better than middle-class/upper-class music, but that cultural insularity can be a problem. As she says, it can also be a fertile sort of concentrated force, but it does risk running into ruts, and if there is a problem with indie rock at all right now, it is the sense that there are ruts being dug.

However, if, as that same commenter goes on to say, you think either Sasha or I think that rhythm-centred music is made with less mental calculation and aforethought than any other kind of music, you are misreading. What each of us said, to different degrees, is that "indie" right now has a tendency to lack in body-consciousness and emphasize "smart" in a good-student kind of way (sometimes actually being smart and sometimes just loading up on signifiers of smartness). This does not entail, however, that more-body-conscious music is less smart. One does not require the other. (Also it doesn't mean that I don't like lots of music that's all head and no butt, because obviously I do. The proportions are just seeming out of whack.)

f) Scott from Pretty Goes With Pretty objects to my class thesis on the basis that "indie/alt-rock" and "college" have gone together since the '80s. But that overlooks the broader context I pointed to in the Slate piece, of growing material gaps between classes in the U.S. in the past 25 years. So yes, it's always been a mainly middle-class thing but as the true middle class shrinks, that starts to mean more of an upper-middle-class thing. For one thing I think its increased distance from the (arguably) more class-mixing hardcore-punk scene (what's left of it) has changed the cultural style of "indie." (This of course began with the mainstreaming of the harder-rocking sector of the underground in the early-to-mid 1990s.) As well, the devaluation of the literal meaning of "indie" has happened for a lot of reasons (downloading being one) but along with it comes the diminishment of the obsessive means-of-production discussions that used to be part and parcel of the "indie" aesthetic - once it was heavily politicized and concerned about material procedures and consequences; the dematerialization of music and the depoliticization of "youth culture" end up resulting in a default to a more unself-consciously insular class p.o.v. on the "college" scene, including confusing voluntary low-income status with class, etc. (Not that the politics of 80s and 90s alt-rock scenes were always - or maybe ever - convincing and coherent; but at least those questions were built in.) However, Scott's right to point out that a key class issue in this climate is access to high-speed Internet service.

g) One thing I didn't get to in the article, which I think is vital, is that what a good part of "indie" draws on are avant-garde gestures, but very few of these bands think of themselves or practice as an avant-garde. (This may apply to art across the board, but I won't get into that broader issue here.) So there's a confusion - at one time eschewing dance beats, conventional harmonies, etc, were deliberate decisions in an art practice, now they're simply features of a niche genre. (One that's increasingly mainstream.) You could come up with a class analysis but for our purposes let's just say that what "art-rock" means, what it's for, has become much more vague. It's tempting to say indie has become more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual, more of a "middlebrow" thing rather than a deliberate smashing together of high and low. Personally I have a really fraught time with that, feeling some lingering attachment to an avant-garde framework but also wary of the multiple snobberies embedded in using a term like "middlebrow." (See my book for a whole lot more about this.) This is why I left it out of the Slate piece, but I do think finding terms to talk about it is very salient to this conversation.

h) Bringing up the fact that dude from Modest Mouse grew up poor is, like the TV on the Radio thing, not a refutation of the more general point. The exceptions would be interesting to analyze, but that would be another set of articles. I'm sure there are tons of non-middle/upper-class people in indie rock now. If someone wants to do a statistical survey, bring it on. However, I feel my generalizations are valid enough, based on years of observation. (That said, remember that Isaac Brock and friends started Modest Mouse in 1993. The fact that they are the example that springs to mind for everyone almost seems to demonstrate that something did shift from the '90s to the 2Ks.)

i) One thing that got muddled in all the rhythm-talk - it seems to me a lot of the dance-punk stuff comes from a milieu that's if anything more upper-class (rich clubbing kids) than the folkie-indie stuff. Again, not all of it, but quite a bit. You might even guess this, since the choice to use hip-hop and techno materials shows a greater sense of entitlement, as opposed to the more hesitant skirting-around that the indie-folk stuff arguably does. I'm not sure how to fit this into the whole scheme of the debate, but it's worth noting.

j) Aside from all the social issues, what we might be talking about is just the decline of rock, as a very old, played-out form. Certainly when Sasha, perhaps inadvertantly, sounded like he was calling for a blues-rock revival, it raised the spectre of a Wynton Marsalis-type neo-classicism. Is rock (leaving aside metal) following the footsteps of jazz, where you have the neo-classicists (Kid Rock, for example, and even the emo bands in a way) keeping the styles of past decades in circulation and then the pro-innovation camp (indie/noise/etc) seeming to recycle gestures of "newness" for a small, specialized audience, with little sense of consequence on either side?

k) Finally, what is the problem with the upper-class-ization of indie rock, if that's true? It might mirror some social trends I find troubling but what is the musical issue? It's not an objection to any one or several groups' practice, but to an accumulated tendency, and some of the answers are similar to what Sasha named as the consequences of a lack of African-American influence. The main one I think is the profile of ambition that comes across in the music: Because the privileged musicians don't have the same survival issues at stake that pop musicians historically often have had (which are comparable to what motivates a lot of people who become star athletes), the aspirations are more modest and the stakes often seem much lower. Less seems to be on the line. The art of performance often suffers (that "show-biz" put-it-all-out-there fire). With the most gifted musicians, this doesn't matter so much, because they find something else to be ambitious about, something to stretch their capacities. But with others it can indeed produce a dullish, good-enough music, which was the core of Sasha's complaint.

Once again, that's a broad generalization but I suspect many people understand exactly what I'm talking about.

l) The one thing most people seem to agree on here is that the word "indie" is increasingly a red herring, an umbrella term for a lot of music without much in common, a fairly useless genre label, one that conceals more than it reveals. Could we do without it, or is there some unitary thing there we need a label for?

Which seems like enough footnotes. However, I'm happy to keep on debating these questions in the comments boxes, and if any super-compelling sub-debates arise - or after Sasha posts his planned rejoinders in the New Yorker blog - I'll return to them here again.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 22 at 3:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 1

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Image from the Dirtbombs blog.

Thanks to everybody who's given feedback on the Slate piece, whether in the Fray at Slate, at ILX, on your own blogs, in the comments section from Friday, or by email. And now, some clarifications, extensions, responses. I will break them into a few posts.

a) The point of my quibbling with Sasha's New Yorker piece was not that he was wrong. It's certainly true that indie rock, whatever-that-is, is a very white - or at least non-black - world, your TV on the Radios and Earl Greyhounds and other exceptions notwithstanding. (That the exceptions are so conspicuous underlines the point.) Rather I just objected to the way I felt he distorted the timeline - I was arguing that rock in general has been getting whiter and whiter for a very long time, and alternative-underground-indie-whatchamacallit rock in particular. People like SFJ and a lot of the British critics, who lived in New York or London in the early 1980s, were lucky to be around for one of the very rare places-and-times where there was a lot of exciting cross-fertilization, theft, mimickry and synthesis going on across cultural lines, and it quite naturally created a permanent hunger in them for that kind of thrill.

But even in that same period in other places, there was a move towards a foursquare, unswinging punk/new-wave metre as a reaction against bar-blues bands and classic rock. Nine times out of ten, a white musician or band's attempt to be anti-mainstream in North America is going to produce a less-"black" sound because, as Sasha rightly says, American mainstream pop music is built very centrally on a black-music-white-music-which-is-which mixture. So a white "alternative" band is probably going to be less R&B; than a mainstream band, because rock's main underpinning is that it's white R&B.; Again, there are exceptions (my favourite one today is The Dirtbombs) but we all know they are exceptions. So if we agree (i) that the whiteness of indie rock is not news; but (ii) that something has seemed a little different, a little troubling, in the state of indie the past few years; then (iii) looking at the changing class positioning of indie seemed like a useful exercise, alongside (but not instead) of race.

b) While my piece was subtitled, "it's not just race, it's class," the point was not just to throw another analytic into the mix. What I was trying to say was more like, "It's not indie rock, it's America." The fact that all these forms are tending towards more self-segregation is a reflection of the social fracture that's been implemented socio-economically over the past 30 years, the neo-conservative era, and while it'd be nice if the artists fought it harder, the fact that art is seeming narrowly segmented right now is a symptom not the source. My main objection to Sasha's piece was that while I know he's well-aware of all that, he leaves it mostly unmentioned. I think it's crucial.

c) In the piece I mention that reducing black music to rhythmic space is problematic - I didn't give this example, but I think Arcade Fire does include black influences via gospel and parade music and Caribbean music, for example, and the freak-folk people are definitely listening to old African-American folk-blues along with Brazilian music and much else. Sasha's perhaps muddied the issue by trying to take in all rock history, which leaves us arguing about how black-influenced Brian Wilson was, when the pivotal question in his piece has to do with hip-hop - the reactions or non-reactions of rock kids to this burgeoning force. It is simply not the same to draw upon generations-old or oceans-away African or African-American-based music as it is to engage with the "other" music and musicians of your own time - the latter is a lot riskier and more fraught, but also for that reason more exciting. I tried to underline some of the social reasons it hasn't happened that I thought Sasha slid by too easily, but his question stands.

d) Some people have objected to the word "miscegenation" because of its "ugly history" etc., but I think this is the strength of Sasha's case: There's ugliness everywhere in these matters, but what if we dared to trample the niceties and go for the utopian gold anyway? Shut our eyes and bear ahead and stop being polite? He's not just reclaiming the word, he's embracing it with its horrible baggage, realizing that to be American and to talk about race is always to end up smeared with centuries of shit and blood. In some ways he's asking: Which matters more in the long run, making great art or never offending anybody? (And again, to me, class helps explain why "indie" music has tended to get more and more inoffensive, since it's being made by people brought up to have good manners to a fault - sometimes to the point of passive-aggression.)

(Much more to come).

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 22 at 2:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

October 21, 2007

'Sploded! Post-Halifax Report


Plasketts Sr. and Jr., in Halifax on Saturday. Photo pilfered from Kaytethinks on Flickr.

I'll return to some underdeveloped points about indie/race/class tomorrow, but wanted to say that if you ever get a chance to go to the Halifax Pop Explosion, jump on it. The scale makes for almost the perfect festival - the venues are all within 20 minutes' walk, for one thing; and despite the smaller size, the quality and diversity of the programming is as high as you could ask. Sure, there weren't any superstar-legend guests, but who needs them?

I got in very late on Friday night after two delayed planes, so I missed everything that night. Our Saturday-afternoon panel on the 15th anniversary of the HPX was a racuous, enjoyable and productive one (if occasionally a bit insiderish, and more than a bit of a sausage party). The strongest debate that emerged was the question of how hard the festival should try to get more government funding, as after 15 years it still gets only meagre city and provincial support - and partly as a result has not one full-time paid staff person - mainly because it will not shift to be less "pop" and more "culture" as the local gods of tourism see it, ie., "more boats, fish and fiddles please." A comparison was made to the East Coast Music Awards, which once were dominated by Celtic music but after a lot of lobbying (by some of the folks on the panel, as well as others) opened themselves up to be genuinely representative of Canada's east coast, and gained much more national attention in the process.

I suspect that (as I outbursted in the discussion) "the total fucking transformation of the music industry" will make the HPX and events like it ever-more self-sustaining in the future - as bands and management alike recognize how central live, showcase performances can be to a career in the new, not-so-recording-oriented business models - so my bet is on the government coming around. Better yet, maybe, would be sponsorship from non-music-biz businesses that see the value in sponsoring something so entrepreneurial, innovative and cool. (This is one of the strengths of the Polaris, to me, that it is neither government nor music-business dependent, but gets support from unrelated quarters.) Bureaucracies are slow and Canadian bureaucracies are especially turtle-ish about recognizing non-traditional culture as true Canadian/regional culture.

As for the music? I saw about 10 bands, the definite highlights of which were an almost-unheard-of, semi-acoustic (no drums, amps down low) Eric's Trip mini-set at the launch of Bob Mersereau's new book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (about which more, I'm sure, in the future) and Joel Plaskett's joyous mostly-solo acoustic show at St Matthew's Church. Never having seen Joel without a band, I was floored by his ability to vary, ad lib within songs, poke fun at and personalize the experience. (Prominent in the patter was the fact that he'd flown in from Dallas at 5 in the morning and had to fly back out to New York in a couple of days to hook back up with his Emergency band and the Tragically Hip tour they're featured in. He was tired, and a bit hoarse.) And I was reminded again what a humblingly, casually smart songwriter he is, sometimes hokey but often inspired and left-field in the connections and twists his songs make, and how his lyrics are poetically chatty rather than too-fragile-to-touch (speaking of class and indie-rock...). He also put the "pop" back in "Pop Explosion" by performing almost half the show with his dad, Will Plaskett, who turns out to be a crack guitarist. I've never seen Joel in Halifax before, and the hometown spirit that permeates his songwriting is doubly moving in that setting. I spent half the show with my eyes a little damp, and did a lot of clapping and singing along, as did everyone in the room.

Otherwise, I realized just how Pixies-esque the Vancouver band Mother Mother really is (the folk flourishes are deceptive) but despite the derivativeness they're a fine live band; I saw Toronto-based group Forest City Lovers for the first time, and there's a lot of craft there, though some of that old unfortunate indie preciousness veils the potential strength of the songs; I saw the utterly unprecious Zoobombs blow the roof off yet another venue and the tops of the heads off another unsuspecting crowd (revelation, though: Haligonians dance less than Torontonians do!); I realized that I like all the elements of Land of Talk but still haven't quite embraced the sum; Miracle Fortress had a slightly "off" set, as did Toronto's Germans (all the driving it takes bands to get to Halifax does take its toll), but no shortage of personality and ideas; and the full-on Eric's Trip electric show was the nostalgic, emotional, pogo-your-face-off-and-then-get-a-little-weepy festival closer it was fated to be.

Thanks to the fest for the hospitality explosion, and I'm sure I'll be back. It's as good a festival, in its smaller way, as Pop Montreal, and as we all (a bit cattily) agreed, beats the hell out of the Toronto equivalents.

Which leads me to this thought: The Wavelength Pop Festival?

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 21 at 7:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

October 19, 2007

Hey Halifax, Is That Your Pop Explosion,
Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

With all this action going on re: the Slate piece, I wish I could hang around and do that discourse thing, but I've gotta see a man about a plane. I'm heading to Halifax for the Hfx Pop Xploze, so I'll see you there if you're there, and if you want to see me there, I'm part of a panel discussion on something like The Canadian Scene '07: Bitchin' or Bogus, tomorrow (Saturday) at 3 pm @ the Lord Nelson Hotel in the "Britannia Room" (so you knowz it will Rule).

Further efforts to render the whole idea of "indie rock" moot will follow on Monday.

For those of you who might be new visitors, if you liked the Slate piece you might be interested in my book, which covers some of the same themes but in a very different way. To get a totally free PDF of the first two chapters for your sampling pleasure, send an email request to letstalkaboutcelineATyahooDOTcom.

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 19 at 1:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

October 18, 2007

Slated and (Soon to Be) Berated

The promised/threatened Slate piece is now up. It is a disagreement with but not an attack upon SFJ, and it will make certain people one degree more annoyed. Please eviscerate me cleanly, with your finest-honed silver knives.

Additions, outtakes, discussions and clarifications follow. Here's one to start with: I thought The Arcade Fire was kind of a bad example for Sasha to choose for his piece (as I mention) and I'm not particularly thinking of them in mine, despite the picture. Also, like Sasha, just because I think there are social dynamics and problematics to be analyzed in a sub-sub-genre does not mean that I dislike all the music it makes. Okay, enough, out.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 18 at 5:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (23)

 

October 17, 2007

Objects in the Mirrors


Sandro Perri (right) with Ryan Driver (left) and other guests launch Tiny Mirrors tonight at the Tranzac. Photo from Basic Sounds.

Alert. Note this reference in today's throne speech: "Our Government will improve the protection of cultural and intellectual property rights in Canada, including copyright reform." Get the engines warned up for a serious fight, everybody.

Hurrah. Longtime Zoilus superteam member and occasional contributor Chris Randle this week launched his own blog, Gutteral. It's mainly a comics blog (thus the name), and so far there's just an introductory post, but I'm looking forward to seeing what sprouts in those gutters.

Tonight, local luminary Sandro Perri (aka Polmo Polpo) launches his new album Tiny Mirrors at the Tranzac in Toronto. I've hoped to have time to write more about this record, but since I can't today, let me just give you the soundbites: Along with the new Sunset Rubdown disc, Tiny Mirrors might be the best Canadian album of 2007 - gorgeous, soulful, creatively written, unique in sound. (The closest comparison in wobbly out-of-focusness is last year's reminiscently titled Dull Lights by Eric Chenaux - Chenaux appears on Perri's record, as do several of the same collaborators - but Perri's songwriting style is quite different.) Pivoted around a cover of Fred Neil/Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," much of the album partakes of that same bruised raincloud emotional tone, but it always slips away like a thought bubble bursting just when you want to hold it to your chest and sob along. If you can get to the Tranzac tonight I urge you not to miss it. A top contender for next year's Polaris &allathatjazz.;

Unfortunately it seems I'm going to have to miss it, because I'm busy converting my planned post on Sasha's New Yorker piece (foretold yesterday) into an article for Slate. It should hit their site sometime tomorrow - keep your browsers peeled.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 17 at 1:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Guest Post: A Matador Regains Her Cape

By now you may have heard the happy news that the planned expropriation of the venerable Matador club site for a parking lot was defeated yesterday at a parking-authority meeting where community members came out pro and con. The news stories all quoted the pro-expropriation neighbour who kept repeating "it's a booze can!" but it won't be a booze can much longer, I suspect. Supporters were largely organized, it's worth noting, via multiple "Save the Matador" web and Facebook groups. Zoilus associate Erella Ganon, who worked on the Committee to Save the Matador, provides an inside view of a case when the city was forced to admit it was wrong. If only the Ontario Municipal Board were so responsive on issues like the Queen West West condo towers. - Carl W.

by Erella Ganon

As though we had planned it, my colleague Gayle Hermuses, my daughter Celeste and I arrived for the meeting at the city hall, dressed in red and black, just like Matador sign. Gayle said these were the "listen to me" colours to greet the Toronto parking authority. We shared the elevator with city councillor Adam Giambrone's new Executive Assistant, Pat Chastang. She introduced herself, saying the councillor had some good news for us. Not quite sure what that meant, we proceeded to the holding area for the meeting room. [...]

[continues below the fold]

People started to assemble, at first only arriving in small groups. Familiar Facebook friends, music buddies, artists, YMCA members, musicians, people I know from the Dufferin Grove market, and a lot of neighbours cheerfully greeted one another. I was glad to see that Vicki (who lives above the Matador) made it there on her crutches. Michael Ondaatje greeted her, as did Kitty, who’s likely been the most consistent, long-time employee at the club. The numbers were swelling and the excitement level was intensifying. My thought that it would only be my colleague and my daughter there with me were disappearing as the room got more crowded.

Simon Wookey arrived with spectacular "Save the Matador" buttons that were quickly snapped up and pinned on. Marla Good, of the Hello Josephine blog arrived with her young daughter. The age range and variety of people was remarkable. We talked about the Matador, and how it has changed since Ann bought the place in the mid-1960s. She raised her five kids there while running the place all these years. A champion for Canadian music, she also made sure women had their voices heard on stage at a time when this was unusual.

A couple arrived. She was wearing a hand painted white T-shirt with "STOP the Matador" scrawled on and her husband had the similar one with "CLOSE the Booze Can" on it. I recognized them. George and Diane, they run a store on College Street that I have used in the past. They install super-loud audio systems into cars. They oppose the Matador and want a parking lot in its place? Go figure. I understand their anger about finding used condoms and needles behind their place. I feel the same way when I find similar debris. These things are found in back alleys all over the city. Their frustration is misdirected and unrelated to the issue at hand with the Matador.

We were ushered into the meeting room when they were ready for us. Kyle Rae asked for the matter to be reopened and it was. He then asked to take into consideration a letter that everyone had before them from Adam Giambrone stating that he no longer was asking for that property be appropriated. It was that simple, since the councillor changed his mind, everything changed. The TPA agreed not to pursue the property for parking and it was all over. We were thanked for our time. This all happened so quickly. After so much work, we got the result we wanted and now it was over.

We thanked the council. As we were ready to leave, George, the lone dissenter, addressed the council with questions about finding used condoms and needles. Passionate and out of order comments escalated until he was asked to leave. He started to perform for the many news cameras. Microphones in our faces as we left the meeting room, we were asked what we wanted for the space. I replied that it wasn't my business. This is a moment for the Matador's owners to dream. I was glad they have time to decide what is appropriate for their space. This is a right that all property and business owners take for granted. I was horrified that the city was taking this away from them and now it was rescinded. There is no question in my mind that the process is wrong in a situation like this. Expropriation is an extreme action that should only be undertaken when no other option exists. Of course, I want the space to be used for musical pursuits, but that isn't up to me. I was just happy that flexibility is possible and that the expropriation process was halted.

Johnny Dovercourt was walking beside me. I introduced him to several reporters as a person that I would like to see doing programming there. So much excitement, so many options ahead. I was very pleased for my part in this process and the huge number of supporters that took time to be there in solidarity in person, and on line, in letters as well as in spirit. There was a huge group that worked together despite differing socio-political backgrounds and we assembled, making it happen. I was so grateful for every person there in any form.

For this, I thank you.

Read More | Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 17 at 12:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Tune Your Dials to the Heart of the Sun

The Guelph Jazz Festival's Anthony Braxton and AIMToronto Orchestra concert, whose rehearsal session was covered here, will be broadcast tonight (Wednesday) soon after 11 pm EST on "The Signal" on CBC Radio 2, along with portions of an interview with Anthony Braxton by Andrew O'Connor. It's a birthday present for at least three Orchestra members celebrating theirs. Many happy returns and gravity radiances!

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 17 at 2:19 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

October 16, 2007

Bruce, Win & Regine: It Ain't No Sin
To Be Glad You're Alive

Normally I wouldn't bother, as of course it's been all over the place, but there's really something mind-boggling about this video of Bruce Springsteen singing the Arcade Fire's Keep the Car Running with Win and Regine from the AF, in Ottawa on Sunday night. It is like some sort of reality barrier was breached, in ways to which their previous star-crossed experiences don't quite compare (you sorta expect it of Davids Byrne and Bowie, and nothing Bono does is ever very surprising). More importantly, it makes the argument for a continuum between Springsteen's roots in the '70s New York scene (which he shared, as is so often forgotten, with the likes of Patti Smith, Suicide and the Ramones) and where indie rock is now, in a non-analytic, demonstrated-to-be-so kind of way: Get Bruce singing an Arcade Fire song and you hear how much like a Bruce Springsteen song it is. My colleague Robert Everett-Green had a review of that show which seems to draw a bit on Michael Barclay's Eye cover from last week about the Boss's currently rampant influence on younger indie bands today, the whole "why now" issue (discussed a bit here on Zoilus back in April). Robert favours the anti-postmodern "sincerity" angle, and Michael likewise covers the "death of irony" side of the street, although in fact Springsteen's songs are full of ironies of a subtler, lower-key kind, and once irony is dead we all are.

But Michael does get a very good take on it from Mac McCoughan (of Superchunk/Portastatic/Merge) - that it's about facing darkness and surviving it, and celebrating that survival without (I would add) having to lie to yourself to do it - which makes me think of the line from Badlands at the top of this post. And that's certainly a sensation that the Arcade Fire also tries to generate, an attitude that seems especially appealing in this moment - to say it's no sin to be glad you're alive, of course, implies that there's something suggesting to you it is a sin, that there's something plausible about that. And the thing about Springsteen is that very consistently, on some level, sometimes politically and sometimes just socially, he's always been pretty clear on saying that it's some form of elite (your dad, your school, your boss, the bureaucrats, the rich, the president) that makes ordinary people doubt the value of their own lives, and that the only chance for magic always begins by refusing to believe them. Which has certainly seemed timely of late. I was sad that Michael didn't mention or talk to Steve Kado anywhere in the piece, as Steve has a particular take on "why Springsteen" that makes sense of why his Blankket project would do a Springsteen EP shortly before going to work on a Theodor Adorno cycle. Eye Daily also has an online review of last night's Bruce show in Toronto, which I unfortunately missed.

Coming soon: Some talkin' back to SFJ's anti-indie polemic in The New Yorker this week. (First I'm going to politely follow his request and listen to the podcast.) Sneak preview: He's right about some things and overlooks others, but he's also leaving a pretty important variable - class - out of the picture entirely.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 16 at 1:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

October 12, 2007

Guest Post: Brief Exquisite Encounters

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Slow Dance with Teacher: Photo by Bytepusher.

Through my own fault, this is appearing a bit late, but please enjoy this lovely essay by friend-of-Zoilus Jane Wells, a teacher and actor (Number Eleven Theatre) and gem of a woman. Jane's reflections on her participation in Nuit Blanche Toronto open up into broader thoughts about art and intimacy and experience in general well worth reading whether you live here or not. Have a nice weekend, everyone. - Carl

by Jane Wells

Considerable grumbling has rolled around the city since Nuit Blanche, and not just in the media, or among the art crowd. Most of the teenagers and adolescents I know say "it sucked" and was "too hyped." I agreed, and was increasingly cranky as I biked around town in the few hours I had before midnight, when my own involvement in the thing was due to start. I did love the crowds, and the delight of bumping into so many people felt like Paris in the Thirties. Nonetheless much of the art work felt ill-considered, the waste of a rare and glorious 12-hour window of possibility, and waste is always galling.

My shindig was called Slow Dance with Teacher, an event conceived by Darren O'Donnell, for the Great Hall at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I had agreed to be, from midnight to 5 am, one of 12 teachers slow dancing with audience members; I thought the idea was funny, and curious, and posed a peculiar combination of stamina and intimacy that appealed to me.

We were separated from the audience by red velvet cordons, manned by security guards, and with each change of song we were to approach the audience clustered on the other side of the ropes and invite someone to dance. Darren's initial idea was for us to talk as little as possible while dancing, which I concurred with, but when our shift came on, in fact everyone in the first shift found the talking quite essential. [...]

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My first partner was a lovely young musician from Peterborough, very relaxed and pleasant. My second partner was older, had a long goofy face, and carried a bright yellow satchel over his shoulder. He had a geeky look about him, almost clown-like, and his face lit up beautifully when I asked him to dance. We began to dance to Cyndi Lauper, "Time after Time," and suddenly he cut loose and began to spin me about, expertly. He was a fantastic dancer, and I was thrilled, beaming and laughing at all the spinning and dipping and jiving. He was too. We were the happiest couple in the world. When the song ended, he kissed my hand, and said thank you, and walked off. He was the only man all night with whom I had no conversation and did not exchange names. Maybe this dance set me up for joy, because the night became exquisitely joyful.

The majority of the other dances were the basic shambling waltz, my left hand on his shoulder, his right hand at my waist, our other hands holding together to the side. Most of the men apologized for not being good dancers, but I immediately assured them I was not either. We would begin our dance, I would initiate conversation, and chatting would ensue. But I began to feel distinctly a subtle pulse, a current running between our simple get-to-know-you conversation and our hands on each other's bodies. Even dancing with the men with the lightest, shyest touch, barely holding my waist, I felt the pulse. Maybe it was the pulse of possibility, but it changed something in the way we were speaking. People talk to you differently when they are touching you.

I was also trying to project a charming but authentic presence, something on the edge of flirtation, just enough to draw the men out but not overwhelm them, a little pull to step forward into a moment of mutual revelation. Revelation not of information, but the tacit awareness of the intimate possibility that we held between us. I danced with upwards of forty men, some clumsy in their mild discomfort, but receptive to warmth and curiosity, a couple saucy and raring to go, some just happy to dance, and in all of that jumble, I felt that I glimpsed each of them, once, utterly themselves.

Throughout the night these thoughts, and the effort to describe why it was so exhilirating, kept surfacing, and I wrote a bunch of things down before I went to sleep at 6:30 am. But I didn't actually identify until late the next day the one thing of which I was most manifestly aware - smell. As the night wore on, my sense of smell became a rising current beneath the waves of these encounters, the thing to which I was purely responsive - what this man had to drink, whether or not that one had smoked a little that evening, his sweat, mixed in with subtler smells. Amazingly, thankfully, none of it was unpleasant - all the smells were singular and of this person. How often do we smell a stranger so specifically?

The work I had seen earlier in the evening was more promotional than experiential, to do with bank logos, and signs, and cables and metal barriers and the inevitable trappings of the safe city. It had missed the opportunity to transform public space, to give people a unique memory of, a rare encounter with some piece of the city, which they will think of always when they pass through it.

Many years ago, in Winnipeg, I worked on a vast winter parade for First Night, the New Year's Eve celebration. For two months, with 150 volunteers, we built puppets, gargoyles, stilts, an enormous dragon; and on New Year's, in minus-30 C, we remade a portion of downtown, pulled it out of unrelieved concrete and brick. I like to think that every now and again a Winnipegger passes the Archives' parking garage and remembers the 15-foot, furred and golden dragon that emerged from its depths at midnight.

If there is one experience I want to offer, and be given, in art, it is the act of transformation. It is the key to political change, to personal change, it is the seditious and seductive whisper in your ear that another way is possible. Men asked me what was the point of this piece as we swayed back and forth, and I had little more than a light answer to offer. But in the three or four minutes of each dance, we were transformed from strangers into intimates, an intimacy unique to that moment.

In that night of the masses, of art as accessory, of crowds roaming in search of surprise, I lucked out, and found the inversion of what I had been seeking, found instead, in each tiny encounter, the transformation of private space.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 12 at 5:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

October 11, 2007

Makin' with the Meta

Over at rockcritics.com, Scott Woods has held a little kitchen party to talk about music blogging. I brought the hummus.

Tom at Freaky Trigger had some smart side comments as did his comment box.

Meanwhile Idolator was having another music-blog fracas break out, though mainly about the other sort of music blogs. Bill Wasick provides the most elegant, in depth, meandering version of the discussion in the Oxford American (if you follow only one of these links make it this one) and Pretty Goes With Pretty has an extensive set of responses.

I get the irony that after all my blather in the roundtable about dialogue and indepth reflection, I'm not going to say anything further in response to all these reactions, for now. But it is late and I am tired all the way in, from chest to spine, so irony wins. (Don't get too comfortable, irony - I'm gonna cut you when you least expect it, sucka.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 11 at 1:07 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

October 9, 2007

Bleating Hearts

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Casey Dienel.

My review of the Patti Smith church concert at Pop Mtl was in yesterday's Globe and Mail - I was on the train most of the day and the wireless service wasn't working, thus the delay. It comes with a festival-wrapping sidebar which mentions in passing the schedule switch with Sunset Rubdown on Saturday - which resulted in my arriving when the band was in the last minute of the last song. After a bad experience with the completely vague schedule of the Fred Wesley House Party the same night, I ended up kind of pissed off at the organizers, which I hate to be because they are lovely people who run a fantastic festival. I realize some adjustments are unavoidable, but they ought to be prominently announced on the website as soon as they're known and ideally also sent out by email - all these communication media exist for a reason.

On Sunday night I decided to stick with one location, and spent the night at Said the Gramophone's Bleating Heart Show in a compact but lovely chapel on the McGill campus. There was so much pretty music one hardly needed a drink, which was good, as there were no drinks. And the electricity threatened to cut out all night, so that by the third band apparently the whole show was running on one breaker. And when it got crowded, we got packed pretty tight in them pews. But it was all old-musty-sweater comfy. For awhile.

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Casey Dienel played songs in the genre I've come to call "poor-little-rich-girl music" (cf Cat Power, Scout Niblett, Feist, etc. - there's "poor little rich boy" music too of course, but the genders produce somewhat different patterns). But I find Dienel's unusually well observed and engrossing - so add "with a creative-writing MFA" to the descriptor, although I know that's not literally true in this case - and as unaffected as it's possible to be when you're working that slightly-precious end of the spectrum. She was an extremely charming presence too, making great efforts to speak "your language," French - with a very pretty accent - even though really there were probably about two francophones among the 60 people in the room at that point. The flaw in poor-little-rich-girl music, I find, is that very charm: It's concerned about its posture, its smile, its polite nod and studied distances. So my favourite moment in Dienel's set was when she and her small band broke through to somewhat rougher territory, as on Napeleon at Waterloo. I liked the very unpolished singalong at the end - she led us into it so casually and unstagily that it was almost like she was saying, "sing in your most mundane voice, sing along talkatively - don't belt it out, sing like you're singing to yourself bicycling down the street," and it was an unusually beautiful uncertain sound to hear 60 people singing at once but each to themselves.

Montreal duo Elfin Saddle played next. I think it took me most of the set to forgive them for their name, though I have since found it's an actual thing rather than just cutesy whimsy. There was a lot I liked about this pair, originally from Victoria, BC - Jordin McKenzie is clearly a very strong musician, playing a one-man-bandish agglomeration of instruments, while Emi Honda has a gorgeous voice, and their Alexander Calder contraptions of percussive objects (on the sidewalk afterwards, someone called them "bells and chimes and paddywinks") were alluring to look at (McKenzie and Honda are also visual artists) and fun to watch being played. I didn't find McKenzie's singing or the songs themselves so captivating - a bit too ersatz-old-timey in that current acid-folk way for me - but there's loads of potential there.

In between sets, there was an inane conversation going on behind us between two women, one of whom was saying, "I'll take it, but I kind of hate the label 'bisexual,' " to which her friend replied, "Yeah, I hate all labels - the only one I'm really comfortable with is 'hetero,' because, you know, it doesn't really have any meaning." Her friend was all like, "Uhhhh..." And so she started insisting on it: "No, you know it's just what everyone assumes anyway, so it doesn't have any specific meaning." Halfway through Horsefeathers' set after that, I wanted to turn around to her and say, "Honey, this is the meaning of hetero." Nothing against heteros and all - hell, I am one myself - but the lead singer of Horse Feathers had this whole sensitive-guy thing going on where he doused his voice with Nick Drake-flavoured icing sugar, to the point that one could barely even discern a melody, much less the words, it was just this sound that kept repeating over and over, "See how nice my voice is? See how many feelings I have? Girls, wouldn't you like to dump your boyfriends and sleep with me?" Honestly, I could not figure out what a single song was about. And it was a shame because the rest of the band is kind of incredible, especially the brother/sister string section, Peter Broderick on violin and Heather Broderick on cello. It was great when they all sang together and drowned the lead singer out, which happened fairly frequently, but this band is less than the sum of its parts. The parts are quite impressive. But the sum is "21st-century James Taylor."

Somewhere around this point I said to Sean from StG, "We sure have had a lot of sweet," and he said, "Don't worry, there's a lttle bit of mean coming up." He was lying, because Clues, who were playing I think their first gig at this show, turns out to be pretty sweet as well, but they are at least not indie MOR. Clues consists of Alden Penner (ex-Unicorns) on guitar/vox, Brendan Reed (ex-Arcade Fire, Les Angles Morts) and Bethany Or (Shanghai Triad). You can view a portion of the show here, although the real YouTube Video moment in the show came later, when Reed suddenly threw a drumstick at the audience, stood up and overturned his entire drum set, knocking over a microphone and a xylophone, which kind of tumbled off the stage into the crowd, and walked off stage and out of the room. And then he returned a couple of minutes later, saying, "Sorry, I got overheated." Some folks were taken aback but it was clearly an impulsive bit of performance art (and apparently a kind of tribute to Reed's own bands past) intended to make up for the fact that the show was not going so well in its own right - the music was really pretty great when there was music, but there was a lot of mumbling and foot-shuffling and can't-tune-my-guitar and stupid jokes and time-wasting going on before that, pretty much all on the part of Penner, who was drunk and wearing a cape. The cape made me want to slap him but I restrained myself. It was kind of unfortunate, as Or had already announced her parents were in the audience, who 30 years ago got married in the very same chapel, so one couldn't help imagining the band conversation that was going to follow.

But Reed really did try to keep it interesting, and by the end of the show, a lot of us were just laughing at the absurdity, and so was the band, and they really managed to undo any kind of mutual hostility and get us all into whatever trouble they were having, together. As for Clues' songs - some of them sounded pretty fantastic, although I had a feeling Penner's lyrics were tipping over into bad undergraduate-poetry over-extended metaphors etc., but that could have been the cape. The drumming is epic. We couldn't really hear the organ much of the time. But it was wonderful to wrap up Pop Mtl with a set so constructed to be something to talk about for the rest of the year, until we're all together again next October to say, "Remember when ... ?"

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 09 at 12:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

October 6, 2007

A Great Swirl of (Let's Talk About) Love

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Patti Smith at Pop Montreal. Photo by Gordon Bisnor.

I hadn't realized this was happening so soon but Idolator has put up an excerpt and some very kind remarks about my upcoming book. Also, as announced there, the 33 1/3 people are making an offer that if you want to read the first two chapters (from which the excerpt is drawn), you can email for a PDF: letstalkaboutcelineATyahooDOTcom.

Meanwhile here I am at Pop Montreal and I haven't been telling you anything. The main story for me (I got here late and haven't been running around as much as planned) is the Patti Smith show at the Eglise Jean-Baptiste last night, which I'm reviewing for the Globe on Monday but I'll say here what I can't say there: shit, wow, holy fuck. I mean, look at what that church looks like. Now add Patti Smith to that. I hardly have to say more. But she was also on a complete love buzz for Montreal, which made the whole thing more special. I didn't get here in time for the surprise Wednesday show with the folks from A Silver Mt. Zion, but everyone, including Patti during the Friday show, said it was incredible. Here's how she described it - improvised, as a song: "I came to Montreal three days ago, though it feels like three weeks/ I done two panels, a press conference, and someone took my picture/ ... And I went to the Ukrainian Hall and I met Silver Mt. Zion" (you have to imagine her strumming her guitar and crooning this), "We didn't have much time and I never got to know their names, and yet we travelled together in the realm of trust, in a great swirl of love... I went to the Mile's End [sic], where the railroad tracks move like the palms into the horizon and the factories loom beautiful, unspoiled, and the junkie shoots and the musicians wonder if they should put a machine with clean works to protect them from themselves. Everything I saw in Montreal was wonderful... and I now gotta get back to work." (She goes into My Blakeyan Year.)

Other highlights: The Republic of Safety's maybe last, and maybe best, show ever. The Luyas and Feuermusik to an unfortunately sparse room. The Nymphets in the afternoon. But I haven't gotten around all that much. Tonight much more - the Fred Wesley/So-Called "House Party," the CBC Radio 3 showcase with Sunset Rubdown, the DJ/Rupture set (if you are in Montreal, do not sleep on Jace's set - 1 am at bar Coda). Maybe some other bits of action. I'll report back.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 06 at 5:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

October 3, 2007

Ubu: Arc of Darkness

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Pere Ubu, not in Toronto but in Chicago last week.

There were two kinds of audience members at last night's Pere Ubu show: Those who had seen the band before and those who hadn't. The latter, from what I could tell, walked away suitably impressed by the group's sonic power and personal magnetism; but those of us who'd seen Ubu before - in my case, about 10 or 11 times before - were not only disappointed but a bit concerned. It's no slight against the musicians - drummer Steve Mehlman (who was rockin' a vintage Skinny Puppy T-shirt), analog synth player Robert Wheeler, bassist Michele Temple and Keith Moline on guitar - who played fiercely, precisely and wildly when called upon, although I do feel like the absence of any '80s-or-earlier Ubu members other than Thomas has altered the dynamic for the worse since 2002, when guitarist Tom Herman departed. (I also feel a little sad that the band rule that all members must be from Cleveland was dropped - Moline is from England, and Thomas teases him about it - but I may just be being sentimental on that count.)

No, the trouble was that David Thomas didn't seem to want to be there.

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He didn't seem especially strongly not to want to be there - he wasn't screaming and stamping his feet at the other musicians and at the audience, which is a familiar sight and one that's usually compensated by a doubly powerful performance once he gets his shit back together. (Indeed, it often seemed as if the band deliberately simulated a performance breakdown in order to frack with audience expectations and achieve maximum mind-destructo mode upon restart.)

But in this case, it was almost as if Thomas was phoning it in. He wasn't, of course - I don't think "phoning it in" is something he's psychologically capable of - but his attention seemed intermittent, he didn't seem to particularly feel many of the songs, he was sometimes indifferent to the words and more focused on drinking (he praised Alexander Keith's beer extravagantly, saying that after decades of being given Labatt's and Molson's he had been under the impression that Canadian beer was all crap). At one point he even went out for a smoke break, though to his credit he did instruct the band to play a "really interesting introduction to this next song" before he left, which is what they did. He had a printed book of the lyrics and frequently referred to it, a shocking turnabout from show after show in which Thomas knew the words of all his songs so intimately that he seemed to be spontaneously thinking them up before your eyes and ears.

There were plenty of exceptions, when flashes of what makes him one of the greatest frontmen in rock history (a description I stand behind without a second's hesitation) flared up and he had us all in the palm of his hand rather than flicking us away with his thick fingers like pesky flies. There was my favourite song from the recent Why I Hate Women, "Caroleen," as well as "Folly of Youth" from Ray Gun Suitcase, "Sad.Txt" from Pennsylvania (Thomas complained that every cause has a ribbon except "former punk-rock males in their 40s and 50s going into a mid-life crisis" - someone in the crowd shouted "I want a ribbon" - he came back "I wrote you a ribbon!") and the whole encore, including a masterful performance of "Dark" from St. Arkansas, and not least a sweet version of "We Have the Technology," which I was thrilled was in the set (partly because it's one of my favourite songs and partly for the small selfish reason that my essay about it is about to come out in the new Da Capo Anthology, thanks to Mr. Christgau). But in overall effect the show took place in standard-issue reality-space, which is not the place you normally find yourself at the end of a Pere Ubu show. (Which explains why this is almost the only band I have ever considered following around on tour as if they were the Grateful Dead.)

During the final number, a very fine rendition of "Street Waves" (one of only a handful of "classic"-era songs - desultory versions of "Final Solution" and "The Modern Dance" and a pretty kickass "Sonic Reducer" from Rocket from the Tombs days), Thomas stopped the action to, as usual, introduce the band, but also to deliver a monologue that went something like this: "Now we've reached my favourite part of the show. The end. Because after the end, I am set free. Again. I can go back to my squalid hotel room and stare at the ceiling and ask myself the central question: 'Why. Am. I. Still. Doing. This.' " He went on to say that his life was driven by a fear of failure and his life had been nothing but failure." People in the audience shouted out that they loved him. "You don't understand. I don't care if you love me." (He later sort of apologized for saying that.) And then he said that his goal was to come out and give the audience a series of orgasmic experiences, and "you didn't get that tonight" - again, audience objections - "don't try to tell me," he said, "I know." And oddly enough, though it was all very bleak and I don't think he was kidding (even though it was all delivered within the self-satiric hyperbole that is Thomas's rhetorical home key), I found it comforting that he was acknowledging something was amiss. I hope that it was a bad mood rather than a bad life phase, that he really doesn't just wish he could quit.

Better, though, to quit than to become bitterly resigned. When you're the best - "I do one thing," he's said, "but I do it better than anybody else does," and that one thing has more to do with live performance than with making records, it has to do with being able to reliably dispense brain-gasms to barrooms full of strangers - it's unbecoming to carry on to the point where you don't respect your own talent anymore, where you settle for just being good and go into cruise control. (If I were a boxing fan I am sure I could summon up some perfect pugilistic-career parallel.) Thomas's perfectionism - with something as inherently impossible to "perfect" as the kind of broken and scrambled rock music Pere Ubu makes - has always been part of his signature set of paradox-miracles. So too the fact that he is able to make growling, gesticulating, whining and grimacing - and spitting out lyrics that tremble on the razor-edge between the deepest voice of the soul and the most nonsensical babble of baby talk - seem like such an immensely dignified and grownup activity.

Whether it was an off night or Thomas is having an off year, I trust that this is a transitional point, that he'll rediscover that sense of purpose for which, as he sings in "Dark," he's "agreed to pay the price." But some nights you see how high that price can be - when you come across a man who seemed to be born an immovable force, suddenly seeming eroded, a mountain worn down by rain.

PS: Zoilus-pal Chris Randle has another view over at Eye Daily, and Auditory has an interview.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 03 at 2:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

October 1, 2007

Book News!

My book, which, now that it's actually in the publisher's hands, I can finally talk about as a concrete thing rather than a hypothetical, now has an official subtitle. It's not on the mockup of the cover on Amazon but it is in the entry title. As you may know, the books in the 33 1/3 series all are titled after the album they deal with. But since mine is a bit of a twist on the series - treating the album not so much as the object of the study but as an exemplary jumping-off point for a book on a broader theme - the publisher agreed that it might be helpful to add a subtitle to hint at that larger dimension.

Ladies and germs, I give you Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. (And yes, you can pre-order the book there...)

Also, you can read a short excerpt right now on the 33 1/3 blog.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 01 at 3:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

Nuit Blech: Call It a Sophomore Slump

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Computer snafus have kept Zoilus at a lower boil than intended the past week, but tons of action is to come this week - concerts in Toronto with Pere Ubu and Veda Hille, and then off to Pop Montreal. But first, a brief word about the weekend past.

Nuit Blanche was a disappointment for me this year, mainly because of how much was overlooked in following up last year's quite successful debut: There seems to have been surprisingly little anticipation that the crowd numbers would grow from last year's already high figures, with the result that until about 2 a.m. it was frustratingly difficult to get near most of the more intriguing projects, or even just to get down the sidewalks without being crushed. The fact that streets were not closed for this event that brings hundreds of thousands of people out is ridiculous. But beyond that, there was a laxness to the curation: a lot of the art was half baked. There were very few works that dealt well with both the "public-space" and the "art" sides of the equation, and the level of ambition on display was often disappointingly low. My colleague Sarah Milroy makes a similar critique in today's Globe, making several suggestions for potential improvements (although also missing a few points I think - if Noboru Tsubaki didn't expect people to climb on his giant inflatable locust in the middle of a football field, for instance, it would have been very naive - although of course that's the art world for you, often. In any case its climbability was one of the few points in its favour).

A few highlights for me included Public Recordings' Open Field Study, which benefited by being outside the "zones" and having space to work with, in which the mysterious rites of the flocks of dancers with hand-cranked radios (beautiful score by Eric Craven of A Silver Mt Zion and other Constellation bands and Toronto sound artist Anna Friz) seemed like emergent patterns, like droplets condensing into human clouds and then dispersing again, and interacting with the denizens of the park (punk kids, drunken cyclists, etc) in amusing and curious ways. Also the Theatre of Ephemeral Music at the Music Gallery was wonderful - the benches in the church arranged in a rough circle that created an intimacy in the dimmed room, as many excellent Toronto musicians improvised in shifts along an atmospheric axis, with the sound processed into an enveloping blanket - you could even lie on the floor to listen. It was a real oasis in the madness of the night. (I wasn't particularly impressed with the visuals that were generated to accompany the music, which were like "a glorified screen saver," as one friend put it; they added to the overall effect but not as much as they could.)

Though I'm biased by friendship in this case, Misha Glouberman's 15-minute "Terrible Noises for Beautiful People" workshops were perfect, a particularly gentle, refreshing version of the sound work Misha's been doing with his "School of Learning," and it's thrilling to think that more than a thousand people got to experience that work in one night. I had a great time seeing Kids on TV in the Works & Emergency Services Building, although I always have a great time seeing Kids on TV. And I was sorry to miss Darren O'Donnell's "Night School," where teachers (real-life teachers) slow-danced with spectators to R&B; jams and the like, as well as some of the pieces Milroy mentions in her review, such as Ann Hamilton's "listening choir" and "White Line Light" by Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender of the German Raster-Noton art-music nexus. But the effort involved in fighting one's way through to these gems was absurd. And there was entirely too much emphasis on Scotiabank branding experiences going on as well (the space in Trinity Bellwoods Park was mostly wasted on tacky bullcrap, as was the blocked-off street space in front of the ROM).

Nuit Blanche has a lot to work out if it's going to fulfill its promise; however, it also has a lot of resources to work with. Here's hoping. But as it was, as one friend put it afterwards, "I'm left longing for the days when art was for a small private elite."

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 01 at 12:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson