by carl wilson

Just What I Feared

liz5.jpg

... about Liz Phair's new album, as articulated by Eppy i.e. Mike Barthel - as it could only be said by somebody who, like me, liked her last album. (Though I didn't like it as much as he did, and certainly didn't like it more than, like, Guyville, which makes him a more extreme specimen of something or other.) Catch the provocative list of favourite indie albums that he calls BORING at the end of the post - Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Decemberists.... - I don't agree with alla that, but the man's got a goddam point. Still I think the more salient one has to do with the fallout that festers when fans treat artists as their jesters and slaves, as their aesthetic performing ponies, and basically think like consumers buying tastee-freezes rather than people trying to take in an artwork. (Not that it's un-okay to enjoy music like a frozen treat, but hating it is more complexicated.) The demoralized sequel to the bold stylistic departure seems like the inevitable depressing denouement.

Later: More recommended reading: Douglas's piece on the cellphone-iTunes complex and the coming category killa, "the Next Small Thing" - the first installment of his new column (congrats!) in the Chicago Reader, which is finally putting more content online, albeit only in PDF form. I Heart Music has a nice interview with Matt Hart aka the Russian Futurists. And a country song in the shape of a country press release.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 06 at 6:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Jandek Live in Torontopia?

Rumour of the day: Jandek live show in Toronto in the works???? (See Zoiluses past on Jandek - just the tail-end of that column, actually.)

And here's a bit cut for space from my Essential Tracks list coming out tomorrow in The Globe and Mail:

The White Box
The Mountain Goats, from Down in a Mirror: A Second Tribute to Jandek (http://www.summerstepsrecords.com)
This menacing Pandora’s-box parable fittingly introduces the weird world of Houston recluse Jandek, who has self-released 42 harrowing albums since 1978 and recently shocked followers by making live appearances. Singer John Darnielle has reinvented his vocal style markedly for his contribution to this second anthology of indie-rockers’ Jandek covers, which also includes Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 22 at 6:56 PM | Linking Posts

 

'Let's Cut to the Coda ...
Any Old Gimmick Is Fine'

Next year's Da Capo book of best music writing is gonna have to include a mini-CD so it can incorporate Fountains of Wayne Hotline by Robbie Fulks. But is he praising FoW's skill or damning their hackery? Given Fulks' own craftsmanship as a songwriter and his cussedness as a commentator, I think it's likely both. (Via Jane Dark's Sugarhigh.)

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 22 at 6:52 PM | Linking Posts

 

It's In The Trees, It's Coming!
New Kate Bush

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Just one of hundreds of beautiful Kate Bush images (including an astounding gallery of childhood pictures) available at Gaffaweb.

It's the first new Kate Bush material in a dozen years and, with typically tweakful perversity, it's about Elvis. King of the Mountain is the first single from Bush's forthcoming "double-album" (a term that's kind of lost its meaning while she's been away) Aerial, due Nov. 7. While the single isn't officially out till Oct. 24, it was previewed today on the BBC and so of course it will be ubiquitous on the file-swapping services. ("Release date" being another term that doesn't quite mean what it once did.) You can hear the song about 37 minutes into the show (preceded by Roxy Music's Virginia Plain, one of my favourite songs) or try this direct link (which may not last long). The song is quite beautiful, much superior I think to the late pre-retirement material on The Red Shoes, if not quite at the level of my favourite album of hers, The Dreaming. Certainly not recommended for anti-mope popskateers, but perfect as always for a sensuous wallow.

kateofthemountain.jpg

The Elvis allusions seem fitting, a clever joke coming from a cult singer whose fans are constantly babbling about having spotted her in the pharmacist's or a cloud formation... "There's a rumour that you're on ice/ And you will rise again someday," she sings. The title likewise seems like a bit of self-satirizing cheek. But the single is all about sound. The words are deliberately obscured, it seems, bubbling out as if riding a bobbing buoy, while a Tom Waits-reminiscent marimba line provides a riddim (the most contemporary-feeling aspect), keyboards swell and proggy guitars and drums offer a so-dated-it's-fresh dash of spice. It hasn't quite the force and originality of imagery of her best songs, but it makes up for that in the ambience of mystery she's had mastered - along with a healthy dose of camp - since she emerged as a teenager. It's startling to think she's 47 now. (For an amusing capsule version of the Kate story listen to this week's BBC Blagger's Guide to Music: "She releases albums the way people in legends release ogres - that is, not very often, and then only by accident." It's partway thru the show, after the very funny guide to prog-rock: "Prog-rock was invented in the late 1960s, by Satan, to kill people.")

Lyrics to the new single on the jump.

King of the Mountain
Written, Performed & Produced by Kate Bush

Could you see the aisles of women?
Could you see them screaming and weeping?
Could you see the storm rising?
Could you see the guy who was driving?
Could you climb higher and higher?
Could you climb right over the top?
Why does a multi-millionaire
Fill up his home with priceless junk?

The wind is whistling
The wind is whistling
Through the house

Elvis are you out there somewhere
Looking like a happy man?
In the snow with Rosebud
And king of the mountain

Another Hollywood waitress
Is telling us she's having your baby
And there's a rumour that you're on ice
And you will rise again someday
And that there's a photograph
Where you're dancing on your grave

The wind is whistling
The wind is whistling
Through the house

Elvis are you out there somewhere
Looking like a happy man?
In the snow with Rosebud
And king of the mountain

The wind it blows
The wind it blows the door closed

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 21 at 1:20 PM | Linking Posts

 

Don't Lose That Feeling

Two from me in today's Globe: A review of the excellent Jon-Rae and the River album Old Songs for the New Town in time for this weekend's launch, and a smattering of "Essential Tracks" (Amy Rigby, North American Hallowe'en Prevention, The Tenement Halls, Bjork w/Will Oldham).

POP
Review
By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Friday, August 26, 2005 Page R28

Old Songs for the New Town
Jon-Rae and the River
Permafrost

★★★

If you've never seen a country-gospel concert where a mosh pit breaks out, you haven't seen a Jon-Rae show. Jon-Rae Fletcher arrived in Toronto last year a stranger from Vancouver, but fast became the city's drunken-sing-along master. Yet the River is no pub party band: Fletcher pens the sort of dark ballads of love, faith and death you might expect from a preacher's son, but belts them out with breakneck desperation and a seven-piece-plus band and choir, like the Pogues gone Appalachian. The production is slapdash, but the tunes (Prayer to God, Come Back to Me, Goodbye, his cover of Joy Division's Disorder) run deep.
--
Album launch Saturday night at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto with Great Lake Swimmers, Lullabye Arkestra and Akron/Family.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 26 at 3:09 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

The Only Pornographers are
the Pornographers of Ice Cream

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First a note that The Wire, the smart CBC radio show on "the effect of electricity on music" that I've pimped to you in the past is, just in time for the CBC labour lockout, being featured on the Third Coast International Audio Festival's cool-radio site. You can listen to excerpts and read a terrific "behind the scenes" interview with host Jowi Taylor.

Our main bizness this morning, though, is my review of the new New Pornographers album, Twin Cinema, today in The Globe and Mail. I've revised my initial impression of the disc, as I suspected I would. At first I thought it sounded rushed - now I think much of it works well, but it still suffers from a muchness, from too many mixed intentions, with the parts out of balance. This has always been an inherent problem with the band but three albums in, you wish it would be resolved, and I'm not sure the way to do it is for the band to get artier - I've got Destroyer albums for that, but Carl Newman's strengths are pop strengths - clever, left-field pop, but pop nonetheless. I'm led back to The Trouble With Indie Rock (insofar as there is an indie rock). It's a subcultural tendency in which pop bands are led (by whatever cultural habitus and category errors you care to name) to consider themselves in a sense above the form, and therefore miss their opportunity to explore and exploit said form fully. (Not that I think this problem is simple.) In the case of the NPs, that's complicated by the disparateness of the band members and particularly Neko Case's limited availability. And still, with all those caveats, I think the album has a great deal to offer (especially, to reiterate a particular peeve of mine, when the arrangements afford the vocals enough space for legibility).

Whether that justifies my extended ice-cream analogy is up for debate. [...]

CD of the Week
Sweet, savoury, fusion confusion

The New Pornographers:
Twin Cinema

(Mint Records)
★ ★ ★

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, August 19, 2005

This third album by Vancouver band the New Pornographers may get mixed reactions from fans. Say, for instance, that your favourite ice-cream man started infusing his chocolate mint with curry, or layering his heavenly hash with foie gras. Fine, he wants to stretch his gastronomic skills. But prickly fusion cuisine isn't what brought you across town on a hot night to line up at his stall at the fair.

For the past five years, the New Pornographers have been making, as reviewers like to say, "pop music for people who don't like pop music," sourced mainly in the post-psychedelic glam and bubble gum of the early 1970s and in 1980s New Wave. Of course, New Pornographers fans do like pop music; many merely refuse, for elusive sociological reasons, to admit it. But offer cayenne pepper instead of hot fudge sauce, and they might not bite.

The band features three lead singers (Carl Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case), guitars, drums, keyboards and expansive studio ingenuity. On 2001's Mass Romantic and 2003's Electric Version, the approach was to create hyper-pop, songs that sounded like three hit singles happening at once, with almost too many words, too many melodic hooks, too many hot riffs jammed together. They strained the form, testing just how catchy a tune could get before it collapsed, and then doing it again. Most songs exploded from the first note all the way to the final chorus.

Twin Cinema takes the proposition of making non-pop under more serious consideration. Not that it's scant on hooks, choruses and sing-alongs, but they're stirred into a thicker churn. There's a dark complication in even the brightest bonbons here. The album feels more mature, and perhaps more geopolitically aware; several songs teem with threat and conspiracy.

Tunes here tend to build gradually rather than burst into action. A few are subdued all the way through, including two ballads showcasing Case's swooping, sympathetic voice - one the rousing These Are the Fables, and the other The Bones of an Idol, which plods.

With few exceptions, the band discovers new trap doors and stairs within its style without forgetting the route back to surging riffs and bell-ringing harmonies. Newman's Sing Me Spanish Techno and The Bleeding Heart Show and Bejar's Streets of Fire and Jackie Dressed in Cobras are among the Pornographers' best. Edit out the two or three stiffs and you've got a consistently addictive set.

But there are nagging issues. Only one of the three principals, Carl Newman, is fully committed. Neko Case has her alt-country solo career; Bejar's main project, Destroyer, is now signed to thriving Merge Records.

As vocal pinch-hitters, Newman has recruited his niece, Kathryn Calder (of Vancouver's the Immaculate Machines), as well as Nora O'Connor of Chicago group the Blacks. While the variety is diverting, it's no substitute for Case's solar-plexus punch. Meanwhile, Bejar's songs are too few here to lend the disc all the balance they could, yet his writing does show up Newman's flaws - namely, the sense of a centre frequently missing from his songs. (They all perform together on a joint New Pornographers-Destroyer tour this fall.)

Finally, there's the pop perplex: Is it all just too much tinkering around when, with Newman's arrangements and Case's pipes, they could be knocking out hits to leave Kelly Clarkson in the dust? I'm not sure. It's a memorable thing to meet the patent-holder on the curry cone, but the New Pornographers could be the emperors of ice cream.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 19 at 11:16 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Metric Vs. Pornographers (Which System Will Prevail?)

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Emily Haines of Metric.

The new album by Metric, Live It Out, is due Sept. 27, and according to Emily and Jim it is "a record of questions and struggles as opposed to the answers and observations of Old World Underground Where Are You Now," which precisely identifies what I thought was the flaw in the first album, so I'm intrigued to see what this means in praxis. Frank has more news.

Preliminary finding: The New Pornographers' new album Twin Cinema is, in general, performed way too much in a rush, the hooks not given their appropriate impact, the transitions between sections perfunctory, the vocals too often breathless and half-unintelligible - which produces the curious counter-impression that it's actually kind of plodding. Carl Newman's pop-assembly-line fantasies have become like that damn image in Modern Times of the human being jammed in the relentlessly turning cogs and trying to adjust the screws. Also as per usual there's not enough Neko; though new member Kathryn Calder does just fine, there's no comparison. The cover of very-early Destroyer song Streets of Fire (from We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge), however, is worth the effort all by itself, and it's nicely followed by the fuzzed-out disc closer Stacked Crooked. I also like the occasional moments of avant-garage (notably on the title track), and overall it's possible that with more time (this is a first-listen drive-by) the blurry scrim I'm hearing over the sound will resolve itself into a shimmering morning dew. I do look forward to the double-barrelled live band very much. But my first impulse is if this is supposed to be a song, slow down and let me hear it. I may be being reactionary.

By the way Dan Bejar (of the NPs and Destroyer) has a newish band called Bonaparte, whose only online description is "Bonaparte - featuring Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) and members of The Battles, Bonaparte showcases female vocals a la an eccentric Blondie with touches of 80's new wave." I'll look into this further.

And PS: Douglas, sadly, says the new Big Star suxxx. If only it were coming from someone less trustworthy.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 04 at 2:28 PM | Linking Posts

 

DRUM-HELL-YA!

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Eric Chenaux (upper left corner & elsewhere) of Drumheller, and Martin Arnold, not of Drumheller. See below. Photo montage by the always wonderful Aperture Enzyme.

My only contribution to The Globe this week is this review of the just-out-of-the-oven debut by "out-of-jazz" quintet Drumheller, on Rat-drifting, whose launch concert tomorrow night at the Tranzac is the (non-Caribana) gig of the weekend. A couple of notes on the review. First, the paper version is misprinted, changing the very first sentence from "Toronto's creative-improv scene, from free jazz to abstract electronics...." to "Toronto's creative-improv electronics..." This is wrong. Second, to throw back the editing-room door, I originally didn't just call Eric Chenaux "an egregiously overlooked musician" but "perhaps the most egregiously overlooked musician in town."

[tangent]Egregiously, peoples! Why are you sleeping on Eric Chenaux, why why? Sure, his once-upon-a-time art-punk bands Phleg Camp and Life Like Weeds still get some loving memory (scroll down to the final question there), but that is so the past. He's reinvented himself as a post-Derek-Bailey-sidelong-glancing-to-John-Fahey improviser, which I know sounds like a dimestore cage but in this case just isn't, because he's got that spooky ability to make asymmetry symmetrical and dissonance sing under his spider-web fingers. Eric's now-sadly-defunct duo with Michell McAdorey (with whom he played for awhile in Crash Vegas too) yielded two of the most gorgeous recordolas in all Torontopia, last year's Love Don't Change and the way-back Whirl (note: that was a secret passageway). Meanwhile his re-funked newer duo with Martin Arnold is a marvel of mini-maximalist guitar-banjo wobble that amounts to a much more intense interpretation of the whole idea of "psych-folk" than any of the fashionable sets flying that flag, tho they were at it before then and will continue thereafter, hopefully with some overdub-drenched cerebellum-sludge albums to mark their route. And that is not to mention his hundred other projects, including Rat-drifting itself (also with Martin Arnold). Or the fact that he keeps writing these beautiful ballads that I can never believe are new songs and not some traditional classic or legendary lost Gordon Lightfoot song rewritten by Syd Barrett. [/tangent]

Not to underrate the rest of Drumheller, Rob Clutton, Nick Fraser, Doug Tielli and Brodie West, each with their strengths and endearing flaws. (Also: They all compose, and they all improvise, and the band walks the drunken late-night cop-car-pulled-them-over line between the two.) The other part cut from today's review is this final, not entirely happy line:

"Unfortunately, West is moving to Amsterdam this fall, but the band plans to carry on; with luck it will have the chance to grow into an institution you can point out proudly when you’re asked what Toronto improv is all about."

To expand on that, I know the rest of the Drumhellers (formerly known, by the way, as Bourbon Leaves) plan to visit West in Holland and gig there, which is exciting, but I both selfishly and community-mindedly want the band to continue developing as a local entity too, which I think may require a new recruit. My most constructive suggestion is that the stand-in wouldn't have to be a saxophonist - maybe a violinist or cellist? - so that West could stay a member and the band could morph between five- and six-person ensemble strength. This is one of the curses of Toronto - far too often, the brightest little dynamos are too damn eager to go somewhere else. .... But seriously, all the best Zoilus wishes to Brodie as he goes double-Dutch - I'm sure you'll do well there, since you've already got Han Bennink's endorsement.

Again, that's Drumheller, Sat. night at the Tranzac, 10 pm, playing their own compositions along with those of fellow Rat-drifter Josh Thorpe. If you need further convincing, what are you, made of STONE? All right, there are also gung-ho reviews this week in eye and NOW.

McAdorey plays refreshing musical hooky

CARL WILSON
SCENE
The Globe and Mail
17 March 2000

The blueprint is there, in the safety-deposit box of Canadian dreams, ready to be rolled out on any dressing-room table and consulted. Reporters keep a copy to check against the latest news from Billboard, talk-show guest lists, Juno and Grammy rosters. It's how you build a pop career here -- whether indie-band, radio-band or dance-band -- and most artists would no more throw it away than they would discard chord charts and catchy melodies.

But Michelle McAdorey and Eric Chenaux burned the blueprints years ago. Not that they are unfamiliar with such charts of progress. McAdorey had a quiet fame with her band Crash Vegas, a major-label concern before its eight-year life span ended in 1996, while Chenaux was a buzzed-about guitar-slasher in punk bands Phleg Camp and Life Like Weeds in the early nineties.

Indeed, McAdorey, a black-haired, Irish-eyed beauty, is someone people have been trying to recruit to stardom ever since Midge Ure produced her teenage group's 1982 dance-pop single in England. She played the 1996 prototype of Lilith Fair, and if she chose, easily could be in the front ranks of today's brigade of northern pop sirens.

But both their heads were turned by sounds from outside, and they left through the hole in the fence. In fact, the aesthetic of playing hooky - as plumbed in McAdorey's "camping, riding freight trains, house-painting," and Chenaux's involvement in experimental improvisation - is integral to the sound of Whirl, the CD they're launching this weekend in Montreal and next Thursday in Toronto.

While the disc is under McAdorey's name, it is a collaboration the two have been developing for the past couple of years - while Chenaux also released More Remote than the Puma, a disc of solo guitar improvisations, and helped organize the ongoing Ulterior improv series at the Victory Cafe in Toronto.

McAdorey's contemplative songs and intense, intimate voice (often compared lately to U.S. cult artist Cat Power) are the project's core. But they're meshed and mixed with Chenaux's "fragile" bowed and plucked guitar, slippery rhythms and discords.

While it's not improvisation, says Chenaux, "There is a certain looseness, and there's a certain place the instruments sit, so they aren't gigantic, the voices don't overpronounce themselves." The style is not so much of singer and accompanist but of an ensemble sketching a song as it's played.

"It was a search while we were recording," says McAdorey. "It's a weaving of texture, so that it isn't delineated - 'here's a solo and here's a bass and a drum' - there was an idea to lose a lot of that. I mean, there's no bass at all. Things just move in and out of each other."

That quest took about a year, at various studios around Toronto. "After a lot of struggle and heartbreak," McAdorey says, "we realized we knew just where to go. And then it became so thrilling."

"I think our next record will take about a day," adds Chenaux, only half-joking. "Any longer is just too damn long."

Instead of a blueprinted solo "comeback," in fact, the project has now become a trio, with composer Martin Arnold joining on hurdy-gurdy, melodica and guitar. "We're just trying to think of a band name," McAdorey says, sounding a bit surprised. Already, the group has leapt beyond the sound of the record.

"Duo music has a certain ambience and focus," says Chenaux, "but with a trio things can get loose and wonky -- and Martin has this unbelievable ability to play the most beautiful wonky material imaginable."

What they don't know is who, beyond their many musical friends, their audience will be. Toronto is not Chicago, where avant-gardists partner with indie-rockers routinely. But Chenaux is hopeful. "There's a new emphasis on playing in this city, and widening the different types of music people are into. It doesn't all become one gloopy mess, but borders are stretching. It makes for an interesting audience, and interesting music."

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 29 at 11:55 AM | Linking Posts

 

Kells' Closet (1800's Literary Remix Edition)

A couple of things I had to cut from the "precedents" part of today's column, for yer exclusive Zoil'istic edjimification:

Soul veterans like the Isley Brothers released two-part R&B; songs as far back as the sixties, but that was more for extended-dance-mix and double-yer-profit pleasures than for, like, crazed-soap-operetta suspense.

In fact, Kelly has often duetted in cheater-cheatee scenarios with Ronald Isley himself, who played the cuckold character of Mr. Biggs. Thanks to their work with Kells, the Isleys became the only pop act to put out hits in six consecutive decades. (Or so sources claim, though I wondered about Louis Armstrong.) Many listeners were broken-hearted Mr. Biggs didn’t pop up in Closet chapter 5.

And Drew Daniel - UC Berkeley PhD. student when he's not half of Matmos or all of The Soft Pink Truth - pointed out on ILM the similarity of the Closet suite to the 19th-century craze for verse plays meant to be read (silently or aloud) rather than acted out - which were called, believe it or not, “closet” dramas. So if you're ever asked what Milton, Goethe and R. Kelly have in common, you now have an answer.

It also occurred to me today, opening up my care package from the Internet book store, that Trapped in the Closet is kinda the adult-entertainment version of Harry Potter, with its serial cliffhangers. ... It's R. Kelly's every-flavour beans.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 3:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Kells's Closet Case Cracked

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This R. Kelly mannequin has been all over blogville, but till I went hunting myself I'd never seen this bizarre full-figure shot, which kinda foreshadows the conclusion of today's column.

In today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, I go down the pee-yellow-brick road with the Pied Piper (eww) of R&B;, into the formica-countered Emerald Ghetto of the most stupendously cuckoo pop phenomenon of the century, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet series, the force ('cuz it ain't the feeble single Players Only) that propelled his new album to the top of the charts this week. For once, a celeb accused of dirty deeds actually tries to save his ass not with legalese and smear campaigns but with — can it be? — his art. [... Read it here. ...]

The greatest summer single of ever

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 16, 2005

In 2005, pop music is about anything but pop music. It's about tsunami aid and African debt, celebrity trials and sexual misconduct. Most of all it's about technology, the iPod as ubiquitous cultural feeding tube, the mobile-phone ring tone as 11-second chart wonder.

Or rather, it was, until R&B; singer R. Kelly — in his second decade of multimillion-selling fame, and short weeks before his own imminent sex trial — made pop all about the songs again, thanks to the most off-the-hook summer-single ploy ever.

Coincidence? Not. But if a star has been accused of having issues with drugs, guns, Scientology or — for the most-unfortunately nicknamed "Pied Piper of R&B;" — degrading videotaped sex with very underage girls, I don't want him making talk-show testaments, sham marriages or hurried dashes with umbrella-toting bodyguards to unmarked limos.

No, I want him to court public sympathy by dreaming up entertainment so baroquely fantastic that people will demand clemency just so he can make more, aware it's wrong but unable to help themselves.

In case of emergency, break creative glass ceiling.

So: What about a five-part musical saga involving two married couples, several adulteries, a cop, a gay pastor named Rufus and his secret lover Chuck, a handgun, multiple cellphones, a closet and a condom, set to a water-torture suspenseful score, with each chapter ending abruptly in a cliffhanger with a reverberating string-and-kettle-drum crescendo?

That is the marvel that is R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1 to 5. The epic appears in its full perverse glory on his new, instant-No.-1 album, TP.3 Reloaded. But first segments were released one by one to radio from April to now, to succour the medium in its grimmest, iPod-menaced hour. Kelly aimed to revive the golden-age radio serial. R&B; stations happily played along, making it a hit and, for many of us, an obsession.

(Don't read further if you don't want to know what happens.) (I've never ever felt the need to issue a spoiler warning about a song before now.)

There's also a video, whose TV premiere last week was the top-rated show in BET history. Shot with the cheap back-lighting and dun sets of a daytime soap, Kelly and a group of actors enact exactly the scenarios in the song — like the moment in Chapter 1 when Kelly, hiding from a jealous husband in a bedroom closet the day after a tryst, fumbles with his phone "to quickly put it on vi-i-i-bra-a-a-te!"

The actors mouth the lines as if speaking, but Kelly croons the actual dialogue, and more. It's like a reverse tone-deafness in which all human speech and thought are replaced by the buttery vocalese of R. Kelly.

In Chapter 2, the jealous husband, who is also gay pastor Rufus, uses his own cell to get Chuck to come announce "the shocking truth," their own plan to marry. When he hangs up, Kelly off-handedly sings, "Click!"

And, reader, that's what the whole piece is like! Later, Kelly sings the siren of a police car pulling him over! Don't even ask about the part where Kelly sings to his wife to hurry up and orgasm because he has a leg cramp! And she still tells him what a great lover he is! Let's just say it ends badly! And circuitously!

In the manner of an Andy Warhol movie, it's too knowing to be inadvertent, too earnest to be satire and too bat-guano nuts to make sense. But Kelly, who happens to have the voice of a 21st-century Sam Cooke, bulldozes any and all attempts to maintain an ironic distance with his overcharged delivery. It's not so bad it's good; it's so unabashedly itself that it's beyond bad and good — it's so R., it's Kelly.

One (or five) of a kind though it is, Closet has precedents. The cheater-cheated theme is a staple of Kelly's back catalogue, and the storytelling is like a cannabis-fried version of country-blues ballad Frankie & Johnny or the Persuaders' Thin Line Between Love and Hate, flipping back and forth to Jerry Springer and Desperate Housewives.

It's also an amoral take on the revival-tent-style morality plays that draw throngs of black Americans on today's urban-gospel theatre circuit, the source of last year's minor hit movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman. And this being R. Kelly, there's also a whiff of Boogie Nights-era pornography, all pile carpet and faux-wood panelling.

But the key is radio and TV daytime soap operas — which, like Closet, are domestic, talk-heavy and full of flawed but sympathetic characters, and unfold in revelations and cliffhangers that never resolve the story. Closet has no chorus because it's a soap — a chorus would be a climax, which in a soap opera must be deferred indefinitely. Call it tantric plotting.

In fact, Kelly has already announced that there will be at least five more chapters to Closet, probably more. (Which explains why Chapter 5 makes such a lousy ending — it isn't one.) Embarking on a potentially infinite project is one way to assert your belief you won't go to jail.

Feminist scholars also suggest soap opera's open, interconnected narrative structures mirror feminine social identity. And that's just what Kelly needs. Not only to curry favour with female fans, who love the goofy, homely realism of his erotic imagination (that leg cramp, or the chopped tomatoes in Sex in the Kitchen) and the humility with which he'll sometimes interrupt his horndogging to pay obeisance to family and God; but to dismantle his other face, the hysterically hypermasculine sex predator, and make amends.

Unlike Cooke or Marvin Gaye, Kelly still seems locked deep in his own closet. Closet grazes against cultural taboos — tolerating homosexuality, acknowledging the playa-ho double standard — but as always, Kelly drops it and lets himself off scot free.

So, while the first five (well, four) parts remain the greatest summer single of ever, if Kelly wants his artistic clemency, the next five instalments of Trapped in the Closet better look something like this: Ch. 6. Kelly and traffic cop fall in love; Ch. 7. Now-ex-wife and ex-girlfriend beat down Kelly with own video camera; Ch. 8. Kelly and cop take spa day with Jay-Z, followed by volunteering at women's shelter; Ch. 9. Kelly begins taking hormone therapy; Ch. 10. Kelly adjusts to life as male-to-female transsexual: And I look in the closet! That's my bra in the closet! My bra in the claaaaw-sit! (. . . sit, sit, sit, sit . . .)

Then maybe we'll talk.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 3:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

One Liners

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I have a brief review of the excellent recent box set on early country-music pioneer Charlie Poole in today's Globe and Mail. (See below.)

Daphne settles the fiction-writer-as-critic debate (sparked by this) quite handily and with a fairly unique lack of snottiness, while managing to send chills through me about the low ceiling on a critic's prospects.

The Dears are having a baby, or specifically Natalia and Murray are, and are thus taking a touring break.

Meanwhile some-ones in der Broken Social Scene seem to have been busted for pot purchasing in New York - Aaron is tracking developments so I don't have to.

Goodbye Joe we gotta go me-oh-my-oh.

CD of the WEEK

The original country music star

CARL WILSON
15 July 2005
The Globe and Mail

You Ain't Talkin' to Me:
Charlie Poole & the Roots of Country Music
Box Set, Sony/Legacy

★ ★ ★ ★

Perhaps no instrument has a history so muddled in pride and spite as the banjo, appropriated from African-American slaves as a minstrel-show instrument, then damned as the musical weapon of choice for white rural rednecks, and later sanctified as an emblem of folk-revivalist idealism.

A chapter in that chronicle has to go to 1920s singer and banjoist Charlie Poole, a truly proud and spiteful character. He pioneered the three-finger-roll picking that became Earl Scruggs's classic bluegrass style, but out of necessity rather than choice — having broken and bent his fingers catching a baseball bare-handed on a drunken bet. Poole also had his front teeth knocked out one night by a half-dodged bullet and died at age 39 after a two-week alcoholic binge.

Brawler and wastrel that he was, though, he was the first country-music star. If it hadn't been for the 100,000-plus sales of his 1925 record Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues, a record exec like Roy Acuff might never have gone hunting for hayseed hit-makers such as the Carter Family.

Some say Poole is to country what Robert Johnson is to the blues, but despite his mill-worker roots, Poole was a more cosmopolitan figure. He blended old-timey fiddle music, Victorian parlour songs, white gospel, minstrel “coon songs” and the pop ballads of the day, buttoning them all into a suit and tie (usually with his North Carolina Ramblers string trio) and seeding a half-dozen subgenres of the future.

This three-CD set creatively matches Poole's best recordings with tracks from his influences and imitators. Housed in an ersatz battered cigar box with a sharp Poole portrait by cartoonist (and old-time 78 collector) Robert Crumb, and accompanied by an award-worthy 50-page booklet, it's the most rollicking graduate course in early musical Americana you could demand.

Caution: The 80-year-old recordings are lovingly restored, but inevitably there's a little scratchiness. Don't let it cheat you out of such a lively listen.

Read More | News | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 15 at 4:52 PM | Linking Posts

 

"In This Busy, Hectic World, Who Has Time For A Whole Album?"

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Zoilus readers might recall Toronto's own Brian Joseph Davis, creator of the Theodor Adorno punk rock album, which went on from our pages to web-wide acclaim.

Now, Brian's back from his usual art and video efforts and messing plunderphonically in the boneyards of music. I was delighted to find in my mailbox this morning Brian's new CD Greatest Hit, which is, simply put, a set of six entire greatest-hits albums - by Whitney Houston, Kenny G., the Carpenters, the Police, the Rolling Stones and Metallica - each boiled down to one four-or-five-minute track, so you can take in the canons of one of these, uh, indispensible artists while wolfing down breakfast each morning and be done by the end of the week.

I can't outdo Brian's jacket copy: "Ever imagine all 22 songs of The Carpenters 1968-1983 playing simultaneously? Now you don’t have to just imagine. Whitney Houston’s The Ballads starts sharing sonic space with Sainkho Namtchylak. Every track on The Police: Greatest Hits combines for a rhythmic freakout not unlike recent Boredoms." (Also the Metallica cut isn't made from a greatest hits album but from Master of Puppets, which he says was just "their last okay album.") Brian adds that the tracks were simply multitracked, not particularly manipulated, and that he is mad pranking on it, at that: "Treating this recording as a score, Davis is attempting to copyright Greatest Hit as an original composition with the U.S. Copyright Office. $2500 fine, or copyright granted? Check back in 6-8 weeks."

The digipacks (see above) made out of recycled 70s album covers are a nice touch.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 22 at 12:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

So Sinsurr

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The ecstasy of knowing Gwyneth Paltrow: If they could just bottle her essence, Prozac would go out of business. Or so Hua Hsu seems to think.

Here we go again. Aaron points to Hua Hsu's piece in Slate today as another case of a critic calling Coldplay insincere: "There is something suspicious about overdramatizing the terms of those emotions... But it's almost stranger for him to offer a collection of songs infected with the same low spirits as 2000. The State of Coldplay has never been stronger and Martin, with his celebrity wife and new child, has cobbled together a pretty good life. If it's not the sadness of worldly affairs that gnaw at the aching heart of Coldplay's songs—and the lyrics suggest not—it can't possibly be his own life, either. Maybe it's those bastard shareholders. Worse yet: Maybe it's nothing at all."

Arrrrgh! Aaron's saying that if all these smart critics use "sincerity," that proves there's something to it. I'm saying that the conceit of sincerity leads smart critics to say stupid things, and this is the worst case yet. How the hell does Hua Hsu know whether Chris Martin has anything to be unhappy about? Maybe Gwyneth cheats on him. Maybe he was an abused child. Maybe he's clinically depressed. (You could have written almost this same passage about Kurt Cobain at one time.) Maybe Martin's just a compassionate, sensitive person, interested in sadness more than happiness, the way many artists are. As Townes Van Zandt said, "There are only two kinds of music - the blues and zipadeedoodah." I like some zipadeedoodah, too, but I wouldn't fault Chris Martin for, like Townes, preferring the blues. (I do blame him for being not especially good at it.) The totally unwarranted presumption to know and be able to sit in judgment on the heart and soul of the human being behind the art is exactly what using sincerity as a criterion leads to, and exactly why it's not worth wiping your critical ass with.

Hua is so much stronger when he says "X&Y; is a record that defers, tragically, to the singer. Many of the songs open with a spotlighted Martin unfurling his lyrical sadness before the band even has a chance to get into a rhythm, play a note or unpack their equipment." What makes a song "overwrought," as he later calls the title track, is not that it's out of proportion to the known facts about the singer's life. It's that it's out of balance for its own internal coherence.

It all has to do with how this out-of-control celebrity culture gums up our ears. It's not that the extra-musical trappings of artists' public presence - clothes, politics, manner, use of teleprinter code - are not fair game for semiotic interpretation, but making up imaginary private lives for them should be left for slash fiction.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 14 at 1:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Last Nail in the Coffin of the Honesty Police

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You think these girls are going to listen to your claim that Chris Martin's a cynical phony?

I can't believe I am still talking about Coldplay. But it's become a case study. I want to get this down. So I zapped last night's entry. (I realize that breaks some kind of blogging commandment but the hell with that - it was a waste of space.) Here's a better try:

The flaw of "sincere" or "honest" as a critical term is that any claim by the critic to be able to read the artist's mind should be laughed at. When we think we're hearing honesty, what we're usually hearing is precision and detail, or sometimes just raw simplicity, but none of those actually require veracity; what we identify with insincerity is bombast or pontification or sentimentality, none of which actually require heartlessness. If you want to praise a song as honest or sincere, you'll get by fine, but nobody's going to listen to a critic who accuses their favourite singer of being dishonest. You know how honest she is. Fuck that guy. What does he know? And you'll be right - I couldn't possibly know. (Neither can you, but that's academic.) (And nobody will ever know: Even if the singer later says she was insincere, she might just be covering up for her past gormlessness.)

So there is no ground to be gained on the ramparts of the sincerity wars. We'll all choose our own cherry-tree-axing idols of honesty, and for our own reasons. Honesty's overrated anyway - klansmen are being honest about their hatred for other races. Better they should pretend. In any case, I see no good option but to take it as a rule that every artist is being honest and sincere - so the stakes are real, everybody stands behind what they make and is willing to answer for it. It seems like the basic building block of civilization. That's me holding up my little lantern.

Aaron asked, "Wouldn't it be fair to say that if you found us to be cliche, crap and completely devoid of substance... you would think us... erm... insincere?" Nope. I could think you (if you were, say, Chris Martin) a boring, humourless, sluggish pratt, maybe; maybe a twit whose ego's been hyperinflated by boning a movie star; maybe a hack songwriter who can't tell redwoods of creative genius from witless twigs; but I wouldn't assume you don't even mean it. That's just rude.

Dave offers the crucial test: What could the Coldplay critic say that somebody who, say, likes but doesn't love Coldplay might actually hear? Not that they're fakers, for sure. Not even that the songs are cliched. But perhaps you'd catch their ears that Coldplay is wallowing in a pool nobody wants to be caught swimming in. "[Pareles] might have started by saying what's wrong with wanting songs that are soothing but don't go anywhere. He might have pointed out the fact that they aren't fundamentally different in function from the Yanni or Vangelis records their parents might have listened to." There's also the virtue of showing your work: "detailed, side-by-side comparisons of the Radiohead and U2 songs that Coldplay have ripped off. Had he written a diss so funny or so clever that nobody would want to be on the side of his opponents, he might have won over some converts."

Okay, enough of that now.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 10 at 5:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (27)

 

Sir Dark Invader Vs. The Fanglord

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This is supposedly out today. CD Baby has samples and, despite all the entertaining codswallop below, they sound sharp, clear-headed and vigorous. For a couple 'a mopers.

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From an interview with Sally Timms (via the "Doubters" mail list):

And as he's not here, can you shed any light on what Jon's been up to with Richard Buckner?

ST: "You don't want to know. He and Richard came round to my house weirdly enough. They set up their home studio system in my back room and I left them to it. I came back and found two very drunken men, all red and sweaty, and I have no idea what they were doing. They said they were making a record.

"They've made an EP, I think, for this bloke Howard who¹s going to put it out. He works with Bertina at Thrill Jockey. They instantly bonded when they met, and they've been off like a pair of chubby school kids doing things ever since. I think we're going to go on tour together. God help everyone.

"I'd go round to Jon's and Richard would be swanning around with a hangover at about two in the afternoon. It was like having Lord Byron living in your attic. Cos he's very romantic. He just wanders from here to there, not really living anywhere, just making music and breaking girls' hearts."

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 01 at 4:53 PM | Linking Posts

 

On Looking Into a Pile of Promo Envelopes

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Anybody else heard this new collaboration between DJ Spooky and Dave Lombardo of Slayer, Drums of Death, featuring Chuck D., Dalek, Meredith Monk, Vernon Reid and others? Just looking at it makes me afraid it's going to splooge all parties involved with glutinous sticky humiliation. Should I be?

The Maximo Park album? I would've passed it by without a blink, not least for its pointless umlautage, but Franklin likes them so much (see item #4), I'll haveta ... what's the audio equivalent of "scope it out" - for giving something a quick scan with your ears? Something more vivid than "give it a listen" or "check it out"? Suggestion box is open.

Jaga Jazzist is now, with new disc What We Must, just "Jaga." We would like to express our support. I personally never have been able to bring myself to listen to a Jaga Jazzist record because their name was so repulsive. (Yes, I am like that.) But a Jaga record? Sure, I'll taste a spoonful... I wonder if it's a tribute to Mick Jagger's accent? Prob'ly not.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 28 at 5:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Hot-Clutton Issue

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Rob Clutton. Photo by Joe Sorbara

Tonight at 10 pm at the Tranzac Club, bassist-composer Rob Clutton launches his first solo-bass CD, coming out on the Rat-drifting label with the typically self-effacing title Dubious Pleasures. I'm quoted in the press materials calling Rob one of Toronto's most gifted pure musicians, and it's a very pleasant surprise to find this modest player stepping out of the group context (he plays in a good dozen ensembles, including his own Rob Clutton Band) to put himself in the spotlight. The disc shows off Clutton's comfortably wide range, whether he's plucking or playing arco or using extended techniques such as the long hisses and frictions that make How Big Are the Dots sound like a journey in a slow-leaking balloon, or the wavering, grumbling drones that rise to scraping screeches in Mr. Taciturn. But there are also nearly devotional-sounding melodies, as on the concise Air. It's easy for something like a solo bass CD to become monotonous, to feel like a recital without personality, and it's a credit to Rob's developing compositional chops that Dubious Pleasures never recedes into background music but keeps up its intensity and physicality. He's a difficult musician to place in a school - this is not a "free jazz" album or a new-music composition disc or a micro-sonics improv album, though it contains elements of each. The eclecticism is welcome, although I sometimes wish I had more of a compass for where this music wants to go, perhaps more of a sense of an argument or challenge posited. This is an issue I have with a lot of Canadian creative improv these days. I'm not sure if it's a reasonable one. On my side is the dialectical tradition of jazz and improv, which have thrived on their forward-questing energies, but perhaps it is too much of an extramusical, or nonmusical, concern - and maybe the quiet refusal to be burdened with it in the current scene is a healthy abstention, forcing the focus back on to the music's unfolding from moment to moment. This sense of duration, almost of a suppressed narrative, is common to a lot of the Rat-drifting releases (featuring players such as Eric Chenaux, Martin Arnold, Doug Tielli, Ryan Driver, etc.), and perhaps it's where Rob's less abstract, more robust style meets theirs.

After his solo set tonight he will join Tim Posgate's Jazzstory for a set with Posgate on guitar, Lina Allemano on trumpet and Jean Martin on drums. The Tranzac is at 292 Brunswick Ave., Toronto, just south of Bloor.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 22 at 3:50 PM | Linking Posts

 

The Consecrated Casio

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Where have all the new posts gone? I've been distracted with the action over at PWI, where a group of bloggers and friends, including yours truly, have been haggling over making up a list of counter-canonical Canadian songs as an ornery complement to the CBC's 50 Tracks. Look there now for some chatter about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, battles over the Tragically Hip and praise for Slow, with much more yet to come. Meanwhile back at the homestead, I'm updating the March show calendar this afternoon, researching my upcoming Experience Music Project paper, and so forth. (And in my absence Dave Morris has written the most even-handed M.I.A. post of all time. I still disagree, but it's taken all the fight out of me.)

However, I want to share the thing I just wrote for The Other 50 Tracks, a response to Keith's nomination of Hallelujah, in which he stipulated not the album version with the Casio but the live version with the strings. This, gentle readers, flipped me out, and so I fired off the following impassioned and possibly insane defense of the Casio as remote-control device of Zen enlightenment, and its role in Cohen's artistic apotheosis. Or something. Read it on the jump. (Nitpick pre-emption alert: I think often here we are saying Casio when we ought to be saying Technics, although Cohen used both, and explicitly rejected more "professional" keyboards.) [...]

From: Wilson, Carl
Sent: Friday, March 18, 2005 2:23 PM
Subject: FW: Hallelujah for the Casio

Hey all,

Sorry about the delays. I was making a newspaper - I'm an editor here as well as a writer, and was in weekend-section production hell till lunchtime today. I'll send in a pick later this afternoon, but first here is my case on the Leonard Cohen issue. I'll warn you, this is gonna be long.

Folks, there's no question in my mind that Hallelujah should be on the list. The other time I've taken part in an exercise of this sort was when the Globe's music critics worked up a Great Canadian Songs list a couple of years ago, and we ranked Hallelujah number 1. (There's a copy of it here.)

But Keith couches his nomination by saying, "What if Leonard Cohen had never been introduced to the Casio? ... What if [...] Len was left to work on his arrangements with nothing more than strings, acoustic guitar and those background singers who always sound like they should have wings, halos and gauzy white dresses? Wouldn't Hallelujah be among the greatest songs of all time? ... Yet, lyrics this great, words this powerful, are held back by a synth track that wouldn't seem out of place at The Dresden Room. ... So, why don't we cut the Casios by nominating the live version of Hallelujah from 1994's Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen in Concert?"

And there, he misses the real glory of Hallelujah, and indeed the glory of everything Leonard Cohen has done with the Casio and its kin sounds, especially on one of the greatest albums any Canadian has ever made, so obviously Cohen's own best that it's difficult even to compare it with any of the others, 1988's I'm Your Man. The album that contains Hallelujah, 1984's Various Positions, is frequently keyboard-driven as well, but it is a transitional work, moving forward toward Cohen's personal punk-rock-minimalist breakthrough but with a lot of its aesthetic still rooted in the 1970s gypsy-rock style of albums such as Recent Songs and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. In this, Various Positions reminds me of Tom Waits' Heartattack and Vine, which similarly has some of Waits' best songs ever, but is a bit of a sonic muddle, moving out of the piano jazz-blues towards the otherworldly music of Swordfishtrombones, but not yet quite making the radical break. (I make the comparison because most people recognize that Waits made a radical innovative break in the 1980s, while Cohen's doesn't get that kind of credit.)

Why does this matter? Cohen's melodies have always been beautiful and his arrangements have always been interesting, but like his early poetry, they usually were mired in a kind of swamp of excessively "good" taste: Rolling Spanish guitar lines, angelic background singers, string sections and brushed drums were everywhere. The result was that Cohen was, from the first, a kind of self-made cliche. I still adore much of that music, but it doesn't prepare you for the shock you get when you hear bootleg recordings or 1973's Live Songs album of the man in concert at the time, a sarcastic, improvising spiritual stand-up comic in the tradition of Lenny Bruce who would turn and twist his songs into reflexive commentary, who would get into shouting matches about the nature of truth with members of his audience, who would provoke his hippy admirers with his nihilist scepticism or even right-leaning militant Zionism. No, the album arrangements, with rare exceptions (most notably his insane collaboration with Phil Spector, 1977's Death of a Ladies Man) generally served to reassure and sanitize the extreme individualist spiritual existentialism that Cohen brings to his music, making him seem much less the Canadian Bob Dylan-style trickster that he really is and far more the French chanteur-turned-monk that romantic sentimentalists (including Cohen's own youthful self) would have preferred him to be.

I'm Your Man brought the trickster centre stage, not only by surrounding Cohen with shiny plastic keyboard lines that seemed to tumble and canter around him like glittering Broadway hydraulic set pieces, but with songwriting that discarded a lot of Cohen's previous self-pity and self-justification and entertained the possibility that his problems stemmed from the fact that his soul was irredeemably corrupt. That he was a pathetic fool (I'm Your Man), a centreless egotist (I Can't Forget), and a terrible singer to boot (Tower of Song). And in this it showed Cohen's progress in the disciplines of Zen - his willingness to embrace the paradox that enlightenment is not achieved but accepted, that suffering can only be alleviated by admitting the sheer idiocy of your desires rather than by elevating them to the status of sacraments.

But first, on Various Positions, he had at least one great statement to make - before he could say goodbye to his sainthood, he had to tell the story of his attempt to please the lord with sex and song, the long pilgrimage of his bohemian life that finally led him to realize bohemian life was undoing his spirit rather than raising him up: "Love is not a victory march." That story is told, in parable form, in Hallelujah. It's the story of attempting every stratagem and finally having to strip them away, because God doesn't really care for music anyway. "And even though it all went wrong/ I'll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

That nakedness of self before the mystery is what he achieves with the Casio. It rejects (and even parodies) the grandeur of the church organ, leaves behind the comforting myth of the guitar-toting troubador, offering a thin and humble slice of music that is more true to the puniness of the ego before the vastness of creation. The Casio also sounds of all the phoniness of modern life, of processed cheese slices and shopping malls - so that rather than fantasize that he was singing from a cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle or the communes of Paris or even the bars of 1960s Montreal, Cohen can acknowledge that he's singing from the neon streets of Los Angeles, from a venal spiritual strip club that's open all night and tired all day - and then say that this, too, is hallowed ground, and here I will lay my finest words and melodies before you, whether you are god or man, on this chintzy altar, up these cardboard steps, in a place where nothing is true and everything is permitted but I am going to try for exaltation anyway. "You say I took the name in vain? I don't even know the name." There is no magic division between sin and salvation. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, but we keep on laying these golden eggs - so crack 'em open and fry 'em up. You might be in the Dresden Room, but it means as much to fall to your knees there as in any church, and maybe a whole lot more.

Hallelujah matters not just because it's one of his greatest, funniest and most moving lyrics and best compositions (which seems to have pleased him so much that he even describes the chord progression in the first verse: "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift") but because it's the point where he crosses a threshold from a weakness for pomp to a delight in circumstance, an allowance for musical contingency far closer to his brave young self sacrifices before sceptical arena crowds. It's the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

I'm not saying that Cohen's Casio, like all great artistic gambits, doesn't eventually become his own enemy. After 1992's The Future, where he uses the keyboard sound most of all for its contemporariness in some of the best political songs he or anybody has ever written, Cohen's commitment to music itself really seems to begin to wane, and on his most recent albums, he's handed over too much of the responsibility for the sound to others and just shows up to recite from his notebooks, and it gets pretty thin. But even there I actually remain suspicious of myself for not appreciating that next level of aesthetic abandon - for wanting something prettier, something closer to wings and halos and gaudy white dresses, when Cohen says, "No, no, listen, isn't this funny? And isn't it kind of pretty, in an old and cracked* kind of way? Isn't being here together, talking softly and honestly over this cheap drugstore wine of a music, enough for you?"

Perhaps by the time I'm his age I will be there. But for now, all I know is that the challengingly "bad" sound of the Casio was the signpost for everything that made Cohen's middle period one of the most compelling performances by a Canadian artist ever. I enjoy the prettier version, too, but I'm much more grateful for the one that wouldn't mollycoddle me, that made me wonder what he was up to, the one that made me laugh in incredulous shock, rather than just sway my head and be soothed. The one that makes me think he's not being disingenuous when he says he knows his best "wasn't much," when he says he "didn't come to fool you."

So here's my ultimatum: I don't say you have to specify the album version over the live one, Keith. But if you want us to make the list in such a way that the ridiculous little Casio is refused its spiritual depth, the incredible way Cohen gives it status as a tick-tock ritual instrument of the tacky urban metropolis, as valid as a drum in a Voudun ceremony - well, I can't let that stand. So can we compromise? Just say Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, and let people decide which one they want to believe - after all, as the song says, "There's a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn't matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah."

* "there is a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in" - Anthem, L. Cohen, 1992

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 18 at 3:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Meanwhile Back at the Other Obsession

Pitchfork reviews Final Fantasy today, lukewarmly. (For once I beat PF into print in The Globe with a review.)

I'll complain later, starting with the Andrew Bird canard. (That's a pun.)

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 22 at 4:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Be Realistic: Demand Fantasy

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Final Fantasy Watch: The promised review is in today's paper. The published version was cut down quite a bit. Here is the original. Annotations to come.

Has a Good Home
Final Fantasy
Blocks Recording Club

ast004.gifast004.gifast004.gif½ (ie., 3½ out of 4)

Every year now, a film seems to come along that was financed on credit cards and restaurant tips but holds its own beside the blockbusters (in 2004 it was Primer). This debut is a rare musical equivalent. Recorded in six days at engineer Leon Taheny's home, it's as saturated with colour as many big studio productions. The original scenario for Final Fantasy found Owen Pallett (known for his string work with Toronto's the Hidden Cameras and Jim Guthrie, and his own band Les Mouches) alone on stage with fiddle in hand and FX pedals at his feet, looping and layering short violin lines atop one another into high honeyed towers from whose windows he would sing. The image went wide-screen last month when Pallett joined his friends in Montreal "it" band the Arcade Fire (the subject of the second song here, This is the Dream of Win & Regine) on a smash U.S. tour. On the recording, Taheny and a small musical crew help add depth and shadow, as the arrangements ping-pong along tangents and vectors that befit an act named for a video game, like Bartok reborn with a yen for synthesizer pop. But there is nothing second-hand about these 16 songs, sung in soft mumbles and occasional shouts, coming across like dialogue from a mislaid narrative about family and friendship, cities and money, attachment and betrayal: "My mother never takes a break/ from pining after furniture ... and I share her love of wine and cake/ and taking advantage of amateurs." Scenes drop in and out of focus, one shot in a Montreal cannery, the next in a plane bound for the Philippines, but they are all lit with the same gentle glow. Never tentative, always exploratory - although perhaps too interior for some fans of Pallett's more extroverted collaborators - the curtain is just rising on Final Fantasy, and I can't wait for the sequel.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, February 18 at 4:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Score One For Winnipeg

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So, Beck's new album cover is by Marcel Dzama. Mr. Hansen lags just a few paces behind the Weakerthans, Lee Henderson, They Might Be Giants, McSweeneys and others in shipping the mojo of this Royal Art Lodge wunderbar to a hungry world. (Thanks to Stereogum via Aaron for the tip.) (Question: Could this have come about because Beck's brother Channing is married to Canadian art curator Lisa Mark?) (Afterthought: Not of course that the handsome Hansens need any assist to be plugged-in to the art scene: Grandpa was a Fluxist, Grandma was a poet-actress-dancer-stripper [coughbabe!cough] who nearly got Audrey Hepburn's part in Sabrina, Mom was a teenaged Warhol superstar, etc.)

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 09 at 4:30 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Failure's Always Sounded Better: Bright Eyes

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I could have been a famous singer
If I had someone else's voice,
But failure's always sounded better:
Fuck it up, boys, make some noise!

(Bright Eyes, Landlocked Blues)

In today's Globe & Mail, a consideration of the metamorphoses of Conor Oberst - from self-wary indie-crush squeeze toy to self-(less?)-aware rock-star-in-the-making (above, the most roxx starr foto of him I could find) - and a semi-contrarian defence of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the performative poptronica one, over I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, the chin-stroke Emmylou-Harris folkie one, between his two new albums.

Tomorrow's column actually serves as Part the Second of this piece, expanding out from Bright Eyes' nova-going to all the "indie"-type bands that have suddenly become mainstream, and the reactions to same, and considering whether indie rock is a genre or a politics or a business model or a myth. (Featuring gratuitous Pitchfork-bashing 4 yer pleaszah.) [...]

Bright Eyes and sleepless nights

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, January 21, 2005

The year 2004 was Conor Oberst's annus mirabilis, in a life that often sounds like a string of anni miserabili, at least in the hundreds of songs the 24-year-old has penned since he began performing more than a decade ago.

The Nebraska-bred singer better known as Bright Eyes went everywhere, man. He moved to New York; flew to Nashville to record with Emmylou Harris; started an Internet-based music label called Team Love; and toured with the anti-Bush Vote for Change campaign in the fall with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, who gave him a flea-market jacket as a souvenir.

Then, in November, Bright Eyes became the first artist since Puff Daddy in 1997 to have songs in the top two spots on the Billboard singles chart simultaneously.

The media tend to exaggerate that last achievement, as the gossip mills did when a shot of Oberst kissing Winona Ryder surfaced in 2003 (it was a friendly buss, he says, and they never dated). The chart in question measures only purchases; since practically no one really buys singles, first-week sales to hard-core fans were enough to earn the double-header. The primary Billboard chart factors in radio play, an arena where Bright Eyes poses no threat to Avril Lavigne as yet.

Oberst's songs would fall as awkwardly as soliloquies from Hamlet between the mall-rat anthems on rock radio today. Indeed, they mimic Shakespearean self-interrogations, pinballing from hubris to humiliation, from extended metaphor to explicit obscenity, in verses that overflow their rhyme schemes and choruses that often forget to arrive. The music rests on punky folk-rock that fans of both Neil Young and Green Day might embrace, but beware - harps, organs, horns and parade drums are apt to erupt any minute.

The two November singles were a tease for this week's unveiling of two distinct Bright Eyes albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. They are his first full-lengths since 2003's Lifted, whose 200,000 sales were startling for a record on Saddle Creek, the indie label he founded at 14 with Omaha friends.

The new discs were heralded on Sunday with a front-page New York Times arts-section review (following a breathless Times Magazine profile of Oberst two years ago), and similarly reverent treatment elsewhere. There will be tours and videos for each album, with a break in the spring to open for R.E.M. in Europe, and the cries of "boy genius" and "new Dylan" from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine are unlikely to abate.

And so are the catcalls. In September, a St. Louis paper nominated Oberst one of the "Ten Most Hated Men in Rock." This year no doubt it will get even hipper to denounce the new discs as either (a) more whining Oberst self-indulgence, which the speaker "always hated," or (b) a sellout of his sensitive prairie solitude, which the complainant "used to love."

If being Conor Oberst seems an exhausting proposition, you're right: The common theme of both albums is not getting any sleep. Digital Ash is a night-prowler's suite, bedevilled by death and the vast cosmos, with an insomniac synthesizer mewling like no Bright Eyes album before. I'm Wide Awake takes place amid lovers' sundappled bedrooms, protest marches and hangovers at dawn, set to acoustic guitars and Emmylou Harris harmonies. On one, Oberst risks waking up as a cockroach; on the other, sunrise might find him turned from a puppet of his own art into a real boy.

I'm not sure what to make of this sudden compartmentalization of his bipolar sensibility - except that, in its way of getting us talking, it's another phase in his main metamorphosis, from cult indie crush to bona-fide rock star.

Most critics, who prefer I'm Wide Awake, overestimate Oberst the writer, who has plenty of gifted rivals, and underrate Conor the performer, who holds his own beside the far-out vocal expressionists of hip-hop. Yes, he yelps and howls less here, in more formally balanced songs. But calling that "maturity" seems like pressuring van Gogh to go easier on the colour.

Oberst usually undermines his own confessions, vocally and verbally, showing that his excesses are more theatrical than therapeutic. In art, unlike life, extremism of thought and feeling is no vice. For that I bless the messiness of Digital Ash, which restores ridiculous Goths such as the Cure to their rightful place among Bright Eyes' ancestors, while the ghost in Hamlet cries, "Remember me."

The transformations of Conor Oberst are far from over. I do regret that both discs contain less protest than he's hinted at. As on Lifted, which may have been rock's fullest encapsulation of post-9/11 anxiety, he mixes personal and political, but not as fiercely as in concert staples such as When the President Talks to God. A genuinely mature Bright Eyes album would explore the wilderness of the world more than the Importance of Being Oberst -- but then again, is that what rock stars are for?

Bright Eyes plays the Phoenix tonight (410 Sherbourne St., 416-323-1251) with Coco Rosie and Tilly and the Wall. The show is sold out.

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SUPPLEMENTARY: My article about Bright Eyes and the Nebraska scene from when Lifted was released (on the first anniversary of 9/11, a connection whose relevance apparently escaped me at the time).


Omaha: Where the wild things are

SCENE
Carl Wilson
12 September 2002
The Globe and Mail

Omaha, Nebraska: It's the birthplace of both Malcolm X (whose family was driven off by hooded Ku Klux Klansmen) and Johnny Carson (whose wasn't), the home of an insurance company that sponsored the 1970s' most iconic wild-animal TV show. It's cornfields and urban sprawl, conventioneers and beef-factory farms. It's the boardroom of the badlands, on the way from no place to nowhere.

Now, according to Time and Jane magazines and the L.A. Times, Omaha is the new Seattle or Minneapolis or Halifax - the next big temporary thing. Something in the water has bred a crop of mutant indie bands, higher than the tallest ears of corn, roaring louder than the most hormone-maddened bull in the pen.

The hype centres on the tiny Saddle Creek label, which hosts the Faint, Lullaby for the Working Class, Azure Ray, Cursive and especially songwriter Conor Oberst, with his group Desaparecidos and his solo project Bright Eyes, which comes to the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on Sunday.

No doubt all the Nebraskan contradictions mentioned above did help pump the pressure under this geyser of creative noise: As Oberst has put it, the Saddle Creek musicians had to support each other just to survive. But you could say the same of any hundred self-nominated "armpits of America," with their own inventive cliques. It's really Oberst who's making 2002 Omaha's year.

From the title down, Bright Eyes' Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is prolix, absurd, overdone and captivating. At 73 minutes, it's more than twice as long as Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish, which came out in February, a series of hard-driven, heart-rending punk anthems about (no kidding) land use, zoning and superstores.

Oberst is all of 22, and has been working the vein of his own despair as a songwriter for nearly a decade. He's drawn comparisons to everyone from Kurt Cobain to Emily Dickinson - I'd add Winnipeg's Weakerthans - but most frequently, by the likes of Rolling Stone, to Bob Dylan, whom he resembles in little but wordiness and nerve.

With 13 songs that go on for eight or 10 minutes each, Lifted is a messier, less satisfying affair than 2000's Fevers and Mirrors. But it doesn't matter. Even when the lyrics indulge Oberst's ambivalence about the cult idolatry and industry praise, his voice mesmerizes in twists and turns from melodic croak to operatic howl. Like almost any good art, it bypasses questions of pretense - if you can make it feel like a pleasure and a surprise, why not put on that mask, or rip it off melodramatically? Go ahead and tell me something trite, if you make it feel alive.

What does Lifted sound like, then? Sometimes a rambling, mumbled monologue to an acoustic guitar strum that justifies reference to Dylan's Freewheelin', sometimes an early-sixties Nashville production with a string section, sometimes a punky squall with a bright organ backup and a chorus, literally, of drunks in a local bar. On his current tour, he's bringing a 15-piece orchestra, a typical rock kiss-of-death that from him seems like just another exercise in going over the top for the sake of the thrill ride down.

Stories come in and out of view, with Oberst scribbling notes across the margins: "The last few months I have been living with this couple/ Yeah, you know, the kind that buy everything in doubles . . . and I am thankful/ That someone actually receives the prize that was promised/ By all those fairy tales that drugged us . . . Will my number come up eventually?/ Like love is some kind of lottery/ Where you scratch and see what is underneath/ It's 'Sorry,' just one cherry/ 'Play again,' get lucky."

Press and fans have made much of Oberst's depression, but here it's leavened by variety as he graduates from teen angst to undergrad philosophy. Yet the stereotype has always been belied by his phrasing, vocally and verbally. I wouldn't call it glum so much as caring. If there's such a thing as post-irony, this is it - knowing that being disengaged is no choice at all, without feeling obliged to play along with snares and shortfalls and out-and-out lies.

It isn't cynical, this music argues, to refuse to forget what you know. Whatever credit or blame Omaha deserves, Oberst seems to find there a sense of love without pity, which makes his diary start to seem like everybody's autobiography - where you can't wait to read the next page.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 21 at 4:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

In France They Kiss On Main Street (L'Amour, Mama, Not Cheap Display)

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Keren Ann + Feist.

Compare-and-contrast: The new Feist video for Inside & Out vs. the new-ish Keren Ann video for Ailleurs.

The latest thing in Frenchdie-rock videoism is apparently retro-Umbrellas-of-Cherbourg chic. And Zoilus, a corn-syrup-hearted francophile deep down, succumbs, succumbs, succumbs. We give them both four berets out of five!

Further brownie points for the Feist video: On the sense-of-place tip, it's shot indoors and outdoors, giving new meaning to "I love you inside and out" in the original Bee Gees lyric, rather than moping around in Feist's bedroom as some might have it do. Also plays with the binary of the title with some shots in half-negative or polarization or whatchamafilmit. It also realizes, frenchly, that it is sexier to watch a woman put her shirt on than to see her take it off - there's the tantalization of what you have just missed, and the ability of the (male? nah, any) mind not just to mentally undress the object of the gaze (masculin-feminine) but to set the gaze on rewind (analog-digital) in order to undress her.

[Edited to add: It's been pointed out to me that I should say, tho I talked about the Feist clip because she's been topicky 'round here of late, that the Keren Ann clip is in fact far better, headspinningly pretty. Clap if you like dance.]

Speaking of SEX, eye (scroll down) so agrees with us about Republic of Safety and No Dynamics and about the tag-team sex-punk-socialism of the Torontorgasm Liberation Front and how it roolz 2005 lemme hear ya say yeeeeah. (Note: Zoilus so does not endorse the inference that Sonic Youth doesn't know how to party. That would be Frank Black. [Because picking Fugazi is cheating.])

In return, Zoilus totally agreeing with Stuart about John Sakamoto's superfine Anti-Hit List, and John's all-round superfineness (I worked alongside him when he was all-too-briefly a Globe editor), lamenting the A-HL's departure from eye and supercurious where it's landing next. C'mon, Stuart, a hint?

Also compare-and-contrast: Stephin Merritt and Elvis Costello in both-simultaneously-writing-musicals/operas-on-the-life-of-Hans-Christian-Andersen shockah. COULD THEY BE THE SAME PERSON JUST A GENERATION REMOVED? Well... no.

On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 20 at 10:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

And the Signifieds Butt Heads With the Signifiers

Continuing the Newsom-iotic vector: Sean's point about harp-as-banjo is a good illustration of the maskwork involved. Here's another: Instead of the 1960s, think of the 1970s, of the Kitchen, of Meredith Monk and Philip Glass. [...]

There's a great tension in the sounds of her harp and her harpsichord, between lushness and austerity; her structures have much more to do with Glass/Reich/Riley-like minimalist looping than with misty Irish mountain turf, and her voice's idiomatic wiggle against those mathematical riffs draws more on 1980s post-punk (Raincoats, say, or for a very direct echo, Cyndi Lauper) than on the choral-folk strains of Donovan or Nick Drake or Sandy Dennis. Sure, Dylan is a necessary predecessor due to the way he gave pop musicians license to employ their "own" un-pop voices, but by now surely we can take that as read. (To call her a Dylan revivalist would be mad.)

This scheme - loose naturalism disciplined and punished by mekanik processes - is closer to the trance-quadratics of Kraut Rock, Stereolab and the Kranky likes of Charlambides than to most of the psych-folkists, and I think it forms a symmetric whole with the soft-surface-hard-core game that's afoot on most of The Milk-Eyed Mender. (It does however fall apart on the songs with piano, where she has no strategy against more generic and unpersuasive country and folk cliches.)

To tweak Matos a little further I'd even say that you can hear a little electro-fied Prince in her, the harp-machine sparring with idiosyncratic vocalese (Prince needed Dylan too) as on (dare I say?) Sign o' the Times; and Matos's quip (if it was a quip?) about Newsom covering 50 Cent sent me off imagining the songs redone as contemporary R&B.; I'd say that on about half the songs there was enough groove and translatable beat-structure to make it possible - especially on Sadie, where I could really hear a breathy, trace-gospel-memory diva version of "And all that I want/ And all that I need/ And all that I've got/ Is scattered like seed/ And all that I know/ Is moving away from me/ And all that I know is blowing like tumbleweed." (But who? Maybe Sade could be coaxed out to do it, given the title...) The fact that her influences are avowedly African means more to the rhythmatic aspect than ever gets duly credited.

None of which will of course persuade committed haters. But as entry to a re-hearing - a rescue from the "oh, she's a cute little elf" fans - it's a step.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 05 at 2:34 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Joanna Newsom and the Year In Review In Review In Review

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I think Matos has made it necessary to discuss the place of Joanna Newsom in my 2004 Ceremonies of Grand Kudos: While I sympathize with a lot of his cynicism about the "New Beard America" - or at least do when I am swinging by one end of my mood rope (it changes colours!) as opposed to the other, I am more and more irked by the lumping of Newsom in with Banhart and other self-styled fairy folk. I realize there are personal interconnections that make that inevitable but I think that can promote critical deafness. (As Newsom told the Wire, "I feel like there's as much of a connection between my music and some of these people I'm being grouped together with as there is between my music and music that has been made for the last 30 years." As much and as little, she means.)

Unlike Banhart's Hippie II act, I don't hear more than a faint sixties-revivalist note in Newsom's music whatsoever, and in fact it strikes me as very much the classicist pop-structured music that it's certainly absurd to claim the Animal Collective is, for instance, simply set in a different sonic register. But also everybody makes far too much of the "naive" and "childlike" in her work, which certainly is in no way Newsom's own claim for it at all. And is really a product of kneejerk reaction to her vocal tone, which is your prerogative but of little more value than that. Newsom's music is to me very sophisticated, and weary, and wise, and its uses of beauty - the harp, the natural imagery, the close rhyming - all suggestive more of beauty's mortality than of a winsome child's adventure in the greenery. This weekend Mrs. Zoilus was listening to Th