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Just What I Feared


... 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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 06 at 06:47 PM | Comments (7)


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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 22 at 06:56 PM | Comments (0)


'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.)

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 22 at 06:52 PM | Comments (0)


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

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.


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

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 21 at 01:20 PM | Comments (0)


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).

The Globe and Mail
Friday, August 26, 2005 Page R28

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


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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 26 at 03:09 AM | Comments (2)


The Only Pornographers are
the Pornographers of Ice Cream


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)
★ ★ ★

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 19 at 11:16 AM | Comments (6)


Metric Vs. Pornographers (Which System Will Prevail?)

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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 04 at 02:28 PM | Comments (0)



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

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."

Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 29 at 11:55 AM | Comments (0)


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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 03:20 PM | Comments (2)


Kells's Closet Case Cracked

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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 03:12 PM | Comments (4)


One Liners


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 15 at 04:52 PM | Comments (0)


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


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.

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


So Sinsurr

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.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 14 at 01:42 PM | Comments (9)


Last Nail in the Coffin of the Honesty Police

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 10 at 05:38 PM | Comments (27)


Sir Dark Invader Vs. The Fanglord


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.


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."

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 01 at 04:53 PM | Comments (0)


On Looking Into a Pile of Promo Envelopes


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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 28 at 05:13 PM | Comments (3)


Hot-Clutton Issue

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.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 22 at 03:50 PM | Comments (0)


The Consecrated Casio


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

Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 18 at 03:47 PM | 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.)

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 22 at 04:53 PM | Comments (2)


Be Realistic: Demand Fantasy


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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, February 18 at 04:02 PM | Comments (1)


Score One For Winnipeg


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.)

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 09 at 04:30 PM | Comments (6)


Failure's Always Sounded Better: Bright Eyes


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

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.


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 21 at 04:11 PM | Comments (3)


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

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.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 20 at 10:59 PM | 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.

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 05 at 02:34 AM | Comments (1)


Joanna Newsom and the Year In Review In Review In Review

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 The Milk-Eyed Mender for the first time and after a few minutes broke down in tears, in one of the most spontaneous and involuntarily violent reactions to a work of art I've seen anyone have in quite a long time, and it sharpened my sense that Newsom's extraordinary quality is to discover a really harsh hard nut at the centre of a sweet fruit.

Like all great poetry, it is about loss. About sadness and exile, innocence unrecapturable, connections severed and gradually fading to memory, remaining beloved, yet truly being dead and gone and out of reach - all on a microscopically close, ecological level of observation. That's what I hear in her. In short her shit is serious and all this "winsome" talk is careless puddle-wading.

That said, I'm currently reading Matos's Prince book, a fantastic entry in the 33 1/3 series and the rest of his year in review post had me nodding my head like an addlepated bobble doll. Also worth checking are the 2004-remixed pieces he assembled with his team at Seattle Weekly (which just maybe is the central weekly publication of music writing of 2004, comparable to the Voice 15 years ago?): songs, reissues, Seattle locals and writer by writer. (Sadly their "iTunes" direct links won't work for Canadians, so to recreate them you'd have to work from scratch.)

And just in case you felt your year had somehow been insufficiently reviewed: What says the staff of free-form holdout station WFMU? What about the mighty Sasha Frere-Jones? (Who by the way has a new New Yorker piece on mash-ups , which manages to be a NY'er-reader-friendly Beginner's Guide but still present a provocative thesis.) Hey, whassup, Jody Rosen in Slate, Mark K-Punk, Simon Reynolds, Grime-centric Silver Dollar Circle, Philip Sherbourne, Geeta, Comes With a Smile staff and endlessly inquisitive Jess Harvell?

Also check out-music hub Brainwashed's valuable year-end poll, and Metacritic's pseudo-scientific version of same. Scott Seward considers his Pazz & Jop ballot and then he casts it. The NYT's Jon Pareles presents a retrospective on a retrospective year and Coolfer comments. And if that ain't enough for you: Fimoculous throws open the floodgates.

On the meta- tip, Yancey Strickler does precisely the anatomy-of-the-top-10-list that I considered doing but gave up on (for lack of space and a wee dram of laziness) in last week's column. Jace Clayton presents DJ Rupture's Top 5 Problems With Top 10 Albums Lists.

In the local arena Luca plays one of the songs of the year, Torontoist picks singles and albums, Eye picks albums and singles but for some reason separates out the dance albums, John Sakamoto presents the Anti-Hit List best of 2004, Denise Benson looks at the year in da clubs, while Errol Nazareth offers a very very thoughtful year-ender and Zoilus is included among this year's music-scene Winners; meanwhile over at NOW, Zoilus is counted among the Top 10 local blogs, and the staff assembled a really useful Best of Toronto music feature along with best-of lists from Sarah Liss, Michael Hollett and cranky ol' Tim Perlich. Also in the Greater Metropolitan Area, a list from 10:51 a.m. Toronto, many many lists over the course of December at A Shot Online, an extensive list at Basement Galaxy and, at the Toronto Star, Ben Rayner's pleasantly unpredictable 10 and Vit Wagner's rather more predictable, but fine, 10; as well, Geoff Chapman's year-in-jazz and Ashante Infantry's R&B; 2004. I unfortunately can't link to Aaron's article relating to his list, but I can say that I would dispute the robustness of Feist's sense of place and that this is, in fact, one of my misgivings with the album.

And finally, a nonmusical but still pageant-like list, The Better Living Centre's 2004 in Toronto marginalia.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 04 at 08:16 PM | Comments (4)


2004 In the Rear-View

john darnielle.jpg nas4.gif newsomx.jpg

Zoilus' artists of the year: John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Nas, Joanna Newsom

From today's paper:

Music awards selected by an academy of one


The Globe & Mail
Saturday, Jan. 1, 2005

Is every year as uncertain as 2004 was? Is it always so hard to track which events matter, or identify what subject is on the table? Probably, but it was more palpable this year. Even in music, it seemed doubtful any sound would outlast its moment, as each week brought new thrills and abominations.

Music was more plentiful, polyglot and multivalent than ever; boundaries blurred between genres, and even between mainstream and margins. It wasn't a year of consolidation, but of intense, risky conversation.

As a side effect, year-end lists that try to rank Atlanta rappers against French chanteuses and Canadian indie-rock bands have never seemed so absurd. It's not apples and oranges but pineapples versus cough syrup. Most efforts stink of tokenism. In the digital era, a year is too slow to download; yet for posterity it's way too soon to know.

So instead of an overall list, welcome to the first annual Overtones Music Awards, in 22 categories, as selected by an academy of one. [...]

The New Year's Champagne Toast. Of course, I have favourites. Nothing captivated me quite like the Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed, an elliptical, six-string roman à clef about speed freaks, paranoia and incomplete redemption. John Darnielle's songwriting has grown out of willful classicism into a driving inevitability.

Runner-up: The most delightful surprise was The Milk-Eyed Mender by California's Joanna Newsom, whose exacting folk poetry and torrents of heavenly harp offered a far-sighted antidote to the sorts of compulsions Darnielle chronicled.

But if Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, were a song, it would trounce them all.

The Golden Pimp Cup. Other MCs grooved more, rocked harder or twisted their tongues into more ticklish contortions, but Nas's sprawling, uneven Street's Disciple reaffirmed his place as the most substantial voice in mainstream hip-hop, just when it needed him most. Meanwhile, Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album delivered the sonic knockout Nas sometimes flubbed.

The Keepin'-It-Surreal Gold Rope. From the fringe, British MC Dizzee Rascal on Showtime and U.S. duo Madvillian (MF Doom with Madlib) on Madvillainy worked musical miracles with sounds and syllables so improbable they might as well have been bedsprings and sausage.

The Escape-from-Rock-City Diamond Keychain. Destroyer, Your Blues: Vancouver's Dan Bejar relocated from the retro guitar theme park to a make-believe liberated Europe of penny-candy synthesizers, parade drums and erotic existentialism. His sometime collaborators Frog Eyes unplugged their merry-go-round rock for the shivery, claustrophobic Ego Scriptor.

The Boys-of-Melody Tiara. Pop-electronic hybrids are everywhere now, but on Hamilton, Ont., duo Junior Boys' debut album, Last Exit, the beats were complex enough for London and Berlin, the songs as swoony and unforgettable as a first kiss. Toronto's Hidden Cameras, meanwhile, created ever more perfectly perverse clap-along pop anthems; Mississauga Goddam earned its Nina Simone reference.

The Red-State-Feminist Blue Ribbon. And where were all the women? They certainly weren't made welcome in hip-hop. But they were busy revitalizing country music. Honky-tonk queen Loretta Lynn led with the generation-jumping Van Lear Rose, produced by the White Stripes' Jack White. And she found an heir in Gretchen Wilson, whose Here For the Party shook up country's past and future in tequila with a twist of lime. (Yellow ribbons: Allison Moorer, The Duel; Iris DeMent, LifeLine.)

The Outlaws' Black Hat. Meanwhile, the country boys' best came from far outside Nashville's limits, with the Drive-By Truckers' combustible The Dirty South (Southern rock meets gangsta) and Canadian Fred Eaglesmith's best disc in eons, Dusty, constructed of car parts, skating-rink organ and sorrow.

The Emotional-Daredevil Medallion. California's Xiu Xiu (Fabulous Muscles) shares it with Toronto's Les Mouches (You Mean More to Me than 1,000 Christians) -- feelings so raw, they're pornographic.

The Laminated Souvenir Postcard goes to Blocks Recording Club's Toronto Is Great!, whose all-day launch concert was the live event of my year, and Arthur magazine's definitive psych-folk anthology, The Golden Apples of the Sun, compiled by Devendra Banhart.

The Historical-Revisionist Platinum Platter. New York's 1980s genre-bender Arthur Russell found posthumous fame with the release of The World of Arthur Russell, as well as World of Echo and Calling Out of Context. Also: DNA on DNA; soul revelation Candi Staton.

The Geographical-Revisionist Golden Compass. Brazil went wild on Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats and the white-bread mecca revealed its R&B; past on Night Train to Nashville.

The Golden Globalism Award. Also from Brazil, Caetano Veloso killed America softly on A Foreign Sound. The internationalist mash-up massive convened on DJ/rupture's Special Gunpowder and DJ/rupture vs. Mutamassik.

The Jazz-and-Beyond Amber Spyglass. Big event: The Tzadik label's John Zorn 50th Birthday Celebration series marked an overdue retrospective. Andy Bey's American Song put other standards singers to shame. Plus: Peter Brotzmann/Joe McPhee/Kent Kessler/Michael Zerang, Tales Out of Time; John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost, Discrete Moments; David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters, Gwotet; Erik Friedlander, Maldoror.

The Hugh McIntyre Memorial Medal. In honour of the late bassist of London, Ont., chaos pioneers the Nihilist Spasm Band: Wolf Eyes' Burned Mind turned the kids on to good, wholesome, horrible noise.

The Golden Laptop for electronic soundscaping: The brutalist, Tim Hecker (Montreal), Mirages; the romantic, Christian Fennesz (Vienna), Venice.

Art-Punk-Reunion Cash Prize. Mission of Burma, ONoffON: Best reunion album ever? Frank Black Francis: Amid the Pixies-comeback hoopla, Charles Thompson challenges devotees with broad variations on his greatest non-hits.

Art-Punk Purple Heart. No reunions necessary -- they just never stopped: Amsterdam's the Ex, Turn; David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest.

The Ivory Lab Coat for Rock Reinvention. The Arcade Fire, Funeral. Oneida, Secret Wars. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat.

The Neglected-Poet Laurel. Sam Phillips, A Boot and A Shoe. Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather. Richard Buckner, Dents and Shells.

The Overlooked-Canadian Brass Tap. The world embraced many of our best, but missed Eric Chenaux and Michelle McAdorey's tangled and intimate Love Don't Change, and Black Ox Orkestar's bold Yiddish broadside, Ver Tantz?

The Most-Dissed Subtle Knife. Tom Waits, Real Gone: Rappers get to take rhythm to the limit. Why not an old master? Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music: Indie-rock fans mistake its gorgeous Nashville lushness for a punchline.

The Bronze Angels (Most Problematic). Brian Wilson, Smile: Is a re-enactment of a masterpiece also a masterpiece? Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill: Time heals, but like many of 2004's wounds, this one will take a while.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 01 at 05:40 PM | Comments (1)


Top 2004, 2: Twang Ten

The Drive-By Truckers

Another day, another niche-marketed Best of 2004 list. Expect a broader review of the year in my column this Saturday. Meanwhile, some context for this one:

To my shock, I've been a member of the Postcard2 email list for something like eight years now, joining a few months after its inception - it began as a spinoff of the Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco list Postcard, to allow for broader discussion of alternative country, roots rock, indie rock and traditional and (very occasionally) mainstream country. This was back in the early days of the No Depression zine, before P2 created Twangfest in St. Louis, back when alt-country was expected to flower into something grander that only briefly ever came to be. [...]

Many may call that a blessing - the class/race/gender-etc. politics and aesthetics of alt-country have always been suspect, though as P2 members know, why and in what ways they're suspected reveals as much about the perceivers as the musicians (many of whom never signed up to the "movement" in the first place).

Nonetheless, it was in P2 that I first participated in an informed critical discourse about music that seemed to hold up intellectually, and it introduced me to many musicians, friends and fellow critics such as David Cantwell, Bill Friskics-Warren, Barry Mazor, Jon Weisberger (all now senior or contributing editors to No Depression) and too many others to mention. Otherwise it's certainly unlikely that Zoilus would exist.

P2's glory days were glorious enough that many of us remain even after the inevitable social schisms of a long-running Internet forum and the migration of alt-country's vitality into other genres - including the Nashville mainstream right now, a shift P2 discussion has mirrored (much to the disgruntlement of some members and ex-members). (More on the new Nashville here.) My musical interests are generally elsewhere, but every year I try to contribute a specially tailored Top 10 to the list's annual poll, selecting my favourite "P2-type stuff." This is that list, insiderish remarks mostly intact.

1. Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South
The DBTs' "gangstabilly" adaptation of hip-hop themes to country-rock runs much further back, deeper and darker than Big & Rich (whom I like) or the Nelly/Tim McGraw duet (which I like much better in theory than in practice). The Buford Pusser songs are part of the theme of the album to me: They play devil's advocate for the outlaws in order to take down what the DBTs consider a phony southern legend (Walking Tall). I agree the trilogy is a bit much - the whole album could use an edit. But it's the hardest-slamming record yet by - maybe - the best live rock band in America.

2. Sam Phillips - A Boot and a Shoe
A near-perfect collection of light, poetic pop and gimlet-eyed observations on life and love, a little Beatles, a little Dylan, a little Brecht/Weill (and probably some Tom Waits), and it could deserve to be No. 1, except that it ain't really no part of country.

3. Gretchen Wilson - Here for the Party
My favourite mainstream country album in many years, with everything good about Nashville 2004 - not to mention a lot that's good about country anywhere anytime - and none of the crap.

4. Fred Eaglesmith- Dusty
Some fans have taken it amiss, but this is Eaglesmith's best album, to me, since 1997's Lipstick Lies & Gasoline. Dusty is built on skating-rink Wurlitzer, cellos and despair, exquisitely assembled by Fred and his producer Scott Merritt, on rough and wise old machines. Favourites include "Ship," "Codeine," "[I Still Look for You in] Crowds." Saw Fred live for the first time in a couple of years last month and damned if he didn't make me cry, though of course he made me laugh a thousand times more. We share a hometown - or at least a region - so I always feel a funny kind of pride whenever his fortunes - and his albums - are good.

5. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose
Again, you know all about it.

6. Tom Waits - Real Gone
Waits' most radical record in a long while has gotten a predictably rough reception, but he's clearly inspired by the rhythm-forward sounds of today (crunk, grime, etc) and providing his unique Waitsian take - just as he reacted to punk rock and new wave 20 years ago by creating Swordfishtrombones. Here when I thought he was set to keep repeating a limited set of gestures from record to record, he proves he's never to be underestimated, no matter how old he gets. The more fool me. And yes, essential listening for us Marc Ribot fans.

7. Iris DeMent - Lifelines
Buddy Miller made the blatant anti-Bush Christian protest album of this election cycle. Iris DeMent made the more elusive one, with this set of gospel standards and one original song about mercy for the weak and outcast that serves as a sharp reminder that Christianity and tolerance are not supposed to be in contradiction. But then, hearing Iris DeMent sing for an hour is heaven on earth, no matter what the material.

8. Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music
Another misunderstood gem, received skeptically among his fans, but it shouldn't be around here - indie-folk-rock songwriter goes Nashville, just like P2. I'd hesitate to say we've done it as well as Will Oldham and his crew of N'ville pickers. In a year where Nashville opened itself to novel voices more than ever before, it's a pleasure to see a gifted weirdo from the alt- side returning the gesture. Hope he'll realize the songs actually do sound better this way. But I have to watch what I say - I did a "what indie-rock album are you" quiz on the Internet this week and the answer came back, "You are Bonnie Prince Billy!"

9. Richard Buckner - Dents and Shells
It's an odd thing for me not to rank a Richard Buckner album among the top two or three of the year. This is his first outing on Merge, his first on a well-distributed label in quite some time, and it continues in the vein of his past couple of discs, it's true. But I'm a fan of those albums, and it's obvious from just a couple of listens that from song to song this is more of his consistently sophisticated, emotional and cryptically powerful stuff. So why haven't I listened to it more? In part I think I've come to take Buckner for granted - I've listened to Bloomed, Devotion + Doubt, Since and the more recent Impasse hundreds of times, all among my favourite records of the last decade. So I have enough Bucknerness stored up that this has become an album I always put off "till I can listen more closely" and so on. But on the other hand, despite all the beautiful lines and melodies and atmospheric sounds, there is too much of a feeling of interchangeability here, as if all the songs are mere fragments of one vast continuous song and you could swap the chorus of one for the verse of another. Is that a fault? Perhaps not. I'm not demanding he return to the more narrative songs of his first album. But I still feel a loyalty to the notion of songs as discrete objects, as specific and unique experiences - otherwise why work in song form at all? - and that leaves me a little less attached to Dents and Shells than I suspect it really deserves.

10. Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man
This list is becoming the Underdog Defense Squad's annual report. A local weekly called it one of the "worst records of 2004" today but I think Costello's suite of songs around the themes and imagery of Memphis country, blues and soul, among other things, is very enjoyable. It's no King of America - that kind of achievement has been beyond him for a long time, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint - but if you take it in itself, it's far better than what most songwriters can manage, and Costello's own vocal performances have only been growing stronger in recent years. (Lucinda Williams' bizarre duet performance is, of course, another story. I can only think that they were trying for some effect without realizing it hadn't come off - otherwise surely they would not have left it intact.)

ALSO ENJOYED: Allison Moorer (which I nearly put at No. 10 - a strong comeback after the weak Miss Fortune, I think), Melonie Cannon (a very good but not great debut), Big & Rich, Buddy Miller, The Sadies (their best disc ever), the Stephen Foster tribute, Iron and Wine, American Music Club, etc., plus Toronto's Backstabbers, Jenny Whiteley, Hank and Jon Rae & the River. Locally the upcoming alt-country-ish highlight is a new Fembots album. Fans of John Fahey, by the way, should keep an eye out for recent discs by the likes of Jack Rose and Montreal's Harris Newman.

See also Top 2004, 1 on the year's best Canadian music.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 30 at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)


The North Poll

Aaron Wherry presents the outcome of the first-ever Canadian bloggers' Canadian music poll. Bet you can't guess who won, eh? Uh, or maybe you can (look up, way up, past the drawbridge).

If you missed it: Here's Zoilus's ballot. I listed a dozen (plus 26 honourable mentions) but only the Top 5 counted. And I still haven't heard a few things that show up on the poll. And I forgot Sixtoo was Canadian!

No time to comment much on the outcome except to say that given the international impact of Canadian music this year, it's a list worth reading. End-of-year lists like this one, which deal with a particular genre, region or other limited set are so much better than big sloppy "best of everything" lists. Restrictions create meaning. For more on why, listen to John Darnielle preach it.

Edited to add: The poll seems to indicate that Canadian critics are still mostly listening to Rock: File Under Indie. Aside from shoo-ins Junior Boys and K-os, at No. 4 and 5 (below Stars), you have to look way down to Nos. 19 and 26 to find non-rock-based winners. That reflects the reality of Canada to an extent, but also the makeup of the voting constituency. Not Aaron's fault - I'm sure it was just a matter of response, but...

Some Canadian bloggers I wish had voted in the PopWherry poll: Ghetto Postage, Autonomic for the People, Lovecstasycrime, Greg Clow, and Three Two Warzawa. That contingent really would have changed the outcome.

Failing that, I kind of wish my ballot had read: 1. Tim Hecker; 2. Venetian Snares; 3. Solvent; 4. Jake Fairley; 5. tie: McEnroe & Birdapres/Terri Clark.

Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 20 at 03:39 PM | Comments (4)


Top 2004, 1: Can-Con-Carne


Aaron Wherry kindly requested my participation in PopWherry's first-ever-Canadian-blog-year-end-music-poll, the subject of which is Bestest Canadian Albums of 2004. He requested five, so of course I came up with a dozen. Just to show you what kind of year in music it has been in this country, I will follow that dozen with two baker's dozens more. First in preferential order, then alphabet-style. Three, two, GO!


1. Destroyer - Your Blues
2. Junior Boys - Last Exit
3. Les Mouches - You Mean More to Me Than 1,000 Christians
4. The Hidden Cameras - Mississauga Goddam
5. Frog Eyes - Ego Scriptor (not to slight The Folded Palm)
6. Fred Eaglesmith - Dusty
7. Black Ox Orkestar - Der Tanz
8. Eric Chenaux/Michelle McAdorey - Love Don't Change
9. Veda Hille/Christof Migone - Escape Songs
10. Wax Mannequin - The Price
11. Blocks Recording Club - Toronto Is Great! compilation
12. The Arcade Fire - Funeral

As well as:
Apostle Of Hustle - Folkloric Feel; Edgar Breau - Canadian Primitive; Creeping Nobodies - Stop Movement Stop Loss; Deep Dark United - Ancient; Julie Doiron - Goodnight Nobody; Jake Fairley - Touch Not the Cat; Feist - Feist; Nick Fraser/Justin Haynes - Are Faking It; Fucked Up - Epics in Minutes; Gentleman Reg - Darby & Joan; Good Grooming for Girls compilation; Jim Guthrie - Now More Than Ever; Tim Hecker - Mirages; Hitz Exprezz - Playin Da Harsez; LAL - Warm Belly High Power; Peggy Lee/Dylan van der Schyff/Dave Douglas/Louis Sclavis - Bow River Falls; Harris Newman - Non-Sequiturs ; Royal City - Little Heart's Ease; The Sadies - Favourite Colours; The Silt - Earlier Ways to Wander; Smash & Teeny feat. John Butcher - Gathering; Solvent - Apples and Synthesizers; Stars - Set Yourself On Fire; Tangiers - Never Bring You Pleasure; Chad Vangaalen - Infiniheart; Venetian Snares - Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding. (I could do another dozen, but lines must be drawn.)

Best (as-yet-unfinished) Canadian albums of 2005: Shawn Hewitt;
Final Fantasy; Frog Eyes/Destroyer collaboration.

If I'd been making this list a few hours later, I think one of the items from the bottom double-dozen would have replaced Arcade Fire at No. 12. Below the top 6 everything starts to go soft-focus. The obvious gap is hip-hop, but I wasn't feeling the maple-leaf rap this year; what am I missing?

A couple of the artists on the above list are playing Toronto this weekend: Montreal's Stars are at the Mod Club tomorrow and Sunday, and on Sunday, Calgary's Chad Vangaalen is opening for them. I like Stars as much as the next guy but I love, love, love Chad Vangaalen - he rules so hard, lo-fi style.

Also of major note in Toronto this weekend: The mighty Masia One presents Ladybug Mecca of (the reunited) Digable Planets fame (learn where she's been meanwhile from Ms. Denise Benson in Eye this week) as part of Masia's M1 Academy series - this Saturday it's the "All B-Girls School" edition, also with Tara Chase, Zaki Ibrahim, DJs SiVuPlay and Mel Boogie, artists EGR and Stef Casino, dancers Lady Noyz and Eclipse, all at the El Mocambo, $14.

Masia did an amazing set at the last Tin Tin Tin with avant-pop/improv group Deep Dark United, who happen to be in the long list above, and also happen to be playing Wavelength this Sunday night. For further extraordinary coincidences and eerie tales, check the Zoilus gig guide. [...]

Here's my Junior Boys piece, which you wouldn't otherwise be able to find online:

Junior Boys skyrocket in the blogosphere

By Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Thursday, July 8, 2004

Jeremy Greenspan's past couple of years have been like a dream in slow slide show: Odd things happen, then fade to normal, and then odder ones still.

He just finished a degree in multimedia and comparative literature. And now? "Earlier today I had to record myself saying hello for Spanish radio -- Hola!" laughs the 24-year-old on the phone from Hamilton. "That's pretty high on my weird-o-meter."

Many Canadian musicians catch on internationally, but usually they are heard locally first. Last Exit, the debut album by Greenspan's duo Junior Boys, was released June 7 in England, but until September it remains an import here. Yet last year, Junior Boys tracks already topped lists by some of the world's most influential music critics.

How did Greenspan become the Lana Turner of the Internet-music age, discovered at the counter of a digital drugstore? He grew up in "the real prime rave era" and found a thriving techno scene in grungy Steeltown. During a year off from high school in Birmingham, England, where he bluffed his way into a studio job, an older roommate initiated him in the mysteries of 1980s synth-pop -- John Foxx, New Order, Japan. Back home in 1999, he and a friend, Johnny Dark, tried blending that music's cool romanticism into stutter-stop dance genres like U.K. garage or 2-step, as well as Timbaland's R&B.;

No labels wanted the Junior Boys demos. So they gave up. Dark left town for the video-game industry. Greenspan made grad-school plans.

But an old English friend had put some JBs tracks up on-line. E-mail began to trickle in, from such prominent e-music journalists as Kodwo Eshun and Simon Reynolds. And then came blogs. These on-line personal nerve centres have sparked a new era in music writing, letting professional critics (me included) and dedicated amateurs share discoveries and debate them in public daily, an exponential intensification from print.

With a boost from Reynolds's Blissblog, JBs rocketed to the upper strata of the blogosphere, as their grimier sonic cousin Dizzee Rascal did the year before, but more impressively since they were, officially, defunct.

Nick Kilroy, then of London's high-profile Warp Records, took notice and contacted Greenspan, who revived the project with engineer Matt Didemus. In October, 2003, Kilroy's new KIN label released Birthday, JBs' instant-classic single.

Critics ardently diagram the band's elongated musical roots, but all that DNA begets a unified sound field that bridges the decade-plus rift twixt groove and song. "Songwriting was a bit taboo at the time I started doing it," Greenspan says. "The philosophy of the dance-music movement was based on mixing records and on DJ shows, and so much of that is about building on loops, a minimal approach to writing music in which you have these songs that are really malleable and don't have to be played from start to finish." But today, "They might be looking for something new."

Alok Sharma, who programmed JBs on Sunday afternoon as part of the first Beats, Breaks and Culture festival at Harbourfront Centre, concurs. "There was a peak where everybody was listening to DJs, clubs were packed with them," he says. "Now I really think people are more into seeing a live performance. It's more of a human bond between audience and performer."

That goes for songs too. "I think there was a naiveté to thinking that songwriting would somehow go away. There's a hunger for it," Greenspan says. "Even a DJ, when you're buying records, what you're really listening for are hooks."

What thrills the blogerati is that unlike the indie-rockers who've raided the territory (Notwist, Postal Service), Greenspan is a techno adept whose beats yield no quarter. They hover, shatter, skitter and scrape, but over, under and around verse and chorus, like the sonic flutter in Birthday, after the line, "And let it go" -- like a string of blue balloons slipping away into the bluer blue beyond -- that has more than once been called one of the great pop gestures of the decade.

"I'm very dedicated," Greenspan says, "to using tools at the time they're available," which is what he admires about 1980s synth-pop. "The machine you choose, even a piano, writes half of the thing for you. Anyone who says it [doesn't] is lying."

Yet unlike the disembodied divas of 1990s house or trip-hop, or most any hit now, Greenspan's singing is highly individuated, naturalistic, not digitally processed. His favourite singers, like Neil Young, are conspicuously imperfect. On Last Exit you hear the sibilants, breath, even nasal congestion, amid his foggy narratives of obsession and loss. "I like the contrast: For the most part we don't use any 'organic' instruments. . . . I wasn't interested in doing this thing where you write songs and put a vocoder on and sing about really inhuman things, being a robot and drinking martinis. I wanted them to have real feeling to them, a really human sense."

This juxtaposition, broken beats, broken heart, is spacious and suggestive. The vocals are hypnagogic, halfway asleep; the music hypnopompic, in the panic-haze of waking; both are prey to hallucinations -- doorbells, crashes, names being called, naked man steering submarine, edge-city lost boys crawling through a rain of glass and chrome.

Still, when a major label came calling, it wanted everything rerecorded, the vocal buffed up to a radio shine. Greenspan refused, and doubts he could cope with celebrity anyway. Inevitably, those more eager for fame will cop his moves, smooth them out and score the radio hits.

Meanwhile, he and Didemus hone their live act for a long autumn tour -- "a bit of a bummer," as he'd rather work on the next record: "I want to get on with it while I can. I know every band has only so many albums before they start to suck. And I fully intend on sucking at some point. You'll know once I start bringing in the Celtic band and the children's choir."

Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 17 at 07:18 PM | Comments (2)


Audio Alibis

Since I'm a little bleary-eyed from a long night out + wrapped up with work, let me offer you some sonic distractions from current contentlessness. We still believe in text here at Zoilus and aren't jumping on the "every blog an MP3 blog" meme, but from time to time it's good to rest the eyes and work the earholes. So:

1. It's not the first best single of 2005 but it's worth an ear. Trevor, the new publicist at Paper Bag Records, woos me with offers of "exclusive" MP3 action for Zoilus, beginning with Cheap Linguistics, a B-side coming in February by Magneta Lane, the Runaways-meets-VU-meets-Blondie-meets-name-a-2002-Brooklyn-band, school-skippin', ass-kickin' female-teen trio that's been all the chatter of Hogtown this fall. The track hits the pavement with a nice skid but goes in a few too many circles coming down the back stretch. But this is a band that only picked up instruments a year ago, so it's more interesting to observe them in development than to kvetch. If this actually were an MP3 blog I wouldn't accept audio swag but since the contract around here does not read "I will select my favourite music for you to listen to, dear reader" but "I will blather, you will perhaps tolerate," I've got no ethical qualms: I find the syllables "cheap linguistics" in themselves irresistible and have yet another excuse to fill this page with pretty pictures. (Lifted from Photojunkie. Magneta Lane, by the way, plays the Rivoli on New Year's Eve.) Still if it came down to it, I would have to choose Girls Aloud.

[Edited to add: 2 a.m. Usually I don't feel I have to explain jokes, but after walking away from the computer this afternoon I had a sinking feeling about that last one. Rather than implying all groups composed of women share one cookie-cutter (imagery deliberate) "girl band" category, even ones as musically opposite as M.L. and G.A., the joke was (as jokes often are) the reverse. It's especially absurd the way M.L.'s femaleness is made its point considering that we're in Toronto, where all-guy bands are in no way a mandatory default. As Owen Pallett put it on 20hz earlier this year, "Stating that toronto is like a boy's club is retarded, there are more girls making music in toronto than anywhere except 'girl island'." So why are people talking about Magneta Lane in this novelty-band way? Which is not to say that Girls Aloud are not awesome.]

2. The evil twins of the Chromewaves empire, Chromewaves and My Mean Magpie each list off their top discs of the year and supply you with sample songs as persuasion. Magpie's is especially full of unexpectednesses - Half-Cousin (singing "Mrs. Pilling and the Pig Boy" in a heavy brogue)? Smoosh? - while Frank's is super-freakin'-consistent, just like Chromewaves itself. Neither of them chose The Nein, but since those North Carolinians are playing the Horseshoe free tonight (9:30 pm), here's what they sound like.

3. Are you still not sure what grime is, aside from "stuff kinda like Dizzee Rascal"? Luca has a really cool British FM radio tape up featuring the Nasty Crew and Roll Deep around late 2002 to give ya some edgrimication.

4. Pere Ubu got the picture way back in 1989, even before everybody was making music on their computers in their bedrooms: "There's too much music in the land/ You hear it everywhere, everybody's in a band/ They can't get enough of it/ Brother Jimmy, cousin Ray/ Mom and Dad on bass & drums/ Someone here's just gotta quit." Pere Ubu's Ice Cream Truck, courtesy of Artificial Radio Weblog. Watch for Zoilus' review of the new David Thomas joint, 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest, coming licketysplit.

5. And finally, Disques Hushhush's audio archive outta Montreal is bursting at the seams to serve all your broody experimental electronica needs. The label proclaims: "Unlike most other electronic labels from the Montréal area, we are not really releasing any dance floor oriented material. Off course, you are always free to dance on our stuff." So cruise over there and dance all over the likes of Mick Harris, Xingu Hill and Mark Spybey.

If you're in Montreal, Hushush is also co-hosting a movie night at the Goethe-Institut on Sherbrooke, screening a documentary about the recently disbanded sly Argentine conceptualists Reynols (the only known band fronted by a singer with Down's Syndrome) and another about the Nihilist Spasm Band, about whom you've heard much around here lately.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 14 at 05:28 PM | Comments (7)


"I mean, we are all here with our terribly shabby human limitations. What can I possibly do except sing a few of these appallingly simple songs I've written?"


I've heard only brief samples of the new Leonard Cohen joint, and confess I'm a bit afraid to hear more: His last disc was pretty scant on revelation and scanter on wit and melody, and according to my colleague Robert Everett-Green in today's Globe and Mail, as on Ten New Songs, in these 12 more, "mostly Cohen goes for keyboard instrumentals... that are so cheesy as to provoke. Or doesn't he care about that sort of thing anymore?" The title, Dear Heather, seems similarly half-assed compared to, say, Death of a Ladies' Man. (Though one can't help wondering who's this Heather, at least out of misplaced protectiveness for Suzanne, Marianne, Marita et al.)

I do admire the way the cheese-keys affect a combination of Zen detachment and Montreal mafia-lounge act, but that doesn't translate to wanting to listen to them. Leon Wieseltier's liner notes (yeah, you read that right) say the album "revels in its own lack of monumentality," but again that's more morality than art: I liked it when Cohen's songs monumentalized his revelry, sacralized his rancor, wallowed in merriment and dazzled with desperation. How can one not be happy, for his sake, that he is past that? And how can one not be sad, for ours?

So let's hop in the way-back machine and land in (via Chromewaves) this collection of rare MP3s of live Leonard, mainly from the 1970s, rather than Cohen's current 70s (plus transcriptions - oh and look here for L.C.'s various introductions and explanations of songs). Most of us younger folks, if we've ever witnessed live Cohen, saw rather formal performances, but back in the day he was given to crazy covers, alternate versions and existential-standup improvised digressions in his concerts. Though painfully badly taped, it's all gold. Check out the unreleased disco-floor-filler Do I Have to Dance All Night?, the extended versions of Chelsea Hotel (with several extra verses), Cohen (truly the Bogart of songwriters) doing As Time Goes By or defending "schmaltz" against an earnest heckler and volunteering to commit suicide "if anybody has a razor".

Ah, the good old bad young days.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 29 at 04:51 PM | Comments (4)


With the Palm of Her Eye


Catching up, slowly, slowly, on the stacks of recent albums piled around my desk, this week I've been soaking in Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City). I know the U.N. declared March the official Go Nuts for Joanna Newsom Month, but I'm glad I waited till October, when leaves are turning gold and falling down in arpeggios like Newsom's pittering, pattering harp notes, when mice are pulling pumpkin carriages, and wise withered child-crones are rasping out secrets older than sex. [...]

The sound of the album is enchanting, making a case for the harp as the universe's greatest silk-string guitar. Aside from a Beatles song or two and the occasional special-side-effect on various orchestral-pop songs by the likes of ELO, I can't think of anyone who's brought such a focus on the national instrument of Heaven to the form before (despite a good argument here that the harp's natural leanings are more Top 40 than symphonic hall), but of course it's a central part of Irish folk music, and Newsom has her affinities to that babbling stream of balladry as well as her allegiances to the atavistic-folk tradition that runs through the Incredible String Band (who have used harps, and with whom she heads out on tour tomorrow), Karen Dalton, Tim Buckley and Nick Drake and more recently Devendra Banhart or Will Oldham (who incidentally has a new video directed by Gummo auteur Harmony Korine.)

The best of Newsom's songs seem to harvest folk music's millennia of unpruned dreams and stew them into something that could only have been made now. I'm going through a post-Chronicles Dylan phase, and she's great company in that, performing the same sorts of theft-and-transformations of folk's back pages, though not necessarily the same ones Bob leafed through. In one interview, she says: "The harp has this bad reputation. It's been used for easy schmaltzy crap. Much of the stuff that I do has been influenced by studying African harp, from Senegal to Mali. It's much more compressive and not always pretty. It's rattling, strange, small and complicated."

Rattling is a good word for it. What strikes most people first is her voice. What she sounds like most is a singing Sarah Vowell, but for non NPR-geeks, I might say she sounds like the child heroine of a fantasy series like Philip Pullmann's His Dark Materials, gawky and solitary and unblinkingly honest. But she also sounds like the wisest elder of an Innu clan in Greenland, speaking in riddles and legends, who just may have dark powers. (She sings about gnawing on bones a bit too zealously.) And all exotic cliches aside she also sounds like some sparkling-eyed Californian PhD student you meet at a bar a bit drunk and she's a bit drunk and you ramble back and forth before she puts down her red wool and knitting needles to fix you in the eye and say, "Okay, cut the crap. I've got some movies at home, wanna get out of here?"

Everyone talks about her songs as if they were children's books, including me a couple of paragraphs ago, but they're much tougher and sexier than that: "I slept all day/ and awoke with distaste," she's apt to scowl. But she's fond of words full of sound-juice the way a good Dennis Lee or Dr. Seuss book is - rains of rhymes like "irritable/ dirigible/ wimble/ thimble," "floozies/choosy" or syllabics like "the rough, straggly sage and the smoke" that if folk traditions are any guide adults were once brave enough to savour full in the mouth.

Before I got the album I heard Owen Pallett doing Peach Plum Pear in his Final Fantasy looped-violin project, and it remains a favourite: "I have read the right books/ To interpret your looks/ You were knocking me down with the palm of your eye." It's the way she sweeps up almost out of her own grip vocally on the second line of each verse, someone taking a breathlessly vainglorious gamble on love or something like it.

Another favourite is the second track, The Sprout and the Bean, and there's a harpalicious video for that one here.

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 10 at 06:03 PM | Comments (6)


I'm Stuck With A Valuable Friend

I'm listening to it right now, and I can't tell you what the rationale of sometimes-considered-to-be-a-rising-star Danny Michel's new album of David Bowie songs, Loving the Alien, could possibly be. Covering songs ranging from Moonage Daydream to Young Americans to Ashes to Ashes in a heavily Bowie-influenced but slightly craggier, more Canadian twang, the covers are distinguished mainly by 1. being acoustic-guitar based; 2. re-setting almost every song at the same middling tempo; and 3. reminding you how much more interesting the original recordings were.

On the opening cover of Young Americans it sounds almost like he's going to go for a country-covers-of-Bowie thing, which wouldn't exactly be a revelation but would be, at least, an idea. But that's the last of a country accent you get.

It's the sort of bad impulse that goes over boffo live - who wouldn't like to hear a good singer sing Sons of the Silent Age unexpectedly? - but only makes one unable to hear Michel's other work as anything but weak Bowie mimickry.

And yet! It has one of the year's best album covers, this adorably outre oil painting by Toronto supergirl Temple Bates (also of band Pony da Look). Here are the album cover & original side-by-each:

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, September 19 at 03:53 PM | Comments (5)


The Wilco Challenge, Redux

To briefly revisit this, here's a listserv conversation I had today:

>Carl, you might like this Wilco article:

>"Great. Along with God, flag, and country, you now have to love the
> rock band Wilco, or be forced to account for yourself. Wilco isn't
> just a band, you see. It's a symbol, maybe even a movement. ...."

I probably would. However, I am forbidden to read it, because I promised. And for exactly the reason given above: Why should I have to confess anything about Wilco?

Why should I talk about Wilco when I could be talking about John Cale - what's your position on Hobosapiens, everybody? I thought I liked it, but in my second playing of the CD my wife said she hated it so much that I was implicitly forbidden to play it. And now I keep forgetting to put it on while she's out. How about you?

Why should I talk about Wilco when I could be talking about Jadakiss' new song that includes the line "Why did Bush knock down the Towers?" -- except of course that it doesn't include that line in any version released for any form of airplay?

Why should I talk about Wilco when I could be talking about Ray Charles? And Sticks & Stones?

Why should I talk about Wilco when I could be talking about Christian Fennesz or Junior Boys or Youssou N'Dour or Big & Rich or Loretta Lynn?

Or, hell, when I could be talking about Jay Farrar? Why can't I talk about Jay Farrar without that being somehow a species of Talking About Wilco?

Not to mention John Ashcroft, Jacques Derrida, Julie Delpy, Jack Layton, J.M. Coetzee, the Hidden Cameras and Les Mouches?

Life is too short to spend it explaining how I feel about Wilco when I don't feel anything about them at all.

Is talking about Wilco just the new price of white male historical guilt or something?

I gave at the fucking office.

carl w.

P.S. I really don't want to talk about Michael Moore much either.

P.P.S. Before you get your itchy "Comment" fingers going, yes, yes, I realize: Not talking about Wilco is the new talking about Wilco. What else you got?

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 15 at 05:40 PM | Comments (2)


Working Hard to Put Food On Your Family

Granted, this Songs in the Key of W. thing is silly, and I don't think I could listen to more than these 30-second samples - but sometimes, that's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it.

Consider it a warmup for tomorrow's thumbsucker on political music. Remind me to add my postscript about Elvis Costello.

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, July 14 at 06:33 PM | Comments (0)


Pecking Lightly, Like a Woodpecker with a Headache

I was meaning to do this too, this week. No chance, I'm afraid, but I am planning an Intensive Listening Retreat that may lead in that direction before month's end. Massive inner journey into immanent headphone space, yo.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 09 at 03:26 PM | Comments (0)


The Wilco Contest: The One No One Can Win

All right, that does it. Nothing against The Toronto Star's Vit Wagner, whom I've never met but seems somehow in print like he must be a certifiably charming guy. But Wilco... the ... best... band... in... the... world? Nuh-uh.

Now, before we begin debating, hereby know that I have not heard a single note of A Ghost Is Born, Jeff Tweedy's latest mash-note to himse... No. Wait.

The fact is that Wilco has become a media monster, a band that is discussed in relation to a mythos whose ways and bends are mapped on a scale much larger than anything remotely contained in its music. Wilco is one of hundreds of perfectly pleasant bands whose music can come and go and make no difference whatsoever to me or - on any level I've yet heard anyone articulate - anybody else. Yet there are now movies, books and more articles and blog entries on this band out in the universe than there are starving, sick and hunted people in Darfur. I suspect even Wilco recognizes the absurdity of this.

My pledge then is to add no more to the madness. Not only have I not heard A Ghost Is Born, I actively intend not to. I also intend not to have any opinion about it whatsoever. Nor will I participate in any discussion of it. This pledge good at least until January 2005.

I think that in rock-critic terms this is a near-exact equivalent of the Seinfeld contest. Any takers? Do I have what it takes to be master of my muso domain? King of my critical castle? Not sure, but let's all pop some prescription medication, swallow hard and try to prove that we are not helpless puppets fated to jerk the Tweedy-hot-or-not stick till it snaps.

Gentlemen, start your engines. Comrades, lay down your pens.

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 29 at 03:33 PM | Comments (11)


Royal City Rumble

In today's column, I vent spleen about summer festivals and provide a trip-tych to some alternatives: [...]

Today's crazed Parade of Noises in Brampton, Ont., (700 nine-year-olds play "whoopie cushion organs" and "styrofoam cellos" and a fire truck! with Kid Koala and the Singing Saws! I'll try to post pictures later!); this weekend's 28-band orgy of wholesomeness and camp, Track and Field near Guelph, Ont.; and throughout June, the kickass Suoni Per Il Popolo festival in Montreal, which can only make an ex-Montrealer Torontonian seethe with jealousy and regret.

(Okay, deep breath: The bill includes Dominic Duval, John Heward, Sun City Girls tomorrow, Sam Shalabi, Leroy Jenkins & Malcolm Goldstein, Jean Derome, Joane Hétû, The Microphones, Sixtoo, Tony Conrad, Hanged Up, Martin Tétreault & Michel F. Coté, Arashi Daiko, Mitchell Akiyama, Amute, Henry Grimes, Hamid Drake, Sabir Mateen & Daniel Carter, Fred Anderson & Kidd Jordan, Nilan Perera & Susanna Hood, Amiri Baraka, Black Ox Orkestar, Rufus Harley, Kevin Drumm, Tim Hecker, Roy Campbell Jr. and the William Parker Quartet.)

Also in today's Globe and Mail, my review of the new Royal City album, Little Heart's Ease, royalcity.jpg and I'm a bit nervous about this growly purple bear attacking me for it. Even though it's not negative overall, everything feels more eggshell-treading when someone's religious faith is involved. Of course, art always involves deeply held beliefs and ideologies, but generally we can pretend to ignore the fact; religion drags it out into the light, which is one good thing you can say about religion. (Any others? ... Chirrup, chirrup...) In any case, my general verdict is that the album is good, but it's no Alone at the Microphone. Does that reflect only my own unthinking fidelity to anguish over bliss, a kneejerk assumption that dirt is truer than cleanliness, etc? No doubt.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 03 at 12:58 PM | Comments (4)


'Plasticene Video Guy!'

Busy with errands and pre-Euro-vacation financial crisis, but hope to post about this week's Tin Tin Tin later tonight. Meanwhile, to tide you over - have you heard this song by The French (ex-Hefner)? Probably not. It's one of my favourites of last year and for no reason at all (except the word "airport" perhaps), it's on my mind. It's only half as good without the music, but perhaps this'll stimulate you to get their disc Local Information, as you really should have months ago.

Gabriel in the Airport

Peter Gabriel, please come to Gate 9:
Sting has saved the rainforest, and things are fine.
Call your limousine and go back home,
Your children need an angel on the telephone.
You're always checking in and checking out;
The real world's inside your heart,
Just let it out.

We've had enough world music for a little while...

And all the business suits walk by.
They say "Plasticene video guy!"
And the world's not right, but it's right enough
For you to do some loving stuff,
To your darling wife,
By the fireside.

And the British Airways girls they sigh,
Saying, "There goes that Phil Collins guy!"
And if you stay at home tonight,
The world won't go right overnight --
There'll be songs left to write

And don't you just love the sight,
Of the little cars with the orange lights,
The moving walkways and the baggage reclaim?
Don't you wish that you could stay?
Don't you wish that you could say
That you never thought of Kate Bush
In a dirty way?

And all the business suits walk by.
They say "Plasticene video guy!"
And the world's not right, but it's right enough
For you to do some loving stuff,
To your darling wife,
By the fireside.

And the British Airways girls they sigh,
Saying, "There goes that Phil Collins guy!"
And if you stay at home tonight,
The world won't go right overnight --
There'll be songs left to write
There'll be songs left to write

And all the business suits walk by ....

The French's Darren Hayman on this song (from the band website):

So the idea started with me thinking about Airport departure lounges and angels floating about like in Wings of Desire, then I thought about being a particular angel, the arch angel Gabriel, then I thought it could be about Peter Gabriel. It's like that some days, you just daydream, right? The trick is to be able to tell the difference between when its just idle daydreaming and when it’s a genius idea. I don’t know if this is genius, but it is funny, at least the first time you hear it, and I do genuinely mean no offence to Peter Gabriel in case he’s here doing some net ego surfing. I love So.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 30 at 02:45 PM | Comments (4)


I Shoot Tortoises, Don't I?

I forgot to mention it earlier, but thought I'd better link to my review of the new Tortoise album, which is impossible to find on the Globe's website. General verdict: Don't judge this album by its cover; the cover's much better.

Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 15 at 05:50 PM | Comments (0)


Everybody Wins/Loses/Hurts/Etc.

Ably answered, Mr. Popwherry, and good points. Of course it's kind of absurd to pitch Rodney Graham and Nellie McKay against each other, but that's half the fun.

Anyway, Inner Peace was a better counterexample to my doubts than the Nellie songs that came up before: It does display more of what I called double-consciousness. And that's what I was interested in, not a specific content, though it may have seemed so (only because we started off with the question of "pungency"): It's not that Ms. McKay need "come to terms with her own loserdom." That's certainly a way to my heart, but that's my own damage, not hers. No, it's that really good writing needs to handle contradiction, especially if it's going to be credited for its satirical power. At times McKay doesn't seem to get beyond sarcasm to paradox, and that's when she seems merely drama-school/sketch-comedy level.

Aaron's right that worldweariness is not necessarily to be demanded of a 19-year-old - though Randy Newman probably had it even then, and Dizzee Rascal, for instance, has it now. But one way or another, if the work's really going to kick me in the solar plexus, it has to be able to cope with real darkness and not just shadow boxing. Nellie seems like she could go either way, but I should bide my time - and, going by the reviews, probably see her live - before I guess which.

Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 05 at 12:01 PM | Comments (0)


Destroyer's Yves Klein Blues

"Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock and roll," sang John Lennon on the Beatles' Yer Blues. But on his own Your Blues, Destroyer's Dan Bejar feels free to hate his rock-and-roll without any urge to self-destruction. He just kisses it off and moves on.

There were several reasons I didn't review Your Blues in the newspaper.* At the release date, I was still, after a month of listening, trying to figure it out. As a longtime friend and champion of Dan - sometime New Pornographer, all-the-time Vancouver bard of Canadian self-cancellation transformed into Spanish-tinged quixotic crusade - I felt a responsibility I never normally feel to get the interpretation right. Especially when he'd done something this substantial, this undiscountable.

The existence of this post is a white flag I am waving to say that I have given up trying. But that also means I succeeded, because this music is calibrated exactly to force that surrender. [...]

Right now, maybe more than ever, music and the other arts are indicating no sort of collective purpose or direction. Is this a sign of weakness or health? Your Blues marks the point when Dan, who has been consumed by such dilemmas as much as anyone, decides to call it an opportunity, and seize it. He takes it, in fact, to the hilt, but in tangents so difficult to track or decipher that we're left dazed in our search for where exactly that hilt may be located. That is, the kind of "good" it manages to be, in daring lapses of taste that are not by any means ironic, isn't any kind we're familiar with before we hear it.

First, it is not at all rock music. Mind you, I don't think anything Destroyer's ever done is rock music, with the exception of the previous, Destroyer-as-band album This Night (which is shit-hot rock music) and some of the weaker stretches of Thief (which are not).

But most past Destroyer has been rock that negates itself, rock evoked in its absence and probable death with an elegaic approach. This album is the positive embrace of something else.

Scott Walker and John Cale are acknowledged templates, but Harry Nillson and Frank Sinatra also come in, as does a rotation of English mid-1980s synthesizer bands.** Equally important are the cast albums of various Broadway musicals, Camelot predominant among them. The theatricality jumps out at you. This is Dan's most scarily bold set of vocal performances ever - opening track Notorious Lightning makes sure you know it, with its final two minutes of a full robot parade band oom-pah-pahing away while Dan tries out every growl and gasp he can find in the phrase "And someone's got to fall before someone goes free!"

More offputting still, the almost fully synthesized music (with David Carswell and John Collins doubling him on Roland XV3080 and Kurzweil K2600) is like the gods dropping down from the painted scenery on high and turning out to be made mostly of Brie.

The idea that this is Dan saying that all life is artifice, mentioned in many reviews, is kindergarten stuff: Destroyer's assumed that proposition since the first album, We Shall Build Them A Golden Bridge. But in the past the relationship to the artifice was much more rueful and awkward. It's the joyful embrace, the Cocteau-like adoration of surface - the knowledge that in music, poetry or painting surface is depth, irony is earnestness, text is subtext, embraced without angst - that distinguishes this album from everything he's done before: All artifice is life.

How did he get there? This Night served its purpose by expunging all the political posturing, the self-consciousness about pop and anti-pop that burdened Streethawk and Thief. Now Dan has been able to assume his actual burden, the timeless one of the poet who wants to be an entertainer, the entertainer who wants to be a poet, and the dreamer who wants to be a revolutionary. He puts away boyish things like the future tense. Instead it's, "The new world has arrived - just look at my costume! And by the way, I really love music." (Thus The Music Lovers, his confessional piece revealing that his past love-hate stance toward music - like most hatred - was only excess love all along.)

The present tense has been mostly absent in Destroyer outings except as an occasion for regret, ever since the inspired but collegiate City of Daughters in 1998. Past and future had all the juice. What real time's return suggests is that here, for that first time, friendship, sex and love are palpable as more than farces. A line like "I lay myself down to observe your gilded jeans hit the ground" comes and goes in a flash but it is erotic for real while it's there, no boyish shock tactic. Suddenly Destroyer is not a rock or an island, since nobody worth knowing actually is.

Other old strategies vanish in the process. No fake women's names, for instance. The imaginary girls' names in his old songs weren't just dodges but insults; an imaginary Holly outstripping an actual Anne. That joke's over.The fake city names - Oakland, Warsaw, Berlin - do much more to expand the music's metaphoric universe. As he sings in What Road, "Able, willing, ready/ Fuck the Spiral Jetty!/ Tonight we work large!"

(Art-world humour -- like this reference to Robert Smithson's famous earthwork - also replaces a lot of the music-world satire of albums past, which seems more outward-looking and curious, while still keeping to his old adage, "you've got to stay critical or die." ... Not that there's none of the old, clever twists on fanzine jargon: "Your backlash was right where I wanted you/ Yes that's right I wanted you ... too," being the obvious instance.)

This album isn't free of his characteristic emotional skittishness and I wouldn't want it to be. But by the time it reaches What Road?, there's that chorus that counsels, "So quick let's go/ It's time for a ride/ The future is yours/ No, wait, I lied/ It is not yours/ It is a replica/ Of scattered ash/ And the road the rain's on." There, the skittishness isn't just present, it's accounted for: No, wait, it's life, not art. And if that's the way Destroyer's headed, bring on all the outdated midi-synthesized solos you can, because I want to be in the orbital satellite bedroom where this conversation can take place, for the duration.

Different ears will get attached to different elements. It might not stick the first time, but play it four or five times and then don't be surprised if it becomes difficult to listen to any pop music that is not Your Blues. You'll be one of those "submarines [that] don't mind spending their time in the ocean." Because it feels like that's what you were built for.


* P.S. The other main reason I didn't cover this album in the newspaper, by the way, was very newspapery: Some of the songs on it were written for a musical called All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, to be staged in some future year in Toronto. And that musical was written by my wife. Now, I think life is one big conflict of interest, so in my opinion disclosure is everything. Still, it's one thing to divulge in a review that the artist is a friend of yours. But to have to say that your family hired him to create much of the album seemed too complicated a situation to ask the Globe to take on. I feel sure I would love this album even if I had never met anyone involved, but in reality, my affection for it is also a deep fraternal pride, my love affair with these songs also a family affair. It's unprofessional in the very best way. And that's why we have the Internet.

**ALSO - About the 80s synth bands (Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen pointedly not among them; instead think of, for instance, Japan): These bands have always been the reason for the remnant of a once-upon-a-time-affected accent in Bejar's voice that's been mistaken by every critic on earth for a David Bowie imitation, when it was in fact an imitation of various imitations of David Bowie. If I could retroactively sit everybody down and play them a David Bowie album immediately followed by a Destroyer album, half the verbiage in the Destroyer press kit would immediately vaporize.

Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 31 at 06:10 PM | Comments (1)


Babytalk in the Furnace Room

It was with some shock that I recently heard the Fiery Furnaces' Tropical Ice-Land over the sound system in a Starbucks or some similar chain establishment, and further astonishment when I found out that the single was near the top of the UK charts.

What's adorable about the Furnaces is first the Weimar-cabaret slink of the music (which also has a Cornershop vibe going) and second the utter indifference to sanctioned sociability that's reflected in their lyrics: They are nonsense, the baby-talk of intimates, but with a beat and a swing. It all made more sense to me when I found out they were brother and sister; they have exactly that private-language cryptic sense to them, as if they were simultaneously (1) completely random, stream-of-consciousness babble; and (2) stating the most vital personal information but in a code only one other person on Earth could understand. [...]

I frequently adore things that fulfill this condition but am taken aback to imagine thousands, millions, of other people hugging such a poetry close. Is there an explanation in the siblinghood of the players, so that in fact what seems to be solipsistic is rendered open because it is about a relationship rather than an island consciousness?

It seems not only possible but entirely undeniable that - unbeknownst to or at least ignored by everyone - we all spend more time in this dada space of nursery-rhyme language than we do in the literary zone where critically acclaimed lyrics happen or the party zone where most of the rest do.

For example, I may occasionally blurt out, "Rawk on, MAN!" in some lamentable beer-garden episode of misplaced irony. Far more often, though, I can be heard by one single person saying, "I like to pet giraffes, the giraffes go up to the sky and get poked in the eye by saucy birds." It's just the passing-the-time chatter of love, an expression of being beyond sense and sensibility and being able to play together like toddlers do. It would be embarrassing if anyone could hear it; I certainly don't mention it in public (and even acknowledging it on this page is giving me a case of the shivers). It can also be damaging to relationships if it is allowed to get out of hand and substitute for genuine conversation. (There's a good, possibly unforgettable This American Life piece on this subject. (Approx. 23 minutes in; link requires RealAudio.))

But the Furnaces and their semi-popular success make me feel like this is a part of life that there has been a hunger to see reflected in pop culture. As Nancy Updike says in the TAL piece, "Baby talk is completely without any cool or dignity or redeeming social value - it is truly a dirty little secret, much more than sex. ... It's this very performative speech, like kabuki... but a performance for one person." So when, in a coolly unacknowledged way, this uncoolness is revealed, it becomes an unnameable kind of cool. Hell, unless you count certain works of Gertrude Stein, the Great American Baby Talk Novel remains to be written.

Plus, the Furnaces' Eleanor Friedlander is a stone fox. That might have something to do with it.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 05 at 03:19 AM | Comments (0)


Fate Healers: The Mountain Goats' 12 Steps into the Valley of Death (and 13 Steps Back)

A drug, all romanticism aside, is nothing but a delivery system for a chemical. Just as cigarettes have been engineered by the tobacco industry into burning arrows that carry nicotine to your brain with the greatest possible speed and intensity, crystal meth is a ruthlessly efficient system that slams d-methamphetamine into your cells, ripping raw bleeding chunks out of your metabolism, reasoning, life expectancy and heart's desires along the way without a whisper of apology.

John Darnielle, the man who is The Mountain Goats, produces music on much the same principle - as simply the most brutally effective delivery system yet devised for what he really wants to propagate: Poetry. [...]

Like David Berman, Dan Bejar or Chuck D (or, yeah, that obvious big D), in another time and place Darnielle might have written epic verse. But now it's 700 years after Dante, and almost nobody including me has eyes big enough for The Inferno or The Divine Comedy, much less to take in any new verse epic not yet validated by the mossy aroma of old books and defanged devils.

And so these latterday bards are led to ask why anybody would deal plain old drugstore pharmaceuticals, once the crystal meth of literature had been synthesized and imperfected by rock and its successors.

The Mountain Goats began their plummet from the heights of Olympian obscurity in the early-nineties L.A.-area hometaping scene: Blahblahblah "lo-fi" blahblahblah "4-track," but Darnielle actually went further, preferring to make do with a shopping-mall boombox, because he is an extremist. He is an extremist of small things and an extremist of the beautiful, an extremist of esotericism and populism in equal measure and, as his new album makes just short of graphically plain - because he is also an extremist of the sidelong, an extremist of the subtle, a paradox that contains the whole point of John Darnielle - he has been an extremist of the just plain extreme as well.

Some people don't understand why this trafficker in acoustic-guitar, solo-voice epiphanies is also the number-one dealer of death metal to the intelligentsia, in his guise as one of the best music critics alive. Those people should have a close listen to We Shall All Be Healed, an album that could be remixed to the music of Slayer and sound perfectly natural. (Maybe we could take this one up with DangerMouse). Not because WSABH's lyrics are about blood and demons - not literally - but because as its action proceeds, all its voices and characters are probably listening to Slayer, bickering about Slayer, having sex and passing out to Slayer and then having sex to Slayer again...

... presuming they still can have sex, which seems improbable. These are the kinds of people who don't wake up, they come to.

The vocals aren't death-metal vocals, either, but they are shouted as much as they are sung, as they have been on the hundreds and hundreds of songs Darnielle has released under The Mountain Goats banner, mostly on cassette, in the past 12 years. I'm not sure Slayer can be credited for the shouts, considering that (according to legend) Darnielle took the Goats' name from the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song Big Yellow Coat while he was working as a nurse in a California state hospital.

Nurse? Yes, besides being a classicist who often sprinkles Greek and Roman (and, since he is from California, Aztec) allusions through his lyrics, he has been a mental-health-care worker, until recently at a home for abused youth in Iowa: Darnielle and his wife Lalitree just moved to North Carolina, leaving that day job and perhaps all day jobs behind him, as seems plausible since he is now on a lengthy tour and has the support of 4AD, an unlikely Mountain Goats label given its lush-mellow reputation but there you are.

I bring up the mysteries of his occupation(s) only because: 1. Information accumulated in that group home may well have helped inform the content of this album; in my imagination, it may in some sense be his farewell note to those kids. (Recent shows have reportedly included tearful dedications to his former wards.) 2. Whatever his official accreditation, the term "lay practitioner" describes John Darnielle's persona in every way, from the spiritual to the clinical to the carnal.

Darnielle has now released two albums on 4AD, though in his compulsive way he has put out other stuff under other auspices and monickers in the same period. The 4AD discs are distinguished, most obviously, by the production: Full-band arrangements, more careful dynamic tweaking, the indicators never going wildly over into the red or dropping off into the inaudible. This produced the predictable kneejerk outcry, which seems finally to have passed. (If you, dear reader, are still crying, then go to your baby crib with the other babies and leave us grownups to talk. We'll bring your pablum and Kill Rock Stars vinyl in later.)

The other mark of the 4AD discs is that they are concept records: Mountain Goats albums often revolve around a geographical centre or theme, but both 2002's Tallahassee and this year's WSABH feature cycles of songs with consistent characters enacting particular dynamics in a consistent setting, or at least as consistent as Darnielle's sidelong-extremist sensibility permits.

On Tallahassee the characters were Darnielle's well-known "Alpha Couple," the boozing, battling, arson-prone marrieds whose misfortunes already had been chronicled in such songs as Alpha Double Negative, Alpha Incipiens, Alpha Desperation March, Spilling Toward Alpha and Going to Dade County.

The album was, and maybe remains, Darnielle's opus; it closes out the cycle with a portrait of betrayal, dependence and fatal rationalization in bitten-tongue-in-cheek acid, yet fully in the round, in some of his most remarkable melodies and sharpest verse: "I am drowning, there is no sign of land/ You are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand/ And I hope you die/ I hope we both die" - No Children, a title which, after that, seems like an imperative understatement.

On WSABH, the players are less figures in a Greek tragedy than those kids in the prefab round the corner, where Don Delillo's the landlord. They have no name and little precedent in Darnielle's corpus, though I think inevitably they will be referred to as "the tweakers," thanks to one of the album's most memorable choruses, in first single Palmcorder Yajna: "And I dreamt of a house/ Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out/ And the headstones climbed up the hills."

The dream in question arrives while the group (better described as a "pack")sleeps off a binge in a Travelodge, after unnamed but clearly chemical rituals. "Tweakers," for the uninitiated, is not a cute endearment but a term for crystal-meth users. They're caught in a more passive suicidal struggle of their own; indeed, they might be the Alphas' non-existent children. In the middle-8 of Palmcorder Yajna, Darnielle echoes the Tallahassee lyric quoted above, but with teen bravado: "If anybody comes to see me/ Tell 'em they just missed me by a minute/ If anybody comes in to our room while we're asleep/ I hope they incinerate everybody in it."

That's the second song, and past that gate all the aces of spades are on the table. The preceding opener, Slow West Vultures, strikes me as a kind of overture. Darnielle has acknowledged that this album is his first real foray into autobiography, and in the first song he seems to be hesitating on the threshold and pondering the ethics of this kind of entertainment: "We do what we do all for you/ All dressed up, black hat and white cane/ Slowly circling the drain," he drawls across textures, even sound effects, to rile the purists - breaking the Goats' sonic mould as much as it will be broken here, severing some ties with the old style for the sake of a voice at once more artfully distanced and closer to home (which is not a contradiction but the same thing).

Then Palmcorder Yajna zooms in on the scene: "Holt Boulevard between Gary and White," the Travelodge, the tweakers with "reflective tape on our sweatpants" who "comb through the carpet for clues," the group fever interrupted only by the paranoid dreams. On this album you will seldom if ever get out of this room; the cussedly cheerful major chords rush ahead of you up ramping high notes, blurring and taunting the way the days do when you fall off the calendar and out of time.

Then we slump back in the couch to watch The Exorcist, in one of the album's weaker songs but best titles, Linda Blair Was Born Innocent. By the time the movie's over neither the actress nor us slackjawed children are innocent anymore.

Letter from Belgium marks the first of two mysterious allusions to Belgium on this disc, but mainly it's part 2 of Palmcorder Yajna: We snap out of our video nod and flinch at the light leaking in through the tinfoil-covered windows. One reviewer snarked that the opening lines - "Martin calls to say he's sending old electrical equipment/ That's good, we can always use some more electrical equipment" - are a lame imitation of past Darnielle lyrics like Going to Georgia's, "The most amazing thing about you standing in the doorway/ Is that it’s you and you’re standing in the doorway."

But the tautological device here operates utterly differently: I get what that old lovelorn line's about, but I have no idea what the "electrical equipment" is or why, and would frankly rather not know. It's not a lyrical loop but a lyrical trainwreck, a conspiracy writ crooked, a theory of incoherent desire and a full-stop refusal to explain, as much an avoidance as the key lines in this song: "When we walk out in the sunlight we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes/ When the real reason we don't like it is that it makes us wonder if we're dying." The program is to make sure everyone we know is down there with us so there'll be no inconvenient questions.

In the next song, The Young Thousands, barges are pulling into the bay, "bearing real suspicious cargo" - the electrical equipment? Shit, is this happening? The song can't tell you, or is blackmailed into secrecy, but for diversion it musters up the cadences of a communal anthem, the enchanting sound of deluded stoned radicalism, Bertolucci's sleepers, pleasure as revolution - and is that so deluded? "There must be diamonds somewhere in a place that stinks this bad." Like Billy Joe Shaver, they're just young lumps of coal who are gonna be diamonds someday, or so they pray, glimpsing the distant gleam of eventual escape.

But then someone does escape, and the diamonds do not sparkle, only glare: Your Belgian Things, the most lilting, Gallic, romantic song here, sounds like a traditional lover-moving-out song, except that the men who come for the departing one's possessions wear "biohazard suits." Soon it becomes clear that the leaver has left or tried to leave not just a house and lover but "the bruised earth." The piano hammers nails in the coffin block chord by block chord, mocking anyone who thinks that the piano somehow renders the Mountain Goats less honest, less ready to walk the plank of a song. Really they've just made the risks bigger by stepping into a less cozy and cozened community; but Darnielle understands the sense of abandonment; we all yearn for our imaginary friends. "I wish you had a number where you are/ It's hard with no one here to help me through it," the survivor sings, wishing there were phone lines in the grave, and maybe that he could get his own extension.

In Mole we discover that the "Belgian" girl isn't dead but handcuffed to a bed in intensive care. The protagonist (whom I am trying to stop calling "Darnielle") comes crawling up out of his bunker, begging her to run away with him to the desert and "live carefree." Sweet impossibility. The guitar is sarcastically sympathetic, barely deigning to offer enough backup sound to get through the song. The piano is a nurse, looking in, checking up, smiling in pity, then suddenly demanding "information."

Then the backslide into Home Again Garden Grove - an old-school style MGs guitar-pounding rant in which the protagonist is heading somewhere and is constantly revising where, ranting of how his high-school fantasies of becoming "fugitive warlords" are now reduced to "shoving our heads straight into the guts of the stove." He's reached the end of his line.

In the delicate All Up the Seething Coast we seem to be in a rehab idyll, bluesy low guitar riffs under a recitative about grapefruits piled with sugar, and the sounds of chirping birds. (An important clue: back in the motel or basement apartment or wherever this album used to be, there'd be no birds, and certainly no open window to hear them through). Our hero's getting out "and a thousand dead friends can't stop me."

To my ears the rest is denouement: Quito, a 12-stepper's hymn to ice-cold water, in which Gilgamesh meets haiku and the New Age, a fiddle on board to sound more ancient doubts; and two strong, ruefully loving looks back over the shoulder, Cotton and Against Pollution.

You might begin to think Darnielle's just toeing the recovery-movement line, but then he comes out with, "This song is for the people/ Who tell their families that they're sorry/ For things they can't and won't feel sorry for," and you know that his compassion has limits, the limits of an extremist who knows the sharp edged gap between truthfulness and any claim to a given truth, who knows Death Valley from the Valley of Death. On the precipice of mawkishness, the healer heals himself, veers back from the waiting arms of Oprah at the hairpin curve.

Finally comes song (or step?) 13, characteristically reconditely titled Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of: The survivor is metamorphosed back into criminal - is he a free man dreaming he's a convict or a convict dreaming he's a free man? Either way he makes his rhetorical breakout even as the bars clank shut in front of his pockmarked face, concluding that while judges and dead friends both "send your dark messengers to tempt me/ I come from Chino so all your threats are empty."

I could say a bit about Chino, Calif., here, but I'll refer you to various Richard Buckner tunes instead. This perversely blank marching song is here to forbid us any smug intimacy with the tweakers as they indulge in their last-minute rock-out, as if to say: "44 minutes and you think you understand, you know what's happened here? You don't know shit." It's a Trojan Horse of epiphany, a sunburst with nothing inside.

So what to make of all this? A feral gang of crystal heads in a motor inn does not sound nearly as universal a subject as a couple in a hellish marriage, and it isn't: WSABH won't affect most people as direly and directly as its predecessor did, and it will take longer for listeners to find their place in it, to settle in around the fire (which Darnielle just happens to have built with books from your library and a few sticks of furniture while you were out, didn't think you'd mind) and take in the tale.

First: Its craft is the equal of any Mountain Goats project. With contributions from Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue, Jenny Toomey, Extra Glenns) on many instruments, as well as producer John Vanderslice, frequent MGs bassist Peter Hughes, violinist Nora Danielson and others, the music is more nuanced and varied, a better needle for the drug.

Listen again.

Second: The story works as horror movie and farce, as Tallahassee did, but this time for anyone who has struggled with addiction, with friends' addictions, even with addictions to friends. From what I can see (checks around room) those are goddamn common experiences. And WSABH addresses drugs with and without all romanticism aside: Glad it's over and glad it happened, glad for the deeper foundations it built on to the self, the storage lockers of experience - even if you never go down there again, nevermore push the last button on the elevator, and give thanks in every syllable for every day you don't - still unable to regard it with regret.

Listen again.

Third: At another level it addresses the lost eras within our lives, the times and people that disappear behind us as we go, the "what the hell was that all about" with which we look back from the relative safety of later years. In this it is as universal as a chapter of the Odyssey.

And again.

Fourth: We Shall All Be Healed is an inspirational-sounding title but the album it names ain't buying the message. Some of us healed, maybe. But we're not all getting out alive. And those of us who do heal will never henceforth be whole, never unscarred, no matter what, never.

Fifth: I wonder what happened to ____. And what about _____. I hated that asshole. I hope he's not dead.

And by that fifth thematic subbasement you've got this album and it's got you, and the poetry is in your veins, spiking and peaking and hooking you forever. Now, you filthy tweaker, go make amends to everyone you've ever wronged.

(Or first go here, Darnielle's extraordinary Web project to supplement the album. I would have mentioned it earlier, but I knew you might never get back.)

Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 17 at 04:24 AM | Comments (3)


The Top 25 of 2003

In a nutshell. Comments follow. You get a star* for being Canadian.

25. The Blow - The Concussive Caress, or Casey Caught Her Mom Singing Along With The Vacuum
24. Aesop Rock - Bazooka Tooth
23. The Blue Series Continuum - Good and Evil Sessions
22. VA - Livin' Lovin' Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers
21. The Gossip - Movement
20. Neil Michael Hagerty - The Howling Hex
19. Outkast - Speakerboxx/The Love Below
18. British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power
17. Califone - Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
16. The Notwist - Neon Golden
15. The New Pornographers - Electric Version *
14. PW Long - Remembered
13. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow
12. The Reigning Sound - Time Bomb High School
11. Songs:Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co.
10. The Hidden Cameras -The Smell of Our Own *
9. John Oswald - Aparanthesi *
8. The Constantines - Shine a Light *
7. Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbow
6. Drive-By Truckers - Decoration Day
5. Vic Chesnutt - Silver Lake
4. Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland
3. The MF Doom albums: King Geedorah - Take Me to Your Leader and Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain
2.The Barcelona Pavilion - It's the Barcelona Pavilion*
1. Frog Eyes - The Golden River*

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 02:17 AM | Comments (2)


1. Frog Eyes - The Golden River

So many elements contribute to making a "record of the year" for any avid listener. It's not an accident that this is among the least-known of the albums on the list - when a friend in Vancouver brought me out to a gig by this Victoria, BC-based band in the spring, I got to experience the joy of discovery, like unwrapping a birthday present or hearing a secret whispered in your ear... though in this case, Frog Eyes resident genius Carey Mercer was bellowing, howling, moaning and crooning that secret to a lot of quite drunk, quite young Vancouverites in a downtown bar. Later, in the summer, I saw them at Wavelength in Toronto and got to share the secret with a bunch of friends at my own local nerve centre. So that's one kind of pleasure.

There's also the pleasure of recognition: Mercer reminds me more of Pere Ubu's David Thomas - I admit it, an idol - than just about anyone in rock has managed to do, even though his style is so much his own that I am not even certain Mercer's ever listened to Ubu. The similarity is in the unlikeliness of each man for the rock-star role, and yet how fully - to overflowing - they each fill it. When Mercer's not singing, he seems like a mild-mannered, conservative professional, the good husband (to Frog Eyes' drummer, actually) and provincial, Vancouver Island guy that he probably partly is. But when he performs, he is inhabited by ancient animus, infused into him by the bacchanalian swirl of the music, organs and drums and guitars that recalls carnival, the baroque, Wagner, psychedelia and the likes without ever becoming over-complicated or fussy.

Getting the album (the band's second, though I've yet to pick up the first, The Bloody Hand) and especially the lyric sheet was another revelation: Like Thomas's, Mercer's singing style obscures the words, so you can't tell how absolutely original his song structures are, how his imagery seems like a contemporary-Canadianized rendition of the paintings of Brueghel, Goya and Bosch, an environmental and social manifesto of certain import but unsure meaning.

Stimulated by all that, I wrote a couple of my best pieces this year about this album - for C Magazine and The Globe and Mail -and I am grateful for the booster shot for thinking about music that the disc turned out to be.

And as a result, and this is almost always the best measuring stick, I simply felt compelled to put this one in the player more often than anything else this year.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 01:57 AM | Comments (1)


2. The Barcelona Pavilion - It's the Barcelona Pavilion

The story of my musical year, with rare exceptions, was most intensely one of in-person experience, the direct and the local. Nothing summed that up more than the penultimate concert by the current configuration of Toronto's electro-laptop, two-singers, two-bass quartet The Barcelona Pavilion at Wavelength in December - singer Maggie Macdonald's last with the band, for the usual, damnable kinds of internal reasons.

They got about half the audience, me included, up on the stage, not just at the end of the show but from the very beginning, highlighting the enjoyably absurd tension that makes the BP what it is: a band absolutely maniacally devoted to breaking down the performer-audience barrier, but also determined to confront you with aggressive (but humorous) demands once you reach the other side. The word "exhort" comes to mind.

They're also the rare case of a band that began from ideas and concepts rather than from music, a fact that's drawn slagging from other Toronto musicians on occasion, all of which just makes it more interesting, though rather silly when you consider just how much their songs - "New Materiology," and the two German-language tunes here, and last year's march-tempo manifesto "How Are You People Going To Have Fun If None of You People Ever Participate?" - just plain rock. The official marching band of the Torontopia movement.

Full disclosure: They're also friends. Because if you had people like this in your town, you'd make friends with them too.

Also check out Toronto's download-of-the-year, BP singer-bassist Steve Kado's cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya" in his solo guise, The Blankket (Scroll down to mp3).

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 01:48 AM | Comments (2)


3. King Geedorah - Take Me to Your Leader and Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain

While the Outkast record deserves a high proportion (but not all) of the praise it's gotten, and I did miss out on a lot of hip-hop this year, these two projects by a hip-hop outsider figure were the most out-and-out enjoyable, individual, eccentric hip-hop joints I heard this year. MF Doom in two guises: First, as a monster rapper right out of the Godzilla movies, second as a battle MC moving through a treacherous land not of his own making. King Geedorah especially was the soundtrack to my summer - I put it on and just could never shut it off again.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 01:41 AM | Comments (1)


4. Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland

A rare sighting of the Silver-Plumed Wyte, one of England's most elusive and intoxicating songbirds, known to frequent lush glades full of misting wonder, sprays of anger, and clouds of unknowing. One among many albums on this list to rock on the border of kool electronix and underground pazz-and-jop (just as Top 40 hip-hop and R&B; have been doing for several years), it is among the very most assured, as Canterbury old prog-jazz-rock hand Wyatt never met a musical style he couldn't crush down and incorporate into the idiosyncratic, diamond-hard soul at the core of his seeming balmy harmlessness.

It's worth noting that this album, for all its gorgeous ramadingding, also contains some of the year's best protest music -- a curdlingly angry lullaby for Palestine, the names of various major figures in human-rights atrocities sung as if part of a language soup, emphasizing the way that the world at large remains deaf to their existence. Only Wyatt can be this fierce and this mild simultaneously; it's a kind of aural Ghandism, not argued, just performed, demonstrated. Now, you world leaders, follow the bouncing ball.

And - does it need to be said? - one of the world's great, great voices, great singers- the post-hippie, white British socialist Billie Holiday.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 01:38 AM | Comments (0)


5. Vic Chesnutt - Silver Lake

It's a testimony to how fantastic most of this album is that it holds this position despite the presence of "Girls Say," among the worst songs Chesnutt has ever written, and the way over-extended one-joke number "Sultan, So Mighty" (it's about a eunuch and it is more than eight minutes long; that's what it says next to the word "tiresome" in the dictionary). I know there are some huge Salesman and Bernadette fans out there, but for me this is the most satisfying Vic disc since About to Choke. No half-assed arrangements. No nonsense poetry that doesn't seem to have a purpose. No distraction, no restraint.

Instead, it is just a well-produced prism showing off all the facets of this Athens, Georgia-based marvel's native genius: his abstraction, his humour, his acerbic interpersonal critique (in track 1, "I'm Through," he claims "I am not Emily Post/ You know I'm nowhere near that precise," which is delightful for how exactly untrue it is), his effortlessly beautiful melodies, his effortful imperfect ethics, his Southern barstool-novelist storyteller's gifts, and his ability to hit emotional soft spots line after line after line. The final track, "In My Way, Yes" - the title is his answer to the question "do you think you deserve it?" - shows him in a new mode, struggling to claim the hopefulness his ordeals have earned, and it's not only one of the most beautiful things he's ever written, but one of the most beautiful things anybody's written in ages. Plus, there ought to be some special Grammy category for the verse in "Band Camp" that involves the vodka-soaked tampon in second-period science lab.

And of course he makes it sound as easy as falling out of a wheelchair, the way he looks he has on the front cover. Which when you think of it, can't be so easy.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 01:29 AM | Comments (0)


6. Drive-By Truckers - Decoration Day

More subtly ambitious than last year's blatantly inspired Southern Rock Opera, there's a depth and maturity to this disc that's generously enhanced by the new songwriter and guitarist in the band, the boyish Jason Isbell. Named for the southern American occasion when ornaments are traditionally laid on the graves of the fallen, it is a concept album light-handed enough not to seem like one, about southern men, but not the kind Neil Young sang against. These are the men of the New South, with a newly cosmopolitan sense of life but a truckload of baggage -- which plays itself out in these songs about their daddies and mostly their male friends, and how the conflicts and impossibilities that arise in those dynamics, in the hothouse of Southern traditions and troubles, are apt to lead to an early grave. (The first tune is an exception, dealing with brother-sister incest, based on a true story, but that's not too far off from the theme.) But the main thrust is that, despite all the shrapnel exchanged in these relationships, the core of the "southern thing" they sang about on SRO is really all about love.

The Truckers' Skynyrd-meets-Replacements triple-guitar assault sounds ever-more like the most classic sound in current rock, with the Muscle Shoals bottom end that lead Trucker Patterson Hood comes by honestly, from his own father. If you hear it live, as I did for the first time this year, you can't forget the joyful noise that leavens all the darkness of this disc, which Hood has said springs from the strain the band members were under in the long gestation of the Opera, with families and finances in crisis. (They were rescued when a major label picked up the disc, but when Lost Highway heard Decoration Day they decided it was too much of a downer, and - with unusual grace - let the band buy itself out of the contract. They're now happily on New West.)

Yet for all the violence and despair here - there are several songs about suicide - they also prove true to their claim that "Southern men tell better jokes," with lines like "Rock'n'roll means well but it can't help telling young boys lies" and the fatherly advice, "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/ Don't ever say your car is broke/ Don't sing with a fake British accent/ Don't act like your family's a joke." So the gothic elements are spiced with rue and sage, and the pain is worn as casually as a jean jacket, just part of the way things are.

A final note: It was a bit shocking at the end of the year to learn that bassist Earl Hicks had been summarily replaced with Jason Isbell's wife, but after some reflection - the kind this album naturally provokes - it seems to me that nobody can really judge what happens inside an intimate situation, whether a family or a band, unless you're one of the people involved. Every song on this disc reinforces the lesson that the wise outsider knows better than to argue or to judge.

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 01:23 AM | Comments (1)


7. Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbow

I was just wondering if there's any common thread in these choices, and then we get to this - so I guess not. My second-favourite discovery experience of 2003 took place the same week as the first (see No. 1) -- I was in Scratch Records in Vancouver with my friends Lee Henderson and Kevin Chong, all of us shuffling through the bins in that classic bespectacled-record-nerd fashion, when the clerk put this disc on. I immediately ran over to the "L" section.

How to describe it? Guitars and drums possessed by psychosis in the wilds of Rhode Island. Slabs of feedback that paint the sky between your ears in shit brown and puke pink, a hallucinogenic rawk fundamentalism that makes nearly any other rock-based music sound as if it's preoccupied with trivialities.

(And did I mention they've got a furgin' great web page?)

This record was good enough to revive my interest in heavy music in general, leading to new forays into death metal and black metal, but not even the likes of Emperor were up to this level -- in a sense it's the ideal jazz-rock fusion, completely without non-rock harmonic elements but achieving the same spontaneity and abstracting effect as great free jazz. The best noise music works the same way of course, but there's something encouraging in the notion that this can be achieved without actually leaving the genre behind.

And if that's all too reasoned and stiff to get at it, which it surely is, let me sum up: SHEEEE! YEEEEE! SHEEEE! YEEEEEE! AAAAAIIII! OOOOOOOOKKK!

Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 10 at 12:13 AM | Comments (0)


8. The Constantines - Shine a Light

I think I was nearly the last person in Toronto to come around to this band, but their earlier work didn't cry out to me the way this second album does. For people in this city, 2003 was a tough (thanks to SARS, the blackout, economic uncertainty and other factors) but fascinating year - and one of its happiest moments was when longtime mayor Mel Lastman finally got the hell out of office. And as if that weren't good enough, thanks to the efforts of a lot of committed civic-minded people, our new mayor turned out to be David Miller, a man who inspires more faith than pretty much any politician that I've ever seen.

(You should have seen him at the special election-campaign Trampoline Hall that I helped organize in early November: dealing gamely with odd questions from the young crowd of artists and others, speaking on "Beauty and the Aesthetic City" and in every other way adapting himself as much as you could ask to the eccentric particularities of the event rather than sticking to any spin game of his own. It was remarkable.)

And what does all that have to do with the Constantines? Well, from an opening line quite directly about the scandal-ridden Lastman - "Your mayor is raising fences to keep bodies off the Don Valley Parkway/ Send your praises to the mechanics of the state" - through the only song I know to portray the Biblical level of violence that has been taking place in this area's suburban discos, to a final line that evokes the tireless work against the gloomiest odds that people do to keep this city living - "Reconstructive scavengers, termite sympathizers/ All sick and sleepless, caught up in the wires" - this album captured the darkest parts of the city's mood and proclaimed them fuel for fury and change - which is exactly what they turned out to be.

I've written in a column about some of my problems with the exact place of politics in these songs, but those are relatively minor complaints: If all the artists and the citizens were this engaged, and as engaging as the Constantines' geometry-problem guitars layered over with soulful horns and hushed voices, not just this city but the whole world would be quite a different place. I'm happy enough, though, that this city is such a different place than it was twelve months ago.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)


9. John Oswald - Aparanthesi

Count on Toronto-based Plunderphonics creator Oswald to toss a conceptual grenade through the picture window, with two time-stopping compositions (each one note for a half-hour's duration) that have John Cage grinning in his grave. As Chris Cutler puts it in his superb review, "a meditation on hearing" - much the way that a lot of the best abstract art has been a meditation on seeing.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 11:07 PM | Comments (0)


10. The Hidden Cameras - The Smell of Our Own

It was unlikely enough that this band existed in the first place - a posse of visual artists and intellectuals and a few actual musicians congregating around the cheeky songs of Joel Gibb, whose description "gay church folk-choir music" really does communicate quite effectively what this dozen-strong party band sounds like -- except that it leaves out the element of the whole audience dancing and singing along to the words on the overhead projector, the go-go crowd-stimulation leaders kicking it in their underwear, and the generally ecstatic experience that the Cameras have taken everywhere they go for the past two years. Unlikely enough. For the rest look here.

But then, last spring, when Rough Trade decided to sign them and propagate the word around the world, it wasn't just the quintessential pop experience - I felt a bit as though I'd been hanging out at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1962 -- but a huge stroke of redemption for Toronto. Along with gay marriage in Canada (to which idea the Cameras sing "Ban Marriage!") and the brief, fruitless promise of legalized pot, the Hidden Cameras put the planet on notice that little Toronto isn't exactly the sexless bore it used to be. It's kind of a miracle.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)


Comments: Discs 11-25

25. The Blow - The Concussive Caress
This record is difficult to follow if you haven't seen the one-woman rock opera it's based on, a story about lesbian crushes, summer camp and the secret voice of the moon

called Blue Sky v. Night Sky. But seeing Khaela Maricich sneak that show up on an unsuspecting Wavelength audience in Toronto was one of the best live experiences I had in 2003. So this is like having the 'original cast album' for me -- and the song that personifies gravity as an illicit lover, reaching its fingers up under shirts and skirts and pulling down, down, down, is just too brilliant to believe.

24. Aesop Rock - Bazooka Tooth
A dense rap jigsaw puzzle that sounds smarter and more appealing every time I listen to it. Can't claim to understand it, but in a year when a lot of hip-hop seemed just a little too easy to get, that's a pleasure in itself.

23. The Blue Series Continuum - Good and Evil Sessions
I haven't heard Matthew Shipp's collaboration with the Anti-Pop Consortium (hostile reviews scared me off a bit, I'm sorry to say) but this was the best jazz-hip-hop fusion I did hear in Shipp's Blue Series this year: Shipp on Korg synthesizer instead of his usual piano, with the ever-present William Parker on bass, Alex Lodico and Josh Roseman on trombones, and the excellent trumpeter Roy Campbell -- all "sliced and diced, fixed and mixed" by GoodandEvil, a production duo who've worked with Northern State, Felix Da Housecat and Roni Size. It's one of the better incorporations of electronics any of the Blue Series discs have managed, while preserving the integrity of the jazz. The whole series, in any case, is a landmark in jazz history, even if it does take another decade for its natural audience to come into existence.

22. VA - Livin' Lovin' Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers
The year's best country album turns out to be a tribute album -- the Louvins' sibling harmonies inspire brilliant duo performances from traditionalist and new-country stalwarts alike. Who could have guessed one of my favourite songs this year (How's the World Treatin' You?) would be a duet between Alison Krauss and James Taylor? I thought I hated them.

21. The Gossip - Movement
Gospel-punk belter Beth Ditto is going to be one of the most important singers of her generation. That hasn't happened yet on this disc, but you can feel her tugging at the line.

20. Neil Michael Hagerty - The Howling Hex
Like a 21-year-old Mick Jagger on a meth kick. Rawk with a "w." Another neglected gem.

19. Outkast - Speakerboxx/The Love Below
Ah, the endless debates: Yes, the Big Boi record is more consistently satisfying, but the Andre 3000 record is the more daring stretch - even if some of it is astonishingly bad, it's got "Hey Ya," so just shut yer mouth. The battle to make hip-hop safe for nerds again continues.

18. British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power
An amazingly accomplished first record - yes, it sounds like loads of eighties guitar music, but no, it doesn't rest content with that. Whimsy raised to epic heights, and the best British record I heard this year, Dizzee Rascal notwithstanding.

17. Califone - Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
Another fusion, this time of experimental electronics and country blues. Of all this year's albums, this one is most like a world I would want to live inside - sparse, sparkling, and sad.

16. The Notwist - Neon Golden
One of this year's most convincing efforts at rockin' the laptop from this German former hardcore-punk group, now a lilting and cracked pop ensemble. Unlike some others who aim for this style, they don't think that just a little melody and emotion is enough to remake techno as an intimate form -- it takes a whole lot of poetry to seduce a robot.

15. The New Pornographers - Electric Version *
There's a settledness to this disc that prevents it from approaching the excitement of Mass Romantic but Carl Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar (when he makes his guest appearances) and company can still craft enigmatic pop masterpieces the way other people put butter on toast. If only I liked Newman's voice more, this would rank higher. Favourite tracks: "The Laws Have Changed," "All for Swinging You Around," "Chump Change" and "Testament to Youth in Verse."

14. PW Long - Remembered
The former Mule frontman doesn't stray far from the country-blues basics on this album, but he pushes every moment to the limit. Like watching a great performance by De Niro or Steve McQueen.

13. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow
Initially I thought this was a better album than their debut, Oh Inverted World -- it's not, but I only came to appreciate that after the shinier hooks of this album prompted me to listen again to the first. In both cases, catchy, smart, sensitive but with a light emotional touch, super-literate, funny... this is exactly what indie rock is meant to be.

12. The Reigning Sound - Time Bomb High School
I'm surprised this album by Greg Oblivian's new band didn't get more attention - just basic roots-punk-rock, but nearly every song could stand with the best of the Replacements, Clash or Ramones The opening cover of "Stormy Weather" as a garage stomper is a coup.

11. Songs:Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co.
Songs:Ohia man Jason Molina is aware enough himself of what a leap this record is that he's changed the name of the band to Magnolia Electric Co. Molina finally gets entirely out of the shadow of Will Oldham (Palace Bros.) and makes a country-rock disc that recalls Neil Young's highest peaks without seeming to mimic them. His usual fragility gets cast in bronze in these arrangements, so that it might endure the test of time.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 04:33 PM | Comments (0)


Other 2003 Favourites

More CDs I enjoyed in 2003, outside the top 25. In alphabetical order. The asterisks* flag Canadian CDs.

Angels of Light - Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home
Animal Collective - Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished/ Danse Manatee
Azita - Enantiodromia
The Barmitzvah Bros. - Mr. Bones' Walk-In Closet *
The Books - The Lemon of Pink

Carla Bozulich - Red-Headed Stranger
Calexico - Feast of Wire
Ralph Carney - This Is!
Rosanne Cash - Rules of Travel
Rob Clutton Band - Holstein Dream Pageant *
The Deadly Snakes - Ode to Joy *
Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism
Dizee Rascal - Boy in the Corner
Fred Eaglesmith & the Flathead Noodlers - Balin *
Jay Farrar - Terroir Blues
The Fembots - Small Town Murder Scene *
The French - Local Information
Howe Gelb - The Listener
Lisa Germano - Lullaby for Liquid Pig
Al Green - I Can't Stop
Jim Guthrie - Now, More Than Ever *
Tim Hecker - Presents Radio Amor *
Lucie Idlout - E5-770: My Mother's Name *
Jon Langford and his Sadies - Mayors of the Moon *
The Libertines - Up the Bracket
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Pig Lib
Manitoba - Up in Flames *
Matmos - The Civil War
Tim McB - Figment Bee *
Metric - Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? *
Mountain Goats - Palmcorder Yajna (would be in the top 25 if it weren't just a teaser for the upcoming album We Shall All Be Healed)
Willie Nelson - Crazy: Demo Sessions (reissue)
Harris Newman - Non-Sequiturs *
Pernice Bros. - Yours Mine & Ours
Liz Phair - Liz Phair
Joel Plaskett Emergency - Truthfully, Truthfully *
Pretty Girls Make Graves - The New Romance
Ratsicule - Un Chaud Combo *
The Reveries - Blasé Kisses *
Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson - Picture in a Frame
Robert Crumb presents Hot Women Singers (compilation)
Sam Shalabi - Osama *
The Sick Lipstick - Sting Sting Sting *
Simply Saucer - Cyborgs Revisited (reissue) *
(Smog) - Supper
Stars - Heart *
Stars Like Fleas - sun lights down on the fence
Strapping Young Lad - SYL *
The Swords Project - Entertainment Is Over If You Want It
Tangiers - Hot New Spirits *
Richard Thompson - The Old Kit Bag
The Unicorns - Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? *
U.S. Maple - Purple On Time
Ken Vandermark - Furniture Music
Rufus Wainwright - Want (One) *
Doug Wamble - Country Libations
David S. Ware String Ensemble - Threads
The Weakerthans - Reconstruction Site *
White Stripes - Elephant
Wire - Send
Wolf Eyes - Mugger
Xiu Xiu - A Promise
Yo La Tengo - Summer Sun
VA - Eaglesmith: The Songs of Fred Eaglesmith, A Tribute *
VA - You Gotta Serve Somebody: Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan
VA - Masked and Anonymous soundtrack

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 03:53 PM | Comments (0)


Still Listening To...

I haven't spent enough time with these yet to make any legitimate judgments, though some seem like extremely good records. Reviews of many of them will show up here in the future. In alphabetical order:

Ken Aldcroft Trio + 1 - From Our Time
Lina Allemano Four - Concentric
Tony Allen - Home Cooking
The Bad Plus - These Are the Vistas
Basement Jaxx - Kish Kash

Borah Bergman & Thomas Chapin - Live in Toronto 1967
Bettie Serveert - Log 22
Frank Black - Show Me Your Tears
Jim Bryson - The North Side Benches
Buzzcocks - Buzzcocks
John Cale - HoboSapiens
Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf - Big Shots
Charlambides - Unknown Spin
Jason Collett - Motor Motel Love Songs
Cynthia Dall - Sound Restores Young men
DM & Jemini - Ghetto Pop Life
Electric Six - Fire
Explosions in the Sky - The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place
The Fiery Furnaces - Gallowsbird's Bark
Fifty Cent - Get Rich or Die Tryin'
Fog - Ether Teeth
The Great Uncles of the Revolution - Blow the House Down
Mike Hansen - Bill Evans Project
Richard Hawley - Lowedges
International Noise Conspiracy - Bigger Cages, Longer Chains
Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - In What Language?
Iron and Wine - The Sea and the Rhythm
Joe Jackson - Volume Four
Claire Jenkins - Um
Rickie Lee Jones - The Evening of My Best Day
Damien Jurado - Will You Find Me?
Kelis - Tasty
Alicia Keys - The Diary of ...
Brett Larner/ Joelle Leandre/ Kazuhisa Uchihashi - No Day Rising
The Long Winters - When I Pretend to Fall
Lumen - This Day and Age
Nina Nastasia - A Promise
Scout Niblett - I Am
Joe Nichols - Man With a Memory
Okkervil River - Down the River of Golden Dreams
Ox - Dust Bowl Revival
Panjabi MC - Beware
Parkas - Now This Is Fighting
Polmo Polpo - Like Hearts Swelling
Prefuse 73 - Extinguished: Outtakes
Quantic Soul Orchestra - Stampede
Rachel's - Systems/Layers
Rebel Powers - Not One Star Will Stand the Night
Rembetika Hipsters - Dinner in Polidroso
Marc Ribot - Scelsi Morning
Dean Roberts - Be Mine Tonight
Sole - Selling Live Water
Spokane - Measurement
Steely Dan - Everything Must Go
George Strait - Honkytonkville
Themselves - The No Music Of Aiffs/ The No Music Remixed
The Thermals - Parts Per Million
Tsurbubami - Gekkyukekkaichi
The Twilight Singers - Blackberry Belle
Two Minute Miracles - Vol III: The Silence of Animals
Ugly Duckling - Taste the Secret
The Unintended - s/t
Venetian Snares - The Chocolate Wheelchair Album (and other 2003 releases)
Tamara Williamson - And All Those Racing Horses
Young and Sexy - Life Through One Speaker
VA - Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Thorpe

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 03:49 PM | Comments (1)


The Unheard Music

If there were money enough and time, I would have picked up the new discs by all of these artists in 2003, among others. If your favourite isn't in the "best of" list, maybe it's because it's in this wish-list.

Josh Abrams; Gary Allen; Ellen Allien; Antipop Consortium vs Matthew Shipp; Architecture in Helsinki; Art Ensemble of Chicago (two new albums);

Atmosphere; Milton Babbitt; Ballboy; David Banner; Danny Barnes; William Basinski; Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire; Dierks Bentley; Tim Berne; The Carla Bley Big Band; Blizzard Boys/McKenzie Brothers; Blood Brothers; Blur; Christian Bok; Brother Ali; Peter Brotzmann/William Parker/Hamid Drake; Brotzmann/Bennink/van Hove (reissue); Bubba Sparxxx; Paul Burch; Cafe Tacuba; Johnny Cash; Grand Champeen; Cody Chesnutt; Coheed and Cambria; Steve Coleman & the Five Elements; Colleen; Gerald Collier; The Concretes; Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán; Elvis Costello; Dandy Warhols; Kimya Dawson; Stephen Dawson & Diane Christiansen ; Deerhoof; Dimmu Borgir; Arrington de Dionyso & The Old Time Relijun; Dirty Three; The Dixie Hummingbirds; DJ Olive; Do Make Say Think; Baby Dodds; Dave Douglas; Downpilot; Kevin Drumm; Dump; East River Pipe; eels; Elbow; El Gran Silencio; Missy Elliott; Essential Logic reissue; Exploding Hearts; The Fall; Finntroll; Erik Friedlander; Diamanda Galas (!); Thea Gilmore; The Go Betweens; Holly Golightly; Jean Grae ; Frank Gratkowski; Macy Gray ; Adam Green; David Grubbs/Lorren Mazzencane Connors; Merle Haggard; Anthony Hamilton; Matthew Herbert Big Band; Andrew Hill; The Hurricane Lamps; Susie Ibarra; Isley Meets Bacharach; Jay-Z; Philip Jeck; Danko Jones; Junior Senior; Katatonia; R. Kelly; Jeannie Kendall; Bettye Lavette; Okkyung Lee and Martin Schütz ; Annie Lennox; Ted Leo and the Pharmacists; LFTR-PLLR; Lickgoldensky; Lifesavas; Patty Loveless; Lucksmiths; Luomo; Shelby Lynne; Lyrics Born; M83; Madlib; Maher Shalal Hash Baz; Menomena ; Stephin Merritt; Christof Migone; Juana Molina; Jason Moran; Butch Morris and Burnt Sugar; The Lynn Morris Band; Ms. John Soda; Geoff Muldaur's Futuristic Ensemble; The David Murray Latin Big Band; My Morning Jacket; Nappy Roots; Meshell N'Degeocello.; Need New Body ; Willie Nelson & Ray Price; Neptunes; Randy Newman; Non-Prophets; Oneida; Opeth; Greg Osby; Jeff Parker/ Kevin Drumm/ Michael Zerrang; William Parker Violin Trio ; The Liz Phair Internet EP, which would not download for me; Plastikman; Pluramon; Radio Java compilation (Sublime Frequencies); RZA; Maja Ratkje; Rechenzentrum; Amy Rigby; Sam Rivers (reissue); Rogers Sisters; Sin Ropas; Keith Rowe/Thomas Lehn/Marcus Shmickler; Paul Rucker ; Roswell Rudd/Toumani Diabaté; The Russian Futurists; Alexander von Schlippenbach (reissue); Darrell Scott ; Set Fire to Flames; Virgil Shaw; Matthew Shipp; Wayne Shorter; Sixtoo; Sleepy Jackson; Sludgefeast; Wadada Leo Smith/ Anthony Braxton (and other Smith projex); So; Regina Spektor; Spring Heel Jack; Sufjan Stevens; Joss Stone; Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros; The Stills; The Strokes; Sun Kil Moon; David Sylvian; Cecil Taylor (reissue); Otis Taylor; Richard Thompson -1,000 Years of Popular Music; Three Inches of Blood; Tied & Tickled Trio; Yasunao Tone; TV on the Radio; [[[VVRSSNN]]]; The Wrens; Steve Wynn; Horace X; Neil Young (Greendale and reissues); Warren Zevon; OST -Lost In Translation; OST -The Slaughter Rule; VA -Goodbye, Babylon compilation ; VA - Joe Boussard's 78s "from the basement" compilation ; VA -Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music 1923-1939; VA -Stomp and Swerve compilation

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 03:46 PM | Comments (1)


Best of 2003

Here it comes - just a week or so late - the mammoth end-of-year list. I'll forego generalizations about the great year in music that was 2003, as plenty gets said in the list itself. But it was a very good year.

Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 09 at 03:42 PM | Comments (0)


ATM + Guy, Electric Orchestra

(Self-Released, 2003)

ATM is Toronto's Arnd Jorgensen (guitar, bass, electronics), Tomasz Krakowiak (percussion, electronics) and Mike Hansen (record players, electronics), and Guy is Guy Leblanc (trombone, percussion). Track 1, "Portage," is fairly standard skitter-scratch improv quiet noise for about seven minutes, then becomes fairly standard drone plus quiet noise music for another three. "Bog" is much more enjoyably tactile, especially thanks to (I think) Hansen's play with his record needle. As with many works in the genre it would be more interesting to see this in process than to listen to the document later -- are DVDs the future of the improv album? -- but the choice to keep it down to 20 minutes does allow the home listener to offer sustained attention, and hopefully not just to lapse into soundtrack-think and hear it all as tension-building backdrop for a locked-room horror flick. B-

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, November 16 at 10:58 PM | Comments (2)


Joe Ely, Streets of Sin

(Rounder, 2003)

Ely is the member of the Lubbock, Tex., musical mafia who's done the most to bring West Texas cosmic country-rock to mainstream attention, mainly with his firey opening sets for the Clash in the late Seventies. Streets of Sin carries the classic Ely sound -- a little bit honkytonk and a little bit Springsteen -- and a sense of a centre that might partially be credited to the regrouping last year of Lubbock wellspring group the Flatlanders (with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, who wrote two of the dozen songs here, while the rest are Ely originals). Horses, twisty rivers, dry-land farming and gritty winds, "love, wine and gasoline" in witty 4/4 country blues: Sometimes there are worse things than predictability. B

Posted by zoilus on Sunday, November 16 at 10:49 PM | Comments (3)


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