by carl wilson

Alt-Weekly Wig-Out (Thursday Reading)

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It's a big day in the Toronto alt-weekly market: NOW has its annual "Best of Toronto" issue - which has finally disposed of the inane reader's-choice listings that always named, you know, Chapters as the best book store and Blockbuster as best video store, and so forth. It makes the section a much better read. The paper's unbylined choices for the best in Toronto music make a fine mini-primer. They lean to the conservative side but not as much as in past years - sure, choosing Oscar Peterson as best pianist is more than a bit stodgy, but Maggie MacDonald's choice as "best arts revolutionary," Blocks as best label and Amy Millan as best female singer is close to the pulse of the moment. I also appreciate the shout-out to my current home, the Gladstone Hotel, as "best art hotel vision ever." And fists were thrust in air over the choice of our pal Margaux Williamson, named "Best Painter." For damn sure. Tune in, world, you're missing out.

Meanwhile, eye weekly launches its long awaited redesign, masterminded by Tyler Clark Burke. (Whom competitor NOW kinda-amusingly included in its best-ofs. Oops!) The cover feature on Jon Rae and the River (at the Music Gallery tomorrow night) was a great choice to launch the new look, with an arresting image up front; I'm still getting used to the interiors, which I find a bit hard to navigate but very clean and easy to read once I'm there. Still, I'm a bit disappointed that it doesn't look like this. (Did Tyler also do the website redesign, by the way?)

Also in NOW, interviews with RA the Rugged Man and the perpetrators of the Do They Know It's Halloween benefit spoof single (making some fine points about charidee), and a nice TO Music Note on Jennifer Castle, who's opening for Jon Rae tomorrow.

And also in eye, an interview with Craig Finn of the Hold Steady on his secret hip-hop masterplan (2nd review) and a continuation of the essential cussing-out of CTV on its idiocy for not renewing Veronica Mars. We'll wear 'em down.

An examination of the review sections also reveals this: People who don't like the Fiery Furnaces like their new Grandma album, and vice-versa.

It's also a big week in the American alt-weekly scene. On one hand, the grandpappy of the form, The Village Voice, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an issue packed with bohemian history. For rock-crit fans, Robert Christgau's and Greg Tate's contributions are natural must-reads, though Xgau's isn't as good as I'd have hoped - not on par with this previous take, for instance. But browse through the chronologi-scope for more bits of music crit and culture. (Also in the same issue there's a good balanced look at Liz Phair's new album by Georgia Christgau, for those who can stand more Phair discourse.)

Yet just as it toasts itself, its toast may actually be on fire. Um, by which I mean that the Voice-as-we-knew-it, already a pale reflection of its old self, was OPD'd this week with its takeover by the New Times chain. New Times is not reputed to be friendly to the challenging possibilities of this medium remnant from the underground-newspaper days of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, chillun. It's got a cutter and it likes itself some cookies. Matos is pithy. Howard Kurtz expands. Read the corporate memo. And weep.

Meanwhile, outside the weekly-world news, and on a happier note: Read this interview with Gilberto Gil, not only a brilliant Brazilian musician, godfather of tropicalia etc., etc., but a political figure who, if there were an artistic-expression-activist equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, would deserve it this year.

There's also a very open and interesting interview with Dave Newfeld of Broken Social Scene on the Toronto Life web site now, an exclusive annex to Jason McBride's feature on the band in the current magazine.

And this is old, but in honour of next week's Constantines show in Toronto (a tour also bringing them to you Americans and yon Europeans) it seems like a good time to put up this link to Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe audio appreciation of the late, lamented Three Gut Records. McLean is often too cardigan-and-golf-cap for me as a radio host, but I was touched by his generous tribute to the young folk (whom he probably only heard about through Vinyl Cafe music programmers such as Owen Pallett and Julie Penner, but still).

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 27 at 5:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

One-Tune Tomes, Continued

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Plenty of interesting contributions to the single-song book discussion in the Comments. Among books that collect one-song studies, I'd add last year's anthology The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love & Liberty in the American Ballad, edited by Greil Marcus & Sean Wilentz. And yes, I have and admire the Friedwald book, too, Jody - and the Douglas Wolk book on Live at the Apollo is one of my favourites in the 33 1/3 series. You should absolutely read it, though I'm not sure it's got the definitive take on Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag.

Still, it's clear there are lots & lots & lots of essays on single songs. (In audio form, I'd refer you to the NPR 100 Songs project too - it's got Papa's but not John's nominee, Caravan.) You find it in quicker form in many "list" books as well, such as Dave Marsh's greatest-rock-singles book and David Cantwell and Bill Frikiscs-Warren's Heartaches by the Number, for instance. It's an excellently elegant form, and certainly not yet overdone or even enough-done; I really want to take a crack at some point. But the single-song book is a virtuoso test-piece, really stretching the limits. It risks seeming like an overextended article, I agree (I suspect the Louis Louis book is like that), but if done right it also dares to try to use that song as a way to illuminate a whole period or a whole historical thread - and history in turn to illuminate the song.

(The idea of Tagg's 400-page musicological analysis of the Kojak theme, however, makes me gag a bit. Though I'm also helplessly curious. I do like the dry self-awareness - I think? -of its title: 50 Seconds of Television Music.)

But what do I know? I'm also intrigued by those books that use Salt or Sugar or Coffee or the Pencil or the year 1910 as a hub for a historical exploration. It's a very creative and often revelatory approach, as long as the author isn't dumb enough to believe his publisher's hype that, y'know, Codfish Explains Everything and/or Saved the World. That particular part of the trend has gotten way out of hand - it used to be that such books were called "the cultural history of fish" - now it's "the fishy history of culture," which is way dumber.

Keep the bookworthy-songs nominations (and bibliographical notes) coming. I'll compile the list when all ideas are in. Hell, maybe I'll approach a publisher and give 33 1/3 a run for its tiny-music-book money: Now with even more miniscule subject matter and packaging! (They would be the size of Hanuman books [and I think that example is even a little bigger than actual size].)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 26 at 12:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Ich Bin Ein Irving Berliner
(Plus: Single-Song Studies!?)

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While your proprieter has been busy back-and-forthing with his web sherpa on details of the forthcoming Zoilus redesign, as well as beavering away on the final version of this month's Toronto gig guide, some of this site's smartest readers have been making magic in this here Comments section with a Battle of the Patriotic American Songs, a welcome tangent from this site's slight over-preoccupation with Liz Phair this week. Especially not to be missed is Jody Rosen's extensive recontextualization of God Bless America and the remarkable MP3 he posts of Irving Berlin's own heart-rending rendition of it. Jody is too modest to mention that he's something of an expert on Berlin, as the author of a fine book about Berlin's (and arguably America's) greatest hit, White Christmas. If you note the URL on that link, you'll see you're getting a preview of Jody's own a-birthin' blog The Anachronist, which is slated to go live any moment now. On the subject of America the Beautiful, I'd also mention Lynn Sherr's lefty book about the song as well as my own related piece on the reference to the tune within Chicago jazz trio Sticks and Stones' album Shed Grace last year. (Scroll down to the second article.)

Jody and Sherr seem to be among a small handful of writers who have done whole books about single songs. The book-on-one-album genre is now well-established, arguably even oversaturated, with the 33 1/3 and the apparently abortive Vinyl Frontiers series, as well as Kingsley Abbot on Pet Sounds (bringing the total of Pet Sounds books to three if you've been following along), or the "Making of" books on Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. But single-song books? There's also Greil Marcus's recent tome on Like a Rolling Stone, David Margolick's on Strange Fruit, naturally several on The Star-Spangled Banner (of which this is probably the best) and a lot of songs-turned-into-picture-books. (Know any others?) It's a thrilling challenge, well worth it when the writer digs into history for unexpected twists as Jody does, but a risky one, as Marcus's mixed reviews indicate. (I haven't cared to read it, and I'm usually a GM fan.) After all, how many songs can carry the freight? St. Louis Blues occurs to me as a rich possibility. But a book on the most-recorded song, Yesterday, would be a guaranteed snoozer. What would your nominee be?

Also: Our pal in campus-radioland, Helen Spitzer, seems to be taking up blogging duties in earnest this month, and now she's adding her own Spitzcast. Spitzer's an indie loyalist (and, to tie the bow neatly, a frequent cameo in the Comments box hereabouts) but one of particular discernment, and I'm eager to cozy up to her hitlist.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 25 at 12:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)

 

Thursday Reading on a Friday Morning
(or, The Wild Kindness)

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Help help help Montreal's The Adam Brown: Benefit next Thurs.!

The only things musically worth reading in Eye or NOW this week are 1. Dave Morris's interview with the Coup about how exactly you recover your career after putting out an album cover showing the World Trade Center being blown up, a few days before the WTC actually was blown up. And 2. Battling conversations with hip-hop record-collecting pioneer Freddy Fresh, who's spinning at Supermarket tomorrow (Fri Oct 21) night. Not that there isn't other good music mentioned in their pages (Ninja High School, Freakwater, the Bellrays) but this week's penmanship is at low ebb. So let's look elsewhere.

Sit right back and my colleague Robert Everett-Green will tell you the tale of a fateful trip in which Dr. Dre and Burt Bacharach somehow end up recording together. It's funny because it's true.

The latest buzz, fuelled by Drag City's release of this joke 7" to accompany the Silver Jews' new Tanglewood Numbers, is that there may finally be some substance given to the long-rumoured Silver Palace project, i.e., a collab' between David Berman and Will Oldham. Presumably as Oldham aka Palace aka Bonnie Prince Billy's way of helping Berman aka DC Berman aka the Silver Jews aka Mr. Jews out of his shyness about live performance and into a viable touring position. Tour schedules have been bandied about, though not in any very reliable way. Where's the reading here, you ask? Check out this week's Berman profile in the New York Times by Wyatt Mason, with whom I was dancing at a wedding last weekend, by pure coincidence. I mean, we weren't set up by David Berman or anything. And okay, he was dancing with my wife and ignoring me completely. It was very romantic. And if you think that was namedropping, you ought to check out this (frankly, pretty compelling) gossipy blog.

Lee Henderson introduces you to the next big Vangroovy thing, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, in PopMatters: "You've driven down the main street of your city with the doors wide open and you shot your guns in the air and cried out to be Free! Free! Free!, all the while listening to underground music from the worst parts of the world, and you wondered what band could ever express this feeling you have, this feeling that life is only worth living if we can somehow find a way to celebrate the worst of humanity. The crimes committed against truth require a soundtrack and They provide it."

I hear that Billy Joe Shaver, who had just broken off an engagement when I interviewed him on-stage in Toronto this summer, has now gotten married to another young woman - Wanda Lynn Canady, who wed the old five'n'dimer on Sept. 26. Not bad for a cowboy of 66 whose previous three marriages were all to the same woman! (Move along, nothing more to read here.)

A song cycle based on Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.

Indie rock's favourite mixed drinks.

When emo songwriting meets the reality-dating show.

Creepiest kiddie act ever.

I'm a bit in love with Sarah Silverman. I know, get in line. Behind this week's New Yorker, for instance.

And my friend Carl A. Zimring (a voracious music fan and former campus-radio DJ, among much else) finally releases the book of urban-environmental history he's been working on since I first met him, which always sounded fascinating to me. But I'm a geek.

And that's all for tonight.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 21 at 12:35 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Vindication

Finally, somebody agrees with me about Antony and the Johnsons.

Ben Ratliff today in The New York Times: "an unfortunate mixture of desolate, tortured camp and parched tastefulness."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 14 at 2:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Thursday Reading: Take Me Out

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They still aren't the new Beatles, but I may have to reconsider my complete apathy towards Franz Ferdinand now that drummer Paul Thomson has proclaimed their love for the Barcelona Pavilion in today's Now Magazine, even wisely singling out (by its opening Fall quotation) the New Materiology single, which was also the drug of choice for the late, great John Peel.

And how's that for a segue: Today's John Peel Day! Sure it's evening, but there's still time to get your teenage kicks: The Guardian has a festschrift's worth of articles. Thinking of Peel raises my objections to this new me-myself-and-iPod era in which we're all supposed to be our own DJs - whether it was Peel or Brent Bambury or fill-in-your-local-hip-radio-personality-here, the warm intimate tones of a trusted disembodied voice remains the most soulful means of being introduced to undreamt-of music, second only to mainlining via friends and lovers. And yeah, I do mean that radio is better than mp3 blogs. Will podcasts be able to fill that void? To some degree, maybe, but the fragmentation that accompanies it as a medium partakes as much of alienation as of communalism. But we'll see what develops - if it can be arranged so that John Sakamoto can play whole tracks without getting special permission from a label, that will be a step. I don't always want to be my own DJ, anymore than I want to grow my own food or be my own garbageman. This means, somewhat to the chagrin of my teenage-anarchist self, that I am essentially pro-civilization. Sometimes the cyberweb seems to have other ideas. (Though not the same other ideas as these folks.)

Also in the weeklies in Toronto today: Wolf Parade don't believe their own hype (no, really!); Adult. questions the guitar=rock equation; Elliott Brood, um, broods; are Les Angles Morts the Arcade Fire's equivalent of Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe (or is that just more A.F. snake oil? see Wolf Parade, above).

Tim Perlich Crank Watch: Yeah, right, people who want to see a Matthew Barney frigging film are going to be "driven away" by Bjork's music. Has Perlich ever seen a Barney film? "Beatless and creepy" is nothin' compared to a giant football field of descending testicles.

And last but far from least, how galactic formation relates to chord changes. That one relates to this weekend's fascinating-sounding Gravitas event at the Music Gallery, an all-too-rare marriage of science and art in which composer-improvisor John Kameel Farah will accompany animated visualizations of "the dynamics of galaxies using supercomputer simulations" created by astronomer John Dubinski. I can't make the gig, dammit, but many people should. (Likewise to Sunday's Damo Suzuki show with members of Broken Social Scene and Do Make Say Think!)

Plus: Everybody's talkin' bout bagism, shaggism, thisism, thatism, and as usual about M.I.A., this time for licensing Galang to Honda, slapping her with her "don't sell out to product pushers" line. I refer you back to Eppy's reading of that song and that line as a self-conscious contradiction in a dialogic soliloquy, and ahead to DJ/Rupture's 10-Step Guide to Selling Out.

Story of the week, though, is probably the great J.T. LeRoy literary hoax. Or "lifestyle," as one possible perp puts it. Whoa. Not that it's entirely unexpected, but its overall success (movie deals, etc.) is on a historic scale. I think the logical next step is for other people autonomously to begin writing "J.T. Leroy" books, converting it into a diffused multiple name a la Karen Eliot/Monty Cantsin/Luther Blissett. Let her/him/them sue, and then we'll have some fun.

Housekeeping: A complete Zoilus Toronto Gig Guide update for late Oct. and early Nov. should roll out in the next 24 hours or so.

Oh! And BIG UPS and congratu-fucking-lations to Harold Pinter for winning the 2005 Nobel Prize!!! They sure got this one right. I love his response too: "I think the world has had enough of my plays."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 13 at 6:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

It's Listometric

If you're the type to get involuntarily agitated or aroused by lists of records, the music-is-baseball sort who finds it hard to delink sex and statistics, you should be hanging out with Phil and Scott - the former being Phil Dellio, who is giving a guided annotated tour through his entire 3,500-strong record collection, and the latter being Scott Woods, who is doing a battle-of-the-lists rundown through the Rolling Stone and Blender Top 500 Albums. While you're at it you should be following Freakytrigger's truly awesome Popular, in which Tom Ewing (the creator of the I Love Music message board and NYLPM) presents "The UK's 1000+ Number One Hits since 1952, reviewed, in order, irregularly, for as long as I can bear to keep doing it. A history of pop in the shape of a chart."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 12 at 3:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Vavoom! Ray Pettibon

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In passing, however, I must say one thing that has pressed upon me lately: "Choo-Choo!" (1999).

I've just caught up (tardily, I know) with Michael Kimmelman's scorcher of a profile from Sunday's Times Magazine of Los Angeles artist Raymond Pettibon, best known to music geekery as the cover artist for early Black Flag, for Sonic Youth's Goo, etc. - and brother of Black Flag & SST Recs founder Greg Ginn. The mysterious outline traced of their family, especially their father, is fascinating. Apparently Ginn and Pettibon, once very close, don't see one another anymore - Kimmelman speculates that Ginn is jealous of his brother's success, but that seems the reading of an art-world person, from outside the context where Ginn is still a big name at least in a historical way. I've always had the sense that Ginn's withdrawal from view had more to do with SST's messy final years than anything else. (Though he did step briefly from the shadows for the Black Flag reunion two years ago.) Kimmelman's armchair-shrink treatment of Ginn is typical of his condescending treatment of music people thru the piece, unfortunately. Despite the fact that Pettibon's reputation was established directly through the postpunk subbacultcha, MK - and another MK he interviews, artist Mike Kelley - presumes that Pettibon's fans there didn't actually understand RP's work: "The punk audience liked his art because it was illustrational and there were jokes about hippie culture and film noir," says Kelley. "But what I liked about it was that it had this very knowing, winking position vis-à-vis hippie and punk culture." Because a "knowing, winking position" is so very different than "jokes"? Oh, because all non-professional-artists are uninformed, unreflective idiots. Right. Disappointing coming from Kelley, tho hardy unexpected from the Times. But the piece is worth your attention anyhow.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 12 at 12:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Edwardian Soccer Uniforms Lead to "Honeyed Melody
& Avant-Electronics" aka Orgy (Plus: MEG Montreal)

I almost never post press releases but this sounds fun. Anyone know if he's any good? I am trying not to be scared off by the initials IDM. It's part of RESfest.

Daedelus @ Supermarket - Thurs Oct 27 --> 1970s soccer-themed party

One of LA's most daring new artists this young musical romantic weaves together a true "love-sound" that falls between honeyed melody and avant-electronics. Daedelus chops and splices disparate acoustic sources into incredible works of staggering resonance. Contrasting IDM styled cut-ups with childlike arrangements from the 30's and 40's, he has refined a style that has no imitators. Exactly the kind of music you'd expect from a scarily well-connected hip hop nut who happens to dress in Edwardian clothing and names himself after an Ancient Greek Legend.

While I'm on the festival beat, I've been meaning to mention the seventh annual MEG Montreal, coming up next week, Oct 19-21. Somewhat overshadowed by Pop Montreal, MEG's a more electronic and hip-hop-oriented festival, with a smattering of rock and the quality-control knob dialed up quite high. If I could make it (which sadly I cannot) I'd be eager to hear the contingent of German talent, including Deutsche new-wave stalwarts Der Plan (who thankfully should be appearing in Toronto too), a big contingent from the Cologne electronics scene, etc. They've also got DJ Marlboro from Brasil (Mr. Baile Funk), Peanut Butter Wolf, J-Rocc, Islands (ex-Unicorns), Broken Social Scene, etc.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 11 at 4:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

'There's No More Distressing Sight Than That/
Of an Englishman in a Baseball Cap'
(Plus, Thursday Reading Revived)

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This Dissensus thread on What Went Wrong With British Music? is one of the more intriguing Internet discussions I've run across in quite awhile - I think it's a question with some serious heft. I ranted about it myself in a long-ago column about the now-defunct Libertines, the singers of the quote (and in the pic) that heads this post. (Actually the same one Warren Kinsella praised in that email.) I'd modify some of those remarks now (since the advent of grime, for one thing) (not to mention the overgenerous characterization of Billy Bragg as an "elder statesman" - uhhh...) but I still find the Brit Thing a headscratcher, especially when confronted with some of the anglophiles in the Toronto music scene, not to mention the Globe offices. I'm going to read the thread more carefully tomorrow and see what I think - join me. Meanwhile, of relevance, Simon Reynolds' Slate piece on the Gang of Four reunion - or, as he describes it, self-tribute - album. I like this piece much better than Simon's postpunk book, overall, just because it's that much more pointed.

Notice that the "Thursday Reading" idea seems to reassert itself no matter how I doubt it. That's because Thursday nights often (tho not always) involve long slow editing-production cycles here in the office, which leads to a lot of Internet cruising. Plus Mrs. Zoilus says she likes it. So I admit it, it's back, with its ugly multiposting tendencies and all. Make sure you scroll down a bit on Fridays, because there will often be piles of fresh fertilizer.

In that spirit also check out the excellent recent pieces on Said the Gramophone, particularly Sean's examination of Mt. Eerie's The Dead of Night, comparing it to Destroyer's Your Blues in terms of its use of artifice, a subject I've gone on at length about here. I'm not quite sure how to parse Sean's point about the differences between them. I'd describe it as Phil Elvrum (who is Mt. Eerie, and formerly the Microphones) having a continued faith in the organic, a category I wouldn't say Dan Bejar (who is Destroyer, and sometimes a New Pornographer) gives any territorial recognition. (See the Supreme Court case, Glam v. Hippie, circa 1974.) So beauty's not fake, for Elvrum, because it cannot be by Nature, and to my ears he uses artifice in the pursuit of Truth, while Bejar uses artifice to lay further waste to the truth/beauty dyad. However, I think Sean's point about Elvrum's "ear for song-texture" is dead-on - I kind of hate Elvrum's songs, but his ability to frame them is so strong that I feel compelled to listen.

To tie this all up... There's something deeply and obviously American about Elvrum's transcendentalist point-of-view (see Walt Whitman et al), while stereotypically the British are the champions of pure artifice. Forced to choose between them I end up siding with the Americans because too often that English artifice seems a merely clever cover for shallowness. You know, as Dylan said in quite another context, in art you gotta serve some body, whether that body's solid or synthetic. ... But then we have Canada, and at the risk of seeming patriotic - or perhaps better put, just confessing that I am of the place I am of - there's Canada's ironic pivot point between them, its ambivalence, its suspicion that something is darting between those layers of artifice but that it is forever something you cannot capture, something hard and crusty and yet evanescent as snow ... that there are plastic birds in the plastic trees that somehow have real organs and feathers and leaves on them. And for me that attitude is the one with claws, digging down into my pale skin.

[... That UK/Libertines column is on the flipside ... ]



A punk-like stab at the English heart

SCENE
CARL WILSON
7 August 2003
The Globe and Mail Review

There is no such thing as punk rock.

There hasn't been for a decade, maybe two. Yes, a lot of pop music capitalizes (or anticapitalizes) on the territory punk cleared, while the hardcore-punk hobbyist network ploughs that same ground over and over again. And then there are myriad arty offshoots from the punk Big Bang — various kinds of experimental music on one hand, and various thoughtful, challenging indie bands and singers on, well, the same hand.

But whatever punk really was, it leached back down into the groundwater long ago. If it meant anything, it was a convulsive denial of being influenced and of having an influence, of past and of future. In this it was a summary of the 20th-Century Modern (and its totalitarian shadow) regurgitated in spit and bile. Naturally the illusion evaporated. The punk books-reunions-and-reissues market has been rubbing in that point for years, though rarely having any fun with the irony.

So when you run across a brotherhood of smart, snotty British lads like the Libertines — who choose to rerun punk so explicitly as to hire Mick Jones of the Clash to produce their debut album, Up the Bracket, and smear a studied sloppiness over the surface of their sturdily built songs — what's in it for them?

You can tell when you hear them (as you can, sort of, at the Opera House in Toronto on Tuesday) that the style is no accident. They haven't bought into punk myth the way some young bands do, as a jacket to wear over the fear that they're not really cool. Like the Strokes in New York, to whom they've been compared ad absurdum, the Libertines are worldly and seductive, their approach highly calculated. But in their case, not cynically so.

Most potentially good rock bands have (or fake) a secret agenda. The Libertines' is their fixation on an England that has vanished, or never was. Punk fits in perfectly.

The album's most-quoted line, in the song Time for Heroes, is “There is no more distressing sight than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap.” In interviews, principals Pete Doherty, 23, and Carl Barat, 24, have gone on about their mutual pact “to sail the good ship Albion to Arcadia,” and their attachments to Oscar Wilde, Disraeli, Joe Orton, Oliver Reed and various creaky BBC personalities. And then they'll turn around on the occasion of the Royal Jubilee and call the Queen an “old slag.”

The pair has stuck together since 1996, haunting the clubs, squats and (in one memorable rooming arrangement) brothels of London. The lyrics of their songs match foppish Edwardian decadence against details from today's drugged-out, hostile streets, fragments of Dickensian reportage from Tony Blair's Britannia.

While the punk riffs cribbed from not only the Clash but the Jam and the Buzzcocks are the main stitching, the musical material goes back to Thin Lizzy, Ian Dury, the Kinks (godfathers of English nostalgia-rock), the Small Faces and the between-the-wars music hall.

But this is no Village Green Preservation Society. “There were no ‘good old days,' ” they're careful to spell out in one song. “These are the good old days.”

Personally, I have an aversion to most English culture since the Second World War, especially post-1970s. The mainstream arts there in recent decades seem like the most aimless mass of mere competence you could locate on any map. Radiohead may be heroes to most, but they never meant shit to me — straight-up wankers, those suckers are, simple and plain.

From Martin Amis to Oasis, most prominent English artists seem adrift, defaulting to ego. Bred for an imperial society that collapsed before their time, they still assume their voices resound, just because they are English and bear the marks of centuries of civilization in ways most North Americans lack. But their accents, whether plummy or slummy, mostly bounce back on the interior walls, the gossip of a society of echoes.

No wonder Blair has been so desperate to get in on the Next Big Global Thing that he's swung from Clinton crony to Bush lackey.

The exceptions tend to be the bitter social critics, from the punks to playwrights and directors such as Orton, Harold Pinter or Mike Leigh. They've at least tried to confront post-imperial decadence.

But the riddle almost no artist or politician has faced is Englishness itself. While the Scots, Irish and Welsh (and their rock bands) have grappled seriously with their post-British identity, the English are at a loss — except in immigrant communities, where there's a different urgency.

The elder statesman of Brit post-punk politics, Billy Bragg, nailed it on his album last year, England, Half-English: “Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset,” he sang. “And pile all those history books, but don't throw them away/ They just might have some clues about what it really means/ To be an Anglo-hyphen-Saxon in England.co.uk.”

In their half-romantic, half-thuggish manner, the Libertines have taken up that challenge with the bits of English history they feel strike a chord, from punk back. The result is an uneven album, but twice the personality and purpose of most other bands that make the cover of the NME.

The question is whether they will see it through. Perhaps predictably, the band recently split in two, with one singer-guitarist booting out the other — Barat said Doherty was “not well,” and that the band was suspending him till he got better.

Doherty meanwhile said the problem was that he wanted to fire the bassist and drummer. He's started solo work while the Libertines tour — including this week's Toronto date — with a fill-in. The story flipped again on Friday with reports that Doherty was arrested on a break-and-enter charge.

All sides still maintain the separation is temporary. Let's hope so. [Ed. note, 2005: Ha ha ha ha ha ... ]

The Libertines is clearly the dream the pair dreamed together in their own love-hate affair. Their music apart may turn out cleaner and catchier. But it would mean abdicating the playroom kingdom they built in punk's abandoned arena, and the guerilla theatre about their country's unconscious that they were enacting there.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 06 at 10:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Homework

Read Wayne's piece on hip-hop's "Jamaican accent" and his notes on the antipathy he encountered to his observations. Now for extra, extra credit, relate this to the "where you're from"/"where you're at" dialectic (I use that word pointedly) as discussed by Simon and Michelangelo with ref. to (warning, warning) M.I.A.

Once I've carried out that assignment my own self, we'll get back with some notes.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 29 at 10:40 PM | Linking Posts

 

Another Side of Another Bob Dylan Debate
Plus: One of the Worst Songs Ever

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I'm as primed to go wilding on the baby boomers as any member of the cheated generation formerly known as X, but this David Greenberg piece in Slate on the sixties-centrism of Dylanology is a case of firing the right arrow at the wrong target. (Thanks to Aaron for pointing the story out.) As Greenberg says in the piece, Dylan's output from 1965 to 1967 (I'd actually say 1964, and include Another Side of Bob Dylan) is his strongest. What he doesn't say is that those three or four years arguably constitute one of the strongest runs in all of pop-music history. Most of the pantheon of Greats consists of people who had various peaks and valleys through their careers, but Dylan had this comet-hot streak of brilliance and productivity that is almost difficult to believe: The triple-shot of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde took place in 1965 and 1966 alone! It's fucking ridiculous. And while I too would defend Dylan's later work, it's simply the case that from 1970 to 2000 he barely created as many good songs altogether as he did in those two years in the mid-sixties (when, just for the record, I was not yet born).

In addition, frankly, while the sixties are getting to the ancient-history level after 40 years, we are still wading through their cultural effluent, as the people now in power are individuals whose ideological lives were shaped by the conflicts of that decade and in reaction against it. The official self-congratulatory mythos is crap (the sixties weren't the death knell of the establishment but the renaissance of a consumer-media-complex establishment that anyone who listens to rock, for instance, has to cope with politically) - but the deeper history still reverberates, especially in the circa-sixties remodeling of gender relations and the family in the western world.

Anyway, what I really wanted to tell you about was the Scorsese-spinoff Scrapbook, which I received yesterday. While Greenberg's right that it would be nice if it covered his later years, and it certainly is not the place to go for counter-readings of the standard history (no doubt like Scorsese's doc), what is there is sumptuous. If I had a scanner, I'd scan 'em in the morning, I'd scan 'em in the evening ... Extraordinary care's gone into the reproductions of rare early photos, manuscript pages of lyrics, concert programs, ticket stubs, even Dylan's high-school yearbook-photo page. (Which says he was a member of the Latin and Social Studies clubs - geek!)

Among its less spectacular offerings, I was particularly taken with a Top 40 chart from Reviewer magazine in 1965 that's informative for those of us who weren't there, about just how Dylan's influence insinuated itself in musical culture. There's only one Dylan single on the chart, Like A Rolling Stone at No. 4, but a cover of It Ain't Me Babe by the Turtles is at No. 8 and versions of All I Really Want to Do by Cher and by the Byrds share the No. 40 spot. "So-and-so Sings Dylan" albums were everywhere. (Towards the end of the scrapbook there's an ad for Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35 headlined "Nobody sings DYLAN like DYLAN.") More tellingly still, Dylan-alikes are all over the chart: Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction at No. 12, the Animals' rocked-up folk at No. 18, folk-revival-gone-pop group We Five is at No. 2 with You Were on My Mind (by Sylvia Tyson), Joan Baez is up there, Sonny & Cher are ubiq' (Sonny Bono was a bigger Dylanhead than you think), the Lovin' Spoonful, and Donovan's version of Buffy Sainte-Marie's Universal Soldier is just hitting the chart at No. 71 with a bullet... well, not a bullet, I guess - a daisy?

The most amusing folk-rock artifact on the chart, though, is Dawn of Correction by the Spokesmen, perhaps the most goody-two-shoes answer song of all time. It was a soft-right-wing rebuttal to the Eve of Destruction, of course, which was in its turn kind of a Cold War/Vietnam-minded ripoff of Dylan's protest songs ("The eastern world, it is explodin’/ Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’/ You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’ ... "). The lyrics are outrageous: "The western world has a common dedication/ To keep free people from Red domination/ And maybe you can't vote, boy, but man your battle stations ..." But it gets better:

You missed all the good in your evaluation
What about the things that deserve commendation?
Where there once was no cure, there's vaccination
Where there once was a desert, there's vegetation
Self-government's replacing colonization
What about the Peace Corp. organization?
Don't forget the work of the United Nations

It's not the eve of destruction! It's the dawn of correction! And then comes the end of history! What about the things that deserve commendation?! In an early case of fake-fair-and-balanced, some stations actually required DJs to play this song if they played McGuire's hit. (Apparently Dawn's highest chart position was No. 36.) The Spokesmen were a one-off group, I think, related somehow to Danny and the Juniors, who did At the Hop. You can hear Dawn here. The over-the-top attempts by the squeaky-clean singer to sound "edgy" ("the buttons are theah to ensure ne-go-shee-eyy-shun!") are like ice cream on pie.

The writer of Eve of Destruction, PF Sloan (who also wrote, bizarrely, Secret Agent Man), tried several times to peddle sequels updated to new world crises such as the environment. The Spokesmen, as far as I know, let those go unanswered.

Of course, the real answer song to Eve of Destruction and to the Dylan-inspired mood in general was The Ballad of the Green Berets.

Personally, I really hope some right-wing pseudo-rap act records an answer song to George Bush Don't Like Black People. (Like, um, He Do, George Bush Do Like Black People or maybe Everybody Knows It's Liberals Who Don't Like Black People Because They Give Them Those Vicious Handouts!)

After all, if we're going to counter boomer nostalgic hegemony, we have to generate our own batshit-stupid pop history.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 29 at 3:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Brian Joseph Davis: A Riot In Your Pocket

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The World's Last Day

Seen! Fred Durst and Germaine Greer making love!
noticed! Since studies showed the anti-malarial drug
quinine causes short-term sterility, stars ­ including a
recent Oscar grabber ­ have been lining up for quinine
smoothies and quinine bubble tea along Roh-day-oh
Drive.

Hey, long-time vegetarian david duchovny!
What are you doing drinking blood from an ox's jugular
with the Masai?

Ski instructors everywhere, beware!
Claudine Longet is still alive!

Life's rich pathogens! A certain talk show host has
received so many Botox treatments that he is banned
from all a&p; and most Farmer Jack grocery stores for
fear of contaminating the canned goods as he walks past
them. Sounds like Maury Povich.

Ouch! Is there an arcane religious practice that the
celebs won't endorse? Kevin Spacey recently participated
in the Sioux ritual of the sun wherein he was
suspended for hours on long rawhide strands hooked
into his chest.

Some good questions and debate a-stirrin' at Mark's place with regard to Brian Joseph Davis' (see Zoiluses past) Ian Svenonius-approved Portable Altamont (as well as Jason Anderson's Showbiz): 1. Is there something inherently elitist (youth culture correlated) about the use of pop-culture shorthand as intense semiotic game? 2. Won't such a book go totally out of date more or less instantly?

The first question is kind of silly - sure, but a helluva lot less so than references to philosophers or Glenn Gould and Schoenberg, for instance. The second one is exactly what I like about Brian's book - it has no pretensions to timelessness, it doesn't use exclusively nostalgia-approved reference points, so it risks being a literature only enjoyable right now, which flies in the face of the official "for posterity" line, which doesn't actually relate to the fates of most books published or what we desire in reading. In this thanatic plunge it actually sips deep of another kind of realism - and not cynically but so very joyfully: Why not a genre of serious but disposable literature? (This is of course a repetition of old-as-JFK's-skull-wound "is-Warhol-art?" debates.)

(By the way does the title have anything to do with this? I take it for kinda the flipside of "A movable feast.")

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 28 at 5:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

Robert Zend's Toronto



A City of Two Kinds

There are two kinds of cities:

where you can live
but you can't make a living;

where you can make a living
but you can't live;

Toronto is almost both of them.

- Robert Zend; July 16, 1972; from Beyond Labels (Hounslow Press).


Robert Zend was a Hungarian writer who moved to Canada in, of course, 1956, and died 20 years ago this week, in 1985. He was by all accounts a remarkably free spirit and contributor to Toronto's experimental literary culture in the 1960s and 1970s (the above is not a representative example), and by direct evidence a marvelous phrasemaker. Mrs. Zoilus is reading this afternoon at a memorial service (he was a family friend). This is a piece Zend wrote in 1972 as part of a sequence in which he struggled with his feelings about his adopted city; it's remarkable how, for all of the tremendous change the place has gone through, this still feels exactly right. I think of it particularly as describing Toronto's relation to its triangulated cousins, Montreal and New York.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, September 24 at 3:05 PM | Linking Posts

 

Seu Jorge & Other Thursday Reading

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I heartily recommend the interview today in The Globe with Seu Jorge by my colleague Li Robbins (whose website, be warned, has little to do with her usual world-music rubric and lots to do with her book on weddings). Zoilus has touted Jorge in the past in connection with his contributions to the Life Aquatic soundtrack, which continues to sound better to me with every spin. He's at the Lula Lounge in Toronto tonight as part of the Small World Festival - sadly, I'll be stuck in the office, so tell me all about it if you go.

(Other shows I'm missing tonight: Larval at the Music Gallery, Khanate at Sneaky Dee's [see also Jon Caramanica's superiffic metal article from last week's Times] and Zoobombs plus Willowz at the Silver Dollar. Edited to add: Lenin i Shumov offshoot Minsk Mensk has been added to the bill. At 10. Willowz 11 pm. Zoobombs midnight. Just for starters. Goddam I hate my Thursday night schedule.)

Also in today's Globe, check out Liz Renzetti's review of the first new play in a decade by Mike Leigh, one of my favourite film directors - apparently it sold out its London run even before its title was announced. (Given Leigh's improvisatory workshop development process, that step comes late in the process.) There's also a positive but unilluminating review of our friend Morwyn Brebner's new show at the Tarragon in Toronto, The Optimists.

Elsewhere, eye sits down for a T-dot double-header with the Fembots and the Deadly Snakes and also jaw-jaws with Metric and Paul Weller, as well as with Nick Brownman Ali about his ongoing Miles Davis tribute series, and Dave Morris's Totally Wired has cool shit as usual. In NOW, there's more on the "boy named Seu" (sadly the headline is better than the piece) and some breeze gets shot with the Possum, as well as Tokyo Devo-descendents Polysics. And Luca (who looks finally to be back in the blogging game, relieving the drought in Toronto-based grime steez) pimps for a little dose of jungle nostalgia. Both weeklies speak highly of the new Wolf Parade and Sean Paul discs, but much less so of the new Neil Young.

In the Star, there's more Fembots, an intriguing Ben Rayner piece on punk-activist arkestra the New Kings, a good guide to other Small World participants and a review of yet another music-themed conceptual art show in Toronto, this one called "The Needle & The Damage Done", with work by Christian Marclay, Lee Ranaldo, and other less-usual suspects.

Non-local reading: The ancestor of the iPod (via Boing Boing); Rudy Vallee's Betty Coed, meet Bobby Coed (formerly known as "Joe College", shurely); the 2K magic formula - black producers + white faces, obviously rooted in Eminem and carrying on with current hitmaker Paul Wall, examined in the Village Voice.

To use your eyes for something other than reading, check out the fresh video for the notorious George Bush Don't Like Black People track by Legendary K.O.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 22 at 2:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Thursday Reading

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The gig guide has been updated with all the lastest T-town concert info.

In the weeklies, NOW talks to Blackalicious about beatmaking and Laura Veirs about geology, and Miss Liss pens a terrific review of last week's Dolly Parton show. Meanwhile, eye susses out Sufjan Stevens' Torontopian connections, digs into the roots of the MP3 blog, and tips you off to a film-fest flick on hip-hop homos (at the tail of the Breakestra interview). Non-musically they've also got an interview with one of Zoilus's preferred Toronto playwrights, Morwyn Brebner, a poem by Zoilusian pal Emily Schultz, and the scoop on the Hundred Einstein March.

Elsewhere, more from the NY Times on New Orleans music. (By the way, if it's post-flood coverage you seek, Boing Boing has impressed me as one of the web's best sources, perhaps because its readership is the most resourceful at finding means to get data when communication seems impossible. And of course, always indispensable in times of crisis, The Onion. Remember the Onion? Sample headlines: "Government relief workers mosey in to help," "White foragers report threat of black looters.") The Times also probes Rufus Wainwright's opera fetish, Riff Raff surveys the Merzbow merch table, Aaron tracks post-Kanye colour commentary, Diplo is retiring from DJing (in order to make more albums people don't like, apparently - which I kinda admire) and Analysts React Positively To Latest Apple Announcements. (But when will we get the phone-plus-camera-plus-iPod with laser gun and medical tricorder? For all my friends who wonder when the hell I will finally get a cell - there's your answer.)

Plus: This afternoon's random discovery - how/why CDs keep getting louder & louder.

Late addition: A Sleater-Kinney-related New Orleans silver lining.

Coming soon: Dramatic announcement.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 08 at 2:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Rick Moody: Poetaster's Progress

Long-time readers may remember the round-robin of chatter 'round here last summer about "lit-rock." This week one of the most chronic practitioners, Rick Moody, published a defence in the Guardian that might have been titled, "From those about to rock, we just wanna make sure you're okay with that."

Apologies, but the September gig guide may not appear here for a couple of days. I've been away attending an extended-family funeral, and also taking a breather from the interweb until the irritating flicker of flames (see below) dies down.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 01 at 12:41 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Flowers of Romance?

John S. at Utopian Turtletop poses a good question: "Pop music critics posit that pop music is as worthy of study as classical or jazz or any other music. Some pin that worthiness on sociological grounds, some on aesthetic. Some say that pop is more worthy of study than music of the past, on grounds of contemporaneity and anti-elitism ... My question is, do the pop partisans (and I'm one) believe the same of literature?"

He specifically asks "why not romance novels?" That's a bit restrictive - it's kind of like saying, "why not novelty songs," which get some critical attention but not much, and more on the sociological end, just like romance writing (a massive subject in feminist criticism, by the way).

Pop lit. gets more respect than you may think - crime and science fiction have cred, and Stephen King gets namechecked by everybody as a good writer now. But John's right that drugstore tomes, the thrillers and family epics and Jackie Collinses, generally go begging when it comes to critical respect. I have a handful of ideas. [ ... yes, yes, go on?...]

1. Listening to a pop song takes three minutes, while an 800-page bestseller takes at least a day - so people disinclined to like them don't give them a chance.

2. Pop albums have obvious visceral qualities that "art" music doesn't, while it's not so obvious to me that John Grisham is that much more exciting story and suspense wise than a lot of more literary writers.

3. Critics are writers, so we’re bigger prigs about literary qualities. We tend to think the question of whether music is good or bad is more subjective than whether a piece of writing is good or bad. If we were musicians, would we think differently? Perhaps. Or perhaps music has a different kind of range.

4. What’s more, quite possibly the artistic standards in technical terms in pop music are more stringent than they are in pop literature. I can’t prove this, at the moment, but I certainly think that if you ask a musician about a pop hit, they’re more likely to say it’s well crafted than a writer will about a bestselling potboiler.

5. Music is better positioned to ravish you against your will. As I always say, you can close your eyes but you can't close your ears. You can accidentally hear Justin Timberlake in your car - you don’t accidentally read The Da Vinci Code.

6. And finally: Literature is a more marginal art in the culture market. Which makes it all the more intensely partisan - when the spoils are scarce, everyone becomes less willing to concede anything to the other party. ("Fine! You've got the money, but you can't have the kudos!") I don’t see any equivalent to the indie artist who is happy not to be in the top echelons of the music biz, so she can pursue her artistic goals with a sustainable mid-sized audience and dodge the potential toll pop stardom can exact. Every author would be happy to have a bestseller - because the benefits are big and the risks minimal.

Not trying to justify the non-love, just sourcing it some. I find the idea of a culture where the hottest critics wrote essays on the latest romance or thriller a, well, romantic thrill, thanks to the pace some pop critics have set. (Hasn't John Leonard done this, once in a while?) But for reasons 1-6, I'm not waiting up.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 25 at 11:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

Thursday Reading (Slight Return)

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Sun Ra Band, as painted by Nancy Ostrovsky.

I'm surprised that neither of the Toronto alt-weeklies' concert announcements today caught wind of the Sun Ra Arkestra (Oct 18-21) and John Cale (Nov 13-15) runs at the Lula Lounge, lipsmacking chances to feast on historic-scale music in a close-quarters context. (Tho' note, dear readers, that Sun Ra himself no longer resides on this planet.) Today also brought the first fall-programming news from the Music Gallery; Zoilusians will probably be most interested in the season's first show in the Pop Avant series, Thurs. Sept. 22, featuring Larval, "an avant/progressive rock ensemble led by composer/guitarist Bill Brovold, a one-time collaborator of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca." I'm not hep to Brovold, but John Zorn calls 'em "the shit." So there. Ever-lovin' percusso-droney-noisematic Torontopians Awesome open up.

Gravity's Rainbow as a contemporary opera for solo banjo, probably not composed by Laurie Anderson? Make it happen - or else face one mother of a paternity suit, Mr. Pynchon!

Now coverboy this week? Chuck Klosterman. Zoilus has said his piece on Chuck, and to each her own, but hoo-boy, "America's smartest pop journalist"? There are a dozen smarter on the Zoilus links page, and those are just the ones with blogs.

For instance there's Dave Morris, who makes some interesting points in today's eye (the one with his Kardinal Offishal cover, which I haven't had a chance to read yet) about hip-hop bloggers (second item, after the Ricky Gervais fun): Namely, that they are starting to look like a force in the actual hip-hop music industry, in a way that other musicbloggers, for the most part, have yet to be. It's noticeable partly because (for obvious socioeconomic reasons) the hip-hop blogs are relative newcomers to the scene; but it only makes sense, given the genre's dominance in North American pop now, that they'd eventually become the heavy-duty batteries of musicblogging, whose Everready Rabbit ears have been getting floppy for a year or so. (So say some of the veterans, those who haven't already quit - sometimes making me feel like I showed up to a party at 3 a.m. after the smart old guys had already left, the diehards were slumped on the sofas and there was only Thunderbird left to drink.) The hip-hop blogs' success could bring more professionalization in the music blog community the way it's already happened in the political-blog and pictures-of-Lindsay-Lohan-nipple-slips-blog communities - no doubt followed by a creative backlash and reconstituted in-group, resentment and resistance to that, etc. etc. Should be stimulating to watch/listen/read and, I hope, participate in.

Very very sad to hear of the passing of Ninjalicious (whose real first name was Jeff) at only 32. He was the guiding headlamp of Infiltration, the internationally influential Toronto zine/site about "going places you're not supposed to go." An abandoned subway tunnel should be named in his honour. Here's hoping his urban-pioneer spirit lives on forever. Your mourning can begin here and continue through the next locked door, physical or metaphysical, along your own pathway.

Also, RIP Luc Ferrari. Ferrari and Moog, a few days apart; what a gloomy week for musical machines.

Finally, I've heard second-hand about a potentially excellent Toronto gig for a female violinist who can act, or an actress who can fiddle. (She should also be able to pass for Lebanese, but if you think about it, that is a pretty big tent.) If this is you or someone you know, email me and I'll pass along the contact info.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 25 at 6:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

ZBZBXBZBBXBZBXBZ!!! (NOISE)

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Rippin' introduction to the Toronto noise (non-) scene by Kevin Hainey in this week's eye, in honour of the strange proliferation of noise gigs in town this month. (See the tail of the feature.) I'd quibble with some of his taxonomy (I wouldn't tag some of them pseudOntario surrealists who've come and gone, or mostly refused to go away, as noise artists), but I'm glad he discusses how over-segregated from one another the free-jazz, improv, avant-academic and noise people tend to be here. Unsurprisingly, "out" musicians and organizational/promotional skills are not so mixy, but it's too bad for the audiences that never get to know. Noise right now seems to be a place the experimental rock scene and Other music can meet; it's there in the fan press, and seen occasionally at Wavelength and the Music Gallery and the late lamented New Works, but it remains the unfinished project. Not that nobody's trying but p-r-o-g-r-e-s-s i-s s-l-o-w. C'mon folxx get 2gether!

Thanks to Kevin as well for the Zoilusian shoutout in there. I'm amused that the day an article on noize gesticulated my way, visitors were greeted by a post about a folksinger. And now I'm going to have to go look up Brian Ruryk.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 11 at 5:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Hungry Like The Chuck

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I don't particularly like Chuck Klosterman's work, aside from his first hair-metal memoir Fargo Rock City and occasional highlights like his John Cusack and Britney Spears pieces. He's funny, but he has no particular point of view aside from his red-state beefing/red-beef stating ("coastal rock critics are too critical and want to be cool!") which, despite being true in some ways, gets tired, like, instantly... and ultimately is anti-criticism - anti-intellectual in an unengaging way.

But I almost gave him props this week for being the one to finally spin a full column out of the bizarre "wolf" band-name trend (AIDS Wolf, The Wolf Note, Wolf Parade, Superwolf, Peanut Butter Wolf, Wolf Eyes, Guitar Wolf, We Are Wolves, Wolf Colonel, Woelv, Wolfmother, etc etc - even though Klosterman missed many of them and resorted to Animal Collective instead - well, gee, why not mention Le Tigre, too?). I've considered writing about it pretty often the past few months but always thought, well, either I can't make anything out of it, or I've already made something out of it, or it's an alternative, bigger point about nature-idealization (antihumanism) in youth culture and music right now, which makes it not so suitable as the quicky, no-research, I-have-better-things-to-do summertime topic I was looking for.

But then I read the damn thing and it turns out he has nothing to say about it. Nothing. It's not even funny. All it says is, "People seem to think '---- wolf' is a cool band name because they think 'wolf' is cool. Huh." It's possibly the emptiest Klosterman piece I've ever read. If he keeps up this accelerated rate of decline he'll be a worse hack than (name your favourite hack - well, hell, it's Robert Novak's week isn't it?) within a year. And meanwhile he's spoiled the topic for the rest of us, right? Wait, no, screw that, I'll take the Klosterman challenge. Now I'm determined to do a wolf-band column sometime between now and, say, Halloween. Dammit.

Meanwhile, you want laughs, I encourage you to go to tonight's Weird Al Yankovic tribute instead, tonight at the Bagel in Toronto. Seriously. Or... my gosh, is this where this all was leading? ... check the Zoilus gig guide for other options.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 05 at 2:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

David Byrne's Tide of Self-Doubt

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Read the July 30 entry on payola in David Byrne's online journal. It really makes me wonder whether the new cynicism in the faux-naive songs of Little Creatures, True Stories and Naked was an outgrowth of the souring experience Byrne says he had after finding out that Burning Down the House became a hit partially due to paid spins. His songwriting and vocal affect for several years post-Speaking in Tongues do sound like those of a man who'd come to feel the work was somewhat hollow and his audience (and by extension, Americans in general) were dupes. (An easy enough conclusion in the Reagan years to begin with.) Not that Byrne wasn't always glib and sceptical, but I did detect a change. At the time it semed like the smug smell of success - this entry makes me wonder if it wasn't something sadder. You could even speculate on what effect this had on the Talking Heads' breakup. How easy is it to carry on in camaraderie when you feel, "My entire past was called into question. Who am I? Am I not partly what I like? And if those things I like were not completely of my own choosing, then what am I?" That train of thought could lead directly into a station called, "Does this band really mean all I thought it meant?" It can't all have been Brian Eno's fault, after all.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 03 at 12:06 PM | Linking Posts

 

Osby, Statman, Konitz, Shipp...? I've Set the VCR

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A fine piece by my colleague Mark Miller in today's Globe and Mail tips me off to the new season of Daniel Berman's Solos series on Bravo (Tuesdays at 8, not 8:30 as misstated in the paper), featuring artists coming "from one decimal place to the left or right of what we might call jazz." I missed the first series last summer, but from what I gather the concept is to take mostly players who usually appear in group settings, and place them in a solo context to isolate and examine the essence of their music. Considering the calibre of musicians Berman has rounded up, it should be fascinating. Here's the roster: Greg Osby (Aug 2); Andy Statman (Aug. 9); Lee Konitz (Aug. 16); Don Thompson (Aug. 23); Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Aug. 30); Erik Friedlander (Sept. 6); John Abercrombie (Sept. 13); Steven Bernstein (Sept. 20); Mark Turner (Sept. 27); Matthew Shipp (Oct. 4); Kurt Rosenwinkel (Oct. 11); Roscoe Mitchell (Oct. 18); Matt Wilson (Oct. 25).

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 01 at 9:44 PM | Linking Posts

 

But Wait, What About Payola?

Here's what you might wanna read about that. Let's follow the hokey-pokey and meet up back under the streetlight next week. Come alone.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 29 at 1:51 PM | Linking Posts

 

Er...

... was it something we said?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, July 27 at 4:30 PM | Linking Posts

 

Indie-Rock Wars (Except that Wars, I'm Told, End)

Sasha's slow pole-dance teasing with an imminent definitive attack on indie-rock is making me both queasy and thirsty. In part because I was allowing myself a midsummer blog slowdown while I do stuff like listen to records, go to shows (like the crazed midnight High Park pond-wharf Ninja High School cluster-scream-macarena orgy on Saturday) and figure out what part of "podcasting" I might give a shit about, but in part because I am wondering what good can come from this. (Apologies in advance to those of you who hate interblog debate; the rest of you come on into the pool, the water is only mildly infested with amoebic bacteriophages.)

Franklin's pre-emptive strikes, besides seeming like evidence that he is unfortunately bored on his France-England trip, are good and very much in the spirit of last week's Intonation-review-brouhaha in Zoilusland. I wish Sasha would clarify what his point was with the opening marshalling of sales statistics, because if Pavement (whose sales were better than I realized) doesn't qualify as 1990s indie rock, then I think the category kinda collapses. Surely they're the exemplar. It's like discussing R&B; while ruling out Beyonce and Usher as "not what I mean by R&B;," isn't it? Using indie's name literally as referring to autonomous-labels has never worked aesthetically because of course people traipse back & forth over that border all the time. (And besides, is Sasha really about to go after Fugazi, or what?) Sasha acknowledges that the confusion between aesthetic, economic and social definitions of the genre exists - I'd actually say it's severe enough that the whole notion of an indie genre is questionable and that attacking "indie" therefore almost automatically finds you setting up housekeeping in a Potemkin village. Especially in the 1990s - "indie" right now (in the O.C. sense) has a bit more to answer for. (As I said here at the top of the year, albeit perhaps a bit more blithely than I ought to have done.) And then there's the stuff that Franklin's saying and that we have previously said that not being populist does not in fact make you automatically elitist or indictable, even if a disproportion of indie-istas have in fact been trust-fund-elitist-idiots. Basically I want to know what generalization SFJ can throw out that is not equally or more-so directable at, say, contemporary poetry. But because Sasha's still inching down his G-string we cannot yet say what's in the package.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 26 at 1:50 PM | Linking Posts

 

Sociological Digression

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Non-musical, but: I'm reading Colin McCabe's promising (as of p. 25) biography of Godard and came across this passage:

Rachel [his sister] recalls ... Jean-Luc irritating their father from a very early age, incessantly punning and balancing on chairs. But the most constant irritation was Jean-Luc's peering over his glasses, a gesture which is typical to this day. Rachel remembers her father complaining, 'Don't look over the top of your glasses,' and Jean-Luc regularly replying, 'Who me?' before gazing down at his plate.

Besides being an amusing detail in a portrait of the artist as a precocious brat, this set me off thinking about this peering-over-one's-glasses thing. We all know what it signifies - an arch look of skepticism or I-dare-you challenge, occasionally even anger. But how and why does it do that? Do we all pick it up from movies as something we just know has that effect (and if so what, for instance, silent-film star started it?), or is there some actual interactive dynamic involved: Are you trying to get a better, unmediated view of the victim of your contempt or ire? Or are you moving your glasses away because the person is making you so sick you don't want to see them clearly? Or is it a matter of moving the shield away from your eyes to make your stare more naked and stark (the next step of which would be to take the glasses off and put up your dukes)?

(The alternative meaning - flirting - is clear enough: Lowering the glasses equals lowering your guard, your inhibitions, as possible prelude to removal of glasses followed by removal of clothing.)

I ask because I don't think I use this gesture but there's gotta be some of you among my heavily four-eyed readership (a characteristic I can state confidently without reference to site statistics) who do - so what does it feel like you're doing?

Your data will be used for the forces of good.

To go back to music (but really gossip): Sure, everybody's talking about the Broken Social Scene pot bust, but WHAT ABOUT the Jon-Rae and the River West Coast Grand-Theft-Cheese arrest?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 21 at 5:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

When Anti-Rockism Becomes Rockism, Part 127

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Ever wonder what Kelefa Sanneh looks like? I got curious. This is him on the right, with photographer Rahav Segev at a VP Records (dancehall label) party last fall. Despite what I say below, in general he's an excellent critic.

Kelefa Sanneh's review of Pitchfork Media's Intonation festival in Chicago last weekend is incredibly entertaining, from his full disclosure that the P'fork website once called him "a dog that may need to be put down," to his playful use of the site's notorious 0.0-to-10.0 rating system throughout, and even his provocative contention that the Go! Team is a "British indie-pop version of the Black-Eyed Peas." He's certainly correct, too, that the bill was not "filled with bands that seemed destined to blast into the stratosphere, or even the troposphere. Instead, the stages were filled with bands that are already about as popular as they will ever be." (He's talking about acts such as the Wrens, Four Tet, Deerhoof, the Decemberists and, yes, sorry Toronto, Broken Social Scene.) I was also glad he was there to confirm my suspicions about the tokenism of the attempt to integrate non-white, non-rock music into Intonation - that is, that the DJ tents weren't exactly a big success.

So far, so justified, although I was already feeling like, man, it's one thing for us all to put down indie-centric blinderedness on our web sites and chat groups, to champion pop pleasure and puncture the fake heroism of the so-called "indie yuppies" etc. But, uh, isn't this The New York Times? You wonder how many of their readers really have mindsets that need adjusting on this subject. (On the other hand, who knows, maybe more than I think.)

But that was just a twinge. Then I got to the end of the review, and Sanneh simply took things too far: By weekend's end, it was clear that Intonation had succeeded on its own terms. But it was hard not to think about what was missing, namely the swagger and ambition and hunger of musicians ready to take over the world, or at least the country. Many of these acts seemed happy to stay right where they were, making music for fans who accept them as they are. Any park where Deerhoof is a crowd favorite can't possibly be a bad place. Still, two days is a long time to spend there, let alone a whole career.

There's a need to counter indie righteousness by saying that a pop star's desire to get rich and famous can often be a creative and dramatic force, that most of the best music in pop history was made by people with that drive. But when you take that argument to an extreme, and start condemning musicians just because they're not so interested in "taking over the world" - especially when you're making that statement from, ahem, the most powerful newspaper in the world's only superpower, a country that arguably has a bit of a take-over-the-world problem, including in terms of culture - it stops being populism and starts to sound like anti-art-for-art's-sake showbiz blather. I think Sanneh wants to say these bands are musically unambitious, or culturally disengaged, or socially insular, and that the closed-circuit nature of the indie scene encourages that, all of which are fair cops. But to condemn them for being content to leave a smaller footprint, for not being rapacious and "swaggering," is to propose that there is only one route to great art. At that point you shouldn't be surprised that your dogmatism in turn provokes rebels who want to destroy that values system, and indie's vision of itself as having greater artistic and social integrity than the rest starts to sound halfway reasonable. This is where indie came from, and while I'm not so down with where it's ended up myself, the point is to get off the merry-go-round, not to take it for another, accelerated, reactionary spin.

It's a classic case of an argument going wrong by taking the terms of the opponent and inverting them, thereby staying within the same myth - if indie rockers say careerism, arrogance and overweening ambition are ipso-facto bad, Sanneh feels compelled to suggest that careerism, arrogance and overweening ambition are not only super-great but compulsory, rather than (e.g.) suggesting that it depends what your ambition - or lack of it - lead you to. It seems to me that if Broken Social Scene, for instance, became any more fame-hungry, they would mutate into Rush in a heartbeat - their community-mindedness leads them to certain musical values that are not the most obvious outcome of their basic style. On the other hand, if Deerhoof decided they wanted to become the biggest band in the world, the results could be mind-bending. There are more songs than this to sing.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 19 at 12:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)

 

'A web of sewer, pipe, and wire connects each house to the others'

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David Berman aka the Silver Jews, as photographed by John Vanderslice.

He set out to take 300 orange Xanax, ten at a time, between house chores. He brushed his teeth, took ten pills. He made the bed, took ten pills. He showered. He walked Miles. He got the mail. Then he stopped remembering. What must've happened in the next few minutes or hours was that Berman grew incredibly romantic. Like the most honest but self-consciously histrionic moments of his writing, he stumbled to his closet and put on his wedding suit. He tried to scribble some final words. "Cassie I'm sorry. I can't take it anymore. I love you." Then he called his crack dealer.

That's the money-shot paragraph from the recent Fader magazine story about David Berman, the voice of the on-and-off-and-now-we-realize-why indie band the Silver Jews, and also the writer of Actual Air, a terrific book of poetry published in 1999. It's a strange story, of Berman's deliberate overdose two years ago and his recovery and rehabilitation, his deepening relationship to Judaism. It's not so much the events described, although the notion of Berman as a crack addict is a shocking displacement of one's image of him (which just goes to show how much at-a-distance images of artists are worth). It's the tone in which the article is written, which seems to affect an inappropriate level of intimacy, trying so hard to be "inside Berman's head" that it actually casts doubt on the truth of what it's saying, making one wonder if the whole story is some kind of hoax the writer and Berman have concocted. But that seems even more out of sync with what (we think) we know about Berman's character, so I think it is the Stockholm Syndromatic writing style that is really to blame - not so much in the above paragraph as in ones like this: "There is a fine line between selfishness and solipsism, the latter more pathological than malicious. And Berman is solipsistic to the bone - someone who cannot comprehend a world outside of the self. This may be the real reason he doesn't tour." It's overreaching.

The story does end well - Berman seems to be cleaned up, happily married and making an inspiring effort at "trying to be a better person and not being such a fucking nightmare for everyone." His upcoming album, Tanglewood Numbers, logically enough is reported to be a shift in direction (and you can find out for yourself on Soulseek), more direct, more confident, and snarling rather than whimpering. Berman always had one of the most melodious whimpers in songwriting - I often think of lines like, "Day after day on the beautiful stage/ We are playing tambourine for minimum wage/ But we are real," on the American Water album - but it did seem like an eternal adolescent voice at times. I'm eager to hear what a grownup Silver Jews record will be like. I'm sure it will simply channel the sensibility through newly opened channels - the sensibility itself seems to be sewn into his skin, as evidenced by the fact that before going to the hospital with his overdose, Berman checked himself into the same Florida hotel room where Al Gore holed up waiting for the 2000 election results to come through, saying, "I want to die where the presidency died!" That could so easily be a line from one of his songs or poems. (Also: For you Pavement addicts out there, yes, the new album does feature guitar throughout by Steve Malkmus, and they may tour together.)

It's uncomfortable to be told such secrets about someone so private that, before he started trying to be more cooperative, he seldom performed or gave interviews, and on some level I wish I didn't know, and wouldn't end up filtering my interpretations of the new songs through this story, as I will. Berman always seemed like an abstainer from celebrity culture, and here he is starring in that towering celebrity trope, the rehab story. Yet it's a lesson - what your demons want is exactly to turn you into a cliche. (What could be more "done" than dying?) And the insight into his life is at least an experience of what he was describing in the first line of his poem The Moon, which I have taken for the title of this post.

The other bittersweet moment in Fader was a short piece on Margaret Kilgallen, a visual artist I wish I'd known of before now - she died in 2001 of breast cancer at age 31. There's a retrospective of her work at the Redcat gallery in Los Angeles this summer, if you're in the vicinity. Something of the piquant humour and vulnerability in her art reminds me of Berman's writing and singing - the anti-nostalgic nostalgia of her use of circus-style typefaces blown up to monumental size parallelling his affectionate appropriation of country music gestures, and the tender vandalism of painting friendly new characters into lonely old photographs mirroring the way he pulls cliches inside-out and delights in non-sequitur juxtapositions of lines and phrases. But here is a difference: It's unfortunately a shock when a gifted artist's youthful death wasn't due to self-destruction, and Kilgallen's loss, retrospectively, only throws into relief just how fucked-up it would have been had Berman's suicide attempt succeeded.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 15 at 3:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Chromewaves' Cal Ripken Streak

Today in The Globe and Mail, my colleague, music critic Robert Everett-Green, provides a (necessarily limited) intro and guided tour of the audio-blog universe, which namechecks Chromewaves, Gramophone, Tofu Hut, Fluxblog, Music for Robots, No. 1 Songs in Heaven, Pitchfork (as blog manque) and, by way of contrast, me and Alex Ross.

First off, what? No URLs in a feature wholly about blogs? (I know I didn't link the above, but I'm not getting paid here. Also, see links page for 99% of 'em.) The Globe site should at least have linked them in the online version. That aside - the glam angle of record labels calling you up and trying to cram CDs down your blowhole is emphasized, naturally enough, though the headline took it too far ("A record company's best friend" has insulting, you-are-puppy-dogs subtext directly contradicted in the text - copy editors please try harder). But I was more interested in the B-plot, which we might call What Kind of Writing Is This Anyway? To wit:

Jordan of Said the Gramophone (whose R. Kelly post this week was great Pathetic Art, only accentuated by the pathetic cover-with-giggling he posted when there are new actual R. Kelly songs you can hear instead!): "[An audio blog] allows for a different kind of music writing, because you can engage with the song on a moment-by-moment basis ... Without the audience being able to listen while they read, it would be too obscure."

Wait - so you're saying that for decades people have been reading record reviews without hearing any music and they've been totally confused by that? Maybe it's true. I'm not sure what Jordan means by "moment to moment" - like a running colour commentary timed to run concurrent with the song? Show me the button and I'll push it! Where are these complicatedly scientifically timed music blogs? I don't think I'm the only one who reads first and downloads, if I'm intrigued by the writeup, second. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. But it seems to me the engagement is more that instant gratification (in a good way), not a traffic jam of music and words. I wouldn't be able to "engage" both of them very fully if I did that. Am I alone here?

On a similar note Robert makes audio blogs sound pretty unappealing when he says, "Reading a blog entry about a song by Spoon while hearing the music on your computer speakers is like listening to a friend's excited analysis of the sounds pouring from his dorm-room stereo." To which my reaction is (read in Napoleon Dynamite voice for best effect): "Dude, shut up, I'm trying to listen to Spoon here. We'll talk about it after I've heard it."

The corollary to which is that audio blogs with no commentary at all are like your friend sitting there, putting a song on, taking it off and staring at you blankly, and make me say, "Dude, what is wrong? What do you hate, this song or me? What are these records you've got? Where did they come from? Which one do you like the most? ... Well, screw it, I gotta go."

But my favourite bit in the piece comes from Chromewaves: "One of the worst things I ever did was to get into the habit of publishing daily," said Web engineer Frank Yang, who writes Chromewaves, a text-heavy Toronto blog that features one mp3 per week. "I've got this Cal Ripken streak going on, where I haven't missed a day in 16 months." Besides the hilarity of "Cal Ripken streak," this image of blog-slave Frank makes the rest of us feel better about our comparative total lassitude. Tune in, Frank! Turn on! Blog out!

Elsewhere: Better late than never I stumble on this precious pearl by Ben Ratliff from July 4's Times, covering the Sounds of the Underground tour in Sayreville, NJ: "Even more wrenching in their segues were Norma Jean and Every Time I Die, two excellent emo-metal bands who go off like booby traps and play basically from breakdown to breakdown, several mini-songs compressed into one. Their lyrics are nonlinear, and don't organize into refrains; they're like John Ashbery to Opeth's German Romantics. (In Bayonetwork, Norma Jean's singer, Cory Brandan, sang a typical line: 'This isn't at all unpleasant/ I'm enchanted by the lavish ballet,/ and I'll whistle the tune all the way to the gallows/ that I heard at the cabaret.')" I must get me some of this Ashbercore RIGHT AWAY!

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, July 13 at 4:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

An Agenda to Write In Your Agenda

Right now Margaux Williamson's new painting exhibition, with the Sleater-Kinneyesque title of In the Woods, is opening at the Katherine Mulherin gallery. Just look at the picture. This is something you want to see. Eye magazine has a very accurate review today; I wrote about Margaux last year. Today can use all the compensatory beauty it can get. And come to think of it, "compensatory beauty" is a good description of Margaux's work.

Also tonight, not far away, at the corner of Portland and Richmond, the Singing Saw Shadow Show play a "secret" outdoor concert at about 8 or 8:30 pm.

Elsewhere: International Festival of Blog: "Over to our left, we have the Dance Tent, hosted by the MP3 bloggers. What 'phat tunes' are they 'dropping' in there, I wonder? Let's ask the slightly grumpy looking man in the corner, busily stroking his goatee.

"Well! Who knew that minimalist Patagonian electroclash was so popular? Good work there, MP3 bloggers! Put the needle on the record, and pump up the jam!"

(For obvious reasons, I've been on British sites all day.)

On Tuesday as part of Mercer Union's Toronto Troll project, which is pretty damn intriguing, there's a free show at the Drake called "Saturday Night Beaver" which presents the French AWP ensemble in concert, "joined by their long time collaborator Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground, Stereolab, Tortoise, Calexico, etc) and a rotating group of Toronto musicians and artists (Martin Arnold, Eric Chenaux, Ryan Driver, etc) for a multi-media extravaganza. Sounds and images collected during night-time odysseys are processed and mixed with acoustic and electronic sounds to form an experimental free-jazz soundtrack for the night."

The Music Gallery's deficit position is turning out to be even worse than they thought last year. (See my column on the subject.) Therefore, a fundraiser on July 24: "COURTLY LOVE: A MIDSUMMER MUSIC GALLERY FUNDRAISER featuring special guests PONY DA LOOK, NATHAN LAWR, ANIMALMONSTER and BOB WISEMAN in the Courtyard of St. George the Martyr Church, 6pm to 10pm, $20 regular/$10 student + underwaged." Quoth Jonny Dovercourt: "The Music Gallery’s Project Re:New will launch on July 24, 2005 with a fundraising concert that will take advantage of an underused component of its current venue home: the beautiful outdoor courtyard of St. George the Martyr Church. This will be an atmospheric evening of independent music in this magical, mystical environment. ... The Music Gallery is Toronto’s ONLY consistent venue for avant-garde music, and has been for the last 29 years. Without it, this city’s cultural landscape would be considerably more barren. Please help spread the word about this important fundraising event." True 'dat.

And tomorrow (Friday night) of course there's Sheila Heti/Mrs. Zoilus, another institution without whom barenness would set in, doing a marathon Ticknor reading with Rob Clutton on bass at Grano in the Scream. Tickets exist still.

Thursday Reads: Eye covers a new documentary about Femi Kuti and his commune-club the Shrine (Afrofest in Toronto this weekend!); Dave Morris cocks an eye at the wisdom/propriety of a young white hip DJ calling a mixtape "Real Niggery"; NOW meets (joins?) the Go! Team; and Frank Black and his nudist kids.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 07 at 6:52 PM | Linking Posts

 

Special K

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Leading the Thursday Reading pack today, the CBC's arts site has a fine piece by Matthew McKinnon about one of the few African faces in the whole Live8 spectrum, Toronto's Somali-born K'naan, the subject of some riddik' below-radar beefing by K-Os.

Speaking of Live8, my colleague John Doyle has an impassioned Irish defence of the event and heaps scorn on the haters in today's Globe and Mail. Amen. (Sadly it's for subscribers only.)

Elsewhere, Eye has interviews with Afrika Bambaata and Ari-Up of the Slits, both playing town this weekend. My colleague Russell Smith redeems himself (sorry, by subscription only) for his jazz-know-nothing columns with some interesting stuff on electronic music and conceptual art, including a "cloud harp" that translates airborne formations into note clusters, and Alarm Will Sound's acoustic covers of Aphex Twin, in which Russell notes a double meaning of "analogue" - both as "not digital" and "analogous." But he doesn't propose much in the way of answers to his own question, "Why are so many people trying to make natural sources behave like machines and machines like humans?" except to posit a desire for "revenge on electronic music," which is mostly silly. I think it's less about revenge than about a continuing desire to explore our intimacy with the machinic.

The New York Times presents a bulletin on Marshall Allen's efforts to keep Sun Ra's legacy evergreen. And in NOW, Tim Perlich tips us off to an Electric Eels-influenced band from Portland called the Hunches, but otherwise this week's music coverage generally suxx, because Sarah Liss looks to be en vacances.

Woo! And this just in: Speaking of the Electric Eels - and therefore of the 1970s Cleveland underground - there's a treasure nugget of a piece in the anniversary issue of that town's Scene magazine that tells a story I've always wanted to hear told: The pre-Pere Ubu, pre-Rockets days of David Thomas as a writer and art director at that 'zine, under his Crocus Behemoth persona - "a bushy-haired hulk with the physique of a refrigerator and an uncanny thirst for vodka." Shapes of things to come: His first article began, "I want to tell you about my fake arms." It's like the opening lines of Navvy!

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 30 at 12:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Get Working on Your Halloween Theme Mix Tape

As the world of audioblogs becomes ever-more mindbogglingly expansive, the themed and niche-oriented variety becomes more and more welcome. Today I found one on a subject dear to my 9-year-old, monster-book-devouring heart: The Essential Ghoul's Record Shelf presents "the mostly undiscussed world of supernaturally themed novelty music."

The blogger blogs: "It is Dr. Mysterian's contention that one of the great but seldom-explored themes of popular music is the uncanny. Composers regularly write about unworldly and undead characters, including, but not limited to, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and various space aliens." He intends to steer clear of goth and death metal takes as too obvious, and so far he's got Mae West singing about a celebrity psychic, Lavern Baker doing Voodoo Voodoo, The Shaggs with It's Halloween, Red Sovine's classic Phantom 309 (which many of us know in Tom Waits' great cover on Nighthawks at the Diner), the Coasters doing The Shadow Knows, etc. Aside from the Specials' Ghost Town, it's clearly got an oldies emphasis, but the accompanying notes and reflections are as much fun as a pair of trick handcuffs.

I'm just back from a couple of days out of town. Catching-up notes on their way.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 28 at 12:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Sincerely Yours, Flyswatter Freddie

Aaron. Continues. To Bait. Me.

Hfff. Okay. It goes on (and on). And so, a list:

Moves That Are Not Critically Dubious Accusations of Insincerity.

1. An artist claiming that he or she is trying to be honest, sincere or "true to myself." This can be cloying, but it is not illegitimate. In fact it is generally a positive thing. However, you do not encourage it by proclaiming in print that you can tell by the music someone is being dishonest or untrue to their self. That's just playing armchair head-shrinker. Bands are not your BFF. Reviews are not "Dude, me and my girl are concerned about you."

2. Accusing a work of art of being manipulative. Dare we suggest that you can be sincere and manipulative at once? "I wanna make people really feel what I'm feelin' - I wanna give them the drama." "Bring the strings in here, that's what will make them understand my sorrow!" These are sincere impulses. They make for bad, manipulative art. If we could replace the word "insincere" with the word "manipulative" in all the Coldplay reviews, we wouldn't be having this conversation. (Another good fill-in would be "humourless.")

3. The Humpty Dance.

Off-blog, Mr. Wherry used the Zoilus search box against me by pointing out that I have used words like honesty and sincerity in reference to music myself more than once in the past. As I told him, I should have 'fessed up to this earlier - I know I have, it's just that I've come to think better of it. Obviously we all, if we care personally about music, have these theories and feelings about the performers/writers based on their music, and as jus' folks and fans, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I've come to think it's not helpful as critical language, for all the reasons I've been yammering on about. It's too propaganda-like - you should like this because it's honest, you should hate that because it's phony. It sounds too much like some Fox News guy spitting about Democrats: "We are family and they are pod people. They're chai latte and we're red meat."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 24 at 12:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Found My Baby There

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Zoilus has been too swamped today to hunt up much Thursday Reading for you - I haven't cracked the weeklies except to know that if you check Now you'll find a Final Fantasy cover story as well as The Divine Miss Liss's mash note to Janet Weiss, with which she teased us earlier this week (in the Sleater-Kinney comment box below). There's also an extensive news feature questioning the wisdom of holding a huge dancehall concert on the weekend of Gay Pride. (I'm not sure. I'm also somebody who finds that hater stuff hard to take, but maybe it's the best time to hold a huge dancehall concert, so the artists and concertgoers are all out on the town and see the parade and possibly find their ideas challenged, rather than just phantasizing of phantom battymen?)

Eye's blog also notified me of the sad news of the death of eternal Toronto Yonge & Bloor busker and would-be mayor Ben Kerr.

But beyond that I can heartily recommend one big read, which is a terrific history of the traditional blues/jazz tune St. James Infirmiry, its roots in 18th-century English ballads and how it made its way into New Orleans mythography, by my old friend Rob Walker, whom you might know as the Times Magazine "Consumed" columnist. The St. James piece first appeared in his email newsletter two years ago and is now in his new book Letters from New Orleans, which author Jed Horne called "as wistful as absinthe, as funky as a muffuletta at a joint off Tchoupitoulas." Next stop, Da Capo's next year's-best-music-writing book. Gobble it up, yum.

More required reading: From Newsday last weekend, the dean of the flyboys, Greg Tate, on black shame, black rage, and the American tragedy of Michael Jackson: "It now seems Jackson's career was leading up to this trial, which was as much about his betrayal of white America's investment in his image as about his sleeping with young boys."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 23 at 11:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Unreal World (aka The New York Times Arts Section)

This quote makes me feel like I'm hallucinating, in a good way: Austin Mayor Will Wynn today in the Times, commenting on Austin's selection as the smallest city ever to shelter a season of MTV's The Real World:

"Austin, I'm told, is the largest city without a major-league sports franchise. People occasionally ask when Austin will get a team. I say: 'You know what? I hope Austin doesn't get a major sports franchise.' I want music to be our major franchise, where a family every few weeks or months spends a couple hundred bucks on live music. How perfectly does MTV play into that?"

The vision the mayor's proffering, mind, is kinda hideous in its own right - Austin as Texas-music theme park. That approach doesn't seem like it's been entirely healthy for, say, New Orleans (although in New Orleans it's historical rather than current music that is the tourist magnet, so perhaps it's not a fair comparison). But all subtleties aside, the idea of a top public official saying something not so gung-ho about sport and so giddy about an art form, promoting music as a viable alternative source of civic pride to football, feels like something out of a science-fiction novel. Anywhere but the Times they'd be profiling him as Mayor Faggyboots of Fruitville.

The same article has a Real World producer dropping hints that the show is considering Montreal as its next location - no doubt due to the Times and Spin articles about Montreal as hip-music mecca earlier this year. That news gives me an even queasier thrill - how fantastic and awful I will feel as I gobble those episodes up like Chinese poutine.

Less ambiguous pleasures in today's Sunday arts section are the cover story on MTV Desi and other planned Asian-hyphenate MTV networks, which goes on a welcome tangent about transculturalism (warning, MIA content!), and most of all the profile of my-oh-my Miranda July (pictured at post-top: performance-video artist, Kill Rock Stars scene associate and now director of an extremely promising feature film). Trivia: Her birth name turns out to be Miranda Grossinger, and while it's a bit troubling to find out a 31-year-old Jewish woman from a prosperous lefty-arts background actually deracinated her name as late as the early 1990s, you have to grant some leeway on that particular monicker. At least it wasn't Grosskisser.

And Ben Ratliff's playlist opens with a descrip of Greg Tate's Burnt Sugar that makes them sound like the house band for my old cross-genre collaboration show Tin Tin Tin: "Everyone now can tell you about electronically created mashups of two different genres. But it will still be a while until most people want to listen to live bands who are mashing it up in person." I always billed Tin Tin Tin as a live-mashup or "music-scene mashup" series. The rest of Ratliff's survey is worth reading too, with some reflections on the meeting of the visual and auditory arts that wouldn't have been out of place at yesterday's panel.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 19 at 9:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

So Sinsurr

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Let's Clean Our Brushes

And now for something completely different: Here's one of the most mind-boggling-in-a-good-way ILM posts I've seen in awhile - the ridiculously complete annotated bibliography on Captain Beefheart.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 11 at 12:29 AM | Linking Posts

 

Last Nail in the Coffin of the Honesty Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, enough of that now.

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

 

Russell Hates Jazz (Whatever That Is)

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My colleague Russell Smith in today's Globe & Mail:

"I hate jazz's saccharine breeziness, its conservative affection for jaunty ditties -- the same jaunty ditties, endlessly strung out and embroidered and doo-de-doo-doo-doo improvised ... my God, people say techno all sounds the same! Jazz means the Howard Johnson's piano bar, the lobby of Loblaws at Christmastime, it means electro-acoustic guitars and warbling organs and mellow marimbas and vibraphones, it means the smirky, bantering announcers of the seebeegoddamsee."

Russell goes on to say the only jazz he likes is Keith Jarrett, and concludes, with a dismissive aside about free jazz that proves Russell doesn't know anything about free jazz, that everything good about Keith Jarrett is due to his background in classical music.

None of this would be worth mentioning - Russell's not a music columnist but a quasi-celeb-writer columnist and is free to air his peeves - except as a demonstration of how deeply misconceptions about the very nature of jazz are becoming entrenched in the era of Krall and Norah Jones, even among people like Russell, who is fairly well informed about, say, contemporary composition and techno and even noise music. He sees no relationship between jazz - the most formally challenging and fast-advancing and ultimately modernist music of the 20th century - and any of the formal experiments he likes elsewhere in music. He happens to know about Keith Jarrett (due to various odd pop cultural accidents) but not about pianists such as Cecil Taylor or Alex von Schlippenbach or Matthew Shipp or Vijay Iyer, let alone Ornette Coleman or Peter Brotzmann or Anthony Braxton or John Zorn or Wadada Leo Smith (pictured). Russell refers to "jazz people" and their "faux-blackness," amazingly not even considering that jazz people may actually be black, but in Canada, frankly, where would be the current evidence to the contrary? You know the stuff he's talking about, I know the stuff he's talking about, and I hate it too. I just don't consider it the definition of jazz.

The jazz industry in its increasing museum mindedness, has abetted such misperceptions, and of course they've been endlessly bemoaned, debated and berated among jazz people, especially when the Ken Burns PBS Jazz series was on. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder whether our side has a prayer. Maybe we should just abandon the word jazz the way the indie kids abandoned 20hz when it was bought up by a nightclub profiteer - leave the leaky vessel of jazz for the cocktail singers to sail upon, and hoist up some new jolly roger so that regular intelligent people might actually cock an ear to the damn music rather than rule it out by reflex.

Of course I wish the Globe hadn't given Russell's ignorance on the subject such a prominent run today, but the symptom isn't the disease.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 09 at 4:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

Better L8 Than Never

I have to confess it's terrif, it's a thrill, it's Napoleon brandy, it's Mahatma Gandhi, to have this instant Salon-a-ma-jig online. Time was when Salon was the belle of the ball of all the Internets to me and I always wanted to see myself waltzing there. All in all it's not such a bad turn, neither, and it's divine to be in the company of blogstars Stereogum and Largehearted Boy. Thank you, Mr. Bartlett.

miranda.jpg Otherwise today Zoilus feels just like this motherless frock. However, dreaming about the related movie is an analgesic for the soul. Even the trailer damn near makes me cry. Cannot wait.

Also: On Bagatellen, a comprehensive, nay, exhaustive, feature on cassette improvisation that seems a timely companion to mix-tape fever.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 08 at 5:16 PM | Linking Posts

 

Oh, Gr8

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Zoilus was supposed to be part of this Salon feature of bloggas and snoggas critiquing the "hideously white" Live8 lineups today, but something went wrong in the editing process, so apparently my contribution will appear on Salon tomorrow. I like everybody's contributions, though the spectacle of all us armchair critics piling on the event bothers me a bit - the thing is that the agenda of Live8 is such an advance on the original Live Aid charidee model (i.e., the "drop bags of cash and food into a situation of social chaos and exacerbate the problem" model, aka the "pictures of starving children sell records" model), that I was hesitant to getting into the game of attacking a lineup clearly put together to maximize ticket sales. (But I did get sucked in, because Salon asked. After all, you'd think a couple of the UK super-strength headliners could have been sent off to the shows in other countries, making room for a little more diversity there.)

Again, I discussed the geopolitics of pop charity in a column earlier this year.

By far the chewiest response to the Live8 kerfuffle I've run across is this Mark Steyn column. For something that accuses everybody of "paternalism" it's awfully paternalistic ("here's what Africans should learn how to do"), and the suggestion that Sir Bob is punishing poor widdle western weaders "who are entirely blameless for Africa's current woes and severely constrained in their ability to do anything to alleviate them" is ridiculous - G8 leaders may not currently be responsible for egregious activities in Africa, but certainly as recently as the Cold War era, their predecessors were, and to the extent that foreign debt and restructuring are major economic issues in Africa, the powers that pull the strings at the World Bank etc. certainly have influence to wield, as well as - and this should be up Steyn's alley, shouldn't it? - in terms of what kind of trade policies to implement. (Western agricultural subsidies, for instance, are an everyday kick in the teeth to developing nations.) But still, Steyn's points about the need for civil infrastructure (instead of or along with aid) are good, and his screed about how westerners regard African music is thought-provoking - though rather than regarding it as a black-person-as-entertainer stereotype, you just might consider it giving people a chance to represent themselves publically, to be fighting for their own interests, rather than solely being spoken for and treated as objects of pity by a bunch of strangers.

Still, if there's going to be a pundits' dialogue on this subject, Steyn's at least snouting about in a field of questions more substantial than who's on the marquee. ... Too bad he then feels compelled to snort the dirt up his nose and spray it all over anyone who makes a serious effort to contribute.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 07 at 4:05 PM | Linking Posts

 

Ice Cold Play

Meanwhile, older-school T-dot blogboy Aaron seems upset about Jon Pareles' divebombing on Coldplay in the Times today. Full disclosure: I hate the Coldplay that I've heard so much that I haven't been able to bring myself to listen to more than a few songs. Thus I have no opinion: It always felt like a choice between subjecting myself to more, or shutting up, and I chose the latter. You can imagine the jubilation I felt when I saw that Pareles had done my dirty work for me, but I'd be more than willing to listen to an actual rebuttal, Mr. Wherry - not least because Pareles' arguments all fell into that bad rockist pocket: "insincere," "hokum," "no interest in being oblique or barbed," etc. He was on firmer ground about the cliches and obviousness of the lyrics, but that again flashes up the demerit points on the bad old rock-crit scoreboard, able to address words so much better than music. (It's not that he doesn't try: There are details about "guitar notes hinting at the cosmic fanfare of Also Sprach Zarathustra" or "organ chords [that] resonate in the spaces around Mr. Martin's voice, insisting on churchly reverence" - the problem is, without the annoyed tone, would these necessarily be Bad Things? Not to some ears.) I don't blame Pareles, so much - it's rather that the potency of the poptimist critique of rock criticism has made it supremely difficult ever to make an argument for why you don't like something. We're caught in a trap, can't get out, because we love pop too much, baby. It's enough to drive a guy back Frankfurt Schoolwards. How do I hate Coldplay? Let me not count the ways, at least not out loud, at the moment.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 05 at 10:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

Here Comes the Neighbourhood

New kidz on the block: Del points me to Nowarian by Susanna Ferreira, a brand spankin' new Toronto-based blogger on hip-hop and poly-tics, who comes out of the gate giving ripe gasface to some of the lamer habits of the region that doesn't always live up to its Torontopian billing, like when it does what she calls "the Cross Your Arms and Fake Like Rigor Mortis" at shows. Sharp distinctions are drawn: "The hip hop crowd appreciates dance, and at any given show you'll find an enthusiastic crowd (mostly still wearing the screwface) gathered around the one or two b-boy/b-girl circles that invariably form. So why is it that we love to watch good dance, we know good dance, but we're so hesitant to un-cross our arms and dance ourselves?" She brings up the comparison of vanishing dialects and languages in the world, warning that if we don't start letting our backbones slide we may lose the vocabulary for it: "Body language speaks volumes for a person's comfort level and how they regard themselves, and Toronto has got some major demons to deal with." One of the best things about the post-Y2K indie-rock scene in this town, by the way, is that it's confronted that Toronto-don't-dance bogeyman as mercilessly as it can figure how. (Also, thanks for the link!)

Another reason to watch my back: Not quite as new-minted (it's been popping since April) but just as fresh is the Pop Sheep MP3 blog, which besides its eerily Zoilus-friendly tastes, provides two scoops of verbal commentary along with each track, a comforting fact for us alphabetically addicted bloggosauruses. Its massive consists of two Toronto-based contributors and one Vancouver-based one, but the content has a strong west-coast vibe, so I suspect the Torontonians are ex-Lotuslanders too. In the past week Sheep Ian has been bringing a boatload of goodies, most notably a bunch of rare, rare Destroyer traxxx - not just from We Shall Build Them a Golden Bridge, the standard-issue Bejar-fan gottit-boast object (pick hit: I, As McCarthy), but from a compilation and best of all from early cassette Ideas for Songs, now eight years young, including the prescient The Terror Serves a Purpose (how great an opening is, "That's one precipice we refuse to fall from"?). Listening to these tracks should actually help folks who checked in more recently grasp the Destroyer program better: Not much tinge of "glam" here, just a lot of Pavement/Silver Jews, some Barrett, some Dylan, a blood infection of Spanish folk music, and several wriggly ear worms courtesy of Boney M. and, um, The Fantastiks? (glamorous, sure, but not "glam").

I like Ian's remark that each Destroyer album is "a tribute to a different genre of bad music" - I'm not sure Dan would be comfortable with that notion, but it's closer than a lot of interpretations of the stylistic shifts. I think what Destroyer gains from its relation to "bad music" (aside from a genuine amateurism and thus natural relationship to non-musicianship), and from throwing a quick-change before any particular style gets too polished, is that it keeps the songs in a zone of incomplete expression, the kind of sloppy not-quite-emotionally-there-ness that lets poetry bless the human mess - "from wife to midwife/ from house to halfway house."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 05 at 10:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Junebuggy Thursday Reading

Not much in the local weeklies today: NOW has its ginormous NXNE preview and a nice piece on local Jedi-in-training Shawn Hewitt, and they both dig on some Digable Planets. Dave Morris on the DigP's: "If bellbottoms came back, then why not equally bedroom-friendly hippie-hop? Fashions come and go but anything that once got people laid will live forever." This feels like an accurate new cultural maxim.

Catch of the day has gotta be Douglas Wolk's piece on the Fall in the new music issue of The Believer. (Wait, how did I miss that call for submissions? Sometimes I hate being Canadian.) The most amazing fucking thing about it has to be that there is a sidebar about "Peel's other favorite," Ivor Cutler. Somehow the concepts "sidebar" and "Ivor Cutler" seem very funny to me in juxtaposition. Also in the Believer, in what seems like a quantum advance on last year's music issue, John McMillan on smoking banana peels, something by Fat Bobby of Oneida, Carrie Brownstein interviewing Karen O and interviews with Beck, Aimee Mann, Smoosh, and others, plus shimmering moves by Hua Hsu on songs from and about the end of history (by Billy Joel, the Scorpions and Jesus Jones). And the aforementioned CD.

Where has this been all our lives: Avant Music News? I just stumbled across it an hour ago, and the first thing I find out is that grand old man of free-guitar Derek Bailey, diva of delirium Amy Denio and Dennis Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levis have put out a gospel record: "It freely juxtaposes the atonal style of Derek’s playing with Amy and Dennis’ diverging interpretations of Southern Gospel, and takes on a striking depth as a result of this convergence. The pairing of Southern Gospel and 'Old-Timey Avant Garde' partners traditional Gospel lyrics and vocal melodies with nontraditional and expressive guitar sounds and cross-rhythmic homemade heavy metal and funk samples. The effect is at once jubilant and haunting, a reminder of our own mortality and materiality and the inexhaustible presence of the spirit." (Via Chemistry Class.)

Catching up on late-May reading, here is the LA Times on the crisis of criticism. Note Dave Hickey's claim: "I do think that we're over. Being an art critic was one of those jobs like nighttime disk jockey or sewing machine repairman: It was a one- or two-generation job." Opinions?

Also check this John Zorn interview, a rare commodity, from last week.

Not music, but Steven Shaviro is posting bits of his book in progress on aesthetics on his blog (warning, Zizek content!). I'm intrigued by the model, sharing drafts in that kind of forum for comment and revision. Shaviro also seems to be heading towards some interesting ju-jitsu on the No Logo playbook. And speaking of Steves, the surprisingly much-buzzed-about Steven Berlin Johnson - the guy who says "everything bad is good for you" - gets into some interesting thumb-wars with his critics on his own blog. It's him versus the Freakonomics guys in the non-fiction sweepstakes (Malcolm Gladwell memorial division) this year.

Ann Hulbert has a fine piece in Slate on the massively different conditions facing the young Mozart and today's 12-year-old Juilliard composer "Bluejay," which admittedly just takes off and runs with Alex Ross's ideas from this blog entry last year, but runs in Hulbert's own chosen directions. (She quotes Alex; there's no subterfuge involved.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 02 at 10:23 PM | Linking Posts

 

Must-to-Read: Brahms, Cowbell, Scissors

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DJ Wol-P and the intact if not-so-fab four (1969).

Alex Ross, on "the record effect" in this week's New Yorker, starts slow but builds to stupendousness round'bout the phrase, "like Heisenberg's mythical observer," & gets into the gritty of how recording altered classical performance as we know it today. Mark Katz and Robert Philip serve up grist, but it's what Alex does with it too: "Classical music, with its softer-edged sounds, entered the recording era at a disadvantage. The age of the cowbell had begun," and later, "Most of all, classical music in America suffered from being a reproduction itself, an immaculate copy of European tradition. We’ve been listening to the same record for a century and a half." His steely take-down is aerating that classical/notational carcass mightily.

Also, first turntablists? Stefan Wolpe, 1920, and Kurt Weill, 1927. Sorry, JC (1939). (But don't sweat it.)

Quibble: Very near the end Alex claims that "the Beatles broke up three years after they disappeared into the studio," a retirement from live performance he implies was in 1964 or 1965, but actually happened in 1966. Even then, Abbey Road came out in 1969 and Let It Be in 1970, with the group's dissolution coming at the end of that year. [Edited to correct: My bad. The piece said that the B's breakup happened 3-years-plus-a-few-months not after Gould's retirement from performance but after his 1966 essay on the subject. I misread it the other way around. So maybe there's a few months' discrepancy, but, uh, never mind.]

Anyway, Alex's point on the part live experience plays in the rude health of a band remains piquante, but I very much doubt that more touring would have kept the Beatles intact. That kind of success just makes rapid moo shu gai pan of people - Dylan broke up and there was only one of him!

Larger quibble: "Records cannot be entirely to blame, [Philip] admits: otherwise, similar patterns would surface in popular music, which, whatever its problems, has never lacked for spontaneity." A similar "feedback loop" of trying to sound like the music on other hit records operates in popular music. It's just that pop has an in-built bias in favour of novelty, having to do with a capitalist model, cycles of overthrowing elders etc., all of which are absent in the culture of notational music. In the absence of that bias, recording standards very likely would freeze pop in time, too; with that bias, recording standards become another vector along which to change.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 01 at 5:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

Thursday Reading's Bedroom Eyes

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Wanda Jackson in her Elvis's-boudoir days.

In today's eye, Joshua Ostroff takes a look at the curious state of contemporary country music, though he loses points with me by talking about his "semi-ironic" visit to the Grand Ole Opry and by looking at the whole phenomenon in strictly left-right terms, which I think is to misunderstand it at least in part: Country is populist by nature, and that can be articulated along many angles of the political spectrum, and that basic populism is both its strength and its original sin. To see "underclass interests" solely in economic terms is the left's blinkeredness (do you think all your interests are economic?). Not that I've worked all this out in a rigorous way myself (though I've made a start), and I appreciate Josh's contribution because I think it's one of the subjects of the year, but articles about it are tending to retread the same ground right now.

Also in eye: A nice chat with Sam Prekop, which I was happy to see because I spent an enjoyable part of my ride back from Victo listening and reading the liner notes to Aum Fidelity's recent, gorgeous Shrimp Boat rarities box. Fans of 90s Chicago indie-whatsit post-hoosis (most of the Thrill Jockey stable and part of the Drag City one) should get themselves schooled on Shrimp Boat, which sailed most of that sound into port before its time. Also Stuart Berman recaps the MIA/LCD Soundsystem show I missed, entertainingly comparing LCD to Guided By Voices (though skipping the point about them both being record-collection bands) (and also ones I don't so much like). And Dave Morris has an arty native music-theatre project and a blog conspiracy theory (final item).

Today in the Globe my colleague Brad Wheeler makes a case for the new Paul Anka album - complete with Nirvana, Van Halen and REM covers - that Wherry was nutty about too. I remain sceptical - the question isn't whether these songs make competent Paul Anka renditions but what the use of competent Paul Anka versions is, as opposed to boo-wah-iciously bad Pat Boone versions for instance - but I ain't heard it.

Meanwhile over at NOW you've got more Prekop, a preview of what sounds like it's gonna be a really sizzling Hangama South Asian street party this weekend and tawdry dating secrets from the world of SS Cardiacs (who also confess to being the Monkees of the Blocks Recording Club universe). Speaking of tawdry secrets, Wanda Jackson tells Tim Perlich about learning guitar from Elvis by playing along to 45s, at which point Perlich asks the ultimate collector-nerd question - what was Elvis listening to? - and Jackson hilariously answers: "Now, Tim, honey, think about it. I'm alone with Elvis in his bedroom. ... Do you really think I was paying any attention at all to those records?"

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 26 at 6:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Thursday Thursday

Catching up on our Thursday Reading. A late and abbreviated edition today:

The wrap-up of that OTHER 50 Tracks game we were playing, including a coming-full-circle CBC interview with former Mister Brave New Waves, Brent Bambury, in which some Zoilusian picks get played.

If this had been out in time, there might be a few different cuts on that list: Errol Nazareth on the crate-digging essential-CanCon item of the spring, DoRight's Ready or Not: Deep jazz grooves from the CBC Radio Canada Archive 1967-77. From today's Eye. Meanwhile, in Now, Ms. Liss waxes adorable over the next-big-thing buzz about Most Serene Republic, but Zoilus has already got a favourite Republic band for the year. (Not to mention the good old Savage one.) More notable: Andy Kim apparently now listens to Arcade Fire, the Hidden Cameras and Faith No More. Maybe Rock Me Gently was better than I thought? (On the other hand, the guy did write Sugar, Sugar, so, respect.)

Not actually reading, just a fact: Much as I hate to scoop news from Pitchfork, I can't ignore the information that The Believer is releasing a compilation on which the likes of Constantines, Jim Guthrie, Spoon, Wolf Parade, the Shins and the Mountain Goats cover the likes of Richard Buckner, the Silver Jews, Frog Eyes (!) and Joanna Newsom (not respectively). Yeah, it may as well be presented by Whitey McWhiteman and His Blanching Whiteheads, and it needs a "Warning: Devendra Banhart Content" sticker, but still.

Sean O'Hagan takes most of his best material from Simon Reynolds and Paul Morley - but that's probably inevitable - for this retrospective on Joy Division and Love Will Tear Us Apart, now 25 years forever ancient-young. See the now middle-aged JD survivors in New Order play LWTUA on the Jimmy Kimmel show in April. (Thanks to Miss Valerie.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 13 at 12:03 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Thursday Reading: Toronto Edition

In the funny papers: Arcade Fire reviews from across the Toronto-newspaper universe - the Globe (which mistakenly calls Final Fantasy a "Montreal act," I guess because the writer noticed Owen playing in the A.F. - T-dot reprazent!!!), the Sun and the Star (timex-accurate description from Vit Wagner, who tortures me with the news that Final Fantasy and Gentleman Reg did a Mariah Carey cover before I got there!). None, however, answers the question on my mind: What kind of name is Win, anyway? Is it short for something? Or is it just, y'know, very self-affirmative?
Also in der Globe, my cubicle homie Guy Dixon talks to a very nervous Thomas Mapfumo.
Dave Morris in Eye on Negativland, at the Open Ears festival in Kitchener on Saturday and in Toronto at the Deep Wireless festival (more on it in the future) on Sunday. See also Dave M.'s always enjoyable weekly 'net-trawl, Totally Wired.
Mike Doherty in Eye and Geoff Chapman in the Star on Quinsin Nachoff, sax player with a strong ensemble here on Saturday.
Josh Ostroff in eye chats with Dizzee. Meanwhile, Tim Perlich in Now leads with his asshole in his own Dizzee Rascal interview (the fact that he was once busted for pepper spray possession is somehow evidence that he's dumb?!?!). It's sad that this has now become typical Perlich. A decade ago he had one of the country's best sets of ears.
Ben Rayner chats with Dan Snaith (Cariboo/ex-Manitoba).
Ashante Infantry on a Hot Docs fest movie that goes behind the scenes in the valley of the video hotties.
Greg Quill on an Eighties Toronto flashback, the revival of the Poetry Sweatshop.
And last, but most, Miss Liss talks to everybody involved in the 20hz fiasco - Abbas Jahangiri still won't admit any mistake, and ludicrously claims "I am Mother Teresa"! (Uh, yeah - the Christopher Hitchens version.) Some sharpie at Now also nails the perfect headline: "Everybody Hz."

I'll try to make Thursday Reading a weekly Zoilus feature from here on. I'll be back later tonight with some selections from outside the city limits. To start with, see Christopher Porter fuming on Darfur (I'm writing about Diamanda Galas's Defixiones for this weekend's paper, so genocide is also on my mind). And via Alex Ross, here's the original text of the Pope's notorious comments on music, which we've all been blabbing about. Hey, is Joey Ratzinger any relation of Wumpscut's Rudy Ratzinger? Maybe that's what got him so agitated.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 28 at 4:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Famous & Dandy Like Amos & Andy

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Today's Internet Scout Report includes a pointer to a repository of World War I sheet music that led me to an even more exciting resource for all those researchers who - as we saw at EMP last week - are working on minstrel and other early musical representations of (quasi)-black music: Brown University's online collection of African-American sheet music 1820-1920. The image above is the cover of the booklet for 1901's Don't You Never Take No Ten Cent Drink on Me by John Queen & Hughie Cannon (New York: Howley, Haviland & Dresser). The back page is an ad headlined, "Are You Tired of Coon Songs?" There seem to be hundreds more where it came from.

After my EMP reports, a couple of people asked why there suddenly is so much work on minstrelsy now. It's difficult to offer any single explanation. Sean offers a good general outline of the territory: "mostly because American musical culture has always been a culture of collision and fusion between black and white. Blackface is one of the hard bits of evidence of that. So's the banjo. So's jazz. So's all of it. It's never been the fashion to write about it. In fact it's anti-fashion, anti-trend, and some of it's very ugly. It's just a truth that's always been hard to talk about." But that doesn't quite answer the "why now" question. First, it's important to realize that by "now" we actually mean since the early 1990s, and especially since the publication of Eric Lott's Love and Theft, the groundbreaking work in the field.

Lott would the guy to ask, but I would hazard that for some scholars it's a roundabout response to the identity politics of the 1980s: It reached a point in all the debates over "appropriation of voice" and so on that the underlying implication was that people from different racial/cultural backgrounds (among other points of difference) could not speak to or with regard to one another without being accused of grave sins. This de facto segregation was incredibly intellectually and politically frustrating, especially at a point where the prevailing theoretical currents (Derrida, etc.) made it clear how eloquently and loudly difference itself speaks, and how meaning arises more from the friction than from any unitary position.

Meanwhile, in cultural history, there was an ongoing revision of the kind of myth of progress in pop history that "rockist" assumptions had drawn, as the cycle of appropriation and assimilation of black styles by white pop culture, the violence of that process and the complexity of its outcomes, was traced further and further back. Rock romanticism was being undone by that analysis, and minstrelsy just began to look like the founding moment of the whole thing, I suspect. (I also suspect that future scholarship will start looking at the roots of the roots, the pre-history of minstrelsy, as the beat goes on.) And it's also probably important that minstrelsy as an official institution was now almost a century in the past, so it's a much less touchy subject, perhaps, than it might have been a few decades earlier, when living people might have felt more overwhelmed by the spectre of blackface. (Although it's amazing how much it persisted in the most raw form in a lot of local American regional cultures - white high schools doing minstrel shows as recently as a couple of decades back, and so on.)

Also, since minstrel shows (and medicine shows and revival tents and the like) are at once a founding moment in American pop culture and tantalizingly close to the start of music-recording history, the more people looked the more they found its influence in every form - a skeleton in the closet of every genre, explaining a lot of the connections between blues and country and ragtime and pop that many people were keen to understand. And of course exciting work breeds exciting work, so people followed up on what was being done.

Finally I wonder if it has to do with the rise of hip-hop, as well - a wild strain of American culture that stood to one side of the blues-soul tradition, provoking investigations of its sources in further-back vernacular culture. Hip-hop also became a nexus for all the usual hard questions about the relationship between black culture, white culture (if you think there is such a thing) and commercial culture, and the minstrel show is pretty much the most stark and unassimilable image of that tension there is. The fact that all this work began before there was a character such as Eminem or the "wiggas" (an ugly term that's vanished now that it's gone from subculture to mass culture) - and even before the arguably self-caricaturing "blacked-up," hypermasculinized figures of gangsta rap and after - shows how closely wired to the zeitgeist the minstrel scholarship is. A look at Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a fraught but fascinating film, certainly helps demonstrate why blackfaced minstrels might be on our collective minds right now. And a lot of the Pop Conference papers demonstrated that minstrelsy, if not pictured in a monolithic way, also offers a model for the perversities of cultural encounter in loads and loads of other cases. As Lott says, "It's usually tricky to specify where minstrelsy or obvious cultural appropriation stops and something different and fresh begins."

In fact, I started my own EMP paper like this: "Every cultural moment invents its own ancestors, calls dusty figures out of the wings of history to model the latest in anxieties and desires. In the past decade in music discourse, blackface minstrel-show stars such as Emmett Miller and Bert Williams have suddenly become our contemporaries, crooning I Ain’t Got Nobody, cracking chicken-coop jokes and telling a tale of American longings for other selves, of pop’s original sins, of changeling babies and cuckoo’s nests."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 22 at 12:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Robert Creeley: Of Some Lost Thrush

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Other notes wait in the wings, but I was saddened this afternoon to learn that Robert Creeley died yesterday morning at the age of 78. Others can and will no doubt eulogize him more roundly than I can, but I can say that when I was younger, I was dismissive of Creeley's work, which I thought too full of the mundane for poetry. It took age to appreciate the music of it, its high fidelity to the awkward stutters in which the mind feels thought. Its low fidelity to ease, like a four-track language. He said that the inarticulate is what poetry has as its own now, the way that jazz after Coltrane had the fracture of melody as its material, its home ground. The best way to read him is to hear him, I think, in his creaky voice, suffused with pain and anger and tenderness: You can find examples in abundance at Linebreak. Musicians, of course, heard the tuneliness of his work, as he did of theirs (jazz was a long inspiration): His poems were set to music by Mercury Rev, former students of his at U Buffalo; as well as by Steve Swallow on Home, with vocals by Sheila Jordan; Courage (Steve Swallow, Chris Massey and John Wills) on an album called The Way Out Is Via The Door; another band with Swallow and David Torn and others, on an album called Have We Told You All You'd Thought to Know?; and many times over the years with the late great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (read Pierre Joris' fine liner notes to one Lacy-Creeley album, Futurities). You can hear more of Creeley reading here at Kelly Writer's House in Philly.

An NPR obituary for Robert Creeley is here. There's the very moving sight of people exchanging favourite Creeley anecdotes and pomes, as if gathered under a streetlamp, on Metafilter, and an array of links to mourn with at Wood S Lot. A review by Tom Clark of Creeley's book Life & Death, and an appropriate poem:

A Song

I had wanted a quiet testament
and I had wanted, among other things,
a song.
That was to be
of a like monotony.
(A grace
Simply. Very very quiet.
A murmur of some lost
thrush, though I have never seen one.

Which was you then. Sitting
and so, at peace, so very much now this same quiet.

A song.

And of you the sign now, surely, of a gross
perpetuity
(which is not reluctant, or if it is,
it is no longer important.

A song.

Which one sings, if he sings it,
with care.

News | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 31 at 4:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Notes That Are Not In Next Weekend's Column That Are Probably More Interesting Than The Column Itself (One In A Continuing Series)

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Overtones on Sat. will be about product placement. A couple of factoids that did not find a place:

Spamalot, the new Broadway musical (acclaimed by the New Yorker and others) based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, seems to be aptly named: The show includes on-stage product placement not only for Yahoo Internet services, but, yes, for Hormel Foods' original Spam product. For those of you playing along at home, early Internerds actually adapted the name for the unsolicited solicitations that jam up your email box from a famous Monty Python skit. And now Monty Python is spamming its audiences. On behalf of Spam. Product placement in live theatre, especially in the dialogue, sounds like some kind of Mr. Show skit to begin with, but apparently it's becoming common - Broadway shows lately have spammed crowds for Veuve Cliquot, Bombay Gin and even Turtle Wax, which appears on stage in the new Beach Boys musical Good Vibrations, presumably to buff up the muscle cars, no doubt themselves also product-placed.

They're having a big product-placement problem at Carnival in Rio: "Some traditional samba groups lament that growing sponsorship by companies is hijacking creative themes. In many cases it replaced aid from underground lottery bosses who have bankrolled Rio's Carnival for decades while keeping a low profile. Now sponsorship by companies often means outside influence on the samba schools, the groups that compete in the annual extravaganza." Apparently one of the samba schools is now run by a large hydro company, whose slogan has been incorporated into the offical Carnival song.

How far would the advertisers like to take it? Somewhere, no doubt, in this neighbourhood:

Coke-backed Montefiore has its own cumbia band to sing songs about great fruit drinks

Charles Newbery
21 February 2005
Advertising Age

[Buenos Aires, Argentina] In a fresh approach to product placement, Coca-Cola has created its own cumbia band to sing about its Montefiore fruit drink on a TV show in Argentina dedicated to the catchy popular music.

Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson Argentina assembled The Montefiore Band and wrote five songs playing up the rich flavor and high yield of the concentrated apple, grapefruit and orange drink.

The group takes the stage once an hour on ``Pasion'' (``Passion''), a Saturday program on America TV that draws Montefiore's target-lower-middle and middle-class consumers, especially housewives. The songs also air on radio. The cumbia effort is backed by outdoor, print and point-of-sale ads.

Montefiore's attributes ``are expressed in a fun way,'' said Ezequiel Fernandez Sasso, brand manager at Coca-Cola de Argentina. ``The people that watch every Saturday, they remember the songs... at the time of deciding [what to buy].''

To a marching beat, the band sings, ``I want your flavor for me, Montefiore for baby. It costs less, yields more. It has three flavors to enjoy.''

Another song, about going to the market to pick up a Montefiore for your buddies back home, goes ``Drinks all around, Montefiore. There are three flavors, Montefiore.''

Coke's cumbia connection links Montefiore with a thriving movement among its target group. The music, a danceable mix of punk angst, reggae beats and soccer-stadium fervor, is often compared with gangsta rap in the U.S. for its lyrics about drugs, discrimination, sex and violence, and now Coke's Montefiore fruit drink.

It also seems the right moment to toast the revival of The Who Sell Out by Petra Haden. I haven't heard her version yet, but if it truly involves Deleuzian counter-effectuation, that party gotta be bumpin'.

Totally unrelated, Alex Ross tells us what position his 20th-century-music book is going to take on Schoenberg (sorta).

And Between Thought & Expression has unreleased M.I.A. and other next (and/or next-to-last) shit.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 30 at 4:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

As If I'd Never Had Spaghetti and Meatballs

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Must-read of the day: Tom Waits telling the UK Observer his favourite albums ever, many of them predictable (Alan Lomax field recordings, Captain Beefheart and Thelonious Monk, Bohemian-Moravian Texan bands, James Brown), but worth eyeballing for the writing not the shopping. I think my favourite is his (unusually namedropping) description of why he includes a mix CD of opera arias, describing Francis Coppola playing him Puccini's Nessun Dorma for the first time: "He was like, as if I said I've never had spaghetti and meatballs - 'Oh My God, Oh My God!' - and he grabbed me and he brought me into the jukebox (there was a jukebox in the kitchen) and he put that on and he just kind of left me there. It was like giving a cigar to a five-year old. I turned blue, and I cried."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 22 at 8:16 PM | Linking Posts

 

It's Hard to Say Which Is Funnier...

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Random notes: You didn't hear it here first, but I must instruct The Office fans out there (with nothing to nourish them but knuckle-gnawing about the American version) to perk up to the Internet's latest-greatest find, which is Ricky Gervais' 1980s New Romantic synth-pop band, Seona Dancing. The pictures are not to be missed. Apparently they were wee in the UK, big in the Philippines, the kind of thing that shows how right Apple is to insist that reality is always on shuffle.

Otherwise, please note that the "Other 50 Tracks" action is still unfolding at Pregnant Without Intercourse (my latest pick, No Means No, doesn't seem to be up yet).

Nice reviews/profiles for Mrs. Zoilus this weekend in the Globe and the Gazette. She is in town this week (for her launch on Thursday), which makes all the world a better place.

See you tonight at Trampoline Hall?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 21 at 3:28 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

Bifurcated Bedeviled Noise Crossroad Prophesy Clash!

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Wolf Eyes. Photo borrowed from Nathan Baker.

Thurston Moore: "The new folks of no-wave-ish tendencies — as opposed to straight-up noise like Prurient, Wolf Eyes, etc. — all seem to exist and deliver with one real difference from the old days: The new guys know how to play. Back in the day it was more interesting to me because no one really knew how to play. It was a real epiphany of new language development."

John Fell Ryan (Excepter, ex-No-Neck Blues Band): "It's not like No Wave where everyone is reducing things to black and white. The current scene is much more omnivorous and exploratory. [...] Indie rock died flat in 1994 and everybody knows that, viscerally. It's not just a New York thing; there are noise scenes everywhere. The entire planet is a noise scene. You don't have to ask why people are making visionary apocalyptic music right now. Drop It Like It's Hot is a noise record!"

Or at least that Ying Yang Twins whisper record is definitely a noise record.

Opines? Me, I think the time is right for the high-school-sophomore noise-music big bang, but am not so sure if it's going to yield much nutrition for those not directly participating. On the other hand, hurray if it makes the whole corpus of noise more available at your local five-and-dime, and hurray-squared if pop gets even more noisy, like grime-plus (the Ying Yang song, actually called Wait, is one of crunk's closest proximates to grime). But down at ground level, how much pure mineral is there to mine out of the noise quarries that hasn't been tapped already? Noise purists diss Lightning Bolt for being too musical, but that's what's juicy about it, because I don't see what's left to be proved about being rigidly anti-music. Also I like this urge around "dumb noise" because noise has already gone right around the ring of so-intellectual-it's-stupid, it needs to reach that opposite pole. Too bad Andrew WK cashed in his quarters and quit the noise arcade (or did he?). I want Kelly Clarkson's noise single, y'know? (Though I still like the noise-as-harsh-therapist, body-shortcircuiting skool of thot.) On the other hand maybe I'll be surprised - for instance at this year's Victoriaville festival, where I'm heading this year partly because I'd be an idiot not going where Anthony Braxton, Prague's Plastic People and Peter Brotzmann's Tentet, among others, will be, but also because it's got a sick contingent of new-gen noisicians such as Wolf Eyes and Hair Police (and their big stepsiblings No Neck and The Boredoms) coming, a good chance to mulch these issues. How they get received by the jazzbos should be a heckuva sideshow in itself.

How's the noise where you are? Read the rest of Brandon Stosuy's piece on current New York noise in today's Village Voice, from which the quotes at the top of the post are lifted.

Update, March 16: Even if I stayed in town, I could see a passle o' noise cats thanks to the VTO off-festival festival (i.e., gentleman Ron Gaskin), reportedly including Les yeux des loups on May 20.

Update update: Ever feel like you're corroding your soul with excesses of pop culture, like your spirit is a set of dentures fizzing away in a bowl of Pepsi? That's me today. Noise is good for scouring that off. Blog posting, not so much so.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 15 at 3:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

"Before the Terrible Money Came" (Caution: May Contain MIA, as well as Grime, Rachid Taha, Jens Lekman and Arthur Russell)

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The M.I.A. interview that Mark P.'s been sitting on for ages - ever since her show at the Drake in February - is finally up at Pitchfork. It may not be super-eloquent but it's a good account of her point of view; reading it, I still don't see why some folks feel the need to go on the attack, except that they've been set up with way too many expectations by now to have them remotely satisfied. (More on this in a moment - first, some other links.)

Meanwhile, Sasha starts his grime piece in The New Yorker where I finished mine, with the scenario of the awkward phase that sets in when a "folk" or "street" form becomes a pop genre, which is unavoidable if the genre is thriving. My way of putting it was that it's when the music seems to become the very thing it resisted. His way of putting it is to fly to London and talk to grimeists about how they feel it. So a must-read, obvs. (See also The New York Times review of the NYC version of the Run the Road launch; those of us stupid enough to have gotten sleepy on it await Luca's recap of the show in Toronto.)

This brings us back to MIA: [...]

In the Dissensus thread, Simon Reynolds makes more hay than he did the first time 'round. He says that he dislikes the "pastiche" sound of Arular (a reasonable description), and argues that there's not much beyond pastiche in the music - which to me begs the reply, "No, except her voice and her songs." It's not a dance album where the newness of the beats is the main factor; the beats are a setting for her to do her thing. (Other people hate her voice, her dancing, etc., which is an ancient wobbly-expressionist versus smooth-groove issue, to which there is no answer.) What Simon calls pastiche she calls a "sketchbook" approach. Again, you are free to like or dislike "sketchbook" as an aesthetic, but it seems way skewed to need to denounce it. I think it's a concise way of accounting for the refreshing lightness of her touch. Similarly Reynolds' (and Woebot's and Slap Dee Barnes's, for instance) strong preference for a music embedded in a scene is a taste. It's purist in the sense Sasha's discussing, and it excludes too many interesting anomalies not to become an excessively ideological definition; the way certain parties to the thread discuss it as a shibboleth, a special sixth sense that makes their tastes objectively superior is distasteful.

When Mark asks her about grime, Maya says, "I've never been localized like that. It'd be untrue for me to start going, 'It's all about East London' 'cause it's so not! It's about all these mad continents that I've had to get through." I persist in feeling that rejecting that point of view, that sense of self, as a place to make art from is implicitly anti-immigrant (and the constant implicasnarktion that she is some rich girl faking her way through has a parallel unpleasant history in anti-immigrant discourse). Not to say that the writers themselves are anti-immigrant, just that the argument unwittingly services such a worldview. Also to nuance it further, the part of the interview where she discusses how Sri Lankans in Tooting, in London, end up attaching to Jamaican culture, also offers a richer account of what takes place crossculturally than glib readings of "sampling culture." (For extra credit compare and contrast Rachid Taha's engagement with the Clash, the French, fake-rai & more in another Times piece, this one by Jody Rosen.)

More provocatively, someone (I forget who, apologies) in that thread suggests that those of us defending the record on pop grounds are actually speaking from another kind of yearning for authenticity, and while I'm willing to cop to some of that sentiment, I'm not sure it sums up the conflict. Maya's backstory provides an opportunity, an occasion for thinking about what kind of music an age of mass migrancy may be producing - I've tried to use it as an interpretive lens but not as a justification for the music. The music is its own justification. But to take that opportunity to generate that discussion doesn't mean equating M.I.A. in toto with that theme. If everything we knew about her life were proved false, that wouldn't kibosh the way her work evokes and fences with these issues. The thing about identifying "shanty house" as a global genre is the recognition that certain kinds of sounds are beginning to turn up persistently around the world, as if via synchronicity; it seems to me inevitable that once a certain "tipping point" is reached, such sounds are going to pass into pop and art-pop, because as Sasha says in his piece, that is what happens when genres become codified, and it's logical that somebody with the background of M.I.A. would be the one to do it; her politics and her identity are not the reasons she has a right to do it, because that right does not need to be granted to anybody (and nobody is in a position to grant it) but those elements may end up guiding the way she goes about doing it, and obviously influence how we talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. Now, won't you take me to Funkytown? Thanks.

Speaking of disco, I wanted to mention that at Wavelength last night, one of the last tunes in Jens Lekman's set was a cover of Arthur Russell, played on ukelele. I enjoyed the set in general, especially when the whole crowd joined in on my backup-singer handclaps for one song, tho I sometimes found it a little syrupy. But that moment almost made me mist up. It's an airy, crooked-rhythmed gem of a lust-love song: : "I'm so busy/ thinkin' 'bout/ kissin'you/ that I wanna do that/ ... without.../ ... entertaining.../ another thought!" I'm trying to recall if this song actually shares the title Another Thought with some of Russell's other pieces or if it has a different title?

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 14 at 11:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Don't Do The Grime If You Can't Do the Time

No Overtones today but wanted to remind you of the Run the Road grime show at B-Side tonight, 129 Peter St. Read my piece from yesterday's paper.

A few recommended links for further reading about and listening to grime: Run the Road; Ghetto Postage; Riddim.ca; Rinse FM; Blackdown Soundboy; Chantelle Fiddy; RWD magazine; Kode 9; Silver Dollar Circle; Dissensus.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 12 at 2:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

The Family That Links Together, Stays Together

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I am delighted to announce that you now can order Mrs. Zoilus's new novel Ticknor from her publisher Anansi, and other fine Canadian booksellers. No pressure, but honestly you won't regret it. And note her snappy brand-new-as-of-today webzone!

Sheila's launch party, for those of you in the T-dot, is March 24 at 7 pm at Stones' Place on Queen W. in Parkdale. Everybody's invited. Reading, signing, drinking and music by our friends at the Global Pop Conspiracy.

Speaking of literature, JD Considine has had good stuff on his newish blog, Resonance, the past week, about music in the work of Haruki Murakami. (At least I know the first post is good - I've averted my eyes from the second because I haven't yet read Kafka on the Shore.) I'd take issue with Considine's introductory point that "novels tend not to have soundtracks. Not only does background music not play as we read, but there’s often little or no mention of music in the prose." A fair enough assertion, perhaps, in the past, but popular music is playing a bigger and bigger role in contemporary fiction, especially but not exclusively in American fiction. Rock- and post-rock-generation writers such as Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby of course, Dennis Cooper, Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, Thomas McGuane and some others I can't think of right now - they're all music geeks who compulsively drop pop references in their work, with varying degrees of finesse. (I touched on this development last summer in my feature on "lit-rock.") I'd say Murakami is more akin to than unlike the rest here, but he does display one of the finer ears. He pays generally closer attention to the aural dimension in general than many writers, not just music - witness the sound-image of the Wind-up Bird itself, and plot points that turn on hearing, the use of oral history in his Aum Shinrikyo and earthquake writings etc. All objections aside, I'd love to read more by Considine on the subject - indeed, on Japanese literary-musical connections in general, as he clearly has some special science to drop there.

Finally: The Toronto live guide for March has been super-updated. With two-star shows (in a two-star system) happening every two or three days, I think I can stop complaining that it's too quiet: Tonight alone, there's Santa Cruz w/ the Inbreds and Fox the Boombox, Dynamite Soul with Jens Lekman and Republic of Safety, the Radio Kabul Afghani music concert, Guh at the Tranzac, etc. etc. Get out of bed, there'll be no more napping, 'cause you've landed in a place where anything can happen...!!!

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 11 at 2:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

He Poos Clouds

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Pitchfork today profiles Final Fantasy in a quick'n'dirty piece with pride of front-page placement. To avert any accusations of territoriality, I say only, "No Comment." There's a little news therein embedded, tho, & Sarah Ruba's photos are luvverly, so I stole one.

Elsewise: The Toronto live guide is finally up-to-dateish. March remains a slow-paced month compared to most in the past year, but as the thermometer rises in April & May, the heat will be back on. Among the most notable events - The Shins on April 17 at Kool Haus, and (I'm almost hesitant to say lest I jinx it) The Mountain Goats on May 11 at Lee's Palace. I might even go to Montreal to see Mr. Darnielle in the more congenial setting of La Salla Rosa the night before (May 10). Plus Dizzee comin' back, the Wedding Present, Xiu Xiu along in June, etc etc.

Also: Toronto about to make it illegal for you to put up a gig poster. Check it before they wreck it.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 09 at 6:18 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

Continental Grift

What to do? I didn't have the time and the stomach to return to the rhetorical ring of "is M.I.A. a phony art-school aristocrat ripper-off of the people's music?" (Isn't it funny how awhile ago she stood accused of stealing grime and when that didn't work they revealed her true crimes against baile funk?) And yet Simon had just offered his most balanced (and internally contradictory) enumeration of points so far. (Mainly because he finally owns up to just not liking the music that much.) Luckily, Clap Clap Blog has come to my rescue. He doesn't make all the same points in the same way I would but on the basics - she's not pretending to be part of anything she's not, she's making pop; being a lone wolf is as complicated as repping a scene (you'd have to reject way too much if that weren't true); politics is only one part of what MIA's music is about and is taking up too much of the conversation; everyone is real and everybody's a fake; nobody needs a "ghetto passport" (Joe Strummer, keep your filthy white hands off that reggae!); it's not about fandom (musicians are always music fans); etc etc etc - he gets it done. I'd add: Pop's musical "nowhere" isn't just "utopian" in potential. That's a privileged dropout move. But from other positions, what Simon sniffs at as "nowhere" is also dystopian, about being outcast as a starting point and your own voice as a line you throw forward that can begin to pull you towards land. M.I.A. is a complex example of that voyage in pop, and how wonderful to hear her doing it dancing and laughing all the way.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 08 at 3:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

'The Biggest Swoops of Feeling'

Hail and welcome home to Sean Michaels, founder of Said The Gramophone, who is physically still abroad (Scotland), but back posting in the Cancritical blogscape again - including, today, about the endangered Brave New Waves. And also dispensing deep-gut sustenance, in the shape of a Josephine Foster song.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 02 at 4:20 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

M.I.A.: The Dean Dives In

Today in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau did a little of the hard digging on the question of M.I.A.'s supposed "nowhere gal" status, attempting to integrate her Sri Lankan backstory, migrancy, art-school and music: "M.I.A.'s documentable experience connects her to world poverty in a way few Western whites can grasp. [...] The decoratively arrayed, pastel-washed tigers, soldiers, guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians that bedeck her album are images, not propaganda — the same stuff that got her nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize in 2001. They're now assumed to be incendiary because, unlike art buyers, rock and roll fans are assumed to be stupid. M.I.A. [...] feels the honorable compulsion to make art out of her contradictions."

That doesn't cover all the issues under debate (search M.I.A. down in the left margin for past posts, and links to other bloggers' salvos) but it gets back to my earlier suggestions that (a) ignorance of Indian Ocean issues is part of why some western listeners lean to exoticizing her background and others to dismissing its significance; and (b) while real experience obviously affects art, sitting at a distance in judgment on the relative "realness" of one person's experience ("aha! she went to school!") is crap. Seductive, but terrible for trashing all the dynamics of experience and influence, identity and mobility, documentary and artifice, in the artist's work. (As for "chocolate-covered raisins," I give you Eppy.) (A little later: Ah, just found his record review - it's MIAXgaupalooza! - which nicely inverts it to, "She went to school? Fantastic.")

If the question is what we are talking about when we talk about M.I.A., her responsibility for the answer is partial at best. (Is she even part of the "we," or is her own account just used as raw material for symbolic-class production?) The unease around novel, ever-more-rapidly-shifting geographical and racial boundaries, groups and relations - the cultural upheavals of globalization versus those of mass underclass migration - is simultaneously part of the pleasure in her music (the release of the repressed) and part of the anxiety around it (the impulse to reterritorialization). Reactions to music coming out of "the ghetto" in any society - a place fixed on the map, a known quantity or at least "known unknown" - tend to align more predictably to political and cultural stances. Not that Xgau's view doesn't reflect an ideology of its own. So, of course, does my line. But his piece(s) makes an effort to work through the symptomatic spasms, and as he puts it, "In these perilous, escapist days, that alone is quite a lot."

(Thanks to John Shaw for the alert.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 02 at 1:44 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Limeriqaatsi

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Greg Clow posted this earlier in the month. (I don't know if he made it up or heard it somewhere.)

Limerick
There was a composer named Glass
Philip Glass Philip Glass Philip Glass
Philip Glass Philip Glass
Philip Glass Philip Glass
Philip Glass Philip Glass Philip Glass


(I even prefer it to the knock-knock joke.)

And with that, good riddance to February.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 28 at 9:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Destroyer thru a Blurred Lens

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The editors of new local music webzine The Ratio make an ambitious leap today by publishing a special issue on one of Zoilus's favourite songwriters, Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer. It's formidably thorough - they review everything they can get their hands on. Adam Hammond's pieces on This Night and the Jackie sequel single are quite good, but otherwise there's a lot of verbal shrugging ("I have no idea what to make of this," "a real challenge to review," "he's fucking with us," "I vaguely understand" ...). One reviewer assays an extended comparison of Your Blues with The Breakfast Club (huh?) and a final piece titled "Destroyer Is Smarter Than Me" ultimately seems to sum up the exercise. Why this extended examination of an artist whose work most of them seem to consider tuneful nonsense? They make no real answer, but if you've ever wished there was a Destroyer fan club with badges and hats and a weekly newsletter, and that after a few years a couple of the members put a selection of stuff from the newsletter on their website, now there's a simulation of that experience.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 28 at 4:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

A Ray of Sungrime

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D Double E and crew.

Massive news from Luca that Toronto is going to see its "first grime show." (Luca's not counting Dizzee Rascal, who's been here before and is back at the Opera House on April 28.) But he's right in that this here is a real scene-of-the-grime show, not a star turn, celebrating the release of the Run the Road, which I think is the first major-label grime compilation, in North America: At B-Side on March 12 with D Double E, Jammer, Ears (with his charmer Happy Days) and Toronto's Steady Merkin' Sound (wuzzat, you, Luca?). (More on the compilation stars here.) All for just $12. Update: Also word is (via Paul Autonomic on Dissensus) that a Canadian grime/dubstep web news hub is imminent. Update update: Make that "is here" (thanks, Mark).

Meanwhile, I'd love to speculate about Simon's question about what "level 4" of "realist" discourse is, but like M.I.A. and Missy's music, my day right now could be none more cuckoo-bananas. I'll tell you what level 4 isn't, though: It's not, after realizing that "realist discourse" has a cultural freight that shouldn't be discarded as insignificant, to decide it's okay to go ahead and start dismissing artists and art as phony all over again, but explain it away as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those who "fantasize realness" (legitimized by their deprivation, which trumps all other grounds of credibility), thus getting to have your snark and disavow it too.

The outcome is to blame the artist for the discourse around her: She shouldn't talk about her background because it causes bad writers to exoticize and fetishize her. (Calling her "the M.I.A. industry" for giving interviews = "Maya, shut up.") And why assume she's receiving all the feedback uncritically, exploiting it unreflexively? When she dropped that bit of Knitting Factory stage banter about "us refugees," Simon, maybe her tongue was a tad in cheek?

More to say about Zizek's class categories (which are helpful but omit the migrant waves that I brought up in the beginning) and Dave M.'s ideas about community and dialogic music, but no time to say it in, so the saga continues. (Anybody else who's blogging about this, aside from Eppy, whose snorts of disbelief do help clear the air, drop a line - I'd like to know.)

Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 23 at 2:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

"Listening, It Should Have Exceeded"

If you're following along with this "M.I.A. debate" - this story we're wanting to tell ourselves - the new chapters are up on Blissblog now, in typically cogent and core-mining proposals from Simon, while Jordan resorts to Zizek (which pleases me inordinately). Go read. I'll wait.

If you're not following, because for instance your interests at Zoilus are more local (which would theoretically please Simon) - and you miss Hunter S. Thompson - you could do worse than make a movie about Dan Burke, read Aaron on Canadian musico-psychogeography, watch Phil Dellio (who needs to get out of Tripod!) and Scott Woods sort their record collections according to tangential criteria (High Fidelity geekout, to use a reference that will make them both gag), or read Japanese banjo poetry.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 22 at 2:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Keepin' What Real?

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I'm trapped in the land of a thousand dances right now and can't stop the worksongs, but wanted to note this series of events: Simon Reynolds semi-slams M.I.A. in the Village Voice as being "from nowhere." I write him to point out my pre-buttal to his argument, but he says the migrant case doesn't wash with him because her refugee days were years ago and then - horrors - she went to art school (does it matter if it was on scholarship?) and has met musicians people have heard of (Elastica, Peaches). Then I spot Simon arguing exactly the opposite of his own case, seems to me, in a Dissensus thread cited by Jace Clayton in this 100-proof post about the use and abuse of the "real," especially in racial terms, the "voice from the ghetto" etc etc. Says Simon: “And so it starts, all the bollocks about 'who's real grime' " - but isn't that exactly the same species of accusation he just made about M.I.A.? (Not about whether she's "real grime," as nobody's arguing she is, but whether she is from a "real scene," as Simon and others in this instance seem to feel is mandatory.) We am puzzled.

I still suspect that the reaction M.I.A. gets is partially because the Sri Lankan situation is unfamiliar - or, let's say, illegible alien - to most western listeners and commentators and we don't particularly have a category in our heads for Sri Lankan refugees in the west, either - well, there's "suspect terrorist" (the one she's playing footsie with so provocatively) but most liberals won't rush to that conclusion but don't know where else to rush. If she were Palestinian, would anybody say, C'mon, she left Palestine 15 years ago and then she got an education, so how can that be really pivotal to her work? No, she'd still be given respect when she spoke from that place. Because we get that it's for serious.

Okay, back atcha on the morrow.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 21 at 8:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

A Dozen Hits & Misses from the Pazz & Jop Comments Pages

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Not exactly.

1. Arcade Fire are an outsize collective of Canuck multi-instrumentalists advertising the superiority of — on top of everything else — their country's music education system. - Will Hermes, Saugerties, New York

Thanks, Will - although, to be fair, some of the main Arcade Fires didn't actually grow up in this northern Shangri-La. Don't worry, though, music education is falling apart here, too, right on schedule, under the standard pressures of tax-slashing American economic competition.

2. SMiLE made end-times feel sunny and bright. The bootlegs were hopelessly fractured, soaked in lysergic despair and permanent midnight, muffled with generational white noise. That it was supposed to be about laughter and dumb angels was never quite clear until Wilson and medics (and lackeys) put Humpty Dumpty together again. - Andy Beta, Brooklyn, New York

Since when do "laughter and dumb angels" make better music than "lysergic despair and ... generational white noise"? Allow me to add a coda to the nursery rhyme: "We liked Humpty's visions when he was smashed to bits/ More than his old-aged symphonies for new-age twits."

3. [...] TV on the Radio keep the rage at a slow simmer as they cast an evil eye upon the hypocritical stars who make bank from pop based in hip-hop and soul while they flaunt diamonds mined by African slave labor and traded with terrorists. - A.S. Van Dorston, Chicago, Illinois

TV on the Radio apparently have a hate-on for Paul Simon.

4. How did we think popular music was going to undermine Bush's emotional appeal to the macho bluster at the core of our national identity when it's popular music that's always reinforced the macho bluster at the core of our national identity? -Rob Tannenbaum, Manhattan

Yeah, that's what I hate most about them Dixie Chicks.

5. I'm pretty sure that how one feels about Big & Rich is how one feels about America. Me, I kind of like them a lot, but more for their potential and what they represent (expansiveness! generosity! inclusiveness!) than for their actuality (too many stereotypes! too many damn songs about Jesus!). - Matt Cibula, Madison, Wisconsin

I think I actually prefer Big & Rich to America - for instance, it would be kind of fun if Big & Rich started setting up puppet states within other bands. They could start slow by invading Brooks & Dunn and then make a pre-emptive strike on Death Cab for Cutie.

6. All of my favorite records this year seem to be about exile: the Fiery Furnaces' narrator dragooned into the Bombay army, the Thermals praying for a new state, M.I.A. captive somewhere in the Amazon, Arthur Russell's big gay heart calling out of context, the Homosexuals' big gray hearts in exile. This does not mean I'm moving to Canada. - Douglas Wolk, Portland, Oregon

But why, Douglas? We would appreciate you more here! We've been keeping an igloo fat-insulated for you, with the complete Dog-Faced Hermans discography on the sound system.

7. A band of Boulder, Colorado, high schoolers called Coalition of the Willing raised a stink with their version of "Masters of War." A local right-wing radio show claimed that Dylan's lyrics constituted a threat on the president's life. Thus the Secret Service swooped in to interview the principal, who, despite the pressure, allowed the Coalition to play the song at the school talent show. - Steve Terrell, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Uh, holy shit. Is this the first time a high-school principal has ever stood up for free expression?

8. Gretchen Wilson is just like the gangsta rappers: still proud of her roots. Even if she isn't what she sings of anymore, she can still strike a nerve. - Jason Gross, Manhattan

In a few short words, Jason blows Christgau's snooty authenticist remarks about Wilson in his P&J; intro essay outta the water. ("Authenticist" is the first draft of my efforts to come up with a better alternative to "rockist" in 2005. Not catchy enough yet, obviously. "Real-ist" is better but doesn't work out loud. I'll let you know. Xgau's essay is, by the way, a laboratory case of nostalgia-in-denial.)

9. Mr. Jones has recognized that there is no greater subject than the psyche of a man at the moment he realizes he is one. - Nelson George, Brooklyn, New York

The "Mr. Jones" in question is Nasir Jones, aka Nas. Somethin's happenin' here, and the venerable Mr. George nails it more than he realizes: That's what's good about the album but also what's awful about it - its lionization of the psyche of a man rather than a human being, and a man whose self-realization includes fantasies of stitching dead women together into "a perfect bitch."

10. Like Social Security, "the album" is always in a phony state of near-death crisis, and in both cases prognoses are generally delivered by parties who can barely contain their glee. Well, call me a crank, but I don't want to figure out how to weave my own personal old-age safety net, and I don't want to spend an hour every day downloading music onto my iPod. - Keith Harris, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Yeah, of course you don't, you're a music critic. You want to get your free music in the mail with a flattering letter. For most music buyers, downloading is more like a social service, and buying music is more like workfare - you have to spend your own money getting there and back, and at the end of the day you've usually just been picking up other people's garbage.

11. Iris DeMent's Lifeline is the missing chapter of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Her desperate take on white gospel hymns matches R.H. Harris or Aretha and advances Frank's argument safely past his recycled version of the old left false-consciousness theory. - Tom Smucker, Manhattan

I made a similar parallel between Frank's book and the Drive-By Truckers (and Allison Moorer, and Big & Rich, among others), though Smucker smacks the false-consciousness ball out of the theme park. Later I discussed DeMent in a similar context, but I think the political book to compare LifeLines to wouldn't be by Thomas Frank but by George Lakoff or Jim Wallis.

12. Kanye West created a space where Common and Jay-Z could both exist without sacrificing values or flow. West is willfully working-class and, wisely, spends much of his record exploring the desperation that underlies hip-hop's vigorous materialism. So Common can be his cool, preachy self and Jigga can rap his own glittering praises, and both are in sync with Kanye. This more than his religiosity separates West from the pack of more agile MCs. No one else in hip-hop seems to want to admit they ever had a real 9-to-5. - Nelson George, Brooklyn, New York

Now that's why Nelson George is a hero. (If he'd had more space I'm sure he'd have added that that's working-class as opposed to the standard rap out-caste/lumpen/underclass. He means working class, that is, in the sense of what North Americans euphemistically and deceptively refer to as "middle class.")

Britney bonus round:

"Toxic" is the last great Britney song before she loses that taut stomach and puts out her collection of Louisiana-kissed baby lullabies. It was fun, girl, er, woman. - Caryn Brooks, Brooklyn, New York

I can't remember if I came/When I read about her latest flame/Britney up and changed her name/The day the music died/So bye-bye, Mrs. Kevin Federline/Our libidos and our Cheetos will forever be thine/And Cameron was choppin' Justin a line/Singin', Hit me baby, one more time/Hit me baby, one more time. - Rob Sheffield, Brooklyn, New York

Alt-country's red-state blues

By CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
Saturday, September 11, 2004
The Globe & Mail

It's the bitter kind of twist you'd expect at the end of a country song, where a guy finally gets sober, only to watch his wife take off with his best friend: "Alt-country" music got its biggest endorsement ever this week, but the source made the genre look as redundant as an auto worker whose job has taken a swift boat to China.

Republican image czar Mark McKinnon told The New York Times that George W. Bush's official campaign soundtrack is "heavy on alternative country . . . 'a little rockier, a little jazzier, a little funkier' than traditional country."

The news left alt-country fans in a funk of their own. After all, the particular fusion of sizzle and twang called alt-country was forged in the early-1990s recession that sank Dubya's dad.

Critic David Cantwell called bands such as the Bottle Rockets, the Old 97s, Son Volt and Wilco "children of Detroit City" -- rust-belt kids vexed at how Middle America was battered by Bush Sr.'s New World Order. They intuited that when the factory shuts, the family splits, you live in a cancer cluster and only Wal-Mart is hiring, it's not so different than when the farm goes bust in a classic country song: Hearts spring leaks and whisky stanches the wounds.

These days you could call it the Red State Blues. The Republicans' vampire kiss to alt-country is part of their dumbfounding claim to be the party of heartland values, even as they help corporations cut off the heartland's blood supply.

Thomas Frank addresses this paradox in his controversial book, What's the Matter with Kansas?: Why does his working-class home state keep voting for candidates who cut taxes for the rich instead of fixing health care? He blames Democrats for failing to answer a right-wing "values" strategy that rails about gay marriage or school prayer to bind voters' loyalties against their own class interests.

In that context, Republican alt-country is as odd as conservative punk -- as The Daily Show put it, "raging for the machine."

Alt-country used to prompt amazing discussions: Where was the line between appropriating tradition and mocking it? How far could hybrids go before a culture lost its identity? What about race, or populism? It seems so Clinton-era now -- all that empathy, dialogue and synthesis. After the terrorist attacks, fans began retreating to their preferred sides of the hyphen, back to indie rock or deeper into country. Like the U.S. electorate, they became polarized.

The genre's ironic juxtapositions of past and postmodern Americana now seemed all too relevant. You had to be with America or against it. Alt-country was both. How could it survive when even the Dixie Chicks were too ambivalent to tolerate? As Nashville refugee Allison Moorer laments in her song All Aboard, "Some restrictions do apply/ Watch your mouth and close your eyes."

Moorer is one of several performers with alt-country connections marking this Sept. 11 north of the border. She opens for the Drive-By Truckers at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight; tomorrow at Lee's Palace, it's the Old 97s and Chuck Prophet.

Call them dinosaurs, but this year a funny thing happened on the way to the tar pits: Something a lot like alt-country surfaced in the mainstream, from names as big as Brooks & Dunn and Kid Rock -- who both played last week's Republican convention. Rock, a genuine son of Detroit who headlines at the Molson Amphitheatre tonight, adapted his rap-metal 'tude to a country mood. He even partnered with Moorer on the country-radio version of his hit, Picture.

Fresher still are Gretchen Wilson's No. 1 single Redneck Woman and Big & Rich's debut album, Horse of a Different Color, which has just gone gold in Canada. Like many 1990s alt-country bands, they draw on Southern-rock stalwarts like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and are more blunt and sarcastic than Nashville usually allows.

Big & Rich offer up goofy summer jams that could flow equally smoothly into classic rock, Outkast and other "dirty South" hip-hop or the latest four-square country by Tim McGraw - who toured with them this summer, along with their six-foot-four, black rapper Cowboy Troy. They fly under the banner of "country music without prejudice" or, more playfully, "expandilism."

Country and hip-hop today are both reliant on big beats, gruff machismo, sass-talking ladies, partying and wordplay, while respecting God and the old school, and most of all representing where they come from - often the same, deep-Southern place. Yet there persists a knee-jerk assumption that there is a Hip-Hop America and a Country America and they hate each other.

Tastemakers are comfortable with such demographic divides - black versus white, or blue versus red, giving everybody someone to resent. It helps them overlook the real colour line, the one described by Democrat John Edwards's "two Americas" - access to green.

If alt-country never caught the have-nots' ears, perhaps it wasn't eclectic enough. Big & Rich's success shows how many people are out there wearing Snoop Dogg shirts and Charlie Daniels caps, smoking blunts and blasting Zeppelin. You won't sense any of that on the first album in three years by alt-country's one-time great pop hopes, Texas's Old 97s.

Reviewers have called Drag It Up a homecoming, but it sounds as if home was gone when the band got there. In fact, Rhett Miller and his wife had to flee their downtown New York apartment on 9/11, yet nothing but a certain weariness testifies to that experience here, as Miller makes a half-hearted return to his smart-aleck "serial lady-killer" persona.

He's a better writer than that, and the alt-country example he should look to is Georgia's Drive-By Truckers, whose new album - cleverly titled The Dirty South - is an illustrated guidebook to John Edwards's and Thomas Frank's two Americas. Performed in high-octane, triple-axe Skynyrd mode, it's a sequence of story-songs about moonshiners and moon launches, Reagan and railway men, demanding to know "why the ones who have so much make the ones who don't go mad."

When the DBTs depict characters who must choose between pious, dutiful penury and living high and hard outside the law, they evoke Tupac Shakur as much as Johnny Cash. As they titled a previous album, it's Gangstabilly.

The DBTs see a lot more grey than Big and Rich do in the redneck rainbow, but they're shouting out to the same America, one that after three years of narrowing is yearning for a little expandilism. Despite all his phony yee-haws, that's bad news for G-Dub: Americans may not listen to much alternative country, but a lot of them seem eager to live in one.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 09 at 4:22 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Live From New York, It's Tuesday Night

The Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll has come on-line. For a strange few of us this is kind of like a championship boxing match on pay per view that makes you rush down to the sports bar and pound back pints.

I was not a voter. (I can't quite explain except that institutions make me nervous and so I have never asked anyone how to become one. I recognize the neurosis.) Kanye West predictably topped the album poll. Franz Ferdinand, in this reporter's opinion mildly scandalously, topped the singles poll. The essays and comments usually have some of the year's best nuggets of keerazy wizdumb, tho. I'll come back later with a Top 10.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 08 at 8:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

NYT Goes to Montreal in its Way-Back Machine

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Blogasmic blather will be at a minimum today because the Zoilus household partied its ass off this weekend, but we cannot help but note that our former home town of Montreal has been declared the new Atlantis or Pompeii of rock'n'roll in a remarkably badly written New York Times article, on the heels of similar claims by Spin magazine, etc.,, etc.

The fact-checkin' nerd in me would point out that only one or two out of all the bands mentioned in the piece are doing any better than interesting bands in Toronto, or various cities all over North America. More importantly, for all his windy theorizing, there's barely a single thing in that article that does not sound a decade out of date. I left Montreal six years ago and there is nothing in this article to account for why the music scene there is healthier than it was in 1998, when rents were lower, when there was more bite to the linguistic tensions the writer wants to exoticize (he comes this close to comparing anglo Montreal to apartheid-era black South Africa, a move I thought was reserved for Montreal's English-radio talk-show hosts), etc. Note that the writer has not actually interviewed anyone French, even though many bands are now mixed French and English (eg Godspeed), and several of the bands he cites are actually francophones (eg Les Georges Leningrad), so the whole anglo-ghetto angle is, again, history brought inappropriately back to life.

In fact I suspect the reason the scene is healthier is that there's more money in Montreal now than there has been in 20 years, but that would spoil all the grotto-romance special FX, wouldn't it? I realize surveys of entire music scenes always piss off the insiders, but having been gone so many years I am not one of those, and I really wouldn't complain if he didn't tip his hand with the over-reaching sociological wheatabix. (The sidebar, for instance, was fine.) Fortunately, I'm going to be in Mtl. more than usual for the next few months, so I can find out for myself. Meanwhile, to our friends in foreign lands and all the ships at sea: It's Kool-Aid. Abstain.

No transition except that his name sounds French: There is suddenly life again over at Sasha Frere-Jones's place, after months of near-flatlining. And included in all that activity is the news that jazz artists like Cyrus Chestnut and James Carter are making an album of Pavement covers. As I've written extensively in past columns, I'm down with the program of converting rock/pop into contemporary jazz, even though I'm not a big fan of what I've heard of the Bad Plus, and the Chestnut version of Trigger Cut on the site is good, and the wiggliness of Pavement has its jazz-sympa side, but they still seem light on the requisites for this treatment, such as melodies, changes and rhythms. (Note: I like Pavement.)

The Juno Award nominations were announced today. It's an honour just to not care.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 07 at 6:37 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

It's "Quote Insane Press Releases" Day

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"All right, fellas, today we'll be practicing our 'straddling.' How you do in this challenge may determine who moves on to the next round!"

Be the next Terence Trent D'Arby!

Bring your own auto-erotic-asphyxiation joke: "INXS, the multi-platinum international Rock band is looking for their next lead singer. Mark Burnett Productions, the creator of Survivor and The Apprentice has created a new reality TV series on CBS that will give singers and songwriters the opportunity to become the next lead singer of INXS. We are looking for Men and Women of all styles that are ages 21 and up."

Shagging Kylie Minogue and Paula Yates is NOT included: "Auditioners will be asked to perform up to 3 songs (INXS songs are NOT required.) They may perform to a CD track (w/ no vocal) or with 1 musical instrument."

Can anybody even remember one INXS song?: "Auditions will be held in: TORONTO, ON. On 2/4/05- Open Call (The Mod Club). On 2/5/05- Industry Referrals/Appointment Only."

History repeats itself, the first time as unpleasantly overproduced bombast, the second time as TV-confessional soul-baring and catfights among male models. "To schedule an audition or for more information, contact: Peter Cohen, Talent Producer, 310-471-3781 x202-Off, pcohen@markburnettprod.com, www.INXSrockstar.com."

Mark Burnett actually said, "Rock stars are colourful personalities and charismatic performers who make great reality TV characters. Add to that a global format, elimination-style competition and the enormous stakes of becoming the lead singer in a successful group, and you have a unique environment for compelling unscripted drama." "Audition cities: Atlanta, GA - 1/20/05; Orlando, FL - 1/22; Charlotte, NC- 1/25; Nashville, TN- 1/27; New York, NY- 1/30; Minneapolis,MN- 2/1; Toronto, ON - 2/4; Chicago, IL- 2/6; Boston, MA- 2/9; Omaha, NE- 2/11; New Orleans,LA- 2/14; Austin, TX- 2/16; Seattle, WA- 2/19; Los Angeles,CA- 2/25; London, England -2/8; Sydney, Australia -TBD."

Mark Burnett forgot to say: "Except, of course, that 'rock star' is now a historical curiosity, an extinct category, an empty set, the equivalent of 'chimney sweep.' "

[Discovered via 20hz.]

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 01 at 4:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

I'm On Fire & It's The Rainy Season...

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Proving that digital music is the new tea, people are putting their iPods in "cozies" (aka socks). Speaking of which you can also get souvenir Christo and Jean-Claude "The Gates in Central Park" socks, according to Women's Wear Daily, which reported on both. (Via Catherine's Pita)

As the election looms, there is one thing all Iraqis can agree on: They love them some Celine Dion. For a moment I pondered the stark implications of a culture that had heard Yanni but not Mozart, Celine Dion but not Ella Fitgerald, Country but not Blues. "This is a much bigger clash of cultures than I had ever imagined"... (Via Terry Teachout)

Is there a musical equivalent of Personism? (We are currently Frank O'Hara-fixated. "I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love." All right, Frank, you've got it.)

Everybody's talkin' 'bout M.I.A., who plays her first North American date Wed., sold out, at the Drake. Meanwhile Luca argues that M.I.A. is a whole other kind of sell-out, and that we who am committing the hype are exoticizers or worse: "she's kind of like a cypher, in which she can occupy any kind of 'world music' role, be it grime/desi/dancehall/hip-hop, without really embodying those musics." A rule of thumb: Any time you find yourself italicizing "really," you're in trouble. Luca may be right about the enthusiasts: No doubt I've sometimes sexed up the otherness-of-the-other, and he even gets a sharp snap in at Sasha (though the quote is arguably set up out of context). But projecting intentionality and authenticity or lack of same onto the artist is a dubious enterprise. And to label the artist a dodgy "cypher" just because she doesn't belong to any "underground" with which you're on nicknaming terms is very dubious indeed. How much, just for arg's sake, does Luca know about Sri Lanka, about Tamil culture, about Tamil exile culture in England, and about the music of any of those places and peoples, traditional or popular, past or present? If the answer is "not much," then how can you complain M.I.A. doesn't represent, that the chant in Galang is necessarily from nowhere? (It actually sounds to me like it's from the schoolyard, whatever the longitude and latitude.)

But more importantly, because I doubt that specifically Tamil elements are all that prominent in Ms. Arulpragasama's music, what she embodies is the underexamined aesthetic of the refugee. Her music is that of exile and migrancy and the hybrid identities, noises and dances that arise from them. Being "down with the London art scene" is one part of her, being a Tamil Tiger's daughter is another, so is being a pop musician and a brown girl in the ring. To make that story boring you have to run it through a high-powered ideological laser printer. Part of what's amazing is how vividly her music evokes today's enormous levels of migration, internal and international, and the cosmopolitanism and conflict that co-exist at the margins as well as in the centres. Sniffing for phoniness in such circumstances is less viable than ever. Calling it "fusion food" proves nothing - is it a tasty fusion or a stinky fusion? Only the tastebuds can tell.

I object most strongly to the assertion that "pop is the mere crystallization of more vital and subterranean cultural streams" - sometimes, yes, but just as often, pop scoops up the liquid from those streams, stirs in flavour crystals from the back of the cupboard, mixes it with tequila and puts the whole thing in the microwave. To quote Uncle Tupelo, "this trickledown theory leaves all pockets empty." Think more about trickle up - sublimation, as culture becomes cloud and returns to you in a torrential rain. M.I.A. to my eyes and ears is a fantastic illustration of why any formula for what pop is or how pop happens is bound to be undone. (T.W. Adorno pick up the white courtesy telephone please!).

But thank you for the challenge. Sometimes it feels as if to be usefully offended is the best you can ask.

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You're sick of 'em, I'm sick of 'em but ILM's collective Top 50 albums of 2004 list is worth a glance. (Supplementary: I forgot to vote. Strange 'dat.)

I hear good things about the Lee Ann Womack album, and you can hear those good things now at this CMT Listening Party.

Late addition: M.I.A.'s Playlist in the Times today (Sunday) sheds additional light, featuring dancehall (Bad Girl Riddim, (Ce'Cile), reggaeton (Ivy Queen), baile funk (Diplo's Favela on Blast), hip-hop (Jim Jones & the Diplomats) and grime (Lethal Bizzle). She says of Lethal Bizzle's Pow! 'Forward Riddim Remix', "I live in a place with Somali refugees, Polish people, a lot of Arabic people, and this song is blaring out of every single car. It's what's empowering them now." And of the Diplomats: "They seem to be experimenting the most and they have a real fight mentality. It's the guerilla side of hip-hop." Call that "dining out" if you like. I don't like. (And this mixing-genres complaint is just off - like saying of Charles Mingus, "Man, I can't tell if that's gospel, jazz, folk music, Cuban, or Stravinsky - obviously the guy's a fake.")

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 28 at 5:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Things We Said Today (Episode 1)

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Being a set of scattered self-quotations and notations on current subjects of discussion here and on Internet music fora in which we sometimes participate:

First, in comparing rockism and anti-rockism to the "auteur" and "studio" positions in past debates around cinema in another conversation today, I started thinking more about comparing film and music, and what it led me to was this: We don't really question or demean people who are solely actors in material they didn't write or direct, and we certainly don't expect actors to be basing their characters directly on their own lives. So why do we demean singers in the same position as "puppets" and "trained poodles"? Is it because it goes out solely under their names? Why should all singers have to do one-man shows when for actors it is optional (and often plainly undesirable)?

Sometimes I think it all has to do with the crediting conventions. Compare the white pop, rock or country formula - "by Ashlee Simpson" or "by the Beatles" or "by Tim McGraw" - to the past jazz convention (naming all the players, the producer and the exact date and time) or the way current rap and R&B; credits are often presented - it might not always say "by Usher feat. Ashanti prod. by Kanye with samples from AC/DC and Prince" but that information is often much more available and evident, the fans are aware and unthreatened by it. Isn't that a much more well-rounded account of the real provenance of the music, much more Hollywood-like, etc.? (Also Hollywood-like in the way it often goes so far as to leave out the writer altogether!) In a way that's all less enjoyable than the Pop illusion of "by Tim McGraw" or "by Nancy Sinatra" or what have you, but it's also less misleading and unbalanced. So, new pop thing - truth in labelling?

I was interviewed last night, due to the last Overtones column, by somebody writing for the Ryerson Review about Pitchfork and trying to divine the secrets of its success, as many outlets seem to be these days. A few quick theses:
1. Pitchfork is Pitchfork because indie rock and the Internet have a common base constituency, geeky middle-class white kids on their computers. So it makes sense that the biggest Internet effect on music would first be on indie rock. It's only recently that hip-hop and jazz blogs, for instance, have begun to come into existence. (There have been dance music blogs but pretty much all by rock turncoats, former rock fan/journalists who've been converted to electronic music, with Simon Reynolds the obvious exemplar.)
2. Pitchfork is also Pitchfork because it was in the right place at the right time when Addicted to Noise shut down. Typically when people write about Pitchfork they don't know enough about Internet music history to realize that AtN ever existed and had as big an audience as Pfork does, if not bigger, and a broader one too, if still mainly indie-rock-centric. (See thesis 1.)
3. Pitchfork is also Pitchfork because it emphasizes new content all the fucking time and lots of it. More is more. Even I have a hard time resisting the sheer quantity of news, reviews, etc. I find whenever I check it. The Internet cares lots more about quantity than quality, especially when quantity is delivered with scattershot attitude and quick-hit sarcasm.
4. As I argued in the column, P-fork's days may be numbered because indie rock is becoming less underground (so Pfork's I-know-something-you-don't-know attitude may lose its traction) and the underground is becoming less indie rock (so if Pfork rejects joining indie rock's leap into populism, it will be wedded to things like psych-folk, noise and metalcore and other not-pop sounds, and its audience will become more marginal than the audience it has now).
5. Brian Joseph Davis's line in the comments about one kid bigging up Weather Report to another kid is the best illustration of what I mean by information putting an end to indie rock.
6. This also relates to the past and ongoing debate about the lack of a positive politics in hip-hop today, the lack of any effective counterforce to misogyny etc. There isn't currently a politics to "youth culture" that you could compare to the politics of punk or the politics of 1991 identity-politics or nationalist hip-hop. There is an unrootedness, at-sea-ness in the stuff that bothers us about hip-hop the way there is in Pitchfork. This is not to say there is not a rebellious energy, not an anger, not a political awareness, but there is no political movement out in the world to correspond, so when music gets to yellin' it is often just yellin' into the void in the discourse. The question of what you're rebelling against is again answered by "what you got?" - and if what you got on the left is a general piety around womanhood, homosexuality, etc., don't be surprised if the rebellion-inclined rebel against that as well as against Bush and the Iraq war. There's confusion about the state of things but no movement - so there is an instant gratification culture and an instant-exasperation reaction. But this may be just a hush before a boom, who knows? Anyway, that all ties in to the debate around Greg Tate's Village Voice article on the hip-hop anniversary, the smartest responses to which said that hip-hop had not failed politically so much as the political leadership in the black community and elsewhere had failed to reckon responsibly with hip-hop and to incorporate its energies. (This is all over the internets, eg., lookie here (and read the comments) and here.)
7. To go back to Weather Report, where there are politics to indie culture today they seem to be non-generationalist, which is a good thing but a totally mindfucking one for any kind of poprockahiphop mentality which has always been "youth"-based - not that youth doesn't count (and maybe in my agingness i am beclouded) but it doesn't seem like anyone is making claims around the inherent revolutionariness or autonomy or dropoutness or any of that of youth culture, and in fact many kids are much less alienated from the politics of their parents, and from the fragments of history and foreign cultures and such they find lying around them on the virtual landscape, even if they haven't much of a linear framework in which to place them? Again, this is all neutral, just potential energy of which nobody can say anything until it turns into a battering ram or a slushie.
8. Obviously this could all be better knit together but no, not right now it can't.

But overall, I am too excited about the new Haruki Murakami book to contemplate such subjects further.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 25 at 7:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Ian Curtis Wish List (also Getting Feisty, and More)

The whole idea of an Ian Curtis bio-pic is faintly nauseating, since it seems like a case of posthumous wish fulfillment - perhaps it's because of being in North America, or being a little too young and not-from-the-city to get it first-hand, but the Curtis cult always seemed to be hinged precisely on the early-death rock'n'roll-suicide bullshit that Curtis himself was enamored of, and its fulfillment in Hollywoodization painfully close to an endorsement of his offing himself. As much of a voyeur as the next geek, I did not mind it entirely in 24 Hour Party People (and like all non-Brits I was completely mystified by the parts about the Happy Mondays) - but I am not so stoked for the extended remix. That said, of course Joy Division was a goddamn brilliant band and the best discussion of what made them so that I've ever seen is right here: Mark K-Punk Fisher on Joy Division, about masculinity and its melancholia, about the sound of 1970s UK council-flat rot, about the un-Americanism of art rock (a fact English critics can assert while averting their eyes from the way that this means "the unrockness of art rock"), about death drives and half-lives and all the other things that make it searingly sharp how not-goth, and certainly not-Interpol, was Joy Division. Simon Reynolds gets in some good footnotes on drugs and neuromancy, but most of all on a photo of Curtis with his infant daughter that really makes you stop and bite your lip.

I've strained to come up with some brilliant segue from there into the matter of place in Feist, but fuck it. For Aaron, a week late: You're not too far off when you get to that "some undefined nowhere" trope but it's more than that. The ways in which the record is Parisian - its French rhythmic lilt, its breathy a la Birkin wheeze - strike me as window dressing, not bearing any real urgent discursive relationship to the content of the songs or the content of Feist-ness, but not making much of the disjunct either. I'm quite taken with a few of the traxx, mainly the ones in which she seems to get more explicit about the kind of slacker-musician-abroad lifestyle questions the rest of the album seems intended to evoke rather than confront - the rockiness of the road less traveled in Mushaboom, the exile-istentialism of the title track, and the choked-up-nostalgia of the Bee Gees cover. But mostly the dodge of saying the songs take place in her bedroom a la Elliott Smith does not wash with me - for one thing, I don't buy that Smith's songs take place in the bedroom. Mostly that only applies to his worst songs. Otherwise they may start or finish there but somewhere along the way they will also take the bus, go to a bar, fall asleep in a park and buy junk from some asshole. If the songs are in the bedroom it's for the good reason that they've got to either (a) cry, (b) punch things or (c) jerk off. (And occasionally drift off to sleep and/or wake up.) See how easy it is to imagine Elliott Smith's songs living out a whole lifetime? I find this v. difficult with most of Feist's songs. They are good but not as good as they would be if they would stop looking in the mirror to see if their new little French dress looked good. So the trouble with their psychogeography is not that it is not nationalistic enough (although I am all for sense-of-place in this sense) or too globalized (this is something music is learning of necessity how to carry off) but that there ain't enough ballast or swagger or in general physical presence (even the presence of wispiness) to suggest that most of these songs have anywhere to go or anything to do. They dematerialize and thereby mystify. (This argument, now having been articulated, sounds waaaay exaggerated and unfair to Feist's real swaggering talent, which is why I procrastinated about making it, I think, but there you go.)

The psychogeography of the Junior Boys, by the way, is that the songs are trapped in a 1984 music video and only intermittently remember, but then with a terrible desperation, that they want to get out of it.

Speaking of gifted but problematic peripatetic Canadian female folksingers: Martha Wainwright might be about to escape that category with her finally upcoming debut full-length, which we hope is going to be as brilliant as the title (and cover) of her 2004 EP, whose existence I just discovered. Bloody Motherfucking Asshole (not explicitly dedicated to her dad but apparently not unrelated) is full-force five-by-five with the presence and the pipes and the mean streak and all the other qualities that long ago made me think Martha was the sleeper Wainwright, the Wainwright to watch for the 21st century, the most Wainwrighteous of 'em all. (And more so since brother Rufus has been on a slow involuted downspiral, sadly, tho I hold out hope.) Bloody Motherfucking Asshole is no doubt not available at a family big-box store near you, but three out of its five tracks are playable as MP3s at Martha's website, including the title cut. Second-best title: "I Will Internalize." (Next word? You guessed it: "Everything.")

Bloody motherfucking other random stuff: Toronto teenage mutant rock-disguised-as-rap, scene-hectoring-disguised-as-cheerleading band Ninja High School finally has a website and it likewise has MP3s and if you know what is good for you you'll go there and laugh at the New Bad Design design aesthetic and yell along with said MP3s. Ninja High School would totally (choose one) approve/disapprove of The Death of the Advertising Jingle. (It's all pop music now. Bloody motherfucking pop... okay, I'll stop.) Holy shit, here's Fab Channel, where you can watch long concert videos by the likes of John Cale and the Hidden Cameras and tons of other people. I haven't yet, mind you - who has time? A cool new bang-on anti-intellectual-property campaign: Because information doesn't want to be free so much as information wants to star in caged-heat prison-sexploitation movies where it's whipped by a she-pimp named Bettye and forced to dance like a circus bear. [...]

The navigator of two split worlds
BRIDGING THE GAPS Martha Wainwright, daughter of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, spent her adolescence between her parents' homes. She embraces contradictions.

CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
15 December 1999

Toronto - At 23, Martha Wainwright could almost pass for 17, or 40, depending on her moods -- poised, urbane sophisticate; hothouse-romantic adolescent; melancholy child of divorce; wry, loft-living slacker. All these voices co-exist in her conversation, and in her songs.

Yes, if so inclined, you can also detect traces of her mother, Kate McGarrigle, and her aunt Anna, the acclaimed Quebec folk-rock duo; the autobiographical bent of her father, U.S. songwriter Loudon Wainwright III; the brash art-pop of her older brother, Rufus Wainwright. She has been on disc with all of them, as subject, as singer and, you sense, as stabilizer. But her own music, at once dense and fragile, confessional and poetically coded -- pop, but performed with the vocal panache of a classic stage chanteuse -- is much more than the sum of nature and nurture.

"What's very funny," she says, fresh from hair-and-makeup, backstage at CTV's Open Mike with Mike Bullard, before Friday's concert at Ted's Wrecking Yard in Toronto, "is that I have a couple of songs that make a lot of older people come up to me and go, 'You're too young to be singing about that thing.' It's almost, 'You didn't really write that.' . . . Maybe it's because I went to acting school that I can write in a mature voice, and really get myself into that character."

Yet Martha dropped out of Concordia University's theatre program two years ago to devote herself to the "inevitable" calling of music, after having started singing with her brother, and then on her own, in the spoken-word/cabaret scene of Montreal. More than dramatics, her knowingness seems to come from navigating divisions.

She grew up partly in the public eye, her childhood often chronicled in her parents' songs, while her own home was split between bilingual Montreal, her mother's family home in rural Saint-Saveur, Que., and, after the 1979 divorce, her father's U.S. residence. She was surrounded by high-calibre folk musicians, while she and her brother sang Eurythmics and Cyndi Lauper songs, belting them out competitively from their beds each night. "What seemed a very attractive thing," she says, "was what our mother and father hadn't achieved."

So, if maturity means embracing life's contradictions, no wonder Martha Wainwright had a head start. "It's a Montreal dualism, and dual citizenship, a duel with my brother, the duel between my parents -- there's a lot of polarization," she agrees. "I also always had a nickname, which everyone who knew me before the age of 8 calls me . . . and that's created a sort of split in my personality too."

She laughs, smoothing down the thin black dress and white slip she'll be wearing on stage, "So I'm very confused, I have a lot of dualities. Hopefully it doesn't make the music saturated, or spread thin. I think it adds to it."

She pauses. "The other obvious thing about the songs, which would be ridiculous to deny, is that they all seem to be about one thing. Which is unrequited love . . . some sense of unfulfillment."

With a self-released six-song EP in hand, a flat in Brooklyn, and record companies hovering, Martha is preparing, she jokes, "the grand plan to conquer the world."

The strategy, really, is not to accept any given role. She notes that there is no equivalent in today's diverse music scene of desperately wanting to be the next Bob Dylan, as her father did. She's not even certain she wants to follow her brother down the major-label route. She is concerned to be seen neither as a McGarrigle-Wainwright nor as a post-Alanis, post-Lilith Woman In Rock. "This is my personal form of feminism, in a way -- not to play the sex card or this or that card . . . But to be the person gender."

Likewise, her writing is carefully balanced between the honest and the circumspect. She speaks of the "minstrel" position of her father, with whom she recently toured England and Ireland. After 30 years, Loudon still has to get up each night and divulge the details of his life to expectant crowds. "It's draining," she says, frowning. "There's nothing left to give to people who are close. Whereas if you create music where there is slightly a separation, and . . . poetic licence, or it is just about the chords or the melody, you can sit in it and enjoy it."

And she has faith that her love of mutability may be requited, gradually, by the world at large. "I'm hoping," she says, "to be able to combine the two -- that your life is so interesting that it becomes a pop song. That the chorus is so true and so great that you can say it over and over and over again. And there's a riff behind it." If anyone is equipped to pull off such a paradox -- and that's an open question -- it might well be Martha Wainwright.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 12 at 9:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Nicotine Fitness

Sorry for the silence. Lots to blog about but no brain for it, since I quit smoking this weekend and am currently in a kind of crave-haze nauseatic state that doesn't lend itself to breezy discursing. Since there was a Scritti Politti reference in the col. on the weekend, it seems worthwhile linking to an interview with chief Scrit, Green Gartside, by Stephen Trousse on new blog Stephenage. (Via Simon Reynolds, whose own paean to Scritti Politti can be found here.) The joke in the column falls flat because it turns out that Gartside did put out another (generally disparaged) album as S.P. as recently as 1999, Anomie & Bonhomie. Shoulda known.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, January 10 at 7:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Counterfactuals of Bleep

tsunamiphoto.jpg

In today's Globe and Mail: The Overtones Guide to Music Jargon. If telling you what "ragga" means insults your cognoscentiness, you might wanna skip this one, though it has its share of tongue-in-cheek. Still, two caveats: 1. I know there was already a band called Tsunami. That's them at top, starring Jenny Toomey. But now there will be many many more. 2. It was strictly inaccurate in the "rockism" entry to say rap doesn't "romanticize authenticity"; hell, that's all it ever does. But it doesn't do it on an "individualist" basis, which was the context. The better summation: Rockism= romantic modernism. The other arts are over it, oh lord, why don't we?

Omitted: Extinct terms for 2005: Glitch (not as dirty as "bleep," plus no one care), backpack (if it now means "Kanye" it sure as crap doesn't mean "underground"), Torontopia (at least without Montrealshangrila), anything-"izzle" (isn't Bush opening his inaugural speech with a "fo'shizzle" joke, or am I wrong?). Free jazz and indie rock: So damn dead.

What's still in play? Read on. [...]

A guide to music jargon

By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, Jan 8, 2005


Check this out. Here's part of an actual sentence from an actual music critic's recent review of 2004: "Whereas most neo-electro-house is minimal . . . Brooks is a maximalist to the core, suggesting an alternate path bleep could have taken, incorporating Hyper-On Experiences' spastic bricolage and deep house's sensurround production."

Rather than journalism, this may sound like a dada performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. Yet, as technology causes music to mutate ever faster, and former niche genres migrate into the pop charts, inevitably the process brings in da noize, brings in da jargon.

If you somehow didn't find time in 2004 to ponder the counterfactual mysteries of bleep (hmm, how might bleep be different if JFK had survived?), never fear -- the Overtones Jargon Glossary is here to pump you up to talk music in 2005. This neologistic abcedary is regrettably incomplete, but I suspect you can survive not knowing, for instance, of the alloy of Gary Glitter glam and Teutonic electronics briefly hyped last summer as schaffel. So let the lexiconjury begin.

Audio Blog. Music blogs (sites where people post links and chatter) have been chugging along for years, but in 2004 the Internet went gaga for bloggers who let visitors listen in on selected songs each day -- like having everyone over to listen to records, rendering critics a tad redundant. Ottawa's Said the Gramophone was the original non-U.S. audio blog, and kick-started Montreal band the Arcade Fire's conquest of 2004.

Bit Torrent. Napster's Revenge: New file-transfer tools made it easy to download bands' entire discographies, undetected, leaving the music cops spinning their wheels.

Bleep. Not the sound that masks naughty words when a Snoop Dogg track is on the radio, but the avant-electronic style formerly known as glitch, composed of patchworks of malfunctioning-machine noises. Near obsolete, as half the Top 40 now has similar banged-up beats.

Booty Bass. Any music -- American crunk, Brazilian "baile funk" -- built on 1980s Miami bass and its android-rump-shaking groove. (Remember 2 Live Crew?)

Breakcore. Dance music and industrial-noise samples radically blenderized for maximum disorientation. Comes in dance-floor and art-house. Winnipeg's Venetian Snares is a favourite; also Philadelphia's Duran Duran Duran (at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on Friday), whose debut disc, Very Pleasure, will give not-very pleasure to fans of the just-double-Duran'd 1980s band. I consider renaming myself Carl Carl Wilson Wilson.

Creative Commons. Alternative to copyright for creators who want to grant other artists permission to sample and build on their work. Participants include the Beastie Boys, Gilberto Gil and David Byrne.

Crunk. Southern U.S. rap style marked by booty bass, rap-metal-style racket, 1980s synthesizers and, if it's hitmaker Lil Jon, yelling "yeeeeaaahh" a lot. Critics either admire its aural intensity or loathe it for trashing rap's (New York-bred) verbal tradition. Melded with R&B; balladry, in which case it's known as CRunk & B or Bubblecrunk, it yielded 2004's biggest hit, Usher's Yeah. A new low in product placement: Lil Jon's Crunk Juice was both an album and a beverage.

Dancehall. Heir to Jamaican reggae, a thudding bass-and-patois form a.k.a. ragga, it's come to permeate all other dance genres, despite even worse sexual politics than hip-hop. "Riddims" often recycled among various hits.

Dance Punk. New York-based indie rock is fixated on the moment when disco-new-wave fusions left off in the early 1980s. "Teaching the indie kids to dance again." Well, better than 2001, when every band sounded like a lazier Blondie. Key discs: !!!'s Louden Up Now and a three-CD compilation by producers DFA that puts the "over" back into "kill." Talking Heads still did it better. (Cf: Slippery People.)

Desi. Ragga-fied hip-hop filtered through South Asian migration, Bollywood movies and bhangra beats. Huge in 2003, due for resurgence in Asia-aware 2005. Listen for an especially wild U.K. variant, Galang, by Sri Lanka-born M.I.A.

eai. The new-new-thing in jazz/improv -- "electro-acoustic improvisation" or "lowercase" or in Japan, onkyo, or "the New London Silence" or "Berlin reductionism." Usually quiet and still (but not always) coaxed from disassembled detritus of the digital era -- "empty sampler," turntables without vinyl, "no-input mixing board." Names: Kevin Drumm, Keith Rowe, Otomo Yoshihide. Boutique labels: Erstwhile, Grob, Hibari.

Emo. Boys whine about girls over slam-bamming punk guitars. Not advised for those over or under 16.

Grime. Fusion of U.K. dance with U.S. hip-hop, pirate-radio tracks like a dozen video-game soundtracks playing at once, crunkish yelling but in heavy London accents. Available in North America mostly via Dizzee Rascal albums but more diverse compilation, Run the Road, due in March.

Grindcore. A giddy extreme of blazing-speed metal crunch from bands such as Pig Destroyer and the Blood Brothers. Dare we say crunk metal?

Handclaps. Now a staple in every genre except Baroque organ.

Hyphy. San Francisco-area brand of crunk, boasting spontaneous street parties called "sideshows." One to watch: the Federation.

iPodspace. Critic Justin Davidson's label for where the music "happens" when you rock your earbuds -- a cyberspace built for one. Also: Podcasting, sending music and talk out to audio subscribers' iPods via the web, is the latest harbinger of doom for radio.

Kwaito. South African hip-hop, along with baile funk, dancehall, desi and other postcolonial urban frontier beats, proves "world music" is a tougher (and better) nut than Peter Gabriel ever cracked.

Laptop. Top DIY instrument; acoustic guitar of the mid-noughts.

Mash-Up. Two or more songs by disparate artists recombined into new ones using (usually) home-studio trickery. Trend has long since crested but gained publicity in 2004 due to The Grey Album, a middling mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles by Danger Mouse -- because doing anything with the Beatles gets noticed, at least by the courts. Genre slain, late 2004, by MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups, Vol I., Jay-Z and Linkin Park.

Mix Tapes. Now mixed CDs, still the method of choice for releasing hip-hop sounds to the streets; in 2004, fans often complained official albums (by Cam'ron, Kanye West, Ghostface) were weaker than the mix tapes put out to generate advance buzz.

Muzik Mafia. New blood in Nashville, Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson, bringing a New South cockiness that's part rock, part hip-hop and part proud hillbilly freak parade to the Red State country capital, a town at its best when it is its own alternative.

New John Peel, The. Everyone knows the late BBC announcer and Peel Sessions producer is irreplaceable, so they'll keep nominating replacements. (Think "New Dylan.")

Noise. As anti-musical music genre, goes back to 1913 Futurists, but lately a beloved element in a range of genres and even all by its ear-splitting self.

Northern Europe (New Britain, The). Mounting geyser of talent from Finland (Fonal records), Sweden, Norway (Annie-mal, and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra).

Paris (New Berlin, The). Canuck musicians have been pitching camp in Germany for years. Now, led by Leslie Feist and Buck 65, the compass needle swings back to the old-school expat magnet.

Psych-Folk. White-kid collectives in animal disguises, muse-maddened troubadours, narcissists and intrepid introspectionists, across the Western world -- sometimes it seems like a daring acid test, other times hippie redux. It ain't over till the fat lemur sings.

Reunions. Après les Pixies, le deluge: Unpopular-music legends Gang of Four, Slint, the Wedding Present, Van der Graaf Generator, Erasure, Kate Bush, Camper van Beethoven make comebacks in 2004-05. Holding out for Scritti Politti reunion.

Reggaeton. Puerto Rican dancehall/salsa/hip-hop hybrid watching from the wings.

Ringtone. Big new source of music-biz revenue - hit songs become boop-beep-bip rings you download to your cell phone. There's even a Billboard chart. (Snoop's Drop It Like It's Hot is this week's No. 1.) Do labels now assess potential singles on whether they'd sound good through a thumb-sized speaker at the bottom of your purse? And is that so bad?

Rockism. Delusion that all musicians are best measured as rugged individualists, as if all groups were the Rolling Stones (and as if the Stones didn't have producers and never played disco). Used to cudgel pop, dance, rap and other un-rock that doesn't romanticize "authenticity." Nearing extinction (thanks in part to a New York Times rhetorical-meteor strike this fall) but still distressingly hale.

Sizzurp. Cam'ron's cognac-based purple punch, mimicking cough syrup, outdoes Lil Jon's Crunk Juice in audacity and colour-saturated screwed-upness. Which also goes for their music.

Tsunami. Tasteless yet inevitable new band name of 2005.

The Letters U through Z. Totally out of fashion in 2005.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 08 at 3:10 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

Great Hoser Music, Ancient to the Future!

scottthomson.jpg
Scott Thomson.

In today's Globe, I've got a piece about members of the Toronto improv-music scene's new initiative, the Association of Improvising Musicians [of] Toronto, or AIMT, an outgrowth of the Leftover Daylight series (which is on tonight) and its Interface project. The organization is launched with a series of concerts next week.

Will we look back upon this as a turning point, when the city's own AACM or LMT - or at least its NOW/Coastal Jazz - got its start? Might it have the long-lasting effects of CCMC and the Music Gallery, and eventually lead to Toronto gaining its own version of the Casa del Popolo and Sala Rossa in Montreal? Just mebbe. I'm also interested in the educational role of the organization, in schools and in public - the AACM's outreach to urban youth could be a model; in the long run the improv scene in turn would gain, with a (needed) increase in cultural diversity.

What I like best about AIMT is its intention to be outward-looking in a city that is too often self-enclosed, which can sap the urgency and demandingness out of the art made here (improv music included). It's better when the stakes are high. AIMT member Rob Clutton has some interesting reflections on this syndrome within Canadian culture. What matters is to keep kicking at that can, eh? Get the inside story. [...]

Mavericks unite

By Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Friday, January 7, 2005

It's enough to summon up the bad old political joke: "Uh-oh, the anarchists are getting organized."

Improvisers are the libertine faction of the musical world, demolishing the familiar buttresses of time signatures, chords and melodies and daring to reinvent music itself on the spot. At first an outgrowth of the free-form jazz solo à la John Coltrane, in the past half-century improv has become its own global genre, boasting as many styles as there are musicians to play them, from screaming chaos to near-silence and from politicized earnestness to zany slapstick. It's difficult listening but, at its best, unrivalled in suspense and surprise.

Toronto improv has blossomed particularly in the past half-decade, with creators in their 20s and 30s running shows in bar backspaces and art galleries, and events such as the annual 416 Festival. Now, these mavericks are taking a different kind of risk: They're amalgamating in the Association of Improvising Musicians, Toronto (AIMT), a non-profit organization complete with a mission statement and board of directors.

AIMT is being launched with a series of fundraising concerts this coming week, showcasing more than two dozen musicians in the new generation of Toronto spontaneous-music makers the association is mandated to promote.

"There didn't seem to be many organizations doing what we've set out to do," says guitarist Ken Aldcroft, a founding board member of AIMT. "There are new-music organizations and a good infrastructure for straight-ahead jazz. The opera and the symphony have people who get money for them. We're trying to get a little piece of that pie to stimulate our scene."

Mostly excluded from mainstream clubs and festivals, the phases of improv in Toronto tend to be governed by series such as the defunct Ulterior and Rat-drifting nights, the sessions at the Idler Pub in the mid-1990s, and currently the Leftover Daylight series run by Aldcroft and fellow board member Joe Sorbara at Arraymusic in Liberty Village on alternate Fridays, tonight included. (The other room of choice these days is the Tranzac Club on Brunswick Avenue below Bloor Street, where, for example, drummer Jean Martin and vocalist Christine Duncan present the debut of their seven-piece Barnyard Drama Orchestra this evening.)

AIMT will create continuity between these series, whose survival often hangs on the tolerance and goodwill of landlords and bar managers.

It's far from unprecedented. The milestone in Toronto free-improv history was the founding of the radical performance group CCMC (slogan: "No Tunes Allowed"), which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2004 with a current membership of composer John Oswald, poet Paul Dutton and artists Michael Snow and Nobuo Kubota. In 1976, CCMC members took a pragmatic leap of their own and founded the Music Gallery, still (despite difficulty holding on to venues) the city's chief presenter of undomesticated sounds.

Yet changing fashions and fickle funders have pushed the Music Gallery away from jazz and improv, toward formal composition and, lately, experimental indie-pop. The younger crowd has a healthy relationship with its elders -- Joust, with Oswald on sax and AIMT board member Scott Thomson on trombone, plays the York University Art Gallery on Wednesday -- but past structures have sagged.

Internationally, too, collective organizations have played a vital role. Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (usually called the AACM) was founded amid the 1960s Black Power movement, incubated the Art Ensemble of Chicago and is still an important provider of youth education and artist development. The London Musicians' Collective (LMC) began in 1975 and currently sustains an annual festival, a magazine, year-round concerts and "the world's best radio station," ResonanceFM.

Canada's most successful take on that model directly inspired AIMT. Founded in 1977, the artist-run NOW Orchestra has set the course of Vancouver jazz so strongly that the city's biggest festival is packed with homegrown improvisers, who get to match wits with the best foreign talent. When NOW guitarist Ron Samworth visited Toronto as part of Leftover Daylight's Interface series in April, he encouraged players here to follow suit.

"I think the main goal is to interact with the world," says bassist Rob Clutton, the AIMT board member best established in the jazz, improv and even folk music communities of Toronto. (Percussionist Nick Fraser rounds out the board.) "This scene can seem kind of isolated. We want to raise awareness of what's going on outside here, and of what's going on here for the outside."

The first priority is to expand the Interface program, which brings high-profile improvisers from elsewhere to play with Torontonians, to spur artistic development and connections. AIMT also plans outreach programs in Toronto schools, as well as public workshops. Other goals (a new venue?) can wait. "Anybody who wants to be a member, is a member," says Clutton, but there are no general meetings -- which could cause tensions over representation, but does bar the sort of factional warfare that once hobbled the Marxist-leaning LMC.

On a deeper level, AIMT could help to dispel "the notion (or reality) that to exist as an improvising musician in Toronto is to be a dabbler, a hobbyist," Clutton says.

He cites E.K. Brown's classic 1943 essay "The Problem of a Canadian Literature," which said "a colony lacks the spiritual energy to rise above routine . . . because it does not adequately believe in itself. . . . A great art is fostered by artists and audience possessing in common a passionate and peculiar interest in the kind of life that exists in the [place] where they live."

Toronto still fails too often to muster that "passionate and peculiar interest." What to do? AIMT suggests we improvise.

The AIMT concerts are Jan. 13 at 319 Spadina Ave., and Jan. 14 and 15 at the Arraymusic studio, 60 Atlantic Ave. $15. For more details: AIMT.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 07 at 1:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Hello, Lampposts, Whatcha Knowin'?

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Friday afternoon we'll return to neglected conversations, including crosstalk with Aaron about the psychogeographics of Feist (and why he suddenly craves to pick on the Junior Boys!)

For now, though, just more reading to pass along, most of it via Jason Gross:

* Perfect Sound Forever's Kevin Coyne obituary, with the beautiful title "Death of a Happy Little Fat Man."

* Rob Harvilla wantonly drops the neutron on rock-crit cliches and leaves not a one of us unscathed.

* Salon (meaning you'll have to watch a little ad to get access) celebrates/mourns the death of payola (in the form of "indie promoters") - fretting that the reform for which Salon author Eric Boehlert essentially has been campaigning for years will actually harm radio. Geez, now he tells us. Hypocrisy aside, though, actually I have faith that as long as there is commercial radio, payola will a way, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, ayyyymen. (Remember: Radio is in the hands of such a lotta fools tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel.)

* (PDF) Robert Christgau's history of rock criticism, accompanied by several valuable essays, especially Sasha's perfectly balanced piece about why musician-critics are neither more nor (mostly) less desirable than non-musician critics, but the two categories of writer are in fact valuably different. (Our crit-hater brethren in the jazz community gotta read this.) 非常にスマート! (Via Scott.)

* And most of all Greg Tate's kick-every-ass-in-boot's-reach essay on the 30th anniversary of hip-hop in The Village Voice, which may or may not add any measurable quantity to the general store of knowledge on the subject but seems like a damn fine place to begin taking that inventory. So I expect we'll be a'hikin' back to that last tree to retrace some steps this weekend.

* Which reminds me, I need to get ahold of Jeff Chang's book (Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation). And so do you. I mean, hell, the intro is by Kool Herc. Jeff talks to Oliver Wang about it and even baits us with an excerpt. And, natch, he has thoughts on Tate's piece, too.

* Tate II: On Nas. Yes, yes and yes.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 07 at 2:00 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Compliments Make Us All Blushyfaced

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A deep bow to Jason Gross (of Perfect Sound Forever fame) for including my Prince Paul piece (and mentioning my political music piece) in his annual roundup of the year in music writing on rockcritics.com - but the main reason to mention it is to point you to all the other hot stuff (great, good and otherwise) that Jason's web-thologized for our reading pleasure. Warning: Could cheerfully consume your whole afternoon.

As Jason quite rightly complains, you can't get to the pieces in question via The Globe and Mail website anymore, so you'll find them here on the flip. [...]

The Prince of hip-hop rolls his eyes at hip pop

SCENE
CARL WILSON
15 January 2004
The Globe and Mail

Did you hear Prince Paul is in town this weekend?

Who?

Prince Paul. Prince of Thieves? Handsome Boy Modelling School? Stetsasonic? De La Soul?

De La Soul!

Yep. Me Myself and I, Jenifa . . . He produced their first four albums, bringing in wild new sampling techniques — making tracks with sounds from cartoons and other unexpected sources, which changed rap's sound for good.

Wow, Me Myself and I? I remember when I heard that, back in college —when rap was good, before it turned into all that gangster stuff and, what do you call it, "blink blink"?

Bling. Bling bling.

Whatever. And that reggae stuff and the pop singers coming in for choruses, and the misogyny and violence and thongs. Uh, Eminem, 50-whoever . . . So what does this Paul do now?

In 2003 he made this deliberately bad album. It's called The Politics of the Business, an attack on the music industry and specifically what he calls "hip pop," which he says in the liner notes is "not to be confused with hip-hop." In other words, he agrees with you.

So it's an angry satire?

Not really. It could have been like the artists Komar and Melamid, who produced a bunch of paintings according to polling data, such as America's Most Wanted Painting — a landscape featuring George Washington, some animals and girls and a lot of blue, with the canvas about the size of a dishwasher because that was the most popular size in the poll. But Prince Paul seems too annoyed that his latest funny, sophisticated concept albums weren't well-served by his previous label to be precise about it. His parodies seem several years behind actual trends. It's mediocre despite a roster of hip-hop royalty on the mike, even Chris Rock pitching in on the comedy sketches.

Chris Rock is on it?

The sketches are the best part, with two-faced record executives and shallow wannabe rappers all talking crap to Paul. But then, he literally invented the tradition of the rap skit so he's got to hold that up. When underground rapper Mike Ladd tried the same idea with his Majesticons album this year, he parodied party anthems by making even catchier ones, showing how seductive they can be. Here the ironies are cheaper. It's as if Paul's veteran status has him caught in the same trap as a lot of music critics, deafened to rap's current glories by his preconceptions.

What glories — cars, champagne and sexpots?

No, that is tiresome stuff, but rappers aren't exactly America's first materialistic celebrities. There's also been a lot of musical innovation, production that incorporates complex electronics, new vocal styles, jazz and folk and Asian music, unpredictable beats that no other part of pop music would touch before hip-hop got to them.

Just tricks. It's not real music anyway, a bunch of computer loops. Well, I like that Outkast song.

I was just chatting with a bunch of colleagues about that: If you look around at many Canadian music critics' lists of the best of 2003, the Outkast album — a very rock-influenced hip-hop disc, with all its nerdy old-school joy — is often the only one not made by white people. People are calling it "rockism."

What kind of crazy idea is that?

Not so crazy. Most white critics over 25 grew up immersed in rock, so we demand rock's values be upheld even in hip-hop — not only musically, but its myth of the rebel poet who creates all his own music, plays it on his own axe — and never makes decisions for commercial reasons.

Sure, that's true creativity.

Yet rock never really worked like that. No form of pop music has. Most of it was always made with behind-the-scenes studio help — the Beatles had George Martin, Nirvana had Butch Vig — and they were trying to make hits. Yet it generated music that's venerated now. And it's culturally specific — it's one thing to play the underdog by spurning a suburban background and another to be a black kid coming out of that community, for instance. So "rockism" is mild compared with some other names you could give it.

As for poetry, complex lyrics aren't especially in fashion in rap right now. 50 Cent is no Rakim, Tupac or Chuck D. Prince Paul has a point about the intellectual content, but rock goes through its sharp and dull cycles too and it'd be schoolmarmish to fret. While 50 Cent seems aggressively boring to me, you can't cling to "underground" hip-hop and claim to be keeping up.

As my fellow critics pointed out in our chat, the script's been reversed: Underground in hip-hop once meant a "hardcore" black audience, but since hip-hop moved out of the margins to the top of the charts, underground has come to imply a white crowd. People are calling it "undie" (a sneer-play on underground plus "indie") or "backpack" music, for liberal-arts college kids. There's fine music there from rappers of all races — check out Aesop Rock, Prefuse73, Sole — but it's not where the energy is. More of it is with Timbaland, the Neptunes, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Dizzee Rascal, Punjabi MC. . . .

So will Prince Paul be stuck playing English-department wine and cheeses?

Nah. Politics was made in a fit of exasperation. "Since biting is no longer a crime, I gave it a try," he says in the liner notes, adding, "a painful process needless to say." (Lucky you can't read that before buying the album.) But then he says: "See y'all again when I resurface to change the world!" But he has to catch up to the world first — and if that's a challenge for a hip-hop legend, no wonder it bewilders a lot of us pale Canadian rockist geeks.

Now, Adeimantus, let us turn to the question, "What is justice?"

Prince Paul is the DJ at Doin' It, Klinik at the Sound Emporium, 360 Adelaide St. W., Toronto, on Saturday night.

* * *

Political music beyond the protest song

SCENE
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Thursday, Jul 15, 2004

When the late Ray Charles recorded his America the Beautiful in 1972, he began not with the usual guff about spacious skies, but with the third verse, "O beautiful for heroes proved/ In liberating strife."

Today, you might think of flag-draped coffins (if the White House hadn't banned them from sight) or of certain New York firefighters who loved "mercy more than life." But for the generation that witnessed the birth of soul, with Charles as its midwife, the heroes surely would be the civil-rights marchers on Selma and Washington in the early 1960s.

By 1972, those gains may have seemed to be slipping away. Yet when the man whose eyes would never see any purple mountains' majesties, whose family had sharecropped those amber waves of grain, came back to the traditional first verse, he would only make it more optimistic.

Charles said later that some of the original lyrics had been "too white" for him, so he mixed them up a shade. A decade earlier, he'd done something similar with his hit album of country songs -- the sound of the segregated white South, spiked with rhythm & blues. The Ray Charles gambit always was to refuse to see barriers, musical or otherwise. In his music, a dreamt America came into being so long as the beat lasted, a three- , four- or six-minute eternity.

So when he sang Katherine Lee Bates's 1893 plea, "[may] God shed his grace on thee" it became, "God done shed his grace on thee/ He crowned thy good, yes he did, in a brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea." Past tense; mission accomplished.

If there is such a thing as political music, surely it can be found in his strategic use of music's unique power to alter and suspend time -- without a word of explicit protest.

But is there such a thing as political music, not the lyrics but the music itself? It is an old debate. Obviously, notes and chords can't lower taxes or threaten to invade Syria. But there can be social implications to quoting from other music, choices of titles (Opus IV or Abu Ghraib?) or the ways that musicians interact -- just as there's a politics to the stylistic fusions of Ray Charles or, closer to the territory of Chicago jazz trio Sticks and Stones, of Miles Davis.

Sticks and Stones' recent second album happens to be called Shed Grace, but the title track is a more drastic variation on the song many Americans say should be their national anthem: The melody issuing from Matana Roberts's saxophone has the hymn-like feel of America the Beautiful, but not the familiar tune.

Like Jimi Hendrix's anti-war revision of The Star-Spangled Banner, this brush with America is engulfed by turbulence; Josh Abrams's bass and Chad Taylor's drums churn and the sax has to twist and flail to stay aloft, unable to resolve or even complete its phrases, all grace untimely ripped away.

And as you listen to this trio -- two black musicians, one white; two male, one female -- somehow rearranging America the Beautiful without at all playing it, you're prompted to wonder where that absent grace has gone. Sloughed off like snakeskin in the Iraqi desert? Thearrested development of the sax line might represent American promise, unrealized at home and broken abroad.

It isn't political music in the sense of a protest song, like the many "Lick Bush" broadsides we're likely to hear by Nov. 2. But as Elvis Costello said to The New York Times last weekend, protest songs often seem more like personal venting than political action. As one on-line music writer (claps.blogspot.com) puts it, "How different is, 'I hate you for your foreign policy' from 'Did she go down on you in a theatre?' "

And also how different from the mercenary ideologues shouting one another down on Fox News? If the protest singer merely yells back at power -- even with the heat of Fahrenheit 9/11 -- the terms are already set. It is not an argument, just contradiction.

Actual politics has less to do with name-calling than with motile and ambiguous alliances and oppositions. And while politics may be a symptom of the inevitable failure of language, music lies out past language's limit, at once falling short and exceeding it in meaning. The artist's "beliefs" may only get in the way.

Bob Dylan's early polemics are narrow shrivelled things beside, for example, the more mysterious discontent of Maggie's Farm (which stretched out decades to find its target in Thatcher's England). As for Ray Charles, he sang for Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Republican convention, although he said he'd happily do the Democrats, too, if they were paying. He even played South Africa during the apartheid-era boycott. Did he contradict himself? Very well.

But what artists can contribute to politics may be precisely that capacity to inhabit other positions, other selves -- even the enemy's -- and imagine their way into the attendant ironies and conflicts, in order that "paths be wrought through wilds of thought," to cite one of Bates' lesser-known verses. (Just for Dick Cheney's information, Bates lived in a romantic relationship with another woman most of her life.)

On Shed Grace, Sticks and Stones also transform the militant funk of Fela Kuti's Colonial Mentality into a cool acoustic creeper; plays a startlingly straight Isfahan from Duke Ellington arranger Billy Strayhorn's 1966 Far East Suite; and throughout, exemplifies the quarrelsome conversation of equals that is improvised jazz's distinct contribution to political science.

Neither a harangue nor a lecture in disguise, this kind of political music generates a gravity that draws in a litany of voices to eavesdrop on the jabber of the living and the dead. It is "something ardent and sad," as Baudelaire wrote, "leaving the field free for conjecture."

And in these polarized times, that is a grace not to be shed lightly.

Sticks and Stones play Toronto's Music Gallery tomorrow and Montreal's Casa del Popolo on Saturday.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 05 at 2:38 PM | Linking Posts

 

And the Signifieds Butt Heads With the Signifiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joanna Newsom and the Year In Review In Review In Review

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

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

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 04 at 8:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

The Life Aquatic, Light & Dark

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Jackson Pollock, Blue (Moby Dick), c. 1943

A long post today, but first things first: Benefit shows are beginning to be organized for the tsunami-wracked nations of the world. In Toronto, dance-music promoters take the lead, with nights at Andy Pool Hall on Wednesday, Studio 99 on Jan. 8 and Supermarket on Jan. 13, all with strong complements of local DJs. Details are in the January gig guide below.

These events provoke reflection on (among many other subjects) the stereotypically passive but latently immense power of the seas, on how little most of us attend to the coiled force of nature. It's difficult to reconcile with many cultural images of sea-faring - swashbuckling, new-age meditative, even comical as in the current movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. I haven't seen it, but (given the mixed reviews) I wonder if it suffers by regarding its oceanic subject too casually? The subject deserves the obsessive grip of Moby Dick.

In any case, today in The Globe & Mail, I go (mildly) cuckoo over the soundtrack of Wes Anderson's movie, most of all for Brazilian actor-singer Seu Jorge's remarkable acoustic - arguably "aquatic" - covers of David Bowie songs. [...]

Jorge - who also appears in the film, as he did as Knockout Ned in City of God and as himself in Mika Kaurismäki's odd-looking Brazilian-music doc Moro no Brasil (named for one of Jorge's tunes) - actually has roots not so distant from (though not identical with) the favela funk/carioca scene that's drawn much beat-geek attention this year (including mine). In fact, he seems to be the one to integrate funk elements into the tradition of Brazilian MPB (popular music) that includes samba, bossa nova and tropicalia, though in interviews he makes it clear that he sees himself at one side to MPB - meaning, I think, as part of a diasporic black-music community, from African music to hip-hop. Meanwhile he is becoming a star in France, where they seem to pick up on the traces of Gainsbourg in him - easy enough to do since he covers Gainsbourg on his latest album, Cru. Hear some of Jorge's solo work here, here, and here.

Predictably the Jorge-Bowie songs have been received as a joke or a gimmick, as I complain in the review, but there's more to be thought about the several levels of referentiality (some of them humorous) involved - especially when you consider that unknown to Anderson, Jorge was revising Bowie's lyrics in his translations, interweaving them with his own experiences and events in the film. Anderson and Jorge discuss the soundtrack here.

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Seu Jorge

Some of the other material (here, with sound samples) on the OST, unfortunately, I could do without, and Now magazine is even less enthusiastic. Tim Perlich is right about the recordings - they are frail environmental recordings that sound fine to me on their own but tend to get swamped by the studio recordings that surround them, especially when it's loud punk rock - the juxtapositions are occasionally jarring and tasteless. Although Wes Anderson gets a lot of praise for his soundtracks, he and the equally musical Quentin Tarantino have to answer for the Gen-X-ish notion that the best way to score a film is the same way you make a mixed tape, an aesthetic that's spread like fungus through Hollywood film. In fact, most soundtracks would benefit from more continuity and less variety and contrast than a good mix - they generally should operate more like orchestral suites, with contrasting sections but unity and symmetry among the parts. The excerpts from Mark Mothersbaugh's sometimes serve this function, often not so much. (The Ennio Morricone/Joan Baez track I big-up in the piece, by the way, is also out on Canto Morricone Vol. 2, part of a four-volume collection of the great film-composer's collaborations with singers.)

Fans also complain - as I originally mentioned in the review, but had to cut for space - that the climactic song in the film, Staralfur by Sigur Ros, does not appear on the album; while I have my misgivings about the Icelandic band, their glacial layerings would integrate better into the liquid undercurrent of the soundtrack than Devo or the Stooges, and added another patch to its linguistic quilt. (There's too much English, I think.) Licensing issues, perhaps? (Listen to Staralfur via Epitonic.)

Also today I wrote the weekly list of songs (usually by Robert Everett-Green) the Globe likes to call "Essential Tracks," which we all know is code for "Download This." The editors cut some useful information, though: The Boom Bip disc won't be out till February; the Dion McGregor disc is far from the first collection of his "solimnoquies" - see here and here - but this one comes from Toronto's Torpor Vigil Industries, so it has Can-Con interest; and the Superwolf album is out Jan. 17, a new duo of Will Oldham with Matt Sweeney (of Chavez and Zwan) - the track is up on Teaching the Indie Kids to Dance Again .... but now might we have a moratorium on "Wolf" band names, please? There's Aids Wolf, Wolf Eyes, Montreal's Wolf Parade, Guitar Wolf (coming to Lee's Palace in Toronto Mar. 3), Patrick Wolf (his real name? bet not!), Superwolf, Los Lobos...

Sarajevo is naming a street in honour of Susan Sontag. Nice.

Poll: Choose one. A. "I am excited about the Van der Graaf Generator reunion!" B. "Ehh, there've been VDG reunions before. I prefer Peter Hammill's solo stuff." C."What the hell are you talking about?" Mmmkay, thank you for playing!

That's it for today. Happy New Year! Tomorrow, Zoilus does his best to be the very last person on earth to unveil a best-of-2004 list, with the first-annual Overtones Music Awards.

And finally: RIP Artie Shaw.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 31 at 12:06 PM | Linking Posts

 

Best Best-Of Of The Year?

Tiny Mix Tapes' Top 20 album covers of 2004 may or may not be the same ones you'd pick but looked at in aggregate they make me realize that sometime in the past couple of years, the aesthetic puzzle of the inferiority of the CD cover to the LP cover has been solved and now we are awash in luminous minimalist beauty. Hurray!

Hi. How was yours? Mine was fine, thanks. Terrific to see you. Isn't this horrible though? Man. So what are you doing for New Year's?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 27 at 2:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Seeing Stars

Wherry is on to the best music-based love story ever. Well, John & Yoko, Johnny & June, Nas & Kelis, me & Mrs. Zoilus and other usual suspects aside.

Meanwhile, the hip-hop misogyny debate continues. It's the most important thing going, but now doesn't feel like the time. Today's my birthday - and also Festivus. And then there's some other kind of celebration on Saturday. Post-weekend, we will be all up in it, promise. Also best-of-2004 lists will proliferate. Until then, hearts and flowers to thou and thine.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 23 at 2:18 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

"Era todo un descanso, hasta para los sentidos más embotados, ver cómo ese animal salvaje se revolvía en esa jaula tan triste. No le faltaba de nada."

I've been insanely prolix today but the news that Jace Clayton-aka-Dj/rupture, who's made a couple of the mixes of the past couple years, has a room of his own, is pretty huge to me. So go read a voice you need to hear more of, as opposed to this one you maybe need to hear less of. (It's in English, incidentally - the above is him quoting Kafka's The Hunger Artist in Spanish. Which gets some of us wet.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 21 at 1:37 AM | Linking Posts

 

The Sixth Proposition: Shut Up, Wilson

In some backchannel action, Felizitas/Jane Dark/Joshua Clover made it clear to me what I wasn't reading right - or rather set me straight, otherwise known as handing me my ass in a sling, and fair enough. I'm usually down with the density of JC's prose, but must have been nodding when I was reading his introductory post (with the clever unspoken-parallel making de Kooning illustration) on The Five Propositions. No idea why my brain went so spongiform. Considering the unresolved-bedwetting-issues obnoxiousness of my first post, I thought he told me to fuck off pretty politely (and I hope he won't mind my quoting him here):

"You seem to have misunderstood my fundamental inquiry (quite explicit in the first post) which is not toward suggesting that social acts like misogyny become formalized after awhile — duh! — but wondering why, given all the bullshit that happens in [mainstream] hip-hop lyrics, that’s where the great sonic inventors continue to appear and work? Or to put it another way, what do we do about the fact that it’s more pleasurable and interesting and intense to listen to Jay-Z and Snoop than Slug or dead prez (much less politically righteous indie rock)?

"What I’m up to [...] is trying to get past 'it’s good because it’s funky' or 'it’s bad because it’s misogynistic' — and even trying to get past throwing one’s hands up at the difficulty of these two facts coexisting — to WONDER if there might be a connection between the two facts."

[He then challenged me to tell him if this question was already answered, and mos' def, the answer is No.]

The reflex reaction is that it's the sonic form, and social context rather than content, that attracts the innovators to hip-hop - and the paycheques and the fame that attracts them to the mainstream rather than the undie/backpack side. But that doesn't explain why Public Enemy was once at the forefront of both sonics and politics, and in the past decade those two haven't coincided. One hypothesis of mine in response is that the violation of social codes always attracts wild creators, and sexism is actually enough of a public taboo that openly breaking it (rather than codedly, like yer average politician) signifies as liberation (like being gay, doing drugs and having lots of sex were to various bohemias and rock'n'roll in the past), even though that's tangled up with male backlash etc. etc., and this kind of social lawlessness attracts those who have an appetite for aesthetic lawlessness. You also have to factor in the move of hip-hop from minority to near-majority taste in the same time period and the market-driven elimination of other kinds of rebellion, a story well-told by Jeff Chang a year ago. (Is misogyny a really complicated stand-in for social militancy?) And then there's the question of displacement of hostility toward the (abandoning) father toward the (present) mother, and the question of the availability of political options and discourse, and lots of really really messy sociological issues

But those are only first rubbing-my-eyes waking-up reactions to what Joshua is suggesting and obviously require more thought. Wish I'd started here rather than in Watchoo Talkin' About mode.

Also: Anyone else have thoughts about the new Nas album? It seems really engaged in the middle of this shitstorm and yet all I've gotten to read are slams for weak beats, defenses for flow, praise that his dad's on it, criticism for sexism - nothing that stands back. When I first heard it I was in love but I don't know if that is lasting now. One issue: It decidedly needs condensing, but is there a better hip-hop double album (counting OutKast as a lashed-together set of two albums)? Second issue: There's still gender-dodgy stuff here but there's also the newly-enfianced homeboy's efforts at anti-sexism - and both seem kind of weak. Still, mixed down to a single, this is an incredibly vibrant and outspoken disc, with more than clever nonsequiturs and pure sound to go on - if we're going to talk social content within the mainstream, is there anywhere else to turn?

Like Ukraine, maybe?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 21 at 12:22 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

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.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 20 at 3:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Cool Light of Day Reconsideration Post

Whoa, back away from the seasonal crankiness, Wilson. First of all Clover does not equal Klosterman, so lumping them both into yesterday's episode of Critical Writing That Is Bugging Me Today may have misled some readers. Clover usually has something valuable to say, and it began to dawn on me maybe I'm not working my end hard enough. So, step one, I retract "inflated bloviation." Probably permanently. I mean, at least Clover is trying to bring an original form of analysis to the long and disheartening conversation around woman-bashing MCs.

Here are Clover's propositions, apart from their loosy-bendy girders of support, to see just how they add up: 1. As long as it can get one person to say "Fuck rap, you can have it back" a genre is still vital. 2. Vital genres move forward amidst a perpetual drama between sonic form and social content. 3. Over time, social content becomes sonic form. 4. It can be difficult to distinguish social content from sonic form. 5. Given that social content is always turning into sonic formalism, a genre — to stay vital — needs to find cunning ways to maintain a wealth of social content.

As Franklin has said, the trouble with No. 3 is obvious, that it talks as though the process of evolution or entropy in art's socio-aesthetic character only goes one way. This is not quite corrected by no. 5 - which deals with new social content being introduced or generated but not with the possibility that sonic form also, automatically in a vital genre, continually turns into social content. Which surely is what the "bitch"-trashing-trash-talk haters are bitching about.

I also wonder about the marriage of the words Content and Form to Social and Sonic. I think these two nutty couples are headed for some rocky times. Surely if any genre also has Sonic Content and Social Form, hip-hop would be it.

That said, if Felizitas (about which pseudonym, by the way, I was also over-grumpy earlier) can apply the thesis now to the problem at hand, and when the wrapping's pulled off we actually see new aspects of the monster in the box, the exercise will have been plenty worthwhile.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, December 20 at 3:04 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Klosterman Syndrome

I thought the above phrase would make a good movie title, but what I'm on about is: Chuck Klosterman, belle of the pop-cultcha-writing ball in the past year or two, is such a gifted punchline maker and not such a good essayist. Case in point, his current Spin column: "The Ten Most Accurately Rated Artists in Rock History." As a jape about the ubiquity and tiresomeness of the "over/under-rated" trope in rock talk, it's super, smashing, fucking brill. As a whole article to read, well, it's a little snoozey, using the concept as an excuse to talk dully about dull subjects such as Blue Oyster Cult or My Bloody Valentine. (Not that MBV made dull music but as a subject of music discussion it is Yawn City.) Plus there's stuff like the Beatles coming in at No. 4, saying everybody thinks they're the best and they are, which I can tell you is far from a universal consensus.

I'll spoil the surprise for you - #1 most accurately rated band of all time? Van Halen: "This band should have been the biggest arena act of the early 1980s, and they were. They had the greatest guitar player of the 1980s, and everyone (except possibly Yngwie Malmsteen) seems to agree. They switched singers and became semi-crappy, and nobody aggressively disputes that fact."

Amusing. But Klosterman's constant claim, as in the title of this piece ("Give Me Centrism or Give Me Death") to be some kind of brave battler for the middlebrow against forces of pretension and ... oh there's nothing he's fighting on the other side, is there? So Klosterman's "middle" is actually an extreme, and its name is anti-intellectualism, and in that way he's the perfect pop critic for our era, the most Red State rock writer ever. Fargo Rock City is a brilliant book, but I'm afraid I'm seeing the best minds of our generation become one-man mid-afternoon chat-show versions of themselves.

Speaking of criticism on high suck alert: I like Joshua Clover's poetry and respect him a lot, but what the hell is he on about over at S/FJ? Why does he keep giving himself feminine pseudonyms (first Jane Dark and now Felizitas)? Does he really think we don't know that genres have social content and sonic form and that these interrelate in complex ways, that the sonic is social and the social sonic? Does he think that those hip-hop fans who are pissed off about misogyny in hip-hop are not aware that it's as much a kind of genre convention as it is any kind of thought-out statement of intent to rape/beat/pimp/hate women? And does he think that if we all were made aware of the structural nature of misogyny in hip-hop, that this would make the misogyny okay and prevent it from having any adverse effects on how boys see girls (and how girls see girls)? Weren't, say, the signifiers of racism also a formal, sonic convention in minstrelsy - which dominated 19th-century pop culture the way hip-hop does now - and therefore was the racism of minstrelsy okay? None of this stuff seems to me to solve the female listener's problem listening to Snoop, should she have that problem; it is just "lie back and think of Pharrell."

The "proposition" suggesting that a sign of vitality in any genre is that its "ownership" is still mobile and in dispute was worthy; the rest is inflated bloviation in the first degree. I'm not actually upset about that, but I think it's kind of odd, the way he trumpeted he really had a contribution to make to the discussion and then... just.... didn't. Perhaps he'll still turn around and pull it out: He says he's got one more post to come.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 19 at 7:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Scrooged Up

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Today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail: "God rest ye same old Christmas carols." [...]

God rest ye same old Christmas carols

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, December 18, 2004 - Page R4


In pre-Victorian England, Christmas caroling was regarded with alarm. Drunken wassailers staggered from door to door in high-class neighbourhoods and barked out tunes to shake down the toffs, demanding handouts before they'd move on.

In North America today, carols serve the same function, but with class positions reversed: Corporate barons use them to harangue the population to overextend its annual overconsumption binge, with the harassment duties delegated to the media.

All over the continent in recent years, radio stations have been switching over to all-holiday-music formats weeks and weeks ahead of Christmas. The trend really took off in the United States in 2001, for comfort after the shock of the terrorist attacks. When ratings soared, an industry fad became an instant tradition, with stations vying to become a market's "official holiday station" or "the preset station in Santa's sleigh" or whatever cutesy euphemism for Most Aggressive Seasonal Exploiter they could dream up in their mercenary little sugar-plum heads.

You might assume it's an American thing, like keeping a flag in the front yard. But it turns out that when it comes to Christmas, Canadians have a comparable thirst for treacle, so sleigh bells ring 24/7 from coast to coast. In the U.S., there is at least the established kickoff at Thanksgiving, though some stations have been pushing it back almost to Halloween. Canadian radio doesn't have any such excuse.

If you don't hear it on radio, you get sapped with a steel-toed stocking full of fa-la-la's if you go out shopping, since retail outlets also act as pushers of orchestrated cheer. In the U.S. this year, chains have gone so far as to hire techno and hip-hop DJs to remix Christmas chestnuts for a hipper, more spending-spurring amphetamine rush at shops such as Pottery Barn and Old Navy.

I am not trying to kick the crutches out from under Tiny Tim here. I am fond of Christmas. I feel a warm anticipation each year of sitting around the fireplace with my family drinking too much liqueur and exchanging gifts to, yes, a soundtrack of seasonal standards.

Yet oddly enough, we prefer to do it some time around Dec. 25. The new Christmasathon is like me showing up at my parents' door in late November, shouting, "Hey! Where's the turkey?" and refusing to leave. I find the manic hurry a nerve-wracking reminder of mortality, with time accelerating and hurtling us toward the grave at the speed of Santa's overnight circumnavigation of the globe. A whole month collapsed down to a single day -- why not just rename December "Christmas" and be done with it?

All-Christmas radio stations' ratings rise because some desperate souls whose lives offer too few tidings of comfort and joy park their dials there, and no one objects lest they be accused of hating children and cookies and love.

Commercial radio counts on the fact that most people don't especially care about music. It plays tunes large numbers will tolerate, rather than music you have to engage with. It turns out that many people tolerate White Christmas day in and day out more contentedly than other music. Only we eccentric few gnaw desperately at our knuckles and become cruel to our loved ones. So holiday music wins.

Yet it also loses. It loses its charge, its close tie to the occasion. If you drank eggnog every day for a month, by the time of that ritual Christmas Eve toast around the tree it would make your stomach churn.

As well, the industry chokes the ingenuity from holiday music. Musicians do their best to revitalize it: Each year brings soul, punk, bluegrass, jazz and other versions of the classics, original Christmas-in-prison country weepers, and archival finds such as the 1939 calypso tune Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning (on Dust-to-Digital records' terrific collection, Where Will You Be Christmas Day?).

But radio plays only the blandest. Aside from the latest Pop Idol covering Winter Wonderland, the freshest tune you'll likely hear on holiday radio now is the 2004 remake of the Live Aid single by the forgettable British pop stars of 1984, redone for the benefit of Sudan by the forgettable British pop stars of today. It's a masterpiece of Christmas hubris. By the missionary-minded chorus, "Feed the world/ Let them know it's Christmastime," I'm fantasizing about Arab musicians banding together to help downtrodden English dockworkers by recording the charity single, Do They Know It's Ramadan?

A similar embrace-and-conquer mentality surfaces in the self-consciously hip Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah album from the TV series The O.C. It extends the tendency to treat Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas, which would be very broadminded if it didn't contradict everything Hanukkah actually is.

The paradox is that I'd love it if radio really were much more seasonal and topical. Can we have work songs on weekdays, travelling music in summer, storm songs in the rain, political songs when there's an election on? No. Radio today is centrally programmed, timid and barely responsive to local developments, so cookie-cutter Christmas kitsch is all we get.

Earlier in December, Canadian radio stations could be delving into the nation's vast store of winter songs. Instead of the (shudder) Barenaked Ladies' Christmas disc, they could play recent tunes such as the beautiful Snow Falls in November by drowsy-voiced New Brunswick chanteuse Julie Doiron; the jagged Cold Hands by Toronto's hyperactive Creeping Nobodies; the old-time country ode Let's Fly South from Toronto string band the Backstabbers; the ice-storm themed Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) by Montreal 2004 breakout band the Arcade Fire; or the chilly electronics of Outdoor Silence by Tinkertoy.

For spirituality, they could look to Toronto singer-songwriter Kyp Harness's mystic balladry on The Miracle Business, or the gnosis-tinged Christianity of Royal City's Little Heart's Ease.

But right this minute they should be playing the crucial 1980s Montreal band, the Nils. Founder Alex Soria began playing gigs at 14 with older brother Carlos. Their songs helped shape Canadian indie music, and influenced U.S. postpunk groups such as Husker Du, as far distant as Minneapolis, despite drug problems and other ill winds that prevented their name becoming better known. Early Monday evening in his home town, Alex Soria reportedly was hit by a train and killed. He was 38.

So, Mr. or Ms. DJ, please, lay off the Nat King Cole for a few minutes and queue up River of Sadness by the Nils. The world spins on, and it's not all snowmen and gum drops, even at Christmastime.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 18 at 12:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Helter Stupid

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O what a tangled Web: In this week's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, a merry chase through a mad melange of digital music, intellectual property, mash-ups and U2-related corporations' proud 13-year (at least) tradition of acting like dipsticks.

Sorry for the later-than-usual weekend column post. There's snow, it's been icky, I went to the movies. You? [...]

Who says irony is dead? Apple, apparently

By CARL WILSON
Saturday, December 11, 2004
The Globe & Mail Page R4


In a splendiferous show of good corporate humour, the legal department of Apple pitched in on an artist's Internet prank this week, contributing the crowning touch to his satirical work about digital music and copyright issues.

Either that, or Apple proved it has absolutely no trace of a whit of a ghost of a hint of a sense of irony. Which way do you bet?

Here are the facts, Mac: Last month New York artist-programmer Francis Hwang bought an iPod, one of the shiny new cross-promotional, black-and-red "U2" editions of Apple's psychotically popular line of digital-music players and stocking stuffers. It came engraved with the Irish rock band's signatures and loaded up with the bestselling new album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Then Hwang loaded in seven additional albums, all by the California group Negativland, and craftily modified the packing box so it read "Unauthorized iPod U2 vs. Negativland Special Edition," bearing photos of both groups. On Nov. 30 he put the set up for sale on eBay, with a proper legal disclaimer. It got nine bids, peaking at $455 (U.S.), before eBay shut the auction down on Monday, citing a complaint from Apple about intellectual-property rights.

It was the perfect punchline to Hwang's elaborate inside joke. To get the humour, you needed to know that in 1991, U2's label - Island Records, now part of the Universal Music conglomerate - sued Negativland and its indie record label SST almost out of existence over a single called U2.

The track was a sound collage of, among other elements, U2's then-hit I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with behind-the-scenes tapes of disc jockey Casey Kasem of America's Top 40 sputtering obscenities after someone called in to dedicate the song to a dead dog named Snuggles. It was hysterically funny.

Equally hysterical but not so amusing was the litigious force the rock behemoths unleashed against this dire threat to U2's existence. Negativland had been juxtaposing comical fragments for years, partly to provoke critical media analysis, so it tried to use its own plight as a case study. (See the snazzy video documentary The Letter U and the Numeral 2, or the book Fair Use.) But its "culture jamming" was no match for mainstream culture's gnashing gears.

Thirteen years later, Universal executive Jimmy Iovine said in a press release, "U2 and Apple have a special relationship where they can start to redefine the music business. The iPod along with iTunes is the most complete thought that we've seen in music in a very long time." Knowing U2's secret history, Francis Hwang saw a way Iovine's grand thought could be even, well, completer.

"With the continuing legal battles over the sampling and copying of music," he wrote in the text accompanying the auction, "there has never been a better time for such a tribute to the impact of technology on the flow of culture."

Hwang's "artful mash-up of the forces of corporate megarock and obscure experimental music" nodded to Negativland's significant early defeat in those battles. It was a commemorative act, in a struggle over who owns cultural memory and has a right to build creatively upon it. On the Internet, collective memory tends to win. In American legislatures and courts, it usually loses. The public domain seems to shrink year by year.

This time, though, experts say the law is on Hwang's side. He was careful not to include the banned single on his iPod, though you can download it from Negativland's website. In a report in the on-line Wired news service, California lawyer Scott Hervey observed, "He's just reselling the box that the goods came in."

Have pity on poor, confused Apple. In a business so compulsively fixated on piracy that police raids have been ordered on small children and grandmothers, no wonder Apple forgot it's legal to resell an object you own. Even if you modify it. Apple, for instance, purchases metal, wire, plastic and programmers' ideas, "mashes them up," as the kids are calling it, and retails this remix as a "computer."

Don't get dizzy, but here's another twist: As quickly as Hwang's eBay fun was spoiled on Monday, U2's spree atop the pop charts was cut short. After only a week at No. 1, How to Dismantle. . . was knocked out by Jay-Z/Linkin Park's Collision Course, the first product of MTV's new Ultimate Mash-Ups series. Like Apple's iTunes downloading service, it's the legit rip-off of a black-market model.

On the dance floor or on the web, "mash-ups" are made by DJs or computer hackers, descendants of Negativland who splice disparate songs together into new patterns. Jay-Z's raps are a favourite ingredient: In fact, Downhill Battle, the anti-music-industry non-profit to which Hwang was planning to donate his eBay gains, made its reputation promulgating a DJ Danger Mouse mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album called the Grey Album in an Internet protest early this year.

Jay-Z is finally taking his revenge with Collision Course. Trouble is, while fanciful hackers match his vocal flow to unlikely music such as Queen, Pavement or the Bangles, Jay-Z himself settled for Linkin Park, a guitar band that gained fame by mixing the quicksilver verbal wit of hair metal with the complex melodic invention of gangsta rap. (In case anyone at Apple is reading, that was irony.)

I guess the new flavour here is to do the mash-ups live. But I've actually been running a club series myself all year in Toronto billed as a "live mash-up night," where musicians from clashing backgrounds converge. Think I should sue MTV? True, someone like Danger Mouse might sue me in turn, but then Negativland could sue Danger Mouse. . . . Justice at last!

Meanwhile, Jay-Z is safely lawyered up, about to become an executive at his label Def Jam. Which just so happens to be another subsidiary of U2's Island/Universal.

And there you have it, the fervid, paranoid entertainment world of 2004, an intellectual slave plantation where all ideas are property and all their owners also own each other.

It cries out for more debate. But, of course, if you repeat anything you read here to anybody, Snuggles, I'll see your ass in court.

Further reading/listening:
Francis Hwang.
Negativland.
The secret history of mash-ups.
The Grey Album, Grey Tuesday and Danger Mouse.
Downhill Battle.
Jay-Z becomes Def Jam president.
My series, Tin Tin Tin.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 12 at 3:15 PM | Linking Posts

 

Whatever Happened to...

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... Morris Palter, the original drummer of Toronto alt-rock-era favourites Treble Charger, who was kicked out just as they peaked in popularity? As I report in the Globe today, he's doing some pretty amazing shit. (As he'll show at the Music Gallery on Sat. night.) And what happened to Treble Charger? They're doing shit, but not the amazing kind. One for the "blessings in disguise" file - chicken soup for the punk-rock soul. [...]

Hitting, scratching, rubbing

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail Review
Friday, December 10, 2004

Morris Palter's career is a musical demonstration of Newton's Third Law of Physics. In the early nineties, he was the founding drummer in one of Ontario's most acclaimed alt-rock bands, Treble Charger, opening for the likes of Radiohead. But when he was unceremoniously booted out, the kick seemed to send Treble Charger hurtling toward the blandest horizon of forgettable Canadian pop-punk -- and Palter in an opposite, more fantastical direction.

He ended up in the Netherlands and then California, studying experimental contemporary percussion music and performance. He went from rock clubs and arenas to international festivals and even Carnegie Hall. This weekend at the Music Gallery, he'll bring the results back to a Toronto stage for the first time since Treble Charger's heyday.

Tomorrow's solo recital will find him "hitting, scratching and rubbing" an array of instruments, from drum kit to found objects such as circular-saw blades or a car's brake drum. These spacious, exploratory pieces, including two that Palter commissioned from Canadian composers, may not be suitable for a mosh pit. But audiences still have a visceral reaction.

"When I see a flute player, I see how technical it is, with the fingers moving in a blur, the player blowing at an angle over the hole," a chatty Palter says by phone from San Diego, Calif., where he will complete his doctorate of musical arts this spring. "But when I stand in front of an audience and pick up a stick and hit something, people can relate: 'I could do that!'

"They can see the drum skin vibrating, or I come down with a hammer on an anvil and they hear this explosive sound. There's no great mystery, although the sound itself may be mysterious."

Unlike after a cello recital, he says, audience members after a percussion show find themselves drawn up to touch the instruments. "Kids especially love it. They freak out."

It's not the stretch it might seem for the performer, either. Growing up in Mississauga, Palter's father would bring the family out to Sunday symphony matinees and art galleries. When Treble Charger started (originally as NC-17), he was doing his undergraduate music degree at the University of Toronto, where he encountered the avant-garde percussion pieces of John Cage or minimalist Steven Reich.

Rock celebrity, then, was a kind of detour -- and not even the most intriguing side road Palter has followed.

Ruled too uncommercial a drummer for Treble Charger in 1996, a "devastated" Palter began "noodling around" with the only other instrument in his basement apartment, a xylophone, playing the charts of some old-fashioned ragtime he'd learned at school. Soon he rang up Bob Becker of the veteran Nexus percussion ensemble for lessons. Becker happens to be the foremost xylophonist in the world, a bragging right Toronto generally neglects to exercise.

Together, they explored the lost universe of ragtime xylophone improvisation. That early 20th-century genre is normally associated with piano, but Palter says that in the early 1920s, delirious "novelty xylophone" music became a craze, partly because it registered so well on early wax-cylinder recordings. "At the penny slot machines on the boardwalk, the music was xylophone."

As technology improved, ragtime piano again triumphed, though you can hear novelty xylophone's influence in the scores of early Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Today, Palter is one of the few prominent performers of the genre, serving as "musical sorbet" at American ragtime festivals among countless pianists. He's released a ragtime CD and teaches a popular course in it at UC San Diego.

"We start with African slave music, plantation songs, field hollers and work songs, all the way up to rich white Europeans using ragtime elements in classical music," he says. "It lets you examine the ugly dark side of American music, coon songs and minstrelsy and the burnt-cork era. So [ragtime] is a hobby that really took off."

Palter has also toured with percussion group Red Fish Blue Fish, founded a San Diego chamber ensemble called Noise, made a solo percussion disc (Remedy) and started composing for a California dance troupe, while applying for postdoctoral academic positions. With his expansive interests, he's lucky to be in percussion -- at once the oldest instrumental music and as a formal concert specialty among the newest, with repertory tracing only to the 1950s, its possibilities still greatly undefined.

Palter is particularly keen to develop material for his first love, the drum set, "using the elements of jazz and rock, but in a non-traditional way." He is even eager to play rock again -- but not to repeat the Treble Charger experience.

"Early on we had total control, as these indie darlings of Toronto. But as soon as you sign to a major label you lose that. There are all these hierarchies of power. . . . If I did go back to the rock thing I'd like to go back as a hired gun: Just show up for the gig, play and leave."

Meanwhile, Palter delights in using his mallets and sticks to play with other laws of physics -- all, it seems, except the conservation of energy.

Morris Palter's solo recital is at the Music Gallery, 197 John St., tomorrow at 8 p.m. $15 (students $5). 416-204-1080.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 10 at 5:27 PM | Linking Posts

 

Lil' Lee Bonks Lil' Jon On Noggin

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Not long ago I urged Zoilusians (if there is any such thing) to read my supergifted fictioneering friend Lee Henderson's terrific Ol' Dirty Bastard obit on Popmatters. Now I've got to direct you even more zealously to his screed against Lil' Jon's Crunk Juice as "speak-and-spell rap," "the Raffi of gangsta rap," and much worser.

What a tirade! What a philippic! What an aria of vituperation! Huzzah!

But I have to say it's always suspect to hurl "sell-out" at anybody in hip-hop - unlike in the authenticity sweepstakes of rock, rap has never had anything against getting paid. Hell, even in that phrase it ranks profiteering with sexiness the way the Victorian use of "spend" meaning "cum" flashed the colours of their own mercantile era. But then there's always that duality, that tension between getting over and representing, between doing for self in a capitalist trap and bringing it back home, and while there's something totally thrilling and reckless about the spectacle of somebody throwing every obligation overboard, saying fuck it and just going over-the-top pirate-style, somebody's got to blow a whistle when the game gets zero-sum. After all what's subversive about commercial rap has been to assimilate the mainstream to hip-hop culture more than the other way around, in a guerrilla populist campaign. There's got to be such a thing as being so clever at that double-agent act that you just fool yourself. Every critic's got their own line in the sandlot and I guess Lil Jon just crossed Lee's.

I'm not so sure about Lee's snap-back to Phil Sherburne's thesis in the New York Times (no working link, sorry, but PS said: "Lil Jon's keyboards aren't just surprising. They're perverse. He breaks from hip-hop tradition by choosing a sound and a technology borrowed from European rave music and from English new-wave artists like Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby"). Lee's counterexamples, Bobby Digital, Anti-Pop Consortium and Goodie Mob, can't compare to Lil' Jon's success in bringing that keyboard tone into the centre from the margins, and just because techno and rap both built on disco, it doesn't mean they've shared any path since then. Grime is the obvious other answer, but when I read Sherburne's piece I wondered whether Dre's Sesame Street casio-keyboard figures for pre-8 Mile Eminem also might qualify as beating Lil Jon to that finish tape.

(Sean at Hardly Art, Hardly Garbage takes this on with more expertise - he seems almost to play several sides, but that's just what we were talking about, innit?)

Lee's denunciation of Jon's betrayal of "MC lyricism" calls for a more complicated manoeuvre: Couldn't you say Crunk Juice is just primarily an instrumental, sonic machine? Isn't it maybe too conservative - too much maybe thinking like a writer - to insist that's not okaayy?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 07 at 10:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

Apparitions and Vanishments

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Video killed the radio star. Now, it seems, video is feeling remorseful about it and has come back to make amends. The phenomenology of the music DVD is today's topic in Overtones, under a headline the editors apparently chose out of a deep unconscious desire to see me strung up by gangs of Zeppelin fans from the lampposts at dawn. [...]

Why concert DVDs like Zeppelin are just wrong

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

Saturday, December 4, 2004
The Globe & Mail

A crowd of people floats in a field of white, staring out at you. By twos and threes, in overlapping waves, they fade slowly in and out of sight, clothing materializing on nude bodies, an old man evaporating into a little girl, ghostly specimens of a mute race of spectators, sole witnesses to their own disappearance.

That is Arc of Apparition, a recent DVD by Canadian musician-composer John Oswald. Ignore the soundtrack, a multilingual collage of whispers on a separate CD - the way the bodies, faces and colours emerge and dissipate is music enough, a chorale of fog and cloud. Silence seems its natural habitat.

Oswald's piece may be the only recent meeting of musician and DVD you could call quiet. The industry fanfare has crescendoed into a hallelujah chorus, as the DVD nearly reverses the decline of global music sales. The take on music videos rose 27 per cent in the first half of this year over 2003, when it was 67 per cent higher than in 2002.

I've resisted thinking about DVDs, given how gadget talk has colonized leisure: The ages of swing, rock, soul, punk and rap somehow led into the eras of the CD, Napster, iPod and ringtone. But going from audio to video is more than a gizmo transplant. It's a realignment of the senses, with eyes eclipsing ears.

If it mostly sells video, is it still the "music" industry?

The DVD boom is partly collector-mania - once they've sold everybody all the Beatles stuff over again, the bubble may pop. You don't play DVDs while doing dishes or (I hope) driving. Concert DVDs, such as last year's Zeppelin, are the most popular and most wrong - trading the outsized spectacle and audience camaraderie for close-ups of old rockers doing their "guitar face." Video reduces idols to bad actors.

Still, for those too young, old, poor or isolated to attend concerts, it's a step. At least, unlike download-and-delete MP3s, DVDs request your time and attention.

Indeed, for music lovers, this is one ginormous geekfest. Just as CDs ushered in a reissue frenzy, and downloaders treasure rare tracks, DVD dredges up a bonanza of obscure documentaries, interviews, TV spots and concert films: Want to see the infancies of post-punk units Wire, the Fall, the Birthday Party (with Nick Cave), Galaxie 500 or the Young Marble Giants? They're out there. Plus all the extras: To hear Public Enemy's Chuck D. comment on the 1972 "black Woodstock," you need the new Wattstax DVD.

Jazz and other improvised musics should benefit - audio alone seldom transmits their true jolt. Despite its self-conscious direction, for instance, the performances on a recent disc about improv giant John Zorn unleash such inventive force you could forget to breathe.

DVDs provide pop musicology: Calexico's live disc, for example, includes a short film on one of the Arizona band's major influences, mariachi. Along with the Internet, DVDs are turning every listener into an armchair historian, making music journalism almost redundant.

This summer, Toronto indie fan Randy Chase put out a "DVD zine," Electrical Tape, with ingenious featurettes on local artists such as Les Mouches, the Creeping Nobodies and Ratsicule. Smart interviews and live footage open up this next-door alternate universe in a way print could never match. Every town should have its own Electrical Tape.

Yet the medium also can transport you to music scenes far off in miles or years: Glimpse the late African legend Fela Kuti in concert; meet Cuba's Company Segundo; or encounter Atlanta's druggy drag-queen answer to Tom Waits and Patti Smith, who died of AIDS a half-decade ago, on a lovely DVD called Benjamin Smoke.

That film is part of the burgeoning subset of DVDs devoted to musical outsiders - the Residents, the staunchly anonymous San Francisco art-rock clan who pioneered music video (their 1980 Commercial Album has now mutated into a DVD); loincloth-clad street busker Thoth; never-was disco-punk prodigy Gary Wilson; the odd souls who sent their messed-up verse to a post-office box to be turned into "song-poems," as told in Off the Charts; and so on and on.

Why? Video, unlike music, is largely a narrative form, and weirdoes make better stories than stars: All successes are alike, but every failure fails in his or her own way.

As well, too many DVDs market themselves as a "backstage pass" for "all access" to, say, Jay-Z, or to see the Who "live." They hype the artist's presence, but can deliver only image, because mass-market art isn't about presence. It's about absence. The maker is missing, a gap, an other, a lover the fan surmises into existence. Recorded music is an ideal case, a disembodied sound saturated with information but holding even more back. The camera risks flattening that effect into banality. But these eccentrics contain such a surfeit of mystery that scrutiny doesn't drain it away.

The farthest of the far-out may be Jandek, a pseudonymous Texan musician, subject of the new DVD, Jandek on Corwood. Jandek is all absence: Since 1978, he's put out 37 albums of unpleasant moaning and tuneless guitars on his Corwood Industries label. No one quite knows who he is. With hen's-teeth-rare exceptions, he does not play live or do media: He is all ears and no eyes. He inspires endless speculation in his tiny band of devotees: Is he a sociopath? A millionaire?

Missouri filmmakers Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler shot 24 Jandek cultists, but never the man himself. He is represented by an unmade bed, a shrouded moon, a leaf-bare tree. He does send them a note: "You may not get all the answers you want. It's better that way."

Exactly. With his blasted-heath persona and opaque art, Jandek has made himself the blankest of screens for our fantasies, fears and desires - the ultimate rock star, so pure he is no star at all, fading in and out of sight like a dream, like the figures in John Oswald's video. As Jandek sings in The Place: "We all appear and then dissolve,/ Like an image presentation./ An annoying, glancing, piercing eye,/ And solitude that just won't quit."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 04 at 4:10 PM | Linking Posts

 

Notes on Hip (II)

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Some points that didn't get made in the mad whirl of this weekend's column: As I said, in John Leland's Hip: The History, a sound analysis of the wend and way of "hip" through the past few centuries comes to a fishtailing anticlimax when he hits the slippery turf of the present day. Seems as though Leland is at his best filtering through the received wisdom, and has trouble with material that's not old enough to come predigested.

So he lopes through obvious observations of the ubiquity of the signifiers of the old hip - delayed marriage, loosened social ties, sexual openness, etc etc. - especially in "rebel sell" advertising. Yet of course what was hip in the past nearly always becomes the appropriated common coin in the marketplace of the next generation - that cycle has been fairly consistent for a century. He also notes that the "white nigger" status past white hipsters vied for is now a suburban trope, the "wigger," equal parts minstrelsy and actual racial realignment.

But he snoozes on the globalization of hip that's being brought about by a couple of forces - first the huge access to cultural information that the Internet allows, and second actual economic globalization, which is accelerating change, creating a global elite and a global ghetto, those populations repeating the urbanization patterns that western people went through in the 20th century but at hyperspeed and a previously unimagined scale, which is hot with its own cultural piracies and fusions. (See previous posts on "shanty house" and like noize.) I think "hip" is going to have more and more to do with being jacked into that stream of invention and evasion - and to the extent that "hip" is an interesting category at all (and I agree with Leland that, considered as the channel between mainstream and margin, the productive mistranslation of symbol and sound between the two, it's really interesting), what's hip in the next half-century will pose a real challenge to the smug alterna-whateverism of the North American indie-activist-small-press-etc-etc hipster that's thrived the past quarter-century. (Edited to add: Aaron's observation that crunk and the Nashville Muzik Mafia both hail from "red states" touches the same moving target.)

So here's the hip replacement: Leland shoulda called his last chapter "When Hips Collide," (referring both to the aforementioned clash and to doin' the bump, which is eternally hip), rather than dwelling on trucker caps and other stupid ephemera. In fact, speaking of trucker-hat planet, Leland might even have mentioned Vice magazine's ongoing, infuriating campaign to make open racism and sexism "hip" again - from a global ghetto perspective, perhaps that will prove sadly prescient.

Given Leland was a hip-hop journalist for years, you'd expect him to do better on these subjects. Then again, he's also a former editor of Details; from that p.o.v., the book's a helluva lot sharper than you'd expect.

Further listening: The new Afrika Bambaataa disc shows him still rockin' the world party with sounds from all over you cannot help but bump to. He's a million in hip-hop years but he sounds younger than all the bucks. And Peter Margasak (veteran crit from the Chicago Reader) has a new all-terrain-vehicle, a blog called Worldly Disorientation that's proving to be a good road guide to the whomp of the global ghetto, as well as the world's politer and less perilous precincts.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 30 at 1:24 AM | Linking Posts

 

Notes on Hip (I)

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What's up, docs and dockettes? Today's column, hot off the grill. I know this one's kinda loony tunes (Mrs. Zoilus tells me it helps to read it twice, but who reads an article twice?). Clarifying footnotes to follow.

* * *

HIP AND SUAVE AND BADDER THAN BAD

The men of the Handsome Boy Modeling School seldom make whiteness an explicit subject. You have to read between the tracks

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
Saturday, Nov 27, 2004
The Globe & Mail

Bugs Bunny zooms over to the Handsome Boy Modeling School in his stretch SUV, Elmer Fudd's limo zigzagging behind in hot pursuit. (Old habits, like old rabbits, die hard.) Soon Bugs is reclining on a salon chair in a silk robe, waggling a carrot like Groucho's cigar and yammering orders for a proper "ear grooming."

"I know I said 'asymmetrical,' doc, but watch dem clippers! And d'you mugs have any fleur de sel for dis here cancer stick, or do I have to burrow all da way back to Cannes?"

Bugs was having his carotene-saturated blood changed in Switzerland before Keith Richards was a glimmer in Muddy Waters's eye, but lately he's been taking it easy. He does cameos, but mostly concentrates on charity work -- research to cure cliff plummet, rifle-knot backfire, anvil-related indentation and other ills inflicted in his wild days. He's giving some back.

"My apologies, sir," his stylist pipes up. "But to tint the highlights, I need to know, um: Are you black or are you white?"

"Well, back in the day . . ." Bugs begins, then shrugs. "Eh! You know. Not as white as the Mouse, not yet. Mebbe as white as you are."

"Pardon, sir, but I'm not -- "

"You hoid me, doc. Now make wit' dat hare dye."

Bugs won't be fenced in, not since he read New York Times reporter John Leland's new book Hip: The History, in which Bugs features as America's Most Animated. Leland's survey ranges from Walt Whitman to DJ Spooky, but for one chapter (called "Hip Has Three Fingers"), he lingers over the streetwise ways of jazz-age cartoons. Bugs, he writes, "navigated the gulfs between high culture and low, male and female, power and sass." Not to mention straight and gay and, of course, black and white.

The book's sustaining insight is that hip is a pure gone-crazy product of America -- Euro-America and Afro-America forever stalking and outfoxing each other, the nation's sick compulsion, and mother of all its invention.

The term goes back further than Bugs guessed: Hip dates to the 1700s, imported by slaves as hepi, "to see," and hipi, "to open one's eyes," in the Wolof tongue of coastal Gambia. Similar passages brought in cool, dig, jive and honky: From slave lore on to blues, jazz, rock and beat poetry, hip has been the inside language of outsiders, the lexicon of camouflage and parody, a concealment that reveals.

What Bugs digs most is his depiction as a modernist trickster, in the line of jesters and "wascals" going back to the African hare deity who quick-changed into America's Br'er Rabbit. A society invents tricksters to undermine its own rules, so it can move on, says Leland, bringing up Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Richard Pryor.

And now there's hip-hop, with its roots in the rhyming-insult showdowns known as "signifying," after a trickster type called the Signifying Monkey. No wonder Eminem's 8 Mile character was named Rabbit, Bugs thinks. ("Note to self: Could I mebbe make a buck off that?")

But Eminem also marks the spot where Leland's engine runs off its rails: the present. He suggests multiculturalism has demoted whiteness to just another self-aware ethnic performance, a kind of "whiteface." (Besides Slim Shady, trucker hats come up a lot.) But if white hipsters are post-white, does that make hip blacks post-black? Bugs freestyles his critique: "That tar baby's stickier than taffy/ So this guy ducks the issue like Daffy." It's as if Leland just gave up and went for the happy, rainbow-coloured ending.

For 21st-century Hip Studies, ambi-racial Bugs much prefers the approach here at Handsome Boy Modeling School. The proprietors are hip-hop trickster-producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator -- albeit, in false moustaches, as Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather.

Their hallmarks were set in 1999 with the cult album, So . . . How's Your Girl? -- goofy sketches, scrunchy sound collages and guest stars galore. They impersonate suave clotheshorses, but "handsome" here is code for a rereading of hip. As the booklet in their new disc says, "It's a handsome thing, you wouldn't understand" -- a zinger even more pungent when paired with the album's title: White People.

It's full of pink-complexioned guests such as Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle), Cat Power, Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park), Jack Johnson and even John Oates (as in "Hall and"), plus a few Saturday Night Live has-been comics. Whiteness is seldom an explicit subject (save in the sly Julee Cruise-Pharrell Williams duet, Class System), but the question hangs flapping on the line between the tracks.

In the video for the album's classic-sounding lead single, World Gone Mad, rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien's brown face breaks up through the surface in a box full of white Styrofoam packing peanuts. Jamaican singer Barrington Levy croons a heavenly hook, and Del drawls, "The situation's bad, not meanin' good," reversing Run-DMC's milestone 1986 hip-hop chant, "Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good."

"Heeeyyy," Bugs breaks in. "Leland says 'Bad meaning good' goes back to slave plantations, too: Say you said a runaway slave was good, that was trouble. But if you said he was bad, who could prove you meant good?"

So what's up with Del? "Ehh, maybe he had enough doubletalk."

Consider last week's demise of a classic hipster, Ol' Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan. He lived the off-kilter addict's life, transfigured it into his wild performances, and what does he get? Just an inadvertent audio obit in the illicit, Queen-meets-hip-hop mash-up that's all over the Web these days, A Night at the Hip-Hopera: It has ODB rhyming over the riff to Another One Bites the Dust.

By giving gorgeous, funky makeovers to cheese-rockers, yet playing their own shtick for anything but cool, it's as if Handsome Boy shuffles hip's racial deck: "This century, how about you come up with raw material and we do the appropriating?"

"Yep, that's the ticket, doc," says Bugs, shaking out his coiffed head and chomping down on his carrot. "I figgered that out a loooooong time ago."

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 27 at 2:13 AM | Linking Posts

 

Musical Energy Pellets, Eat 'Em Up

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Kim Cooper and David Smay, who put out the terrific Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth! anthology a few years ago, have a new book. For the past dozen years Kim's been the editrix of Scram magazine (which has a get-lost-for-hours compendium of disc reviews online), which was fighting the forces of snark in music long before The Believer ever thought to do it for books; instead Kim throws herself full-bellyflop-dive-style into enthusing about and championing greatness that might otherwise pass you by. The new tome, Lost In The Grooves, cranks up mission control with essays on everything from King Crimson to Cal Tjader, Swamp Dogg to Pac-Man Fever, by a host of contributors from a Meat Puppet to Rick Moody.

How do I know all this? Because they did an entertaining phone-in on NPR today. Funny thing was the awkward moments when listeners would call in suggesting "lost" albums like Forever Changes or "introducing" Nick Drake, and Cooper and Smay would have to strain not to respond like snooty record-store clerks. (They pulled it off, though.) Other callers managed to stump the authors with paeans to Tin Huey and the Flirts and one managed to make a poignant case for the lost-ness of Smokey Robinson, not forgotten but somehow looked-past.

Photos from this week's Tin Tin Tin should be up this weekend, by the way, and of course check tomorrow for this weekend's Overtones column, a bit of a hyperactive romp around John Leland's Hip: The History, the new Handsome Boy Modelling School, ODBituaries (that link is a must-read, by the way!) and the Kleptones.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 26 at 4:45 PM | Linking Posts

 

The Rockismford Files, Chpt. CIX

In the absence of a real post (column deadline, show to do, etc.), here's some entertaining debatery for those who recognize that last week's column was an entry in the disorganized sport of writing about rockism without ever mentioning rockism.

And why would one play such a game? Because when you do mention rockism, people go apeshit, and then other people are pushed to play rough.

Or screw all that and go have a fight worth having, between your ears, by listening to dj/Rupture's amazing post-election mix. (Via Dissensus.) And read Weisblott's typically on-the-needle reflections on the passing of Toronto rock-era AM-radio royalty, "Shotgun" Tom Rivers.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 23 at 7:49 PM | Linking Posts

 

Horrified Observations of Horrified Observers

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Have you heard about this group Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment, who are giving people (mostly) old rock albums if they get rid of their Ashlee Simpson discs? In this week's Overtones, such forces of smug condescension meet the spirit of idiosyncratic eclecticism .... and the wrong side dies. Witness the showdown.

Who are they to say that Britney's trash?

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

The Globe & Mail
Sat. Nov. 20, 2004

This week only, The Globe and Mail offers a reprieve to the good people who have been duped into buying "classic" rock: Turn in your substandard albums by U2, Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead and we will supply superior CDs by Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears.

If this deal sounds ridiculous, it should, since I by no means intend to honour it: Who am I to tell you what's substandard or superior? And what would I want with your stupid Led Zeppelin albums?

Yet if I made the exact opposite appeal, as a coalition of cultural smugs in L.A. and New York did this week, it seems I'd get a tastemaker's bouquet.

A group called Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment (HOPE) has garnered ovations from Rolling Stone to the BBC for offering to exchange any CD by lip-synch-scandal singer Ashlee Simpson for "one of a higher entertainment quality." Egged on, they expanded the trade to Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Linkin Park and "any boy band."

HOPE admits lip-synching is a red herring: It's been all over music for decades, mostly to permit acrobatic concert choreography. Their beef is "low quality." Measured with their own Qualitometer.

The daring crew's proposed substitutes are safe, canonized 1960s and 1970s rock and soul stars. The few fresher offerings include Neil Hamburger, a standup comic whose shtick is that he's not funny - oh, I bet Britney fans are going to like that tons more than dancing to the percolated beat of her hit Toxic.

When HOPE first began punking celebrity culture, it targeted Paris Hilton, who is renowned due to what Daddy rakes in and a talent on view only in a fuzzy clandestine video. HOPE picketed her "book" signing with placards: "Why are you famous?" and "I'd rather watch a Stephen King porn than read a Paris Hilton book."

That protest seemed like a clever attack on the wealth-worshipping cult. This one is just a bunch of stiffs looking down on other people's ideas of fun, specifically HOPE's "entertainment and media professionals, students, journalists and citizens" (read: insular honkies pushing 30) sneering at the pleasures of teenaged girls: Shut up, little fillies, making us antsy with your semi-orgasmic squeals. Sit down and nod along to old hippies. For four hours. I said shut up.

Another group, called You Have Bad Taste in Music, is more direct: They attend pop concerts in army helmets and shout abusive slogans through bullhorns at the crowd in the parking lot. It's much like the Bush regime's foreign-outreach program, You Have Bad Taste in Religions and Political Systems.

I dislike some of the music on these groups' hit lists, too, just not on principle. Some is gaudy, body-wriggling pop joy; some ain't. But their stunts are only smarmy genteel sequels to Disco Demolition Day in July, 1979, when a mountain of disco records got torched at a Chicago baseball game and the smoke cut short a double-header.

Disco was indeed oversold then, as teen-pop is now. But the vitriol is never so caustic when we're flooded with weak rock. The backlash always seems the worst when the top tunes are being made for black people, girl people and gay people: "Disco sucks, dude."

That 1979 campaign forever smeared one of the most technically, rhythmically inventive genres in pop. Lingering discophobia was one reason that techno, house, jungle and other 1990s innovations never broke big in North America. Likewise, today's rockin' reactionaries are missing out on the producers who fill the best bubble-gum chews with startling flavours of dissonance, sliding slantwise beats and psychotic sonic comedy.

All us would-be snobs could take a lesson from a recently rediscovered patron saint of the open ear: Arthur Russell was a classically trained cellist, rock and folk fan and composer from the cornfields of Iowa who spent much of the seventies studying Indian ragas, befriending Allen Ginsberg, curating performance art and nearly joining the Talking Heads. But as a young gay man in New York in the mid-seventies, one night he inevitably ended up at a disco.

Beyond the throbbing sexuality, Russell heard a universe in the reverberating drums, ululating divas and hand-claps of the anthems at Paradise Garage and Studio 54.

Soon he was collaborating with disco producers to mix his own silky, drifting compositions into big-beat banquets such as Dinosaur L's Go Bang and Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face, underground classics at last available on 2004's The World of Arthur Russell. Now they'd call it "Intelligent Dance Music," but Russell would snap back that dancing was always pretty smart.

He also crossed over the other way, smuggling disco's looping hooks into his minimalist experiments, speak-singing along with his wired-up cello in a way, as his friend Philip Glass said, nobody's done before or since. He said he was after "Buddhist bubble-gum," a goal best realized in the vast oceanic flutter and cerebral lullabies of 1986's World of Echo, finally out on CD this month (with a haunting DVD). Pop variations occupy a less-consistent archival disc, Calling Out of Context.

Russell was sadly forgotten by the time he died of AIDS in 1992; the loss is just being recognized. Yet he was also a maddening tinkerer, forever revising his music and leaving it incomplete. What remains is like a torn notebook of half-remembered dreams of steamy dance clubs and cloud-covered aeries. The wending melodies suggest someone blithely tossing away his heart's desire, and then at the last second stretching out, diving to rescue it.

Russell's story cautions against ever presuming to know what history will consider trash. And that gives me hope against HOPE.

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 20 at 1:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I Think We Have a Winner...

... in the rockism sweepstakes: Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs list.

The top-ranked tune is Like a Rollin' Stone, which is fine - blatantly self-serving, since the title contains the magazine's name! but better than Hey fucking Jude - but get this: More than 200 out of the 500 songs date to the sixties, including 15 of the top 20. (Nirvana is the only representative of the past decade-and-a-half in that tier.) The Scotsman concludes that therefore, "The list proves that the 60s was really the decade that made music," rather than, "the list proves that the 60s was really the decade that made Rolling Stone magazine and it's never gotten over it."

It turns out (see story linked in the first 'graph) that "voters were told to focus on 'the rock 'n' roll era'." That sucks great balls of fire. (Note: not worksafe.) I realize that lists is for suckas. And I realize that in fact, there are as many good folks among boomers as there are in any generation. But sometimes I just can't wait for them to, well, die.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 17 at 1:59 PM | Linking Posts

 

Put a Tamil Tiger In Your Sonic-WMD Tank

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In the spirit of Aaron's edict (see prev. comments) against blogging-on-blogging, but also in the spirit of being on deadline with two other stories:

Go read S/FJ's New Yorker piece on the amazing M.I.A., whose stuff I slept on all year till, coincidentally, last week, when I discovered that this 27-year-old Tamil refugee in London has been issuing some of the most mind-and-body-division-destroying blastifestos to come from the noise-liberation front in many a day.

Sasha's themes in "Bingo in Swansea" are very close to what I was talking about last week in re: Brazilian baile funk and global shanty house music, to wit: "... most of what you find in the world-music section tends toward the gentle, melodious, and uplifting, as if the world were that way"; and "actual, on-the-ground world culture: synthetic, cheap, colorful, staticky with power."

(He does mention baile funk and Diplo further down in the piece; Diplo, it's worth mentioning, is at the Mod Club in the T-dot on Fri.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 16 at 7:38 PM | Linking Posts

 

Everybody in da Shanty House

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Today's Overtones column is a whiplash tour of recent Brazilian sounds from Caetano Veloso, Arto Lindsay (with a detour into DNA) and baile funk. I'm indebted to Matt Woebot and his idea of Rio funk as "shanty house" and "post-world-music," quoted at length toward the end. The girl from Ipanema comes in for some sassin'. Read it now ...

Getting back at phony Braziliana

By CARL WILSON
Saturday, Nov 13, 2004

If you're making a trashy art-house movie, an easy way to signal which sultry damsel will become the obscure object of desire is always to strike up a little bossa nova when she saunters into frame - ideally Astrud Gilberto singing Girl from Ipanema.

Sure, it reduces Brazil's vast musical vocabulary to one suggestive swish, but that's the kind of shorthand Western pop culture loves to make out of "world music" -- an African choir for pious Third World suffering, the twang of a sitar for heading into the mystic, whole societies ground down to grains of spice.

As technology compresses geography, though, increasingly both sides can play that game. Since American dominance comes with ever-higher stakes, the rest of the world is hijacking ideas with a fervour.

The process comes under scrutiny on the latest album from Caetano Veloso, a giant from the bossa-nova era through his leadership in the sixties upheavals of tropicalia (when rock-influenced innovators were jailed or exiled for offending the military government) to today, when populist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's reform agenda is stymied by foreign debt and internal division. A Foreign Sound is Veloso's first album entirely in English, at once a tribute to and an interrogation of American popular music.

The album begins with Carioca, a piece of phony 1930s Braziliana concocted for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Flying Down to Rio, for which the stars never even flew down to Rio. Veloso performs a similar search-and-rescue mission on kitschy old Feelings - originally written by a Brazilian (Morris Albert) passing himself off as an American in Paris.

And he gets his revenge for decades of being called "the Brazilian Bob Dylan" with a rattlingly syncopated cover of It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) that makes Dylan seem merely the American Caetano Veloso: "Even the president of the United States," he sings with a wink, "sometimes must have to stand naked."

The disc's title is lifted from a line in that song: "So don't fear, if you hear/ A foreign sound in your ear." Veloso's gambit here is to remind Western listeners that, to most of the globe's population, Hollywood movies are foreign films and English is a foreign language.

His point is not to vilify English. Many of these are songs he loves. As Veloso told Parisian newspaper Le Monde, "I don't have a simplistic vision of imperialism: Tropicalia aimed to take account of the complexity of things. But, against the logic of winners and losers, dear to American puritans, my preference is to present original human experience."

In another interview, he cautioned: "If one thinks that he can mix anything with anything, he's in danger of getting lost. But nowadays you can't really avoid facing it. Even if you just concentrate yourself in a national, closed, stylistic world, you're just responding to the necessity of recognizing mixtures and the dialogues of styles and cultures. It is the era of comparison, that you can put things side by side and suggest surprising comparisons that will change your way of thinking and feeling."

One of the most surprising dialogues comes with his cover of Detached by the obscure New York "no wave" noise-rock band DNA. From the original's snarl of electric guitar, one-finger bass and yelps, Veloso produces an orchestral arrangement that sounds like an atonal composition by Edgar Varese or Alban Berg.

The twist is that the singer and guitarist of DNA was Veloso's American friend Arto Lindsay, who grew up partly in Brazil as the son of missionary parents. After a brief, firefly flash of notoriety on the early-1980s downtown-Manhattan art scene - available for the first time in its full kinetic glory on a new CD, DNA on DNA - Lindsay followed an artistic path that led him back to Brazil on a sort of quest of personal decolonization.

Since the mid-1990s, he's released a series of superb discs sung in English and Portuguese to a sinewy sine wave of electrified samba, with lyrics of metaphysical, erotic abstraction and a backbeat borrowed from hip-hop and funk, with DNA's spasms of white noise reduced to an occasional accent. He's also become a producer in Brazil, and (along with fellow former art-rock geek, David Byrne) an envoy to northern audiences for many of the country's greatest talents. Yet Veloso cheekily reminds his friend of his least-Brazilian phase.

Meanwhile, on Lindsay's latest album, Salt, I detect a bit of the metallic clatter and streetwise stamp of Brazil's latest wave of stylistic mutation, hailing from the hillside shantytown slums in the north of Rio, the favelas. The latest, rawest example of Brazil getting its own back from American pop culture is favela dance music, known to music mavens by monikers such as carioca funk and funky do morro ("hill funk"). In its native land it's just plain "funk," but it doesn't sound much like the genre an American would identify - it's funk as in sweat, not style.

The current popular phrase is "Rio baile funk," after a new compilation of "favela booty beats" assembled by German music critic and DJ Daniel Haaksman, one of the hottest musical fetish objects of this fall. It offers a taste of the sound heard at the all-night parties or bailes attended by hundreds of thousands of people every weekend in Rio since the 1970s.

These bailes are subject to gang violence, police raids and the kind of middle-class dread that generates urban legends (often reported as fact in the Rio press) of copulating conga lines and underage orgies. Yet it's worth remembering that samba itself, now considered the apex of Brazilian sophistication, was born in the favelas of the previous century and got exactly the same sort of official contempt and harassment.

For years, baile DJs played mostly American soul music, but in the late 1980s, one DJ Marlboro is credited with having introduced Rio to Miami bass - the rump-shaking electro sound of 2 Live Crew and other salacious Florida party bands. What sounded good banging out of the tricked-up car stereos of teens cruising the strip in Miami was even better from the mammoth speaker systems that are the pride of the bailes. Before long, partygoers were adding shouted rap to the beats in Portuguese, along with technically crude samples of samba and other pop hits, accordion, sirens and car horns.

The Miami sound was swiftly eclipsed in American hip-hop, so that over the next decade baile funk became a Brazilian exclusive. Now it's coming full circle: "Favela chic" parties have begun popping up in London and Paris, with the London DJs of Slum Dunk releasing their own Carioca Funk compilation next week. Haaksman has noted the irony of a German collecting a Brazilian sound that appropriates the Miami bass inspired by New York electro that was influenced in turn by German 1970s computer pop like Kraftwerk.

North Americans may have taken to the sound of digital samba from the likes of Bebel Gilberto and Juana Molina. But by comparison, that's merely Girl from Ipanema Goes to Mars. Baile funk doesn't whisper "Come hither." It screams "Shake it!" and shimmies till it shakes off everything, most of all its own beleaguered poverty.

Internet music writer Matthew Ingram, better known as Woebot, positions baile funk in a global phenomenon he calls "shanty house" music, together with the "grime" (à la Dizzee Rascal) of London housing projects, and the twists on hip-hop from South Africa's kwaito and the desi of the South Asian diaspora.

It's "the new strain of post-world-music," he says. "The concept of 'world music' is inextricably intertwined with concepts of the natural, the earthen and the rooted. However, the new wave of global urban music is mercilessly hooligan in its agenda, synthetic by choice and necessity, often produced in a crucible of urban existence, yet more extreme, precarious and violent than that which characterizes the temperature of New York, London, Berlin."

Woebot speculates that this desperate edge will keep pop from assimilating shanty house. And yet earlier this year, a bastardized version of baile funk by hip-hop artists from elsewhere in Brazil, remixed by Fatboy Slim, became the soundtrack to a Nissan SUV commercial; and desi is already all over recent R&B; hits.

As Veloso said, it's an era of "surprising comparisons" - and the ferocity of favela funk makes you wonder if it could become an era of surprising comeuppances. Meanwhile, you may find more than a few "foreign sounds" creeping into your own body English. But they won't be swaying compliantly in the tropical breeze.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 13 at 4:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

This Is Not, In Fact, The Place

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Apropos of nobody's big debate: Everyone, including the Arcade Fire (who cover it in concert), seems to call This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) his/her favourite Talking Heads song. I think that may be one of my favourite love songs, in fact, but to like it best as a Talking Heads song is not really to like the Talking Heads, is it? Life During Wartime, Once In A Lifetime, even, if you want a ballad, Heaven... these are Talking Heads songs, while TMBtP seems more like a "I bet you didn't think Talking Heads could do this" song. It is almost a cruelty, like a lover saying to another, "I like you best when you are least yourself." This least-representative, most-popular dyad seems like a commonplace syndrome, though at the moment I'm at a loss to produce another example - Coltrane's Favourite Things, maybe?

Not that both aren't great: They aren't exceptions by virtue of being shit, or pandering for approval or what-have-you. They are happy exceptions, but songs you do not so much have to like the band's inborn pneuma in order to treasure. We could make separate lists for each of those categories. Incidentally, would said lists then be rockist? Or could we name someone whose oeuvre consists of nothing but these sorts of happy exceptions, and would that then be the best popular music records artist ever? It's late Friday afternoon, so let's call that our homework.

Meanwhile on Nipplegate=Death/moral-cultural values/freethought vs. the fundies/etc. - read Frank Rich (if you don't mind pre-empting your Sunday morning - I mind, too, but I got spoiled so now I'm spoiling you) and The Stranger (I don't agree but it's cathartic).

Typically enough, the media have now overcorrected and ruled by sheep-stampede that moral values are defined by religiosity, that the correctness of morality is determined by who won an election in a deeply corrupt electoral system, that this explains the election and the election explains it. Simply put, somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the population of the United States are scary Jesus freaks. Karl Rove figured out a way to get them out to vote their homophobia, which cancelled out the quite-successful efforts of those well-known satanists Bruce Springsteen and Puffy and MoveOn and so forth because it is a winner-take-all system that only grudgingly answers to the name "democracy." That doesn't mean all America is scared of Janet Jackson's nipple. America is mostly not red or blue but purple (you've seen the maps by now, I won't link them) and the sun ain't yellow, it's chicken. As Leon Wieseltier has written, in as staid a place as The New Republic:

"Perhaps the most odious feature of contemporary conservatism is its equation of success with virtue. In the realm of economics, this long ago resulted in the strange belief in the moral superiority of the wealthy, a vulgar Calvinism according to which money is a proof of merit and riches are a mark of righteousness. How else is wealth acquired in America, after all, except justly? And now, in the aftermath of the election, the equation of success and virtue, the conflation of outer worth with inner worth, has been extended to the realm of politics. We are instructed that the Republicans won because they have 'values' and the Democrats lost because they do not have 'values.' (Or quantitatively speaking, 59.5 million Americans have 'values' and 55.9 million Americans do not have 'values.') Winners are good, losers are bad."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 12 at 5:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

Strokes of Scenius


I've got a piece in today's Globe and Mail about the Morr Music tour (featuring Lali Puna, Styrofoam, Duo 505 and the Go Find), in Toronto on Saturday, and the 416 improv festival, running all through this weekend. Guaranteed political-rant-free: Instead, it's a decent little intro to the muso theme of "scenius," to which the copydesk then gave a totally inane headline that makes me grind my teeth into shrapnel. Look at the headline on this post - it could have been that easy!

Anyway, I notice less of the local improv scene is represented in this year's 416 than usual; I assume there is a scandalous, gossipy sort of reason for this, and expect my informants to tell me now. There's competition in the form of a Leftover Daylight gig at the Arraymusic space tonight that looks especially strong: a Joe Sorbara-Nick Fraser drum duo; a band led by Brodie West with Alex Luchachevsky, Tania Gill, Ryan Driver, David French, Doug Tielli; and a set by John Kameel Farah. Me, I'll be at the sold-out Devendra Banhart/Six Organs of Admittance show tonight at the Music Gallery. (As discussed in last week's column.) I will report back tomorrow.

Also tomorrow (Sat. Nov. 13) my regular Overtones column appears in the Globe. This week, we take a mental flight down to Rio to chat about Brazilian music, including favela booty beat . Listen to the great mixes at that link, then come on back for the 'splainin' amanhã.

Or if Gretchen's booty is more your speed, go visit Nancy and Sluggo at the Opry.

It's just possible we'll have a moment later today to address this whole Nipplegate=Death argument, but we are still running behind panting like a deaf-ear dog when it comes to the new Emine(meme)m.... [...]

Let's get scenius

By Carl Wilson
Friday, Nov 12, 2004

What is pop without a pop star? In a culture that craves celebrity the way a fishing village depends on boats, the vocabulary strains to cope with creativity that springs from a conglomeration rather than a charismatic leader. We know what to do with movements, if they come complete with enemy lists, manifestos and identifying haircuts. But what can be said about loose circles of the like-minded?

Yet collectivization is the shiny, happy, dirty little secret of art. Songs that make the charts are usually not brainchildren of untrammelled artistes, but the aggregate spawn of producers, singers, writers, studio musicians, the past musicians and peers whose styles they're biting, and a mess of marketing maestros.

Sampling makes the method so explicit as to trigger legal action, and much of the public is still choking down that lesson in how sausages are made, but it's only a mechanized version of a folk process as ancient as song itself -- as old, in fact, as thinking. (Consider those thieving dogs Homer and Shakespeare.)

A couple of Toronto events this week illuminate what clown-prince pop subversive Brian Eno calls "scenius" - the "intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene," rather than some lone Great Man of history.

For a grand example, think of the Enlightenment, or more minutely, the simultaneous blooming of be-bop, abstract expressionism and beat poetry in 1950s New York. These days, perhaps look to present-day Munich, home of the German label Morr Music, which has become a gathering point for an incestuous crowd that wants to make techno music more sensitive to the nuances of human feeling.

Founded by record collector Thomas Morr in 1999, the label has released about 40 recordings by two dozen different artists, hailing mostly from Germany but from as far afield as right here (Toronto synth enthusiast Solvent has a disc on Morr).

Fresh from the label's fifth-birthday party back home, Morr has sent an old-fashioned package tour North America's way: It arrives in Toronto tomorrow and includes Duo 505, Styrofoam, The Go Find and label standouts Lali Puna, featuring the querulous coo of Korean-born, Portugal-bred singer Valerie Trebeljahr.

Besides frequent crossover in personnel, albums on Morr tend to share a sound: They're layered with airy electronic beats, filaments carved out of the fat drum-machine sound of dance music as if with a crystal scalpel. But they also have lyrical melodies, sometimes computerized and sometimes on conventional instruments.

When there are vocals, they are not the whooping exaltations of rave anthems but half-whispered verses of loneliness and romance that wouldn't be out of place in indie rock, although generally delivered with a cooler Teutonic distance.

Some fans and foes call Morr's style "indietronica," but "computer pop" might be less off-putting. The label's early definitive compilation was jokingly titled Putting the Morr Back in Morrissey, but a more apt parallel can be found on a later sampler that included a full disc of Morr artists covering songs by Slowdive, the long-forgotten British "shoegazer" guitar band, contemporaries of My Bloody Valentine.

The Morr mob translates the lush droning strings and mumbled vocals of that brief moment in pre-Britpop to computers, but staves off monotony using the broad sonic palette from 1990s techno, ambient and avant-electronics. They're far from the only players in that game, but they're among the most richly reliable.

For less pre-programmed pleasures, this weekend also offers the 416 Toronto Creative Improvisers Festival, which has become an annual highlight from the fringe of the city's jazz and improv action. It began Wednesday and continues through tomorrow. Some of the ensembles are ongoing concerns, others are one-offs, but either way the music is conceived on the spot. Don't expect pop from the trio with guitar, drums and trombone, much less the one featuring piano, "heat sink" and cookie tins. But they're decidedly collective creations.

Toronto improv circa 2004 hasn't evolved a signature style, but it tends to be marked by Canadian restraint: The musicians trade gestures without trampling on each other's space. The raw material may be "noise" more than rhythm or melody, but with a gentle touch. It seldom becomes a barrage (except when it does).

There will be electricity in the air at the 416 too; the series climaxes tomorrow with Powerbuch, a quartet featuring the laptop and synth of local composer John Kameel Farah (a techno fan himself) alongside drums, trumpet and sax.

It may not attain "scenius," but it's a celebration of sociable ingenuity, and that's the first foothold on the way to the heights.

The Morr Music Tour is at Lee's Palace tomorrow, starting with the band The Go Find at (roughly) 10 p.m.; Styrofoam performs at 11 p.m. and Lali Puna at midnight. $15 in advance. 529 Bloor St. W., 416- 532-1598. The 416 Festival is at the Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Ave., 9:30 tonight and 8:30 p.m. tomorrow. Suggested donation $5.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 12 at 12:35 PM | Linking Posts

 

Middle America's Dr. Seuss-Gone-Porno Nightmare...

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.... is our Youtopia. And other post-elekkktoral phantasies. In this week's Overtones - starring Animal Collective, above, and all their furry-nonconformist, post-ballot-boxing comrades - as you'll find out on the flip.

C'mon everybody, clap your paws

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail Review
Saturday, November 6, 2004

Well, so much for the human race.

If the events of the past week have left you feeling dazed and misanthropic, there's a musical movement ready and waiting to help you cheer up and drop out of the whole damn species. New York duo Animal Collective supply its manifesto on their recent album Sung Tongs: In a manic chant over a powwow-style drum beat, they babble, "Everyone is welcome, everyone is welcome/ Tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers, tigers . . ."

And with that, the two young animorphs who call themselves Avey Tare and Panda Bear usher in the new era - where everyone can join the party, so long as you walk on four feet (flying, crawling, drifting, flowing, blowing, hopping and digging are also copasetic) and are therefore ineligible to drive, shop, serve in the military or otherwise screw up the world.

Just at the moment, that sounds mighty fine to me.

Animal Collective, performing in Montreal and Toronto later this week, is one of the best and most prominent representatives of what's quickly becoming an international network of atavistic musical eccentrics, variously dubbed new folk, free folk (as in "free jazz"), anti-folk, acid folk and perhaps most commonly psych-folk, as in psychedelic. In a cover story last year, Wire magazine called it "the New Weird America."

Most of the artists hail from the blue states, especially California, where the old-time countercultural whiff of sandalwood incense hasn't completely faded from the air. Devendra Banhart got Britain talking with a TV appearance in May in which he sat barefoot on a Persian rug to sing his gnomic folk koans. He brings his shaggy vibe to Montreal and Toronto this Thursday and Friday along with Ben Chasny, the haggard guitar-picker who goes by the handle Six Organs of Admittance.

Another bestially named New York group that's in Canada next week, the Animentals (also known as Oriental), wears animal costumes and uses motion sensors to trigger its electronic noise, "all creating the mood of a magical forest" (on Monday at Rancho Relaxo in Toronto). The next week, Sufjan Stevens arrives in Montreal and Toronto, his gentle hymns dedicated alternately to Christ and to each of the 50 states, and Animal Collective associate Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti tour comes on like Syd Barrett gone New Wave.

Keep an ear cocked, too, for Joanna Newsom (the 22-year-old San Francisco harpist whose The Milk-Eyed Mender is one of the year's best albums), White Magic, Josephine Foster, Espers and CocoRosie; in Canada there's the Silt (member Doug Tielli plays the Tranzac in Toronto tonight), Eric Chenaux and Michelle McAdorey, Victoria's Frog Eyes and the communally minded multitudes of the Montreal music scene.

The movement is musically diverse, with the further-out fringes sounding like all the experimental rock and jazz of the last 40 years shaken and baked -- some, such as New York's Black Dice and Michigan's Wolf Eyes, even sound like extreme Japanese noise. But others reek of Donovan, Nick Drake, John Fahey, the Fugs or the Holy Modal Rounders, the winking holy-fool folkies reincarnated in people not yet born when woodland-creature camouflage was last any sort of viable option (except when backed by high-voltage machismo, as in the trippier moments of Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull).

The Incredible String Band has actually reformed to mark the moment, currently touring the U.K. with Newsom. These are the outsiders who took footpaths less travelled after Bob Dylan's electric guitar supposedly assassinated the "folk boom."

Pop culture has its own ecology, with no dead ends, only detours. Every style ever voiced goes on murmuring forever, until one day it suddenly stops sounding goofy again and becomes exactly what people need to hear. It's a reassuring proof of the resourcefulness that keeps our scavenger race in coconuts and funeral songs on this cosmic Galapagos.

The psych-folkies, with their rabbit masks and names like the Jewelled Antler Collective or the Skygreen Leopards, are city and suburban kids imagining their way into the consciousnesses of vegetables, mammals, insects and swamps -- writing songs from the perspective of the teeth of a crocodile or the hair of a badger, creatures they've probably never even seen in real life. They're moved by the same environmental and animal-rights ideals many young people now hold far dearer than any old-paradigm ideas of left and right, with both raging sentimentalism and startling humility. If this keeps up, the next civil-rights movement will be to give ducks and moose the vote.

And why not? They couldn't do much worse. In the U.S. election this week, it seemed somehow the distinction between gay marriage and Islamist terrorism got lost, both muddled into what heartland Americans seem to feel is a world gone mad.

Just as it defies their common sense that suitcase bombs could be left on the sidewalk of Main Street, so does the idea of two guys sealing their vows with a kiss. The very suggestion flips them out into surreal visions of an overwhelmed natural order: "What's to stop three men and two women from getting married? What's to stop someone from marrying their dog?" And from there, what's to stop talking ostriches from running for Congress? What's to stop drinking fountains spewing palm oil? What's to stop refrigerators laying eggs and penguin orgies breaking out in line at the bank?

In the work-play of the psych-folk collectives, the penguin orgy is in full swing, and the little tuxedo-clad dudes deserve some mood music. Amid all the fretting over how to kowtow more abjectly next time, how to "frame" issues for people who think "moral values" involve who sleeps with whom but not where you drop your bombs, there's an enormous relief in finding these freak-flag-flying anthems. These musicians have opted out of the culture war by decamping for an imaginary time zone where it never even began.

While the Democrats take their beating from the fundamentalists and promise to do better, the psych-folksters cruise the interstates in vans loaded down with sparrows and tree frogs, their speakers blaring: "It's all true! We'll build our crazy Dr. Seuss-gone-porno utopia no matter what you do! And guess what? You're not invited!"

Maybe it's the political equivalent of pleading insanity, but right now we can use the reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in democracy.

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 06 at 4:19 AM | Linking Posts

 

What We Were Waiting For

Strangely, that does make me feel a bit better.

You're forgiven, almost-half-of-America. We know you did your damndest. We'll even keep fantasizing that your outnumbering was very slyly voter-frauded into existence (note: perhaps in 25 years some Republican insider will have a deathbed guilt fit and fess up what happened, but we suspect that fact is, thanks to a flying wedge of pulpit-prodded homophobes, we did lose, sorta-fair and very goddamn square).

And since so many of you have been asking, we'd be delighted to have you come join us in Canada. You'll have to sustain a little flak from our more anti-American countryfolk, but some of us really crush on you almost-half-of-Americans. (However, that doesn't mean you can automatically immigrate. You think we can automatically immigrate to your country? Hah.)

Anyway, after a few days' sulking, I am prepared to get on with it. In fact I've already been getting on with it back in the real world before now, writing this week's column. It is loosely about the rising Psych-Folk Nation, what Wire called "the New Weird America," the bluest and most stateless of blue states, Americans of the wildest, Walt Whitmaniest, Emma Goldmanickest, Harry-and-Jack-Smithiest lineage, dissenters down to their dirty fingernails and fuzzy toes, and in the latest generation they are imaginatively dropping not just out of U.S. society-if-you-can-call-it-that, but out of the whole stinkin' human race.

I'm talking Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Wolf Eyes, Espers, CocoRosie, Animentals and so forth, in a tone that may in some respects be still kinda desperate and unhinged: It was written yesterday, with a full 24 hours' less recuperation than this message. So check it out in tomorrow's (Saturday) Globe & Mail (or check here for further instructions) - and then, if you are a qualified mental-health professional, drop me a line to tell me precisely what kind of medication I need.

Meanwhile I'm going to see Ray, to remind me why we've loved (and lost) America before and no doubt will again, someday.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 05 at 2:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

A Thought (Beta) & Good Luck to Us

Building the calendar (below) takes up time, and like the whole world I am too wigged about tomorrow to post much - which I figure is the reason Kelefa Sanneh's front-page feature in the Times Arts & Leisure section about Ashlee Simpson & "Rockism" hasn't drawn more commentary.

I thought it was a fine piece that seized a good moment to address the matter, but had a couple of reactions - that anti-rockism, even though it's correct, always seems a little hysterically magnified (ignoring the fact that pop-ism has in fact long won this argument on a broader cultural level, except maybe number of books published from its p.o.v., and number of books seems kind of a rockist-minded measure; also ignoring that rock is in large part still pop and always has been; also never resolving whether it's rockist to apply rockist principles to self-proclaimed rockers); that the lip-synching argument didn't get made well here (lipsynching allows the pop singer to do more, such as to put on a big flashy pleasure-centre-stimulating visual performance, but was Ashlee up to anything like that on SNL, where the value has always been the 'live-ness' of the performance instead?); and finally, and this is the "thought" referred to above ...

... isn't the distinction between rockism and pop'ism exactly the same as the one between modernism and postmodernism, and in that case might we be a tad more forgiving to slow-adapting rock fans on, well, epistemic grounds?

Ready, set, riposte!

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 01 at 7:13 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to W.'s World

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This week's column tosses off a few choice curses for the faith-based presidency and gives thanks and praise for those who sing god's protest songs (Iris DeMent, Buddy Miller) and twice as much for those who locate their faith in "the reality-based community" (The Ex, The Mountain Goats). Check it.

GOSPEL MUSIC FOR THE BRAVE

Overtones
by Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Oct. 30/04

'Faith-based" has been one of the shibboleths of the era since George the Younger started pimping it as the cure-all for social services in his first election campaign. Joan Didion debunked it then as code written for market-fundamentalist hypeware: As cooked up in conservative think tanks, "faith-based" translates into "let them eat Salvation Army cake."

But the term kept metastasizing over the last four years, until in the delirium of the current U.S. electoral contest, the word FAITH -- spelled out in Hollywood-sign-sized letters alongside Puritan preacher John Winthrop's shining city on the hill -- seems to swim above us in the clouds, a gigantic hanging chad about to fall, guillotine-style.

With one side of the political spectrum having pitched its tent on God like an oil driller on a wildlife refuge, opponents of the Bush administration begin to accept their lot is to be cast out of the ranks of the righteous. As a result, like many nonbelievers, I find myself increasingly irritated with religiosity, though I know you can't fight intolerance with intolerance.

The new Iris DeMent album comes as a blast of oxygen into this moral smog. Lifeline is the first disc in eight years from a country artist whom no less than Merle Haggard has called the best singer of her generation. The Way I Should in 1996 provoked controversy with protest songs such as Wasteland of the Free, directed in part against the first Persian Gulf war but also against "preachers dealing in politics and diamond mines."

When the current Iraq conflict began in 2003, DeMent told a live audience she could not bring herself to sing, a gesture that drew vitriol from talk-radio hosts and death threats in the mail.

This year, though, she's putting out an album of gospel hymns. And I'm sure it's no coincidence that it is being released on election day, Nov. 2.

DeMent grew up in a large, strict Pentecostal family from Arkansas, singing sacred music in church and at home. "I never had that 'born-again' moment," she says in a moving interview with David Cantwell in the latest issue of No Depression, the alternative-country magazine. "It was just the environment I grew up in."

She broke with the church and now considers herself a sort of agnostic Christian. "When I think of Jesus," she tells Cantwell, " . . . I think of the human struggle and of someone who is a good example of how to make it through. So when I sing [in Lifeline's opening track, I've Got that Old-Time Religion] that 'I'm glad Jesus came/ Glory to his name,' I mean it."

Lifeline is a tribute to the formative songs DeMent says she returns to for comfort in troubled times: She has struggled for years with writer's block, so she is singing these songs instead of her own. DeMent sings with the full-throated twang of white Southern gospel, an oboe-like timbre with which she can pierce all emotional defences and leave you weeping like a child. And she delivers the likes of Hide Thou with Me and God Walks the Dark Hills with a new, mature command.

The one song she did write here, He Reached Down, recounts the stories of the Good Samaritan and of Jesus defending an adulteress from stoning -- a Jesus who was no scold or holy warrior but a healer of the outcast and the impoverished. The song insists on the humility appropriate if everyone is equally a sinner.

The White House remix of the Hallelujah Chorus tends to drown them out, but DeMent's is not the only voice in this dissenting choir. Nashville singer Buddy Miller has put out Universal United House of Prayer, whose refusal to separate divine love from the human kind makes it one of the most effective protest albums of the year, built around a forceful country-soul cover of Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side.

Such singers can serve up a moral conviction startling to those of us who hail from the Universal Mixed-Up House of Ambivalence. It's a refreshing reminder that the Christian duty of care can be expressed as a passion for social justice and conscientious pacifism.

I am reminded of my misgivings, though, when DeMent sings the hymn I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World: The religious always have an out that makes even matters of life and death petty by comparison. I do want to get adjusted to this world -- and elect well-adjusted leaders to help me adjust it in turn -- because this world is all I think I've got. The course of events in Iraq is what happens when a guy with his eyes on the heavens figures he doesn't have to sweat the details.

That makes me part of what a Bush aide infamously called the "reality-based community" -- people who base their ideas on observing and analyzing what's actually happening. The administration's perspective, he said (he said this!) is, "We're an empire now. . . . We create our own reality."

This is faith-based the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was "based on a true story."

So as Tuesday's judgment day draws nigh, I'll also cock an ear to some music that invests its faith in reality. Over a quarter-century, Dutch anarchist punks the Ex have done their best to get adjusted to this world with dogged curiosity about all its cultures. Their recent double CD Turn includes Huriyet, an Eritrean independence song from "an area . . . where Christians and Muslims have been living in peace together for centuries."

In the Ex version, hard-chopping electric guitar meets steady hand claps and a lilting chant by percussionist Katherina that's somehow both rousing and implacably calm, celebrating what the Eritreans achieved without erasing the pain endured. The title means "freedom" -- this is what it really sounds like when it's on the march.

And Against Pollution is one of a couple of tunes that flirt with redemption at the end of We Shall All Be Healed, a song cycle about a tweaked-out gang of drug addicts by inspired North Carolina-based songwriter John Darnielle, who records under the nom de band the Mountain Goats.

As the cryptic ballad snakes along its six-stringed way, the singer finds himself saying the rosary in a church, "'cause something just came over me." What's driven him there is his part in a liquor-store shooting, and the eerie way everything around him seems to be rusting when there's never any rain. He has a vision of "the last days," in flashes of sunsets and stars, when "We will . . . see ourselves for the first time / The way we really are."

Darnielle's anxious tone intimates that this is as much threat as promise, and there is always a surfeit of excuses, faith or no faith, not to look ourselves full in the face. If you can summon the raw nerve for that -- as Darnielle does, as does Iris DeMent's unstoppable voice -- does it matter whether you name it a revelation or a reckoning?

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 30 at 1:19 PM | Linking Posts

 

Goat Every Mountain

Hey! I just discovered, via Lalitree, aka Mrs. Darnielle, who made it, that John Darnielle, aka the Mountain Goats, aka Last Plane to Jakarta, has a new Mountain Goats tour-blog-site-thingee.

Which seems as good an occasion as any to plug my column, Overtones, in this weekend's Globe & Mail, which this week is about faith and music and politics, and includes brief consideration of the Mountain Goats' Against Pollution from one of the year's best albums, We Shall All Be Healed - so brief, in fact (compared to, say, this) that we might go on about it here a bit more post-publication. The featured act in the piece, however, aside from the leader of the free world, is Iris DeMent, whose new gospel album Lifeline is released on Tuesday, aka Election Day.

All by way of reminding you that the column is now on Saturdays, since that idea is still sinking in, judging by our carefully vetted scientific polls, among the masses.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 28 at 8:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

What Do We Want? Moderate Change! When Do We Want It? In Due Course!


I think Aaron hath mistook me: By no means was I offering a "Canada knows best" speech. Canada knows shit! Look who we elect. Nothing to boast about. Should the U.S. offer Canadians a vote I would give mine up and pass it along to a Palestinian or an Iraqi as fast as G-Dub giving up his flu shot. But I'm a little mystified why Aaron feels the need to masquerade as an anonymous guy in Ohio in order to say "why don't you come down here and say that?"

Nobody is saying Americans are stupid and cannot individually make wise choices. Neither, however, do we think that democracy somehow imbues everyone with grand magnanimity and universality of perspective. Americans vote the way they feel their interests lie, and representative government more or less responds. Yet this particular government massively affects the interests of people it doesn't represent - way more than the governments of "Russia, China, Britain, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Saudia Arabia" etc. do (well, maybe not China, but that's another subject).

So it is a frustrating thing that there is no mechanism by which to express this global set of interests, in part because the U.S. does not participate in good faith in the United Nations and other international bodies. (Listen to G-Dub crowing unprompted in two out of the three debates about how he gave the finger to the international criminal court.) And so, we pilgrims seek a vessel through which to communicate our perspective. On this day, the Lord seems to have given us Barlow. (This is because the Lord is sadistic and delights to mock us.)

Anyway, whether it's Barlow or Naomi Klein, it does not seem unreasonable for us, the citizens of foreign nations to go over to the U.S. and say "this is how it seems from where I'm from, and maybe this will give you a little pause when you come to vote." In most of the world I don't think there would be an instant of controversy about that idea. But in Canada we are so adapted to our feeling of being naturally born as disenfranchised second-class American citizens that it would be getting above our raisin' to criticize or urge our superior, more authentic American cousins to do anything other than what they damn well please.

As for the remark in the comments about "if Union Station were to get nuked, who would we go a-runnin' to" ... this is, again, just silliness. I'm not expressing opinions much different than those held by millions of likeminded Americans. (Here is one of the smartest, calling the lies lies when they happened, rather than after the fact.) I suppose if they nuked, say, Vermont, the White House would do well to just let those faggot pinkos stew in their own radioactive juices, too. That'll teach them to speak their minds to their betters.

And I suppose that if someone did nuke Union Station, that would be because of Canada's relations to the rest of the world and would have nothing to do with our alliance to the United States.

By the way, I'm sure Aaron's right that the guy from Barlow is a tool. But that doesn't mean there's any reason he can't go sing songs at a rally if poor Planned Parenthood is dumb enough to want to hear them, just because he has the "wrong" stamp on his increasingly meaningless passport. Maybe the Kerry forces are just after the cheap drugs. I hear Canada's holdin'.

End of political ranting for the week. Once again, the (not-so-felicitously named) Freedom from Fear event is at Cinecycle tonight.

In other news: Early adapter David Akin outs the closet bloggers in Canadian mainstream journalism, with exceedingly kind words for Zoilus. Many humble thanks.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 22 at 4:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Doodling? Dandy

Aaron is upset that some Canadian band I've never heard of called Barlow is playing a Planned Parenthood event for Kerry.

"If the American equivalent of Barlow (whatever that would be) showed up on our doorsteps tomorrow, as part of an explicitly political event, singing his support for the American equivalent of John Kerry (Paul Martin, I suppose), we'd all be suitably outraged and offended that some damn Yank would ever think of telling us what to do."

Right, because no damn Yank ever thinks of telling us what to do.

You can't just flip the script and play do-unto-others here. It's silly. I suspect we'd be thrilled if some nutso American band cared enough about Canadian politics to express an opinion. (edited to add: As the Comments point out, were you really upset about Paul Martin & Bono?) It always seems to make Billy Bragg fans happy at his shows, for instance, that he knows who's prime minister here. But if we did get upset about Americans pushing us around, it has a bit to do with being afraid of Americans pushing us around. Americans getting upset about Canadians pushing them around would just be nationalists being sucky babies, because we have no power to push them around.

As I see it, national borders can't be the borders of our free speech and our consciences now, if they ever could. Really, the whole world ought to get to vote on who becomes the U.S. president, because in the current balance of power he's the president of the frigging world. In the absence of that right (which would be difficult to swing, I admit), it's absurd to say we can't even express an opinion. Why should we pussyfoot about "interfering" in the election of a leader who has no compunction in "interfering" anywhere in the world he desires? We are de facto colonies of a global empire. Last I recall, being a colony with no political representation at the centre was something Americans used to consider objectionable, circa 1776.

What does this have to do with music, aside from catchy fife-and-drum tunes? Well, there's actually an event going on in Toronto tomorrow that rocks my non-vote:

"The founding principle of Freedom From Fear is that the upcoming American election will affect everyone, not just Americans, and that even though Canadians cannot participate in the election directly, we can and should look for ways to make our voices heard. ... The rally will feature performances by Bleep and 100% Wool, as well as appearances by DJs Nemo Burbank and Matt Blair. The rally will begin this Friday at 9:00 at Cinecycle, which is located off the alley at 129 Spadina Avenue. There will be a minimum $5.00 donation to attend, with all proceeds to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Voting and Democracy, two American organizations that are working to protect the future of the democratic process."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 21 at 3:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Blogging)

John Turtletop continues the Dylanorama today. Because he's called out some heavy gunships - hey, hey, Jan Kott is my homeboy, John - we'll carry on, but you have to be careful with this stuff. If Chronicles tells us anything, it's: Don't feed the Dylanologists, man, they'll chew off yer arm.

John says: "I think he overstates when he says that Dylan’s latching onto the strongest images in a politically engaged story 'is not how a political person thinks'."

Are you really saying a political person thinks the best way to write a song meant to help get a guy off death row is to start with the most vivid image of the prisoner committing a series of brutal rapes? No, a political person would start with a vivid image of the gas chamber he's condemned to. Or a vivid image of the guy's deprived childhood. Anything but those red lights. It's the songwriter who knows the red lights would be the best way to make a myth and lets the moral fall where it may.

Comparing that to the kind of stagecraft we saw at the Republican clusterfuck in August illustrates in soaking wet red paint just how far apart from convention-al politics Dylan is. [...]

More plausibly John says: "if we apply a deeds-not-words approach to ethics in our view of Dylan’s activist period, we see that Dylan took part in the 1963 March on Washington and played for free with Pete Seeger at a concert sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi as part of their voter registration drive."

If I wanted to be glib I'd say, hey, these were good gigs. But no, I agree Dylan went to these events wholeheartedly on-side with their causes. But this kind of engagement was a product of where he was at and the people he found himself surrounded by and the irresistible drama of these causes, which were clearly ones that called out for a singer, for a bard, to write the songs that would usher them into that other reality, the folk-song reality, in which Dylan was most fully immersed and alive. The politics were real but always secondary.

You'd be misreading me if you thought I was saying Dylan didn't - and doesn't - believe in anything. Or even that he is not a person intrigued and compelled by politics, and much more so one who is moved and outraged by injustice. I think he is all of that. I just think that he saw (and maybe sees) them through a scrim that his audience mostly didn't get, as events within what Greil Marcus calls The Invisible Republic (a phrase Dylan adopts and endorses in Chronicles, and so much better a phrase than "the old, weird America," to which Marcus dumbed-down his book title in paperback). The invisible republic being the mythopoetic America of Pretty Boy Floyd and Jesse James and Paul Bunyan, the folk-song parallel universe Dylan discusses at great length in the book. So I'm suggesting that when he sang Hard Rain he understood and cared about its relevance to the nuclear threat, for instance, but just as real to him was the "blue-eyed son" to whom every verse is addressed, that character out of old Scottish ballads, and the pagan-biblical mystic he went out into "where black is the color, where none is the number."

And finally, John says, "the opposition of 'political contexts' and 'ever-rearranging puzzles' remains unnecessary, although puritanical activists and disengaged aesthetes would disagree with me" - which almost got me feeling busted. (Till then I got confused which one I am - maybe a disengaged activist? or a puritanical aesthete?) But no, the point is - work like Dylan's or Willie the Shake's is ever-rearranging to suit different political contexts, it adapts itself to varied perspectives, to radically altered times - and this is not to say it's not political. It's just to say that its creators' eye for the knit of politics into reality was broader, perhaps, than their audiences were or are or could be at any given time, which renders them ever our contemporaries.*

To turn Jan Kott back on John in most unsporting fashion, here's a bit from the great Polish theatre critic that works well as a portrait in plain D., not of an apolitical man but as artist for whom politics quickly become something supersized from politics - who may start by watching the cannonballs fly but always ends up staring into the wind. Lazy critics are always counterposing the "trickster" image of Dylan to the "protest" image, but in any cosmology, culture or creative work worth a tinker's damn, that's really no opposition at all:

The Fool ... does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not realise how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational. - Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary

* Edited to add: Not to forget our recent Derrida dalliance, you can argue that all songs, all texts, inevitably work that way. But not all so easily, so insistently, so richly gladly beyond.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 21 at 1:08 PM | Linking Posts

 

Or To Put It Another Way

One guy who kept reappearing in the news was Caryl Chessman, a notorious rapist whom they called the Red-Light Bandit. He was on death row in California after being tried and convicted of raping young women. He had a creative way of doing it - strapped a flashing red light to the top of his automobile and then pulled the girls over to the side of the road... Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Robert Frost, even Eleanor Roosevelt were calling for his life to be spared. An anti-death-penalty group had asked Len to write a song about Chessman.

"How do you write a song about a pariah who rapes young women, what would be the angle?" he asked me.

Dylan's answer? "... maybe start with the red lights."

This is not how a political person thinks. It is how a writer does. I don't think there's anything implausible or revisionist about that.

(I realize all this has left out the question of the music of his politics but I've written on that general subject a fair amount of late, and don't have the stamina to address it now, though I'd maybe start with the way his voice camouflages his melodies.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 20 at 10:03 PM | Linking Posts

 

Parking Meter Watch

meters.jpg

Sorry this didn't come earlier - I was just wandering along minding my own business when WHAM, the biggest traffic spike ever hits, thanks to the Slate link via Alex Ross, and meanwhile I'm editing 10 million stories for the Globe's big special project this weekend and can't participate. The 24-hour infotainment universe sux.

But maybe some stragglers will still be into the discussion.

Alex says: "I'm not so sure Chronicles reveals Dylan's early '60s political period as opportunistic or aestheticized. There's a deep nostalgia for the entire folkie universe, page after page on its characters and lore. The book doesn't delve much into politics as such, but the Old Left's earnest convictions—Communist, socialist, New Deal, what have you—seem inseparable from the funky realness of the scene."

One thing I appreciated about Alex's big Dylan piece in the New Yorker was that it got at how strange it is to be a non-boomer on this subject matter. I think Dylan's pretty obviously an Empire State-sized 20th-century cultural figure, but if you read the boomer reviews from England, especially, on Chronicles, you'd get mockery of his claim to have "rock'n'roll roots," for example, because they all knew he'd only ever been a folkie, and if you hear the average person around the office that age talk about him, usually they think of him almost exclusively as a protest-song singer (bizarre considering how short that part of his career really was) - he's frozen in their memories in one dimension. If this is frustrating to hear, I can only imagine how it is to live through, and I can't blame Dylan for using the biggest, weirdest axes he could find to chop that icon to pieces. Consciously or not, he hated Bob Dylan The Voice of a Generation so virulently that he was willing to go stark ravers to banish him, and religion and whiteface etc etc were all escape plots gone wrong.

Chronicles - like his last album, and maybe the one before that - could only come when he felt he'd made his break, that the madness was over. It's only now he's willing to admit that folk music (in essence including pop music) was his original religion and always would be, that he loved folk songs' use of Biblical language more than he ever loved the Bible (he doesn't say so but the implication's etched deep between the lines of Chronicles), that he loved how socialism and civil rights animated a folk narrative more than he ever loved the sounds of ideologies clashing.

So [...]

... any claim on Dylan's part that he was being opportunistic is, I think, another evasive manoeuvre. But the aestheticization is just who he is - if he's a preacher and a prophet he's a preacher of words not of messages, a prophet of poetry not of revolt.

Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding ... It was life magnified. It was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn't enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time. It was a huge story but hard to come across.

I think this is where his politics catch fire: In this sense that these songs were supposed to connect to the "trends of the time" - to the Ricky Nelson he was oddly mesmerized by, to the way the Civil War was still alive around him - and that he glimpsed that he could be the one to make that happen.

But does that mean, as John suggests on Utopian Turtletop that Dylan was "a good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was"? I don't think so. I think, especially from reading Chronicles, that he pretty much was a kid from the sticks who didn't know much of the world - he strikes a tone of awe about the communists and anarchists around him in the Village, indicating that often didn't know what they were on about. I think he didn't have the energy for issues the way he did about stories and songs and poems (including ones about issues). I think he always had a different, visionary horizon held up to his causes, something closer to the way that Burroughs and Frank O'Hara were political - it was a poetic politic, always shooting for that fifth dimension, even if it could only be attained by passing through the door to greater justice in this one, if you catch my meaning. People who summed him up as a civil-rights guy or an anti-war guy were stopping on the first lilypad when he wanted to hop skip and jump across the Styx. And once he had he didn't give a shit about that first lilypad anymore. The trouble is just that the revisionist in him was given to wishing that lilypad out of existence.

Alex says, "On the other hand, the cynical-radical mid-'60s period, in which Dylan made such a nasty break with the Old Left, is hardly touched on. It's like a nightmare he can hardly bear to think about."

We have to assume future volumes are meant to address this, but: Radical? Yes. Cynical? Is it cynical to travel out beyond the boundaries of everyone's expectations or is it hopeful in another way (even if you yourself can't make it back)? Is that actually nasty?

The most revealing bit on politics in Chronicles comes right after the Civil War-era-newspaper-obsession passage, and I think that's just where it belongs - it portrays Dylan and his friend Len Chandler as two kids reading the papers and talking about how to write topical songs, and you catch Dylan reading the newspapers of the early sixties with much the same epic bafflement with which he read history:

Reputable psychiatrists were saying that some of these people who claimed to be so against nuclear testing are secular last-judgment types - that if nuclear bombs are banned, it would deprive them of their highly comforting sense of doom. Len and I couldnt' believe this stuff.... Semantics and labels could drive you crazy. The inside story on a man was that if he wanted to become successful, he must become a rugged individualist, but then he should make some adjustments. After that he needed to conform... Len and I thought this stuff was idiotic. Reality was not so simple and everybody had their own take on it. ... I hadn't yet begun writing streams of songs as I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd - there was a certain consciousness of madness at work. Even the photos of Jackie Kennedy going in and out of revolving doors at the Carlyle Hotel uptown, carrying shopping bags of clothes, looked disturbing... The dominant myth of the day seemed to be that anybody could do anything, even go to the moon. You could do whatever you wanted - in the ads and in the articles, ignore your limitations, defy them. If you were an indecisive person, you could become a leader and wear lederhosen. If you were a housewife, you could become a glamour girl with rhinestone sunglasses. Are you slow witted? No worries - you can be an intellectual genius. If you're old, you can be young. Anything was possible. It was almost like a war against the self. The art world was changing, too, being turned on its head. Abstract painting and atonal music were hitting the scene, mangling recognizable reality. Goya himself would have been lost at sea if he tried to sail the new wave of art. Len and I would look at all this stuff for what it was worth, and not one cent more.

Now, some will complain that I elided Cubans and Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson from that section - but then I also left out Genet and feminism and a pretty list of "new modern-day phobias" and the Chicago Blackhawks. With rare exceptions I think his political songs were written with that same jumble of metaphors devouring reality devouring metaphors, the Mississippi rolling on behind them past the righteous and the wicked and the ravenous and weak. I guess finally the question is whether he saw those songs as political (rather than "topical") the way they ultimately have been received, and the biggest problem in answering that is that so many people have the mistaken impression that they were there. As we get historically further and further from that conventional wisdom we'll have a better and better sense of how to read him and hear him, just the way we forget whatever political contexts Shakespeare's plays come from, obvious as they once might have been, and take them for the ever-rearranging puzzles that they are.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 20 at 7:15 PM | Linking Posts

 

Talkin' Pistol-Packing Rabbi Blues

Alex Ross and Alex Abramovich are book-clubbing it up this week in a Slate dialogue about Dylan's Chronicles. Which is great, because all I really want to do is, baby, talk about that book with you.

Abramovich points in his opening towards a question Mrs. Zoilus and I were talking about last night: How much do you buy his disavowal of ever having had activist intentions? His political period actually was very short-lived, but do we think he was being opportunistic, simply exploring a thread of the folk tradition at a moment that seemed to call it forth (that's kind of the way it's portrayed in Chronicles) or trying to change the world and then getting frightened away when the world almost did seem to change in answer to the songs he was blowin' out into it? Show your work.

Edited to add: The marvelous Mr. Ross took up my gauntlet later in the Slate dialogue (which turned out to be all too brief). I'll have some responses by the a.m.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 18 at 1:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Faith-Based Presidency

Seems I'm not the only one who's been thinking about the faceoff between blind certainty and close-reading complexity this week. Read Ron Suskind's excellent Times Magazine cover on the Bush regime today, "Without a Doubt". It opens with Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser and official in both the Reagan and Bush Sr. White Houses:

"I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do. ...

[...]

This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all, they can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. ...

"He truly believes he's on a mission from God."

This is a Republican establishment figure saying this. And people are still seriously trying to say there's no significant, urgent difference between Bush and Kerry?

Edited to add: When I posted this, I hadn't gotten to this passage yet, which is just... there are no words:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

The "reality-based community"!!!

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 17 at 2:41 PM | Linking Posts

 

Faggot Liberals for Fugazi

fugazi.jpg
The responses to this week's column so far have ranged from Bill's thoughtful appreciation of Derrida to the phone message today that called me "one of those faggot liberals who knows nothing about rock music" (ending with the flourish, "Why don't you move to Cuba," which made me feel nice and American). I think the guy was mostly upset about my (admittedly too quick) dismissal of Sergeant Pepper's. It's a beautiful world where everybody can express themselves.

Here's a somewhat more temperate letter from Colin Campbell, a grad student in the Program in Social and Political Thought at York University,

[...]

which I thought was interesting enough to reprint.

On his first point, I'd note that I think concept albums and concept bands are very different things. Concept bands were very much a part of punk rock, and not of classic rock, while concept albums were the reverse. As to the second: Is conceptual art decadent by definition? I think yes! But I am kind of crazy in love with decadence. Is that so wrong?

All flattery only retained for the sake of repeating his entertaining invective against other Globe writers. And I don't get the Lenny Kravitz reference. Explanations, anyone?

Hello Carl,

Thanks for your article in today's paper about concept albums - some of your articles are some of the reasons why I haven't yet cancelled my Globe subscription, in spite of John 'what century is this again?' Ibbitson, Christie 'necrophiliac' Blatchford, Margaret 'we all need a little bloody revenge sometimes' Wente, and Marcus 'we all need a little blood sometimes' Gee.... anyway in a spirit of critical conversation (pace Derrida) I wanted to note that you missed a few things.

1) the rebirth of the concept album is a process that has been simmering throughout the 1990s. Ween, for instance, ARE a concept album, since the beginning. And I think everything that Tortoise did was to make the concept of a unified-yet-diverse set of compositions possible and 'cool' for the post-punk market. Nevertheless, I think your article is well-timed.

2) I DO think the rebirth of the concept album is, like it was in the 1970s, a sign of decadence. Maybe this is what you are gesturing at by the need for the 'contingent, complex, etc.' I prefer Anton Newcombe's Mantras: 'Keep Music Evil' and 'The only thing you find in the middle of the road in dead animals and dumb americans.' The decadence should not, as it always is, be blamed on the lack of creativity of the artists, but (pace Adorno) on the process of industrialization of culture - in the 1990s, of punk rock - which forces artists to move to a conceptual level. Remember what Hegel said about Minerva's Owl - when the concept appears, the show is already over. Lenny Kravitz is right, but for the wrong reasons. "In a world in which everything is permitted, all must escape and all must obey."

3) Along with most people, you missed, I think, what was not only one of the best concept albums ever made, but also one of the best punk albums ever made, and even one of the best albums ever made, which is Fugazi's The Argument. The album is packaged, you may notice, unlike any of their other albums - there is a clear 'message' in the cover art. This, as with the Beatles, is a determinate result of their declining ability to play live music. And like all great art, the album is prophetic. As they were writing those songs, they already saw what the world would look like 'after the events of 9/11.' Notice the plane flying over the parking lot on the inside photo? Notice the lyrics to Life and Limb: "When the bit pulls tight/the grip is sewn into the reins/you can't breathe it out, you just breathe it back again/Come on mental-pack your chambers full for no reason you can name" - maybe you can already see the concept, which they didn't make but which is forced on all of us from both sides, 'here comes the argument,' etc.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 17 at 1:29 PM | Linking Posts

 

Derrida: The Rock Opera

Overtones appears today in its new Saturday-paper berth. I think I reached the end of the piece without ever mentioning its inspiration, actually - I was thinking of Bush's attacks on Kerry's expressed wish that terrorism could be reduced to the acceptable level of "nuisance" it seemed pre-9/11 - a desire I think reasonable people could widely be expected to share - but which Bush of course finds repugnant because it is less than totally triumphal, less than an all-transforming, End Times eradication of the unambiguously evil by the unambiguously good. This put me in mind of how fables are constructed and deconstructed, and from there to the current resurgence in the concept album and the ritual posthumous humiliation of Derrida by the same media conduits who routinely represent Bush's mythology with only the most restrained critique.

Read the column.

However, I don't claim to be an expert on Jackie D. - I'm hoping this weekend to get a chance to rent the most unlikely movie, but for further reading, there's been a lot of wonderful work on the, uh, internets, and some in print, in the past week-plus. The New York Times made up a bit for its own disgraceful obituary (which The Globe reprinted) with this op-ed (which rocks) and this music-related piece.

Here's a disorderly abcediary of other places to check out:
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u....

[...]

The old long-player still has some spin

By CARL WILSON
Saturday, October 16, 2004 - Page R7

The concept album is back with a vengeance -- but what is it avenging? It could be the much-discussed, much-deferred death of the album itself. Or, with a little imagination, it could be the death of Jacques Derrida.

The existence of the album has been threatened on one side by downloading (witness this week's announcement that the iTunes MP3 store is about to come on-line in Canada) and on the other by the high art with which hip-hop-inspired producers have been gracing the singles chart, yielding so much instant gratification that it's made the album look like a pokey old hobbyhorse.

But in the past year or two, musicians of every description have set out to prove the old long-player still has some spin. One of this fall's biggest hits is Green Day's American Idiot, a "punk-rock opera" in the rock-star-equals-Christ lineage of the Who's Tommy, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Pink Floyd's The Wall: Everykid "Jesus of Suburbia" (also known as Saint Jimmy) goes adrift in the conformist swamp of American culture, taking potshots at George W. Bush all the way.

Other conspicuous examples have come from Elvis Costello (The Delivery Man, part southern-gothic fiction, part tribute to southern American music); Neil Young (Greendale, a "novel"-cum-musical about eco-consciousness); reformed 1980s college-radio band Camper Van Beethoven (New Roman Times: Noam Chomsky via Monty Python); British rapper the Streets (A Grand Don't Come for Free: bloke mislays a thousand quid, grimy adventures ensue); and Montreal's Arcade Fire (Funeral: an indie-rock rhapsody to life after several deaths).

Green Day's mini-suites on American Idiot are partly patterned on the Who's innovative sixties suite A Quick One While He's Away, which also helped inspire the baroque Blueberry Boat by American brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces. This delightfully non-linear narrative about, among other things, pirates, colonialism, catty high-school girls and the global cellphone market is already spawning analytical Internet concordances worthy of Finnegans Wake.

Triple-guitar army the Drive-By Truckers have picked up where Randy Newman's 1970s southern-culture concept album Good Old Boys left off, with Southern Rock Opera and this year's The Dirty South; American hip-hop trickster MF Doom constructs suites around alternate identities such as Victor Vaughn and King Geedorah; and up a few hundred floors in the tower of song, Brian Wilson has finally completed Smile, the long-lost Beach Boys "teenage symphony to God" that spurred the Beatles to dress up Sergeant Pepper in ragged conceptual garb.

Though it wasn't much of a concept album, Sgt. Pepper did the most to popularize the form, which is as old as the album itself: As soon as longer playing times were available, jazz composers such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus took advantage of the space to elaborate their ideas.

The practice was imported to pop with "theme albums" such as Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (late-night blue ballads), Johnny Cash's Ride This Train (songs about trains) and the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe (songs about cars), and then subverted by the likes of Frank Zappa and the Who.

But in the 1970s, when every second album seemed to be based on half-digested gobbledygook from Hindu scripture (Yes) or Ayn Rand (Rush), punk rock rose up to skewer the bloat. Long-form works instantly became uncool and with rare exceptions stayed that way until recently.

I think there's more here than artists rallying around a product format. That's the kind of explanation you only get from pundits who can't see beyond the music business.

There's probably some nostalgia in it, for musicians weaned on the epics of the 1970s -- witness institutions such as the Boston Rock Opera, which has been staging affectionate revivals of the likes of the Kinks' Preservation and Queen's Night at the Opera.

More strikingly, though, the way it's picked up momentum since 2001, it's almost as if the concept album had risen directly from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The prevalent themes are political, arguments the singers couldn't contain within a single anthem. In fact, the turn to long form seems like a counterattack on a culture of sound bites and oversimplification, in which all the layers of world events are stripped down to a few comforting words or a belligerent "bring 'em on."

What's Derrida got to do with it? After his passing last week at 74, many of the newspaper obituaries for the French philosopher were as misleading as George Bush's attacks on John Kerry: They portrayed the theorist of deconstruction as a slippery Frenchy who thought there was no truth. That way, they insinuated, lies the gas chambers.

In fact, Derrida's method always revealed a surplus of truth, an excess of meaning in every statement that could be more illuminating than the apparent moral to any fable. Those obits were like intellectual attack ads, the sort of propaganda his theories -- created by a French Jew born in colonial Algeria -- forcefully undermined.

While the worst, most self-satisfied pop epics merely present a mirror image of the kind of grand narratives Derrida found suspect, the best deconstruct as much as they fabricate: Using music's unique repertoire of echoes and inversions, they can unpack possibilities within an idea, rewriting a song from several angles, re-sounding a melody in another key, as if to show that, as Kerry said in one of the debates, "the truth is always more complicated than the president would have you believe."

It's a characteristic irony that Derrida's vanished just when loud voices are claiming it's more important to be certain than to be smart. When we most need a champion of the contingent, the tentative, and the complex (one with more nerve, frankly, than Kerry), Derrida challenges us with his absence, the voluminous silence of the burial mound.

Somebody ought to write a rock opera about that, in the style he so richly modelled -- extended play.


Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, October 16 at 12:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Global Column-Positioning System, Booyah (Plus: The Low-Down on October's Tin Tin Tin)

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Sorry about blog lameness this week. Anybody who was confused (like Rough Idea in the Comments) about where my column was in today's Globe - for the near future it's going to be in the Saturday paper, which is nice because it gives it a bigger readership, etc. So check it out this weekend.

Subject matter: The new-millennial boom in concept albums/rock operas, considered as a political epiphenomenon, and the death of Jacques Derrida (pictured).

(Advance warning: Due to other commitments, no column the following week, Oct. 23. But reg'lar as prune juice after that!)

If you're looking for other things to read meanwhile: You quite probably missed my mixed review of the Shurum Burum Jazz Circus in the Globe earlier in the week.

As well, there's plenty of grey matter at The Regular.org, a new web newsreader from Downhill Battle, the music activists who brought you the blogosphere-wide Grey Tuesday Danger Mouse protest action earlier this year.

And finally, if you're wondering what's happening at Tin Tin Tin this month [...]

... Oct. 27 at the Drake Underground, I'm presenting Rob Clutton, jazz bassist and composer, doing a conducted improvised set with John Millard (voice/banjo; Happy Day/ex-Polka Dogs), Paul Newman (sax; of Rakestar, etc), Ken Aldcroft (guitar), Jayme Stone (banjo; Tricycle), Parmela Attariwala (violin), Mike Hanson (turntables) and Vanessa Hansen (voice/keyboard). This will be a conduction in the Butch Morris sense of the word, using prearranged hand signals to shape instant compositions.

As well, we'll have somewhere between one and four bands representing the best results of the BLOCKS experiment at Canzine this weekend, where musicians who've never played together before are recording instant albums in one hour each. That sounded so Tin Tin Tin that I couldn't resist, so we'll give some of those instant bands encore performances.

And finally, there should be some kind of surprise set suitable to the American political season - a funeral march for George W. Bush's administration, in inimitable T.T.T. style, details TBA.

Once again that's Wed. Oct. 27, doors at 9 pm, show at 10 pm, pwyc ($5-$10 suggested, all $ to performers), eye candy by Margaux Williamson, between-set ear candy by the selectors of Global Pop Conspiracy, wild crowd sugar-high elation by you.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 15 at 12:04 AM | Linking Posts

 

Send a Truck Back For It

A couple of samples from Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One (see below). The kind of cold bourbon language that can fortify you against debate doubletalk and the optimism of fools on days when the world seems to be sinking below its own horizon. [...]


On Ricky Nelson: One afternoon I was in there pouring Coke into a glass from a milk pitcher when I heard a voice coming cool through the screen of the radio speaker. Ricky Nelson was singing his new song "Travelling Man." ... Nelson had never been a bold innovator like the early singers who sang like they were navigating burning ships. He didn't sing desperately, do a lot of damage, and you'd never mistake him for a shaman... but it didn't matter. He sang his songs calm and steady like he was in the middle of a storm, men hurling past him. His voice was mysterious and made you fall into a certain mood.
I had been a big fan of Ricky's and still liked him, but that type of music was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything. There'd be no future for that stuff in the future. It was all a mistake. What was not a mistake was the ghost of Billy Lyons, rootin' the mountain down, standing round in East Cairo, Black Betty bam be lam. That was no mistake. That's the stuff that was happening. That's the stuff that could make you question what you'd always accepted, could litter the landscape with broken hearts, had power of spirit. Ricky, as usual, was singing bleached out lyrics. Lyrics probably written just for him. I'd always felt kin to him, though. We were about the same age, probably liked the same things, from the same generation although our life experience had been so dissimilar, him being brought up out West on a family TV show. It was like he'd been born and raised on Walden Pond where everything was hunky-dory, and I'd come out of the dark demonic woods, same forest, just a different way of looking at things. Ricky's talent was very accessible to me. I felt we had a lot in common. In a few years' time he'd record some of my songs, make them sound like they were his own, like he had written them himself. He eventually did write one himself and mentioned my name in it. Ricky, in about ten years' time, would even get booed while onstage for changing what was perceived as his musical direction. It turned out we did have a lot in common.

On Clausewitz: When he claims that politics has taken the place of morality and politics is bruce force, he's not playing. You have to believe it. You do exactly as you're told, whoever as you are. Knuckle under or you're dead. Don't give me any of that jazz about hope or nonsense about righteousness. Don't give me that dance that God is with us, or that God supports us. Let's get down to brass tacks. There isn't any moral order. You can forget that. Morality has nothing in common with politics. It's not there to transgress. It's either high ground or low ground. This is the way the world is and nothing's gonna change it. It's a crazy, mixed up world and you have to look it right in the eye. Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet. Without realizing it, some of the stuff in his book can shape your ideas. If you think you're a dreamer, you can read this stuff and realize you're not even capable of dreaming. Dreaming is dangerous. Reading Clausewitz makes you take your own thoughts a little less seriously.

Can you believe that Dylan once played a gig in a Village coffeehouse with Cecil Taylor? We played 'The Water Is Wide,' the old folk song. Cecil could play regular piano if he wanted to. I had also played with Billy Higgins and Don Cherry there. If only there were recordings!

And you have to hear his account of obsessively reading Civil War-era newspapers, leafing from page to page as this "black schism" hurtles into view: Back there, America was put on the cross, died and resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write. I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later.

There's so much more, but that seems enough to get you out to the bookstore or the library, if they still have one where you live. Turn off the computer. Go.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 08 at 12:12 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Boy from the North Country

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Today's first edition of the new "Overtones" column considers Bob Dylan's new book, Chronicles: Volume One, as a case of "comic-book metaphysics" - kind of imagining that it's really a graphic novel, "a sequel to Catcher in the Rye with some wildly unforeseen plot twists," as I said - but in picture form because that's how the man talks. It's both a book and not a book. Maybe it's the album of the year. [...]

Short form: It's an amazing, amazing read. The first two sections are the best prose I've seen this year bar none. Reads like a wizard electrician's manual for keeping your mind and soul running at full voltage. Sags a little in the middle but never slumps. It's far more vulnerable and erudite and humble and funny than you'd ever expect, while not doing any little mincing dances at all about the fact that he's a heavy mofo and he knows it: Yes, I was a visionary, I made music that was out beyond anybody's weather system, and that was exactly what I meant to do. But was I a leader, a prophet? Nope, that was your damage, kids. And then you made it my damage too: Did it leave me completely, totally fucked up throughout my middle age, so that my thirties till my sixties were nearly a writeoff, so that I became "a missing person"? Yeah, and I barely made it back. (To find out how I did, stay tuned for Volume Two. If there is a Volume Two. Heh, heh, heh.)

But paraphrase can't give you that flavour - I'd sample you some science from it but Mrs. Zoilus absconded with the book (with my half-asleep permission) in the early morning today - I forgot I'd need it to share it with you. But Alex has one of the most delicious, the Balzac passage where teeth are falling out and nightshirts are catching fire, so head over there and read it. I'll give you the Clausewitz passage, or maybe the Gorgeous George the wrestler legend, after I get home tonight.

For Canadians there's kinda inspiring stuff towards the end about how growing up in a northern landscape scraped him up and scoured him out. For Dylanologists, there's a lot of duck and weave and wink and nod, and what else can you expect?

Miscellaneous knowledge: Dylan's asked by one character if he's "a praying man" and he says yeah. Later on he's talking about John Kennedy and says, "If I was a voting man, I would have voted for him." So that's sorted, he's not a voting man.

There are bizarrely funny-brilliant spots where he declares his deep abiding affinity with the likes of Ricky Nelson and Bobby Vee.

In the column I quote him saying that he came to New York in search of neither romance nor wealth, but I didn't have space to mention that he says the same thing later of the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Churchill - that they weren't in it for love or money. Wonder if he intended this strange parallel?

In one passage, he says he knows he's not that guy anymore, The Visionary, and that next time it's going to have to come from hip-hop (tho as far as he knows it hasn't arrived there yet). That's a lot more hip-hop-friendly than the selective-sounding quote in David Gates' Newsweek piece, which seemed very much like it resulted from a yearning-for-the-old-days love-in between interviewer and interviewee that might have slanted the context.

That, however, does not mean that Gates' piece was not the music interview of the year, because it almost certainly was. (Any other nominees?)

More later. Meanwhile, some considered-but-rejected new column names: Squeal, Bump and Swing, Grace Notes, World of Echo, Epistrophies, Toronto Eye & Ear Control, Microphonics and, for reasons I cannot for the life of me recall, Chrome Attack. I guess Overtones will do.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 07 at 10:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Beware the Jam Borg (plus: No Mo' Moran)

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In today's column in The Globe & Mail, I examine the fresh energy of the 22-year-old behind the Toronto Progressive Jazz series - who forces me to take one, teensy-weensy step away from my absolutist, preemptive-strike position against jam bands.

Obviously, I am not the kind of commander in chief we need in these troubled times.

(Further Evidence I Am a Flipflopper: Column also includes conciliatory gesture toward young Toronto improvisers. But I claim this is consistent with my position all along! Does anyone believe me? Stay tuned...)

Along with an along-the-way consideration of the ever-popular "is jazz dead or does it just smell funny" issue, the column also includes a nod to great Ornette sideman and harmolodic guitar wizard James Blood Ulmer, although, as I've already noted, the piece sadly misstates the date of his Lula Lounge show. (It was tonight, Thurs., not tomorrow.)

In other not-so-good news: I'll probably report back from tomorrow night's Progressive Jazz series event by the Dave Holland Quintet, but my fervor is dimmed by the fact that the pianist who would probably be my biggest new-generation American jazz man-crush, Jason Moran, says on his website that he's had to cancel in Toronto due to a family emergency. Dammit!

(Nevertheless, nice interview with Moran by my colleague Mark Miller, also in today's Globe.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 30 at 11:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Bruno Unbuttons His Lip

Hey hey, look who's posting again. I hope he'll stick around long enough at least to let us know his thoughts on Costello's The Delivery Man, which is rawking through my earphones for the first time as I type. (Great sound, though I'm beginning to sense what about Oughties production style is gonna sound dated in a decade - this too-much-in-the-round ambient style, in which all the instruments are kind of part of a cyclorama and never thurst forward at you. A case of Too Much Progress, or are my ears stuck in the nineties, or what?)

Nice Elvisania in der Globe today by my senior colleague Robert Everett-Green. Personally I will likely let Il Sogno slide - I'm willing to accept that it's a much-above-average exemplar of pop-star orchestral writing (ie. wiping the floor with Macca and Joe Jackson) but not my cuppa & inessential to my mental map of Costelloland for any but scholarly purposes.

Oh and: Lucinda Williams sounds totally drunk.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 29 at 5:15 PM | Linking Posts

 

Jody Rosen Heads For Fist City

loretta4.jpg
While that NY Times piece on Nancy Sinatra's new joint got me buzzing just like it was meant to - Nancy hearts Thurston! Nancy sings Morrissey and J. Cocker! - it made the mistake of messing with Loretta Lynn. This, my friends, ain't no mistake to make. Jody Rosen wrote:

Trend-watchers may be tempted to compare "Nancy Sinatra" to another meeting between an older star and young rock turks: "Van Lear Rose," the Loretta Lynn album produced by Jack White of the White Stripes, which appeared earlier this year. But while "Van Lear Rose" gave Ms. Lynn's music a makeover, adding an unmistakably White Stripes-like garage rock snarl, "Nancy Sinatra" is a different case. Rather than overhaul Ms. Sinatra's classic sound — a mix of go-go rhythms, country twang and orchestral pop — her collaborators have paid it homage. It's a tribute that invites audiences to look again at Ms. Sinatra, who has been misunderstood and underrated for much of her career.

What Rosen neglects to mention here is that though some (not all) of Van Lear Rose is indeed in Jack White Drag with feebacky guitars and swamp drums and all, it's also entirely composed of new songs written by Ms. Lynn. (I think Jack's also the co-producer, not the sole producer, but I don't have my copy around to check.) I don't see any reason to try to make either one of these exciting rejuvenations look like a cynical attempt to showcase an aging icon in a setting that's alien to her, but if you do feel so compelled, I'm afraid it's Nancy who looks more like the novelty seeker.

A better point of comparison would have been to Marianne Faithfull, whose 2002 album Kissin' Time likewise featured collaborations with Jarvis Cocker, as well as Blur, Beck and Billy Corgan. That one was a mixed bag, with only Cocker really coming off gold, but then again as sixties go-go girls go, Ms. Faithfull had far less distance to come back from - she renewed herself as a more vital performer than ever in the 1980s and never faded back out, while Nancy's let her reputation age till she was so out of style she was in again. Yet in a way it's not surprising they ended up making similar new-millennial bids by making connections with rockers a few generations down the line, because both MF and NS were boundary-testers in their heydays who crossed the line into haze in the twilight of the sixties, and ended up being godmothers to a certain kind of stylekicking noncomformity... And while I'd lay a little money on MF being the smarter of the two, Sinatra treasures trash in a fashion that's a little more on-the-current-aesthetic-nose than Faithfull's continuing post-bohemian journeys to the middle of the brow. It's the Marianne who sang about blowjobs that the the art kids idolize, not the Marianne who sang Kurt Weill. That's the kind of category error Nancy wouldn't make.

So I can't wait to hear Nancy Sinatra - especially the Calexico collaboration, which should conjure the sulphurous ambience of Lee Hazelwood but exactly.
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The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 27 at 9:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Flesh on Fantasy

As a supplement to this weekend's piece on Owen Pallett of Les Mouches, the eyezapoppin' Toronto music-scene-photojournal Aperture Enzyme has posted this violineriffic video of Owen in action in his loop-pedal-pumping secret solo identity, Final Fantasy. Check it. Also: Blocks has a sample Les Mouches MP3 (Carload of Whatever, from You're Worth More to Me than 1,000 Christians) and interview outtakes are on the Zoilus griddle, servin' up soon.

From classical nerd to maestro of bad taste

CARL WILSON
SCENE
The Globe and Mail
25 September 2004

His lanky, six-foot frame folded into a chair with an acoustic guitar, his boyish face squinting over a microphone and topped with a newly dyed shock of canary-yellow hair, Owen Pallett looks like the kid he used to be: the classical-music nerd at a recital.

Until, that is, he lets fly with open-throated barking about sex, suicide and men with “hands of hooks,” over squalls of free-form noise.

By day, the 24-year-old Toronto musician works as a programmer and violinist for the mild-mannered CBC radio show, The Vinyl Café. He made his name crafting effortlessly elegant string arrangements for such Canadian indie-rock luminaries as the Hidden Cameras, the Constantines and Royal City.

But his mind prowls nocturnes, tearing open secret cupboards and making pacts with wolves. The full bundle of contradictions is apparent in his version of the Carpenters' sappy 1970s classic, Close to You, with his trio Les Mouches.

As Pallett whispers through the original tune, he's dogged and abused by squeaking and scratching from fellow guitarist Matt Schmidth, until finally the tapestry is torn to bits in a barrage from drummer Rob Gordon — as if the birds that “suddenly appear every time you are near” had been dive-bombed by the stars that “fall down from the sky every time you walk by,” and turned into feathery balls of fire.

The sticky-sweet love ballad is laid bare as a sickness unto death. It would make an ideal soundtrack for the notorious, banned 1987 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story by Todd Haynes, in which the Wonder-Bread-pop songbird is played by a Barbie doll, her polyvinyl face gouged away, scene by scene, by anorexia.

Like Haynes (who later made Safe and Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore), Pallett restores real discomfort to a heritage of gay camp humour and melodrama that has grown too familiar. In Daddy Needs a Daddy, a song inspired by Schmidth's family, the closeted father asks if his son would be “amused” to know that at the boy's conception, his sperm “thought its target was Cary Grant.” As one critic said of Superstar, the effect is “both giddy and awful.”

“I'm always left a little breathless when I see Les Mouches,” says Toronto songwriter Jim Guthrie, whose latest album is graced by Pallett's strings. “They're really like no other band on the scene.”

Spinning folk, punk, free jazz and a touch of Bartok together into a whirling mirror ball of sound, Les Mouches provoke gasps and nervous laughter. Their latest album, You're Worth More to Me Than 1,000 Christians, comes packaged with a red-paper heart stamped with the French obscenity “merde.”

“If something isn't funny in some respect,” says Pallett, “really, how can you take it seriously? We've had people come up and say, ‘Why are you screaming? I don't understand.' It's comedy.

“I met this guy who'd just come down from the Yukon last weekend, and he was so horny — he said in the Yukon that's all there is to do. He's a total stranger, and he puts his arm around my shoulder and is licking my cheek and stuff. I appreciate how a situation like that is both funny and tragic. I'm not trying to say that rape is funny, but art about rape can be funny, art about AIDS can be funny, art about the futility of queerness can be funny.”

Pallett's infatuation with “bad” taste may be partly a reaction to a long apprenticeship in excessive “good” taste — growing up in a large but fractured musical clan in Milton and Mississauga, Ont., he began playing classical violin at 3, and remained “very, very serious” about it into adulthood.

But after moving to Toronto to do a degree in composition, he says, “I became acutely aware that the classical music I was familiar with was light years behind what was going on in art and literature and philosophy.”

Just in time, he was invited to lead the string section of the Hidden Cameras, the “gay church-folk-music” group led by artist Joel Gibb, that has since made an international reputation. While Pallett had played in many bar bands, the Cameras helped connect him to a much more sympathetic musical network. Soon he was offering the benefits of his training to a whole community of self-taught creators.

And when he finally came to write his own songs, he spurned high-compositional grandeur for the embarrassing minutia of intimacy. “A really interesting inspiration is ordinary conversation, what people gossip about,” he says. “I love thinking about whether my friends and relatives are straight or gay. And about dieting, because everyone's always thinking about that.”

While the violin is mostly absent in Les Mouches, it's the focal point of his solo project, Final Fantasy, in which he sings over layers of looped, minimalist violin lines. Pallett seems almost perplexed at how audiences swoon at this prettier style. “I guess the technical achievement is more obvious,” he says. “Final Fantasy is evocative and poetic, but Les Mouches is me trying to be brutally honest.”

In response to demand, he's recording a Final Fantasy album now, while also preparing a string duo called the Tenderizers, and a “high-school dance band,” Boy Magic. Meanwhile, he goes on a national tour with Vinyl Cafe. “I think everybody's personality has more sides than can be reflected in one or two bands.”

He admits he is tiring of playing indie string-doctor, mainly because of budgets. “If I knew even two other string players who would work for free, all of a sudden Toronto would be brimming with the most beautiful string-drenched albums. . . . But there have been times when I've been like, ‘Aha! I've reinvented Motown! I have replaced Nelson Riddle and 40 violinists by myself!' and it gets ridiculous.”

And while no one is a more vociferous booster of Toronto's vibrant conceptual-pop scene, old ambitions still beckon. On his latest collaboration with acclaimed Montreal indie band the Arcade Fire, he was delighted by the band's technical expertise. “In the end,” he smiles, “it's people who know how to play their instruments who are going to win.”

And by the time he's 30, he says, “I'll probably just quit and write operas.”

Meanwhile, his peers look on in wonder. As Guthrie says, “There's really no limit to what he could do.”

Just don't expect Pallett to settle into the predictable. He casually drops the news, for instance, that Les Mouches is thinking of playing shows in states of undress. “We've been rehearsing naked lately,” Pallett says. “It gives us a real good sense of awkwardness.”

Les Mouches appear tonight in Toronto at Cinecycle with the Creeping Nobodies; on Thursday in Ottawa at Zibbibo; and on Oct. 2 at the Pop Montreal festival.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 27 at 3:27 PM | Linking Posts

 

Melodrama for Music Writers

Alex Ross utters I think the most poignant line in music criticism this year. Da Capo should include it, unadorned and in its entirety, in its 2005 anthology:

"Confession: I don't feel like writing about Stravinsky."

In quite another spirit: A reminder to locals that this week's column on Hidden Camera/Mouche/Final Fantasist Owen Pallett, whom I very much did feel like writing about, will be in Saturday's Globe and Mail. I'll try to post some outtakes here. And next week watch for an important column-related announcement.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 23 at 7:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Mule Variations

Nice new blog on the block, a country fan from Oz, Flop-Eared Mule, points me to the Real Country Music blog, which I'd somehow missed but looks invaluable. Just now, for instance, it informed me of the death of Skeeter Davis at 73. For her, it's The End of the World. Which suddenly strikes me as a great song to play at your funeral. At least in a movie. (Too creepy for real life.)

This blog is so ... blog-ish today.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, September 19 at 5:18 PM | Linking Posts

 

Guelphgate, Part III

No new news till the Jazz Festival issues its statement, assuming that's still happening. But the discussion continues to compel me. Tomorrow I might attempt some summing-up, but meanwhile strong statements continue to pop into the comments section on the first post. After the second post, I received this letter, which the writer has kindly allowed me to reprint. His impressions aren't mine, but closer than some others have been.

One bit of second-hand gossip: Sources say Parker and Drake had been hesitant to play with Namtchylak in the first place, having had difficulties with her before, and they likely will not do so again. I don't think that resolves the question, but it's worth adding to the ledger.

[...]

From: Bill Parsons
Re: Sainkho Namtchylak concert
Thu 9/16/2004 1:27 PM

I was at the Sainkho Namtchylak concert Friday night in Guelph.

The first part of the concert until the music halted I presumed to be
conceptual. I had closed my eyes and was transported to Bandung, west Java
where Qur'an mosque singers release prayers amongst the intensity of a
culture in motion. The music of Sundanese vehicles, tools, wildlife,
children's play, and conversations always in flux, though harmonious, to the
multiple, echoing, "site specific" versions of amplified and omnipresent
sung prayers. I remember John Cage's Roaratorio, where musicians and
speakers were spread throughout Convocation Hall in Toronto creating
distinct music with its own character and periodicity while John Cage
recited bits of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

When Sainkho was told, twenty minutes into the concert, a car was waiting
for her I viewed this as theatre. The reactions of the other musicians,
William Parker and Hamid Drake, were realistic and convincing. The audience
too seemed to play along spontaneously and with believable performances.
(Reality television transformed to the "free" music concert stage.) I
maintained this perspective until the end of the show. I often view concerts
as live theatre and find it more enjoyable, especially when the audience is
a part of the show.

The rest of the show was trans-splendid, except for the last 10 minutes
where unfortunately William Parker was determined to maintain a poorly
played temple bowl while obliterating the subtle overtones Sainkho was
trying unsuccessfully to produce - both maintained their positions, each
waiting for the other to stop until they finally both gave in to end the
concert.

All three musicians were brilliant, sensitive, and delivered a first rate
show. I felt fortunate to be there to experience it. I also take my hat off
to Sainkho for having the courage to scream and vent in front of us all,
exposing herself as vulnerable, hurt, frustrated, furious, and steadfast in
her belief that people need to listen.

Bill Parsons

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 16 at 11:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Guelph Fest's Fantastic Fiasco

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My colleague Mark Miller offers an account in today's Globe of the blowout that went down Friday at the Guelph Jazz Festival. But here's my point of view on one of the most memorable, bad-ass improv shows I've ever seen, which saw a music festival strung up by the weakest wet-spaghetti strings in its own braid of good (or you may say, goody-two-shoes) intentions.

[...]

Mark gets some things right: "Sainkho Namtchylak, a noted singer who improvises in Siberia's Tuvan tradition, was a half-hour into an unhappy, tuneless wail at Chalmers United Church on Friday night. She stood with arms firmly crossed, the picture of defiance, and more than once made a display of consulting her watch, as if to ask, 'How much longer?' At no point did she respond to the tremendous rhythmic undertow generated by the two others on stage, New York bassist William Parker and Chicago drummer Hamid Drake."

Namtchylak's "wail" was actually a drone, and rather than tuneless it was melodically relentless, the same three notes repeated with little variation. (It even could be defended ethnomusicologically, but that would be disingenuous.) Good portions of the audience were walking out and others were buzz-buzzing in their pews, including some beside me doing so in full speaking voice as if nobody could possibly be listening to this - even though Parker and Drake were turning in, off on their own, one of the best sets I've ever heard them do.

At that point, the hapless MC for the evening, one David Burgess, was sent in by festival staff (and according to fest media liaisons, at the demand of other musicians to bail Hamid and William out) and began waving from the side of the stage. Mark was again accurate about what happened next:

"After a moment's confusion, she stopped the performance and reluctantly stepped down to shouts of 'Stay, stay, stay' from the audience. She herself could be heard to ask, 'What is freedom then?' In time, the audience prevailed. Back in place, Namtchylak aired her grievances against the festival and against life in general."

What Mark leaves out here is that after Namtchylak's rant - including some clear charges, like that she wasn't picked up the airport, and some incomprehensible ones - she stood there uncomfortably as tension peaked and members of the audience began shouting out, "Where is the festival director?" and other requests for someone from the extremistly community-minded festival to respond to the complaints and to the awkward situation. There was an utter vacuum. Ajay Heble, the festival's chronically visible artistic director, was for once nowhere to be seen.

Finally, William Parker began playing a golden bowl that produced a calming ring and the focus turned (near unwillingly) back to music. And here's where I differ in the extreme with Mark's account. He says, she "began singing again, this time a little more tunefully but still with some apparent distraction. It was Parker and Drake who gave the music what contour it had."

Obviously Mark would not have enjoyed Namtchylak's performance no matter what. What she did in the ensuing 45 minutes or so was a textbook case of kicking ass and taking names, Tuvan-shaman style. I have a bunch of recordings of her singing, tho I've never heard her live before, and this show outstripped anything I expected. It was furious, virtuosic and encyclopedic, from screams and overtone sequences that seemed likely to splinter the wood of the church if not cause it to burst into flames, to birdlike fluttering melodies that could have turned your blood to fog, and everywhere in between and sometimes - this being Tuvan throatsinging - simultaneously. An incantatory stream of hyperspeed syllables was perhaps most memorable, partly for its pentecostal fire of labial and glottal cascades and partly for the impression (shared, if conversations after the show are any indication, by the whole crowd) that she was putting one mother of a curse on us all.

(Mark claims that the audience cut her off at the end with its applause, but it seemed clear to me the musicians themselves chose their end point - long after their allotted time ran out.)

Parker and Drake served as able accompaniment at that point but their glory was in the first set, while Namtchylak seemed to be throwing the game. I will maintain to all comers, that first section was worth hearing for the bizarre contrast of her inertia and their dynamism - a supremely interesting combination if you closed your eyes to her scowling and just listened to the sound - and I think it's a very weird call to make at any point to decide that an improvisor is doing the "wrong" thing, even if you know that she's doing it to piss you off. That has to be saved for the retrospect.

Still, as Mark said, they were damned if they did stop her and damned if they didn't, and given what we got next, I'm selfishly happy they did.

What I'm not glad about is that they behaved like such passive-aggressive Canadian wimp-ass pissants about it after they took the action. And, though I don't know what the details of what happened beforehand, that they were foolish enough to give this notoriously touchy performer - who is after all from an arctic wasteland that was until recently mostly a place Soviet authorities banished people to, and is only lately a celebrated source of indigenous vocal magic - cause for irritation in the first place. As a friend said, "If they'd been dealing with Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton, you know they'd make damn sure that nothing like that got screwed up."

Given Namtchylak's position in her musical culture - an utterly unique one far beyond the range and experience of any other Tuvan singer - that comparison seems apt. And so why did it happen? For all Guelph's self-proclaimed "progressive" character, you have to say it is partly because she's a non-western woman who doesn't command that same respect, because as a result people are ignorant about her stature.

Which made it quadruply nauseating that Burgess - who till that point I could forgive because he was the fall guy, the festival's sacrificial lamb - addressed the issue in his intro to the next set (by Andrew Cyrille's great Pieces of Time drum choir) by saying, "We try to bring cultures together and ... the results are not always peaches and cream," or some such patronizing turn of phrase, blaming what took place on interculturalism itself (!) rather than mismanagement and miscommunication. What a TORRENT OF SMARM! The conflict wasn't between Drake, Parker and Namtchylak, Mr. Burgess. Yes, there was cultural friction, but it wasn't artistic. It was between the festival and the performer. It was between her and you.

I have a stake in the whole mess because I'm all over the festival's program materials: "It's the kind of event that makes you imagine music can change things," I'm quoted. Friday night that was both realized - in the frisson of excitement and of shit actually going down - and betrayed, in the mealymouthed nonsense that was used to defuse it.

Mark says, "This then is Guelph jazz: a place where fans defend on principle an artist's right to perform poorly" as if that were patently absurd. But how do you have free improvisation without that principle? How do you have art, whose history's a sum of brilliant mistakes? The disappointing thing is that it's a place where you thought the festival would defend that principle too.

What is wrong with Guelph has long been that the risks it takes are too dictated by ideology and not enough by art, too directed towards community feel-good moments and not enough to making your spine go gelatinous. Don't get me wrong: For a scrapbooky Ont. college town, the Guelph fest is a fucking brilliant and improbable coup, but after so many years in operation it also needs to take off its Birkenstocks, put on combat boots and wade out into the deeper muck.

Here I'm down with Mark's conclusion, if not with how he got there: "How deliciously ironic, then, that an event that takes such pride in being so high-minded in matters of theory could turn so heavy-handed in the cold face of a little reality."

Bottom line is that conflict is a good thing for art and for thinking, especially in the near-fatally confrontation-phobic Canadian arts, and I think what happened Friday is going to help the festival grow up, if they dare process the experience in a way that isn't purely self-serving. Friday they were on the self-serving path but there are a lot of smart critical people around the fest whom I hope will demand better.

That said, another less enlivening conflict, also involving Mark Miller, came on Saturday during the keynote talk by Archie Shepp, which was mainly an enjoyably circuitous exploration into how improvised African-American music (he doesn't use the word jazz, which he considers insulting) carries the legacy of African culture. But repeatedly he referred to Mark's book Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada by analogy to a story about a carful of bigots rolling down the window to yell "Nigger!" at Charlie Parker on a street corner.

Shepp's anger was over what he considered the book's undue emphasis on Parker's drug abuse compared to his music. I haven't read it, but I do know Mark's work in general and I think the implication that he's a racist is straight-up guff, slander and bile. I also think I can understand why Shepp feels that way - he's seen enough racism from the jazz press, enough misunderstanding of the music far and wide, that he doesn't waste time with a fair trial.

But if Mark's book does overemphasize the druggie angle, I'm afraid he's only falling prey to the same temptation as scribes on Ernest Hemingway, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, you-name-'em, always have and always will give in to, which is that the sordid stuff makes better copy. It is much easier to document and describe than artistic process, heritage and inspiration, so substance loses out to substance abuse.

It is taken too far, and absofuckinglutely it is endemically overdone in treatments of black artists, a kneejerk pathologizing reflex. But that doesn't mean books about Parker should just omit his smack problem either. (See Gopnik on biographical criticism below.)

Though he spoke with rich eloquence, Shepp remains the sharp provocateur he always has been: The accusation of Mark was a tangent from another point, but when he realized it was getting a rise he dug into it. I don't blame Shepp; he has reason for his pique, and his verbal grenade did its job, to percuss the point home. Racism is a question white critics of jazz have to take very seriously; we may never casually absolve ourselves of those underlying biases.

But Mark didn't deserve to be cast as the bête blanc here. His career has been one long, self-sacrificing demonstration of devotion to this music in all its forms, and whatever our other differences, I will stand up for his integrity.

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 13 at 11:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

Death of the Author II: Reanimated!

Critics listen up: From Adam Gopnik writing on Shakespeare (and Stephen Greenblatt's new book on that freest of Willies) in last week's New Yorker, excellent counsel for the profile writer - and the best justification of the biographical method I've run across except for the justification that to gossip is human, to err divine. Gopnik can be a bit of a prig but when he is on, he's on.

After mentioning Greenblatt's disc. of Falstaff's patterning on Elizabethan celebrity writer Robert Greene (a longer-standing theory than Gopnik makes it seem, tho I don't think anyone's ever described Greene as the Peter Cook of the University Wits before!), Gopnik says:

"One need not accept the identification to value the discovery. Biographical criticism may be a practice without certainties, but it is not a game without rules. Each time we come closer to Shakespeare's life, we escape from the aridity of formal criticism or the cheap generalities of social history into a recognizable world of real experience. When A.L. Rowse insists that Emilia Bassano Lanier, the tempestuous, adulterous, musical, poetic wife of a court musician, was the original Dark Lady of the Sonnets, we can buy or not, as we please. But the very existence of a woman like Emilia demonstrates that the cliched images of Elizabethan women, as subservient wives or unruly whores, are too grossly tuned to capture the reality of Shakespeare's world. Whether she is the Dark Lady or not, Emilia is a dark lady. Good biographical criticism dissolves determinisms, and replaces them not with gossipy puzzle-solution certainties but with glimpses of life as it is lived and art as it is made. Criticism is always a map of possibilities, roads taken, neglected and cut fresh, and the map of art is never more vivid than when the possibilities of a period are incarnated as the people in a life."

(And earlier: "Whatever our official pieties, we all believe in lives. The sternest formalists are the loudest gossips, and if you ask a cultural-studies maven who believes in nothing but collective forces and class determinisms how she came to believe this doctrine, she will begin to tell you, eagerly, the story of her life.")

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 13 at 5:18 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Alt-Country, Red-State, Intellectual-Property, 9/11-Anniversary Blues

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So this weekend the blog inexplicably commits hari-kari for a couple days, and more bad news comes in hot pursuit: To access all the articles of mine linked in "In Print" above, due to decisions made by the employers-that-be, you now have to become a Globe and Mail web subscriber. There are some practical reasons why, but it's not real cheap, and many of you won't choose to do so. C'est un drag.

Till I come up with a better solution, I'll try to provide Zoilus readers with enhanced-content editions of selected columns as I go. The first in that series is this piece on the much-pissed-upon genre of "alternative country" - which was, granted, always a lousy idea for a genre, but included some of the past decade's best songwriters, most of whom still matter to me today. The question of why it rose and fell without fulfilling all the hopes placed on it, as well as the zombie afterlife it's just embarked upon, dovetails full-bang with the question of what's gone wrong with American politics, and that's the upshot of this piece.

So if you'll please click on the Read More button, I offer you, "Alt Country Sings the Red-State Blues: The Director's Cut," featuring the Drive-By Truckers, who put on an earsplitting, lipsmacking, asswhupping show at the Horseshoe in Toronto last night. (Frank has pics.)

I think it's worth a read.

[...]

Alt-Country Sings the Red-State Blues (The Director's Cut)

Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Sept 11. 2004

It’s the bitter kind of twist you’d expect at the end of a country song, where a guy finally gets sober only to watch his wife take off with his best friend: “Alt-country” music got its biggest endorsement ever this week, but the source made that 1990s musical movement look as redundant as a midwestern industrial worker whose job has taken a swift boat to China.

Republican image czar Mark McKinnon told the New York Times on Monday that George W. Bush’s official campaign soundtrack is “heavy on alternative country ... ‘a little rockier, a little jazzier, a little funkier’ than traditional country.”

The news left alt-country fans in a funk of their own. After all, while both rock and country have always come from collisions of urban and rural sounds, the particular fusion of sizzle and twang that came to be called alt-country was forged in the early-1990s recession that sank Dubya’s dad.

At the time, critic David Cantwell called bands such as the Bottle Rockets, Old 97s, Son Volt and Wilco “the children of Detroit City” - rust-belt troubadors more vexed at how Middle America was being battered by Bush Sr.’s New World Order than by the usual rock’n’roll imperative to get the hell out of the sticks.

They intuited that when the factory shuts down, the family splits up, you live in a cancer cluster and only Wal-Mart is hiring, the effects aren’t so different than when the farm goes bust in a classic country song: Hearts spring leaks and whisky stanches the wounds.

These days you could call it the Red State blues. The Republicans’ vampire kiss to alt-country is part of their dumbfounding claim to be the party of heartland values, even as they help corporations cut off the heartland’s blood supply.

Thomas Frank addresses this paradox in his controversial recent book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: Why does his working-class home state keep voting for candidates who want to cut taxes for the rich instead of fixing health care? Frank blames Democrats for failing to answer a right-wing “values” strategy that rails about gay marriage or school prayer to bind voters’ loyalties against their own class interests.

In that context, Republican alt-country is as odd as conservative punk – as The Daily Show has put it, “raging for the machine.”

In the 1990s, alt-country prompted some of the most stimulating discussions about music I’ve ever had, mostly on the Internet: Where was the line between appropriating tradition and mocking it? How far could hybrids go before a culture lost its identity? What about race, what about north-south tensions, what about populism?

It seems so Clinton-era now – all that empathy, dialogue, process and synthesis. After the 2000 election and especially the 2001 terrorist attacks, many alt-country fans I knew began retreating to their preferred sides of the hyphen, back to indie rock or deeper into country, and a lot of the artists did too. Like the U.S. electorate, they became polarized.

It was as if the tactics of alternative country – juxtapositions of old and new musical vocabularies, often to weird or ironic effect – had become all too relevant. Dubya said you had to be with America or against it, but alt-country was both. If even the Dixie Chicks’ ambivalence was intolerable, how could a whole genre of love-hate Americana last? As Nashville refugee Allison Moorer laments in her new song All Aboard, “Some restrictions do apply/ Watch your mouth and close your eyes.”

And so the likes of Wilco gave up any hint of twang, Nashville pushed jingo Toby Keith and rock became a recycling depot for liberal pieties. Hip-hop alone was left to do the musical stretching, but with little whiff of politics.

Moorer, who quit her major-label contract last year, is one of several performers with alt-country connections who, as if in a gesture of conscientious objection, are marking this Sept. 11 north of the border. She opens for the Drive-By Truckers at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight; tomorrow at Lee’s Palace, it’s the Old 97s and Chuck Prophet.

You could call them dinosaur acts, but this year a funny thing happened on the way to the tar pits: Something a lot like alt-country began showing up on the mainstream, from names as big as Brooks & Dunn and Kid Rock – who both played last week’s Republican convention. Rock, a genuine son of Detroit who headlines at the Molson Amphitheatre tonight, has adapted his rap-metal ‘tude to a country mood. He even partnered with Moorer on the country-radio version of his hit Picture.

Fresher still are new records from a clique calling itself the Muzik Mafia, Gretchen Wilson’s No. 1 single Redneck Woman and Big & Rich’s debut album Horse of a Different Colour, which has just gone gold in Canada. Like many 1990s alt-country bands, they draw on southern rock stalwarts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and are more blunt and sarcastic than Nashville usually allows.

Big & Rich offer a goofy and uneven party record, a novelty-stuffed summer jam that could flow as smoothly into Outkast, the Goodie Mob or other “dirty south” rap as into classic rock or the latest four-square Nashvegas country by Tim McGraw – who toured with them this summer, along with their six-foot-four, Spanish-speaking black rapper Cowboy Troy. B&R; videos feature a literal parade of human diversity under the slogan “country music without prejudice” or, more playfully, “expandilism.”

Country and hip-hop today are both reliant on big beats and big personalities, gruff machismo and sass-talking ladies and partying and word play, while paying respect to God and the old school, and most of all representing where they come from – which is often the same deep-southern place. What continues to separate them is the knee-jerk assumption that there are two Americas – Hip-Hop America and Country America – and that they hate each other.

Tastemakers are comfortable with such demographic divides – black and white or blue and red, giving everybody someone to resent. It lets them overlook the real colour line described by vice-presidential candidate John Edwards’ “two Americas” – access to green.

In fact, if alt-country never caught the have-nots’ ears, perhaps it wasn’t eclectic enough. Big and Rich’s success shows how many people are out there wearing Snoop Dogg shirts and Charlie Daniels caps, smoking blunts and blasting Zeppelin.

You won’t sense any of that on the first album in three years by the one-time great pop hopes of alt-country, Texas’s Old 97s. Reviewers have called Drag It Up a homecoming to twang-rock from the band’s power-pop excursions, but the album makes it sound as if home had disappeared by the time the band when they got there. The analogy is grimly literal: Lead singer Rhett Miller and his wife had to flee their downtown New York apartment on 9/11. Yet nothing but a certain weariness testifies to that experience here, as Miller makes a half-hearted return to the smart-aleck “serial lady-killer” persona of his younger days.

Miller is a better writer than that, and the alt-country example he should look to is Georgia’s the Drive-By Truckers, whose new album – cleverly titled The Dirty South – is an illustrated guidebook to John Edwards’ and Thomas Frank’s two Americas. Performed in high-octane, triple-axe Skynyrd mode, it’s a sequence of story-songs about moonshiners and moon launches, Reagan and railway men, demanding to know “why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad.”

When songwriters Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell depict characters who must choose between pious, dutiful penury and living high and hard outside the law, they evoke Tupac Shakur as much as Johnny Cash. As they titled a previous album, it’s Gangstabilly.

The DBTs see a lot more grey than Big & Rich do in the redneck rainbow, but they’re shouting out to the same America, one that after three years of narrowing is yearning for a little expandilism. Despite all his phony yee-haws, that’s bad news for G-Dub: Americans may not listen to much alternative country, but a lot of them seem eager to live in one.

* * *

If you're in a 9/11 anniversary weekend mood for more venting on the subject, see this Vic Chesnutt interview: "It's always been like this. This country has always been run by greedy fuckers." He sounds like he's considering setting the 9/11 Commission report to music.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, September 12 at 7:02 PM | Linking Posts

 

Nada Surf, as in "Don't Bother" (yet)

No column in Thursday's Globe due to the eds. blowing out all space on the Film Festival launch. The likely booby prize will be that it will appear in the weekend paper - a piece on the Drive-By Truckers, Old 97s, Allison Moorer, Big & Rich and the rise & fall &, er, rise of alt-country (whatever that is).

Meanwhile in today's Globe enjoy my colleague Mark Miller's dialogue with Roswell Rudd: "Call me fun, call me Dixieland, call me innovative, call me lyrical... but don't call me late for dinner and certainly not 'avant-garde'!" Trombone twista Rudd is at the Guelph Jazz fest this weekend with Archie Shepp, whose embouchure, Rudd claims, is just fine. Uh-huh.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 08 at 6:39 PM | Linking Posts

 

Holding Hands After Swimming in a Lake (Plus: Ambitious Arto)

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Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, K Recs) is in Toronto @ Lee's Palace, Sept. 28. I've never seen him. Will it be super-mutant charm or repulsive twee? (The above pic, to me: charming. To you? Caveat emptor.)

In other news: Franz Ferdinand wins the Merrrrrrrrrrrrr............ sorry, dozed off there. At least Belle & Sebastien's waste of Trevor Horn's time was not rewarded. (Grump!)

ALSO: In Franklin Bruno's otherwise excellent Boston Phoenix piece on Arto Lindsay and the reissued DNA recordings, he poses "an obvious question: how did he travel from there to here?" (In which "there" is abrasive "arch-negationist no wave" and "here" is samba-spined "slick, accessible ... electro-acoustic grooves".)

While Franklin limns the result of that journey with his customary eloquence, there's actually a straight answer to the question he leaves hanging.

In brief: After DNA, Lindsay worked with the likes of Anton Fier, John Lurie, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, John Zorn and Ryuichi Sakamoto, all of which likely helped sand some of the spike off his style. But the big missing link is the oft-neglected Ambitious Lovers, Lindsay's band with Peter Scherer on keyboard, which stands at a near-exact midground 'tween DNA and O Corpo Subtil. Their Lust, Envy and especially Greed are sharp mashes of Prince, no wave and Braziliana.

Around the same time, Lindsay met Caetano Veloso in NYC, and because of his Brazilian background he got to produce Veloso's album Estrangeiro, which positioned him to be heavily involved in the next decade's worth of Brazilian avant-pop with Marisa Monte, Gal Costa and Carlinhos Brown, bridging to the likes of Juana Molina now, as well as Lindsay's stunning series of seductive 1990s solo works.

And through it all, he's still never really learned to play guitar: Read David Krasnow's neat Bomb interview with Arto.

Edited to add: Franklin also points out a crack Arto story by Douglas Wolk that includes the best description of DNA's sound I've ever read: "poems constructed entirely of punctuation."

News | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 08 at 1:30 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

When You're Weary, Feelin' Small -

- after a wack week of All Republicans All The Time... you could use a dose of Cat and Girl. Like an indie-rock existentialist Charlie Brown and Snoopy, they will lay you down.
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The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, September 03 at 4:55 PM | Linking Posts

 

Fear Factor (Jazz-Crit Edition)

Riddle: What do you do when you plan to preview a concert and discover that (a) you can't get a recording from the group involved and (b) the artist has recently decided he will only do in-person interviews, and (c) you and the artist are in two (possibly three) different countries?

Especially when one of your subjects has recently been extremely forceful in proclaiming most critics suck at what they do?

Solution (maybe): This week's column.

Which, all kvetching aside, is about German free-jazz colossus Peter Brotzmann (photo below) and his new collaboration with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson, called Sonore - as well as about race and the avant-garde tradition(s).

Regrets? Sure I've got some, but none sharper than being the only journalist in X years to pass up the chance to use the word "tarogato" in conjunction with Brotzmann. Ah well, at least that way I didn't misspell it.

Show on Friday at the Goethe Institut, and the tour continues though Ottawa (Sept 4), Montreal (Sept 5) and the U.S. east coast. Check Vandermark's site or local listings.

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Also today, I rave about the new CD Ver Tanzt? by Montreal klezmer-mope band Black Ox Orkestar, a Constellation Records joint featuring members of A Silver Mt. Zion and, one of my favourite-ever ghost bands, Sackville. I'm all thumbs, up.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, September 02 at 2:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

And I Was All Bitchbitch And He Was All Defydefy

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In today's column, the valor, the horror, and the Fake Prom.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 26 at 4:51 PM | Linking Posts

 

Roll It Out Like a Monkey

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Sasha asks of early REM: "Was that the first time lyrics were incomprehensible, repeatedly?" Not just a mumbler, but "someone with a full-on commitment to concealment."

Sorry to return to a previous reference but "commitment to concealment" leads to one inevitable answer:Pere Ubu. David Thomas very deliberately developed a singing style in the mid-70s in which many of the words were incomprehensible, part of a philosophy that persists to this day (even though he now sings much more clearly) that the sense of the words is secondary to their sound, that sound is the medium of rock and it is best if the "poetry" does not interfere with the beyond-language level: When asked what he thought of Peter (Bauhaus) Murphy's cover version of the best-known 1970s Ubu song, Final Solution, Thomas said, "Everyone who covers that song makes the mistake of singing the words so they can be understood."

As if speaking directly to Franklin Bruno, Thomas has said: "Rock music as an art is designed to communicate that which is beyond words. It's visionary, nonlinear, nonverbal, non-narrative, inarticulate. We're dedicated to the art of cohesive, intelligent, nonverbal communication.... I wouldn't know a thought if it came up and bit me. When you ask a question the answer springs out of nothingness and I flap my gums. If I like the sound of what my voice speaks then I learn it by rote so that I can roll it out like a monkey the next time. The form of the words triggers a recognition of meaning."

I think the precedent you'd track for that stance has to be Louie Louie. This seems to me very different than the hardcore punk/metal versions of incomprehensibility that followed.

I'd love it if somebody essayed a reply to Franklin's question about whether there are MCs who are beloved as writers but not so much as performers (to paraphrase what he said) - where it might make sense to say, "I'd like to hear somebody else cover that," the way one does of Randy Newman or Stephin Merritt even tho I prefer their versions to anyone else's. Does a rap exist as a text and a song outside of its specific recorded version? Is there any precedent for that?

Is it sampling that renders hip-hop a kind of songwriting where cover versions would be absurd or is it something else?

In John Darnielle's comment to the entry below he seems afraid I'll use his latest LPTJ post to drag him into all this. Which I'm afraid I will. That and more to come in the morning when the week's columnizing is done.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 24 at 5:20 PM | Linking Posts

 

Convo Conversion

Administrivia: A fistful of new Toronto-and-area music sites added to the links page, courtesy mostly of Aaron. Merci beaucoup.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, August 24 at 2:08 PM | Linking Posts

 

Hmmm

What does this have to do with the price of beef in blogville?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 23 at 4:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Don't You Know No One Alive Can Always Be an Angel?

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While contemplating Franklin's latest, some sidebars:

That "college" phrase got read wrong. Or probably, stated wrong. What I meant is - if 20 year olds become the most influential element of the music-biz audience, will you get demand and supply of a different kind of writing than you do when 14 year olds are the heavies? Not better or worse, but more of the "writerly" affect and a shift in subject interest (to politics for instance). College was meant as shorthand for young-adult not the classroom - for Pet Sounds rather than Fun Fun Fun or Springsteen rather than the Monkees. (This could also be a bad thing.) But I was not meaning to project that curiosity/desire onto anybody but me.

Likewise the argument that there's been a divergence between the lyric style of rock hits and the lyric style of the anti-hit-list was mine and mine alone. But I think it's true. It's like a single body that split in half, each taking extreme and unbalanced parts of the personality with it. But the pompous meaninglessness of a certain dominant style of mainstream rock lyrics circa 1994-2003 (generally bad U2 imitations) is conspicuous: If we're talking about "what kind of lyrics changed how," mainstream rock lyrics indulged in a whole complex of reactions to/for/against hip-hop and resurgent pop. And in that light I'm unsure if in any conversation about "trends and ontology" indie rock has a place. (Hmm, maybe that one's not a sidebar.)

"Jocks vs. geeks" was not meant literally but to flag a certain tone that creeps in when the pop defenders make mockery of indie a tactic - the assumption that indie is an elite is on one hand semi-accurate and on the other kind of a conspiracy theory ascribing improbable power to a dispossessed minority as far as the pop-market is concerned. Yes critics care about indie but who cares about critics, that's the dirty little secret. Anyway I knew it would get a rise - I suppose I could be accused of teasing.

One Ring Zero's album may be the geekiest record ever made, a bunch of authors supplying lyrics to a band that uses accordion, claviola and theremin as its primary axes, and that's one of the reasons I found it fun to write about, even if it is too geeky to spawn any lineage.

Footnotes
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All right, it is possible to get geekier: Seattle band Bloodhag plays "edu-core," heavy metal songs entirely about science-fiction authors and tours the northwest-coast library system in the summertimes. Choice quote, in their song about HG Wells: "Writers still swipe from your most famous books/Yet they forget the social satire of your later works." Rawwwwk!

Also meet Gaddis, who write songs not with the types on the ORZ album but about them. And here's Harry and the Potters.

Can you tell I'm just burning off unused research? Here's something that might be useful/amusing: An index of songs inspired by literature.

And there are two recent CDs raising cash for literacy with songs inspired by stories/novels/etc, with David Bowie, Springsteen, Tom Waits, Rosanne Cash and a bunch of unknowns.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 23 at 3:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

It's Oh So Quiet

Mark says wisely: "It's not all that useful to indict songwriters when its their mode that you're alienated from."

And then maybe a bit-less-wisely: "Given that the fine art of rock lyricism is in some ways more limited than that of Haiku-writing, is it so completely batshit to suggest that, as a form, it might not be exempt from the law of diminishing returns?"

Maybe it wouldn't be if your given was actually a given, but in what way is a form that takes in all the people whose names we were batting around over the weekend - plus, oh, Captain Beefheart and Chuck Berry - more limited than a 17-syllable observational lyric? The fact that even haiku can be renewed is actually a counterdemonstration that a dry spell doesn't equal desertificiation. And lyrically, rock has covered so much territory in the past half-century that saying it is played out is like saying that songwriting itself is played out. It ain't the form it's the culture. If rock, mostly, especially mainstream rock, hasn't much new to say, it's not because it's all been said already but because the people with new to say aren't inclined to use rock (or jazz or folk) to say it.

There's no purchase in arguing that hip-hop lyrics are inherently any more or less limited than rock ones. It's just that hip-hop is feeling fresher as a mode now. Though I don't think she's The One, what Nellie McKay demonstrates is that totally unexpected crosspollinations of hip-hop, rock and other pop forms are not only possible, they are inevitable. Don't go all Fukuyama on hip-hop; it's not the End of History.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 23 at 2:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Soft and Pink as a Nursuree


While I was away the discussion didn't so much die out as commit suicide.

I can see why Sasha hit the brake, with folks getting passionate in their defence of something he didn't mean to be attacking, and while I still think there's juice in figuring out what we're talking about when we talk about lyrics, as far as SFJ's original point's concerned, Douglas Wolk nudged in the right direction when he mentioned "hits" - in rock, good lyrics eventually became one of the main things that separates the underground from the radio. In fact lyrics are one of the main things that keeps otherwise palatable stuff (say, Ted Leo) off the radio. I don't think that separation existed so much 20 years back. There may have been differences of kind but not so much of quality, just the way that there's one sort of good lyrics in hip-hop hits now and another sort in the undie scene. This is one of those trends I hope will shift when the demographic bulge that brought us Britney-etc. starts amassing in higher education and clamors for college-appropriate rock. That's my personal ticket to Fantasy Island.

Thanks also to Douglas for pointing out the Dog Faced Hermans' use of Angela Carter - and in general for keeping the great DFH's flame. (That's them in the pic above.) Douglas also has a nice Seattle Weekly piece on the place of narrative in the Fiery Furnaces and Ken Stringfellow's work that seems germane to dreams of Lit Rock.

I have some further ideas and fun trivia to add later but I'll cleave like a courtly lover to short-sweet and dodge like the draft any junior-debater mode.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, August 22 at 11:34 PM | Linking Posts

 

Dept. of Fact Stranger Than Dept. of Fiction

Shee-it! After writing that whole column about Oneida, repetition and the gentle art of wedlock, it turns out their next album is called The Wedding. Perfect, but if only I'd known!

Kicking self around the block. Anyone make the show, how was it?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, August 21 at 6:50 PM | Linking Posts

 

Back at the recital, signs remain vital

Jordan Davis says "it's a very alienating, hating discussion," and I'm not sure what he means - as a poet, that what we are doing is word-hostile? [...]

Not from this quarter. That distinguishing-between (criticism) is hating? More essentially he says: "There are no absolute categories of desirable lyric experience, and we all have a three-to-six second rule, after which the new song on either has us or it doesn't, in which case it's back to chatting." That first clause is right on, but three-to-six seconds? Nah, that's only one kind of listening. (For example the presumption there are other people there?)

Jessica says: "It's part of our duty, as people with ears, to beef with indie rock lyrics, to beef with whiteness (metaphorically, literal, and metaphysical)." Which has me stewing a little. Metaphorical whiteness - whiteness as imperium or whiteness as reduction of the sayable, with the politesse of its "own" style and censorious pressure on others, hell, even just funklessness - yes, uh-huh.

But literal whiteness? "... it's part of our duty... to beef with" the whiteness of white skin?

And what the fuck is metaphysical whiteness?

Hateration radiation: There's the justifiable dissing of indie rock as a self-enclosed playpen for those of a certain class/education/ethnicity - hyperwhiteness - and then there's beefing not with those people's actions but their having-been-born, and often from those who share that class, education and ethnicity, because no one else cares as much. I think this is part of what has both Jordan and Franklin on the defensive, and rightly, even though it's such a loaded subject that I can feel my fingers start backing off it even as I type.

In brief maybe just to say that the vast and important critique that's been made of how Anglo-American popular music has ripped off African-American culture for the past 150 years (see Greg Tate's fine anthology Everything But the Burden) demands a parallel archaeological project of distinguishing what in white popular music is not stolen and breaking that down. (For instances: Academic, Irish, Italian, French, Romantic, Music-Hall, Shakespeare, Childe Ballad....) All this has to do with unravelling the category of whiteness as a citadel and shelter. So what Pavement's tone, its rambling drawly privilege, has to do with What Kind of Name Is Malkmus seems to me an inquiry you ought to be able to make without the end goal necessarily being moral condemnation. And then see where the contact and crosspollination with the pop forms coming down outta gospel, outta blues, transform this whiteness and vice-versa. (And from there you can go sociology-of-taste, and interrogate why for instance I am drawn to things that are very trebley and didn't really "discover" bottom end until I was like 20.)

Again this all gets back to the pop-vs-other problem - a weird critical inversion we seem to be going through where writing songs that are not suited to shouting along in group chorus as you drive down the drag is becoming figured as a problem. As Sasha describes it, "Is there any point in making popular music if it's going to sound like you and your friends talking over the Magnolia DVD?" Again submerged class stuff, reflectivity being described as yuppie luxury and just a little note of jock-versus-geek that I'm hearing. This is the legacy of Rock-Crit Generation One that defaulted to "art" and pissed on popularity. I suppose the pendulum swing is inevitable but it starts to verge on holding a bedsit ballad to the criteria of a club anthem. (At least rhetorically as I don't think anybody operates this crudely when confronted with the actual music.)

Meanwhile Eppy of ClapClapBlog goes back to the text and makes some more than reasonable objections to the Lit Rock article mainly founded on being not-too-impressed with One Ring Zero. Me, I like ORZ's instrumental stuff quite a bit, taken as what it is. But as I think I hinted strongly in the piece, I think only a few things on the album work well, sometimes because of the lyrics and sometimes because of the settings - and the voices, which I don't mention in the piece because it woulda distracted from the theme.

On his "corrections": Yeah, I knew Warren Zevon worked with novelists going back to the mid-nineties; that still puts all the action in the last decade, which to me is "recent." I don't think Eppy's Kurt Weill example is very helpful - Brecht wrote those lyrics as songs for his plays, which are musicals. Playwrights writing lyrics for musicals ain't exactly news. The covers would be more notable if the Brecht-Weill songs weren't standards. (By the way, I prefer Tom Waits' version of What Keeps Mankind Alive to Burroughs'.) And Brecht, again, poet-playwright, not novelist. Different places on the 20th-century-literary hierarchy, which was very much my point.

He didn't like my big-hair joke. That I can live with.

But he gets a lot right: "I think it's very fair to say that the particular eye for details in Mountain Goats songs is specifically in the style of short stories, whereas Stephin Merritt's writing is pretty specifically in the tradition of high-pop lyricism, just as 50 Cent's is in the tradition of hip-hop lyricism, Justin Hawkins' is in the tradition of hard-rock lyricism, etc. Neither of them draw particular styles from outside. And, regrettably, neither do writers, by and large."

What Sasha was getting at in part - that "good" in lyrics is relative to the frame you work in (or the one you break).

Also about the Warren Zevon album with the most Lit Rock content (and this applies equally to ORZ: "The material does not match the voice, for one thing... the writer tries to skew rock, the music tries to skew literary, and they kind of miss each other in the middle."

Franklin begins to get uncomfortable that John Darnielle is becoming the Outkast of indie rock ("I don't like hip-hop/indie-rock but I like Outkast/The Mountain Goats"): "exceptionalism via ignorance." Maybe. But maybe that's actually Weezer. The people in this discussion have something in common most music listeners don't and the list of good lyricists we've been bandying about looks suspiciously like something a bunch of writers would come up with. Jessica's introduction of Fugazi, Lungfish, Courtney introduces another note and as Franklin says, surely there are other places to go from there.

So what are "writerly" lyrics? Vocabulary that goes beyond the usual conversational lexicon, for most kinds of songs. (Death metal obviously excepted - writerly death metal would be death metal that actually used any conversational language, I think.) A sense of structure and pacing that for example witholds elements of a narrative so that they can be revealed later in the song, not in the sense of the country-music/M. Night Shamalyan "twist" but in the sense of emotional contradiction and ambiguity being gradually unveiled a la Carver-type short stories. Allusions. Plays on words that go beyond the hook and extend into lyrical construction.

It'd be interesting to hear more about people's favourite nonwriterly rock lyricists but it is tricky.

Point is I think we can be more specific than "self-conscious" because the listener is capable of turning any lyric into a "self-conscious"-seeming one just by an intensity of attention and analysis. (Zeppelin or Sabbath or Korn lyrics aren't writerly but in teenage boy conversation lying stoned on bedroom floors they might as well be.) I feel like we're leaving out the listener's role in making a lyric good or suck-ass, which in any mass-cult. category is a surefire way to get stuff wrong.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, August 21 at 4:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Goodbye Joe, We Gotta Go, Me-O-My-O

Now them's good lyrics. I've said enough for now but FYI Jessica Tinyluckygenius has gotten in on the palaver and there's more from Sasha right on point with what I was aiming at below: Ultimately what's good or bad got to do with it? Bad's nothin' but a second-hand emotion.

Sasha would also like it to be known (he tells me on-blog and through the mail slot) that he likes both Malkmus and Jay Farrar. My bad. His good.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 20 at 3:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Right In Front of All the Blogboys

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Franklin Bruno steps up with a list of Current Rock Lyricists Who Fail To Suck Massive Ass that is pretty close to the one I'd assemble, though I'd put Franklin himself on the list as much more than an afterthought.

Which brings a semi-demi-mea-culpa, reflection-on-the-from-the-hip-nature-of-blogs (of which fair'nuff) and mocking reference to The View from SFJ, although he still thinks rock lyrics suck ass.

Now, he may be right that Pavement has wreaked havoc by licensing gibberishy stuff - but that doesn't mean Malkmus didn't make a lot of scores along the way. I hate the snicker-snicker lyrics about the Smashing Pumpkins, but I sure like, "I was dressed for success/ But success it never comes" (Here) or "Glance, don’t stare/ Soon you’re being told to recognize your heirs/ No, not me/ I’m an island of such great complexity/ Stress surrounds/ In the muddy peaceful center of this town/ Tell me off in the hotel lobby/ Right in front of all the bellboys/ And the over-friendly concierge" (Shady Lane).

R. Buckner, whom both FB and SFJ praise in their different ways, is a big Malkmus-lyrics fan. Buckner also likes Bill Callahan (Smog), who's not on Franklin's list, and I'd add, for instance, Jay Farrar although SFJ almost certainly wouldn't. (Plus he is way wrong on David Thomas [pic above]. So there.)

But beyond all our listmaker-collector trivial pursuits lurks the question of what makes a good lyric anyway. Can we agree right now that it has almost nothing to do with how it reads on the page? (That's what Greg's spam-lyrics quiz points up. And by the way, most spam-like lyrics award definitely goes to the Fall. It's not nec. a bad thing.) Franklin sometimes talks about the way the rhythms of good lyrics will sound conversational when matched with the music, but that's a rule so often honoured in the breach (from Merritt to MF Doom) I'm not sure what to do with it except to say good lyrics almost always demonstrate an awareness of how people speak.

My inclination, I think, is toward lyrics that do two things: 1. amplify musical effect, by their own inherent musicality and compatibility or contrast with their setting; and 2. offer something emotionally or intellectually unexpected. In general lyrics need to give you substance without giving so much substance that they overcrowd - you can lead up to the killer line with a lot of vague atmospherics or even cliches, then yank the scaffolding out with a turn of phrase, a pun, whatever ammo you've got.

I've written about this a couple of times. Once was an earlier stab at the Lit Rock theme, in 2002, about the false battle of lyrics-vs-poetry - I'll post it after the "Read More" button for those who really want to get into it. The other was in a column about Lambchop (see FB's list) that includes this passage:

Then lead singer Kurt Wagner, who helms this house-party-cum-orchestra, enters in his singular, half-spoken drawl: "Well thank you thank you very much/ Little spiders making little webs/ Nuts is what you have become/ Kind of fractured of the facts."

Whom he's thanking or for what is unclear, since these lines follow a half-verse (about an "albino butterfly") that didn't amount to much. Whether the "you" he's thanking is the same "you" that's off its rocker, or one is a kind of "I" - well, who knows?

What counts is the disturbingly pleasant way these lines fall, as if on the back of the listener's neck or some other tender part, someplace where true gratitude and sarcasm blur, where cool savvy could quickly become complete lunacy.

The moment is re-enacted at 2:50, but it pales the second time. For one thing, it lacks the dubbed second voice echoing Wagner's words a split-second behind, like a doppelganger - the only time on the song that effect is used. Besides, as so often on Is a Woman, interest has been worn down by repetition.

But I'm still left hum-singing, "Thank you thank you very much," or sometimes an Elvisian "Thank you thank you thank you very much" just for fun. It's like the day a few weeks back when I left a show compulsively chanting "Or-nette Cole-man/ Or-nette Cole-man," in the cadence that the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble had kept going for half-an-hour.

Aboutness is overrated. What lingers of art is often not deep analysis or complex narrative, but perfect fragments - Lou Reed's "coloured girls" going doot, doot-doot, doot-doot. Great songwriters line those moments up like dominoes, and they needn't even follow logically. They fall where they must.

Great art moments are solid and clear, in sensation if not sense, sculpted the way Inuit carvers supposedly do it: To get a seal, you carve away all the stone that's not a seal. Art appears when you've done enough, but may vanish again if you go too far.

All right. Enough from me. Old column on the flip.

Anyway, consensus of the day: Darnielle rules.

[...]

SCENE: The sounds of poetic licence

9 May 2002
The Globe and Mail
Metro R8

When you give your band a name like Rainer Maria, after German symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you're really asking for it.

You risk coming off like those young would-be writers who name their dogs Emily Dickinson and their cats Young Werther and dress in pyjama tops or carry walking sticks and collect kitschy signs from restaurants as "found poetry."

(My own recent favourite is from a novelty shop in Yorkville, in which spray cans that claim to issue an, er, hilariously suspicious stench are flanked by notices in block letters: "DO NOT TRY. No matter how curious you are. Trust us, it really does smells bad. Parents, watch your children. Adults, watch yourselves." Volumes of tragic desk-clerk experience, summoned up in so few words.)

It only gets worse when people find out your drummer (Bill Kuehn) and guitarist (Kyle Fischer) were previously in a band named Ezra Pound. And that the guitarist met the bass player (Caithlin De Marrais) in an actual university poetry seminar in Wisconsin, and now they've been dating for an oh-so-not-rock 'n' roll six years and live in New York.

Strike three comes when you write songs like The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets: "At the time of his assassination: Two pairs of spectacles, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, a brown leather wallet containing $5 in confederate money and nine newspaper clippings. This here is Walt Whitman's pen. . . . You've never been hit before. How can you deal with that kind of information?"

But one question remains. Say you also play loose, febrile, electric punk guitar and feature a singer, De Marrais, who can infuse those precocious words with the blue burn of a gas furnace, whose voice sounds like something biting off its leash and running for the wild? Say you perform tonight at the Horseshoe in Toronto (370 Queen St. West, $8, 416-598-4753, with Jim Guthrie and the Carnations), and even someone who doesn't listen to lyrics suddenly notices his neck tensing, a little ache in the corners of his eyes?

Then are you still pretentious twits?

The underlying debate here, about songs versus poetry, is weirdly never-ending and utterly undistinguished by any kind of aesthetic honesty. It's the besotted against the snots, the wide-eyed poptimists against the defenders of the citadel -- cheers versus sneers, and whoever's scorn is snappiest wins.

I first encountered it in a used bookstore where I came upon a battered 1969 paperback, The Poetry of Rock, edited by the Village Voice music critic Richard Goldstein, who did nobody any favours by including the drivel of Jim Morrison and Procol Harum alongside the more plausible Dylan and Chuck Berry.

The blather rises again every time Paul McCartney or Lou Reed -- or the best-selling poet of our time, painfully enough, Jewel -- comes out with a book, practically to the point that you want to sit critics down and say, "How did this book hurt you, exactly? Did some mean old bully smack you on the back of the skull with it this morning? If not, mind if I do now?"

That these books mostly are horrible dreck, and that most lyrics do not and aren't meant to survive severing from the music, are such obvious points that I nearly fell asleep in the middle of typing them.

So is the fact that poetry has been oral, and often set to music, for more of history than not. Or that by any literal definition most lyrics simply are poetry when they're printed out; the question is whether they're useful poetry to body and soul.

The written and sung run about even in those stats. Most people just know more bad songs than bad poems.

Finally, contemporary poetry includes countless forms -- poetry written in grunts, in Klingon, in diamond shapes, in collage fragments, in aphasic decomposing monologue -- far more cracked than are dreamt of in rock's philosophies. Spouting technical metrics means less than nothing. And hell, no less a prig than T. S. Eliot had the nerve to say the best line of iambic pentameter in English was not in Shakespeare but in W. C. Handy's St. Louis Blues: "I hate to see that evening sun go down."

Really, the whole argument is about who gets to wear the musty crown of Poet, a designation nobody with a decent haircut wants nowadays anyway except when someone tells them they can't have it.

Many of the best poets in rock -- David Berman of the Silver Jews, whose book is even better than his albums, or David Thomas of Pere Ubu, for instance -- are careful to mock themselves in advance: "Listen," Thomas warns. "Here comes the poetry!/ 'I'm a cave with the wind inside'/ 'I'm a shell with the sound of the surf inside!'/ What?!/ What's the point, hunh?/ Don't be no misery goat!"

Others take it so earnestly it can kill them. The brilliant Shane MacGowan, once of the Pogues, has drowned his gift so deep in the myth of the drunken Irish poet that his performances are like watching a battered ship run aground. (Wednesday at Lee's Palace, 529 Bloor St. West, $27.50, 416-532-1598.)

Meanwhile, Andrew Motion, the British poet laureate, makes a simple observation: "Boys who would rather be seen dead than reading poetry do lie around on their bedroom floors reading song lyrics." A long-time Dylan fan, Motion used one U.K. National Poetry Week to poll Brits' favourite song lyrics, which amounted to a free bonus for every satirist snob in the British press.

I only know that if poetry's going to be done out loud -- and surely we sometimes want it to be, to balance, against our private visits with the page, some shared trips into the dizzy heights of our common language -- most of the time I'd rather hear it with a beat and a band, a verse rapped rather than declaimed in "spoken word."

When the sometimes strained, sometimes inspired poetry of Rainer Maria comes to me through the voice of Caithlin De Marrais, it makes a compelling effort to answer the prayer of Rilke himself -- "From me, and all of this, to make, Lord/ Some single thing."

Who cares what the classifiers call it?

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 20 at 1:32 PM | Linking Posts

 

Modest Throat-Clearing Sound

SFJ and Alex Ross linked with kind words to my Lit Rock piece, which makes having punched through a soggy midsummer writer's block on it feel very worthwhile.

A bit of a response to Sasha's comment: "When Wilson reaches the idea of 'lit hop,' and wonders why there's no such thing, I felt an involuntary response burp out: 'There's already a lit-hop. It's called hip-hop.' " For sure. But I didn't "wonder" why there was no hip-hop, I said there was "conspicuously no such thing" - and the reason is of course the one Sasha evinces, that hip-hop is already logocentric - in a way that's of its time and mass vernacular - so nobody feels the need to go begging for a supplement, just the way that nobody in rock felt that urge for the first 35 years.

In fact hip-hop has basically already given the world a literary form, rather than the other way around - slam poetry and most of what gets called "spoken word" has its source in hip-hop, and there's more than a few performers who do both. (Ursula Rucker for example.)

So yeah, lit rock is rock's own private sideshow. If hip-hop eventually started to senesce on a similar pattern, I dunno if (for various historically contingent reasons) novelists would be the crutch they'd reach for - watch out if a lot of black stand-ups start guesting on hip-hop tracks, maybe. (On the other hand there's always Cornel West's tenure-slaying rap album to think about, so no one has cause to get complacent.)

I'm less on the bus with SFJ's other point - that " indie rockers are reaching out to writers ... because rock lyrics have sucked such massive ass in the last 15 years." Post-alt indie has seen a typical lot of suckage but also some of the best rock lyrics ever, with writers who, among other things, are influenced by contemporary poetry (and rap) rather than by, for instance, romantic poetry in the 1960s and 1970s or beatnik 1950s stuff in the 1980s. The lit's often been the best part of the rock in the past 15 years, though that's a sad statement to make. (On the other hand, here's a cheap joke that can bolster all who think otherwise.) I think indie rockers are reaching out to writers because now they're basically the same sort of people, so there's suddenly an appeal. Chris Ewen said he did it basically because he's used to working with Stephin Merritt (who's a damn fine lyricist whatever else SFJ thinks of him) and had high standards for what kind of lyrics he wanted to work with.

Rock lyrics have been a pretty dire problem all along, at least post-Beatles, when it started to matter. It was probably at its worst with prog-rock (Yes and Rush lyrics are not only as bad as lyrics get, they're about as bad as anything gets). But trust me, most of the novelist brigade can't do much better.

Sasha also links to an excellent essay by DJ/Rupture. This paragraph in particular sums up a lot of why I started Tin Tin Tin -

"I�m fascinated by the frame-breaking possibilities of turntablism and sampling; but at the same time, I�m starting to view sampling as a very lazy gesture�innocent at best, creepily segregationist at worst. For example, if you�re sampling a sitar CD, it generally means that you can�t find�or can�t be bothered to look for�someone who actually plays the instrument. Sampling maintains cultural distance; collaborations require closeness. The difference is huge. It�s the difference between one-way cultural flow and the kind of dialogue that could lead to real community."

- but the rest is very worthwhile too. Also check out Alex's definitive Bjork piece in this week's New Yorker. I'm still reading it but might have some stuff to say tomorrow.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 19 at 11:53 PM | Linking Posts

 

Thursday Papers (Ask No Questions! Tell No Lies!)

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Worth reading in other Toronto print sources today: Errol Nazareth with Martha Redbone and Liz Bromstein with the underrated Lucie Idlout (pictured above), both at Planet IndigenUs at Harbourfront this weekend; my colleagues Guy Dixon, on 'classical' music being underserved in the download market, and Robert Everett-Green on the new Mark Lanegan disc; Ben Rayner on the Illuminati; Stuberman on K-Os' new disc; the mighty Sakamoto's Anti-Hit List previews Elliott Smith, Delgados, Deep Dark United, Devendra Banhart; and Keven Hainey in Eye and Nick Flanagan in Now interview Oneida (see below).

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 19 at 5:19 PM | Linking Posts

 

The Alpha and the Oneida

Today's column made Mrs Zoilus blush, she tells me, which seems a good sign. Oneida fans, pardon the genteel approach to your riff-stomping, brain-melting heroes. Let me add: Not only an object of philosophical contemplation about life, love and the shortcomings of utopian communalism, they're also fucken loud.

Rereading the piece I notice there's one point that didn't quite get made the way I meant: Referring to the deep brain imprint left by the "Big Albums" of stadium rock, I was thinking that by building most songs on a single riff that's reiterated throughout, Oneida's invented a technique to stimulate that classic-rock familiarity, so that a couple of minutes into any one of their songs, it's as if you're already listening to something you know. The trick is to make it also seem like something you love, and Oneida hits that one by putting so much desperate passion into the riff every time it's played, as if they almost can't do it again, so even when you hear the same three-note figure for the 40th time in the song, it still seems like there's a lot at stake. And of course the texturing and oddmentation that shifts and breaks and pings against the riff throughout each song keeps it responsive instead of monotonous.

Also couldn't work in the witticism I found somewhere in Christgau's files: As a former free-love commune that turned into a corporate tableware company, Oneida Ltd. is the 19th century's closest equivalent to the Grateful Dead.

(And like Dead Inc., Oneida Ltd. is still touchingly proud of its countercultural past, tho they don't get into details. My idea of the co.'s current prosperity seems to have been a tad exaggerated. Anway, the Oneida Community story is uproarious; somebody should turn it into, like, a sung-through musical.)

Further to the Oneida fans: Since this was an intro kind of piece, I didn't throw much out about what distinguishes Secret Wars from the previous albums. It's a little less aggressive, but it's notable how much more like Steve Reich/early Phil Glass their brand of minimalism has become, with motifs being replaced by others through a series of clever time-phasing tricks, so that music that seems unchanging can end up radically different a few minutes later. As well, while Each One Teach One assigned the pop-song Oneida and the abstract-machine Oneida to different discs, here you get to witness them in action simultaneously in the same song quite frequently, especially in Caesar's Column. That song includes my favourite sonic moment on the disc, when one of the Oneidans does a subtle and pretty funny bit of mouth percussion along with Kid Million's intense drumming. I also like the gongs and ukeleles and other off-message shit they throw in. $50 Tea is a choice cut. And the shift from quartet to trio looks good on them, too, clearing a little space for the better touches to get noticed and, I suspect, forcing them to make more inventive choices than when they could just barrel ahead.

On the other hand, the vocals aren't as good as they were when Papa Crazee was there. (He's now departed for alt-country-psych project Oakley Hall, which I'm eager to check.) And I'm not sure if this is new or not, but the lyrics pretty much suck, full of little acid-head advice and homilies. It says a lot that I, pathological Lyric Guy, don't actually mind.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 19 at 5:12 PM | Linking Posts

 

Lit Rock Brain Teasers (Now: With Solutions!)

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As previously advertised, my piece on novelists penning rock lyrics appeared in this weekend's Globe & Mail. Reactions more than welcome:

Lit rock is on a roll

CARL WILSON
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 14, 2004 at 12:14 AM EDT

When people sing when alone,
People find them wretched,
People find them disgusting.
This happens in every part of the world.

- Dave Eggers/One Ring Zero, The Ghost of Rita Gonzalo

Surely only a mad, impetuous fool would try to violate all the laws of the universe, meddle with the natural order, and forge such a misbegotten creature - half-music, half-literature.

Consider the tragic history of such experiments, littered with such horrors as the poetry of Jewel, the novels of Jimmy Buffett, and such 1970s "concept albums" as Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman's arpeggio-ridden desecration of Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

And yet Michael Hearst seems like such a reasonable young man.

Hearst is half of New York-based duo One Ring Zero, whose new, fifth album, As Smart As We Are, features lyrics by 17 prominent writers, from Rick Moody, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem and A..M. Homes to kids' gothic writer Lemony Snicket (under his grownup alias, Daniel Handler) and even CanLit icon Margaret Atwood.

Hearst and his musical partner Joshua Camp fell into the literary world after leaving their native Virginia in 2001, when they lucked into a gig as house band at the McSweeney's Store. For the next two years, they opened for readings at the Brooklyn curio shop operated by Dave Eggers's cult small press. The contacts they made led to this album-cum-anthology. "Writers all want to be rock stars," says Hearst. "If I had been another writer trying to get a blurb, I'd never have had contact with any of these people."

At 64, however, Atwood bristles at any notion that she might yearn to storm arenas in spandex and spiked collars. "With all due respect to Michael, I think it would be as accurate to say that all rock stars want to be writers," the Booker Prize-winner retorts.

Actually, scores of musicians have signed book contracts lately, too. But Atwood has good reason to be wary. Such side projects usually garner about as much respect as Mariah Carey's movie career. The jibes flew fast and sharp, for instance, when lyrics from Salman Rushdie's 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet were transformed into a weepy, Indo-Celtic ballad by his friends in U2. "They have been accused of trying to acquire some borrowed intellectual cred, and I of course am supposedly star-struck," Rushdie complained later, although he noted that U2 audiences offered a wider array of supermodels than the average book tour.

Despite any stigma, in recent years such authors as Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son), mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Canada's Guy Vanderhaeghe have become backstage Cyranos, putting words in the mouths of those with better voices and bigger hair.

Their partners tend to be much more obscure than U2 - indie artists like Jim Roll and David Grubbs - although the late California rocker Warren Zevon (Werewolves of London) crossed pens with several authors.

Last year, satirist Neal Pollack even promoted his mock rock bio, Never Mind the Pollacks, with a CD and tour by his faux-punk band the Neal Pollack Invasion.

For sheer four-eyed bookworminess, though, As Smart As We Are has few rivals.

Like One Ring Zero's previous, mostly instrumental discs, it highlights their rare signature instrument, the claviola - a sort of accordion that you blow into, with trilling reeds that evoke a troupe of Yiddish acrobats on Ritalin. But here the material takes in subjects more often found in the pages of short stories, such as childhood deformities, house plants, Jesus, gossip, cockroaches and SUVs.

"A lot of magazines are referring to us as 'lit rock,'." says Hearst. "Which is great. It's like we've created a genre."

You might be reminded of that curious interval in the 1990s when every new novel seemed obliged to incorporate recipes and double as a cookbook. But this trend stirs up much more anxiety. For a project they had assumed had great crossover appeal, Hearst and Camp were shocked to find that their biggest challenge was to get a distributor. Company after company passed because they were unsure whether to handle it as music or a book. So much for corporate synergy. "Everyone," says Hearst, "was terrified of it."

* * *

In centuries past, it was common for eminent novelists such as Henry Fielding, Ivan Turgenev or André Gide to write words for music, usually as opera librettos. But after opera was eclipsed by pop, writers staged a walkout. Poets and even music critics since then have often turned into songwriters; but serious novelists, almost never.

Novel writing was the 20th century's most upwardly mobile, bourgeois literary pursuit. You could be an author and a composer, such as Paul Bowles, or a fine singer such as James Joyce (whose wife Nora reportedly said late in life that her husband should have stuck to music). But to dally with pop would have seemed too cheap or, for the higher-minded, too commercial.

Not to mention the likely hostile reception. Rock in particular was defiantly unlettered: "Close up your books, get out of your seat/ Down the halls and into the street!" Chuck Berry commanded in School Days in 1957. A decade later, even as literate a singer as Bob Dylan would scoff: "You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books/ You're very well-read, it's well-knooown." Books were just too linear, too Gutenberg to be a truly cool medium.

In that light, lit rock is more than a novelty. It's a shifting of tectonic plates.

"Writers under 40 grew up going to rock shows - even more than the previous generation," explains Pollack. "We didn't come from an era of stadium rock, but out of the do-it-yourself punk aesthetic. That was very influential to people and still carries a lot of weight."

No wonder so much lit rock action tends to cluster around McSweeney's, a press in the spirit of a postpunk indie label, where amateurism is an asset.

In Philadelphia, Pollack helped McSweeney's start the annual rock'n'read 215 Festival, where on a given night you might catch both Zadie Smith and Patti Smith. Kindred events are now found all over the continent, for example at Broken Pencil magazine's bimonthly launch parties in Toronto with readers and bands.

"I think it's a way of presenting culture that young people respond to," says Pollack, "a way of bringing the 'author-god' down from his or her perch and making a reading more accessible. It's more fun to stand around, drink and hear bands than sit in a bookstore."

As well, many of today's writers are frankly uber-music geeks, typing along with CDs all day. How do you get 50 novelists out of the swimming pool? Tell them there's an argument in the kitchen about Dylan's gospel period.

Rick Moody, one of the more promiscuous literary lyricists, points out the number of anthologies and special journal editions of writing on music published each year. In Pollack's book and Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, the authorial alter egos are not even rock stars, but lowly rock critics. And several of the As Smart As We Are authors also contributed to Lit Riffs, a new collection of stories inspired by songs.

"I often wish they would devote half this enthusiasm to describing why they like certain books," Moody says. "If they did, then perhaps there would be more public debate about serious literature."

Notice, though, that the initiative for most lit-rock projects seems to come from the musical side. "It was a way to get in touch with people whose work I admired," says Boston composer Chris Ewen, who is currently recording The Hidden Variable - As Smart As We Are's evil twin, with lyrics by a dozen "dark fiction" writers.

Normally Ewen composes for indie band the Future Bible Heroes, with lyrics by Stephin Merritt (also of the Magnetic Fields). While they were on hiatus, Ewen was inspired by a 1970s speculative-fiction anthology to "edit" his own album.

He approached friend and horror novelist Peter Straub to help recruit others, such as Poppy Z. Brite. Even though two of his contributors, Neil Gaiman and Handler/Snicket, also wrote for the One Ring Zero album, Ewen found out about the parallel effort only months later. What does he think is going on?

"It's suddenly dawning on people," he mused archly, "that authors are good with words."

* * *

Other people, however, hate it all to pieces.

"Reading lyrics by Rick Moody or Jonathan Lethem or any other self-conscious, overeducated, wealthy white writer is something only felons convicted of the most heinous crimes are forced to do," a poster on the Canadian on-line forum Bookninja snarled.

Lit rock infuriates because it violates the no-teachers, no-books, no-future dogma that has long served as rock's gut-level guarantee. Even Pollack says that lit rock "offers book people a slightly cooler night out, but real rock people are going to look at this stuff and say, 'Oh, come on, give me some Motorhead!' "

But by the Motorhead standard, what rock isn't lit rock now? Today's best rock is mostly made by English-major types, clever kids conversant with seven types of ambiguity. The White Stripes treat rock history as a found text to be cut up, and even the most fast-dumb-loud retro acts (Andrew W..K., the Darkness) sound like rock caught in the act of rereading itself.

It is almost as if rock's long, noisy dumb-show has been a strategy to fight off its latent lit-rock tendencies all along, born as it was in the 1950s, astride the beatniks and an economic updraft that has tugged it ever middle-class-wards, kicking and (of course) screaming.

"Literature and rock have in common that they've both been declared dead many times over," says Vancouver novelist and music critic Kevin Chong.

After all, what most young people really listen to is rap, and what they really read is the Internet. There is conspicuously no such thing as "lit hop," in which Colson Whitehead or Alice Walker supply rhymes for Jay-Z and Missy. So lit rock maybe less a genre than a symptom that fiction and rock are ever-more-specialized interests, whose overlapping audiences at this late date might as well bunk down together.

Some elements, though, remain irreducible. As Atwood says, "In a song, the performers are the primary interpreter. When you are reading a book, you are the primary interpreter." This double consciousness, the solitude of prose and the sociability of song, can make lit-rock lyrics seem sung between quotation marks, just enough out of synch with musical cadence to come off like a badly dubbed film.

On As Smart As We Are, mutants and chimeras - hermaphrodites, Atwood's Frankenstein Monster Song, Myla Goldberg's Golem - creep into song after song, like Freudian mascots for this sense of formal disjunction. Some of the authors exercise poor impulse control, overstuffing their verses with verbiage (Jonathan Ames, says Hearst, actually provided "straight prose, a paragraph. We had to ask if there was some sentence we could repeat as a chorus"). And One Ring Zero sometimes crowds the field with too much sound. Too often, the result is a novelty song.

On the other hand, as cyberpunk writer-rocker John Shirley once said, "Any art form can interpenetrate any other if you can handle the heat of your media." The best example on the album is probably Handler's Radio: His hardwired love lament starts glib, passes through heartbroken and winds up demented and obscene, as the music, too, steps up its intensity.

And some of the other writers take thrilling risks that a more seasoned songwriter might reject. Whatever the shortfalls, the ear can take pleasure in the unique textures these encounters create.

And the story is not over yet. "There are at least two more CDs," says Hearst, "one with Paul Auster's daughter Sophie singing lyrics he wrote or translated, and a spoken-word disc with Rick [Moody]." A..M. Homes also expressed interest in doing a children's book/CD. "We just can't seem to escape the literary world," he says.

Obviously not. The day we talked, Hearst had just sent his own first novel around to agents.

One Ring Zero plays the Gobsmacked! festival at Harbourfront in Toronto on Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. For more information, call 416-973-4000.

* * *
What's your Lit Rock IQ? Match the authors and the musicians who collaborated with them (or appropriated their words for lyrics) from the following lists. There can be multiple matches.

[UPDATE: Annotated answers up now.]

1. Edgar Lee Masters         l. Richard Buckner Buckner's The Hill CD was entirely based on the words from Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

2. Salman Rushdie          u. U2 A gimme if you read the article.

3. Edgar Allen Poe          m. Lou Reed, who did a whole Poe album called (yawn) The Raven which includes the REFRAIN (!), "These are the stories of Edgar Allen Poe/ Not exactly the boy next do'." Whether this is genius or ... the other thing ... is your call. In the 1970s sometime, Ray Davies said, "Lou Reed doesn't need to write novels... I'm sure Ernest Hemingway would love to have written Walk on the Wild Side." Which is a brilliant thing to say. Sadly, a couple decades later Lou Reed is doing lame Classics Illustrated Rock and Ray Davies has published a book of short stories. Advantage Hemingway.

4. James Joyce         a. Syd Barrett, g. Sonic Youth, w. Mike Watt, x. Minus 5, y. Wayne Kramer, z. Califone. A bit tricky: Barrett adapted an early Joyce poem into his song Golden Hair, while the rest are contributing to a collection of rock settings of the same book of poems, Chamber Music, which was supposed to be out by now. News anyone?

5. Mitch Alboim         o. Warren Zevon Yep, the late Mr. Zevon, Werewolves of London guy, with the sportswriter and Tuesdays with Morrie guy. Total novelty song. But Zevon did much better work with writers Paul Muldoon (the excellent song My Ride's Here, which Springsteen covered in concert after Zevon died), 18. Thomas McGuane, 19. Carl Hiaasen, 20. Hunter S. Thompson and others.

6. Neil Gaiman         f. One Ring Zero, i. Chris Ewen (Future Bible Heroes)'s The Hidden Variable. Gaiman's lyrics on the One Ring Zero album are among its finest, a sort of metaphysical construction a la John Donne. We'll see what the Ewen disc is like. It also features Daniel Handler (see below) and 21. Poppy Z. Brite .

7. Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)         f. One Ring Zero, i. Chris Ewen (Future Bible Heroes) Handler (who also plays accordion with the Magnetic Fields) has my favourite song on the One Ring Zero album, along with ....

8. Denis Johnson         b. Jim Roll, f. One Ring Zero, g. Sonic Youth ... Johnson's Blessing, which benefits by being a country-style break from all that damn accordion (claviola). Johnson also does beautiful work with Jim Roll on Roll's 2002 Inhabiting the Ball disc, also featuring Rick Moody. And Kevin Chong tells me: "There's a song on Daydream Nation where Kim Gordon rips off her first verse from Johnson's 1986 novel, The Stars At Noon: 'To that extent that I wear skirts/ And cheap nylon slips, I've gone native/ I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell/ Does this sound simple? Fuck you!/ Are you for sale?/ Does "fuck you" sound simple enough?' Part of me thought, hey, that's plagiarism. The other half was impressed that she'd have read Denis Johnson, esp. before Jesus' Son came out."

9. William S. Burroughs        h. Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy for background sound on Burroughs' Spare Ass Annie along with Hall Willner and Charlie Hunter; b. Nirvana - my mistake, actually just Kurt Cobain, playing guitar to Burroughs' Priest They Called Him; p. Tom Waits, on The Black Rider; t. Laurie Anderson on many occasions around the time of her Home of the Brave: She must have used the Burroughs phrase "Language is a virus from outer space" more than Burroughs ever did. In all these cases, though, I'd argue that Burroughs was appearing less as a writer and more as a special effect: "With Bill Burroughs on death rattle!"

10. Shel Silverstein        q. Johnny Cash: Boy Named Sue of course.

11. Paul Quarrington           c. The Rheostatics Whale Music was the project. Quarrington also has his own blues-rock band the Pork Belly Futures.

12. Guy Vanderhaeghe         k. Barney Bentall Bentall said in 1997 that Vanderhaeghe had great songwriting instincts, understanding (as many Lit Rockers do not) that the music would provide much of the song's "cinematic detail" so the lyrics had to leave room for that. Can anyone testify? I haven't heard the song(s?).

13. Nick Hornby          j. Ben Folds. Oh, and William Shatner. Well, this is about as grim as this discussion gets. However I've been watching the DVDs of Freaks and Geeks lately, and am reminded that a good Shatner imitation has its place, especially a pubescent boy's take on Capt. Kirk making an obscene prank call to a gym teacher.

14. Chuck Kinder          r. The Deliberate Strangers Everything I really need to know I learned on the Interweb... except that I did go skinny dipping with some of the Deliberate Strangers once. They have a theremin. It was not in the pool.

15. Michael Moorcock        e. Blue Oyster Cult. British prog-sci-fi writer Moorcock (ha, that'll get me flamed) wrote three BOC songs and a lot more Hawkwind songs, I think both pre- and post-Lemmy.

16. Tony Earley        s. Paul Burch, sometimes of Lambchop, always of Nashville, spins a good old-timey collection, Last of My Kind, out of Earley's novel Jim the Boy.

17. Rick Moody        b. Jim Roll, f. One Ring Zero; v. David Grubbs; Moody also performs with Grubbs and Hannah Marcus as the Wingdale Community Singers. He confessed to me that he's been writing songs since he was a teenager and that his ambition would be to be a studio musician, "the anonymous sideman," but his piano playing is not good enough. More in that story.

22. Dennis Cooper >       d. Stephen Prina Here's one major Lit Rock exemplar I haven't ever heard, L.A. conceptual artist/Red Krayola member Prina's Push Comes to Love on Drag City, 1999, with lyrics by Cooper, Lynn Tillman and Amy Gerstler. I'm advised the music is more Sea & Cake than Mayo Thompson but the cast promises a particularly adventurous lyrical palette. One I'll seek out.

(Sorry about the shitty alignment. If you were wondering how my HTML skillz are coming along... well.)

Here's another one: Which of the following musicians has not already published a book of fiction or poetry or signed a contract to do so? (Books of lyrics not included.)

Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Ray Davies, Bjork, Steve Earle, Doug E. Fresh, Alicia Keys, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, Greg Kihn, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Joe Pernice, Bill Callahan (Smog), Pete Townshend, Walter Salas-Humara (Silos), Billy Corgan, Nick Cave, Graham Parker, Jean Smith (Mecca Normal), Richard Hell.

Bjork is the only one on this list with nothing in or heading to print. As far as I know.

At the end of the article, by the way, I mention that Michael Hearst of One Ring Zero has written a novel. You can read some of his writing.

See some of you tonight at Trampoline Hall. If you don't have tix yet, be warned: It is very sold out.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 16 at 1:09 PM | Linking Posts

 

And When Instinct Goes, You Use Force

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No column today due to (very slight) infirmity and summertime blues, but to tide you over there is a chunky little review of the Sadies' best album ever. A bit odder than it should have been, due to perhaps a tad overzealous editing by one of the summer interns, but as I told her after the bleeding stopped, that's actually more stimulating than the standard under-editing. (If only I hadn't overlooked a few of the cuts and unfortunate rewordings she slipped by me while I was arguing for her to restore the rest of the text.)

This question of editing prompts a sidebar: Contrary to what Terry Teachout argues in regards to the Leon Wieseltier-Nicholson Baker debacle in the NYT Book Review last weekend, in no way does a publication agree that it will publish whatever a "professional writer" (however you define that) submits in response to a commission, untouched and unchallenged. The editor's job is certainly not to censor the writer's opinions, however lamebrained, but it is definitely to say whether the assignment has been adequately fulfilled and whether the piece in question upholds the journal's standards of craft. The correct answer in Teachout's quiz is not "G" but "D", though I prefer to say the goal is to substantiate the rhetoric, not "tone down."

I do sympathize with editors who decide to let an article pass rather than go through a carnage-heavy battle, but that doesn't mean it was the editor's moral obligation to shrug off his duty. How do you say it? "Listen, Leon, if you want to argue that this novel is 'scummy', I think you are obliged to spend more time actually addressing the novel. Rewrite please." And then, only under your breath, "you asshole."

That's the professional way. And so my young adversary on the editing desk this week was doing her duty as both of us saw it; we simply disagreed about whether I was a bad writer or she a poor reader. End of sidebar.

Back to the album: To say it's the Sadies' best disc ever is to damn with faint praise, as their albums have generally been pale shadows of the live shows. By trying to make something utterly unlike the live show they acquit themselves far better. Even if (a point I didn't press in the review) there's rather too much retro-psychedelia on here for my tastes. They've given Robyn Hitchcock one of his best non-Soft Boys songs in years, though.

Also in the paper this week: Mrs. Zoilus (Sheila Heti) is quoted in this article about a comically unsuccessful attempt at cross-Canadian literary collaboration.

And watch this weekend for my long delayed piece on "Lit Rock" - novelists' collaborations with bands, pegged to One Ring Zero's complex anthology-cum-album As Smart As We Are with lyrics by 17 different authors (Soft Skull Press, available at bookstores not CD shops generally) but also projects by Neal Pollack, Chris Ewen of Future Bible Heroes, the late Warren Zevon etc. etc. Is all rock Lit Rock? Find out on the cover of The Globe and Mail's Review section on Saturday. In the same section I think are my minireviews of Madvillain, Spring Heel Jack and Mission of Burma for a midyear CD roundup.

And here endeth the self-promo.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 12 at 10:30 PM | Linking Posts

 

A Memo to the Boss

Dear Bruce Springsteen (and R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, et al):

Thanks for putting your careers on the line and your hearts on your sleeves. But before you put your feet in your mouths again, would you please read this, too? Thanks.

(And thanks to you too, Ms. Thing (nee Klein).)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 05 at 5:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Conversants Rather than Inductees

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I haven't had time yet to catch up on what seems like a vital discussion (based at but not limited to ArtsJournal) on the present and future of music that's been going on among the web's 'classical' bloggers.

But I was so struck by this excerpt from Alex Ross's part of the debate that I had to post it. What he says (or quotes? the context's a bit unclear) about music as a social activity strikes me as perfectly reflective of what happens in a healthy music scene of any kind, such as the Torontopia scene right now. At the same time, the final remark in it seems to indicate the downside of that art-as-sociality model:

“I think the most beautiful thing about composing now, as opposed to then, is that there is the option to ‘hang out’ in the crazy network of music that is available. Writing music feels like I'm having a conversation or writing an e-mail or making a phone call rather than writing an essay. It has to do with the way people talk with their friends – a little language begins to develop, little nuances and half-truths and leitmotifs. … Wise young composers are eating everything up in their path, devouring all the available musics and building a family made up of Conversants, rather than Inductees....The Future, which I'll define here as representing a movement from Bad Attitude to Good Attitude, operates, like evolution, on the level of the individual, not on the level of the institution. If you see writing as a form of social engagement, you soon realize that it doesn't make any sense to be undiplomatic, ever....”

Surely we want art to be "undiplomatic" - straight shooting, what-the-fuck, not caring about our feelings - a lot of the time. Is Beethoven diplomatic? (A brief pause while I try to figure if I can wedge the tag "Beet-hova" into this post. No, I decide.) Is Coetzee, for instance, diplomatic? No and no and for so many other greats, no again.

I've noticed a lot of rumblings locally about the pressure to play too nice. It's one thing to be supportive, another to slacken all standards and accept whatever yourself and your friends do as great because it's been done by yourself and your friends. Sometimes this objection codes as "I want to act like an asshole because it makes me free [ie. secretly powerful]," but on other occasions the conversation leads toward, "What can we do to challenge ourselves further, and how can the existence of this network become a resource for better art?" There are some specific ideas floating around about that, and I'll report on them when they develop.

Nevertheless I think that jazz-like notion of art as contribution to a conversation is busting out all over - the blogosphere, sampling, etc. - and constitutes a massive step forward from modernist anomie, which still traps and mires so many artists here... in... jun... gle... land.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 05 at 5:27 PM | Linking Posts

 

Note to Self...

... when you're swamped with other assignments and have a show to run, an imaginary mixtape is always a good quickie column format.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 29 at 12:51 AM | Linking Posts

 

Blues for Langston Hughes

hughes.jpg"Portrait of Langston Hughes" by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.

Off-topic, strictly speaking, though Hughes' poetry was certainly closely bound to music. But I think this response to the idiot wind of Timothy Noah in Slate today deserves a public airing. Noah's basic gripe is that John Kerry shouldn't be using Hughes' line "Let America Be America Again" as a campaign slogan because (a) it arguably oversimplifies the ironic, not nostalgic sense in which Hughes meant it - let America be the America it's never been for a black man; and (b) Hughes was a Communist: "Toil good, private ownership bad, etc. ... the future Hughes imagined for America when he wrote those words probably looked a lot like Stalinist Russia." Noah claims that he "brings all this up not to bash Hughes ... but to warn Kerry that this particular Hughes poem comes with baggage he would best do without." As opposed to what? Maybe Dreams Deferred?: "What happens to a dream deferred? .. Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?"

Dear Mr. Noah,
I almost never write letters to my fellow journalists, but your campaign against Langston Hughes is one of the most absurd abuses of the pulpit I have seen in ages.

As you say yourself, "Hughes ... was hardly the only serious artist who swooned over the Soviet experiment during the 1930s." However, that does not mean that all the work those artists produced in that troubled time was Stalinist propaganda. Sorry for the inconvenience, but you cannot wish away all politically engaged American art so easily.

The finest of these artists were responding to the conditions of their own lives, in their own country. If in hindsight we disagree with the solutions they were attracted to, that does not invalidate the questions they asked. To infer from the poem that Hughes was stumping for a Soviet-style command economy and dictatorship of the proletariat is to impute far more to the words than are there. Whatever he might have endorsed for that short interval, his poetry was not making policy proposals.

It was not that American artists in the 1930s fell in love with the gulag and then fell out of love with it, but that they did not know about the gulag and were disillusioned when they discovered it. In particular, many black Americans at the time found that the Communist party was the only white political organization in America that sought them out and vocally supported their full enfranchisement and civil rights, not some charity-minded compromise. The Communists were opportunistic, yes, but there it was.

These artists briefly imagined that the fair and cooperative society they yearned for was being built in Russia. It was not, of course. But that does not mean that their dream itself was evil - nor that they went on to abandon it. It is a dream that reasonable people around the world hold dear. To many people it is the unrealized American dream - not socialism, but a broader sense of democracy.

It would include the concept that the privileged should not monopolize the governance of a society, and even that there should be some mechanism to redistribute parts of their hoarded resources to the needy. (We wild-eyed radicals call it progressive taxation.)

Perhaps in his heart John Kerry believes that too. I hope so.

Hughes' poem does not say the American promise is "hooey." It says that it has been repeatedly betrayed, yet still might be honoured. That paradox still resonates with millions of people now, reflecting their own experiences of America, not just within your own borders but around the world, most sharply right now in Iraq.

It is heartening that Kerry is aware enough of Hughes' legacy - one of the earliest notable literary achievements in black American culture - to quote him and even introduce a collection of his poems. Why don't you ask the sitting president if he even knows who Hughes was? What a relief to see a candidate who has some grasp of the cultural history of the country he proposes to govern.

For you to respond with Red-baiting, point-scoring guff, using Langston Hughes as your whipping boy, is an offence to literature, to black culture in particular, and to your readers' intelligence. The likes of you spat on him while he was alive. I beg of you: Must you also spit on his grave?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 26 at 1:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Comfort Brief, Impure and Sweet

bushhall.jpg
Excited about the Hidden Cameras show tomorrow? Me too. Think you'll get in, since all tickets are at the door? Me neither.

I am unusually happy about today's column, though. Best route to good writing: Have something else you really ought to be writing instead. (Something that days later I am still not finished, even though it is not so huge.)

The mind, my friends, is a perverse organ.

Speaking of which, I've never thought about the terms "Entry Body" and "Extended Entry" on the editing template quite this way before.

But one other important note (to be made official in next week's column): I used the term "Salivation Army Marching Band" in print today all too loosely. The Salivation Army is a project solely by Scott Treleaven and doesn't have any affiliation with the Hidden Cameras except mutual respect and affection. I was thinking about their artistic affinities, but they aren't the same entity by any means and I didn't mean to confuse that issue.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 22 at 1:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

A Bamboo Needle on a Shellac of Chopin

Contrasting views on Il Sogno, Elvis Costello's foray into orchestral music, from Alex Ross (con) and Terry Teachout (pro). They both seem to be agreed that he's good at the orchestrations, which shouldn't be so suprising as he has been orchestrating on his pop albums for years. Otherwise, total split opinion.

Sorry for the lack of posting action after I got you all het up last week. Deadline-crazed week. More substance soon.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, July 20 at 3:40 PM | Linking Posts

 

Bull Market In Death Metal?

If Dan Baum's powerful New Yorker feature "The Price of Valor" this week is any indication, Iraq-war veterans could have a surprising effect on the pop-music industry - less Kylie Minogue, more Necrosis and Rotting Christ:

“We killed a lot of people,” [Carl] said as we ate. [...] Debbie watched the waitress clear our plates, then she leaned forward to tell about a night in July, after Carl’s return, when they went with some friends to the Afterhours Enlisted Club at Fort Benning. Carl had a few drinks, Debbie said, and started railing at the disk jockey, shouting, “I want to hear music about people blowing people’s brains out, cutting people’s throats!” Debbie continued, “I said, ‘Carl. Shut up.’ He said, ‘No, I want to hear music about shit I’ve seen!’” Carl listened to Debbie’s story with a loving smile, as though she were telling about him losing his car keys. “I don’t remember that,” he said, laughing. Debbie said, “That was the first time I heard him say stuff about seeing people’s brains blown out. Other times, he just has flashbacks—like, he sits still and stares.” Carl laughed again. “Really, though, I’m fine,” he said. Beside him in the booth, Debbie shook her head without taking her eyes from mine and exaggeratedly mouthed, “Not fine. Not fine.”

The point here is not actually the gleaming future fan-base prospects for Amon Amarth, Bloodgasm, Children Of Bodom and Cannibal Corpse, but that apparently, all the military and Veterans' Affairs shrinks in America have never once stopped to consider that perhaps, along with other forms of battlefield trauma, soldiers may occasionally feel a twinge of moral discomfort about having, well, you know, shot people in cold blood. Baum explains why Iraq is a particularly troublesome case, with a lot of close-range fighting and wildly disproportionate firepower between the two sides.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 16 at 6:32 PM | Linking Posts

 

Elvis Lives, Evil's Veils, Levis and Other Anagrams

BebeElvis.jpg(Look away, Diana K.! Elvis + Liv Tyler's mum, long long ago.)

Further to this week's column, I mentioned Elvis Costello's remarks in last weekend's New York Times:

"You're kidding yourself if you believe it when people say, `Oh, that's a political song,' " Mr. Costello said. "No. A political song is one that if you played it to Donald Rumsfeld, he would give up his career and enter a monastery. That would be a political song — one that affected him so deeply that he would renounce his view of the world. I don't think anybody alive is capable of writing that song. So all you're doing is writing things that matter to you."

That's ridiculous of course: If getting Donald Rumsfeld to resign voluntarily is the litmus test of what's political, then not only do political songs not exist, politics itself doesn't exist, unless by politics you mean an armed coup. But as I wrote this week, the idea that most protest songs are more self-expressive than actually political in affect and effect is dead-on.

[...]

Protest songs can transcend the self-expressive category temporarily when they're written or sung for an active movement, and can serve as rallying points and bonding material. But not under most conditions, which is why protest songs and "patriotism" songs a la Toby Keith belong to different semiotic orders: Keith knows what the subject-community he's singing for is, and they experience his song as an affirmation of their commonality, while most protest songs take a rebel stance and implicitly position themselves outside looking in, innocent not just of complicity but even commonality in social existence. (It's a rockist thing: You would't understand.) (The Sixties exception to this, I think if you look closer at the best of the music, isn't really an exception.) I found America the Beautiful especially interesting because in a way it's a protest song disguised as a patriotic song. (Not all that unlike Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land.)

Costello's right, though, that some sort of potentially transformative experience should at least be nosing around the edges of a properly political song - political speech is primarily persuasive, right? And I think (this goes back to the discussion in the column) that in art the best mode of persuasion is empathetic, to bring the audience through the experiences that shape the point of view rather than to argue the point of view. (Does arguing ever do anything ever?)

The irony of Mr. McManus's statement is that he's written and performed as many songs that deserve the name of real political song as just about anyone.

(Aside from Randy Newman, who's so exemplary that just mentioning him should illustrate what sort of writing I mean, eg. Rednecks, Sail Away, Christmas in Capetown: vicious satire never free of the soft, devastating discovery that even the most despicable character is human-all-too-human.)

In Costello's songbook, there are Shipbuilding, Less Than Zero, Brilliant Mistake, Beyond Belief, and many more, all with the kind of unstable centre that makes it possible to read them from several perspectives but impossible to ignore the klieg light they shine into the pervasive fog of corruption. Just as in his anti-romances, Costello sees everything and forgets nothing (including forgetfulness itself); forgiveness is both taken for granted and out of the question.

Even his most balls-out protest song, the anti-Thatcher Tramp the Dirt Down, is far more textured, polyvalent, prismatic than most, continually puzzling, "Can you imagine...?" and "Try telling that..." and "I never thought..."

Similarly in his most famous cover, What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding? - "Where are the strong? Who are the trusted?" - it's all questions, no answers, and the chorus is at once straight and sarcastic, at once defending the hippie slogan against punk scorn and drenching it in that scorn itself. Again, not exactly a protest song, but it sure functions that way whenever the news gets grim.

Not that there are no missteps: Pills and Soap for example is a fistful of ham, and it's not alone. In general though, the fact that Costello doesn't believe in political songs might be exactly why he's able to deliver them so well - he brings to them the workaday observational edge of a first-rate newspaper columnist, not the editorialist or activist's rancour, even when he is singing about dancing on the prime minister's grave, as if to say: Who cares what I think; this is how it sounds.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 16 at 2:27 PM | Linking Posts

 

The Gap Between Politics and Protest: (We Don't Need No) Shock Tactics

AlvaBernadine.jpg
In today's column I discuss Ray Charles, Sticks and Stones and America the Beautiful, all the while secretly talking about Foucault, Bakhtin, J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, Cornelius Cardew and Clap Clap Blog.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 15 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts

 

Knock-Knock, the Consensus Is Here. Get Your Boots On, Baby, 'Cuz We're Going With It

jbeez.jpg
Today's column: The Junior Boys, from the Blogosphere to the Snogosphere.

I'll post a full transcript of my interview with the head Boy, Jeremy Greenspan, tonight: It's got much much more good stuff than I had space for in der Globe.

(I'd hoped, by the way, to make this the first JBs story in Canadian mainstream media. Shoulda done it last year: The Star's Ben Rayner crossed the line right along with me in a photo-finish today. (Eye's Denise Benson lapped us both six weeks ago, but that's to be expected.))

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 08 at 1:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

Are You Being Attacked By A Swarm of Maracas?

Today's Magnetic Fields column joins the burgeoning body of literature, Interviewing Mr. Merritt: How to Quit Worrying and Admit You Love the Bomb. I blame its structural flaws entirely on the song I Wish I Had an Evil Twin, for reasons you will have to conclude for yourself.

Biggest glaring hole in the piece: I actually got more good stuff in the interview than it seems, some of which I'll put up here later today. The problem was that there was no connection between the different parts of the interview, since about half the questions were lost in static or in the absorbant dark matter of Stephin's silences.

Biggest not-so-glaring hole in the piece: Like everyone else who's written about i, the new MF disc, I don't get into any discussion of Irma, probably the best song on the album.

Littlest not-so-glaring hole: I wanted to mention that the title of the album also refers to the vowel in Merritt's given name that he changed from an E to an I - apparently he heard sometime in his youth that if you used different spellings of your name you could track down and block junk mail, and decided "Stephin" would be his "musician" name. There were others for other aspects of his life. So you could read the title as "I, insofar as i am a musician," and that also seems germane to the formalist compulsivity of the music.

more to come.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 01 at 1:09 PM | Linking Posts

 

Scary Monsters, Super Creeps and, oh yes, Unreconstructed Nazis

Here's your backstage pass into the wakky woild of joinalism for the day... I've been meaning to post this letter-to-the-editor (which, guess what, was never printed) for awhile. Aside from the letter I once got in Montreal by someone who'd clipped out an article, circled my byline and scrawled beside it "AT LAST! A W.A.S.P. JOURNALIST!!!" (for the record: uh-uh, mongrel Catholic), this one takes the proverbial fruitcake:

Sent: Friday, April 23, 2004 4:41 PM
To: Letters
Subject: Article

Dear Madam/Sir,

This is in response to your article "German bands bring on the machines" by
Carl Wilson, April 22, 2004

I have just read the whole article and must admit up front that I know
nothing, and am not even interested, in the present-day rock-, pop-, and
punk culture, whether European or North American. However, I want to voice
my objections to just two of Mr. Wilson's comments.

In the first paragraph, he asks "... but how do you hum a problem like
being German?" Why is 'being German' a problem? Can he explain this? I am
German (alright, German-Canadian, at least on paper) and very proud of who
I am; I'm a very patriotic German. I have never seen myself, my
country-women- and men, or my beloved homeland as 'a problem', and I refuse
to accept any Germany-bashing by the media!

Further down, the article reads "... to wipe clean the mess of history
their fathers had left them with". I'm not aware of any 'mess' that German
fathers left us, the next generations, with. The making of the 'mess', if
Mr. Wilson means WWII, was mainly created by the Allied nations, though I
won't go into that here. I'm very proud of my father's sacrifice during
that war. He, like millions of his camerades, had risked his life for three
years to fight in Russia against communism, to keep Russian Bolshevism out
of Europe.

There you see, Mr. Wilson, not everyone agrees with such comments as yours;
in fact, I'm certain that a great number, perhaps millions, of Germans
(here and in Europe) would disagree with you.

Thanks for listening.

Sincerely,
[name withheld out of misplaced compassion]

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 25 at 3:05 PM | Linking Posts

 

Nellie-Nina Cage Match

mckay2.jpg hagen.jpg

Tomorrow's column pits Nellie McKay against Nina Hagen in the struggle for succession to the throne of True Cabaret.

The Onion A.V. Club has an engaging interview with ... the loser. More comments on this tomorrow.

Berlin's Ms. Hagen is at Unity II in Montreal tomorrow (Thurs.) night and at Vazaleen at Lee's Palace in Toronto on Friday. (Doors 10 pm, Nina midnight, $25 adv.) Very rare gigs. New York's Ms. McKay is at Lee's on Wed. and at Club Soda in Mtl. on July 1. Not so rare gigs, but one of the few times you can see her this summer without risking a run-in with either Sting, Alanis Morrisette or the Barenaked Ladies.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 23 at 4:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Whatever Floats Their Boat

Today's column is about life, love, art and the Mod Club show this weekend by the Fiery Furnaces, whose new Blueberry Boat (I've heard only selected tracks) promises to be one of the discs of the year.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 17 at 2:59 PM | Linking Posts

 

Logorrhea Will Destroy Ya

Actually, while I'm at it, since Dan and Frog Eyes' tour last month, there has been an unprecedented veritable tsunami of Destroyer interviews and reviews of late, of wildly varying quality and serving up (scroll way down) overlapping bills of goods. (Etc. (this one's John Darnielle), etc. etc.)


And if that doesn't satisfy you, you can also read my own interview with Danny in the Globe last summer.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 07 at 6:00 PM | Linking Posts

 

(Was It the Movie or) The Making of Your Blues

destroyer1.jpg
Innerressin' interview with Dan "Destroyer" Bejar on Junkmedia.org, shedding technical and artistic light on the creation of his 2004 coup de grace, Your Blues. (See Zoilus's extendo-mix review.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 07 at 4:05 PM | Linking Posts

 

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.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 03 at 12:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Santana's America: Love Elvin Or Leave It

Kick it, grandpa!
Carlos Santana tells George Varga of the San Diego Union-Tribune that he was "embarrassed for this nation, and for MTV and VH1 and Rolling Stone, because it was a very racist thing not to acknowledge this most important musician when he passed ... For them to [play up] Ozzy Osbourne and other corny-ass white people, but not Elvin, is demeaning ... America is such an ignorant country."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, June 02 at 4:50 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

The Irony Board

I was scanning Toronto-area blogs for news of whether the smoking-in-bars ban goes into effect actually, literally, at midnight tonight (it seems it does - I will be ringing in the New Prohibition with friends at Pimblett's on Gerrard St. just west of Parliament, after 9 pm tonight, by the way). And in the process, I stumbled on a little gem of a discussion about one of the great bugaboos of our time, Alanis Morissette's Ironic and whether anything listed in the song actually constitutes irony, properly speaking. (See lyrics.)

Thanks to our name, any and all issues of classical rhetorical form in pop music demand to be addressed on Zoilus. Besides, since the shower of foolishness on the subject after 9/11, defending the vitality and relevance of irony has become mandatory, and the Morissette mewl was, sadly enough, the most prominent recent showcase of the term.

The consensus? There's nothing ironic about rain on your wedding day (unless, say, you held your wedding in the Kalahari desert deliberately to avoid the possibility of rain) but there might be a mild form of situational irony signified by a black fly in your Chardonnay.

One poster, by the puppy-dog adorable handle of Rilkefan, cites Fowler's Modern English Usage: " 'Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that “more” and of the outsider’s incomprehension.'

"He goes on to list three main categories of irony: Socratic irony (Socrates pretends ignorance to manipulate the dogmatists and to amuse his followers), dramatic irony (the point being that Sophocles’s audience knew the story already), and irony of fate (the idea being that most people ignorantly expect an orderly or a cooperative natural world but we the clued in don’t). He says it’s important not to apply 'irony of fate' to every 'trivial oddity' - which rules out the wedding day example in my book."

But be warned, a later poster, less adorably, goes on: "Since any action situation involves a framework of meaning, I don’t see why the notion of irony should be confined to the discursive level. However, I don’t know that there can exactly be criteria for irony, since irony is itself a subversion of criterial meaning. Clearly it involves an unthematized meta-level commentary on an 'object-level' meaning or intention, in such a way as to bring out the surplus in signifying possibilities. It is related to but differs from straight negation, involving something like a simultaneous negation and reinscription of an affirmation. "

Read on if you dare, here and here.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 31 at 1:42 PM | Linking Posts

 

A Love Too Supreme?

elvin99.jpg

Second-hand, from the Yahoo latin-jazz group, comes a story about the great Elvin Jones, now 77 - who drummed with Coltrane, Miles, Roland Kirk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans and many more - that casts his current state in a pitiful and problematic light. Jones has been known to say that playing jazz is not only what he does, it's his function in life - so perhaps it's his own will that's pushing him on, and not (as it seems in the following narrative and, frankly, in other reports on Jones I've heard before) his manager-wife, Keiko. Caveat: This is from the Internet, after all. (Typos included.)

"Dr. Jazz" writes:
This might be beyond Latin Jazz, but this is the only egroup that I think might be interested in the description of my experience during a recent 4 days stay in the SF for a meeting. I was able to go to Yoshi's to see Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. I am not that familiar with his work, but knowing he was John Coltrane's drummer and more recently worked a lot with Candido with his poly-rhythm stuff I wanted to check him out.

[...] I was really eager to see Elvin Jones, waiting to see the Black Thunder pounding those drums. The scenario was perfect, no mikes over the drums so I thought, "wow, he can really pound those drums, eh?". Well, the band came out (2 saxes, pianist and bassist) and the place went crazy but...no Elvin...and no Elvin...and no Elvin. After about 5 minutes of constant applause, Elvin Jones came out, couldn't walk and had to be helped by his wife and the band members. We were a group of physicians and nurses and we all looked at each other with the same expression in our faces: "He is dying of heart failure". His wife gave him the sticks and the band started playing a bebop-like tune.

It was quite an experience seeing him playing that night. The stick in his right hand (hitting the cymbal) kept slipping back and he needed to reposition it. He was certainly off, considering the timing of the tune. I couldn't see his left hand, but I could not hear any beats. Similarly with the hi-hat, I did not hear it all night long. As the performance continued, he looked more ill ... in fact, he closed his eyes once, and grabbed his stomach as if he was in pain, and everybody in my group got up because we thought that he was going to fall. He finally woke up and continued playing. He took one solo all night long, and basically what he did was to drop the sticks on the drum one at a time, at a very slow speed. He did not have the strength or energy to lift up the sticks from the drum fast enough. The band sounded great though. I guess he is like Art Blakey and surrounded himself with the best young players available. The bassist kept the rhythm going all night long, working super hard and the pianist would take very long solos, as both sax players.

Elvin could still swing at a very low speed, but was well complemented by the bassist and pianist. At the end of the performance, his wife whose name I couldn't catch, came out and said that Elvin Jones was very ill, dying from heart failure. She also said that he had not eaten anything that day but that she had fired his prior 3 physicians when they said that he was dying and decided to take care of things herself, booking him continuously until July (she also went on and on talking about medical insurances, doctors, etc) Elvin did not said a word all night long, and I actually wondered if was still coherent enough (which is a common, late event in patients with heart failure). He stayed there, sitting by his drums for about 20 minutes after the performance was over. We all gave him a standing ovation, I guess is the way of thanking him for what he has done. He did wave goodby as he was helped out of the stage. We sent him our cards as there are some options for patients with advanced heart failure (which we happen to especialize in our group).

I am not sure I can actually describe the feeling I had that night. The music was good, and seeing him on the drums made me happy and sad. Happy because I got to see him before the inevitable. Sad because somebody like him should be at home, spending the last few days of his life surrounded by family and friends. I know he also needs our support (income as his wife put it). I haven't heard anything about his health in the news, and patients with heart failure have good and bad days, but I can actually say that he is in bad shape, weakened by his illness (already cachectic). I will forever have the image of an elderly Elvin Jones playing the drums that night.

Also check out the strange Sambo-style graphic by Keiko on Jones' official website...

[Thanks on this entry to Carl Zimring and the fearandwhiskey list.]

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 29 at 6:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

A Little More 'Werk

As a sidebar to the column linked below, the typically terse man-machines of Kraftwerk suddenly got all chatty this week. My Toronto alt-weekly colleagues Tim Perlich at Now and Josh Ostroff at Eye both had interviews today with Florian Schneider's better binary half, Mr. Ralf Hütter. The Now article is rather encyclopedic on the subject of the upcoming comprehensive Kraftwerk reissue program (a subject I overlooked) but in Eye Ralf sounds a lot bitchier - and a bitchy Kraftwerk is a happy Kraftwerk.
[Later: Also check out a super piece on Kraftwerk's recent Tour de France CD by Michael Daddino in Seattle Weekly.]

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 22 at 8:31 PM | Linking Posts

 

The Music Geekiest Thing Ever

... and also one of the most fun, is the current I Love Music thread, "Album covers redrawn from memory in MS Paint" (currently in its third installment), in which... well... you get the idea:

imfeelinit.jpg

Turns out there's a reason God invented the Internet.

After the image is posted everybody guesses what album it is (not usually as easy as with the above two). Besides the inherent fan-nerd joy and the incredible primitivist art palpitations it will give you to see everything from Louvin Brothers to Duran Duran and Throbbing Gristle album art redrawn as brain-damaged digital squibs, it's hilarious to trace the thread and notice ILM members who are posting these things all day and all night long, no doubt as spouses, children, bosses and various work deadlines glare increduously from the sidelines.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 04 at 1:20 AM | Linking Posts

 

The Heartaches of Classic Material

Here's a real outtake from the annals of journalism: A grouped review of some music-list books that the Globe's Books section dithered over till it went stale. And so, an exclusive for readers of Zoilus. Sorry to all the authors for the endless delay.

CLASSIC MATERIAL: THE HIP-HOP ALBUM GUIDE.
Edited by Oliver Wang
ECW Press, 220 pages, $19.95

THE TOP 500 HEAVY METAL SONGS OF ALL TIME
By Martin Popoff
ECW Press, 486 pages, $24.95

HEARTACHES BY THE NUMBER:
COUNTRY MUSIC’S 500 GREATEST SINGLES
By David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren
Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press
320 pages, $37.95

Reviewed by Carl Wilson

Something there is that doesn’t love a list, as Robert Frost didn’t say. The horde of best-of lists that shows up each New Year’s is like a peacock pen full of preening critics, whose self-important adjudications are at least as much a wall as a bridge between art and audience. [...]

But something in us is addicted to them too. Such argument starters often seem the only way to get people talking about culture. So there they are, in every issue of Blender magazine (the Maxim spinoff that would be the new Rolling Stone, now with 200 per cent more breasts) on up to the American Film Institute (No. 1 with a bullet: Citizen Kane!) and the Modern Library (and the Oscar goes to James Joyce for Ulysses!).

Yes, it’s a billboard for the stupefaction of contemporary criticism by marketing and service journalism. But to stop at that would be to miss a crucial element of what we talk about when we talk about pop culture, in which listmaking often seems less compulsory than compulsive. Teen diaries on the Web, in all their misspelt glory, bloom with lists of Top 3 Songs About How I Feel Right Now; chat-rooms come to blows over the Top 50 Guitarists.

Lists bring some of the heat of sport to the couch-potato world of cultural spectatorship. And in their passive-aggressive way, these patchworks of declared alliances and oppositions do add up to rough self-portraits, just as your book and CD collections do (as anyone knows who enters a date’s apartment and immediately starts scanning — and judging — the shelves).

In the hands of a crafty critic, the list can serve as an aesthetic manifesto in an age that disdains both manifestos and aesthetics. Attach your perspectives and theories to a ranked set of titles in boldface, and people will gobble them up who would never touch your treatise Rock Personae as Doubling and Disguise: The Many-Hued Faces of Prince Rogers Nelson. Just call it “Prince’s 20 Trickiest Joints,” and get out before page 10.

Three recent volumes apply that approach to country, hip-hop and heavy metal, with varying success. Indeed, if you asked me, I could write a list:

List Books: The 5 Commandments

5. Basics: Make A List, Rank It, Keep It Tight: Simple, right? In fact, all three books partly fail this test. Martin Popoff’s heavy-metal list is based on a poll of some 18,000 readers of his fanzine Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles, leaving the writer to make entertaining but unhelpful snide remarks about their collective taste throughout, and the reader to wallow in arena anthems rather than being informed of the genre’s more inventive offshoots.

The 80 or so hip-hop discs in Oliver Wang’s Classic Material have been chosen by consensus by the contributing critics from across North America — too bloodless an approach for the game. Worse, they are unranked, and in meaningless alphabetical order. A chronological approach might have lent flow to this collection of mini-essays; instead, after an apt start with Afrika Bambaata (1980), we find ourselves in the 1990s with Cannibal Ox, Eminem and Mobb Deep before doubling back to Run DMC (1984).

American journalists David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren fare better in Heartaches by the Number, though their choice to group the book’s 500 country singles partly by theme as well as status compromises the sport. On brevity, Wang and co. get it right: 80 albums make a better story than 500 singles. The country boys cover the most complex ground, but the head begins to swim long before you reach the depths of No. 481, Juice Newton’s Queen of Hearts.

As for Popoff, he’s required to wax eloquent about some 28 different Iron Maiden songs, which is so far beyond redundant that it might violate the Geneva Convention.

4. Gimme Context: Popoff positions his selections in the career of each band, including the book’s best feature, an interview quotation to accompany every song. Classic Material pulls back further, noting each album’s inspirations and heirs and, less often, its social causes and effects.

But only Heartaches blends chart info and studio anecdotes with thematic ideas — reflections on country’s ties to gospel, soul and rock, and its contradictory impulses around innovation and tradition as well as sin and redemption. That’s part of why its list should be shorter — to make room for more of the kind of complete anatomies it provides, for instance, for its unpredictable No. 1, Sammi Smith’s spicy 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night.

Heartaches builds a sturdy case for singles as the key Nashville product, while Popoff’s book would clearly have been better if it addressed albums rather than songs. (His next book, due in April, does just that.) Wang’s target is trickier — albums and tracks (and mixed tapes, as the cover image hints) matter about equally in hip-hop, a problem that might have been addressed by including more compilations.

3. Put Up Your Dukes: Lists are fighting words by nature, so the more polemic, the better. Every mini-essay in Heartaches makes a counterintuitive pass, whether claiming the Monkees for country history or that Charlie Rich’s seemingly schlocky The Most Beautiful Girl ranks alongside his honkytonk classics, not despite but because of the orchestra.

Too much of Classic Material is content to cheerlead, but there are deeper soundings, among them Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s challenges to Jay-Z and Eminem’s skillful cynicism, Jeff Chang’s take on the misunderstood Grandmaster Flash, or Hua Hsu on how the duo Black Star traced its generation’s path from idealism to disillusionment.

Popoff, meanwhile, is a fine describer (on Guns N’ Roses: “Paradise City’s seduction lies within its power surges, its pregnant pauses blown up by bursts of trepanning guitars, its actual jostling of correct time. Ends with a little Catskills soft-shoe”). But there’s hardly a point to be found.

2. Stretch the Limits: Great list writers warp canons by naming laureates no one even knew were nominated. Which is just one reason Popoff’s popularity poll pales next to 1991’s Stairway to Hell, in which critic Chuck Eddy makes a hilariously persuasive case that Miles Davis, Sonic Youth, Run DMC and Funkadelic count as heavy metal.

Heartaches is the stronger for ushering Chuck Berry, James Carr, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bing Crosby and (perhaps most controversially) Shania Twain into its big country tent, and not just for diversity’s sake: It’s part of the authors’ brief that there’s more country in pop and more pop (and soul) in country than either fans or detractors acknowledge. Listen closer, they show, and you’ll hear a richer story, not only about the music but about American culture, and human struggle.

Classic Material is understandably too self-conscious about its appointed role to be so daring, which just goes to show how stultifying canon-making can be.

1. “It’s a Book, Not a List”: Off the top, Cantwell and Friskics-Warren quote this motto from critic Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989), and it’s their trump. Both graceful stylists, they ensure that their shared train of thought makes a stop in each entry — not to crowd out funny stories and emotional insights, but to keep up the pressure on received wisdom. It ensures you’ll never hear the Carter Family, Glen Campbell or even Elvis quite the same way again, and in the process vaults itself up high on any list of books on country music.

Classic Material doesn’t leave such a unified impression, but it’s more discerning and up-to-date than most listeners’ guides. Its high stylistic standards can only lead to better hip-hop criticism in its wake.

But except for the most passionate metal fan, sadly, Popoff’s herculean effort won’t be much more than a goofy bathroom read. It's not a book, just a list as thick as a brick in the wall.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 17 at 4:58 PM | Linking Posts

 

Does Dylan Have Flow?

I can recommend to you Keith Harris's fascinating As Yet Untitled blog, in which he contrasts a current hit album with a not-necessarily-current non-hit album (often linked to it by nice lateral moves, such as the current Kenny Chesney v. Courtney Love thread).

In one recent thread comparing Twista's Kamikaze with the Hold Steady's The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, he gets into a compelling discussion of the anatomy of flow, which Twista of course famously has in spades. [...]

He wisely steers clear of defining it beyond saying that it has something to do with how the metrics of the lyrics are matched to the rhythm of the beats, and makes the apt comparison to the quality of "swing" in jazz: You have to say it has something to do with syncopation, but if you define it too narrowly then you end up following Philip Larkin and saying Coltrane didn't swing.

He also extends flow beyond rap to ask, does Dylan have flow? (He kind of implies no, but then how do you explain Subterranean Homesick Blues?) And of special interest to Zoilus, he uses the Mountain Goats as a best-practices case:

In an upcoming Mountain Goats review ... I flailed around at trying to explain the way John Darnielle fits syllables to a certain meter, and I bet his Classics degree left him with better terminology for that sort of analysis than my English major. I have a sense that when people rave about Darnielle’s words, they’re implicitly acknowledging rhythmic aptness as well as content, which isn‘t necessarily the case with an Elvis Costello or a Dylan.

(Which is enough to send me scrambling back to dictionaries of rhetoric for an expanded critical lexicon of flow, though I can't actually scramble anywhere at the moment as I'm at my desk at work. I'll try to report back on that research.)

I think this accounts for much of the rallying-cry power of Darnielle's music, the reason I often mentally picture him singing through a megaphone with a Varsity t-shirt on, or being carried on the shoulders of "the young thousands" through the streets of ancient Athens. He really does punch into the music-words nexus like a spike of ephedrine into the central-nervous system, especially on the louder faster songs.

And there are smaller things: The way, for instance, that he sings, "I am not going to lose you/ We are going to stay married," first running out of breath on the first short line and then half breaking into a laugh on the final word that also sounds a bit like a fiddle reel over the guitar rhythm on Southwood Plantation Road (Tallahassee) at once says more about the automatically self-mocking situation the characters are in than the lyrics themselves do, and also makes more of the threadbare melody than the melody itself contains, provoking that sense of listening in-between the notes. That's hardcore.

Anyway, thanks to Keith for an entry that will stick with me and affect the way I write about music in the future.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 11 at 7:52 PM | Linking Posts

 

Should I Jump Jim Crow?

My friend Sean Dixon, playwright, actor and clawhammer-banjo player, told me awhile ago that Robert Christgau's essay on minstrel studies in the new issue of The Believer was "required reading." Having read it tonight, that seems an understatement. At least if you have some of the cultural fixations I do - minstrelsy being an underlying history in everything from country to rock to hip-hop. [...]

It's one of the most compelling, coherent pieces the Village Voice's "Dean of Rock Criticism" has written in a decade. There's been a boom in studies of blackface shows as the root of modern pop in the past couple of decades. But this is the first critical survey I've seen; the tendency is for the writers to pose as pioneers. (Nick Tosches' unreadable Where Dead Voices Gather is decidedly the worst case, and one of my only complaints about Christgau's article is that he's too generous to that sodden, self-besotted mess.)

Christgau begins from the question of the truth of the founding legend of minstrelsy that Jump Jim Crow was a song learned from a crippled sharecropper. But the article's heart is how it gets from there to rock'n'roll, via a defence of the integrative forces and complexities running underneath the obvious racist face of "corking up."

The Believer piece is an attack on the misunderstandings of "authenticity" that are endemic to minstrelsy discourse, and that's a strong driver of my own work in other contexts. Age isn't irrelevant. The more one has experienced about how art actually is made, the less well any simple j'accuse about "theft" across cultures sits.

How racism plays out in rock and jazz and hip-hop history remains central but the mere presence of racism no longer squats like a period at the end of any sentence. Christgau - who is if nothing else one of the white rock world's earliest and most important advocates of both rap and African musics - comes at it saying, yes, these expressions were racist, sexist, homophobic etc. ... but since that was all but universal among whites at the time, what were they about other than their aversions? Art is made up of its attractions much more than its avoidances.

You can only see how much ground it covers by reading it. But of especial interest here on Zoilus is the way he talks about actual minstrel-show music. For the most part, it was far less "black" than you might assume, pitching to the British Isles-derived population of the time; musically it was much closer to Celtic reels and Victorian sentimental songs than to African influences.

This complication in the black-music-expropriation story intrigues me - what exactly is European and white about popular music? I wonder not as some kind of racial reclamation or repudiation of the obviously racist dynamic in the creation of swing, rock, country etc., but for really personal reasons. Coming from Canada, where the racial mix was until recently much less intense than in the U.S., I recognize a "whiteness" to my tastes, especially before adulthood (when my range of experience became stronger than my narcissism and soul, jazz, R&B; and hip-hop all began to make new sense).

I am still interested in how that whiteness shaped (shapes) my listening, what whiteness is, what its fiction as a homogenizer of vast ethnic elements means. To take a very simple example, one chapter would be about the Beatles/Stones rivalry: Clearly the Stones always kept black music as a reference point, while the Beatles from the first filled their rock with white sonic signifiers (skiffle, pub, folk and classical musics). How does that relate to their respective legacies, and the fact that the Beatles were my first-ever music obsession while the Stones (whose work I don't know that well) sound more arresting to me now?

Meanwhile Seattle's Experience Music Project's annual conference can present a paper called "White Blood Sells" about the supposed racism of the White Stripes. It's not like this issue's dead. (Though if it were practical I'd dearly love to hit the confab: Christgau is doing a talk called Writing About Music Is Writing First, to which sentiment huzza, hurrah, hurray.)

The goal is not to valorize the white elements but to isolate them so that their interaction with the black influence can be addressed, with the sense that this might contribute more to understanding the fictions and seductions of race as a general North American myth - ultimately to see the blur, and how the narrative of race finally unmoors any account of what skin-colour-tribes "naturally" mean.

I often think about the Afropunk: The 'Rock'n'Roll Nigger' Experience doc last year: On one hand, it shows you black punks justifying themselves by saying that rock began as a black form (as of course it did) and on the other you see them wondering if their musical enthusiasms mirror a form of self-hatred or just see them looked past and through by their white community and audience. Why these realities coexist remains a violently urgent question.

This is the book idea friends warn you away from - "you'll dig your own grave." But Christgau's article reignites the impulse. The landmines can be ... I was going to say dodged, but rather they should be detonated, but from a measured distance. Anyway, I'll keep you posted (in my head the book is called White Noise, though that may be a very bad idea). There is something to it, but it is indeed a something to be approached with a humble uncertainty.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, March 07 at 4:42 AM | Linking Posts

 

John Clare Vs. John Henry

Quite a critical crossdressing moment occurs on page 8 of today's NY Times Book Review: Terrence Rafferty (a general essayist but best known as a movie critic) gets the assignment of reviewing Jonathan Bate's new biography of John Clare (the 19th-century English rural poet who followed up a meteroic ascent to fame with an equally meteoric plunge into madness). Then Rafferty goes on to make his best point by pretending suddenly to be a music critic: [...]

And this biography's final, awe-struck judgment on its unhappy subject is that he was ''without question the greatest laboring-class poet England ever gave birth to.'' Here in the New World, we're less astonished by the existence of unschooled, ''laboring-class'' poets, although we tend to encounter them on discs rather than on the printed page. Clare's work might be understood best, in fact, by those who can hear in it the sort of deceptively simple music we know from the likes of A. P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Skip James, Robert Johnson and Johnny Cash, all of them in thrall to their rural muse. Clare was, at heart, a ballad singer, the practitioner of a mournful and ecstatic art. One of his loveliest and most disconsolate poems, ''Decay: A Ballad,'' is constructed around the refrain ''O poesy is on the wane'' (he means his own, as well as the art in general); and the sentiment expressed there is exactly the one that animates Bob Dylan's great elegy ''Blind Willie McTell,'' whose refrain goes, ''I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.'' There was a time, I think it's fair to say, when no one sang the blues like mad John Clare.

He doesn't extend the comparison - that's the last paragraph of the essay - and doesn't otherwise add too much to the current Clare-mania (which came to my attention through John Ashbery's lovely appreciation of Clare, among other "minor" poets he adores, in his book Other Traditions). But earlier in the piece, he complains about England's Eric Robinson, "who has, controversially, managed to obtain the copyright on nearly all of Clare's 3,500 or so poems, and issued them in editions that faithfully reproduce the miserable spelling and nonexistent punctuation of the writer's manuscripts. It's like 1820 all over again, the Northamptonshire peasant poet sprung from the earth to gladden the hearts of nature worshippers and class warriors. Even his champions sometimes appear neither to know nor care what this poetry is about."

Now if John Clare is Skip James or Johnny Cash, we get an intriguing reversal of some of the illogics of "authenticity" that have obtained around folk and blues music in this classless and enlightened "New World" of Rafferty's: Robinson might find his equivalent in some of the impresarios of the 1960s blues-and-folk revival, who've been accused not only of monkeying with copyright and publishing rights, but (depending on the accuser) of either prettying up the artists' recordings to make them palatable to white/urban audiences (which seems to be what Rafferty thinks would do Clare better justice) or, in other cases, of concealing the sophistication of these artists commercially, technologically, etc., in order to improve the presentation of them as "peasant poets" (as Robinson is charged).

A similar dynamic is sometimes detected in the alternative country/bluegrass revival/O Brother Where Art Thou era, when an artist like Ralph Stanley is sometimes marketed as though he had just strolled down out of the Appalachians and hadn't been a major figure in popular (notice that word, popular) music for 50-odd years, or bluegrass is misperceived as being spontaneous folk music rather than a relatively complex, post-jazz country form, etc. -- or again, on the other hand, someone like T-Bone Burnett is accused of overproducing and softening up or schmaltzing up folk music with his crystal-pool-clear, duvet-warm studio sound, or Rick Rubin is accused of trying to "hip" up Johnny Cash (as if anyone could really have gotten John R. Cash to do something he didn't want to do, especially in his final decade).

I have been through so many versions of these authenticity debates, from so many angles, that I have decided it's all a mug's game. While Robinson should sure as hell not have those copyrights, I see no reason why there shouldn't be cleaned-up and dirtied-up volumes of Clare's verse out there for comparison and contrast, just as there are relatively polished and relatively gritted-up versions of Ralph Stanley out there on CD. Every presentation of an artistic work is exactly that, a presentation, and authenticity becomes compromised as soon as the decision to perform, record, reproduce takes place. Or maybe when the decision to create it takes place -- and the complications only multiply from there. If there is an authenticity to an artistic work, you will never locate it, just as you can never verify someone else's sincerity. Or for that matter, your own. The authentic is the reflection of a reflection, and what we see in a mirror most habitually is only our own image, reversed.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 16 at 2:02 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

"This is making me dizzy. Can I have some juice?"

The Horrible-Wonderful Truth About Rock.
Between this and last year's great Drawings About Radiohead feature in the East Bay Express, all I want for my birthday is a subscription to a a magazine called Kid Critics On The Loose. It would solve so much. Who's your favourite? I like Ben, but Ben likes everything.

(Thanks to Michelangelo Matos' blog for the link.)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 02 at 9:05 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson