by carl wilson

I, I, I, I Am Gonna Play Sun City ... Girls!
(Plus: Laurie Anderson, Parkdale Public, and RIP The Silt)

homelandla.jpg
Laurie Anderson in Homeland.

I was out of town much of the weekend so I missed all manner of North By Northeasterly, Luminatic and other action; however you can read my review of Friday night's Luminato show by Laurie Anderson in yesterday's Globe and Mail. ("When reality catches up to an avant-garde icon.")

Tonight I am going to try to run between the Parkdale Public School vs. Queen West's seventh round, "Parkdale Strings vs. Blocks Recording Club" (featuring child musicians of the Senior Strings class working with Kids on TV, The Phonemes and Bob Wiseman) at 7 pm at the Gladstone, and the great Alan and Sir Richard Bishop of the now-defunct Sun City Girls paying tribute to their fallen comrade Charlie Gocher, at the WhipperSnapper Gallery. Full report to follow.

And I might even try to run from there to the Tranzac to catch some of what I'm sorry to hear (rather suddenly) will be the final show by The Silt, one of the most beloved configurations (Ryan Driver, Marcus Quin and Doug Tielli) of the core personnel of the Rat-Drifting label. In tribute, I'll post the very first piece I (or, I think, anybody else) ever wrote about the Silt, from 2000. Hard to believe it's been eight damn years. Thanks for all the weird pretty and pretty weird music, boys. Read all about it on the jump.

Silting up a cacophonic comfort zone

SCENE
CARL WILSON
17 August 2000
The Globe and Mail

"We think we know almost exactly what some of our songs sound like," proclaims Ryan Driver, who plays guitar, drums, synthesizers, flute and duck calls with Toronto group the Silt. The trio also features multi-instrumentalists Doug Tielli (a trombone specialist) and Marcus Quin (clarinet).

Having attended four or five Silt shows in recent months, I think I know almost exactly what some of their songs sound like, too. But I'm not sure how to put it into words, to persuade you to go hear them in this Sunday's edition of the weekly Wavelength series at Ted's Wrecking Yard. Driver's statement, with all its double-take syntax and self-sabotaging qualifiers, is probably your best clue. Take it as a mini-manifesto.

The Silt is turning out to be one of Toronto's natural resources, alongside the likes of Hawksley Workman, with whom they share hummability, flamboyance, classicism, and a willingness to be fey and vulnerable that, at its best, makes audiences giddily nervous.

All three members of the Silt, though no strangers to song (Tielli's last band was the semi-popular People From Earth, and if his last name reminds you of the Rheostatics, so be it), are fixtures on the youthful improvised-music scene in Toronto. That means they're used to wielding their axes to clearcut across musical expectations, sever melodic lines and splinter steady beats. They are comfortable with cacophony.

Maybe too comfortable. And that's what gives this group its special frisson: Having learned to play without rules, they have reinstituted them, to render themselves neophytes all over again.

Any given Silt song sounds like it might break down and lapse into improv. But it never happens. Instead, they might pause, suspend a note or a silence in the air, as if considering the potential for chaos . . . and then sing the next verse. They're on probation for breaking the laws of music, and the Silt is their halfway house.

Combine this with the perverted-Beach-Boys falsetto harmonies, delicate repetitive riffs, slow pace, false endings, unlikely instrument pairings, and archly exaggerated poetry (A Song About a Red Whistle is a typical Silt title) and you get something at once rather haunting and beautiful, and absurdly funny.

They achieve that rich and rare thing, sincere sarcasm. "I know this is stupid, and unsophisticated, with all these heartfelt, childish lyrics and old-fashioned tonality," a Silt song tells you, "but I really mean it. I can't help it. I think life is like this."

This is a very difficult effect to get. It's what people such as Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and McSweeney's magazine), David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), and George Saunders (Civilwarland in Bad Decline) have been trying to do in literature.

It demands not only deft manipulation of materials, but an audience willing to entertain contradictory thoughts and feelings simultaneously. It requires an agreement on both sides that it's just too easy to give in to cynicism and disdain. Sometimes those much-hyped young writers manage it; often they just seem excessively pleased with themselves.

The Silt are so low-key that they avoid that pitfall. What they risk is being misunderstood, looking as if they don't know what they're up to. But they do. It took me a couple of hearings to realize how funny they were, and another couple to decide that the awkward bits were the prettiest parts.

As with Pavement, or Palace, or poet David Berman's Silver Jews, the Silt's humour is bone-dry, the sentiments slippery. They truck in the kind of truth that wriggles out of your hand, only to sliver its way under your skin. Like a tape that plays in your sleep and suggests that when you wake you'll quit smoking, or fighting, or giving up on yourself.

That's what they sound like. Almost exactly. I think.

Read More | Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 17 at 12:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

COMMENTS

I agree with your diagnosis as to the cause of the problem, Dr. Z! And I would add: The insecurity is deeply rooted in the history of poetry, with its obscure origins in song lyric (Sappho, Shakespeare, and on through Tennyson, some of whose poems became hit songs), drama (Aeschylus, Shakespeare), and religious ritual (large swaths of the Bible, sacred books of most of the Big Traditions).

Which means: Poets would do better to engage with the issue, rather than ignore it. Ignoring it is a Sign of Fear; not a good sign. Stand up for your art!

Interesting that you've vented against the slammers! I like the movement a lot, find it to be well rooted in the oratorical tradition of Whitman-Sandburg-Ginsberg (all poets I love; W a God, S a Major Prophet, G a Minor Prophet); fascinated by most of its practitioners' lack of roots and find THAT to be really healthy too (though I couldn't recommend it, for reasons that are probably obvious). "Slam" is probably my favorite contemporary style; the vitality, the flair, the inventiveness, the insouciance -- very pop! I feel more personally connected to the Late Modernists, PoMo-ers, post-avant-ists, whatever they happen to be calling themselves, but by and large I find them (us?) too derivative, bookish, respectful of tradition, and, too often, intellectually incoherent. (One of the least coherent polemicists is the founder of UbuWeb -- an excellent public servant and a truly bad theorist -- unless the theoretical writings I've come across of his are pranks, which is possible!)

Posted by john on June 19, 2008 12:20 AM

 

 

I think music and art commentators are more secure - poets have been concerned to maintain the difference between poetry and song lyrics, for instance. Even people like me have been known to get all bent out of shape about slam poetry (THATSNOTPOETRYBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH) - now I'm more like, eh, that's not the kind of poetry I'm interested in, usually. It's the defence of small territory and the fear that trying to connect w/ bigger fields will end up in the small one being swallowed.

Glad you mentioned those LPs, which were an offshoot in part of Giorno's great Dial A Poem project... One of them has a hilarious title that could be plucked from either JG's or LA's work: "You're the Guy I Want to Share My Money With."

That album series also included contributions from all kinds of punk/industrial/whatevs musicians like Psychic TV, Richard Hell, Jim Carroll (also a poet of course), Arto Lindsay, Lydia Lunch, Husker Du, Diamanda Galas, some New York School poets, some Beats, some Black Mountaineers, some Superstars, some minimalists (Glass), John Cage, you name it.

You can see the whole index and, I think, hear all the albums on UbuWeb!

http://www.ubu.com/sound/gps.html

Posted by zoilus on June 18, 2008 9:51 PM

 

 

I'm glad you mentioned Giorno, Carl, because Anderson released a co-record (or 2?) with him and William Burroughs before "O Superman" (as I'm sure you know), the 3 performers each taking part of the album. And I'm glad you plumped for the musicality of the early records, S.T., because that's the truth. (I haven't heard her recent stuff.)

Interesting in both contexts: "New music" commentators like Kyle Gann and John Rockwell have included Anderson in their discussions of late 20th century composition in the classical tradition, but I'm not aware of any "New poetry" commentators including her in discussions of poetry. Poetry commentators have been waay behind music and visual-arts commentators in including pop and commercial forms in their discussions.

Posted by john on June 18, 2008 6:59 PM

 

 

Whether you call it performance art or poetry or music or whatever, I find the earlier work of Anderson's that I've encountered (which is not too much, really) to be really musical. Sadly, what I heard on Friday was not. I think I get what was going on, and what was going on (as your review elucidates) was not very good.

If I'm music-centric, then so be it; I just cringe to see someone like Joey Baron being so ruefully underemployed.

Posted by Somewhere There on June 18, 2008 3:48 PM

 

 

I'll comment on the Brothers later today but, ST: I understand your frustration but it seems like your expectations were maybe a bit off - the music has always been a secondary part of Anderson's work, which is mainly based on her monologues, with maybe the exception of a couple of late 80s albums that were more pop oriented.

"Performance art" is the "subgenre" you're looking for, but it's a field in its own right. In Anderson's place I'd actually position her midway between performance art and spoken-word poetry (a la John Giorno), which often has the same kind of not-quite-laugh-out-loud humour.

However as I said in my review, I agree the writing in Homeland is weak compared to her past work, so if this is the first thing you'd heard I can see not getting it. In the past she's also included a lot more visual enhancements - video projections and so on - and Homeland could really have used that kind of expansion.

But look into early Anderson if you haven't, ST.

Posted by zoilus on June 18, 2008 2:09 PM

 

 

The Brothers Disconnected show, on the other hand, was fantastic.

Posted by Half on June 18, 2008 12:33 PM

 

 

Wow. The Anderson show was truly dreadful. I listened to her spool out about six songs based on virtually no decent musical ideas and watched her waste the estimable talents of her bandmates by keeping them on such a close tether, and I had to get out of there... quickly. Really, there was very little justification for it to be a music performance at all. Some weird subgenre of stand-up comedy, while still farfetched, would have been more apropos, formally.

Posted by Somewhere There on June 18, 2008 9:29 AM

 

 

Describing the Silt as "in the industry" is one of the funniest lines I've heard all day. (No offense, Ronatron. Fine little site you've got going there.)

For those who don't know, though, you can find most of The Silt in other Rat-drifting ensembles such as the Reveries, Drumheller, and more, as well as on recent records by friends like Eric Chenaux, and the aforementioned Ryan Driver solo disc (which I need to sample more but so far seems excellent).

And I should add that their "last show" tonight was technically a "for now" deal - they're not ruling out sifting up more Silt some day in the future.

Posted by zoilus on June 17, 2008 11:18 PM

 

 

They definitely have an interesting sound. It's a shame they're going to play their last show. We need more bands like this in the industry, but I'm sure they'll be doing splendid with their solo projects or whatever they end up doing.

Posted by Ronatron on June 17, 2008 6:29 PM

 

 

(Heart-)Breaking news, Carl. The silt will be sorely missed (as lovely as Ryan Driver's recent solo disc may be)--such a great band.

Posted by Craig D. on June 17, 2008 4:15 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson