Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I can’t bring myself to write about music without a disclaimer, so here goes: I don’t know how to write about music. First, any attempt I make to categorize the music I like – even for the sometimes-worthwhile purpose of naming its ancestors and current intimates – falls horribly flat. (I once called Elliott Brood bluegrass?!?) Also, the ‘criticism’ I really like, the kind that translates aural experience into a similar prose experience, requires writing abilities beyond my ken.

But approximately once a year I write about music anyway. This year’s lapse is long overdue.

I first heard The Dirty Projectors last summer. “Rise Above”’s pacing and vocals (both back-up and lead - I love Dave Longstreth's voice) drew me in immediately, and the LP of the same name became one of my most listened-to albums of the last year. The concept – a re-writing of a presumably much loved album from Longstreth’s youth (Black Flag’s 1981 release also titled Rise Above) – is nostalgia put to creative use, and the delivery sounds vaguely (to use someone else’s discarded words, more for their awesomeness than their accuracy) “like Prince playing Prokofiev with a juju orchestra”. Their new album, which has not yet had official release, contains the same stuttering African guitar, similar idiosyncratic rhythmic shifts, and even better vocals from the duo/trio of beautiful women. But Bitte Orca contains fewer moments of powerful stillness and I miss lyrics like “this fuckin’ city is run by pigs” – such simple punk despair in conjunction with the band’s tentative hopefulness brought much of the magic on Rise Above.

So I was disappointed that their short set last night, opening for TV on the Radio at Toronto’s Sound Academy, drew only from their new album. There were some standouts – “Two Doves” was a brilliant opener, and “Remade Horizon” included a brief vocal prelude that really should have been included on the album – but I was not as moved as I had anticipated. The venue’s poor sound was partly to blame, as was the crowd’s serious lack of enthusiasm, the latter of which made Amber Coffmann look mildly desperate as she jumped around the stage during set-closer “Stillness is the Move” (a track that, despite its buzz, did not survive more than a few listens for me).

TV on the Radio suffered even more from poor acoustics (it really ruined the mix) and Toronto’s drowsiness. It should have been amazing but was not. Still, I’d never been more than a casual fan of the band until now and the show prompted me to pay more attention. And, predictably, “Wolf Like Me” provided at least one moment of euphoria.

It didn’t help matters that I’ve seen two of the best shows of my life in the last few weeks. I spent Monday night at The Casbah, Hamilton’s intimate little venue, seeing the Constantines for the fourth or fifth time. They remain my favourite live band, and hearing them in a room that small, with hardly a raised stage, standing just a few meters away from Bry Webb, the audience around me screaming along every word… hell, I could do that every night. All of their albums are dynamite (though Kensington Heights creates a rather smaller explosion than the rest), but the songs are still better live, particularly the standout tracks from their debut: “Justice”, “Young Offenders”, “Hyacinth Blues” and “Arizona” all far surpassed their recorded counterparts.

On May 19th I sat in the centre of the 14th row at Leonard Cohen’s Hamilton show. Cohen’s thoughtful sensuality is an interesting contrast to Bry Webb’s brazen virility, though both work to keep the audience breathless. Cohen’s own longings became the longings of all present, a whole stadium caressed into feeling together as a septuagenarian made love to us all. The players were awe-inspiring, the set list was perfection, the man himself was all grace and lightness (he actually skipped across the stage on more than one occasion), and even Copps Coliseum could not ruin the delicate sounds. I have no way of talking about that evening that does not rely on hyperbole and open-mouthed wonder, so I will stop there.

And thus endeth today’s attempt to talk about musical experience. I think it went rather well. I may try it again soon.

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