Thursday, July 29, 2010

Roll Credits

I love the breadth of material Justin Erik Halldor Smith covers in his blog. Recently he has posted an anthropological criticism of militant political correctness, an important tirade against the Western hegemony (and failed history) perpetrated by philosophy textbooks, and some suggestions on how not to age as a music fan. Of the last piece he writes:
The overwhelming response to my recent post against eighties music was that I should quit worrying and just 'listen to what I like'. It would take a naïveté I can barely imagine to believe that this is what one is doing when one listens to music. Music is music, but it is also (and this is especially true of pop music) a sort of totemic cosmology: an imposition of order on the world through distinctions of value.
Read the post.

Incidentally, I like The Cure. It's like constantly being in the end credits of a pleasant if rather plot-less 90s movie, and that's a cosmological order I can live with.

Or the better version. Jangle jangle.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part III of IV

Part III of IV: Retrospective Expansion

The past four years have brought remarkable growth, and each album below marks my appreciation of a whole new genre. Two out of four were released in 1979. The Talking Heads also released Fear of Music in 1979.

Peter Gabriel – So

Purchased on sale at HMV (remember when that was a thing?), this album was the grown-up version of my adolescent love for all things 80s. While jammed with his biggest hits, it's not his best – that honour goes to the third self-titled album (including this track), generally just called 3 – but it got me hooked on Peter Gabriel and, soon after, on Kate Bush.

The Slits – Cut

I lived for a summer with four guys in a rambling Wolseley house. Post punk was the soundtrack to gin drinking and Nintendo playing. Gang of Four, Delta 5, The Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, a smattering of concurrent albums by The Fall – a new musical landscape had opened. The Slits were especially beguiling, not only due to the palpable lewd-ness of the whole enterprise (I mean, that band name and that album cover?!), but because they combined the vocal and instrumental chaos of The Raincoats with consistently catchy tunes (and because of the awesome "performance" video above). “So Tough” was the initial standout track, though now I couldn't name one. Ironically, this album was my gateway to more mainstream sonic strangeness: Devo's Are We Not Men?, The B-52s self-titled 1979 (!!) album, and, more recently, Bow Wow Wow's excellent See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! (Yes, that's the album title.) Ari Up was my route to Annabelle Lwin.

The Kinks – Are the Village Green Preservation Society
I read an interview once during which the musician was asked “The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?” and he answered “The Kinks”. Kind of a douchey response, but I'd have to say the same. Given that my acquaintance with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones was primarily through hits compilations, I never could consider myself a committed fan of either. Even after closer listens to Abbey Road, Sargeant Pepper's, The White Album, and so on (Rubber Soul remains a glaring oversight) my most beloved Beatles track is their rendition of “Twist and Shout”! (But seriously, it's flawless.) The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society made a significantly deeper impression on me. I've mentioned my love of “Big Sky” on this blog before, but the whole album is perfection. My touchstone for contemporary chamber pop and British invasion sounds – can't say much more about this classic.

Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
I've always been a Michael Jackson fan, despite the fact that I came of age in the “Earth Song” era during which his performances involved being raised up in glory while the little children came unto him (yikes). “Man in the Mirror”, live clips from the Dangerous tour, and his duet with Janet on “Scream” made strong impressions on me at a young age, but it wasn't until much later that I paid any attention to what was going on between “ABC” and “Thriller”. A fantastic bit of choreography set to the title track was my first real exposure to Off the Wall. It did what really good choreo does: it made all the intricacies of the music visible. And that's some intricate music! Every song on the album delivers, as does all proximate output from The Jacksons (the Destiny and Triumph albums are superb). The impact of this album cannot be overstated. It single-handedly exploded my unthought division between music to dance to and music to listen to. Off the Wall played while I studied, while I rode the bus... everywhere, and a whole whack of soul, Motown and funk followed (Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire, etc.). It's impossible not to consider the racial element of the story: this album radically altered my relationship with “black music”. Funk bass, slow jams, and soul vocals were no longer just “fun” but became, in one important sense, the height of musical accomplishment. The album also marks a return to “polished” studio sounds – Off the Wall isn't Otis Redding Live at the Whiskey a Go Go. Now I listen to hits from Janet and Luther Vandross without any sense of irony. And MJ himself plays on my iPod far more than any other artist!

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part II of IV

Part II of IV: The College Years

This list differs considerably from a list of most listened-to albums of the same time period, the latter of which would find Ben Folds, Sarah Harmer, and The Weakerthans at the top. While these artist were setting high standards for pop/folk/rock music, Rockin' the Suburbs, You Were Here, and Left and Leaving didn't serve to broaden my horizons in any obvious way. A few things did.

Constantines – Shine a Light

Oh lordy, I love the Constantines. I've discussed this band on the blog before, praising their live show, and it was indeed their Shine a Light show (which I believe I managed to see twice) that made a fan of me. From the humming guitar of “Nightime/Anytime (it's alright)” to the drunken bass in “Insectivora” to the dramatic choreographed breakdown in the title track, these guys were (and are) dynamite. Shine a Light slips a little when Bry Webb leaves the mic, but I still insist this is their best album (and if you don't want to take my word for it, take this). Creative rhythms, powerful lyrics (the equivocal line “we may never be angels, oh we're lousy with the spirit” has been stuck in my head for years), and sheer energy keep these guys at the top and raise the bar for straight-up rock. (Sorry. I found no good live footage of the band. Poor sound quality all around.)

Cat Power – You Are Free

Unlike the Constantines, Chan Marshall has not remained a favourite, but this album opened a world of melancholy lo-fi-ish indie offerings, which is a broad enough designation to cover most of what my friends listened to in college (Low, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Royal City, Pedro the Lion), and opened the door for chick music that was cooler than Ani DiFranco, like Julie Doiron and Sleater-Kinney (okay, that's a bit of a stretch - my Sleater-Kinney love has little to do with Chan Marshall). Also, You Are Free is just plain great. Simple, haunting.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

Classic albums are classic for a reason. Blue is Joni's masterpiece, making obvious her songwriting skill and stunning voice, both exemplified on “A Case of You” (one of the best songs of all time?). I sang along, I played “River” on the piano, and I learned to appreciate the brilliance of songwriters before my time. Within the next year or two I'd picked up Carole King's Tapestry, Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and Billy Joel's The Stranger. Sheesh. Those are fantastic albums.

Stereolab – Sound-Dust

A friend of mine went off to Iowa to study jazz after high school and the two roadtrips we took to visit him were filled with great music. They mark my introduction to Sigur Ros (first impression: whiny crap... don't worry, I mostly changed my mind) and to Stereolab. I can't figure out why my 18-year-old self loved Sound-Dust as much as I did, but I purchased the album soon after and wholly committed to it. Simultaneously electronic and orchestral, lyrics (when there were any) in another language, songs changing dramatically mid-way – safe to say I'd never listened to anything like it before. Although the album does not seem to have immediately revolutionized my music collection (except that I might credit it with re-orienting me to Bjork), it did teach me that I can love very different sorts of melodies and arrangements.

The Velvet Underground – The Best of the Velvet Underground

A compilation should probably not be included in this list, but I picked up The Best of the Velvet Underground for $7 at a Future Shop off the Trans-Canada highway while on a road-trip with the family when I was 19, circumstances more dissonant than the tracks on the album and definitely worthy of mention. Despite never before having listened to music like this on my own initiative, I quickly loved “Sweet Jane” for its steady guitar and Reed's remarkable vocal delivery, and grew to adore the satisfying build of “Heroine” (still the best track). Nico's thick voice was already familiar from her songs on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack, and so “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow's Parties” immediately enchanted. This collection is one dynamite track after another, and I still occasionally choose it over the full albums. The band that spawned a thousand bands introduced me to the droning and the disarray I would come to love in a thousand bands.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part I of IV

At the risk of alienating my loyal Nietzsche-lovin' readers, it's time I wrote about music once again. I've been making this list for over a year (some ideas just don't go away) and have decided to present it in four installments.

Part I of IV: Coming of Age

My adolescence was dominated by MuchMusic and CMT, by singles and spectacle and not albums. My dad listened to CCR; a friend's older brother listened to Beck's Odelay, Green Day's Dookie, and Collective Soul's first album; bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Soul Asylum were in my imagination with videos like “1979” and “Misery”; I noticed Madonna's sexpot days and loved her softer dark-haired days; Amy Grant's Heart in Motion was one of the first tapes I purchased; Bush was the first major concert I attended. All this is to say that my formative music-listening years contained a wide range of influences but few obviously dominant ones. In 27 years of life, a single album stands heads above the rest.

Paul Simon – Graceland

I was eight years old. My dad was studying in Rothenburg ob der Tauber for the summer and we joined him for a few weeks. The winding roads and rolling hills of the Frankische countryside were bathed in sunshine and Graceland played on the cassette deck. I remember it as the constant soundtrack to childhood car trips, to poolside summers at camp, to studying for university exams. A lifelong favourite album, I guess, and many of my generation can relate. We were raised on this phenomenal song cycle, which mixes the dominant African sounds with a smattering of zydeco and heavy 80s production. Paul Simon is responsible for my early melodic sensibilities, my love of good bass parts and for vocals that do something other than sound pretty. (An aside: a few years ago I got into a heated debate on whether Simon or Garfunkel was the better singer. It seems to me that if Garfunkel is your answer, you have missed out on what singing can actually be about. No one beats Simon's lyrical delivery.) The duet with Linda Ronstadt taught me to harmonize, “You Can Call Me Al” taught me dance, and the images of the band playing to large crowds in Africa had a hand in the development of my global consciousness. Nowadays I eat up everything released by Soundway or Strut Records, and several favourite current bands feature African guitar sounds prominently (think Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, The Dirty Projectors). I could go on, but someone else says it better.

Sloan – One Chord to Another
This album taught me that Canadian rock music is about having a good time, about not taking yourself too seriously, about horn sections. I remember the release of “Coax Me” off of Twice Removed, but One Chord to Another was the first complete Sloan album I heard and it stuck far more than did any of the Silverchair/Bush/Our Lady Peace/Moist mess that was Jr. High. Unlike Daniel Johns/Gavin Rossdale/Raine Maida/David Usher, I actually wanted to hang out with Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson. Carrie Brownstein once wrote a post for her NPR blog on the theme of “favourite band whose prominent influence on one's music listening is too often overlooked”. Hers was The Ramones (because she is obviously cooler than I). Mine would have to be Sloan. I own all their albums and know all but the most recent two backwards and forwards, and yet would rarely think to list them as a favourite. So here it is: I have loved Sloan since age 14. Their influence has been huge.

Sheryl Crow – The Globe Sessions

I listened to a lot of mediocre pop music in high school: S Club 7, Amanda Marshall, Nelly Furtado's first album, The Corrs, The Spice Girls, The Backstreet Boys (though I'm convinced these last two groups transcended their mediocrity through sheer charisma and force of will). Sheryl Crow's bluesy third album was a far cry from all of this, and I cherished it. I can still call to mind the smell of the liner notes (rather like radishes, for some reason); I recall thinking deliberately and carefully about song structure and guitar sounds; I remember falling in love with the surprising rhythmic shift in the first chorus of “Maybe That's Something” and the unison voice and guitar in “Riverwide.” Her recording of Bob Dylan's “Mississippi” is superb, and is likely my first conscientious appreciation of his songwriting. Given that I listened to little folky, bluesy, singer-songwritery music up to this point, this album seems to have been some kind of watershed.

Greg Macpherson – Balanced on a Pin
It should already be abundantly clear that I was no musical savant in my youth. I only listened to Radiohead by proxy, I mostly forgot about Bjork after her videos stopped being played on MuchMusic, and the big American “indie” rockers (Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse) were nowhere near my radar. What was on my radar, however, were the bands playing in my hometown. Our little community of 3500 had a thriving music scene. First my older sister's friends and then my friends played in surprisingly popular local bands, and several guys worked hard to book touring groups to play upstairs at the local curling rink. I saw Moneen play in that rink more than once! Of course, Winnipeg artists like B'ehl and The Bonaduces came around occasionally, but they were both playing less by the end of the 90s. I first heard of Greg Macpherson on a five hour car trip to the 1999 student council conference in Russell, Manitoba. My good friend (who remains a good friend to this day) had a live recording of “Invisible”. I thought G-Mac sounded like crap but was totally intrigued. Once I heard him play “Slowstroke” (back when it was called “Carol Channing”) and “Company Store” live, his raw energy and arms (see photo) had convinced me. This album was one of my first introductions to low-budget recordings, to albums belonging to a particular place, to artists you could reach out and touch (metaphorically speaking, unfortunately). When he sang about the “yellow-green tile floor” of the Canadian prairies he was singing about my world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Artistry and Invention Part II

I occasionally carry on inspiring facebook conversations and recently found myself summarizing Nietzsche's notion of willing backwards in a drunken late-night message. I like how it went:
Fatalism with respect to the past is a tricky thing. Nietzsche (and do I know anything else?) advocates nothing more (and nothing less) than amor fati (love of fate), but it is not of the past per se. It is of the whole. And we are always, in some sense, creators of that whole. In broad strokes: to affirm our lives now we must affirm the past, but in inventing our lives now we also invent the past. You know?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I have googled "procrastination"

The last post on Hyperbole and a Half documents the writer's inability to manage responsibilities. It hit a nerve, particularly the following bit:
Then the guilt from my ignored responsibilities grows so large that merely carrying it around with me feels like a huge responsibility. It takes up a sizable portion of my capacity, leaving me almost completely useless for anything other than consuming nachos and surfing the internet like an attention-deficient squirrel on PCP.
She hasn't written a single post since.


Would I be making better progress on my thesis if I sat in a proper desk chair at a proper desk? If I sat upright rather than curled up on myself? The image above might as well be titled "Julia at work". That is, if I owned a luxurious pink robe. Would I be making better progress on my thesis if I owned a luxurious pink robe?

Saturday, July 3, 2010


I'm hopeless when it comes to formatting decisions. With the many options now available, this may not be the end of major layout changes. I really like the weathered wood or the quirky quilt, but both seemed pretty disingenuous - too rural and crafty, a far cry from my current life and from the tone of these posts. Then I chose the books without titles, but it's a bit busy (and eerie... I mean, what's in those books?). So wall-paper it is... for now.

Can anyone tell me how to centre my title image?