Sunday, September 25, 2016

Swans, "The Glowing Man"; Tim Hecker, "Love Streams"

These are two new albums by acts that have (stubbornly?) stuck to a formula for some time but have gotten away with it on account at being better at their style than anyone else.  In fact that would be underselling their talents -- they've been so successful at what they do that they're practically inimitable.  

On one hand, they get to claim a micro-genre for themselves and monopolize the attention and accolades that come with it.  On the other hand, there's a fine line between working the formula successfully and falling back on it as a safe default option, in place of pushing their creativity forward.  With both of these albums, we've reached the latter point.  The bloom is off the rose, and we've heard all they have to offer with this style (sadly, one could say the same about the M83 record as well).

Michael Gira had already announced that he was retiring Swans in their current incarnation.  I sense that he knows he's taken the 2010-2016 version of the band to its extreme, and there's nowhere left to go. The next time we hear from Swans, he claims it'll be a studio based guest artist collective, rather than a fixed collective of surly middle aged dudes who flesh out their ideas at maximum volume on stage.  "The Glowing Man" has been labeled as the softer, more contemplative side of Swans, but that side was always around on their past few albums.  It was on the folksy "The Daughter Brings the Water" (from "The Seer") and the mammoth, shimmering intro to "No Words/No Thoughts" (extended to almost unfathomable lengths when played live).  "The Glowing Man" is a half hour of crushing and spectacular noise, but they've done a few of those now and the sense of numbing shock you get when hearing those kinds of tracks is lessened every time they do it.

Tim Hecker's explorations into the densest, blackest drone reached their extreme with "Ravedeath, 1972".  Since then he's tried to lighten up, so to speak, but I can't hear much beyond the fairly gimmicky "Hecker + choir" combo.  He's not adapting his music to fit the choir, he's doing his thing and hoping it sounds cool and different with vocals decorating the mix. Hecker has played a number of live shows in churches over the years and perhaps that's what inspired him here, but his math feels off.  It's like there's an assumption that the hazy, soaring vocals merged with Hecker's typical style will automatically produce something meditative and spiritual, but I'm not feeling it.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 33

His ancestor mix would be simultaneously revolted and proud - a techno classics mix (85 minutes)

After my last mix I wanted to continue making pure techno club/dancing oriented mixes.  I also wanted it to be a fun, "greatest hits" type of set with a number of well known tracks rubbing shoulders with a few newer ones.  And these were the results ... there are nearly 25 years of techno represented here, with (multiple) tracks from 1992 right through to 2016.

V/A, "Clicks and Cuts" (Mille Plateaux)

I recently dug out a massive booklet with more than a hundred old CD compilations from my parent's house.  I haven't heard a lot of this stuff in over ten years, so it's like a wormhole opened up and dropped a mountain of classic and rare music from a long lost galaxy right on my head.  Expect a good deal of tripping down memory lane over the next little while, including at least one mix (already in the can).

This very famous compilation was released in January 2000, and the symbolism of the date is significant because it was intended to signify a new paradigm for techno in the 21st century.  It's title became synonymous with the entire genre, and the first MUTEK was for all intents and purposes, a "Clicks and Cuts" tribute festival.  I was the target audience for "Clicks and Cuts" without a doubt -- a fan of bedroom techno (e.g. Warp's Artificial Intelligence series), of minimalism, ambient, of Oval, Sub Rosa compilations and similar oddities on the outskirts of techno.  It was one one of my top albums of 2000, and I was very much in favour of the slow continuing takeover of "Clicks and Cuts" style techno. 

Of course it didn't quite happen that way.  "Boring" laptop techno was superseded by less boring laptop techno with a beat, and became minimal techno that you could actually dance to. 

Needless to say, this stuff hasn't aged well.  On the first CD, even the stuff with a semblance of a groove that I really dug back in the day, like Farben, now sounds feeble and almost directionless.  Tracks by Sutekh and SND are nearly unlistenable, with nothing to draw one's attention outside of the frittering pops and whirs that burrow into your ears like sand swept up by a gust of wind.  The stranger tracks have fared better, such as Vladislav Delay's ten minute "Synkopoint", which used to bore me but now presents a more varied and unpredictable palate of sounds than anything else on the disc.

The second CD is a bit better (fifteen years ago I would have said the opposite).  Again the weirder tracks by Ester Brinkmann, Dettinger, and Goem are the highlights.  The Panacea, Ihan, and Kid606 tracks towards the end form the worst three track run on "Clicks and Cuts" by far, with almost nothing to redeem then other than the historical curiosity of being included on this album.  But that's the whole point here -- as a historical document, "Clicks and Cuts" is still essential as an accurate summation of a major trend in techno at the time.  If you try to edit this down to a 40 minute condensed version of "highlights", you're missing some important information.   

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Starship, "We Built This City"

GQ's story about the making of "We Built This City" is an instant classic and might be the funniest oral history I've ever read.  At least half of it reads like parody.  I'm not even 100% sure that it isn't.

I remember that Blender list from '04 that named it as the worst song ever.  Up until that point, I don't recall it being ridiculed more than any one of dozens of silly and dated 80's synth rock songs.  But somehow the worst song ever moniker took on a life of its own.  The "We Built This Starbucks" remake/rewrite didn't help either.

For me, "We Built This City" falls into a rare category along with songs like Phil Collins' "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" -- a song that I absolutely despised in the 80's but have come around to thinking it's sort of awesome.  The bridge is epic!

The "selling out" tropes are hilarious, for a number of reasons beyond the usual (i.e. the idea of maintaining some kind of arbitrarily defined integrity and refusing to "sell out" is tired and meaningless now):

1) The most embarrassing thing about the song isn't the music, it's the clothes that Grace Slick is wearing on the single cover.  It's mind boggling that anyone over the age of 15, even in the 80's, would agree to be photographed wearing that.

2) There's nothing more safe and conservative, in the 21st century, than lionizing late 60's psychedelia and hippie culture.  So Grace Slick and her "we want to make hits and rake in money and then we'll shit on our music and complain that there was no 'integrity' in the 80's" attitude can take a hike.

3) Jefferson Airplane's legacy (that some people would go out of their way to defend and protect) comes down to two songs that predated their classic lineup (Grace Slick brought them from her previous band).  At least Starship were genuinely huge for about two years and had three number one hits.

The hero of the piece is of course Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, who delivers all the best lines and may in fact be a fake Twitter account rather than a real life washed up 80's rock star, I can't be sure.  Choosing between his best lines is tough, but I have to go with "Marconi's the guy who invented the radio, and his style of music was the mamba.  But listen to the radio now.  Do you hear any mamba?  That's how I look at the lyric: things change.  I could be totally wrong."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Moby, "Porcelain" (book)

After reading only a few chapters of Moby's new memoir, "Porcelain", I had already decided that it is one of the finest music autobiographies I've ever read.  The subject matter (NYC clubs, English raves) is fresh in the world of musician bios and certainly in need of chronicling, and his writing style is unlike any other star bio I've read.  In most bios, the story unfurls linearly, tracing the key steps in the advancement of the star's career.  In Moby's book, which is part coming of age story, part mish mash of moralist anecdotes, while his career somehow takes shape during his unpredictable journey.

The first chapter is about heading out from his 100 square foot "apartment" in an abandoned factory in Connecticut, and taking the train to New York to drop off a mix tape at a club in the hopes of getting hired as a DJ.  The style of this chapter sets the pattern for the entire book.  Moby the writer has a talent for turning the mundane into the spectacular, crystallizing the feel, look and smells of his functionally homeless life and the decaying atmosphere of NYC before it cleaned itself up.  It's a collection of stories and moments, oddball conversations and unhinged characters.  Most chapters take you into the weird minutiae of a particular day in his life but are page turners thanks to his gifts as a storyteller.  This includes a fair bit of cynicism and self deprecating humour -- 2016 Moby knows how messed up and insane things were, but stays in the moment to relate how things were, at all times.  In the meantime, his career slowly develops, almost as a backdrop to the stories he's telling. 

The first part of the book covers 1989-90, but the subject matter is equally NYC as it is Moby.  It's about recording the seediness of its neighbourhoods and of the club scene for posterity, Moby is almost a passive participant in these event who just happened to be around to observe all of it.  The second part covers the early 90's rave years in much the same way, and he himself becomes more of a central figure in what's going on.  Once we hit the "Everything Is Wrong" period, the narrative becomes less focused on a particular place, and jumps from one drunken exploit to another, with casts of characters and interesting hookups that vary depending on the city.  Somewhere in the chaos his career briefly flourishes, and then collapses. 

The wildness and debauchery keeps ramping up, and things never get any better.  At the start of the book he's desperately poor and eager to launch a music career (despite having no clue how to go about it), and talks at length about how happy he was living in what he calls the best city in the world.  By the end, he's at his lowest point, lonely and depressed despite having no shortage of parties or women in his life, clearly convinced that his career was over.  In the final chapter, he's listening to an early version of "Play" during a late night drive, which only serves to convince him that it was a badly produced mess that nobody will want to listen to.  He'd already begun planning to move back to Connecticut and start a different career.  And just like that, the book ends.  There's no light at the end of the tunnel, and no sense that things might start getting better. 

Of course this opens the door for a second memoir quite nicely, and in fact Moby has already begun writing it.  But sometimes the journey to stardom is far more captivating, and brings out better writing, than the stardom itself.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Tragically Hip live at the Kingston K-Rock Centre

Like millions of other Canadians, I was able to watch the  Tragically Hip's final (?) concert thanks to the CBC (in my case via their Youtube channel).  During the show, I found myself flipping occasionally to WWE's live Takeover Brooklyn special, which served to remind me about some important lessons about how to produce live TV.

Pro wrestling is all about the interaction between the performers and the audience, perhaps more so than any other entertainment medium.  Watching bits and pieces of Takeover, I could feel the intensity of the crowd at the most important moments -- the thunderous crowd pops at the end of matches, during the entrances, and during special moments like the farewell ovation to Bayley at the conclusion of her match.  Bayley spent four months building toward a rematch to regain her title after being streamrolled by Asuka in April, and her spirited loss to Asuka signified a conclusive end to the story.  There's nothing left for her to do in NXT, and although it was never acknowledged on TV, the fans know what happens next.  She'll end up on the main WWE roster soon enough (probably in two days), performing in front of bigger but perhaps not better or more caring crowds.  Tears were shed, the camera panned the crowds so that the people watching at home could feel, see, and hear the reactions, the crowd mics were cranked way up, the commentators stayed quiet and let the crowd tell the story.   

There was very little of that in tonight's Tragically Hip concert.  Plenty of credit goes to the CBC for broadcasting this, and I have no doubt that the six thousand in attendance were losing their minds all night, but you wouldn't have known it from tonight's broadcast.  It was shot just like any other concert.  The camera zoomed in tight on Gord Downie for most of the show, oblivious to the fact that especially on this night, it wasn't about micro-analyzing the movements of the lead singer, it was about the interactions between a great band and its hometown fans.  The band doesn't perform in front of the fans, they perform with the fans, tonight more so than ever.

Many videos have been uploaded to youtube showing the raw exhilaration of these final (?) Hip shows.  Only during the quieter moments of the CBC broadcast (e.g. "Fiddler's Green") did we really get to experience that (discounting the odd, spoken word tributes to Justin Trudeau that came off disturbingly like paid shills for the Liberal Party.  What was with that?)  Also thanks to youtube, I got to see Downie's incredible, white knuckle intense performance at the end of "Grace, Too" in Toronto.  If I hadn't already see that, his similar performance tonight near the conclusion of the concert would have been almost unbearably difficult to watch.  But I had seen it before -- a very well executed bit of drama by a consummate actor.  

During the third encore, and towards the end of final song ("Ahead By a Century"), Downie carefully placed the microphone back on the stand and took a few moments to blow kisses to the crowd.  When the song finished, the band posed on stage, arms around each other, and soaked in the cheers.  Downie looked exhausted.  Happy, relieved, and certainly humbled, but also exhausted.  He probably could have stood there all night, but it really seemed to me that he needed to go home and rest.  Who could deny him otherwise.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Denise Benson, "Then & Now"

In the Forward to Denise Benson's history of 48 influential Toronto clubs, Stuart Berman writes: "no matter if your dancing days were defined by bell bottoms or dog collars, glow sticks or glue sniffs, you played some part in this story." I probably rolled my eyes the first time I read that line, a variation on the tried and true musical trope "we couldn't have done it without the support of you fans".  Berman's line could have been written by the book's publicist and slapped on the back cover.  But as I made my way through the book, and nostalgia kicked in hard -- even for the clubs I'd never attended -- it all started making sense.

"Then & Now" isn't a comprehensive history of Toronto club culture.  However, you can infer the evolution of the city's night life by studying the map of club locations in the book's final pages, tracking the epicentre of underground nightlife as it flowed between neighbourhoods within the city.  The book doesn't read like a history either, there's no narrative to connect the chapters -- each one profiling a single club -- or any attempt to track musical trends over the years.  The writing does get repetitive after a while (everyone was accepted, there was a real sense of community, it was "more than just a club", etc.), and the profiles are overloaded with names and places that makes for heavy reading at times.  It's not a book for everyone, and you might not get much out of it if you didn't grow up in Toronto and didn't go to at least a handful of these clubs.

But enough about what this book is not.  "Then & Now" is an indispensable source of information about the Toronto club scene.  If Benson hadn't done all of this research, and had access to so many of the principals owing to her long standing presence in the Toronto music scene, where else could you possibly find all this information?  She's done every Toronto music fan a service by cataloging this information for posterity, archiving rare photos, interviewing everyone from the DJ's to the bartenders to the security staff to the clubgoers themselves.  She writes with an attention to detail that could have only been filtered through the lens of someone who was there.  In one example, she notes how every speck of lint on your clothes would shine under the fluorescent lights at the Limelight.  For many, this reads as a passing comments about the club's interior, but for any past regular (e.g. me), this type of detail will take you back immediately.

Benson doesn't need to philosophize and provide historical context, that's not what the book is about.  It's part clubbing scrapbook, part story behind the story of the clubs you knew, loved, danced at, and then forgot about.  Your memories will provide the context, and her job is to help you recall them.

However, if I were to look for a turning point in the Toronto club scene, using the book as a representative sample, everything pivots around Industry nightclub.  As we see, in the 80's, cool clubbing meant 80's alternative staples (Depeche Mode, New Order, Human League, goths, punks, Cure fans, etc.) and proto house, electro, and techno.  A lot of the 90's clubs were run by 80's veterans and catered to the natural descendants (e.g me) of those 80's scenes.  But Industry was something different entirely.  As the city cracked down on outdoor raves, the parties moved indoors.  The club denizens didn't grow up with CFNY (which was purely a rock station by the mid-90's anyway), and weren't looking to dance to underground hits they might have heard on the radio.  Stories about bartenders getting grandfathered into DJ roles dry up, and expert mixers spinning purely electronic genres completely take over. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 32

The Ancient Methods Mix -- 49 minutes

This may have been the easiest mix I've ever made -- and it also may have been the most fun.

Cold steel industrial doesn't get any better than Ancient Methods, not now, not ever.  They can cave in chests with some of the roughest beats in the business, but if that's all they could do, their podcasts and DJ sets would become endurance contests rather quickly (it's hard to enjoy music when your ears are bleeding).  Plenty of Ancient Methods tracks contain several minutes of almost blissful restraint, almost lulling you into complacency with hypnotizing bass lines and clanging percussion buried deep in the mix.  That's what they use to bring you down in their sets before dropping the hammer once again.  Their tracks and mixes ebb and flow and coast and soar like no other.

It so happens that I had been listening to a few all-Basic Channel mixes during the week that Ancient Methods' "A Collection Of Ancient Airs" compilation dropped.  From there, making the mix itself was nearly effortless.  With material this good, anybody can sound like a genius.  I was having so much fun that I couldn't help but pad the mix with a few like sounding tracks.


Monday, July 04, 2016

Three brilliantly esoteric articles

I'm posting this a week late, but all three of these articles are essentially time-insensitive and remain just as great:

First off, Philip Sherburne put forth an epic takedown on ... the sorry state of whistling in pop music?  This is the most complete treatment of a minor (and undoubtedly passing) trend in chart pop.  My question is, where does all this fit into the recent trend of remixes of folk/acoustic songs getting the dance music remix treatments, like this for example?  Both involve blending styles that don't ordinarily belong together, and rely heavily on the novelty element.

On the same day for Pitchfork, Christina Lee wrote about the life and tragic murder of Atlanta's DJ Nando.   By the end of this inspiring article, you'll be convinced that Nando was the greatest unsung DJ of this generation.  Somehow I had never though about payola being such a major force in strip club programming, but it makes perfect sense.

Finally, Michaelangelo Matos compiled a stunning overview of DJ mixtapes in America.  You'd think that this story had been told a thousand times already, considering how important DJ mixes are to the culture, and yet I've never read anything even remotely like it.  This article helps fill what seems like a fundamental unwritten gap in the history of electronic music history.  There are many familiar names and stories for the longtime fan who remembers buying/copying/"acquiring" these mixes, but there are plenty of obscurities too (I knew maybe -- maybe -- half of this stuff).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 31

Passenger must verifty and reconfirm the mix (short songs mix) -- 53 minutes

The original idea was for a mix of short, bizarre songs crammed together into a blitz of sensory overload.  After discovering that I didn't have enough music for that sort of mix (where did I leave that "45 Seconds Of..." compilation again??) it turned into a mix of noise, ambient and off-kilter funky electronic tracks, with an emphasis on short running times and fast transitions.