Sunday, January 15, 2017

40 for 40 - the reveal

I promised to publish this list over two years ago, and then ... nothing.

Everything on the list was finalized on schedule, but I struggled coming up with ideas for how to present it.  I blanched at the idea of churning out another eight thousand word tribute.  Eventually I hit on the idea of splitting the list into categories.  As I wrote about previously, it wouldn't be a list of my forty all time favourite songs and so not every song could be summed up in a paragraph explaining why it was and is the best thing from this or that year.  Of course many of them are all-time favourites, but just as many were great songs that were linked to memories -- early childhood memories, sad memories, joyous memories -- that are important symbols or checkpoints within the overall narrative (i.e my life).  I decided on the categories two years ago, and then ... nothing.

This is my one thousandth published post on this blog.  This big round number was looming and I needed something big.  The post will never live up to the hype, but that that's OK.

THE PLAYLIST 




THE LIST 

The songs in the playlist are listed in the approximate order that they "earned" their spot on the 40 for 40 -- not the order they were released and not always the order in which I first heard them.

Hues Corporation, Rock the Boat
Donna Summer, Hot Stuff
Blondie, Heart of Glass
Toto, Africa
Duran Duran, The Reflex
Don McLean, American Pie
Def Leppard, Pour Some Sugar on Me
Neneh Cherry, Buffalo Stance
Nine Inch Nails, Down In It
Depeche Mode, Enjoy the Silence

Stone Roses, Fools Gold
Spiritualized, Anyway That You Want Me
The Orb, A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules From the Center of the Ultraworld (Peel Sessions Version)
Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart
Beethoven's 9th Symphony
James, Laid
Kim Carnes, Bette Davis Eyes
ABBA, Dancing Queen
Pulp, Pink Glove
Orbital, Belfast

Drugstore, Accelerate
Adorable, Sunshine Smile
Saint Etienne, He's on the Phone
My Bloody Valentine, When You Sleep
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express
Spice Girls, 2 Become 1
Godspeed You Black Emperor, BBF3
Mogwai, Mogwai Fear Satan
Primal Scream, Swastika Eyes
Fennesz, A Year In a Minute

Vainqueur, Elevations I (Version 3)
Philippe Cam, Karine
Nelly, Hot in Herre
Gordon Lightfoot, If You Could Read My Mind
Sigur Ros, Glosoli (from HEIMA)
Plastikman, Mind In Rewind
Animal Collective, The Purple Bottle
M83, Don't Save Us From the Flames
Jesu, Silver
Beach House, Irene


THE CATEGORIES

These categories are fluid.  Many of the songs could have been placed in two or more different categories.  They are not meant as rigid labels, so think of them mainly as a convenient way of breaking up the list into manageable parts.

The 70's

I have very few memories of the 70's.  In the 70's there was disco dancing in the basement and a lot of songs in heavy vinyl rotation.  When I think of the 70's -- actually living in the 70's as a five year old -- I think of these songs:

Hues Corporation, Rock the Boat
Donna Summer, Hot Stuff
Blondie, Heart of Glass


All time faves (80's)

The 80's for me were about singles, not albums.  "Africa" was my favourite song for literally about two years.   Def Leppard were largely responsible for pulling me back into music after a couple of lost years in the late 80's.

Toto, Africa
Def Leppard, Pour Some Sugar on Me
Neneh Cherry, Buffalo Stance
Kim Carnes, Bette Davis Eyes


Inescapable 80's (rated much lower by me now)

Duran Duran were inescapably huge and "American Pie" was a summer camp essential, the definitive homerian epic that transcended the age gap for anyone under 25 at the time.

Duran Duran, The Reflex
Don McLean, American Pie


I heard them and nothing would ever be the same

Some songs create something where there was once nothing.  There was nothing in my life that could have prepared me for hearing a twenty minute track by The Orb after midnight on the weekend, no prototypes of this music in my house when I was growing up, no cool older brother into Eno or modern classical.

Nine Inch Nails, Down In It
Spiritualized, Anyway That You Want Me
The Orb, A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules From the Center of the Ultraworld (Peel Sessions Version)


90's staples

These four bands stood out in four completely different mini-eras in the 90's.  There was nearly no overlap in my superfandom for each..

Stone Roses, Fools Gold
Spice Girls, 2 Become 1
Godspeed You Black Emperor, BBF3
Pulp, Pink Glove


90's faves that still stop me in my tracks every time

"Accelerate" has been my go-to, no time to think about it pick for the best song of the 90's for a while.  #2 would probably be Depeche, and #3 on any given day could be "Laid".

Depeche Mode, Enjoy the Silence
Drugstore, Accelerate
James, Laid


Faves that seem to transcend eras, with lyrics that cut to the bone

I find it hard to idolize Ian Curtis the way I used to, partly due to his wife Deborah's thoughtful portrait of the talented, yet horribly flawed and selfish genius.  "If You Could Read My Mind" may be the finest song lyric ever written.

Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart
Gordon Lightfoot, If You Could Read My Mind


Will always be its own category

Beethoven's 9th Symphony



Perfect songs of the 70's

ABBA were perfect pop long before the term was invented, and "Dancing Queen" is too precious, too pristine, too immaculately structured to be duplicated ever again.  "Trans Europe Express" is the oracle of modern music, it foretold the coming of several new genres, and we'll never understand exactly what they saw that regular mortals couldn't.

ABBA, Dancing Queen
Kraftwerk, Trans Europe Express


Beautiful Dance music

Dancing and getting choked up at the same time

Orbital, Belfast
Saint Etienne, He's on the Phone


Shoegaze goes pop

Noise and sugar.

Adorable, Sunshine Smile
My Bloody Valentine, When You Sleep


Noise and chaos

Noise without the sugar.

Mogwai, Mogwai Fear Satan
Primal Scream, Swastika Eyes


The vinyl era

In the early 00's I dropped more cash on music than ever before.  A lot of that went towards new and used vinyl, and I became enamoured with how vinyl sounded compared to the often muddy and compressed sound of CD's.  "Elevations" and "Karine" demand to be heard on vinyl.  In the meantime, I became completely obsessed with finding music with the density, warmth, and sly nods to pop that Fennesz brought to his recordings.

Fennesz, A Year In a Minute
Vainqueur, Elevations I (Version 3)
Philippe Cam, Karine


Mood music

"Hot In Herre" seemed to soundtrack almost every night out for a couple of years.  Afterwards, things got darker and I spent a lot of time in the suburbs of Berlin, watching the city from the train with Plastikman in my ears.

Nelly, Hot in Herre
Plastikman, Mind In Rewind


Legends of our time

These two bands survived the transition to the "post-music store" era intact.  They were two of the very few.  In fact, I ended up liking both of them a lot more.

M83, Don't Save Us From the Flames
Sigur Ros, Glosoli (from HEIMA)


Listened to death

The songs I spun the most over the final 7-8 years of the 40.

Animal Collective, The Purple Bottle
Jesu, Silver
Beach House, Irene

Friday, December 30, 2016

George Michael, "Father Figure"

George Michael left us far too soon last week, the latest in an annus horribilis for musician deaths that can't end soon enough.  The emotional response seemed stronger in the UK and Europe, maybe in part because of the horrible irony of the composer of "Last Christmas" passing away on Christmas day.  It is one of the most played holiday songs in the UK in the past thirty years, but never meant a thing in North America.

And yet, many North Americans have largely forgotten how much of a phenomenon the "Faith" album was.  Oddly enough, George Michael's was a far bigger star in the UK and Europe both in the Wham years (pre-1986) and the post-"Faith" years ("Listen Without Prejudice, his late-90's comeback "Older").  But during those inbetween years 1987-1989, "Faith" was massive in the US, with an almost unprecedented six top five singles from the album, including four number one hits (versus none in the UK).  It was the best selling album in the US in 1988, for comparison, Michael Jackson's "Bad" was released two months earlier and was a phenomenon unto itself.  Singles from both albums dominated the charts for two years, and "Bad" set a record that still stands (challenged but not beaten recently by Katy Perry) with five consecutive number one singles from the same album.  "Bad" was also one of the best selling albums (worldwide) ever, but at its peak in 1988, it was outsold by "Faith", at least in the US.  This is the kind of rarefied company George Michael kept at the tail end of the 80's.  

I was haunted by "Father Figure" at the time.  In one sense it was almost intolerably sexy, backed by a perfect video accompaniment featuring Michael looking unspeakably cool in leather underneath impeccable lighting and shadow.  The model that appeared in the video had a pristine body that was shot from the most titillating angles.  The whole presentation was intimidating, and it may have thrown off my perception of realistic love and seduction was for years afterward.  In another sense, the song and video were creepy and even frightening.  Michael falls in love with a woman and stalks her relentlessly, lurking in dark corners, walking a fine line between voyeurism and possible criminal behaviour.  The music is uncharacteristically spooky and atmospheric for a number one pop smash, and that was no accident.  In his own "When Doves Cry" moment of inspiration, "Father Figure" was meant to be a mid-tempo rock number but Michael found that he loved the strange empty spaces left behind when he dropped many of the recorded tracks from the final mix.  He was right -- less was more and erasing half of the song made it ten times as good.   

For whatever reasons, Billboard number ones of 1988 were dominated by soft rock ballads with long running times (between five and six minutes).  I can't recall any edited versions made for the radio.  You might as well point to George Michael (and Michael Jackson, who was of course famous for his epic videos and for producing extended video versions of his songs) as the driving force behind this -- both "Father Figure" and "One More Try" run nearly six minutes.   

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Top ten albums of 2016 (with extended prelude)

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about the time I went to Soundscapes on College St in October 2003.  I would soon be travelling to Berlin for an experiment for a few weeks (which turned into two months) and wanted to pick up some new releases on CD for the trip.  I bought "Closer" by Plastikman, "Waiting for the Moon" by Tindersticks, "Echoes" by The Rapture, and at least one other album that I can't recall but very likely was Polmo Polpo's "Like Hearts Swelling".  Dropping money on four new releases in a day was unusual for me, and I even surprised myself with my willingness to shell out so much money for four new albums that I mostly hadn't yet heard.  I was buying them based on the reliability and consistency of artists I'd been following for a decade (Plastikman, Tindersticks) and the relentless hype machine that had made certain acts very difficult to ignore in 2003 (The Rapture).

It was quite the haul of new music -- an historically great haul for me, actually.  I walked away with my #2 and #6 albums of the 00's, my #2 album of 2003, and an album by the Rapture (well, nobody's perfect, although some leading music publications would have disagreed at the time).  I'd been going to music stores and buying expensive CD's, many of them imports by my favourite UK bands, for nearly a decade.  I lived and worked within walking distance of eight or so music stores that I visited regularly, and hardly two or three days would pass without going to at least one of them.  This was how I kept abreast of new releases, bought music magazines, and generally absorbed nearly everything I was learning about music.  This was the way it was done, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.  And based on that amazing bunch of new CD's I'd just bought, which would soon be packed in my CD wallet and taken with me to Germany along with my indispensable CD walkman, this beautiful ritual of frequenting music shops would undoubtedly be with me for the foreseeable future.

But less than one year later, everything had changed in ways I never would have predicted.  Seemingly in the blink of an eye, my main source of music and music news shifted online.  Printed music magazines were replaced by online publications and message boards.  I'd been a Napster and then a Kazaa user for a few years, but still previewed and purchased nearly all my music from physical shops.  Soulseek tipped the scales in the other direction.  Suddenly I found myself keeping up with a LOT more new music -- several times as much give or take.  And I know I'm not alone in believing that 2003-4 was the tipping point for a grand shift towards the true explosion of music on the internet, that would in a short time lead toward streaming (Youtube, Pandora, Spotify, etc.), mp3 blogs, yousendit, a rapidly expanding array of other filesharing and downloading options, and the rapid decline of music stores.  That large purchase at Soundscapes was not only my best single haul of new releases, it was also my last, at least in Toronto.  2004 wasn't a great year for music, but it was transformative.  My top ten for the year was filled with artists that I hadn't even heard of one year earlier.

2016 is feeling like another transformative year for me.  I've more or less stopped following any music publication, physical or online, with any sort of consistency.  The same goes for message boards, twitter feeds, or other types of social media.  I still heard tons of new music this year -- a lot more than in most years -- but it's becoming increasingly random.  Most often, I feel like music finds me, rather than the other way around.  If I happen to be reading about something, I know enough about what I like and don't like to be able to decide whether I'm interested in hearing it or not.  But it also means that the days of obsessing over specific artists, and following every move in their careers, may be finally over.  As a consequence, I feel less attached to the music than I once did.  With each passing year, the should-be great albums (top 2-3 of the year) don't seem as great as they once did.

I still love MUSIC as much as ever, don't get me wrong.  I love hearing a song on the radio for the first time in years and surprising myself by still being able to sing along with the chorus.  It's one of the best feelings in the world.  I love reconnecting with old gems in my collections, especially through mixes.  I love commuting to work with music keeping me company the entire way -- I've been doing this for over 25 years (!) nearly without interruption, the routes and the music playing technologies have changed, but the experience is undiminished.  I love waking up to the radio every morning.  I loved driving through the US and Canada for hours this summer and sampling pop radio across different provinces and states -- sure, they all play the same Drake songs three times per hour, but that's a different issue, the point is that I still like plenty of chart pop. I still love reading a good interview or album review and appreciate good music writing more than ever.  It's in increasingly short supply these days.  And that's precisely my point, I love MUSIC, but largely don't enjoy FOLLOWING music anymore.

We live in difficult times, politically, or at least that's what music journalists have been telling me.  The music they value is expected to reflect the goings on in the world around them.  Except that it's not my world anymore.  I don't live in the US and their struggle isn't my struggle.  The Canada I used to know looks increasingly foreign from afar.  I can relate to the sentiments but there's no personal connection.  If music reflects politics, and I no longer have any direct stake in the politics, then I no longer have any stake in the music either.  But more importantly, I never wanted or expected political commentary from the music I like.  It's never been key to my listening experience.

In 2004, there was talk about how increased listening options via internet would create divisions between groups of fans and dilute consensus.  They said there would never be another monoculture, artists as transcendent as Michael Jackson would never come along ever again.  That turned out to not be true.  But the increased politicization of music has resulted in more consensus than I've ever seen in my adult life.  Every end-year list takes the same angle toward the exact same albums.  Even the token "electronic" albums, like Nicolas Jaar's snoozer "Sirens", are seemingly chosen because they're albums with an important message that we shouldn't ignore. 

I'm sure I'll catch hell for it, but the lionization of Beyonce is rockism on a scale just as bad as anything the former poptimists used to complain about.  People used to whine that the hippies grew up, moved to the suburbs, and became boring conservatives just like their parents.  Music journalism is now eating its tail too, as pop music criticism has gone the way of the stodgy boomer era rock music writing that they sought to replace.  Rockism was never about favouring rock music over other genres.  It was, and is about favouring authenticity over all other traits.  Playing your own instruments and writing your own music was considered authentic.  Not playing and writing music was less authentic and made you less of an artist.  Icons from the 60's and 70's released meaningful songs and lyrics that were more profound than any silly pop song you'd hear on the radio.  Fast forward to today, where Beyonce made her most socially conscious album and it was hailed as the consensus Album of the Year.  The same people who would decry "Rumours", "Tunnel of Love", and "Blood on the Tracks" as the self-centred ramblings of smug millionaires are falling over themselves to praise Beyonce's emotional honesty in songs like "Hold Up".

After that long intro, I don't think anyone wants to sit through another ten paragraphs about the year's best albums.  However, we still have a bunch of great albums to salute, so let's do this in haiku form.

Honourable mentions

Gunnar Haslam, Lebesgue Measure, L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems)


Another clone of
Polygon Window, I can't 
get enough of them



The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (History Always Favours the Winners)


Like Lord of the Rings
Waiting to give out Oscar
For the last chapter



Matt Elliott, The Calm Before (Ici D'Ailleurs)


Not a great album
But words fail for opener
Crushing and Lonely



TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2016

10.  Enitokwa, "2069" (non entertainment research)


Comeback album of
calming strangeness could only
Come from a recluse



9.  Hieroglyphic Being, "The Disco's of Imhotep" (Technicolour)


Compare with Actress
Less funky but more rooted
In roughened techno



8.  Marsen Jules, "Shadows in Time" (Oktaf)


Hundreds of versions
Exist, evaporated
To nameless disk drives



7.  Xiu Xiu, "Plays the Music of Twin Peaks" (Polyvinyl Record Company)


Never watched Twin Peaks
But was sucked into Xiu Xiu's
Strange unsettling world



6.  PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" (Island Records)



Bluesy squawks, crooning
Choruses with PJ's best 
Ever ensemble



5. D. Glare, "68 Samples At 68 BPM For Phased Heads" (Opal Tapes)


Like assembling a
Great DJ mix from nothing
But screams, clanks, and whirs



4.  Autechre, "Elseq 1-5" (Warp Records)




Whirring with details
Gulping loops but who bet on 
Five hours worth of it?  



3.  Tape Loop Orchestra, "The Invisibles" (Other Ideas)


Dense and engulfing
Building to satisfying
Side long conclusions



2.  Eluvium, "False Readings On" (Temporary Residence Limited)


Dead souls crying out
Beyond the ambient fuzz
Head swimming again



1.  Moderat, "III" (Monkeytown Records)


Electronic pop
Rarely so smooth, soulful, or
This professional

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 35

"I often stand on the boardwalk and stare at the mix and sometimes I marvel I made it" -- 99 minutes

This one started out as a more chilled out sequel to the 90's compilations mix, but turned into something quite different.  This does feature tracks from compilations I hadn't heard in ages, but it became a not quite ambient mix (i.e. ambient music punctuated by gut punch rhythms to keep the mood from getting too chilled) with a 140+ BPM coda that somehow worked (at least, I hope it did),


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2016

This list is always my favourite part of the year-end round up.  No pressure, no rankings, no trying to break down what it all means.  There's nothing to it but great music!  As always, these are listed in approximate chronological order of release.
 
DJ Nobu, Bunker Podcast 117 (January 26)

The first mix on the list also happens to be the best by miles and miles.  It's seventy minutes of dancefloor slaying deep as fuck no nonsense techno, mixed as seamlessly as any set you'll hear this year or in any other.


Samuel Kerridge, XLR8R Podcast 425 (February 9)

Bridging the gap between industrial-edged noise and warped techno, believe him when Kerridge says that it's not something that'll fly in most clubs at 4 AM.  The same could be said for his own music, so if you dig the mix, you'll want to hear the album and vice versa.


Regis, The Boys are Here (The Blackest Ever Black) (March 30)

There's a relaxed, home movie quality to this set that you simply never hear from techno mixes. Regis dialed down his typical white-knuckle intensity and knocked out a set that comes off like a personal influences mix that was meant to be circulated only among close friends and intended for bedroom listening.


Internazionale, Secret Thirteen Mix 188 (May 15)

Secret Thirteen had a great year yet again, but this mix of spooky ambiance, synth pop oddities, and mechanized techno by Internazionale was my favourite (narrowly edging out excellent mixes by JK Flesh, Nite Fields, and a few others that are well worth the listen).


Conforce, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 173 (June 5)

This epic mix takes it's time getting off the ground, but that's the point -- the beatless first hour lulls you into submission and strangely enough does a wonderful job of setting up the blissful headnodding beats of the second hour.


Volte-Face, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 174 (June 20)

Yet another epic from Electric Deluxe, spanning forty years of techno, Krautrock, and experimental music.  Plus my favourite Billy Idol song.


Objekt, Kern vol. 3 (July 8)

Once in a while, something comes along that aims to deconstruct the typical boundaries of mixes altogether.  The famous "Grandfather Paradox" mix is often my go-to example of that, and Objekt's bold and innovative mix for Tresor's Kern series has certainly forced its way into the discussion. You might expect that a mix with nearly forty tracks in only 76 minutes would be a madcap schizophrenic dash, but the mood somehow stays relaxed throughout, selecting from the deepest of deep cuts and ignoring a number of rhythmic conventions along the way.


Bill Brewster, Record Replay 001 (September 8)

Are you starting a new mix series where you send a DJ to a used vinyl shop and ask him to make a mix out of whatever he can buy with only ten pounds in total?  Yeah, that's a task that couldn't be more well suited to Bill Brewster's talents.


Dan Selzer, Lodown magazine Monday mixtape, New York Endless Another Mix Pt. 1 (September 11)

When you listen to this mix very closely, it becomes apparent that Selzer isn't doing anything remotely complicated with his mixing or transitions.  What he's doing is even more impressive -- making a perfect selection of tracks and leading one perfectly into the next, i.e. the only true task required of a DJ.  And of course, this mix isn't meant to be heard "closely", it's meant to be danced to, and for that it's nearly impossible to resist.


John Twells, FACT Focus Mix 7, Halloween rap special  (October 26)

This mindbending mix of tracks based upon an unusual theme (hip hop tracks that sample from horror movies) is why the FACT Focus series needs to exist and double or triple their output next year.


RVDS, Resident Advisor 547 (November 21)

This is mix #11, but I couldn't find a way to leave out this newly uploaded one from the always notable Resident Advisor podcast series.  The theme is "slow music", which in this case falls between electronic music you can't exactly dance to, and late night after party music that's a bit too energetic when all you really want to do it crash on the couch.   

Friday, December 09, 2016

Marc Spitz, "Poseur"

This is my second review this year of an autobiographical bildungsroman about an artist struggling to succeed in the music industry in New York City (the first being Moby's excellent autobiography).  In both cases, the city itself is the main character in the story, where a picture of a bygone city is captured in vivid detail during its transformation in the 1990's.  Both authors struggle to find their way in a fog of substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour, and depression.  There's even an odd bit of convergence of their stories, where Spitz backs off from dating a girl because she'd been linked to Moby, and even becomes paranoid about the techno star stealing his crushes.

Despite the many similarities, their writing styles couldn't be more different.  Moby is an amateur storyteller, albeit a very good one, who recounts almost everything with nostalgic colour.  Spitz (whose book was published in 2013) has carefully honed his hipsterism over time, worshipping at the altar of countless great writers.  He's always on the bubble between trying to write the next Great American Novel (or play) and infusing the spirit of Lester Bangs (and the rock and rock lifestyle to go along with it).  Luckily for him, he got to do a bit of both.  

Even though Moby was born just four years earlier than Spitz, he's part of a totally different generation.  Moby's NYC is firmly in the pre-gentrification era, it's closer to the Wild West than anything one would recognize today,  Spitz's experiences hit closer to home for me because he's from my generation musically.  Moby was reared on late 70's punk and new wave.  Born only four years later, Spitz is firmly an 80's kid, bred on the Smiths, Cure, and Depeche Mode.    

Two thirds of the book happens pre-SPIN magazine, before Spitz had a real career to speak of.  Nevertheless, these pre-1996 struggles and story after story "about nothing" are the highlights of the book.  It's usually not a pretty sight, but Spitz keeps the narrative moving with heavy doses of humour and self deprecation.  He's astonishingly self aware and constantly critical of what he did and how he treated other people.  In the hands of a less gifted writer he'd come off as insufferable.  Nothing is romanticized, and it's clear that he's not encouraging anyone to emulate his behaviour, but he managed to function and interact with a fascinating array of characters (and many celebs), despite his troubles there's plenty to be envious of.  His is a story well worth telling.  

His success as a writer and playwright only makes him more unhappy.  He gets to interview many of his musical heroes and even befriends some of them.  Eventually we reach the happy ending, although not the one that's implied on the back cover of the book, where he seems to find love and live happily ever after.  In fact he ends up alone, content to soak in the city while walking his dogs.  But he's happy.  There was never one moment where he "recovered" and stopped being a drug addict and a major pain in the ass to his employers.  In his telling, he did nothing other than what we all do naturally and without even trying.  He grew up, entered his mid-30's, and understood that he had to leave all that behind.  No more chasing after the next cool musical trend, no more partying like a rock star.  It's real, and it's relatable.       

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project"

We've reached the last month of the year and I've been revisiting a lot of what I've been listening to over the past eleven months.  That includes the albums that I've been overlooking, and PJ Harvey's most recent is certainly one of them.

When this album was released, I found it somewhat offputting and quickly filed it away.  Musically, it was undoubtedly PJ Harvey at or near the peak of her powers.  Her voice remains uncannily potent even after twenty five years as a major recording artist, conveying rage, defiance, and empathy in equal parts, better than just about any other songwriter in music.  The album also contains her bluesiest work in two decades, with "The Wheel" as a standout that comes closer to recreating the feel of "To Bring You My Live" more than anything she's recorded since.  There are no shortage of anthemic choruses, and the rage against the dying of the light (and Walmart sized corporations) that is "The Community of Hope" ranks among her very best album openers.

However, I couldn't get past the notion that PJ Harvey is trying a bit too hard to make a statement, resorting to political tourism and acting as a vehicle for the ambitions of others, rather than writing about what she truly feels in her heart.  "Let England Shake" looked at war and imperialism through the eyes of First World War soldiers, which only could have come from the mind of an English soul attuned with the beauty and serenity of the countryside.  And even then, nobody else possessed the genius to see things from that angle. On "The Hope Six Demolition Project", she's parachuted into complex political landscapes, and as an outsider, she's well-meaning but impressionable.  Her reportage lacks the nuance of "Let England Shake" and even many of her third person, character-driven writing (e.g. most of "Is This Desire").

Community leaders in Washington were supposedly upset at her labeling their neighbourhoods as shitholes on "The Community of Hope".  Lines like these come off like they were fed to her by local guides with a personal or political agenda.  PJ Harvey rarely throws out lines to shock just for the sake of it, she's been above those kind of gimmicky quote-bait lyrics for her entire career.   It concludes with "they're gonna put a Wal-Mart here" which actually works to bring the song to a rousing conclusion, but is also as subtle as Wal-Mart itself.  Corporations are running America and trampling on the poor -- how unoriginal and exactly the kind of giftwrapped story that can be easily fed to foreigners looking to confirm their biases about America.  Look, I'm not saying that sentiment isn't correct, but PJ Harvey used to always find ways to look beyond the completely obvious, either to peer into the souls of her subjects deeper that her contemporaries would dare to, or to say the obvious in a decidedly non-obvious and unique way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

Days later, and it's still sinking in. We've become uncomfortably used to dealing with the deaths of A-list musicians this year.  But much like David Bowie's death, the clues were all there, left behind in Cohen's words and music, and we somehow didn't see it coming.  How can somebody leave behind such great art in the face of death, and maintain this type of poise and dignity until the very end?  Us ordinary folks may never understand it.  

Cohen's remarkable final act is now well known.  His former manager stole most of his life savings, and Cohen embarked on a massive, years long set of world tours to rebuild his fortune.  If he hadn't nearly been bankrupted, does he live out a quiet retirement, releasing the occasional studio album to mild acclaim by a fanbase and critical establishment that had more or less forgotten about him when he became a recluse in the mid 90's?  Instead of that alternate reality, he not only rebuilt his retirement fund but also his musical legacy.  Would the obituaries have placed him second to Bob Dylan among rock era lyricists (I have seen this written over the past week) if that tour hadn't happened?  Would he have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 without the newfound sympathy and interest in his music in the wake of the management scandal?  He'd been eligible for fifteen years and people weren't exactly up in arms about why he hadn't been elected.  The Leonard Cohen of 2005 hadn't released an album in over a decade, and had been widely assumed to have fallen off the deep end due to his years long stint in a Buddhist monastery.  

But you also have to wonder about the toll that years of touring took out of the body of a man in his late 70's.  He was meditating for hours per day in the monastery well into his 60's, so he was obviously of sound mind and body.  You still have to think that without his misfortunes, he stays at home all these years and is still with us.  He unknowingly traded that for a pile of riches he'll never get to enjoy and a "legacy".  Cohen never cultivated any kind of legacy and only people who lionize the 27 Club give a crap about legacies as they pertain to unforeseen death, but without that tour, the headlines probably read "'Hallelujah' composer dies" rather than the stuff you've been reading this past week.

Speaking of "Hallelujah", what happens if John Cale doesn't overhaul the song in 1991 and turn it into the now familiar piano led ballad?  The radio staple from the "I'm Your Fan" compilation was REM's version of "First We Take Manhattan".  This was "Out of Time" era REM, who were suddenly one of the biggest acts in music and were played on the radio across multiple formats.  Before "The Future", and before "Closing Time" inexplicably became a minor hit at the height of grunge and the years long Boyz II Men/Mariah Carey run of pop chart domination, Leonard Cohen was a relic with a covers album, not too different from the "Red Hot and Blue" covers album of Cole Porter songs that was released the previous year.  U2's "Night and Day" was the "hit" song from that album, because like REM on "I'm Your Fan", they were the biggest stars on an album filled mostly with cult acts.  There was no comeback for Cole Porter, who had been dead for decades, but at the same time there wasn't exactly a rush to cover more of his songs from that point on.  

In 1991, John Cale and Leonard Cohen were nearly the same artist, "legacy" wise.  Their styles are nothing alike, but in stature, they could be grouped with the likes of Patti Smith as the kind of artists major labels used to keep around to increase their cred among the weekend paper reading intelligentsia.  Other musicians would cite them as an influence, which also was considered important when building a roster of artists for your label.  Both were arguably far bigger in Europe than in North America.  A few years later, and Cale was arguably still ahead -- Cohen made "The Future", but Cale reformed the Velvet Underground and toured the world.  Could anyone have predicted how their careers would diverge from then on?  Cale has remained active for the past two decades, Cohen disappeared for years but eventually became a megastar anyway, who would have known?

 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Moderat, Autarkic, Noga Erez live at Hangar 11, Tel Aviv

Toronto music fans will remember the Warehouse (later the Kool Haus), which hosted countless international acts in spite of having the worst acoustics of any major music venue in the city.  I personally found the sound to be OK if you were down near the front, but at the back, sound was lost throughout the cavernous expanse of the venue, choked off by the many pillars spread around, vanishing into the high ceilings.  Hangar 11 is a similar venue for mid sized (~ 2000 persons) concerts and conventions, located on some prized real estate in the ultra cool Tel Aviv port, and "features" even worse sound that the Kool Haus ever had, at least as far as I can remember.

Noga Erez's version of "soulful" vocals over bruising electronic beats and live percussion was pleasant enough, although it felt like a million similar opening acts I've seen at other live shows.  Autarkic, however, was the perfect warm up act for this crowd.  He's obviously studied his LCD Soundsystem records well, memorizing every last ironic lyric delivered with pithy nonchalance, and every bumping intro building into electronic freakouts.  It was hipster techno extraordinaire, delivered to an impressive variety of vintage Tel Aviv freakos and hipsters whose ages spanned over four decades as far as I could tell.  Even I was starting to get won over by his set, although I'd never listen to this stuff at home.

I'd waited seven years to finally see Moderat live (although I've seen Modeselektor twice) and nothing about their show was disappointing. Unfortunately, I can only dream of how much better it could have been in a venue with decent sound, where guitar techs know how to do proper sound checks and the bass doesn't sound distorted nearly beyond recognition.  During songs that were lighter on the bass it wasn't too distracting, but "Intruder" (to name the most egregious example) was completely ruined by the wall of watery, distorted bass vibrations that blanketed the song.

Nonetheless, their nearly two hour set couldn't have been executed any better.  The visuals started out in minimal black and white, casting the band in stunning black silhouttes.  Colour started seeping into the occasional song, mainly in monochrome, before "No. 22" closed the main set in a blitz of kaleidoscopic colour.  A good half of their set was built around the subtle, R&B tinged downtempo techno of their third album.  But "Milk" is an exception in their catalog, a ten minute slow building clubland epic that destroyed when played live, as you'd expect.  Their more expansive, breakdown filled songs ("Running", "No. 22") were the highlights for me, even though I've come around on their new album since the start of the year.  If the end of the trilogy really represents the end for Moderat as a studio project, their album stands as the best advertisement possible for forward thinking pop artists looking to collaborate with electronic music producers.  

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Kate Bush Story (BBC documentary)

There are certain strains of pop music that I have come to appreciate a lot more than I once did.  The music stands apart as more time passes and nothing that sounds even remotely like it comes along.
These notions are repeatedly highlighted in this short BBC documentary about the career of Kate Bush (there is also a two hour version that I haven't yet seen).  It's hard to imagine something as strange and adventurous as "Wuthering Heights" or "Running Up That Hill" on the radio today.  Even after countless listens to "Wuthering Heights" over the years, the first appearance of the chorus always catches me by surprise.  Her vocal acrobatics and complete lack of melodic repetition during the first verse throws off one's sense of timing.  One expects four lines with convenient rhyming, and a line or two in the bridge to build to the chorus in an obvious way.  "Wuthering Heights" begins as a love/hate letter to an old flame without any clear structure and then boom, the chorus descends as if parachuted in from a completely different song. 

At that point in time, Bush seemed to take her cues from the unpredictability of 70's prog music.  "Running Up that Hill" takes a different approach, anchored by a consistent, predictable rhythm while the verses churn along before sliding gracefully into the chorus. 

This is the first time I had seen clips of Bush's 1979 tour, and I was surprised to see how much of a complete performer she was.  Merging pop with high performance art was particularly visionary stuff for 1979, especially for an artist who had never toured before and had barely even sung on stage outside of her brother's pub band.  And it was yet another reminder that the days of recording artists who can retire from the road to make "challenging" albums for major labels are long gone.

The documentary doesn't reveal anything about Bush that her fans wouldn't already know.  The point is more about featuring celebrity musicians (Elton John, Brett Anderson, Tricky) and their musings on Bush's music.  The most interesting comment for me was from Tricky, who focused on the "breathing my mother in" line from "Breathing" and attributed his entire career to that line.  That one line neatly summarizes how he'd internalized his feelings about his mother (who he never knew) and tried to express them, one suffocating song at a time.  Another interesting comment came from Steve Coogan, who quoted a line that Byron once said of Keats -- "Keats writes about what he imagines, I write about what I lived".  Bush is like Keats in this instance, writing character driven songs because she felt they were more interesting than anything in her life.  However, Bush would go on to write a number of personal songs too.  And then it struck me that PJ Harvey, most notably over the past ten years, is the closest we might get to a second Kate Bush.  Harvey excels at writing personal songs too, and when she gets bored of that, she also writes songs about historial/literary characters with dark political overtones with unconventional musical arrangements.