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.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"Islamists" attack Radiohead fans in Istanbul

An unusual incident occured in an Istanbul record shop this past Friday, where a number of loud and opinionated individuals, assumed to be young men in their 20's, 30's, 40's, or 50's, caused a disturbance during a listening party for Radiohead's newest album.  

Major media outlets were quick to condemn their behaviour as a violent attack by "Islamists".  The event even captured the attention of the members of Radiohead, who were quick to criticize the incident by labeling it as an "act of violent intolerance" and stating that "our hearts go out to those attacked".  Fortunately, not every media outlet fell into the far too easy trap of blaming "Islamists" for the incident,but the overall journalistic trend was still, as a whole, somewhat disturbing.

In the immediate aftermath of such episodes, we have come to expect the usual gamut of reflexive, ill-thought out reactions, which often tend towards outright prejudice toward those accused of perpetrating the event.  But more recently, careful and reasoned analysis is becoming more common.  Following the horrible mass shooting in Orlando one week ago, many commentators were correct to discount the purported influence of the shooter's religion.  It is now widely seen as a purely homegrown American type of crime, seeing how it was carried out by a hateful, racist thug obsessed with guns and violence -- values that have become all too prevalent in American society.  Likewise, the recent mass shooting in Tel Aviv can be best explained via similarly relatable concepts that have become quotable buzzwords among the enlightened -- "frustration", "justice", "occupation", etc. -- instead of resorting to attacks on the suspects' ideologies or religion.  

That is why the reporting on the incident in Istanbul represents a disappointing step backwards in journalistic ethics.  Reporters were quick to condemn the actions of "Islamists" rather than a far more obvious culprit -- indie music fans.  Much like the discourse surrounding the Pulse nightclub shooting was quickly steered away from allegations of radicalism and toward the never more essential debate on gun laws in America, discussion about the Radiohead listening party incident has veered toward a condemnation of "Islamists" rather than a more timely debate about behaviour of entitled indie music fans.  

It is no secret that indie music fans have been known to express their opinions often in a rude, condescending, and even forceful manner.  In the same way that mass shootings have become as American as apple pie and college football, heated objection to the musical tastes of the "other" are as indie as ironic "I hate Pink Floyd" t-shirts and pretending to have lived in Brooklyn before it was cool.  Property damage, screamed threats, and broken merchandise at Istanbul's Velvet IndieGround shop should not be taken lightly, although one must keep in mind that the video footage available on the internet is of low quality and makes it difficult to discern exactly who or what instigated the incident.  This is not to excuse the means of expression by certain indie music fans, which can undoubtedly be boorish and annoying at times, and possibly even threatening.  But one should also appreciate that incidents like these are a natural reaction by an often marginalized sector of indie fans, born out of the frustration of seeing yet another overrated Radiohead album get fawned over by an adoring and insufficiently critical mainstream music press.   

The situation is complex, with plenty of blame to be placed on both sides.  It is true that the rhetoric spread by some indie fans is not conducive to constructive discourse, and can, on occasion, result in destructive behaviour that nonetheless recalls the DIY smash-the-system punk roots of many strains of indie rock.  However, we also cannot ignore the blatant provocations of indie music shops, with their listening parties dedicated to horrifically boring musical sacred cows who were never any good to begin with, who divert needed attention from more deserving artists. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Autechre, "elseq 1-5"

Joe Muggs' interview for RA is hands down the best Autechre interview I've ever read.  Hell, it's the best article of any kind about Autechre that I've read.  And their new album "elseq 1-5" is up there with the best work of their career.

Rather than delving into intense theoretical discussions about the duo's "aesthetic" or delving into the minutiae of how their album was made, the interview turns into the long awaited oral history of the mid-90's "Artificial Intelligence" scene, or rather, the complete lack of a cohesive scene (this is discussed in detail in the interview).

They talk about the old days (not always in a positive light), how programming their music is like a form of artificial intelligence (where the computer runs smart algorithms that predict what their creator wants -- Markov chains make a cameo appearance here), the concept behind releasing a four hour album (you can't exactly plop 20-minute tracks into the middle of a single album without ruining the flow), the possibility working with hip-hop artists (never say never, but it's almost inconceivable that it hasn't happened by now, "Envane" was almost twenty (!) years ago, and I guess their remix of Sensational Meets Kouhei doesn't count?) and so much more, and it's all a must-read.  

Before discussing the new album, let's revisit the 90's, with Sean Booth quoted at length:

The last time we did that [making music aimed at Warp] was Amber [1994]. We thought we'd be a pure fringe act when we signed, but Incunabula [1993] sold like hot cakes, went to indie number one, and Warp were like, "You've got to follow that up, you need to do another album in six months." We went, [shrugs], "Oh, OK," and did this very Warp record for them. Then we never did that again. When we gave them Tri Rep I had half a mind that they were going to say, "Oh, it's not the same, we can't have this." But they went for it, and that gave us the confidence to do what we really wanted, so on Chiastic [Chiastic Slide, 1997] we went all out to be as weird as possible. I think that's when quite a few people jumped ship.

This is the kind of information we'd have killed to have in the 90's (or even five years ago), it might have settled a whole load of debates a lot more quickly.  I've never heard "Amber" as a Warp album, for me it's a lush, encapsulating listen in a way that none of the Artificial Intelligence albums were. But the process of gaining their record label's confidence and trust was all leading to something, and that something was "Chiastic Slide", i.e. Autechre doing what they really wanted to do.

The people who jumped ship with "Chiastic Slide" were back on in time for "LP5" and the peak of IDM's highbrow popularity, but that's for another time.  But "Chiastic Slide" was a challenging album because it relied more heavily on repetition than anything else they'd done to that point.  But that was precisely the reason why I loved it so much (and still do). 

Without having to worry about fitting their ideas into a semi-palatable album type of format, Autechre have finally come back around to making another "Chiastic Slide".  Five of them in fact.  For much of the past decade plus, Autechre records were etudes in rhythmic construction.  Repetition was largely replaced by intricacy.  But on "elseq 1-5", the repetition is finally back in earnest.  Melodically, it's full of echoes from the past -- the heavy reverb of "Quaristice" and "Oversteps", the robotic funk of "Tri Repetae", the ghostly ambience of "Amber", and too many more to mention.  There is no fear of recycling sounds from the past.  Any and all backtracking is sacrificed at the altar of repetition, stretching their ideas well past the ten and even the twenty minute mark in a number of instances.  It's dense, hypnotic, and immersive.  Somehow it seems to fly by much faster than a four hour album should.  Only the second part, dominated by the longest track in the collection (the 27-minute "elyc6 0nset") could use some serious editing, but just about everything else is unmissable.  

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 30

"The single mode mixes reviewed in Chapter 1 were relatively simple" -- 66 minutes

There was no particular grand theme to this mix, just a set of relaxing, late night listening across various genres.  There are some acoustic, unplugged style songs, epic remixes of mid-90's electronica, and one of my very favourite Leonard Cohen songs.  Nothing was planned in advance.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The weird, weird 90's -- Len and Prince

Stereogum spent their week digging through the strange idiosyncrasies of the 90's.  As time passes, the 90's look more and more like the biggest outlier in music industry history. Sales and profits were at a never to be repeated all time high, thanks to overpriced CD's nearly monopolizing the format and consumption of music.  Artists that sold out arenas in the 70's and 80's took the decade off (with few exceptions such as the Rolling Stones and U2), reformed or reconnected with their audience in the 00's and went right back to selling out arenas and stadiums again.  The list goes on.

This conversation with Len's Marc Costanzo is the most honest and refreshing interviews I've seen in a while. We like to think of musicians as creative geniuses who go to great lengths to cultivate their art. But sometimes great songs just happen by complete fluke.  Constanzo gets it, he's under absolutely no illusions about his place in the music business.  He's an ordinary guy who liked writing music and getting wasted with his friends, and not necessarily in that order.  He wrote "Steal My Sunshine" (helped by one of the best ever uses of sampling to really make a pop hit click) and couldn't be more humble about the complete unpredictability of it all.  No marketing strategist could have come up with this path to success.  Nothing could have been planned, not the inspiration for the song (the atmosphere at a rave), not the unthinkable sums of money given to them for filming the video (most of it spent on flying himself and his friends to Daytona to wreck shit while also wrecking their brain cells, filming everything as they went), and not the bonkers (but commendable) decision to fuck off and head home in the middle of their 200-date world tour because they were tired of being stars.

He doesn't complain about getting labeled a one hit wonder whose art wasn't appreciated in its time.  In fact it's the opposite -- "when it goes that fast off one single, and you have no other singles -- we knew there was no other single.  We were surprised there was even one single."  It feels like almost anybody could have written this, one of the best singles of the past 25 years.  Maybe anybody could have, but Constanzo actually did it.  Sometimes that's enough.  Sometimes it's not about being the most talented, or the most consistent, or the most business savvy, it's about dumb luck timing and doing one good thing before anyone else thinks of it.


So how did Len fall ass backwards into one of the most fondly remembered singles of the decade, and the infinitely more ... everything really ... Prince struggle to sell records after 1991?

I've been thinking about this a lot since Prince's death last month. I'd long since assumed that Prince's commercial appeal went downhill for the same reasons that other 80's mega-icons' careers did -- failure to adapt his music to the changing tastes of music fans.  Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna all remained superstars until 1991-1992.  Each new music video was an event, and their albums still sold well.  By 1995, they all seemed like relics from a long forgotten time.  In Prince's case, he lost the rock crowd because his glitzy persona and outlandish costumes and stage performances seemed shallow next to the dour seriousness of 90's grunge and alt-rock.  He lost the hip-hip and R&B crowds because he never really embraced hip hop, and insisted on forcing 20 minute funk jams down people's throats rather than court the R&B fans that adored him in the 80's.

Is that really correct however?  Listening again to "Gett Off", "Cream", and "Diamonds and Pearls", I was reminded of not only how massive those songs were on video music channels and radio, but also of how much they sounded like the R&B and New Jack Swing that remained popular well into the mid-90's.  He recorded plenty of R&B cuts later in the decade that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Boyz II Men album.  Prince was one of the most versatile superstars ever -- could he really have failed to recognize and adapt to the changing tastes of his fans?

This 1998 interview with Prince (in his "The Artist" phase) from BET finds him speaking with a clear head about his problems with Warners, in language that sounds far more reasonable today than it did then.  He spoke of wanting to market his music directly to his fans via the internet.  Who else had that kind of foresight in the 90's?  He spoke passionately about corporations increasing their control over him and his art, and needing to break with his record company (and his past identity!) in order to harness his creative potential.  At the time many people thought he was setting fire to his career and biting the hand that fed him, but in a post-Occupy world, his sentiments would be met with a lot more sympathy.

This wonderful oral history of Prince in the 90's, from David Brown writing in Rolling Stone, gets closest to the truth.  Prince's fans didn't get bored of him and start listening to G-funk instead.  Rather, he stopped trying to market himself (and cut off contact with record companies and managers that would have been happy to do it for him) and dared his fans to follow his lead.  He recorded albums with women he picked up at clubs.  He eschewed most of his best known hits and channeled his inner James Brown, becoming a ruthlessly strict bandleader.  Writing "SLAVE" on his forehead and changing his name to a symbol was kind of the last straw. He could have been ghostwriting slow jams for every major R&B act in the 90's, but he no longer wanted that kind of career.  His anti-corporate actions prevented people from appreciating his music based on its merit alone.  Casual fans could have taken to his new material, but Prince the man had become too much of an oddball to take seriously.  It would actually be another ten years before he became comfortable with his legacy and went back to playing all his old hits again.  

Friday, May 13, 2016

Stone Roses, "All For One"; Radiohead, "Daydreaming"

AKA two big comebacks that broke the internet ... with cynicism and snark!  To the music!

The first new Stone Roses track in twenty years is lovably stupid, and contrary to most of the reactions I've seen, it's very difficult to hate.  If a bunch of teenagers followed up their "Battle of the Bands" upset win with a simplistic song about positivity for their upcoming graduation ceremony, it might sound like "All For One".  It's an absurdly simple song that sounds like it was written in less than ten minutes, but perhaps that's the point.  Remember this?  Songs like these are too dumb and innocent to truly hate.

Granted, the Roses are supposed to be 50-something professionals with a century of music biz experience between them, and instead of trying to live up to their legacy, they took the quickest route to writing a new sing along for their festival appearances this summer.  Of course they could have done better.

On the other hand, after more than twenty five years, the Stone Roses finally sound almost exactly like the La's!  I never could hear the ressemblance back in the day, even between "Sally Cinnamon"-era Roses.  Tell me that "All For One"doesn't capture the banal jauntiness of The La's "IOU"!

Those first ten seconds (the guitar fade in, that first unmistakable John Squire lick) sure had people anticipating another "I Wanna Be Adored", didn't it?

On the bright side, at least the Roses had the good sense to get to the point with their new song -- after the first thirty seconds, you've heard all the song has to offer and can pretty much fill in the next three minutes in your head.  On the other hand, Radiohead's "Daydreaming" starts with a few intruiging sounds and textures that could potentially go somewhere but ends up building to absolutely nothing that's the least bit interesting.  Hey, it's a microcosm of Radiohead's entire career!

In the video, Thom Yorke walks around doing nothing.  He walks through a laundromat and walks up a snow covered hill, to name just two examples.  Somebody please hold on to me before I fall off the edge of my seat!  One of many takeaways from Prince's death is the lost art of rock stars carrying themselves like rock stars.  Prince never looked like a slob in public, and he didn't take promo shots for his albums that looked like black and white mug shots. Actually, even common criminals spend more on hair care than Radiohead. Replace comotose Thom Yorke in this video with any random down on his luck goof and what do you get?  You get exactly the same turd of a video.