Friday, November 21, 2014

“How About Reviewing Some Actual BOOKS, Prajer?”

A friend asks me why it’s been so long since I posted a book review that didn’t involve talking ducks. Have I stopped reading novels, biographies, etc?

Answer: I am indeed still reading novels, biographies, etc. Not as ravenously as I used to, mind you. For most of my life I was a sucker for the midlist. Now I find it difficult to work up much interest in that material. I’d rather skirt toward the marginal, which is easier to mull over. Unfortunately, giving the marginal its proper due takes more effort than the stuff everybody is already yakkin’ about.

Also: I think the internet has really changed the way books ought to be reviewed. I’m all for the “Deep Read” — I still take pleasure in long essays, and am keen to contribute what I can to the craft — but is that what we log on to read? An innovative site like Wink has me wondering.

Anyway, I’ve got further thoughts on the matter, which I hope to explore a bit. I’ve also got a ringette tournament in St. Catharines, so . . . you know where my priorities are at.

Not one talking duck in sight.

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Make Me A Real, Live Boy”: Artificial Gravity In Wolfenstein: The New Order

When last we — well, I, at any rate — saw William B.J. “Blaz” Blazkovicz, he looked like this:




Blaz was the “P” a player FPSed through Castle Wolfenstein 3D, stabbing/shooting/Gatling down pixelated Nazis and their dogs by the hundreds, before getting to this guy:


Castle Wolfenstein 3D was goofy, violent, and very satisfying fun — a completely addictive time-waster and a godsend to a single guy in his mid-20s who'd finally outgrown the video arcade (although the original cabinet Simpsons game still enticed on occasion). Wolfenstein was the gateway to video games as we now know them. It capitalizes on A) a player's curiosity to see what unpleasant surprises lie beyond the next corner, B) the innate fun of innocently shootin' up bad guys real good, C) the darkly ironic sense of humour that ought to attend both those impulses.

When iD announced a 20-years-later reprise of Blaz and Castle Wolfenstein, I was juiced. Globally victorious Nazis taking over the fizzy pop zeitgeist of the '60s? Blaz to the rescue? Count me in!

I'd missed subsequent additions to Blaz's epic of pixelated blood-letting, so I had no idea what to expect from this latest chapter. Boy oh boy, was I in for a shock: Blaz has an emotional life.

And he looks like this -- all the time.
What does the emotional life of a man who's personally perforated thousands of Nazis, including a cyborged Fuhrer, look like? Why, nothing so much as that of your run-of-the-mill aggrieved heterosexual adolescent male, who thinks the mere fact of his existence entitles him to the sexual affections of the dishiest dame in the room.

This complicates a (seemingly) mature man's enjoyment of the game, to say the least. Taking Blaz seriously is seriously wrong — it requires the player to take Nazis seriously, an even greater story-board miscalculation. The entire exercise is akin to sending Indiana Jones to give Oskar Schindler a little help. And outfitting the camp commandant with some Robocops, just to make things interesting.

Which is not to say I abandoned the game in a state of high moral dudgeon. It's a short game, finally, with some amusing elements. Rocketing Blaz to the moon captured perfectly the deranged goofiness of the original game. For a moment I was surprised and delighted to see the game's physics replaced by the physics one expects on the lunar surface. Of course the physics revert the second Blaz steps through an air-lock — I guess the Nazis invented artificial gravity.

But then this entire game is built on artificial gravity. I can't imagine Blaz's “poor me/what a crazy, mixed-up woyeld” mutterings tugging at anyone's heartstrings, but I could be wrong — when I see the lads attempting to catch the attention of my daughters, I'm continually struck by the distance of perspective I have on my own adolescence.

If nothing else, iD's missteps highlight for me what I generally expect from a game. Diversion, first and foremost. Secondly, emotional bonds that are light and exclusive to the world as rendered in the game — evocative, but not too evocative, of actual reality.

And really, by now the bottom line for game developers couldn't be clearer: aggrieved adolescent hetero males — no matter what their age — don't want to be reminded of their miserable plight. Easy-peasy . . . right?

Elsewhere: AV Club asks, Is it okay for Wolfenstein to turn Nazis into cartoons?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Super Duper Alice Cooper

I finally caught up with Sam Dunn's Super Duper Alice Cooper, a project I was very much looking forward to.

I had a renewed romance with Coop some years back, enjoying his snarly clowning around in recent offerings like Dirty Diamonds and Brutal Planet.

As for Dunn, I've followed him ever since he glued together Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Dunn's fresh-out-of-college shuck proved surprisingly effective in disarming his subjects, from drooling fans to long-in-the-tooth rock 'n' roll survivors. “I'm an anthropologist, looking into the anthropology of the Heavy Metal scene.” Sure, kid. Whatever you told the National Film Board to get your funding works for me, too.

Since then, Dunn's movies have traded on his unabashed joy for the genre and its artists, producing jolly, affirmational behind-the-scenes extravaganzas like Iron Maiden: Flight 666 and RUSH: Beyond The Lighted Stage. His enthusiasm is remarkably infectious: even the notoriously reticent Neal Peart chuckles and opens up to Dunn's camera. Super Duper offers Dunn, in conversation with Alice, while the cameras roll. Could this agreeable fanboy filmmaker entice new revelations and insights from the Coop's thin lips?

Short answer: beyond copping to a cocaine addiction in the '80s, no.

I should point out this is something of a departure for Dunn: it's a narrative doc, with no footage of Dunn-yacking-with-the-subject. But the film starts promisingly enough, with Vincent Furnier and the other original members of Alice Cooper narrating the sequence of the band's origins, while home movies and animated photos play out against a pastiche of vintage horror flicks, with particular emphasis on Dr. Jeckyl & Mr Hyde. Stylistically, Dunn is borrowing heavily from Julian Temple's The Filth & The Fury: A Sex Pistols Film — a commendable, if dangerous choice. Commendable because Temple's film is rousing entertainment; dangerous because comparisons quickly reveal the weaknesses in Dunn's movie.

Super Duper isn't the story of a band, it is the story of one man, Vincent Furnier, and how he survived a near half-century in showbiz. Consequently, though Dunn brings in a chorus of other voices to round out the narrative, the predominant voice is Furnier-Cooper's — he determines the framing of the narrative, and the others (including ex-bandmates) pretty much fall in line with it.
"And that's what really happened -- just ask anyone in this room."
Makes sense, really. It's the formula to success that manager Shep Gordon spotted and quckly honed to a razor's edge and weilded in his own self-interest: “Alice Cooper” The Persona is the meal-ticket; fence that off, and everything else becomes negotiable.

Now that would be an interesting angle to explore. But Alice Cooper is also Dunn's meal-ticket, so we get the expected narrative of addiction and recovery — or more accurately, the pernicious All-American Narrative Of Addiction And Recovery, which extolls the virtues of the Nuclear Family closing ranks behind The Rugged Individualist, cleaning him up and sending him back into the fray, to prove himself (and by extension them) Victorious Conqueror Of The Scene At Large. If Coop's version doesn't grab you, go watch Johnny Cash. Same story, different costumes.

I don't want to come down too hard on Dunn: these films take a heap of work, and the film I really want to watch is an almost impossible challenge, if only because Furnier and his handlers are too vigilant to allow it. But I'm hoping Dunn rediscovers some of his anthropology texts soon.

What were the social conditions that made Alice Cooper such a smash hit? Furnier says he owes his success to being the only one doing what he was doing when he was doing it — he saw a gap and filled it, basically. Even if we accept that claim at face value (and I don't) why was America ready to make this guy a superstar? When was America ready to make him a superstar?

Answer: 1973, with the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon coinciding with the release of Billion Dollar Babies, Alice Cooper's first album to go gold, and eventually platinum.
"Oh, I'm just warming up."
At the time, parents (like my own) saw clips of Alice Cooper's outrageous stage antics and thought this was the behaviour of a man in fact possessed by demons — a curious claim at a curious time. If an anthropologist were to do a little trawling through the counter-cultural penny-press of that era, focusing on the publications devoted to the occult and esoterica, he'd quickly discover that the long-haired kids saw clips of the president their parents had re-elected and believed this, too, was the behaviour of a man in fact possessed by demons. Now consider how the Babies show concluded with a roadie in a Nixon mask being beaten to an inch of his life by the band — and an increasingly frenzied audience — and you have a better grasp of the when behind the why.*

That's just one of many other more interesting stories swirling in the wake of this Addiction Recovery Success narrative, but you'll have to read books to find 'em — starting with What You Want Is In The Limo: On The Road With Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper & The Who In 1973, The Year The 60s Died & The Modern Rock Star Was Born by Michael Walker (A). Pair that up with Nixonland by Rick Perlstein (A) and you'll be clutching your blankets and calling for mommy faster than you can say, “Welcome to my nightmare.”

In the meantime you can take or leave Dunn's flick for what it is: a reverent tribute to a showbiz veteran, a nostalgic diversion.
No Muppets were harmed in the making of this production.
 *Another when question worth asking: when did Alice cease to be frightening?

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Tears For Toronto's El Mocambo?

I’ve had my fun in Toronto’s El Mocambo club, made some indelible memories, but I’ve gotta say: I just don’t understand people’s nostalgia for the place.
Cool sign, tho.
So you’ve seen some great acts there — the ElMo itself is crap. Its architectural format is completely unremarkable: if you’ve been to any bar/club with a stage, you’re already familiar with it.
"We came here for the singularly unique stage!"
You don’t go for the food or drink or ambience — if nobody is playing at the ElMo, there’s no reason to be there.

And the people who were playing were often unhappy with the conditions. The ElMo has two floors, and over the weekends there were often two acts playing simultaneously. If you weren’t the louder act, you were miserable.

If you were a performer, you deserved better. If you were a paying member of the audience, you deserved better. So spare me the tears, please.

On the other hand, if you want to shed a few on behalf of Toronto’s languishing Masonic Temple, I’ll break down and join you.
Not-so-cool sign, alas.
But the stage...
...is to die for.
Now there is a fabulous performance venue. History, ambience, drama and acoustics — let’s get this place back up and running, tout de suite.

Update: Dragon to the rescue. One of us is backing the wrong horse, but one of us has the money to do it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Leaving Jian Ghomeshi's House Of Mirrors

Yo, Canadians in non-Ontario povinces/territories: are the rest of you as rattled by the Jian Ghomeshi news as we are? Or is it just Ontario? Or just Central Ontario?

Or is it just me?

No, I think I can safely vouch for the Toronto-and-environs portion of Ontario. We're reeling.

Since the bulk of this blog's traffic comes from the United States, it behooves me to give a little background, loath as I am to do it. I imagine most of you read the headlines and think, “Popular radio host. Scandalous — indeed indictable — behavior. Sacked by broadcaster. Legal action. Media shitstorm. Sounds like it's sorting itself out. What's so complicated for Canadians?”

Oh, but it is so very complicated. Perhaps some itemization will clarify.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: our national public broadcasting service. Canadians have, by and large, abandoned the television aspect of it, and joined the rest of the Netflixing lemmings. In contrast, CBC On-line is fairly solid.

In contrast to them both, however, is CBC Radio.

“It's kinda like NPR Radio,” an outside observer might say. Yes, but mostly not-at-all, because just about every Canadian has some reason to tune in at some point in their day to CBC Radio — especially new Canadians. Radio in this country is huge — as in, we'll buy tickets to watch it performed huge.

And Jian Ghomeshi was a huge part of that huge. So huge, in fact, that even Americans would buy tickets to watch his radio performance.

Charismatic guy, but not usually in a look-at-me way; more often in a well-this-is-interesting-tell-me-more way. With the exception of Billy Bob Thornton, he could get good interviews from notoriously difficult subjects — Lou Reed and Donald Fagen, for starters. As an on-air personality he was hip enough that my kids were fine with listening to him, and he was considerate enough to keep my parents listening also.

He was smart
He did good work
He knew his superiors
He disdained his inferiors
He was proud and dignified - T Bone Burnett, "House of Mirrors

When CBC announced out of nowhere that it had fired Ghomeshi, I was stunned. I thought, Look at the last four years in Toronto and ask yourself, what sort of behavior gets a public persona fired these days? When Ghomeshi came out in front of the story on Facebook, I thought, Well, IF the matter is as he frames it — weird, but consensual sex — he's probably got an air-tight case. And I posted words to that effect on FB.

Goes to show you what a rube I am, particularly in this BDSM business.

Within seconds of that little opinion of mine, my LGBTQ friends were furiously throwing out BDSM cries of “Foul!” like so many safety words. They smelled a rat, and it didn't take me long to agree with them (and remove my post).

This is likely the only link to Dan Savage you will ever find on this blog, in which he interviews one of Ghomeshi's sexual partners who's gone (anonymously) on record as saying their kinkiness was 100% consensual. If you would rather be spared details, Savage's summary is:

This isn't about some poor persecuted pervert, but about either an abuser hiding behind the BDSM scene's culture of consent (and a celebrity leveraging his fame and power) or a sociopath who believes that initiating violent sex is the same thing as asking for consent.

In a later update, Savage adds:

As I continue to read more about Ghomeshi . . . I now think my interpretation — my attempt to reconcile the experience of the woman I interviewed with the allegations of the eight women who now report being assaulted by the radio host — was entirely too charitable.

Any expression of regret from Savage's pen is notable, to say the least.

So where does this leave us — or me, at any rate?

At this point I don't ever want to hear his voice again. That could change — I've watched Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski. But about the latter, I'm reminded of a Kevin Smith tweet in response to Hollywood Elite calling for Polanski's pardon: “Look, I dig ROSEMARY'S BABY; but rape's rape.” Indeed.

And it leaves CBC Radio in a weakened and very vulnerable state. Every Canadian government I've experienced has been quietly antagonistic toward the CBC, but the Harper government's hostility is exceptional. I would hope, stupidly, but for the sake of our national condition, that the ruling Conservatives might ease up a bit on their dismantling this public service. If our recent history should teach us anything it is to be careful about bringing our sworn enemies to absolute ruination; the enemies that arise from those ashes are inevitably worse.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Holy And Humble Chatter, In The Wake Of Wednesday

One of the churchier e-letters* in my in-box raised my ire, by proclaiming Wednesday’s madness (surely the activity of a “radicalized” Muslim) a clear signature of “The nihilism of contemporary secularism” decades in the making, and its concomitant inability to provide our nation's youth with a sense of mission or purpose.


A moment of pious introspection, before I take to the pulpit.
Well, were I to address this claim directly, I might decry the lazy, pejorative use of “secular,” then build an alternative case suggesting the failure is just as likely due to our ruling elites’ steady, Burkean dismantling of Canada’s vast liberal state apparatus, to the point where young fellas are faced with a future of under-employment if they don't migrate to the oil-fields of Alberta  a task begun somewhat inadvertently by Jean Chretien but carried out with particular vigour by our current PM, usually to nods of approval by the dudes** (still not too many women contributing to this “think tank”) who send me these e-letters.

And I might throw down the gauntlet and ask, how many churches*** can a young man recently graduated from high-school walk into and say, “I need a job, and a roof over my head,” and expect direct help on both those fronts? Since it’s my religion**** we’re discussing, lemme tell you: the percentages are pretty low. Kids get better help with these baseline concerns when they approach Mormons, Jews and Muslims.

Out here in the Wild West, “Christian community” is, by and large, ersatz community, with little beyond worship committees and Bible studies and the occasional “think tank” to distinguish it from bourgeois “secular” communities and their book clubs — that is what I might say, were I to build up a proper head of steam. Now, you might derive your life’s purpose from studying the Bible, provided you’ve got an adroit buttinsky in the room. But (I might add) if all you have when you wake up in the morning is a part-time job pushing carts across a parking lot, your sacred sense of purpose is going to erode at a dependably steady rate.

And I might also say . . . well, no. I’m done speculating on myself.


...gotta catch my breath....

Wednesday’s attack seems to me as likely the by-product of precarious mental health as it was of “radicalization.” Now, I've no doubt some earnest poindexter has penned a Christian theology of mental illness, but we’re still waiting for it to capture the attention, hearts and minds of the body at large. With or without such a theological construct, here in the West our beloved Bride of Christ foists the manifold challenges of dealing with the mentally ill on — surprise!The State.

Now, if you’re going to accuse our “secular” state of failing the mentally ill, that is a matter worth discussing and taking action on. But “lack of purpose”? Get your Burkean hooey outta my in-box. 

*I’m not going to point fingers, but the guy who wrote it is DUTCH!

**DUTCH, most of 'em.

***Of DUTCH origin, or otherwise.

****Which, in my case I will admit, does indeed have DUTCH roots, but of the shabby, Friesland variety.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Richard Marshall, The 3:AM Interviews

Richard Marshall has carved out an almost sui generis role in contemporary culture in doing highly intelligent interviews with a wide range of serious philosophers, and doing so in terms that are intelligible to those outside philosophy, indeed, intelligible in almost all cases to any educated person” — Brian Leiter (from here)
Richard Marshall: "biding his time," apparently.
I was set to call Marshall a super-smart hep-cat who engages with serious thinkers and restless interweb readers alike, but I think Leiter has the sharper take. Here are two recent 3:AM interviews I enjoyed and recommend: “On theism and explanation” with Greg Dawes and “Towards hope” with George Pattison.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Recalibration Of “Fun”: Delicate by Martha and the Muffins

“The fun is over.”

A more compassionately adroit reader might have phrased the matter differently, or perhaps begun the Tarot session with the question of concern. As it stands, “The fun is over” is a blunt assessment of expectations, or to my mind an improvement on the old addiction canard: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

There are varieties of fun a person learns to surrender as they mature. Most of us got thrills putting our fingers near daddy’s face, so he could pretend to bite them. And for most of us, that fun was over by the time we turned five. So it goes. Life requires a continual recalibration of expectations and experience.


Leonard Nevarez is a huge Martha and the Muffins fan, and does some snappy deconstructing of their oeuvre (among other matters) over here. It sounds like the folks at 33 1/3 turned down his proposal for a booklet devoted to either This Is The Ice Age or Danseparc, I’m not sure which. It also sounds like the University of Toronto Press has agreed to a larger MatM-based project. A loss to the hipster press is an academic gain I look forward to reading. Excelsior, dude.

Anyway, I am deeply indebted to Nevarez for framing MatM’s aesthetic as a sort of cartography of longing (my words, not his), because it’s helped me identify what makes Delicate so appealing to my ears. Nevarez seems a tad non-plussed that this latest album appears to no longer chart out their earlier social-displacement within the Global Village — a more intimate location-by-location exploration of the sort of thing David Byrne & Co. gave the Reader’s Digest treatment, in “Cities.”

MatM’s focus may have shifted somewhat, but I think it’s a good thing. Real Life Massive Wallops tend to hone one’s focus on the intimate and immediate — the journey nevertheless continues, albeit on a vastly re-calibrated scale. Take a seemingly throw-away song like “Crosswalk,” an extended stream-of-consciousness riff appended to the chorus-chant, “All she wants to do is cross the street.” The collected words and images are surreal and harrowing — the soundtrack, perhaps, of a midlife mind in its ape’s journey as parental eyes watch a child negotiating with street traffic. Somehow the journey from here to there, across the street, concludes with life in balance.

Delicate touches on other adult concerns, from mortality to chafing against social/religious edict, the age-alteration of desire and expectation. The sound may not have quite the youthful stride of earlier MatM albums, but remains unmistakably Muffin-esque.

After 25 years of no Muffins on the eardrums, the overall effect of listening to Delicate was akin to enjoying a deep conversation with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. She hadn’t changed a bit — except in all the necessary ways.

Heaps of fun material (including the above photo) awaits you here, at the official Martha and the Muffins site.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Daniel Lanois: “The Fun Is Over” Part 2

I spent the '90s hanging with musicians and performers. If that's never been your experience, and you wonder what it might be like, Jonathan Demme's '08 Anne Hathaway vehicle Rachel Getting Married pretty much nails it — psycho-social drama/trauma included.


The music and performing never stops with these people. And it's not just about seizing the spotlight: they're almost always good listeners, too. It's about staying focused and nimble, to better locate The Thing Itself: the sound, the pulse, the emotional ebb and flow of the Cosmos.*

If there was one performer from that decade who my performer friends held in the highest esteem, it was Daniel Lanois.


I, the hanger-on and rank amateur listener, found this curious. To my ears, Lanois's music was a bit too etherial to be anything other than an acquired taste. Lanois's production, on the other hand, clearly brought unusual surfaces and textures to light, particularly with performers whose delivery had become staid. That was the material I had no trouble raving about, but most of my friends considered that stuff tangential at best, a criminal distraction at worst. To their ears Lanois the performer was in hot pursuit of The Thing Itself, and they considered him very close indeed.

Shortly after I picked up Martha and the Muffins' Delicate, I downloaded Here Is What Is, the soundtrack to the Daniel Lanois documentary of the same name. Lanois's album came out a year or two before Delicate, and is pretty much what a listener should expect from him. When I was younger, I wasn't always fond of his patented echo-chamber. But on this album, he pares away previous flourishes and draws out the Lanois Palette with a winning patience and simplicity. Listening to it on a long drive through autumn colours is quite the experience. Maybe those circumstances flipped the switch for me, or perhaps age has better attuned my ears, but I now find Lanois's sonic textures and excavations have a deep, primordial reach.

I'm a little uneasy about comparing and contrasting Lanois with MatM — they have very little in common in terms of preferred styles and themes. But their shared point of origin, and strikingly different trajectories suggest a Venn Diagram that's difficult to resist.

The fun is over. I suspect that — and what follows is, I realize, all reckless speculation on my part — for Lanois, not only is the “fun” still very much in play, it will likely carry him into the grave. I can think of several reasons for this, the first being that his sense of fun has always leaned toward the esoteric. I've seen him perform in front of a couple thousand people at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and later in a room of dozens, and he seems equally at home with either. He is pursuing The Thing Itself.

I also suspect he doesn't have to worry about money. Given the people who have his number on their speed-dial, he probably pays somebody else to worry about his money.

To whom, if anybody, is he tethered? Does he have a Significant Other — a wife, or a husband? Does he have any children? The first page of a Google search turns up a big fat zero. I could get more creative in my search fields, and keep clicking until I turn up . . . something. But the message he's clearly sending is it's none of my business. The answers to those questions are not elements Lanois wishes his work to be framed by.*** It's his playground, his ball, his rules, and I'm either fine with that, or I can go look for another game in town.

I am fine with that, actually. But I'll tell you something else: a little self-disclosure goes a very long way to keeping my ears attuned to your work— particularly if this business of paying the bills and raising a family is something you're still figuring out.



*There's a reason why radio, television, movies, and even the most stridently rationalist podcast begin and conclude with a few bars of music.

**I'll never forget a party where someone dropped For The Beauty Of Wynona on the platter, and the entire room promptly shut up and gathered around the speakers.

***A characteristic he shares with his big-ticket clients.

Friday, October 03, 2014

“The Fun Is Over”: Delicate by Martha and the Muffins: A Review In Two (Possibly More) Parts

Funny people are dangerous.

I once knew a very funny guy who did tarot card readings. A woman called, and he spent an hour doing the usual Q&A over the outlay. As their time approached a close, she remained pensive. He sensed he wasn’t getting to the nub of what she’d come to him for. He asked if perhaps she had questions she’d like answered before she left.

“I just want to know,” she said, “when is the fun coming back?”

“Oh. I see. May I ask: how old are you?”

“Thirty-five.”

He threw up his hands. “Oh, honey,” he said, “the fun is over.

****

In the summer of 1980 I went with my church youth group to Grand Beach, Lake Winnipeg. Typical youth group, typical beach activities. I drove back with a guy whose car had an AM radio.

“Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins was playing.


There were only two pop stations broadcasting out of Winnipeg, plus a third that played a mix of easy-listening and country.

“I’m not a fan of this song,” said the driver, punching the radio to the other pop station.

Within minutes, “Echo Beach” was playing. He switched to the country station. There was Glen Campbell, the Carpenters, then . . . 

“Unbelievable,” he said, punching it back to the first station. Ten minutes later they were playing it again.

I actually liked the song, especially after a day at the beach. It had a brooding quality that kept it tethered to the id. I mean, what an existence: My job is very boring/I’m an office clerk . . . The only thing that helps me pass the time away/Is knowing I’ll be back at Echo Beach some day. God, spare me!

****

The ‘80s were a decade that was good to MatM, in all the ways a young band wants a decade to be good to it. Which is to say, a big label came along, dropped a pile of money and made their lives a nightmare, until the founding members finally figured out what was going on, and got the right gears linked up with the proper chain.

A new label, a new lineup, a smaller contract, a much smaller budget — but considerably more freedom, so who cares? The bass player has family in Hamilton with their own mixing board in the basement. We’ll just get them to do it on the cheap. A couple of brothers, genuine nerds, freaky about getting the sound just exactly right, last name of “Lanois.” 

Two amazing albums came out of that arrangement — This Is The Ice Age and Danseparc. After that, things got blurry for me. Did MatM disappear? Or did they and I just move on to other scenes?

****

Delicate came out in 2010, and is MatM’s eighth studio album.


I picked it up a couple of months ago. A lot of history has passed since Danseparc, the last MatM album I listened to, including parenthood/kids, Parkinson's and cancer. Also, the band lineup has undergone yet another sea-change.

I gave the album a couple of spins. After listening to Delicate, I’d cue up This Is The Ice Age, or Danseparc. Then for a week or two I listened to nothing but Danseparc.

This Is The Ice Age is in some ways the more daring, and most accomplished MatM album, but Danseparc has its own unique thrill and thrall. It is the sound of a band completely in sync — with each other, and with the scene around them. And the music scene in Toronto, 1982, was wildly vibrant and not a little wacky, from-here-to-NYC-to-the-world global — and always super-danceable. 

Listening to Danseparc you can hear the influences of George Clinton, Adrian Belew, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Rough Trade — but it’s not as if MatM is “stealing” a synth-note from here, a hook from there, a tom-tom fill from that guy. Bands were swapping this stuff like LEGO pieces back then, reaching into the same enormous pile of smooth, brightly-colored oddly-shaped bricks, and pushing them together to make architecture you had to move your feet to. MatM was constructing and deconstructing with the very best of them, but Danseparc is a vibrant demonstration of a band that isn’t at the center of The Scene, it is actually somewhere near the edge of the wild frontier, producing sounds that prompt Brian Eno to speak with Steve Lilywhite about maybe getting that Irish band to call those Hamilton boys for the next album.

That is a very heady place to be. So if you toggle from Danseparc back to Delicate, you quickly realize: 

the fun is over.
M(artha Johnson) + M(ark Gane)


Or is it? Stay tuned . . .

Monday, September 29, 2014

D.G. Meyers, R.I.P.

D.G. Meyers has died. This, then, concludes his particular Commonplace Blog. Sad news, indeed. I often disagreed with his critical pronouncements, especially when he got around to making his lists. But also, I often found myself won over by essay’s end. He wrote well. He wrote persuasively.

Some recent favourites: “All unhappy families are alike” here. “Transcendence is a glimpse of the reality created and sustained by dull habit” here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Back To The Bridge

Well. Five years later, we're back on the bridge. The new owner seems to have made significant improvements to the cottage. We shall see. Regardless, it's supposed to be a clear weekend.

You know where to find me.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Fantagraphics' Don Rosa Library, Vol. 1

I’m happy to see Don Rosa receive prestige treatment from Fantagraphics.



Previews here and here.


The Carl Barks library is essential, of course, but the case could be made that Rosa’s works are equally so. Rosa came to the Disney Duck-blind in the mid-80s, when Gladstone Publishing reintroduced Barks (and Gottfredson) to American comic book stores. Rosa, a voluminous contributor to a fanzine forerunner of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, was already on speaking terms with Gladstone’s editor Byron Erickson; Rosa pitched a story, with artwork, and was immediately conscripted into service as writer, artist and resident bearer of Barks’ torch.

Introducing Don Rosa

Rosa’s reverence toward Barks — the characters, the art, the maturity of voice and approach to story — cannot be overstated. Rosa’s fealty to the eight-panel storyline is almost absolute, the ducks’ “human” foibles very much in flux, kicking the stories’ plotlines into motion and inviting emotional investment from the reader. Rosa is also shrewdly devoted to Duckburg as an American locale, historically situated in a fantasy fifties (where cabinet radios, rotary-phones, and a jalopy with the “313” license plate, etc. are the norm).


Rosa’s style emulates Barks’, but is nevertheless uniquely invested with Rosa’s own personality. Rosa says he’s been accused of bringing an “underground” sensibility to Barks’ world, and bristles at comparisons to Crumb (he certainly has Crumb’s fondness for the onomatopoeia, but has a drawing style more akin, I think, to Basil Wolverton’s non-hallucinatory work (where such could be said to exist)). Rosa was self-taught, and brings the same obsessive-compulsive love of detail that served him well as a comic book archivist. Consequently, where Barks might content himself with fluffy clouds rendered with a few swift strokes of a sable brush and a reliance on the colorist’s use of blue, Rosa etches densely textured clouds that are, of course, punctured audibly.


I think it works. It sometimes reads as “edgy,” but how is that a bad thing in relation to Barks’ ducks? Indeed, Rosa’s stories have a kinetic energy that bristle with an underlying anxiety I think Barks could appreciate.


Unfortunately, another element in Rosa’s life that Barks could appreciate is the thorough shafting he received at the hands of The Mouse. As with Barks, the penny dropped quite late in Rosa’s life; Disney’s contracts are iron-clad, and bids for compensation all but futile. Due diligence is left entirely in the hands of the young artist, who more often than not is eager or desperate to sign. While fiscally canny, this corporate strategy strikes me as profoundly short-sighted with regards to legacy. Surely it is in the corporation’s own best interests to cultivate, care for, and duly reward those rare artists who bring something unique that keeps an aging property vibrant and relevant in an increasingly volatile zeitgeist?

Whether or not the Fantagraphics publications address any of that, the presentation is first-class. The Rosa book is slightly larger than the Barks’ volumes, making Rosa’s hyper-articulate artwork more accessible to the reader. The coloration team utilises the gradient shading that current comic book readers have come to expect, which also contributes to accessibility.

Rosa’s European fanbase is substantial, but he remains all but unknown on this continent so fixated with men-in-tights-and-gals-in-less. Here’s hoping these publications bring some correction to that trend.



Further reading: Rosa's wiki; my appreciation of Carl Barks; my appreciation of Floyd Gottfredson; Fantagraphics website.



Saturday, September 13, 2014

Christopher Orr Rates The Coens

I’ve had it in my head to list the Coen Brothers movies in order of greatness — for the last eight years, it seems. My enthusiasm for the project, however, wanes whenever I consider the less-bearable entries. I’ll be happier if I live out the remainder of my days without re-watching The Hudsucker Proxy or The Man Who Wasn't There. I’ve watched worse, to be sure, but seldom more than once.



Well, if you sit on a good idea long enough, someone is bound to pick it up and run with it. And that’s exactly what Christopher Orr is doing over at The Atlantic. Orr’s doing terrific work of it, too. In the case of Barton Fink, which leaves Orr cold, he invites a fella two desks over to make the case for the movie’s lovability — an eminently wise move, considering how much love some of us have for that flick.

All in all a very entertaining discussion of a, to an astonishing degree, very entertaining canon-still-in-progress. Start here, with Blood Simple.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wanting To Enjoy vs. Desperate To Avoid

Are there any popular acts you think you ought to enjoy, but somehow, despite your most earnest efforts, just can't seem to?

Various weblinks this week have brought several to my attention. I've spoken before about Stephen King. His advice on writing and teaching is spot-on. When he climbs on his soapbox, he usually wins me over. Then he releases yet another door-stopper that sounds so promising . . . and I pick it up, read the first few pages, keep going for another one- or two-hundred, and . . . something happens that makes me feel like I've just watched Emeril Lagasse drop the frying pan, only to retrieve it from the floor and keep cooking. No, no — it's alright buddy, keep the pan to the heat. I've just lost my appetite, is all.

Similarly, Elmore Leonard.

Also: James Ellroy — what a character. I love his magazine work, and think the way he openly confesses to and revels in his low-life impulses is a) almost admirable and b) entirely entertaining (I'm in the minority, apparently). The scope and vision and ambition of his fiction is certainly impressive. But the novels leave me cold. It's not a matter of taking offense, or being repulsed. It's just . . . meh, whatever.

“The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.”* So said Paul Hewson, aka Bono Vox, or just plain Bono. Speaking of whom, if there is a group that has nudged me out of indifference into a deep and abiding loathing, it is his U2. And on Tuesday, when I opened the software platform to my Infernal Device, I discovered an entire album in my library that I had no desire whatsoever to encounter. In response, Mr. Hewson has said, “For people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way . . . the blood, sweat & tears of some irish guys are in your junk mail.”

Speaking as someone who's taken money for producing junk mail of his own, let me inform you of a seldom appreciated fact: there isn't a single piece of junk mail that doesn't contain the blood, sweat and tears of the hacks who created it. The elements of BS&T don't make it any more welcome — or even any good.

Anyway, I won't be listening to it, so don't expect a take-down review from me — except for the title of the opening track: “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” Oh, sure: give all the love to poor, sweet Joey. How's about The Miracle of Johnny Ramone, the treacherous, irascible, venomous, right-of-Attila bastard who kept his baffled and befuddled on-the-spectrum band-mate fed and clothed in Levis and leather jackets throughout his entire adult life?

But I digress.

I actually used to be a fan, from way-way-back: Boy days, in fact. If you can predate that, you're not from the prairie grasslands of Canada, you're from Dublin. I remained steadfast right up until The Joshua Tree, when I began to have my doubts about the project (which they nevertheless reached past with the penultimate song on that album). Then came their Ironic Phase, which, at the time, struck me as note-perfect for the age (both mine, and the one I was living in). Even Pop was welcome — the fizzier songs, at least. The more serious songs, on the other hand, made me nervous.

I don't know which track I heard from their next album, but I can remember exactly where I was when I heard it: in the parking lot of a Movieplex, where public speakers were broadcasting a tone of voice and guitar I knew all-too-well. Oh, so now you're sincere again? I thought. Well then, permit me to sincerely retort . . . 


"...and the horse you rode in on!"

The more I meditated on it, the clearer the realization became that with this complete about-face these guys had just driven a stake through the heart of rock-and-roll. All that “best band in the world” shite: even their audience took it seriously. Now every band in their wake would strain to sound like Bono and/or Edge, and good luck trying to get any young audience roused if your drummer didn't photocopy Larry Clayton's frozen-in-the-pocket band-class snare-bursts.

Think I exaggerate? Then why don't you rouse yourself some Sunday morning, and go attend worship service at your local Evangelical Superstore . . . erm, church? Listen to the worship band, and tell me you don't catch more than an echo of everything I've just slandered.

Can't get away from them in the mall, or church, or parking lot or even my so-called personal computer . . . yes, indeed: what a debt we all owe those hard-working Irish so-and-so's.

Alright, I've gotta sit down and catch my breath. Read this or this or even Sasha Frere Jones if you need more.


*Quoting, with attribution I'm sure, Elie Wiesel.

17-ix-14: Old dogs, old tricks: