Thursday, April 18, 2019

Eschewing the hook/getting hooked

It seems my musical heroes are in the mood to throw caution to the wind.

Times — and intellectual content delivery systems — being what they are, I suppose it is only natural for an artist to shrug and think, “I'm done listening to producers and A&R guys — I'm going to do exactly what I want to do. Maybe it'll catch fire, maybe not. What have I possibly got to lose?”

In the case of T Bone Burnett and Devin Townsend — artists who occupy nearly opposing poles on the musical spectrum — my ears find the sonic results just a little off-putting.

Both artists are prone to their own peculiar reveries, of course. But Townsend has such a keen ear for the hook — it's what drew me to him in the first place. And while Burnett typically vortexes his song structures in elliptical orbits around the hook, he eventually acknowledges its fundamental gravity and succumbs — his albums usually have a couple of numbers a person can dance to, if so inclined.

Townsend's Empath and Burnett's The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space are 100% free-range, hook-free, impossible-to-dance-to albums — that's just an observation, not a criticism. Well . . . maybe it's a little bit critical. Hey, this is unquestionably a shadowy, liminal epoch we're enduring — structures we've depended on for centuries are literally aflame. Is it finally time to let go of The Hook and see what remains to buoy our sound-thirsty souls?

I love these guys — they will get my money no matter what they do. And I will devote further attention to these albums I've paid them for. But I kinda hope the next thing they cook up will have a hook or two to help keep me afloat.

*****

I get a little self-conscious when I visit our local library. After exchanging friendly greetings with the librarian I head straight for the comic book section.

Reading comic books at my age is hardly something to be self-conscious about. But this is, increasingly, the only section of the library I bother with anymore. The fact of the matter is my house is packed with far too many languishing book-books, that I can no longer justify the weightier distraction that library books once offered.

Anyway, I select some of the more current omnibuses and slouch back to the librarian, figuring she can think what she likes of my ur-literary disposition.

“Ooo — Star Wars! Have you read Doctor Aphra?”
Resemblance to Tank Girl intentional, I assume.
This woman deserves a raise.

Marvel Comics has, in general, done exemplary work with the Star Wars Universe (SWU). Under their management Darth Vader is once again a viscerally unnerving figure, and the rest of Lucas's Cliff's Notes archetypes prove to have intriguing back-stories.

As for Doctor Aphra, she is everything Alan Scherstuhl says she is, and more. Aphra is “chaotic neutral” to use D&D parlance. But the longer she utilizes her chaotic energy to get her out of the messes it creates for her, the greater the toll it takes on her emotions — she becomes increasingly less neutral, in other words. If you think this amounts to a Jedi win, you're in for a surprise.
Speaking of Jedis, there are other rewarding elements to the Aphra storyline, including Jedi cults ascribing to a Lovecraftian grasp of the Cosmos — an unexpected development which, the longer I think on it, makes imminent sense.

But enough — you'll want to check it out for yourself, I am sure.

*****

Getting back to hook-free music — it is Easter, and I will be clearing some aural space for Bill Evans' meditative piano stylings. Evans was HUGELY adverse to the hook. It would also have galled him terribly to learn that people put his music in the background, the better to enjoy family chatter around the seasonal rack of lamb. So it goes. Hey, if you dig Evans (doesn't everybody?) you'll definitely dig Broken Time by Steve Silberman, his meditation on Evans and “Nardis,” the Miles Davis-penned koan that Evans returned to throughout his life.

Today's noise is tomorrow's hootenannyto quote my favourite punk band. Wishing all my beloved artists every possible success — and everyone else a blessed Passover, a happy Easter, and a restful weekend.

Friday, April 12, 2019

While over in my tiny corner of the Panopticon...

Three years ago, I wrote a book about how the universal communications platform that blossomed in balmy Silicon Valley was breaking up into a state-dominated “splinternet”. That process is now advancing to the point where a blandly supervised cyberspace is the norm. Call it winternet.
Scott Malcomson, Winternet Is Coming

Julian Assange is now, officially, behind bars.
At least somebody approves.
Other people can assess whether this is a “good” or “bad” development. I was struck by how this happened pretty much one month after Scott Malcomson published “Winternet Is Coming” — his post-it note to 2016's The Splinternet. You don't have to read his short book to catch what he's saying today, but do give it a look. Also, his Twitter-feed is one of the few I find consistently compelling, thanks to his singular focus.

The Internet may have its origins in America. But that is not its future, nor even its present.

*****

Yesterday I was at an outlet of Canada's last remaining bricks-and-mortar music chain. I keep handy a list of releases I think they might stock, figuring I'll go ahead and give them first dibs at procuring my bucks.

Donna Grantis' new CD, for starters — Toronto talent, played with Prince. Yes? No? 
Uh, no
'kay, how about last year's critical fave by Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams
Nope. 
Oof — moving on to metal: new CD by The Mute Gods
No listing, I'm afraid. 
Alright. Well, I see you've got the last three Periphery albums — has the new one been released yet? 
Do you know the title? 
Yes — Hail Stan
Sorry — 'Stan'?? 
Exactly. 
Mm, no listing for that one either. Sir.

Although mightily discouraged I was not without hope. I meandered over to the back corner where the “Jazz” and “Blues” shelves are and began thumbing through discs. NOT a large segment in the store, needless to say, but a browser can expect to be surprised — whoever stocks this niche has to be, by nature, eclectic.

Huzzah — success!
I found these in the “Various Artists” category, crammed next to Confessin' The Blues, a double-disc release of 42 original blues recordings “curated” by The Rolling Stones.
Confessin' caught flak for being too Predictable-White-Boomer-Boring and too sexist. Imagine: The Rolling Stones — sexist!

I schputt (hey, thanks New Yorker!) but the criticisms are not without merit. While I appreciated some of what Colin Larkin had to say about the artists on parade in Confessin's liner notes, much of what was on offer was already familiar. And the prestige format with which the collection was presented had the ironic effect of adding an unwelcome fustiness to the entire project.
"Ladies & Gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, I present to you: The Blues."
I've no idea the skin tone to the curators of UK's Koko-Mojo Records, but these CDs — generously priced and larded with tracks — are decidedly all-inclusive and NOT boring. Also, the Koko Mojo hepcats rebuff any urge whatsoever toward CBC/NPR-splainin', opting instead for flash packaging with photos that add volumes more to the listening experience than any Michael Enright verbiage could ever hope to.
"Surely you jest, sirrah!"
These are the most dollar-fetching CDs to hit the racks since the Ultra-Lounge collection, and I will be hastening back to Sunlight for the others at my earliest convenience.
Ain't that a kick in the head?
*****

Is the new Hellboy movie a dud?

Full disclosure — I wasn't especially taken with del Toro's movies. They distinguished themselves in a playing field overrun with MCU product, but only just. I thought Ron Perlman was finally the stand-out talent — a dude who brought the humanity to a cartoon demon trying to do right by his new adoptive family. The movies were helped by Perlman being a mensch in real life as well.

But when the younger and I left Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, we really truly hoped the world was finally prepared to accept just how an animated superhero movie could be leagues more rewarding than the “acted in real-life” lot we've come to expect. Could you imagine a Mike Mignola movie given the Spider-Verse treatment? Here's hoping.

*****

As ever, thank you for dragging algorithmic attention to my tiny corner of the Panopticon. Your eyeballs, virtual eyeballs — I appreciates 'em all. God bless!

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

...any club that will have me....

I am not the only Mennonite in this village — I just carry on as if it were so.
"Would you clowns quit following me? It's embarrassing!"
The village was established by Scottish settlers. The current population is a touch more varied than it was back in the day, but not that much more. Anyway, there are at least four other Mennonites in residence who have been here longer than I — and I've been here 20 years (i.e, I'm the “newcomer”).

Two I've not yet met, including a businessman from my old hometown. The other belongs to a Mennonite name I see every time I activate the Wifi on my cell-phone.

Then there's a woman from the Mennonite enclave west of Toronto (Kitchener-Waterloo). She married a French fellow and they moved here shortly before we did. Two of their kids shared classes with ours, so we have interacted often and quite pleasantly through the years.

The other Menno I've met is a few years older, retired. He and his Catholic wife live just outside of town. I've only ever met him while riding bicycle — I, ill-advisedly lycra-clad and hunkering over my mid-life investment, pedaling furiously; he approaching serenely from the other direction, perched on a sensible upright bike and exerting no more energy than is required to stay vertical. We exchange greetings and continue on our disparate trajectories.

I gather he attends Mass. The kids are grown and gone, but were raised Catholic. He and the wife continue. He is a participant — sings in the choir, reads scripture — but not a communicant. Thus far he has eschewed conversion.

I could almost envision following suit.

Perhaps it strains the argument, but I believe his modus is already my own — committed participation, drawing short of conversion.

My wife and I attend and contribute to the life of the local United Church — a congregation that has welcomed us and whom we love — but we are not members. We are permitted to take communion, though. If we brought our cats to church, I imagine they would be too.

The United Church of Canada fancies itself the most protestant of Protestant denominations. They've broken ground in all the expected religious-identity frontiers — women's ordination, gay marriage and the subsequent adoption of LGBTQ shibboleths, etc. Currently the UCC is (somehow) boycotting Israel and Big Oil. Oh, and there's also this matter of an atheist minister who gets to keep her post. Needless to say if the cause is capital-P Progressive odds are the UCC is fer it.

I won't get into theology — a field I regard with distrust if not distaste, unless I'm the one espousing it. I suppose I could cherry-pick which denominational policies I wholeheartedly endorse and which I regard with, at the very least, some ambivalence. But I have benefitted from giving every one of them my sober and compassionate consideration — much as I have benefited from devoting respectful attention to the Papal Encyclicals. In the end big organizations fail in surprisingly big ways. We hardly need itemize the RCC's substantial failures. But as with the distantly foundational Mother Church, the UCC — even in its current state of cascading collapse — remains a very big organization.

My disagreement with the UCC is a typically Mennonite one — in its formation the UCC adopted a Presbyterian model of authority. “Top down,” in other words. Catholics get their orders from Rome; the UCC gets theirs from Toronto. Many is the Sunday when I hear yet another headline-inspired sermon and, looking over the white-haired remnant of the congregation, wonder if Jesus' admonition of the Pharisees (the Progressives of his day) does not apply to the presbytery — “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on people's shoulders.”

I imagine my fellow bicycle-riding tribe-member is as ambivalent about the authority structure hosting his participation as I am with mine. I haven't asked, though. It's probably best we continue pretending we are ignorant of the dissident core smouldering in each other's inner life, and keep to our distinct directions on the road we share. A brief wave of wary acknowledgment is enough.

Endnote: Hey, if you've made it this far there's no need for me to apologize for getting all religious on you — in fact you're probably up for more! It's the Christian Humanists' fault — I found this informed riff off Charles Taylor strangely encouraging; while this interview pretty much embodies exactly what prevents me from seriously entertaining conversion to Catholicism.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ranking Roger/Scott Walker

Ranking Roger died this week.
So did Scott Walker.
I was familiar with the former but not the latter. As usual the best overviews came from unexpected sources, and in Walker's case that was comics artist William Stout, who is a passionate fan of Walker's music. His excellent survey of Walker's strange life and music is over here. Stout has good ideas for a future Scott Walker playlist — I'm looking forward to giving it a spin.

As for Ranking Roger Charlery, my generation busted all our moves to “Mirror In The Bathroom.”
Man, that was 1980 — I was 15, Ranking Roger was 18. It still blows me away that kids that age can put together a song everybody wants to dance to. If I still had 'em, it'd be tempting to brush down the vintage double-breasted suit and spats and jump around to the ska beat. I jest, of course — I've put on four stone since that suit last fit me. Instead I'll just cue up “Mirror” for the Prajer version of “SoulCycle” — my limpid effort at delaying the Grim Reaper's tap on my own shoulder.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Mulligan

Week: 1; WP:0
Oog — tough week. I’m going to ask for a gimme, and take a stab at posting something cogent next week. Take care of each other, please.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Yesterday's Sonic Landscape, Today and Tomorrow: Tom Petty, T Bone Burnett

When Tom Petty died in October '17 I figured a career retrospective was likely in the pipeline. All the old hits remastered to please the fading ears of boomers like myself — even though I do not consider myself a fan, this was a proposition I could buy into. So I did. And this week I received my first Tom Petty CD.
Two of 'em, actually.
Rolling Stone claims Petty has 50 great songs, but I found 38 to be about right for a project like this. He doesn't wear out his welcome after two CDs and Petty's late-career wistfulness sets a fitting, elegiac tone that washes over the whole thing and settles it nicely. Cameron Crowe submits a gloss with a few choice quotes that is sufficient unto the day (I wish Mikal Gilmore had been given the assignment, but oh well). As for the re-mastering...

It is a relief to have sound-files as fat with distinction as the current technology allows. But it is an incredibly bright sound. I guess boomer ears all fade differently — Donald Fagen, a notorious audiophile, prefers to release his current stuff to this particular standard as well, so it can't be hitting everyone's ears as unpleasantly as it hits mine. For me the effect is somewhat akin to hearing a child play the triangle — a little aural distance becomes a highly coveted quality.

At home, when I'm wearing the expensive, bulky headphones I can tweak things until they sound better. In the car, not so much. So it goes.

*****

T Bone Burnett is infamously tetchy about sound, and I'm wondering if his ears aren't fading in the same direction mine are.

Burnett's Facebook profile (Just kidding, just kidding...)

Back when he re-recorded a bunch of material from Proof Through The Night I wasn't sure I saw the point of it. But I recently made a playlist that juxtaposed the original Proof songs with the re-recordings. Played back-to-back, and hitting ears that have been assaulted for nearly 55 years, I found I generally preferred the more recent versions.

Anyway, in a terrific interview he recently gave to CBC's Tom Power, Burnett claims he's spent his life trying to recapture the sounds he heard in the Skyliner Ballroom in Fort Worth TX, back in the early '60s. I can hear that, and — because it's not unbearably bright and tingly — I can also really dig it. The full interview, with tonnes of juicy reminiscences and soundclips, can be streamed here or downloaded here. And he's got a new album of original material — The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space — coming out April 12. Spring cannot come fast enough.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Winnipeg Punk Menno

At some point in my grade 10 year — generated, if memory serves, by the unexpected results of one of my mother's haircuts — I determined I was “punk.”

Winnipeg, 1981. I didn't know any punks personally, which was an asset — I could define “punk” on my own terms. I began collecting records.

I started, naturally, with the Christian Rock version of punk. Barnabas' first album was a lot of fun, and surprisingly accomplished, musically speaking. Aesthetically speaking, their attire raised the inevitable question: how much more punk can you get than bubblegum-coloured trousers?
Answer: none. None more punk.
The Canadian Bible Society also sold a few select British oddities that seemed to fit the bill — evangelical coffee-house acts with punk names like Ishmael United, The Bill Mason Band, Andy McCarroll & Moral Support, Rev Counta & The Speedos (another Ishmael project, it turned out). I listened to all of 'em.

At some point, though, I had to gamble my after-school bus-transfer and seek out Winnipeg's Pyramid Records.

Mid-winter. Cold (understatement). Tiny, second-floor room in the bowels of the Exchange. Filled with actual punks, reverently thumbing through the stacks while the snow and sand slowly dropped off their Army Surplus boots and pooled on the hardwood floor.

Import album pricing was a touch dearer than the Christian stuff I was buying, so I was mostly there for the magazines — Slash, from Los Angeles was especially cool (more girls, for one thing). As for the music, Pyramid introduced me to punk I genuinely enjoyed listening to — it was the minority, to be honest, but it was there. X, The Gun Club, The Blasters — the entire roster signed to Slash Records, more or less. L.A. Punk.

This was NOT the punk scene in Winnipeg (which existed, pretty much as described). The stuff I liked was a little too twangy, or bluesy, or . . . well, take The Blasters, for instance. How was that even punk?

Over the next 35 years I was pleasantly educated in the larger punk scene — examples herehere and here — but even today my most romantic association with the genre is centered in Los Angeles, 1979. Why, that's the era and locale Barnabas originally hailed from!

As did The Flesh Eaterswho have re-formed, with their original line-up, and are hitting the road for some select locations. Dave Alvin, Bill Bateman, John Doe — yikes. These are guys whose individual post-punk projects are still a matter of deep personal interest — including Steve Berlin, probably the only Rock 'n' Roll sax player I can say that of.

It's lovely Chris D. still has his voice. Sounds like it's lovely he's breathing a-tall — recovered sobriety is a beautiful thing. I Used To Be Pretty is a great album title for grizzled veterans, and A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die retains its happy-making powers, even after all these years. But I don't see a road-trip in the tea-leaves for yours truly. Unless they show up in Winnipeg. Who knows? It could be the last surviving members of Winnipeg's REAL punks might show up for it.

Post-script: huh. Looks like even the guys who got punk rolling can't even agree on "what is punk?" And hey: turns out Pyramid Records was owned and operated by one Don Unrau — now there's a name that's as Mennonite as Jereewen und Schmaunt (pork cracklings and cream)!

Saturday, March 02, 2019

“Damn everything, but the circus.”

AndrĂ© Previn has died. Today's “youngs” think of him, if at all, as the momentary husband of Mia Farrow and the adoptive father of Soon-Yi Previn — the latter who, were we to keep track of statements made in the heat of emotionally volatile moments, he said “does not exist.” Life and drama and moral affront, eh? I suppose it all boils down to the standards one sets, really, and Previn set his in music.

It is interesting to me that Previn's creative work — the concert performances, the reams of compositions, the fluidity he had across genres, etc — all seemed so effortless. Along with his evident technical virtuosity, Previn also presented a decidedly visual ease — a plasticity of mastery suggesting mastery in all domains.
No "mastery" outfitting the kids, alas.
For the LIFE Magazine set Previn embodied the suave, worldly 20th Century cosmopolitan male — catnip for suburban dads and moms doing a poor job of sorting out midlife confusion, back in '69. Today we are fortunate Previn's cultural achievements were lofty enough to slip him past the notice of our Neo-Puritan Twitter Inquisitors — he dies as he lived, a man of ease, if not leisure.

Personally, I love AndrĂ© Previn's jazz — especially Duet, with Doris Day. Do not deprive yourself.

*****

Okay, now what do you REALLY think — is it time to break up with the Internet?

I flatter myself that my awareness of the internet's perils is above-average. But Avery Erwin's piece caught me short on some horrifyingly crucial elements — which means I don't likely know the half of it. Unplugging now, unplugging now, unplugging . . .

*****

NO WAIT! Ken Nordine also died this week.
You know his voice.
Nordine's wasn't just a scripted mouth — he loved to improvise, to perform, to contribute to the scene. For me, the best thing he did is the first thing of his I heard: Ken Nordine's spin on “Hi-diddle-dee-dee,” a salute to Walt Disney. Listening to it yet again it I can't imagine a more apt take on the current state of affairs, out here in the wobbly West. Nordine's portion of the medley is only the first two minutes. Skip the rest, if you like. But please put on your headphones, turn it up and give it a listen — see if the hairs on the back of your neck aren't standing on end by the time the thunder clashes.

Monday, February 25, 2019

That damn book

The author is a prat.
No, really.
Readers less-than-well-versed in Islamic histories and traditions find the book baffling and tedious (I never finished it). Even readers informed and deeply fascinated by these matters come away from the novel non-plussed.

And yet it is probably the single novel published within my lifetime that has altered history the most — largely by people who haven’t read so much as one bloody word of it.

Bruce Fudge, over at Aeon, presents a terrific overview of the novel, the “affair” and subsequent cultural outcomes.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Talking to myself

I've got a few scattered links that have deposited irritants around which my consciousness salivates, in aid of digestion or -- who knows? -- producing a pearl of great price. Or at least an object of personal fascination.

As has become the norm lately, Warren Ellis is the chief provocateur. His latest newsletter (hey, why aren't we all doing this?) sees him enthuse about a new book. Take it away, Mr. Ellis:
THE WORST IS YET TO COME by Peter Fleming does what it says on the tin.  It's a set of thoughts and survival tips on... well, it all starts when Fleming goes, as many people do, to view a cupboard that someone's offering for rent as an apartment in London:
That awful apartment told me something. Neoliberal capitalism had probably run its course, spawning progeny it could no longer protect itself from. The constellation of possibilities that once flourished in cities like London had vanished. There were no antibodies left. Capitalism was undoing itself at nearly every turn. A kind of neo-Feudalism was on the march. Perhaps we were witnessing the birth of post-capitalism after all, not a clean and better alternative to the system, but (rather paradoxically) a much worse version of it, one that will make the “Trump Years” look like a tiptoe through the tulips. 
My theory is this. Most advanced industrial societies have actually outlived the principles of capitalism and are busy transitioning into something else. It is still too early to say what that “something else” might be. But we do know the break won’t be clean. So the post-capitalist future we should prepare for will be no classless utopia. The worst features of capitalism will be amplified and applied reductio ad absurdum, coalescing around the return of preindustrial norms of authority and an incredible polarisation of wealth. 
Donald Trump, Brexit, the impending environmental eco-blitz (or what NASA calls a “Type-L” collapse given the role played by elites) and the prospect of another Radiohead album give the appearance that things couldn’t possibly get worse. And yet, I disagree. They probably will.
It's cheerful, yes.  It's also great fun to read, free of jargon, and very clear about where it's coming from and where it's going. It is, in some ways, a collation and re-statement of a lot of themes that have emerged over the last while, but it has new ideas too. I am very grateful for a book of this kind that does not also do one all over itself about the genius of Karl Marx.  Also, goddamn, any work of political economics that talks about WG Sebald has my immediate vote.
Ooo -- Sebald! Yes, this is worth a closer look.

Ellis also advocates for the resurrection of the RSS reader -- so if you haven't yet subscribed to his newsletter, give it a go and see what you think.

Elsewhere:
  • Chris Fleming's (any relation?) amusing and provocative thoughts about Theoretical Cool are worth the long-ish read. I'm a little peeved I didn't post this earlier, as I stumbled across it a few days before ALD linked. But that's what happens when you occasionally allow your analog consciousness sway over its digital alter-ego.
  • Sven Birkerts' My Sky Blue Trades has sat beside the bed for some years now. As of this writing, its melancholic undertow is in sync with my own, allowing me to slip past the book's faults -- I hope to finish it today. Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate Of Reading In An Electronic Age is the stronger work -- it turns 25 this year.
  • Tomi Ungerer died earlier this month. The Hat --  in which a dissolute veteran's life is transformed triumphantly by the sudden appearance of the titular hero -- was one of my favourite childhood books (also here). But Ungerer's work was not merely aimed at children -- oh, no no no. The man's oeuvre was, shall we say, quite robust. I got quite a kick out of him. The gate to his homesite is SFW, but proceed any further and you are on your own. Say -- The Hat's objet d'affection bears a passing resemblance to Mr. Ellis, does he not?