Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Oversights of a Musical Nature

Yesterday, while doing the post-Christmas/pre-New Year's Eve tidy, I listened to the latest rock duo to capture the ears of the hip, and garnering a few cross-media raves to boot: Japandroids' Celebration Day. Midway through I wondered if I oughtn't to declare 2012 the year I gave up on Rock 'n' Roll. Japandroids fit in with the senior class of today's rock duos (see also: Sleigh Bells) which I have little-to-no use for. The Black Keys are the exception to this trend, and when Celebration Day was over I played the Keys' El Camino to see if my distemper with the Canuckle-head youngsters was just another example of me grumpily resorting to midlife obtuseness.

El Camino played like a breath of fresh air, I'm happy to report. Not that that exempts me from grumpiness, or midlife obtuseness. I could dissect what makes the Keys' music “work” for me (bluntly: formalist technique), and contrast that with what Japandroids do (or don't) but it's best for all parties if I simply surrender to the tides of change, and forward you to Philip Larkin's jazz criticism. College kids of the '80s thought the old poet gallingly square, but let's face it: he had a point. We may reach with some frequency for the “cool,” even the post-cool, but we don't spend much time with what came after that. The Great American Songbook is closing. The Global Songcloud is just beginning to billow out. So it goes.

I never gave it up to the Keys, did I? An oversight, and now the year is at an end. I meant to, and that's the important thing. Here are some other musical acts I meant to endorse and comment on. They put out some of my favourite albums this year, and deserve attending to.

RUSH, Clockwork Angels. Formalists and experimenters in equal measure, each new RUSH album is worth celebrating for its bush-clearing, sod-busting force of energy. But Clockwork Angels was also easy to listen to, and it produced the loveliest song yet in RUSH's considerable ouevre: “The Garden.” Further cause for celebration: a steampunk novel with the same title, written by Kevin J. Anderson, under the subtle direction of Neal Peart. For those of us who miss poring over gate-fold album art to better divine the true meaning of the music, this is fabulous fabulist stuff.

Meshuggah, Koloss. I hadn't heard, or heard of, “Djent”yet another sub-category of Metal — even though I'm a fan of the band that coined the term: Meshuggah. When I first gave Koloss a spin, I thought it a lesser effort to the previous album, obZen. Koloss grew on me, though, thanks (again) in no small part to the bonus material that came with the expanded CD (a “making of” doc, and some concert footage). This is textured, this is heavy, this is (dare I say?) meditative stuff. If you don't like Metal, you won't like this. But for those of us who do, there's nothing like Meshuggah.

Speaking of Metal, I think I was expecting something crunchier from Storm Corrosion — the most promising of this year's rock duos, Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) and Mikael Ã…kerfeldt (of Opeth). The album is certainly heavy, and has its sonic tensions that generate interest. A friend of mine talks about music that can't be played while washing dishes, because the dishes will never get done. Storm Corrosion certainly rests in this category, and consequently does not get much play. However, Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning and Insurgentes were both new to me this year, and received a great deal of taxi-Dad playtime.

Also enjoyed: the new Pat Metheny, and the new Charlie Hunter. And probably a few others that don't come immediately to mind, alas. But now I must tidy myself up and get ready for tonight's soiree. That's it for 2012. Let's hear it for 2013.

P.S. No, wait! Also Older Than My Old Man Now, by Loudon Wainwright III, and Sorrow & Smoke: Live At The Horseshoe Lounge by Slaid Cleaves.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Apocalypse: When?

William Kurelek's rendition of the Apocalypse,
as experienced in Hamilton, Ontario.

For those of us who don't have to take it seriously, this “Mayan” business is perhaps worthy material for mild amusement, but living Mayans are understandably pissed-off. Mind you, most of them are Christian, and it's not like ours is a religion innocent of fomenting public distress over The End of Days — a term we'd like to think we invented.

We didn't, of course. The human species seems genetically tuned in to the possibility — the certainty — of its final demise, and most religions wax rhapsodic about humanity's concluding episode, intimating there may be room for a sequel of sorts. We know we matter to ourselves, but what do we matter to the cosmos? The question launches us into the realm of speculation, dreams and nightmares, occasionally (rarely) wisdom. Poets assure us only that this is a world without happy endings. Your own personal apocalypse is unavoidable.

No surprise, then, that we turn for solace to music, the most ethereal and mathematical of expressions. I've recently been introduced — via this interview with Elaine Pagels, and the sublime writing of Alex Ross — to Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, The Quartet for the End of Time. I'll be giving that a spin as I tidy the house today. Ross recommends the Tashi Quartet, but I'll be playing the Gryphon Trio's recent recording.

And, as ever, I'll be playing Fagen and Becker's ironic (natch) paean to the end of time: “Everything Must Go.”

Indeed it must. But odds are I'll be back tomorrow, with further thoughts on All Those Angry Mennonites.

Howard Finster's rendition, as experienced 
just about anywhere.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher

Wishful DrinkingWishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Life is a cabaret" -- or perhaps more aptly, since Fisher wryly recounts how she failed as a chorus girl hoofer, "a comic monologue." Fisher skates lightly over thin ice and very dark water, covering conversational points that a prurient public is keen to hear embellished, but not gruesomely so: life on the Star Wars set; figuring out marriage in Hollywood; mixing it up with Paul Simon (twice); figuring out family in Hollywood (the insularity of family life in the fishbowl is remarkable to me: her mother remains her next-door neighbour); life as a very public mental health advocate; and waking up next to a dead friend, to name just a few. The book is essentially a transcript of her show from a year or two ago, and it's easy to hear her low, slurry delivery as you read it. I'd probably recommend a recording of this over the printed word, but since I had an hour to kill in a foreign library, this was precisely the item to ease the time.

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Old School, Tobias Wolff

Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Friday Big Jeff made it known that if his cousin got kicked out for cutting next afternoon's chapel, he was leaving with him. This was a curious and agreeable twist, Big Jeff spanieling after his cousin with tongue out, barking at phantoms as he followed him into martyrdom. It somehow put the whole thing in a farcical light, as Purcell must have understood, because he was furious.

The above passage comes late in Tobias Wolff's Old School. At this point the narrator and his other schoolmates are just weeks away from graduating their Exeter-like institution. Purcell has become that most insufferable of humans: an adolescent convert, in this case from an inherited, nominal Christianity to ardent atheist. Now he stands, alone, on principle. This being 1960, elite Protestant prep-schools require their students to attend daily chapel. Purcell is having none of it, and will soon be expelled for his insouciant variety of passive resistance. Alas for Purcell, “Big Jeff” has marched himself into a spotlight meant for one, and transformed a tragic drama of noble principle into a Laurel and Hardy comedy. Fraudulent motivations have been revealed — along with a great deal more.

It is a comic episode, one of many, elegantly framed by a writer who takes the comic imperative very seriously. The novel's school is quite the literary construct, a Hogwarts for young writers. The boys all compete for a private audience with the literary stars of the era (Frost! Rand!! Hemingway!!!). The fictions penned by these sprats are, in fact, masks crudely constructed to fit over their visages. Facade upon facade, painstakingly maintained to protect vulnerabilities — truths — from being revealed.

Wolff generates a beguiling self-awareness that is entirely unselfconscious — a precarious and breathtaking feat of balance. After all, this is a novel in which young writers concoct fiction upon fiction in a vainglorious effort to build themselves up into something they are not. Wolff's narrator, for instance, is attending the school on a scholarship, and in fact comes from a struggling household of modest means. He is understandably evasive about this with his schoolmates. He is also a Jew — a fact he is evasive about with himself.

Wolff's narrator's voice perfectly evokes the unfocused heat of youthful yearning, now regarded through a lens tempered by experiences that render a person either humiliated or humbled. Every character receives his comeuppance. Only the truest of them discover that their vulnerabilities are something not to reject, but embrace.

Earlier I made a comparison to Harry Potter. Had this been a novel of bold and inept measures, that is how it might have read. That so many readers regard Old School as a memoir is a testament to Wolff's fabulous powers of fictive persuasion. Perhaps there are a few “police court facts” thrown into the stew, but Wolff's compassionate exploration of life and truth is indeed novel, and finally an endearing and delightful work of fiction.

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