Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Take this with you to work next week!" Prog Rock Discoveries on (what else?) someone else's list

Discussed: PopMatters' 10 Best Progressive (and Metal) Albums of 2013

I tend to think my interest in Progressive Rock was fanned into flame only recently, with my accidental discovery of Steven Wilson, via Porcupine Tree.* Wilson’s album, The Raven That Refused To Sing is among the musical highlights of this last year for me. I enjoyed it immensely — the technical virtuosity, the literary pretensions, the cartoonishness of it all — as I enjoy just about everything Wilson’s put out.** This guy gives Raven a proper rave, sparing me the trouble. I tend to prefer the crunchier Insurgentes and Fear of a Blank Planet to it, but there’s no denying just what a powerful package Raven is.

In fact, I expected the album to top a chart like this, but to my surprise it occupies the #2 slot.

"#2? Really?"

Anathema’s Universal gets the crown. I hadn’t heard a single song by the band, but this super-highly recommended live album seemed like the ideal place to start, so I clicked over to the digital warehouse and hit “download album.”

What a mistake. I should have watched the video first.

The band and orchestra are clearly “on,” the crowd is obviously loving it — it’s a sympatico moment for all involved. But, wow, is this scene ever not for me. It reminds me of nothing so much as a David Crowder Band concert. The temptation is to declare that if you’re a rock band (“Prog” or otherwise) that draws natural comparisons to an Evangelical Christian worship band, something’s wrong. A more charitable tack is to acknowledge that both acts clearly (and similarly) appeal to that deep ineffable “something” in their audiences. Good on ‘em, good for ‘em. Good bye.

Moving down to #3, then, I vaguely recalled encountering Devin Townsend’s name and slightly kooky/slightly sinister demeanor in the pages of Revolver magazine (a yearly beach-read for me). Beyond the fact that he was Canadian, and originally signed by Frank Zappa’s beleaguered guitarist, Steve Vai, I knew nothing of the man or his music.

Kooky meets Sinister

Chastened by experience, I clicked the video. Vai shows up as a talking head, delivering a cheesy invocation. The track is titled “Grace”: was this going to be another sleepy, soppy “Anathema moment”? I kept watching, and . . .

Now that’s more like it!

The portentous disjunctive lyrics, delivered with such conviction within this extravagant Europa/Cirque du Soleil/mash-up mosh pit hits my inner sweet-spot — pretty hard.  I wouldn’t just put The Retinal Circus at the very top of the list, I’d assign it a league of its own.

Speaking as a glib newcomer, Townsend’s concert seems to offer a surprisingly satisfactory survey of his staggeringly enormous catalogue. A magnificent introduction, a delicious, well-edited spectacle — an approachable format all the way around — The Retinal Circus has me circling back to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, apparently. Townsend’s webpage is its own merry wonderment, and includes a complete discography, on which he comments with bracing candor. Merry Christmas to me — and, if this is your sort of thing, you too.

Actually, Merry Christmas to you regardless. Thanks for reading. Goodbye ’13, hello ’14.

*I was a young adolescent when Prog Rock was in its hey-day, and had little use for the genre at the time. Not for me the castrato-choral noodlings of Yes, the flute-whiffling of Jethro Tull, the studied drollery of Emerson Lake & Palmer (things might have been different if I’d had an older brother). Sure, I admired RUSH, but after 2112 they CLEARLY shifted from a “Prog” outfit to a “Power Rock Trio” — right?

The dude doth protest, of course. The truth is almost all the bands I’ve adored slip comfortably into Prog Rock’s loose uniform — beginning, especially, with the Christian Rock outfits. Themes of cosmic significance, an eagerness to try (and frequently fail at) new stylistic genres, stage shows that hammer home What It’s All About — most of those early Christian bands were Prog pretenders, really.

The bands that followed all fell into similar slots. Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, The Police, Peter Gabriel — even adroit Trickster figures like Tom Waits, or Donald Fagen and Walter Becker . . . an argument could be made that they all in fact have deep roots in the larger Prog tree.

But submitting to such enthusiasm is merely the flipside of the Prog Embarrassment Factor.

**Wilson was born in ’67, so for me he plays like a slightly younger, cranky, British brother who’s keen on Hitchens. Now, I can’t speak with any authority on that final conviction***, but Wilson is unmistakably British and does indeed get cranky where claims of religious certainty are concerned.

***Wilson’s thematic explorations suggest, to me at least, a vague techno-paganism. Wilson's site is here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mid-December Melt-Down

Well, it happened again, this time on a Sunday morning. My Church Face, normally a rictus of (I hope) benign engagement, weakened as the song played on, then finally crumbled, forcing me to discretely hanky away tears and schnodda. When the service concluded I bee-lined for home and consulted my account of my first encounter with the song, to see what, if anything was different. I noticed I was missing a verse in the original posting. Apparently the interweb doesn't have the second verse (added by a second author, 24 years after the original) so here, in its entirety, is the song I pathetically attempted to sing:

          All Poor Ones and Humble

All poor ones and humble
and all those who stumble
come hastening, and feel not afraid;
for Jesus our treasure,
with love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
laid rich gifts around him,
yet oxen they gave him their hay,
and Jesus in beauty
accepted their duty, contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
The Christ Child will lead us,
the Good Shepherd feed us
and with us abide till his day.
Then hatred he'll banish,
then sorrow will vanish,
and death and despair flee away.
And he shall reign ever,
and nothing shall sever
from us the great love of our King;
his peace and his pity
shall bless his fair city;
his praises we ever shall sing.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
Words: v.1 Katharine Emily Roberts 1927, alt, v.2 William Thomas Penmar Davies 1951
Music: Welsh carol, harm. Erik Routley 1951

Analysis: there are a couple of aspects to this song which allow it to slip past 48 years of cultivated resistance. Foremost is its unfamiliarity. For many years O Holy Night had a similar penetrative reach, but these days it takes a very rare talent for that song to stir much depth of effect in me. This was the second time I'd sung All Poor Ones and Humble, so it's still “new” to me.

Second is the ease of its harmonies. To wit:

That bass line is a snap for a Mennonite plough-boy to catch and sing along to. It doesn't swing over Middle C — the tendency for most hymns and (shudder) choruses penned after Vatican II, and a very personal pet peeve of mine. Any “bass line” that hovers around Middle C and higher isn’t a bass line at all — it’s a baritone.

Perhaps more crucially, the bass line is also novel enough to nudge a little investment of personality into its delivery. It is the Welsh equivalent of the Song of the Volga Boatmen — somber, sober, serious — everything the bass voice is built to communicate. It rather mischievously entices said Mennonite plough-boy to march off the muddy field and join the other somber, sober, serious chaps in the congregation to deliver the full weight of this song's convictions and sentiments — until they boomerang back on the unsuspecting doofus, and reduce his final chorus to a discrete percussion of throat-clearing and nose-honking.

Oh, well. I can only hope this second meditation on All Poor Ones and Humble will elevate it into the zeitgeist, right up there with O Holy Night, making it a seasonal standard, so that my resistance accrues until I'm able to sing the song to conclusion — preferably before my own conclusion occurs and I discover precisely to what degree “his peace and his pity/shall bless his fair city.”

Right then: defences are clearly back up, so let's shift gears to Progressive Rock — a genre I consider to be very much in league with the song above.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lists, continued.

On the topic of listicles, my blogger-buddy Joel Swagman has put together a list of his favourite narrative history books, over here. Joel is a feet-on-the-street history enthusiast, fascinated by (but by no means fixated on) those scenes where the Left takes centre stage (so to speak). Do check him out. He may save you further reading. Better yet, he may entice you on to further vistas.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Making a list, and checking it ... well, probably not checking it at all, to be honest.

It's listicle season, again. Music, movies, books, what-have-you. Do you bother with any of it? If so, which ones?

For me, the older I get, the fewer I attend to. At the end of December, I'll head over to Metacritic to see which games made the year's top ten. By April (June, at the latest) those should all be affordable, and I'll nab the ones that looked most interesting.

There are book lists I'll glance at, just to see if there isn't the occasional oddball the prestige outfits missed (or ignored). I haven't seen anyone put Aleksandar Hemon's The Story Of My Lives on any such list, so here's me, whacking the dinner-bell on its behalf.

For some reason, I've gone cold on movie lists. I really could not be arsed, and I'm damned if I can put my finger on precisely why that is. I've cooled toward movies, too (obviously). It's not that they're dead to me — I recently enjoyed The Way Way Back, and consider Gravity to be this year's Mandatory-Pay-The-Bucks-And-Sit-In-The-Theatre-You-Won't-Regret-It movie. I could mull over the unique insights and minor quibbles I had with both movies, but neither of these experiences caught me with the emotional urgency of, say, the fourth season of Friday Night Lights.

That's not to sing the standard chorus of “Television Is Better Than The Movies” (although you'll get little argument from me on that score). But I can remember a week some sixteen years ago when my wife and I spent five hours in a hospital emergency room with our infant daughter possessed by a raging fever that could not be tamed, and when we finally returned home with a correct diagnosis and the appropriate antibiotics, I could not fall asleep, so I went out to see L.A. Confidential and was just SO BLOODY GRATEFUL to experience a flickering projection that could pull me out of all that and so immersively into its own weirdo, whacked-out world for a solid two-hour stretch, that OF COURSE I had to write about it. What other response was there?

But movies aren't really that, anymore. Even Gravity, which gets so close to that, serves as a glum reminder of just how much closer Cuaron got to that with Children Of Men (my God, what a devastating movie — still. Here's a list-topper for you: Children Of Men was the movie of the last ten years, and remains as yet unchallenged for the current decade. Discuss).

And then there's Music — holy shit and holy cow, what list could possibly do any justice to the pre-Cambrian explosion of little scenes, little audiences, little bands and the sub-sub-sub-sub-genres that have proliferated like so many digital spermatozoa and ovum? No, we bedraggled listeners have to stake a particular claim on our peculiar aural fixations, and if you just happen to have a list that might speak to said fixations — well, okay, I'll take a look.

Which brings me to PopMatters' 10 Best Progressive (and Metal) Albums, here.

To be continued.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Frozen Thaws Me Out

My ringette-playin' daughter and I found ourselves with seven hours' time to kill between tournament games last weekend, so we hoofed it to a movieplex to see what we could see. Pickings were slim, as you are probably aware, made all the moreso by some necessary preconditions: my daughter had to stay in a competitive frame of mind, so no downers; also, nothing so intense as to distract from the day at hand; funny is good, especially if it accompanies uplift.

The only movie to meet these criteria, of course, was Disney's Fozen.

I didn't hold out much hope for the experience — we'd seen Brave and were underwhelmed. But I glanced at the 16-year-old beside me and realized that my days of seeing anything like this with her, prior to her introducing children of her own to the world, were just about at a close. So I squared my shoulders, swiped the plastic and marched into the theatre.

I liked it — we liked it. But, against all odds, I liked it.

John Lasseter's name came up early, which did nothing to inspire confidence. Considering what a paint-by-numbers outfit Pixar has become, it struck me as unlikely that Lasseter had anything left up his Hawaiian shirt-sleeves to reinvigorate Disney.

The introductory Mickey Mouse short set me straight, pretty quickly. It hits all the surreal notes that the Steamboat Willy-era rodent did, with exactly the right wacky digital flourishes to bring it all into the here-and-now. It's fun, and it's funny — for fun's sake — with none of the moral freight that's come with the recent Pixar shorts.

Plenty of time for moral freight in the feature, of course. It's Disney, so Lessons Must Be Learned, hopefully with a lot of goofy (sic) sugar to help the medicine go down.

Frozen delivers as expected, catching me off-guard at many of its most common signature flourishes. Music, for instance — the movie is lousy with it, clearly setting itself up for the stages of Broadway and your local elementary school. Every time the strings swept in to signify another belt-busting number, my heart sank a little, only to get roused up to the base of my throat, making swallowing difficult. So cheesy. So spot-on.

It helps that I'm the father of daughters, of course. Watching two sisters struggle with expressing the fierceness of their love for each other, without raising undue expectations, well . . . you've got me choking up just typing that cheap summary statement.

But I think the real brilliance in this film is the way Disney/Lasseter acknowledge both the stupidity and even perniciousness of the usual Disney Animation Tropes, before finally committing to their undeniable appeal. “True Love At First Sight” — what a crock! What a caper! What fun!

Throw in an enchanted snowman who likes warm hugs and can't wait to see his first summer, and you've got a movie I don't in the least begrudge seeing more than once.

From Disney. And Lasseter. Whodathunkit?

(Oh, and we won the game.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

“What is the one novel that could change our nation?”

Whatever one makes of CBC's Canada Reads contest,* the question it poses this year is a jolly thought-provocation. And although I've not yet finished the novel, I am gratified to see Joseph Boyden's The Orenda among the contenders.

Contenders: Wabi Kinew (left) defends
Joseph Boyden (right)

I intend to produce an attentive critique later, but here are a few early, superficial observations on (appropriately enough) the packaging:

Book blurb — here it is, in its entirety:

From the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Through Black Spruce comes a literary masterpiece — a defining, epic story of first contact between radically different worlds, steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years.

The Orenda opens with the kidnapping of Snow Falls, a spirited Iroquois girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. Although it's been years since the murder of his family members, they're never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter; he sees that the girl possesses powerful magic, something useful to him and his people on the troubled road ahead. The Huron Nation has battled the Iroquois for as long as Bird can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous peril from afar.

Christophe does not see himself as a threat, however. A charismatic Jesuit missionary, he has found his calling amongst the Huron, devoting himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. As an emissary from distant lands, he brings much more, though, than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars, and a nation emerges from worlds in flux. Powerful and deeply moving, The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is at its roots timeless and eternal.

God love the hacks who write this blather, but sheesh: does this ever dampen my desire to read the book. “Literary masterpiece . . . steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years . . . three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity . . . timeless and eternal.” This pitch is aimed at the Forest Hill Book Club set, assuring them that Boyden retains his capacity to engage, while ratcheting up the social significance factor. In other words, don’t worry: it’s good for you.

I’m more of a “If it’s good to you, it’s good for you” sort of reader: to determine whether or not I’ll give a book a go, this style of blurb makes me work harder than I’d like. But there remain signifiers that I’ll probably dig this. First of all, I occasionally enjoy taking on Big Ideas. The intersection where a Pantheist culture first encounters a Monotheist evangelist and his culture ought to be pertinent. Throw in some sex and violence, and I’m all yours. “Brutal” assures me of the latter, but Canadian publishers remain prim about reader prurience, alas. Thankfully, I’ve read Boyden’s other work. He’s a candid, primal-urges sort of dude — so count me in.

Could The Orenda “change our nation”? That's all speculation, of course, but in Boyden's writing there is a distinctive moral heat quite similar to Victor Hugo's (whose Les Miserables unquestionably spurred significant changes in his nation). Also, The Orenda brings to mind — in a salutary way — John Gardner's assertion: “No ignoramus — no writer who has kept himself innocent of education — has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies.” Boyden, also a writing teacher (even Scotiabank Giller Prize-winners have to pay the bills), clearly does understand just how ancient his chosen arguments are, and comprehends the issues of dignity and worth with greater depth and sensitivity than do most of his lit-fic contemporaries.

But let's skitter back to the surface of things. Here's the (Canadian) dust-jacket for the hardcover:

That appears to be a dense rainforest of birch trees (or maybe poplar, but I doubt it). Again, I'm not encouraged by the art, even if I can understand the “why” of it. For my tastes it evokes too much of Can-Lit's “Lamp At Noon” all-is-lost dreariness. But that's just me. To compare, there isn't a single cover to any of Jim Harrison's novels** that appeals to me, either, but I usually devour whatever he produces.

There's a solution to every problem, though — take off the jacket:

Handsome looking book, no? More to follow.

*I think Canada Reads is usually a well-executed novelty: an “insider's view” of a Literary Contest. It doesn't always work (last year was a bust), but usually it's an entertaining nudge to get me reading one or two contempo-Can-lit novels I would have otherwise given a pass.

**The cover to Harrison's memoirs, however, is a winner.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How To Roger Canada's National Game

Rogers Media is set to take exclusive broadcast control over all NHL content in Canada. The CBC retains their Hockey Night In Canada brand — and that’s about all, really. For the next four years the Corp will be broadcasting Saturday night games and the Stanley Cup play-offs, but Rogers is in charge of all aspects of production, and receives all the ad revenue.

What this means for Canadian hockey fans is still a matter of speculation. Four years from now, if you want to watch hockey, you may have to subscribe to Rogers for the pleasure. Or, if your ISP is non-Rogers (inevitably, for some of us, since Rogers’ purview does not yet cover every square inch of our home and native land) perhaps they’ll cook up a pay-as-you-watch scheme. The details are yet to be worked out. In the meantime, casual fans can tuck into Rogers’ table-scraps, humbly reheated by our national public broadcaster.

What this means for CBC Television is also a matter of speculation. They’ve just lost half their ad revenue.

I’m old enough to be nostalgic about HNIC and CBC Television. I’m also just young enough to realize nostalgia is no way to go forward. Other people with deeper pockets were doing a better job of broadcasting hockey (TSN was the best, IMO). If the only edge the Corp had over them was Don Cherry, it was way past time to focus — keenly — on innovation elsewhere.

What does this mean for the game? The medium is the massage, after all — the optics of pro hockey affect the play of the game. And up here, nobody watched HNIC without sitting through commercials for The Nature of Things. The same people who made David Suzuki made Don Cherry, and in that weird melange viewers were often forced to consider aspects of the National Game they might otherwise have given a pass.

If you think I exaggerate (“Nobody makes Don Cherry except for DON CHERRY!”) ask yourself: how many minutes has Rogers devoted to misty-eyed salutes to fallen Canadian soldiers?

Rogers might take Grapes on-board (I’m not holding my breath), but I’m pretty sure David Suzuki isn’t part of the deal. The Corp delivered Canada’s yin-and-yang with those two, and one thing Rogers will be keen to eliminate is any hint of the sort of second-guessing Suzuki’s “yang” brings to the enterprise — any enterprise.

Rogers has four years to prove itself a capable host of Canada’s Game — and all the bizarre, conflicting ideologies tangled up with it. Which brings me to my last thought. Let’s see a show of hands: how many people are fans of Rogers? OK, now how about fans of Gary Bettman?



Buddies in bad threads.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Barbara Park, RIP

I am working on a large and unruly post (related to Michael Walker's What You Want Is In The Limo -- among many, many other things) and it, alas, cannot be pared down into individual installments.

So here is this week's post: a lamentation at the passing of Barbara Park, whose Junie B. Jones books were the light of this family's life for a crucial stretch of years when the only words we read were shortly before the kids' bedtime -- and thus our own. Those books were so funny, and so touching, and so filled with life. Adults and children alike went to bed giggling, or dabbing at stray tears, thanks to Barbara Park, at a stage in life when it was all a grown-up could do to keep up with the laundry.

Barbara Park made the world a better place for everyone to live in. God love you, woman.

CBC "I'm not actually sure I'm grown-up enough for grown-up books"NYT.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"I guess we can't feel superior to Italy, anymore."

Let’s get the obvious out of the way.

1) I don’t like Rob Ford. I don’t live in Toronto anymore, so I couldn’t vote against the man, but if I could’ve I would’ve.

2) Rob Ford is incredibly likeable. I’m talking “off-the-charts” likeable. Not 24/7, of course. These days it’s all he can do to muster up that level of likeability for three straight hours in a single week. And I’d go further and assert that the burden of proof now lies on the other extreme of the spectrum: he has consistently proven himself a profoundly unlikeable character. But despite all that I don’t doubt for a second that, given the right circumstances, I would find myself coming around and, gosh-darn-it, liking this guy — this guy I would never in a thousand years vote for.

The hard-core “Ford Nation” types liked him right from the git-go, and because of this they will not be swayed — ever. They all possess a singular characteristic that Born Again evangelists learn to recognize very quickly when proselytizing: these nice people will not be moved. They Are Going To Hell and nothing you say will change that, so smile, politely thank them for opening their door to you, wish them a nice day and move on to the next house.

But geez-Louise: everyone in this guy’s inner circle is either quitting, or going to jail, or getting whacked. It’s time to stop liking the guy, and start thinking straight.

So far as I’m concerned the salient talking-points are only secondarily related to his penchant for substance abuse (now entirely in hand, we are assured). When he’s being unlikeable, he’s a bully and a goon who consorts with gangsters in a fashion that is less-than-reformatory. The video that the Star and Sun both ponied up for is disturbing, I think, not because the man is in a drunken rage (with a tad more energy than I typically associate with buckets of alcohol), but because he’s talking rather persuasively about killing someone — to associates who seem rather persuasively able to do something about it.

Even casual observers (and none of us are that, anymore) have to admit the guy has a seriously compromised capacity for judgment. The world learns of a potential “crack smoking tape,” so he knows he’s being watched — and he still escorts his driver in “drop-off” runs? It hardly matters what he’s dropping off, that’s just incredibly stupid.

So now the city council is basically stripping him of whatever residual mayoral powers remain, and I find myself getting bothered by that. The mayor’s powers are pathetic to begin with! For all the Toronto Council virtues that people praise, it is a ridiculously hamstrung chamber at the best of times. For my voting currency, I wish previous mayor David Miller had had a bigger bat to swing during his tenure — he’d have got more done that the Fords could take a swing at (like garbage contracts, for starters). With his friends reduced to a measly five, Ford can’t get anything done in chamber anyway — why not just consider him persona non grata and get on with business as usual?

Actually, it all seems kind of obvious, doesn't it?

Anyway, as has now become the norm, the Neo-Puritans at VICE have done the best job of culling and summarizing the local-now-gone-global news. Read it and weep.

*The heading is a quote from my wife, said this morning, in reference to the apparent undying popularity of Silvio Berlusconi. So yuk it up while you can, Taiwan:

Nick Lowe's Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For The Whole Family

It's Christmas, at one of those massive family gatherings that requires a rented hall. Grand-parents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts, nephews, nieces and cousins, and an incomparable host of distantly-removed cousins to boot. The Pater Familias went ahead and hired a band to show up for an hour. They trudge in — seasoned veterans to a person — set up their equipment and tune up.

The band leader knows exactly what he's in for. The Pater Familias is old enough to remember what an electrical jolt it was to see Elvis on Sullivan. There's the usual group of grizzled aunts and uncles who have staked their claim at the bar at the back, where they guzzle VO and Coke between begrudging trips outside into the weather for a smoke. And there are the young parents, anxious for anything just a little hipper than what the purple dinosaur is offering, and bracing themselves because their kids are going to cry when the music gets loud. And, of course, there are the hipster yoots, milling at the edges of the crowd and smirking because they're sure this is going to be bad — in a bad way.

All present and accounted for.

The band leader clears his throat, strums the opening chord, and approaches the mic. Howls: “Children go where I send theeeeee...”

It's old-timey rockabilly and it . . . kinda . . . cooks!

With this opening note, Nick Lowe gets the entire crowd on-side — and keeps 'em on-side for the remaining 45 minutes, covering all the bases from the sentimental, to the sincere, to the inevitably acerbic (because how can you not be?) with just enough base-line rock 'n' roll to keep the hip young things from leaving the room. It's a hell of a show, and it leaves everyone smiling.

And it closes all-too-quickly, because too short is better than too long. The usual music sweeps in and takes over the sound-system. It's the Christmas everyone is familiar with.

But speaking as the Pater Familias who's hired that band, I think I got my money's worth. In fact, I want to throw them a Christmas tip. So this is it: go get that record, sit back and enjoy the show while you're driving home from work. And see if your crowd doesn't find a song or two — or more— that they want incorporated into the family's seasonal playlist.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

You know that moment when...

…you scroll through the recent additions to your subscription service, and spot a performer/album that came with a high recommendation, so you hit “Select” then “Play”…

…and the first song is over, the next song has begun, and you’re thinking, “Mm … meh,” but you’re elbow-deep in soapsuds, so you let it keep playing…

…then you catch yourself thinking, “Actually, this one isn’t so bad”…

…and four songs later, you’re thinking, “Oh boy — I think I really, really dig this. I mean: the whole enchilada!” so when it’s all done, you hit “Replay” — several times?

Jonathan Wilson’s Fanfare is that moment.

"See, dude? You just gotta give it time."

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

SILK SPECTRE by Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner

Silk Spectre's pages open shortly after The Minutemen's close. I hadn't known until I opened the book that Cooke was not taking on the artwork of this story. Figuring this exercise might be as pathetic as some of the non-Cooke material in The Spirit v. 2, my expectations dropped accordingly and I started scanning the panels.

Amanda Conner could not have asked for better conditions to an optimal introduction.

I became ravenous for the work, flipping from one page to the next and devouring its sequences like they were fistfuls of hot, goopy poutine. Midway through the book I grudgingly forced myself to stop, return to the beginning and read the words to get the full effect. This is fabulous stuff.

Here’s a typical Conner panel, early in the narrative — Los Angeles, 1960. Girl meets boy:

Notice how the bulk of the drama is in the girl’s face. Her half-lidded eyes are searching for clues, not so much in her exterior environment (her gaze rarely settles on anything inside the frame) but somewhere else. She's trying to figure out where she's at: with this boy, with his future — their future — and with each other's dominant, physically abusive parent. Then, smooch, the eyes open up: revelation! as embodied by that last “too-large-for-the-panel” expressionist frame. These are motifs that Conner returns to and plays with again and again.

The girl is Laura Jupiter, the daughter of the original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter. Sally's control of Laura is near-pathological, particularly in her concern (entirely understandable to Watchmen readers) for her daughter to protect herself against would-be rapists. Until now, Sally has held all the cards in the relationship: emotionally, sexually, athletically. Laura is squirming out from under her thumb. She and her boyfriend run off to San Francisco.

Conner-Cooke's '60s San Francisco is a colourful melange of the expected tropes, including Kool-Aid courtesy of Kesey & his Merry Pranksters, mixed in with bad guys that are a mash-up of Adam West Batman and, well, Alan Moore pervi-tude. Meet “The Chairman”:

In this setting, Silk Spectre Jr., discovers that emasculating bad dudes is a squeamishly satisfying activity. She also discovers that drugs can be unpleasant — and that’s about all. The reader, of course, is privy to a great deal more. The art itself conveys aspects of Laura’s larger environment that she is oblivious to. It surprises me not at all to learn that Conner has spent time in the Archie Comics stable. The playfulness of the art, and its exploration of these groovy young things as they lay claim to the world, is the smartest portrait of early hippie culture since MAD magazine. These kids are dropping out of Riverdale High, while clinging tightly to a childish naivety that will do many of them grievous harm in the mischief that follows.

I think this is all note-perfect for the larger Watchmen story-arc. The fact is Laura Jupiter, like most of her fellow Watchmen, is predominantly clueless to the larger machinations at work. That some readers deem this a “Coming of Age” narrative is highly ironic. There is no age to come to. Laura is fated from the get-go to make seemingly spontaneous choices that do not end well for her, or anyone in her orbit. Conner, following the lead of her story-editor, closes with a final frame that is creepy in its self-congratulatory sense of happy potential. Readers know exactly where this is all going (note clock on the upper right) — and it is not pretty.

And yet, isn’t it pretty to think otherwise?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed is dead.” I saw the news where everybody else saw it — so-called “social media” — and read it aloud. I was surprised by the catch in my voice, the sudden blurriness of vision.

My wife heard it too. “Oh no!”

“Who's Lou Reed?” asked my daughter.

“A rock 'n' roll singer,” said my wife. “When I first met your father, Lou Reed was the artist I most associated with him.”

Yes, that was it — exactly. She and I met between New York (w) and Magic & Loss (w)at a point when I was completely taken with Lou Reed.

1991: Yours Truly, taking the adulation juuuuust a little too far.

I'd heard “Walk On The Wild Side” of course, but New York was my first real exposure to Reed. “Busload of Faith” closed an otherwise forgettable movie — I stayed in my seat to catch his name in the end-credits scroll, and on the strength of that one track went ahead and purchased the CD.

That album won me, heart and soul. It catalogued and put into perspective all the unsettling noises I heard in the hallways of my crappy apartment building. It catalogued everything I was afraid of and enraged by. And more than anything else to date, it perfectly catalogued the vague intellectual apprehensions that were forming in the tension between my faith and doubts — or rather, “Faith and Doubt.”

Following that up with the magisterial Magic & Loss only deepened my love for the man and his music. I had a lot of catching up to do, and he obliged me with Between Thought & Expression — the book, and the boxed set.

And then, of course, I came to realize I wasn't completely on-board for the whole of the enterprise. Some of the material was, if you pondered it for any length of time, downright terrifying. Some of it was tedious. “Unpleasant” was a term that applied often enough to keep me from hitting “replay.”

But “Uninteresting”? Never.

If you aspired to follow him, he was likely to shake you off — sooner, rather than later. This middle-class, middle-aged listener's response to the bulk of Lou Reed's ouevre is, “Mm — more your bag than mine, Lou. But good on you, man.” The thing is, somewhere in that massive catalogue is a piece, an album, a single line or image that absolutely nails it for the listener — any listener.

Lou Reed exuded the sense that there wasn't anything he wouldn't risk for the sake of his art. Although the risks he took were often so much greater than those of his compatriots, I'm not sure that's the final truth of the man. He also exuded the sense that he could be perfectly candid — but here, too, I'm unsure. The bulk of his candour, it seems to me, is concerned with other lives, and the risks he saw others taking.

At some point you heard him being candid about you — and you either loved him or hated him for it. Or both.

A few favourite Lou links: this 1992 interview, with Neil Gaiman, is rather charming. Also, Jian Ghomeshi's recent radio interview is here in its entirety, and the un-aired tech set-up segment in the first four minutes is a rare treat. And of course there are heaps of mediocre tributes besides my own, but really — how can hacks like us possibly top the legendarily tempestuous back-and-forth between Lou Reed and Lester Bangs? We can only link, in awe.

Finally, here is Lou's website — dude took a good picture right to the end.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke

Confession: I am not a fan of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. I don't dislike it — there's much to admire in its furrowed-brow po-mo perambulations — but I've never been blown away by it, the way so many readers seem to, because — Holy Henry James, Batman! — is it ever wordy. And this is from a guy who loves to read.

Watchmen isn't just wordy, it is also cluttered. And static. And pretentious — which I actually kinda like, so let's get back to the other faults.

Wordy, cluttered and static — generally these aren't terms I want applied to sequential art. A little flow and zip go a long way toward the successful seduction of the innocent. Watchmen had just enough flow and zip to keep me reading to the bitter end, but not nearly enough to make me swoon.

So when DC launched its line of Watchmen prequels, and Moore vigorously protested, I had no dog in the fight whatsoever. DC could transform the Watchmen into Baby Muppets, or make a Lucasian mess out of continuity — me, I was all, “What me worry?”

But then Darwyn Cooke came on board. I've long admired his approach to other people's intellectual property: against all odds Richard Stark's “Hunter”, the Justice League of America, Cat-Woman — even Will Eisner's The Spirit — have been well served, even reinvigorated under Cooke's attentions. There was no question whatever Watchmen prequel Cooke took on was going to have flow and zip to it. Could he bring anything else to the project, or would that be enough to ignite my interest in this property?

Cooke's Minutemen are the forebears of the Watchmen, and he focuses on the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. Cooke renders Mason in mid-life, struggling to get his memoirs into print. Watchmen readers are familiar with the work (Under The Hood) as it was finally published: Mason recounts a giddy era when Super-heroes were just beginning to imprint themselves on public consciousness. In Moore-Gibbons' Watchmen Mason's memoirs are a source of amusement and derision, to be read ironically. Cooke's post-Golden-Era/pre-memoirs Mason, however, reveals that the impetus of his project was to unburden himself of a guilty conscience.

He wants nothing less than to tell The Truth.

Readers of Watchmen are well aware of the naivety of this enterprise, even if they possess (with only one gruesome exception) vague intimations of what Mason might have been privy to. As Cooke's story progresses, it becomes clear Mason's confessions compromise every one of the the Minutemen — himself included, of course, although in this regard he is not at all aware of just how damning the full story truly is until it is brutally laid out for him in the final pages.

Mason's choice to reinforce the Official Version of events while he silently shoulders the burden of The Truth can be seen as the existentially heroic deed of a sweet-natured man, or an act of abject cowardice from a gormless doofus relieved to have finally met his match. Cooke's portrait allows the reader's needle to swing freely from either extreme — Minutemen is Cooke's darkest work to date.

The artwork, of course, is vintage Cooke — excellent, as always.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke (A) Next post: tripping out on Amanda Conner's Silk Spectre!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Byrned Out

A musician friend of mine put out a CD in the '90s, at a price that covered all his costs so he could break even. After production, shipping and incidentals he landed on a sticker price of $32. If you bought it from him face-to-face, he let you round it down — or up — at your own discretion. I gave him $40, and wished him success.

The monetary value affixed to music — or any art-form, really — has always struck me as arbitrary. I've dropped an unconscionable sum of money on a concert in which the performer informed us that he wasn't enjoying the night any more than we were. And I've parted with a pittance for tunes that make me happy I'm still alive. At the intersection of art and commerce there is no equity, and there never has been — only artists who have garnered enough success to be comfortable can persuade themselves otherwise.

Which brings me to David Byrne. If Amanda Palmer is Indy Rock's Joel Osteen, Mr. Byrne has assumed the mantle of Grocer of Gloom (just as well, since Leonard Cohen seems to be getting lighter of foot and mood the closer he gets to his grave). I find I'm both surprised and somewhat depressed at Mr. Byrne's slipping into codgerdom, even if said slip is both punctual and well-deserved.

It's not Mr. Byrne's tone that bums me out so much as it is his content: “Starving artists can no longer afford to starve in New York City”; “Interweb streaming is killing art, so I'm pulling out my entire digital cache in protest.” Really? Geez-Louise, man: those horses haven't just left the barn, the barn's been levelled and paved over for a few more precious slots in the enormous Theme Park parking lot that's replaced the Farm.

It's the naivete that kills, the almost whispered expectation that maybe somehow the Powers That Be might do something to entice those edgy arty types back to the now-gilded Big Apple, or come up with a sliding scale to protect aspiring musicians like St. Vincent from putting on the blue smock and greeting customers after the tour has wrapped up.

You can curse the darkness or light a candle — or, better yet, do both! And so I refer you back to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's “acceptance note” for Canada's Polaris Prize — here. It has a refreshing clarity of perspective that I find lacking in Mr. Byrne's laments. The simple fact is there is no more valuable characteristic we can cultivate in our post-Gutenberg youth than the perspective of a free-lancer, because it doesn't matter if you play guitar, sell books or lay bricks for a living — we're all free-lancers now.

And if you happen to be one of those arty free-lancers, you have one small advantage over the rest of us: you can appeal directly on behalf of your most pertinent needs. Production funds, food and lodging, medical care, shoes for the kids — there's no longer any point to being coy about any of this. Go ahead and ask. Your most ardent fans will want these things for you as badly as you do.

And if they don't, you can always join me in the Blue Smock Brigade.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cécile McLorin Salvant 's WomanChild

It's Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada. I went and put Cécile McLorin Salvant 's WomanChild at the front of my Thanksgiving Playlist. This may have been a mistake.

When Ms. McLorin Salvant starts singing, people stop what they're doing — conversation, the dishes, you name it. “Who is this? What a voice!” Indeed. Listen at your own discretion. Once you start you won't stop — until she's done.

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Friday, October 04, 2013

Your link to good karma!

We all know how the interweb works: if you can get past the photos of naked celebs and their naked celebrity daughters, you'll get to the bad news. Really, really, really Bad News.

I'm here to give you a break. Let's start with 3D Printers. Sure, some genius went global with info on how to use 'em to make a gun -- and brother, we are sure to see beaucoup karma returns coming in on that "gift" for a long, long time. So why not kick-start a little good karma, by using 3D printers to produce affordable prosthetics for the poorest of the poor?

Here's the deal: go here, watch the two-minute video, and click "like." The more "likes" the video gets, the better its chances are of getting funded. It's slack-tivism at its best!

Full disclosure: my wife works with these people. Which I am terrifically proud of -- I don't bang the drum on their behalf nearly as often as I should. These cats are among the best of the best. Any time you spend with, and on, them inevitably improves you. It's that "good karma" thing I'm talking about. So go. Now. (Please.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Matter With Morris, David Bergen

The Matter With MorrisThe Matter With Morris by David Bergen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh for a change of heart — a true change of heart! Herzog, Saul Bellow.

Everything [Morris] had rejected in his father turned out to be true or correct: the parsimony, the frugality, the strictures, the chastity, the faithfulness. His father had been maniacal about living honestly and with integrity. He had recycled before it was in vogue. He had tithed more than ten percent. He had sheltered the homeless and fed the poor. He was not wasteful or degenerate. Many of these things Morris had rejected. He had thrown out the old and gathered up the new, the modern, the material, as if the past could be thrown out like a heap of garbage. It turned out that his father, in his stinginess and harshness, had been quite right about the world. It was damned.

Morris Schutt has reason to be so dour in his appraisal of things. At 51, his particular mid-life crisis is exacerbated by the entirely senseless death of his son — whom he goaded into joining the Army, then deploying for Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire. Morris, who writes a newspaper column that trades on wry observations of family life, now finds himself writing just candidly enough to get himself into trouble, and not candidly enough to climb out of it. This habit of half-measured caution spins Morris out of his marriage and into a weird moral limbo where he struggles to find purchase.

Morris's measured disclosures attract the attentions of another grieving parent — a mother in Minnesota, who's lost a son in Iraq. She and Morris exchange e-mails, then quickly switch to letters (a romantically antiquated form of discourse that also has the benefit of being more private and secure). Morris's curiosity gets the better of them both, and they meet in a Minneapolis hotel room. But Morris, who has revealed so much and so little to her, is unable to consummate the affair. For sexual release, or what passes for it, he needs the anonymity of call girls.

But here, too, he is foiled, when he discovers that his forthcoming escort is in fact a girl who used to date his late son. Now he — and she — know just enough to put him off the pursuit of sexual congress, and he takes it upon himself to nudge her toward respectability. The truth is the only person he's acquired any real intimacy with is his wife Lucille. And he has shut her out with his increasingly erratic and irresponsible behaviour — which now includes selling off all his assets for cash in a safe, and writing peevish letters to gun manufacturers, and the Prime Minister who OK'd their purchase and dispatch.

The epistolary aspect of the novel has drawn comparisons to Saul Bellow's Herzog (as does the above quote, which Bergen uses to preface the novel). It's a risky gambit on Bergen's part, and some reviewers gently note that Bergen doesn't quite reach the same heights of unhinged rapture that Bellow managed. I think this is an unfortunate distraction — Morris Schutt is not Moses Herzog, as Morris in fact points out to himself. Bergen's Morris is a man who, despite his penchant for reckless acting out, simply cannot shake his inherently instinctual cautiousness. Even Morris's raptures — of anger, despair, naked self-awareness — will be carefully measured affairs.

“To finish with Herzog, I meant the novel to show how little strength 'higher education' had to offer a troubled man.” Saul Bellow, in his forward to Allan Bloom's The Closing Of The American Mind.

Here, I think, is where Bergen's intentions are more closely aligned with Bellow — although, again, because the story is filtered through Morris's perspective, it is a growing self-awareness leavened by caution, even timidity.

Morris spots a beloved and admired professor — “Professor Karle” — from  his university days, riding a bicycle rather painfully. Morris recalls Karle as a man of vibrant intelligence, who diligently applied himself to a full and virtuous life beneath the awareness of death, and doing what he could to nurture this awareness in his students. Some weeks later, Karle succumbs to cancer. Morris declines to attend the funeral, but later purchases a few boxes of books from the man's library, which he scours in search of answers through his dilemma. He latches onto a few wise-sounding tidbits, but has to finally admit he does not have the same tenacity of focus that his former prof did.

He returns to his Divorced Men's Support Group, and drifts in and out of revery:

Doug, early in September at one of the first meetings, had talked about the individual, and how, for all the complaints about the plight one might find oneself in, most people wouldn't change places with another even if begged or paid. “Most of us are, healthily, in love with ourselves. This is necessary.” True, very true, Morris thought, though he couldn't imagine why some of these poor men wouldn't want to be him. He was fit, somewhat popular, not bad looking, had money, drove a Jaguar, slept with escorts, had free time, was intelligent, read and sort of understood Tillich, possessed an okay jump shot, and with the aid of several ancient guides such as Plato, he was slowly crawling up out of the cave. On the other hand, when he looked at the men around him in the group, he wanted nothing to do with their lives. Doug, the egalitarian leader? No, too old and boring. Mervine? Too pitiful, too painful to consider. Peter, the Filipino who lived with seventeen other family members? No, too servile, too simple. Ezra, the fallen Jew? No, though there was something attractive about the tribal camaraderie. Morris had been raised a Mennonite stoic in a tribe that wasn't a tribe at all, but more a failed cult whose main sources of entertainment were music, wordplay, and suffering. He had shucked that off quite quickly. And so on. If he would be forced to choose under the pressure of torture, he would surrender to the possibility of something beyond this room, into the realm of film. He would be Jason Bourne, and he would marry Mia from Pulp Fiction, and they would live in humid bliss on a small island off the coast of Cambodia.

So far as “ideals” go, this one is not just an unattainable fantasy, but one that looks pallidly bourgeois next to the soppy-stern religious ideal he was raised in.

Morris slowly returns his attention to his surviving family, including his father, who is in the early stages of dementia. Morris recalls with some distaste the religious extremes his father committed the entire family to, including a cockamamie “God will provide” missionary foray into the Congo. But as much as Morris may be discomfited by his father's ardour, the actions and disclosures of his late son prove just as nettlesome. The boy claimed to enjoy not just military life, but the carnage that came with it in Afghanistan.

A reader can easily spot the “changes of heart” that occur in this novel from one generation to the next. But it is Morris's cautious nature that proves to be the most striking anomaly — the truly radical departure — in the Schutt family line. The necessary changes of heart in a given lifetime are a subtler, nearly invisible business — which Bergen has explored with an exquisite and humane delicacy.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 20, 2013

My Braaaains: Overrated? Overheated? Or Just Missing?

This is going to be a bit helter-skelter, so bear with me. I'm here rearranging the words in my review of David Bergen's The Matter With Morristhe single most pleasurable read for me this year, and my current Favourite Novel From A Member Of My Tribe — when the randomizer of our household music machine spits out this chestnut:

Sally's into knowledge
Spent her years in college
Just to find out nothing is true
She can hardly speak now
Words are not unique now
'Cos they can't say anything new

You say humanist philosophy is what it's all about?
You're so open-minded that your brains leaked out!

Some Christian Rock lyrics for you, courtesy of a young Steve Taylor, circa 1983, which, in their blunderbuss way, take aim at the heart of The Matter With Morris.

I cringe to admit it, but at the time I thrilled to hear (young) Steve Taylor's droll delivery of those particular lines.

I was 18 years old, getting ready with the rest of my buddies (Mennonites, with precious few exceptions) to begin post-secondary education. I was also an earnest Evangelical — ditto, my mates. And we were aware that one of the risks attending post-secondary education was getting too smart for Church. Through the past 13-plus years of Sunday School we'd taken note of all the surly older brothers and sisters who left for a semester, then returned at Christmas with a dark new energy and a poisonous contempt for the Gathering of Saints. Surely not I, Lord.

Taylor's derisive snort didn't so much address the issue as turn tables on the stereotype — which, for a nervous 18-year-old, was good enough.

"Next stop: Bible College!"

Thirty years later, I remain a church-goer. And I call myself Christian, even if some in the flock would dispute the claim. The young Steve Taylor might not go quite that far, but he'd probably consider me deeply entrenched in the “Brainless” end of the spectrum.

Converting from one seemingly definitive state to another — even Apostasy — takes a lot of work, and I've better things to spend my energies on. I say this as someone who, briefly, in my 20s, considered converting to Judaism. The fact that I'm still a spineless* Mennonite probably reveals just how seriously I applied myself to that particular thought experiment. It struck me as a staggering commitment of energy, for limited returns.

Prior to this, a zen roshi I'd been spending some time with (Whisky Prajer, ever the dilettante — and why not?) suggested, “Stick with a religion for as long is it's useful.” I took her to mean it might be time to shed the old wineskin, but as I considered Judaism I began to comprehend the flip-side of the koan: I still needed the eggs. Better, then, to apply those qualities I found admirable in the alternative religion to the one I had grown up in.

So: brainless as charged — but sincerely so.

This is why I pay attention to conversion stories — the more dramatic, the better. What prompts a person to reboot into a seemingly alien Operating System? And does it take? How, and how deeply?

I tend to think there is less change happening than is being proclaimed, and religious history is liberally peppered with rascals and knaves keen to prove me right. Sergei Kourdakov is one such: a Russian defector who went from Communist-trained heavy, groomed to persecute hapless Believers, to penitent Believer himself. The Persecutor, Kourdakov's “memoir,” was a staple in the libraries of Evangelical churches, including the one I grew up in. I read the book when I was 10, credulously swallowing his sordid stories of rounding up furtive fellowships and subjecting them to all manner of humiliation and indignity. So promising a persecutor was our Sergei, that he was duly summoned to Brezhnev's high command, where he witnessed first-hand Empire-sanctioned orgies. The book's end-note indicated that Kourdakov had told his American friends that if he were to die in mysterious circumstances, they would know his former overlords had caught up with him. Needless to say, Sergei was dead at the time of the book's publication.

When I mentioned my reading material to my father, he took a deep breath, then said he had serious misgivings about what was being . . . sold here. I'm not sure what led my father to think he smelled a rat,** but some three decades later an independent documentary, Caroline Walker Pallis' Forgive Me Sergei, lays out a damning counter-narrative to the one I read as a child. In her review of the film, Katherine Jeffrey writes,

Ultimately [Walker Pallis] is forced to confront the overwhelming evidence that the central events of The Persecutor are not merely embellished but completely fabricated. No corroborating witnesses can be found anywhere Sergei lived, though physical descriptions of the cities are accurate and personal names are real. Christians in Petropavlovsk deny that the violent purges the book describes ever happened. Some of the villains of Sergei's childhood turn out to be ordinary or even admirable characters. Among Sergei's military acquaintances and childhood friends whose names and photographs appear in the book, and to whom passages of The Persecutor are read on camera, some react with shock or indignation, others with simple incredulity. The idea that one would lie in order to get ahead in America is unsurprising to them, but they resent having been used as (typically repugnant) narrative props for an outrageously fraudulent story.

It seems one needn't be predisposed to “humanist philosophy” to be so open-minded as to allow one's brains to fall out.

"Oh for T-shirt with witty caption!"

Speaking of humanist philosophy, now's a good time to give a shout-out to the Poindexters at The Christian Humanist. Although I'm predisposed to playing gadfly and leaving snarky comments on their blog and Facebook page, and they are predisposed to rapturous declarations common among academics and serious-minded religious types, my admiration for their attention to the apparatus is genuine. They take seriously the Protestant Imperative, which I enjoy and commend them for. Excelsior, dudes!

*“No brains, no spine, he's much too shy!”

**Possibly the fact that Sergei was shacked up in a Colorado cabin with a 17-year-old girl when it happened, and that the gun that killed him belonged, like the cabin, to the girl's father.