Sunday, December 29, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — first take

No spoilers.

At the back end of the latest Star Wars movie, a character walks listlessly through the crowd of survivors. The camera focuses on the face, a mien of PTSD — until the eyes spot another character, who has also miraculously survived. The face breaks into surprise, relief, joyous tears.

And yes, I was suck-sobbing as loudly as anyone in the theatre.

I mentioned the scene to my wife, and said, “George would never have allowed that moment of unfettered humanity.”

My wife agreed, and added, “But George made those movies for 12-year-old boys.”

So many complications. As with the politicians we elect, we the fans get the Star Wars we deserve. And if we are truly that determined to drag a property geared to 12-year-old suburban males into the province of “Wait: how’d we get here?” late-life adulthood, this is the sort of Star Wars we will get.

But is it any good, Prajer? No, not by a long shot — unless viewed as a PGified version of a Jodorowski/Moebius fever dream.
"Blues are good, Jean, but we need more red."
All I can say is, I sat back (the recliner chairs helped), let myself go where the film insisted it take me, and left the theatre satisfied I’d wasted neither money nor time.

Your results may vary. Were I younger and capable of greater investment I would likely be on-board with everything Jim Vorel says in his Paste piece, “It was a total lack of planning that killed Star Wars.” 

Or maybe I would rediscover optimism and side with the rebuttal: “Lucasfilm and Disney are now in a perfect spot: The Mandalorian is a success, Star Wars is ripe for more experimentation, and Disney+ is a new sandbox that will allow for similar experiments”Julia Alexander at The Verge.

In any case I will get a second look at the movie, possibly tomorrow, and post a list of what I picked and panned from Abrams’ post-Lucas smorgasbord.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Vintage Christmas Collection, David Ian

Last year Doug Ramsey recommended David Ian’s The Vintage Christmas Collection. I’ve usually done well by Mr. Ramsey, so I gambled the stamp. Twenty-five songs for mere pennies? I was in.

I gave it a listen. Huh. I gave it another. Still no connection.

Ian and his trio are proficient, as are the vocalists. Everybody involved approaches the material with a light touch. There is no mischief, nor aggrandizing earnestness — just a devotion to bringing the music across respectfully.

No whopping surprises, then — although Acacia’s unusual vibrato is a quiet revelation.

I have my Christmas favourites (including), and they continue to receive the most plays. And this year David Ian’s album joins them.

Sometimes a person gets weary of surprises, and is grateful for the light touch.

Merry Christmas — WP/dpr
Post-script: we have tickets to Star Wars on Boxing Day — so no spoilers until then!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Scott Timberg

This past weekend I was shocked and saddened to learn that Scott Timberg had died, Tuesday December 10, by his own hand.

Timberg was among the more robust bloggers featured on the ArtsJournal frontpage. There were three I made it a point to never miss. Of the three, only Timberg was always worth reading — Scott Timberg batted 1.000.

I did not realize until that announcement just how deeply I valued Timberg’s work on the beat. I tend to cast a jaundiced eye over 95% of what AJ links to — “So this is ‘The Culture’ then, is it?” AJ’s focus of concern whipsaws from covering beleaguered heritage art scenes to playing catch-up with the passionate young progressives. Out of everyone who contributed to AJ, Timberg was the only writer who seemed truly aware, from harrowing personal experience, that the AJ raison d'ĂȘtre — equanimity of coverage between Youngs and Olds making the scene — was now a dust-binned relic from an antiquated past.

Everything Timberg wrote acknowledged this reality and placed itself in considered opposition to it. The artists he interacted with were people invested in the historical long-view, whose perspective he passionately engaged with. His interviews are never less than revelatory, whether it’s Rhiannon Giddens explicating the banjo’s subversion of colonial presumption, Billy Bragg on Skiffle’s world-changing power, Patti Smith on the literary pretensions of the New York punks, or Richard Thompson acknowledging the inescapability of Robbie Burns — among so many others.

Suicides occur for reasons that are not always — and perhaps can never be — reducable to mere words. Still, I find myself wishing he and his family had escaped Los Angeles. Or that he’d meditated further on what Giddens was saying about the banjo’s spiritual impact. We may not (yet) be captive slaves, but we are all well and truly indentured. It behooves us to reach for the nearest “banjo” we can find, to issue the subtle “fuck you” to the Powers intent on our complete acquiescence — to keep singing, despite it all.

Let us be kind.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

I'm listing!(?) My 10 most-played albums, purchased this year

Here is (probably) the only top-10 list I will post this year: the most-played albums I purchased this past year. The listing will be, kinda-sorta, in ascending order of current preference.
#10. DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE, DONNA GRANTISGrantis’ (“GRANTIS”?) playing swings from meditative to off-the-charts-killer. Had this album been all-meditative it would have scored higher with me, but that’s just me admitting the mood I am mired in, and is in no way a dis on a very fine album from a prodigious talent.

#9. Daylight, Grace Potter Potter’s most powerful album to date. My elder daughter is especially taken with it and I’m enjoying the conversation that has opened up.

#8. Inscape, Alexandra StrĂ©liski — the Montreal artist was a recommendation from an unexpected source. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard one or two of these tracks in movies or television shows, which tends to distract me from slipping into the album’s depths. “Where the HECK have I heard this?” is a recurring question of increasing frequency, alas. Ignoring its seeming urgency is a skill I’ve yet to acquire.

#7. ‘87, The Bros. Landreth — if you haven’t yet seen ‘em, The Bros. put on an infectious, jolly show, so much so that I tend to associate them with lite, good times. Lo and behold, this sophomore album plumbs unexpected depths! Not only that, the physical packaging is the finest “rock ‘n’ roll commodity fetish” I have encountered all year.

#6. Periphery IV: Hail Stan Periphery has melodious djent nailed down, plus a few other surprises. Great fun. Erm, that is to say . . . crushingly brutal! Speaking of which . . .

#5. Tower, Irata — I can’t help noticing this year’s top 10 Metal lists include all the usual suspects and very few surprises. Not to take anything away from the accomplishments of those who find themselves thus elevated, but c’mon: this killer album from this scrappy band should have made everyone’s top 5.

#4. Don’t Give Up On The Blues, Giles Robson — Robson’s best album to date, and that is saying something. As for what Giles Robson brings to the table as a blues player, my friend Darko said it first and he said it best, “Robson’s band is this generation’s J. Geils.” And people — that is yooj.

#3. Joy In Spite Of Everything, Stefano Bollani — my record store must have ordered a surplus of this 2014 album, because its preeminence of display could not help but catch my eye. Joining Bollani and his usual bandmates Jesper Bodilsen and Morten Lund, are Mark Turner and Bill Frisell, and how can a listener lose with a line-up like that? Five years after its release I am grateful to finally catch up with it.

#2. The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space, T Bone Burnett — kinda gets played by default, really. If I am alone in the car, and I am in the mood I'm in, this is the music I reach for.

#1. Little Big, Aaron Parks — I picked this up last January, after I saw it mentioned here. Little Big is one hour and twenty minutes long, the exact amount of time it takes to drive to the care home where my mother-in-law currently resides. My wife and I have listened to this album for many if not most of those Saturday morning trips, and neither of us has tired of it yet. Far and away the most-played album in 2019.

And finally, THE ONE ALBUM that came out of left-field and captured my enduring affection — NO TOWN NO COUNTRY: EPs AND RARE RECORDINGS 1981-1984, DUB RIFLES.
As our family sorted through the details and arrangements set in play by my mother's death, I managed to catch a fifteen-minute break at McNally Robinson’s, where I set eyes on this oddity.

I never caught a Dub Rifles concert — they broke up shortly after I graduated high school. But they sat on the periphery of my consciousness as the very pinnacle of Winnipeg cool. An edgy group of guys who threw down edgy, infectious beats and bops.

Thirty-five years later it’s a pleasure to bring them into my living-room or car and let them rule the airwaves for 80 or so minutes. The music is surprisingly tight, and founder Colin Bryce’s liner-note recollections are clear-eyed and remarkably free of either treacly nostalgia or acrid bitterness. A personal treasure, delightfully evocative of a time and scene and frame of mind I was losing touch with.

Post-script: further Dubs:
The band was packed into the bay window of a large double front room, which in dim hazy Victorian times might’ve been the parlour and dining room – I’d come along with my gang of friends, not really knowing what to expect, having had virtually no exposure to actual punk bands at the time. There was no lighting set-up, just the harsh white overhead clangor of fluorescent tubes. I examined the impressive stacks of monitors set up on either side of the bay windows, and the enormous drum kit in the middle. While I was standing there, a finger curled around the neck of my beer bottle, a skinny, long-jawed guy climbed into the drum kit like a gunner climbing into the turret of a tank. A lean, inward-looking guy with close-cropped blonde hair stepped up to one of the mics, electric guitar at the ready. Then the sax players and the bassist stepped up. The guitarist nodded, the drummer counted down by banging his sticks together, and the band exploded in our faces.
Vince Tinguely unpacks the Dub Rifles in a most delightful way. Also check out Boo Eyeplug’s track by track appraisal of No Town No Country over here.

Friday, December 06, 2019

“Well we know where we’re going/But we don’t know where we’ve been”

When I was almost 20 I nudged a buddy from my old hometown into taking a shot at winter camping. Over the past three years we’d each talked a big game about being woodsmen. It seemed time to give it an honest try. It probably goes without saying we were both recovering from failed romances.

"It'll be bucolic, trust me."
In January we drove off to the Sandilands, tied on the snowshoes and hiked to a remote spot by a frozen lake. We built a quinzee, then a fire, warmed up some tinned stew and finally retired to our snowy dome. Four hours later I shook him awake and said we were done. It was minus 40 outside and not much warmer in the dome.

The next summer he called me down again. “There’s some new places outside of town you need to see.” I drove down on a Friday evening, picked him up and took direction.

We went up one gravel road and down another. “Over here,” he said. “On the right.”

In a thicket of ever-present poplar trees was a large log-based dwelling, looking surprisingly modern — sehr schmaak. The sun was just setting, the Evening Star was out. A woman came to the front door, cradling a baby.

“What are you boys doing here?”

“I just wanted to show my friend your place. You’ve done amazing work.”

“Well, thank you. But I’d feel better if you left. Now.”

We quickly climbed back in my car and backed out the driveway.

“Any other bright ideas?” I asked.

“You should meet my friends,” he said. “Not so fancy a place, but they’re really good people.”

More gravel roads, more poplar. It was now dark.

The drive through the wood was surprisingly smooth. We arrived at the house — a three-storey affair with unusual angles — and got out of the car. This time a man came out the front door. He couldn’t have been more than three or four years older than we were. My friend greeted him.

“Oh, it’s you! Come in, come in!”

We met his lovely wife. The kitchen was large. The floor was strictly plywood subflooring — the house was clearly a work in progress. She gestured toward the circular pine table.

“You boys want some orange tea?” She set the kettle to boiling while he retrieved a cookie tin from over the fridge, pulled a handful of dried orange rinds from within, then dropped them in a tea pot and bade us sit while we waited for the water.

“Boys, how about some iess-schmaunt? Come!”

With cereal bowls full of ice-cream and steaming cups of rind-steeped water before us, we began to talk.

It was mostly my friend’s affair. He and his friends talked about prayer, searching and longing and the inscrutable ways of God. When the tea and ice-cream were gone, and people’s energies were on the wane, his friends reached for his hands — the fellow his left, the woman his right — and assured him his was a true heart, that he was a valued servant of Christ, doing God’s work, and more than that they loved him.

Back in the car, my friend said, “I needed that.”

I did not know these people. And at that moment I realized there was a great deal about my friend I did not know, either — depths unavailable to me. I did not know what to say to my friend. In a weird way, I needed that late-night encounter also.

Three years later I was back in the big city, and that winding drive through the struck was a memory fading into a twilight of its own.

I had no shortage of friends, from a wider array of ethnic backgrounds. We’d all been born Canadian, but our lineage was not that far removed from the boats that brought us.

One — the college guy with the music — was Dutch, his mother a survivor of the Nazi occupation. Another, a co-worker, was Ukrainian, two were Greek (“We’re the real oppressed minority here!”), two more were Czech. Two other buddies from that Bible college were of Scottish stock. A fellow somewhat smitten with me had a Portuguese pop and British mother. And so on.

If anything, the conversations were more feverish. But there was a HEFTY layer of irony applied, at all times. The days of someone reaching for my hand and assuring me I was precious to God were over. And to be truthful, I was no longer responding well to such entreaties.

Be that as it may, irony was shit — we were in more desperate straits than we’d anticipated. We figured we’d changed in ways our parents were incapable of recognizing, but could not quantify those changes in any meaningful way ourselves.

The changes around us, on the other hand, were another matter. No litany from me — the common challenge was discerning which buggy-whip job might outlast the one being left behind.

Anyway, here we are. Stephenson’s dialogue cannot be legitimately compared to Dostoevsky, even at the Russian bard’s most rambling and incoherent. But the yack-fests between Hiro and Da5id and Y.T. and the Librarian were quite similar in tone and content to the conversations we kids were having amongst ourselves between evenings of wrestling with javascript (which gave me a skillset on par with those I now bring to the job of church custodian).

Re-reading Snow Crash I was struck by the depth of Hiro’s ignorance of the socio-ethno-religio-philosophical history that brought forth the gibbering present he inhabits and is scrambling to understand. Just one example, his glib assumption about the Biblical account of the early church — “The Jews ... were still running the country, right?” — reveals not only Hiro’s galling ignorance of the biblical narrative (his frame of reference is Andrew Lloyd Webber), but also the subtle anti-Semitism that takes root in rapidly shifting neo-tribal landscapes like the one Stephenson describes (when you’re struggling with the exigencies of ad hoc tribalism, the features of an honest-to-God actual tribe start looking very enviable indeed — they’ve succeeded as a tribe for 3000 years; they must be doing something sneaky). To gain any worthwhile purchase on the roiling present, Stephenson-via-the-Librarian has to drag the digitally proficient but otherwise utterly abject Hiro all the way back to civilization’s Sumerian origins.

Re: the wiki: I’d forgotten Richard Rorty’s dis-ease with the book. People who read his criticism as if it were a book review scorned him for the proscriptive thrust of his concerns. But Rorty was too subtle a reader to be that reductive — it seems to me he recognized Stephenson was not describing (let alone endorsing) some crackling “future” in which a beleaguered individualist maneuvers into a position of relative safety, but rather an overwhelming present from which little could be expected. Rorty rightly recognized the horror of this situation and called for some authorial engagement, with others, with hope. It could be argued, I think, that Stephenson’s body of work since Snow Crash has grown, possibly unconsciously but I doubt it, into an articulate response to Rorty’s concerns.

Alright, nuffadat. Hey, look — CBC’s Ideas is connecting with the bearers of Rorty’s flame. Podcast available here. Neal Stephenson is still an interesting guy, but his current interviews are muted affairs compared to days of yore. It happens to the best of us, sir.