Tuesday, April 28, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 10: ObZen, Meshuggah

In the fall of 2008 I answered the door. My friend handed me a small paper gift-bag. Inside it was this CD.
“This drummer,” he said, “I’ve never heard ANYTHING like him.” (← language warning (sorry dad!))

“As good as Neil?”

“Even Neil isn’t doing this.”

We said our goodbyes. I went to the computer, inserted the disc and put on my headphones. And . . . wwwwwow.

Wowwowwowwowwow. . . .

Not my last concert, but certainly one of the most memorable.
Ancient history...
There is no equivalent to this band anywhere, though I’m curious enough about the metal scene in general to track various acts, particularly those fronted by women. Our digital overlords have taken note, and yesterday my newsfeed included word that two of the three women fronting Nervosa, a thrash metal band from Brazil, have called it quits after 10 years.
"Who here's ready to go SOLO?!"
Nobody’s said anything about why this happened now, so the mind goes all sorts of places in conjecture. The reasons are surely pedestrian — bands break up all the time, as is their wont. The ones that last for decades are the true wonders.

Then there are the bands that make a splash, and break up, and reunite in various forms, only to break up again and establish a cycle particular to themselves. Case in point — X, godparents to the California punk scene. Again, in the news: X releases a new album, their first new material in 35 (or 27, depending) years, surprising everyone who thought the original line-up would never reunite. Unusually, the band members are keeping mum as to how this reunion was made possible, never mind desirable, to the various individuals on-board.
They look happy enough for now.
So long as the music gets made and played, I don’t need to know the why nor how. John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebreak — keep on rockin’ in the free world.

Monday, April 27, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 9: The Future, Leonard Cohen

1992
My first Leonard Cohen album.

Listening to it produced a bundle of mixed emotions for me then — still can, sometimes.

Buying it seemed necessary, at the time. It wasn’t getting much airplay on the radio, except for CBC. Television seemed to love him — not just the Corporation (predictably enough) but Much Music and various music video shows. So did magazines, particularly the hippest of the hip — GQ landed Mordecai Richler as a contributor, but Details landed Leonard Cohen. He looked good — no, he looked great, especially for a 58-year-old.

And he wore 31-year-old Rebecca DeMornay like an exquisite silk tie.
That’s where my problems started.

The 90s were a crappy time to be in your 20s. “Just say ‘No!’” was Official Policy, extended to an increasingly wider purview of activity. So if I was making Sunday morning scrambled eggs, and Leonard was singing, “She comes to you light as the breeze” my only reasonable response was to regard my flatmate’s bloodshot eyes through my own, and roll in chorus. Whatever you say, Leonard.

Under those conditions listening to The Future could feel like a protracted session of “I’m Leonard Cohen — and you’re not.”
All the lousy little poets coming round
Trying to sound like Charlie Manson
The truth was THIS lousy little poet was trying to sound like Leonard Cohen, but — gormless and luckless at 26 — whingeing like Mark David Chapman instead.

Yep, I was jealous. But let me say this about that: if, in three years time, you spot me looking like the cat who swallowed the canary while a lovely 31-year-old gal fawns over me, you have my full permission to let me know exactly what you think.

And yet.

Seeing Cohen perform the following year seemed necessary at the time, as well — particularly since the concert landed on my 27th birthday.

The light-show, the sound, the poetry and song were all a carefully curated affair. “Anthem” was his third or fourth song on the setlist. Cohen took the mic, confused the third stanza with the second, registered the mistake midway but finished the verse regardless. He crept out of the spotlight and stood in the shadows while the band and singers played on and brought it back to the intro again. Then he walked back into the spotlight, and the song was sung as written.

When it was over he quipped, “I will leave that for the scholars of my work to figure out.”

At that moment I realized I did not want to be Leonard Cohen, not really. And I figured at that moment he probably didn’t want to be Leonard Cohen either.

There were probably a lot of moments like that in his life — though I doubt he held any moments when he wished he were me.
Living long enough to enjoy medical cannabis, and other consolations of late-in-life frailty.
Female counterweight: Cohen’s (relatively) early paramour Joni Mitchell released an album in '94 that was well-regarded. I enjoyed it, but will opt instead for her most recent album — 2006’s Shine.
"More timely and apt than ever."

Sunday, April 26, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 8: Porgy & Bess, Miles Davis

It’s an old, old story. Boy-meets-girl/Boy-loses-girl/Boy-spends-the-next-two-years-in-a-miserable-state-and-can-no-longer-abide-the-music-from-his-past-life-so-he-borrows-jazz-albums-from-the-public-library-until-he-regains-equilibrium — it’s almost a cliché, isn’t it?

C’est moi, in the mid-90s, and I am grateful to have made acquaintance with the Jazz Giants. I recall the afternoon I first played Miles Davis’ treatment of Porgy & Bess. “Summertime” was one of those transcendent revelations that happens all too rarely in life. I can still smell the air pouring through the open window.
1959? Or 1995?
Corresponding Giantess: I’m going to have to go with Ella, even though she protested she was never a “jazz” singer (by which she meant she did not improvise — although...). She is a jazz singer to my ears, and what she uncovers while delivering The Cole Porter Songbook is endlessly revelatory.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 7: The Name Of This Band Is, Talking Heads

1982
More about that here and here.

Alternatively: Home Of The Brave, Laurie Anderson.
1986
I first saw this at a Winnipeg rep cinema, double-billed with Stop Making Sense. The live version of Sharkey’s Night gets regular inclusion in current playlists.

Friday, April 24, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 6: Doppelgänger, Daniel Amos

1983
I struggled choosing between this album and its precursor, ¡Alarma!. Both are installations of a four-album(!) cycle that elevates “high concept” into the heavens.

The albums chronicle a surreal Pilgrim’s Progress through late-20th Century Evangelical culture, albeit a pilgrim who quotes T.S. Eliot, William Blake, Czesław Miłosz and other luminaries estranged from the Christian Bookstore. As an earnest kid experiencing the first pangs of disaffection within the Evangelical fold, I found the first album terrifically inspiring. I encountered the second album as a Bible College failure. It felt like an encouragement. Shake the dust off your shoes, kid — there’s quality to be discovered!

That’s not quite the message DA frontman Terry Taylor meant to impart, of course. But this album’s admixture of gimlet-eyed gut-checks and bizarre-o hijinx, all bent purposefully to a lofty theme, laid the groundwork for my appreciation of They Might Be Giants, Timbuk3, Steven Wilson, Devin Townsend and many, many others.

Female equivalent: are you kidding? Do you think a robustly chauvinist industry and its milk-sop constituents, who subsequently piled-on everything Taylor tried his hand at ever since, would EVER permit a woman to explore the perimeters on their watch?

At the time a talented young woman named Leslie Phillips took a stab at it.
1984
Her CCM catalog shows flashes of edgy brilliance, only to be horse-whipped into reassuring banalities by CCM A&R hacks. Still, her voice steadily gained confidence, as did her sense of thematic direction. Then she landed T Bone Burnett as a producer for an album she called The Turning — which proved to be a turning-point, alright.

Burnett became a husband, then not; she changed from Leslie to Sam; said goodbye to CCM and home permanents; and continues to build a catalog that has become exceedingly impressive indeed.
1987
Other words: I enjoyed Jed Ward Keyes' snappy take on Doppelgänger, over here.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 5: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, AC/DC

This was one of those arguments with my mother.
1981, in Canada.
I first heard it in my buddy Carl’s attic, a week before it was released in North America. It was a Sunday night, we were playing chess and listening to 92 CITI FM. CITI had just been given this “new” album by AC/DC, the band that’d made a name for themselves singing cheerfully about Hell, so they were obviously devil worshippers. This was a station exclusive, and they played the album in its entirety.

Carl patiently dismantled my chess game until I was nothing but a king limping around behind three pawns. I’ve never been much of a chess player, but honestly, he had a considerable tactical advantage with the music being played. How was I supposed to develop a strategy while these songs were unfurling? As I argued with my mother once I finally mustered up the courage to buy my own copy, these songs are perfect, and you can’t argue with perfection.

Perfect, as in: you will find no truer marriage of direct, brute lyricism to a direct, brute musical modality.

And if you try to marry something else to those same three chords chopped out of a Gibson SG and fed through a Marshall stack — say, an evocation of Christ’s salvific grace extended freely to all sinners, perhaps — you’ll sound ridiculous.

No, these songs all attain their Platonic ideal — even, especially, “Squealer.” You can no more argue with a song like that than you can argue with “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Spiel Ich die Unschuld vom Lande.” It simply is what it is.

But, you know, if that’s the only music you can be bothered to listen to you need to stretch out just a bit.

And you can start by listening to The Muffs.
1993
Kim Shattuck isn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll singer/songwriter to explore female id-prompted horniness and (“Hold the letters folks!”) toxic femininity. Nor was that her sole preoccupation — not by a long shot — but when when she mined it, her commitment to its expression was utterly fearless and completely infectious, qualities she shares with Bon Scott.

Taken from us way too soon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 4: Permanent Waves, Rush

This is another choice where I really have no need to add to words I’ve already written — here, here, here and probably a few other places as well.

Instead, I’ll focus on my chosen female counter-weight to Rush — Heart, or the Wilson sisters.
"For Ann and me, it was always more about imitating guys, like Zeppelin and the Stones."
I still dig 70s-era Heart, with its 70s-era epic trippiness (or trippy epicness). Those sisters outright rocked. And they were Canadian!

Technically, they were Canadian only for a moment. But what a moment — their launching-point, basically. Mid-70s, patchouli-drenched Vancouver. Two girls delivering harder rock than most Canadian fellas at that time (I mean, The Guess Who were fun and all. But “hard rock”? Nah!).

Additional, highly recommended, words: over at The Believer Maura Kelly conducts a fabulous interview with Nancy Wilson.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 3: The Moog Strikes Bach, Hans Wurman

1970
Words here.

The gender alternative in this case is easy-peasy: Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach.
1968
Looks like there is a Carlos biography forthcoming — one of life’s ironies, as the biographical subject is famously non-forthcoming.

10 albums 10 days, day 2: Welcome To The Ponderosa, Lorne Greene

I’ve chosen Welcome To The Ponderosa: An Evening Of Songs & Stories With Lorne Greene (1964) as the second album that informed my musical appreciation.
It includes Greene’s hit single “Ringo,” which was introduced to me by my grade five music teacher Don Hoepner. It laid the groundwork for my enjoyment of spoken word pieces set to music — including Lou Reed’s New York, “Whatever Happened To Gus” by Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Poitier Meets Plato.

Looking at that list, and indeed the nine other selections I’ve made, I’m noticing my choices are all fellas.

My mother would not approve.

Which is one big reason why the list is, reflexively, all male.

Hers was a forceful personality and as I wobbled toward individuation we had our share of impassioned arguments over what was, and was not, acceptable artistic expression. Late in life she admitted she wished her late-in-life take on this matter had been her early-in-life take. But that is the journey for all of us — or so we hope, and aspire to.

Anyway, there’s your nickel’s worth of insight into my psyche. Hopefully that warms the cockles of your heart somewhat, 'cos I’m sticking with my initial hetero-normative selections, but in deference to Ma (and our common humanity) adding gender alternatives as a sober second thought.

With the exception of Steely Dan. I just don’t know of anyone else, regardless of chosen gender pronouns, who even approaches doing what they’ve done. If you’ve got thoughts and suggestions I am all ears.

Oh, and I will be making two selections per decade, of the decades I have enjoyed existing in — kind of.

Alright, today’s alternative to Alpha Straight White Male Lorne Greene — Peggy Lee, Is That All There Is? (1969)
Absolutely killer. And may I just say: I am so glad I did not first encounter it at the tender age of 10.

More anon.

Monday, April 20, 2020

10 albums 10 days, day 1: Can't Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan

Over at Facebook it's become de rigeur to find your name highlighted in a post that says: "I've been nominated by [friend's name] to choose ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day in ten consecutive days. No explanations, no reviews, just album covers. Today I nominate [friend's name]."

Hey, purty pitcher wordlessness is a blessed relief if you're hanging behind the blue-and-white velvet rope, where the teeming masses trade COVID conspiracies or lock-yerself-down-with-a-mask exhortations. Those are shoals I strive to clear, for the most part. And silence from SWMs of my vintage and older is definitely the better course of valour in this day and age.

BUT.

C'mon, we're dealing with albums, fer crying out loud! Words need to be spilled!

So over here you will get all the verbiage you're missing in Zuckerberg's algorithmic clinic.

Unfortunately, there's little that needs to be said about album cover #1 that I haven't said already — here, here, here etc.
More anon.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Rattling in my brain-pan

First, the lighter fare:
Alright, now to the meat and potatoes reading.
  • The Open Psychometrics Personality Test is getting some link-love for being more in-depth than your average Buzzfeed caper. Results can be a source of deep ennui, apparently. If you take it, share the top-five alignments, won’t you? Mine are Gandalf (85%), Lester Freamon (The Wire, 81%), Dr. Strange (80%), Dale Cooper (80%), and Norman Wilson (The Wire, 79%). Mostly flattering, but that last match is a touch disturbing...
  • “He who successfully claims power in an emergency suspends and can destroy rational evaluation. The insistence of the physician on his exclusive capacity to evaluate and solve individual crises moves him symbolically into the neighborhood of the White House.”Ivan Illich. David Cayly takes effort to apply Illich to the seemingly unified response to the COVID pandemic. My own thoughts on the matter are a bit scattered. First of all, if my Facebook feed is any indication the response to the health crisis is anything but unified. I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the days of consensus reality, but that amber-hued wistfulness is surely MY reality, currently. Secondly, Illich will never be accused of pragmatism, which I have always thought the unfortunate Achilles heel in his critique.
  • Our Age Of Sincere InauthenticityFrank Bergon recalls Lionel Trilling and surveys the contemporary cultural land hell-scape we find ourselves in.
  • ‘Truisms are true, hold onto that!’ George Scialabba surveys Orwell and Rorty and a few others in a, perhaps somewhat Quixotic, effort to steer the Left aright.
  • “Years later, installed as an English professor at an even smaller Christian college, I’d recognize doppelgängers of my younger self and wonder if my own teachers had viewed me with the same mixture of distaste, pity, and affection.” In what might be the most thought-provoking read I have currently encountered this year, Michial Farmer considers the matter of failure, and two types of despair. Side-note, Farmer’s wife Victoria has been diagnosed positively for COVID-19 and is today entering that crucial fifth day of symptoms. If you would, please pray for them.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Three albums by... John Prine

“Gary Shandling always said to me, ‘Don’t get mad, get funny.’ It changed my life.” — actor Rip Torn.
Somewhere in his life — quite early, I’d say — John Prine internalized the same strategy, and used it to profound effect.

Prine wrote and sang about gut-wrenching stuff — the sort of events that throw most people into a towering rage, for very good reasons. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”; “Paradise”; “That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round” — knee-jerk “Ready, aye-ready” military adventurism; conscience-less capitalist evisceration of small communities; addiction and domestic violence, respectively. Lou Reed would sing about this and leave a listener horrified, if morbidly captivated. John Prine sang about it, and threw in the sort of screwball observation only he could pen, nudging the listener into chuckles — and the tacit understanding that these horrors were more intimately familiar to us all than anyone was keen to acknowledge.

Wait, why am I smiling? Why am I laughing?

In concert Prine’s delivery was deceptively casual, often punctuated with a one-shoulder shrug, as if to say, Ah, it’s for other people to get mad about. I’m just a song-writer.

Not that Prine’s catalog is concerned solely with eat-your-spinach matters. A lot of what he wrote is just plain goofy. Some of it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Some of it is incredibly sad. And there are quite a number of songs that are all of the above.

I have a bunch of his studio albums, most of them released on his own label. But his live albums have received more hours of my attention than all of the studio albums combined. That’d be John Prine: Live, Live On Tour, In Person & On Stage. 
The stories and anecdotes that accompany these songs are all a hoot, and several are epic — and certainly epic in length. Audacity is a helpful tool here, for those playlists that oughtn’t to get bogged down by verbosity, no matter how entertaining it might be.

To be honest, I don’t listen to the third all that often. The croak that intruded on Prine’s vocal delivery after his second fight with cancer was just too damn depressing.

But now that voice is silent, which is so much worse.

He seemed to be a man for whom self-care was a distant concern — until it became a central concern. That he should die of this stupid virus after clawing back from two harrowing rounds of cancer seems somehow appropo to these crazy times we are all struggling to endure. I expect he’d have something to say about that — and it’d probably make me laugh. Then cry.

Rest in peace, John.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

“End Times Anxiety”

“Did my Fundamentalist up-bringing prepare me for Coronavirus?” asks Sarah Jones.

Jones appears to be roughly three decades younger than Yours Truly — it looks like she came of age while the Left Behind books were all the rage, though she makes no mention of this.

I had my own youthful brush with apocalyptica, but I went straight to the source. After many, many long and drawn out conversations with my father (who never in my lifetime self-identified as a Fundamentalist) I came to some peace over potential apocalypses. Eventually it was impressed upon me that there’s stuff you can control, and there’s stuff you have absolutely NO control over. And the latter list is much larger than most people realize.

The first list is probably larger than most people realize also, and that is what the optimistic humanist hopes difficult conditions might reveal.

Back to the subject, Jones seems ambivalent about what youthful exposure to apocalyptic literature “prepares” a person for, and fair enough. Throw something potentially traumatizing at a kid and there’s no telling the direction that kid will run with this particular ball of memetic fever.

Over at The Christian Humanist Nathan Gilmour has a wonderful interview with Psychologist-in-training Dan Koch about “End Times Anxiety” that touches on some familiar themes for me. Koch has his own podcast. I’m not sure my curiosity vector matches up with his, by and large, but I will definitely look into his case studies of people whose End Times Anxiety affected the direction of their convictions and character.
In fact, the Apocalypse came and went some time ago.