Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: The birth of the book

Later this week, Have Not Been the Same, the 10th anniversary revision/reissue, should be on bookstore shelves across the country. The launch party is Friday, June 10 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, featuring Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath (tickets available from Soundscapes, Rotate This and Ticketmaster).

Between now and the date of the launch party, Radio Free Canuckistan will provide a series of insights into the origin of the book, what went into the reissue, and everything you never knew you wanted to know about the project.

Chapter two: The birth of the book

They say that the music you loved between the ages of 13 and 23 is the music you will love for the rest of your life. That music is the soundtrack to the most tumultuous time of your life, a time of upheaval, a time that leaves vivid memories that haunt you for the rest of your life.

I was 13 in 1985; 23 in 1995. My co-author Jason Schneider is the same age; Ian Jack is a couple of years younger. Obviously the music in this book is the music of our youth, and as such it has a mythic mystery about it that resonates with us in ways that very little else has had since. All three of us seek out all sorts of new music and love it deeply, but in many ways the artists in this book are the ones that define us.

From 1993 to 1999, I was the music editor (among other things) at Id Magazine, an alt-weekly out of Guelph, Ontario, that also served Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, London, St. Catharines and Windsor—basically all the university towns west of Toronto. Jason and Ian were both music writers; Jason also covered news, literature and just about anything else. We had each thought of writing a book about Canadian music individually; I proposed we do it together.

Each of us had artists that specifically inspired us to do this. We each loved one of the big mainstream bands of the period: for Jason, it was The Tragically Hip, for Ian it was Sloan, for me it was Blue Rodeo. And we each had an underdog band that we felt never got proper due from mainstream Canada: for Jason it was Change of Heart, for Ian it was Men Without Hats (who did have a huge single, admittedly), for me it was the Rheostatics.

We had a lot of support from friends, peers and our subject matter, but we also met with some quizzical looks. “Are you sure you have enough material to fill a book?” asked one older music writer, whose name honestly escapes me now. (The end result was over 700 pages long.) “What’s so good about the ’80s?” I was asked by Hugh Marsh, the brilliant violinist extraordinaire for Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bruce Cockburn (though if you’ve heard his overproduced solo albums from that period, you might wonder the same question). CFNY DJ Dave Bookman declined an interview, telling me that he felt it was too soon to reflect on the period (“No one has died yet”). Bob Wiseman thought that our thesis had something to do with proving that Blue Rodeo was a punk rock band, and refused to be interviewed (10 years later, I finally convinced him otherwise and got an interview for the new edition).

Part of the inspiration for writing the book was realizing that no one else would. There is no glory to being a music writer in Canada: you could probably count the ones over 40 on one hand. As Gord Downie mused to us, most music writers “catch the first plane to Cannes as soon as they can”—referring to the legions who turn their back on rock’n’roll to become film critics (who always seem to get more space in newspapers and magazines than music writers). After Id Magazine went under in 1999, the three of us didn’t have full-time gigs, we didn’t have families, and we had no plans to morph into film critics. We had lots of time to dive deep into this project.

Until then, all Canadian music books were about boomer heroes or punk rockers. Canadian music history seemed to have ended in 1980 (this is still largely true). The Canadian publishing market being what it was and is, would there ever be a book written just about The Tragically Hip? About Sloan? As it turns out, no, not even 10 years later. Certainly, no one would ever write a book about only Eric’s Trip or the Nils or Mary Margaret O’Hara or Art Bergmann—though you could.

Dave Bidini wrote eloquently about his own experiences in the Rheostatics on several occasions, notably in 1998’s On a Cold Road. There was later a book about the Barenaked Ladies. There was a good book about k.d. lang, written by an American, but we wanted to focus on her country career. Daniel Lanois and Joey “Shithead” Keithley wrote autobiographies. There was a book about Sarah McLachlan that was one of the worst music books any of us had ever read in our lives. Nettwerk Records published a book about itself that only its staff could love. As far as we could tell, no one was going to connect all those threads together, along with lesser-known artists that we considered just as important.

People often ask us what it’s like writing a book with two other people. It’s a lot like being in a band: you play drums, you play guitar, I’ll play bass and we’ll write songs together. Writing a book, you all agree on the outline, you’re each assigned certain chapters, and 90% of the time you’re working on your own. You then edit each others’ work, share resources, offer suggestions and try to agree on a style guide.

The most contentious part of the book was the outline: deciding what acts were in, which ones were out, which got only a cursory mention. We knew we weren’t going to write an encyclopaedia. We wanted to tell a story. Our goal was not to mention every single act of the era, and in fact there are many artists we like that are mentioned nowhere in the book, because they didn’t fit into the thematic framework we settled on. When deciding on the artists, it was important to us that they had a national impact: that they either toured the country or were visible on MuchMusic and elsewhere in the media. Few, if any, regional artists are given ample space in the book. (I can only think of two, and yes, they’re both Torontonian: A Neon Rome and Handsome Ned, and they both have fantastic stories.)

Too many Canadian projects, historical or otherwise, go to great pains to include “everyone”—and too many of them suffer because of it. We knew we were focusing primarily on English Canadian rock’n’roll. Quebec’s distinct society and entirely separate star system were beyond our understanding (and, we assumed, that of our audience). Canadian hip-hop was too nascent during that time frame; its real impact didn’t really kick in until much later. There is a great book to be written about Canadian hip-hop, one that will no doubt touch on some of the same cultural and industry themes in our book, and I pray that it will be written soon (someone whose writing I greatly respect promises me it will be). We were primarily rock kids: our impressions of folk music, reggae, jazz, avant-garde music and other genres were filtered through rock’n’roll conduits.

Somehow we managed to convince a publisher, ECW Press, to commit to the project in December 1999. When I got the news, I had taken a temp job at Columbia House, of all places, the discount mail-order music club that was dying a slow death. (I was writing copy like: “The Best of Meat Loaf: Big man! Big hits!”). Ian took a year off after finishing teachers college to devote to the project. Jason and I juggled freelance work. The three of us spent the next 18 months working full-time researching and writing the book, with the help of two extremely patient and helpful and enthusiastic editors, Michael Holmes and Jennifer Hale. Though their eyebrows raised higher and higher when they saw the word count rising, they remained committed to the project and let us have free reign, for which we are eternally grateful.

Not that there wasn’t room for improvement—which is in part why there’s a 10th anniversary edition. More on that later.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: My story

Later this week, Have Not Been the Same, the 10th anniversary revision/reissue, should be on bookstore shelves across the country. The launch party is Friday, June 10 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, featuring Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath (tickets available from Soundscapes, Rotate This and Ticketmaster).

Between now and the date of the launch party, Radio Free Canuckistan will provide a series of insights into the origin of the book, what went into the reissue, and everything you never knew you wanted to know about the project.

Chapter one: Living my life in the tower of song.

In Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis, he writes about how Memphis DJs were dismissive of early Elvis recordings. After all, how good could this guy possibly be when he lives just up the street?

There is a romance to art made outside of your experience, especially growing up in a cultural colony like Canada was in the ’70s, obsessed with the American and British influences that have shaped our country since its inception.

But as a kid, I was always fascinated instead by Canadian culture—maybe in part because everyone always seemed so defensive about it, if they weren’t being outright dismissive. “That guy’s Canadian, you know,” would be the inevitable adjunct to a mention of anyone famous who happened to be born here. Stories in the Toronto Star and Maclean’s would go out of their way to mention any remote connection that Cultural Icon X had to Canada (his sister-in-law grew up in Vancouver!).

Canadian culture was painfully insecure about its own worth, which, as someone who always sympathized with underdogs, made it fascinating to me.

For anyone born in the ’70s, however, Canadians ruled the world for kids: Dennis Lee poems, records by Raffi and Sharon Lois & Bram (Bram played at my elementary school when I was in Grade 1), the Kids of Degrassi Street and Anne of Green Gables on television.

By the time I was a pre-teen glued to my radio, I was curious about all the Canadian acts I was hearing—especially hearing them after 10 p.m., all grouped together, for reasons I later realized was radio’s way of fulfilling their CanCon requirements to make way for more foreign hits during prime hours. But while I loved many of those acts (Martha and the Muffins, Payolas, Blue Peter, Rough Trade), they didn’t seem to register with any of my friends.

As a Scarborough boy, that all changed with Gowan. I grew up literally around the corner from him; he had gone to my elementary school (St. Barbara’s) and still went to my church (St. Thomas More) when he became a massive star of the video age (CITY-TV’s after-school show Toronto Rocks played “A Criminal Mind” about three times a week). Everyone I knew loved Strange Animal. Both boys and girls in my Grade 9 classes styled their hair like him. The fact he had Peter Gabriel’s band on his album was a big deal. His smirk was irresistible and cheeky for 14-year-olds like me. His live show—my first rock concert ever, at the Ontario Place Forum in June 1985—was incredible, especially when he leapt off the top of his grand piano.

Unlike those Memphis DJs and their attitude toward Elvis, I was thrilled that the guy who lived up the street turned out to be a rock star. Of course, it turned out that Gowan was only ever a rock star in Canada; the rest of the world didn’t care. That illustrated a narrative I saw played out all too often in my adolescence: on many levels, if you were successful only in Canada, you weren’t perceived as being truly successful. There was something suspicious about you, like maybe you only ever made it because of CanCon rules or sympathy or because your uncle owns a few radio stations.

Who cares? I found Canadiana exotic in its own way, like secrets that not even most Canadians seemed to know about, never mind the rest of the world. And though many of those acts were certainly derivative, many were unique: no one else on the pop charts sounded like Rough Trade, for example, and Carole Pope was far more explicit and daring and subversive than Madonna.

(Our women in particular presented a diversity of images simply not found elsewhere: gutsy belters like the ladies in Toronto and the Headpins, artsy weirdos like Jane Siberry and Dalbello, genre-bending feminist bands like the Parachute Club, even metal chicks like Lee Aaron. What did the rest of the world offer at that point in terms of strong women in pop music, other than Pat Benatar, Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper? But I digress.)

In Grade 9, my speech for English class was about Canadian music and how great it is and how it doesn’t get enough respect. Ah, prophecy.

During high school, most of my favourite concert experiences were at the Ontario Place Forum, an outdoor summer venue with a rotating (!) in-the-round stage, which held about 10,000 people (2,500 seated, the rest on the lawn)—which was about as intimate an all-ages venue got at that time. It was also cheap; if I recall, tickets were usually included in the $5 park admission price (this changed later on). Between 1985 and 1995, it was there that I saw the Spoons, Doug and the Slugs, David Wilcox, Bruce Cockburn, Crash Vegas, Grapes of Wrath, 54.40, The Tragically Hip, Skydiggers, Spirit of the West, Rock and Hyde, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLachlan, and, shortly before the venue closed in 1995, a CFNY event featuring Lowest of the Low, Rheostatics, Shadowy Men, Change of Heart, 13 Engines and many others. I loved all sorts of music from all around the world, but the shows I saw at the Forum made Canadian music come alive for me every summer, gave me an immense sense of national pride watching these acts perform before adoring audiences, and are a huge part of why I ended up co-writing this book.

The first bar show I ever attended was a Deja Voodoo BBQ at the Siboney Club in Kensington Market. I was 16 and had grown a beard for this express purpose. I went alone; my friends either a) didn’t have beards or b) didn’t know or care about the freak show of garage bands from across the country that comprised the Og Records roster, as heard on the It Came From Canada compilations and on CBC Radio’s Brave New Waves, of which I was a devout listener.

I thought this was going to be a huge show that I’d have to get there super-early for. I showed up at 6 p.m. The doors weren’t even open. No one else was there except bands schlepping gear. I came back an hour later, was one of the first people admitted into the club, and slowly sipped what I considered to be an overpriced glass of Coke for about an hour before the first band started. I struck up an awkward conversation with Deja Voodoo’s Gerard Van Herk, asking him something about Brave New Waves’ Brent Bambury—my first rock star encounter. I can’t remember who played which of the two BBQs I saw at the Siboney (1988, 1989), but I saw Deja Voodoo (obviously), the Gruesomes, Shadowy Men, UIC, E.J. Brulé, Jerry Jerry, the Ten Commandments and other Og staples up close, closer than I’d ever been to the blood and sweat of rock’n’roll. I was hooked.

I moved to Guelph in 1990 to attend university there. Why Guelph? Honestly, because it was close to Toronto and I could come home and not miss any concerts there. Also, I’d read about the Albion Hotel being a popular spot for all the Queen Street musicians to play. At the student newspaper, the campus radio station and an alt-weekly serving southwestern Ontario (Id Magazine), I almost exclusively covered Canadian artists.

People like the Rheostatics and Bob Wiseman and King Cobb Steelie became heroes of mine, broadening my mind, challenging my perceptions of both music and the industry, and I hold their recordings dear to me to this day. I’m hard pressed to think of many ’90s acts, other than Bjork, whom I cherish the way I do those three artists in particular. They were very much underdogs in the broader sense: beloved by many, but completely obscure to most.

It felt like an intensely creative time, a time that was rewriting the rules, a time that existed in a whole other universe than the “alternative” scene sweeping the States or the Madchester scene in the U.K. Who was going to document it in anything more than an ephemeral manner? Who was going to stand up and say that these were fascinating artists making classic albums? Canada was full of secret histories already; this one shouldn’t slip by.

By the end of the ’90s, I knew that I had to write a book. Two friends of mine had a similar idea, and here we are.

May '11 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Austra – Feel It Break (Paper Bag)

Toronto singer Katie Stelmanis has been an opera student, a feminist punk (Galaxy), a member of a folkie choir (Bruce Peninsula) and a solo artist struggling to navigate harsh electronic sounds with her songwriting vision.

Now that she’s emerged on the international stage leading the band Austra, Stelmanis delivers a fully formed, confident album wrapped up in ’80s goth and new wave. Her aesthetic doesn’t succumb to cheap irony or a fashion statement: Stelmanis is deadly serious, and except for the piano heard on closing track “The Beast,” she constructs an entirely artificial, evocative soundscape for her haunting songs. As an opera kid, she doesn’t hesitate to unleash her full vocal power; she’s a much more dynamic and less shrill singer than she was on her 2008 solo album she released under her own name.

Even though there’s no escaping the onslaught of synths, the input of percussionist Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf (formerly of Spiral Beach) animates the music beyond the icy exterior, especially on the surefire single “Beat and the Pulse,” and at times Stelmanis even sounds playful with her vocal arrangements. The lyrics are best avoided (“Sign! The! Consent forms!”; “I want your blood / I want to eat my hair”), but with a voice like Stelmanis’s and the sound world she creates around it, they’re barely noticeable. (May 26)

Download: “Lose It,” “Beat and the Pulse,” “Spellwork”

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (EMI)

Once a hip-hop group plateaus, rarely, if ever, do they step back on their game. So after a decade that included a spinning-wheels hip-hop album, a lacklustre instrumental album, Adam Yauch’s battle with cancer, and a two-year-old scrapped release date for an album called Hot Sauce Committee Part One, there was little reason to expect that they’d come back swinging with an album that’s easily their best since the 1992 classic Check Your Head.

As on that album, the Beasties sound hungry here: they’ve got something to prove, and there’s no time to mess around. No two tracks here sound alike. When they strap on their punk rock guitars (“Lee Majors Come Again”), they sound like bratty 20-year-olds again. When they detour into Jamaican rock steady with singer Santigold (“Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”), they’re confident and capable genre jumpers who feel right at home in a new suit. When they drop an instrumental track (“Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”), their funk sounds futuristic rather than retro. When they get wiggy on “Tadlock’s Glasses,” they take their abstract psychedelic hip-hop to places that their many previous journeys into abstract psychedelic hip-hop—and there have been quite a few, making a genre they have almost entirely to themselves—had yet to go.

The Beasties aren’t revisiting past glories, nor are they trying to play catch-up with acts more than half their age. Instead, they openly cop to their grandpa status and rap about sipping Persecco, while musically they borrow from the best and invent the rest, solidifying their status as iconoclasts. (May 5)

Download: “Make Some Noise,” “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”

The Cars – Move Like This (Universal)

The worst thing you can say about the new album by the Cars—the first album in 23 years by the new wave pop band of the late ’70s—is that it sounds too much like the Cars. To name but one example, “Sad Song” has the same guitar sound, the same handclaps, the same drum beat, the same synthesizer, and the same laconic vocals as many of their greatest hits from the first three albums. The ballad “Soon” is as good, if not better, than their mid-’80s smash hit “Drive.”

Singer Ric Ocasek might be in his mid-60s, but he still sounds like a disaffected young punk. The songs he crafted for this comeback are a distillation of every hit he’s ever written—or even produced, for that matter, as fans of Weezer will attest (Ocasek produced that band’s “blue” and “green” self-titled albums). Getting these Cars on the road again, it’s obvious what an influence they’ve had on every kind of power pop in the last 30 years—even on artists as different as No Doubt (which Ocasek also produced) and LCD Soundsystem (which he did not), as the opening track "Blue Tip" illustrates.

Ocasek throws everything he has into 10 concise pop songs that easily rival the group’s classic 1978 debut. There are no attempts to update their sound or do something different. Why should there be? Everyone loves vintage Cars. (May 12)

Download: “Blue Tip,” “Soon,” “Sad Song”

Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome (EMI)

Perhaps it’s fitting that for an album posing as a soundtrack to a non-existent film, appearances are everything. Here we have a superstar American producer, Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley), teaming up with an Italian film composer, Daniele Luppi, along with A-list cameos from Jack White and Norah Jones, all setting up camp in the same studio in Rome where master composer Ennio Morricone recorded many of his greatest scores.

That all looks good on paper, and Rome sounds fantastic from a purely aesthetic standpoint: the production is impeccable, the orchestration and use of choral voices is delicate and lovely. But compared to what is trying to be achieved here, the music on Rome doesn’t really measure up to its points of inspiration or even, say, a half-decent record by Air, or Beck doing one of his homages to Serge Gainsbourg’s Ballade de Melodie Nelson.

Jones and White provide pleasant distractions, offering a few anchor moments to an album that otherwise fades easily into the background (which, arguably, a great soundtrack should do anyway). White is clearly having some fun with the role-playing—especially when his lyrics for “The Rose With the Broken Neck” contain so many non-sequitur metaphors that one wonders if he was intentionally trying to write English lyrics like an ESL Italian writer might.

Rome might make me want to go out and rent a Fellini movie or buy a Morricone record or book a plane ticket—or maybe just savour a fine espresso—but I’m not sure I need to hear it again. (May 26)

Download: “Theme of ‘Rome,’ ” “The Rose With the Broken Neck,” “Problem Queen”

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

If you fell in love with Fleet Foxes’ flawless debut, Helplessness Blues offers mostly diminishing returns. Bandleader Robin Pecknold has been quoted extensively talking about how laborious the writing and recording was, in part because the band’s unexpected popularity kept skyrocketing and delaying the process. As a result, the songs often sound second-guessed and overcooked, not the naturally flowing magic that was so present the first time around. The only time they sound like they’re stretching out a bit is when free jazz saxophones start skronking in “Blue-Spotted Tail”; it’s a nice touch, if not a bit bewildering. It’s a quick distraction from the fact that as lovely as those harmonies are, they can’t carry an album on their own. (May 12)

Download: “Helplessness Blues,” “Montezuma,” “Lorelei”

Gorillaz – The Fall (EMI)

Damon Albarn doesn’t do anything small—or does he?

Most Gorillaz albums involve all sorts of stunt casting of superstars, and their 2010 arena tour featured upwards of 30 people on stage, from hip-hop MCs to African musicians to two members of The Clash to a full New Orleans brass band. Yet this album, released online last Christmas and getting a physical release now, finds Albarn alone in his hotel room or in the back of the tour bus, with only his tablet computer and some synthesizers. Most tracks were made in one day, each at a different tour stop, and the album unfolds in the order of recording during the month of October 2010.

And so the most popular project among Albarn’s many tangential pursuits—Gorillaz have sold millions of albums and scored several Grammys—delivers a low-key, downtempo, 2 a.m. album that sounds like Albarn’s personal post-adrenalin dreamstate as he cruises the highways of North America. It’s a consistently weird, disembodied experience. But that consistency works in its favour, whereas the three previous Gorillaz albums suffered from too many ideas competing to make a pastiche of pop music based in the kind of borderless utopia that Albarn promotes outside the band with his impeccably curated record label, Honest Jon’s.

The Fall is content to exist in its own world, a Zooropean vision of America filtered through an entirely digital lens. The gospel-tinged trip-hop track “Revolving Doors” is the closest Albarn gets to a pop song here; everything else is a fleeting snippet of a synth squiggle, a disembodied country song, or eerily robotic Muzak. The one acoustic song, featuring just legendary soul singer Bobby Womack and an acoustic guitar, somehow fits in seamlessly, despite its apparent incongruity—the kind of trick that Gorillaz keep trying on all their other albums, yet for the first time there’s nothing here that sounds remotely self-conscious.

The Fall is what it is, and it’s a lovely, curious little thing. (May 5)

Download: “Revolving Doors,” “Little Pink Plastic Bags,” “Bobby in Phoenix”

Man Man – Life Fantastic (Anti)

“If you gotta smash some plates to relax, do it, do it, do it!”

The members of Man Man (yes, they’re all men) no doubt take their own advice, judging by the joyous delerium of their live show, which finds frontman Honus Honus leaping off his seat to pound on his piano, while his bandmates assault various percussion instruments. It’s a cathartic experience for band and audience alike, though it would be a stretch to call it relaxing.

On past albums, like the excellent 2006 release Six Demon Bag, Man Man were manic, with their more violent tendencies tempered by tango, Balkan and cabaret influences. It could get a bit cartoonish; 2008’s Rabbit Habits—their first release on a high-profile label—started to sound like a parody of themselves.

Which is why Life Fantastic sounds so glorious: it takes all the madness and kitchen-sink approach of their early albums and brings it down several notches. Producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) helps them focus and find the beauty that’s always lurked on the edge of their rough and raw approach. But if some of their edges have softened somewhat, Man Man remains a unique and powerful band brimming with personality and originality. Clarinets, marimbas, banjos, string sections and the insanely inventive drumming of the man known only as Pow Pow all collide and coalesce in unexpected arrangements that, even in their occasional dissonance, never hit a wrong note. With a new Man Man album this good to behold, life is fantastic indeed. (May 12)

Download: “Shameless,” “Piranhas Club,” “Dark Arts”

Moby – Destroyed (EMI)

His mainstream success now a distant memory, Moby’s albums have become more personal and intimate; 2009’s lovely Wait For Me was a surprisingly strong return to form after years of pandering. Likewise, Destroyed is Moby’s ode to what Bruce Springsteen calls “the wee, wee hours” when the rest of the world sleeps, where those doomed to be awake find themselves witnessing a disembodied, alienating and occasionally magical vision of the world. The soundtrack to that existence, in Moby’s hands, is full of ghostly synths, vocoders and beats that sound pillowy even at accelerated tempos.

But it also sounds like Moby dusted off some tracks he found from 1993; he’s done all of this before, and better—and so have dozens of innovative new producers working similar territory who are biting at his heels (2010 albums by Pantha du Prince and Trentemoller spring immediately to mind). The vocal tracks try too hard to tie together his insomnia theme far too literally, whether it’s Moby himself singing or one of the four female vocalists here.

If he’s trying to replicate the monotonous experience of homogenous hotel rooms around the world: mission accomplished. Why he thought anyone would want to experience that in their own carefully curated home—or anywhere else but one of those hotels—is anyone’s guess. (May 26)

Download: “Be the One,” “Rockets,” “Lie Down in Darkness”

Sam Roberts Band– Collider (Secret Brain/Universal)

Sam Roberts is a mensch among Canadian musicians: all-around good guy, a good-looking guy at that, and creator of some of the breeziest CanRock singles of the last decade. And initial news of this, his fourth album, sounded promising: his band decamped to Chicago to work with producer Brian Deck, known for his inventive work with Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse and Califone. First single “The Last Crusade,” which features a punchy horn section, suggested that Roberts had been listening to some vintage West African funk that had crept into his sound in a supple and subtle way.

But there is no serious reinvention here; sadly, there’s not much inventiveness at all. Even at his weakest moments, Roberts can usually deliver decent pop songs, but over half of the tracks here fall flat. Then again, that’s about the usual ratio for Roberts—even his smash hit debut album didn’t contain more than an EP’s worth of solid material. Whenever Roberts is ripe enough for a greatest hits album, it will no doubt be his defining artistic statement, and several tracks here may well be on it; until then, minor tweaks of his sound can’t carry a full album. (May 26)

Download: “The Last Crusade,” “Without a Map,” “Streets of Heaven”

J. Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff (Stones Throw)

Before DJ Shadow’s 1998 classic Endtroducing, turntablist albums were mostly showboating affairs stuffed with scratch-happy pyrotechnics—like Yngwie Malmsteen albums for hip-hop heads. Endtroducing was the game-changer, a cinematic masterpiece. Since then—what? Some Kid Koala albums that are easier to respect than to love, and a grossly underrated avant-garde tour-de-force by Toronto’s Insideamind, 2008’s Scatterpopia. That’s why this debut solo album by J. Rocc sounds like such a breath of fresh air.

J. Rocc came up in the ’90s as part of the Beat Junkies, a turntablist crew who helped keep the art alive, but as a solo artist he’s less interested in showing off scratch technique or elaborate construction. Instead, Some Cold Rock Stuff is an original hip-hop blend of Bollywood funk, Brazilian tropicalia, jazz, disco, downtempo and anything else he wants to throw into the mix, all the while sounding refreshing and original. He’s neither a retro throwback nor a forward-thinking futurist; instead, he’s a craftsman, a master instrumentalist creating a well-rounded album for every mood and taste. (May 5)

Download: “Don’t Sell Your Dream (Tonight),” “Party,” “Play This (Also)”

Raphael Saddiq – Stone Rollin’ (Sony)

At this year’s Grammy Awards, a tribute to the late great soul singer Solomon Burke was led by Raphael Saddiq, a wickedly talented singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer whose career has evolved from ’80s teen idol in Tony Toni Tone to a hip-hop hybrid in Lucy Pearl to a retro soul man. Unfortunately, the Grammy organizers not only didn’t introduce Saddiq by name, they relegated him to second banana status while Mick Jagger strutted out and made it all about himself instead.

But never mind the Rolling Stone; focus instead on Stone Rollin’. Saddiq opens his latest solo album with “Heart Attack,” a garage-y rave-up that sounds like a hybrid of Sly Stone and CCR, and the rest of the album is just as raw and refreshing. Saddiq is normally a slick guy; this sounds like he’s loosened up considerably, turned up his guitar amps, and whipped a band into shape to knock out one live take after another in the studio.

Though Stax-era soul music is the prime inspiration here, Saddiq dips back deeper to ’50s rock’n’roll and Chicago blues. His voice—and what a voice it is—is laced with a tiny bit of distortion here, and he’s more than happy to grunt, snort and whoop it up everywhere he can; this a side of the usually smooth Saddiq that we haven’t heard before. Stone Rollin’ is not all rough and tumble, though; there are some string sections and softer moments that make this more than just a lost weekend in the garage.

Raphael Saddiq may be one of the last great soul men alive. And because he’s at least 20 years younger than the soul greats of the ’60s, he may hold that title for a long, long time. (May 19)

Download: “Heart Attack,” “Daydreams,” “Stone Rollin’”

Sloan – The Double Cross (Murder)

When celebrating your 20th anniversary, the last thing you want is people wondering: are they still around? Or worse: why are they still around? Sloan provide definitive answers to both by coming out swinging on their tenth album.

For a band that has always prided itself on being a four-way democracy, there have always been albums where someone isn’t pulling their weight. This is not one of them: every member brings their best game to the table, not just individually—they’ve had a tendency to retreat to their silos in the past—but together, as on the Chris Murphy/Andrew Scott song “She’s Slowing Down Again,” or the way some songs cross-pollinate, inserting a chorus of one into the coda of another. Jay Ferguson, the most consistent Sloan songwriter of the last decade, once again scores the album’s sweetest spots, and Patrick Pentland’s rockers sound much more inspired here than he has lately.

If anniversaries are a moment for self-examination, this band’s 20th proved to be a rallying point to give them a raison d’etre. There’s no point sitting around and waiting for radio royalties and festival paycheques to roll in, and so The Double Cross sounds like they’re proving something to themselves as much as their fairweather fans. There isn’t a wasted moment in any of these 12 songs: it’s the sound of a band that is still very much alive and fighting, not resting on a recorded legacy but continuing to make it. (May 12)

Download: “Shadow of Love,” “Unkind,” “Green Gardens Cold Montreal”

Socalled – Sleepover (Dare to Care)

Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, has always been more talented than his music—a novelty mix of klezmer and hip-hop and jazz—would suggest. Which is why it’s such a joyous relief that he finally has an album that fulfills all of his potential as a songwriter, a keyboardist and, most importantly, as a producer, a conduit capable of building bridges between disparate communities. Sometimes it’s silly—which was the primary problem with previous Socalled recordings—but generally Dolgin creates an inclusive party where anything and everything happens. “Work With What You Got” is an inspirational pop song featuring hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shante, calypso king The Mighty Sparrow, sawing cellos, Serbian brass master Boban Markovic, a children’s chorus, jazz piano and country singer Katie Moore—which is followed immediately by a straight-up Canadiana folk rendition of Peggy Seeger’s “Springhill Mine Disaster.”

Amid all the guest stars—which include James Brown’s trombone player Fred Wesley, Algerian pop star Enrico Macias, Warren Spicer of Plants and Animals, Gonzales, house music pioneer Derrick Carter, and dozens more—it’s Katie Moore whose star shines the brightest here. Though her solo material outside of Socalled situates her in folkie mode, Dolgin puts her to work on disco, funk and torch songs, where she conveys a haunting intimacy even when she’s belting it out. Her ballad showcase, the downtempo torch song “Told Me So,” is an absolute show-stopper.

If earlier Socalled albums seemed a bit forced, a bit too self-conscious, Dolgin’s playful curiosity pays off here with an album that’s as exciting and culturally diverse as his hometown of Montreal: it’s the sound of a St. Laurent street party come to life. (May 19)

Download: “UNLVD,” “Told Me So,” “Richi”

Amon Tobin – ISAM (Ninja Tune)

Amon Tobin built his reputation in electronic music on jazzy samples sliced and diced microscopically and refitted for the dance floor. But on his eighth album, there is neither dancing nor jazz to be found. Continuing to develop the sound world heard on his intriguing 2007 album Foley Room, ISAM sounds more like film composer Ennio Morricone scoring a spooky video game with field recordings of aquatic insects. There’s something creeping around every corner of this album. Tobin toys with tension and release, rarely ever falling into a metronomical meter. Sure, that means that most of ISAM sounds like your iPod is melting before your ears, but digital deconstruction rarely tastes this delicious. (May 5)

Download: “Journeyman,” “Lost & Found,” “Bedtime Stories”

Chad Van Gaalen – Diaper Island (Flemish Eye)

Sometimes you have to judge an album by its title, and this is one of the most disappointing releases of 2011. This Calgary singer/songwriter is one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from the Canadian underground in the last 10 years, and his last album, 2009’s Soft Airplane, was a perfect marriage of his fractured folk, grungy guitars, broken electronics, and fragile kitchen-sink arrangements. At his best, Van Gaalen’s work sounds like a simple three-chord song is the only thing keeping everything in his world from falling apart, that his warbling falsetto is the only light leading you through sonic and emotional wreckage.

Here, however, it just sounds like wreckage, period. There’s a fine line between making your music sound effortless and sounding like you couldn’t be bothered. On Diaper Island, Van Gaalen dumps material that sounds unfinished and half-baked. Or a little too baked, as the case may be—this sounds very much like a stoner slacker party that you’re not invited to.

Certainly there are minor moments of invention: small sonic treats and strange sounds that Van Gaalen conjures out of seemingly nothing on this characteristically lo-fi recording. He’s also more upbeat than usual, with a few tracks recalling the punk side of Eric’s Trip. But it’s largely devoid of Van Gaalen’s usual charm, and the songwriting largely just sounds lazy.

Van Gaalen is a great artist who’s not the type to bow to anyone’s expectations, and more power to him—but in a career of hits and misses, this one is definitely off target. (May 19)

Download: “Sara,” “Do Not Fear,” “Replace Me”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Doc soup

I've filed a few reviews of documentaries on DVD for Exclaim! magazine in the past month:

- The Oscar-winning takedown on the financial crisis: Inside Job

- The NFB profile of Canada's best known eco-terrorist, Wiebo Ludwig: Wiebo's War

- Spike Lee's second documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans, which comes across like a real-life cross between The Wire and Treme: If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise

Friday, May 13, 2011

TuneYards live


May 12, 2011

Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto

A friend of mine, who I saw for a fleeting second at the end of last night’s TuneYards show, just emailed me to ask me what I thought. My response, verbatim, was: “FUCKING HELL YEAH OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD YEAH BABY YEAH WOOOOOOOOOOOO!” What follows is an only slightly more measured response.

TuneYards is Merrill Garbus.

Merrill Garbus, on the other hand, is Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Miriam Makeba, Bjork, Owen Pallett, Terminator X and Ani DiFranco all rolled up into one. And despite that roll call, Merrill Garbus sounds like nobody else you’ve ever heard in your life. Not even all those other yodelling ukulele players who are into African music. (There must be a few out there somewhere.)

I’d seen her previous band, Sister Suvi, on two occasions, and it was a curious, creative combo that only hinted at what Garbus would later do. I’ve spent a lot of time with the two TuneYards records, 2009’s BirdBrains and 2011’s Whokill, and loved them both; the latter in particular is flawless, joyous and viscerally exciting (and you need to own it immediately). Yet all that still didn’t prepare me for what Garbus does live these days.

I’ve seen performers use loop pedals before—who hasn’t? The list of people who use them inventively is increasingly rare; too often, it’s a crutch for a solo performer who can’t afford to bring a band on the road with them. We’ve all seen people painstaking create their symphonies of sound one or two bars at a time. Colour me impressed—once.

Garbus, on the other hand, creates massive, yodelling choirs while seemingly sustaining a single note; it appears as if she’s looping one or two seconds at a time while you don’t even notice. The same approach applies to her drumming, which is not just a couple of floor toms and a snare in front of her, but the click of drumsticks and the clank of hitting the mic stand. And yet despite all this careful construction, she’s still very much fronting a live band—a bassist and two horn players, each amazing and perfectly complementary—who stop and start on cue, wait for pregnant pauses and follow her wherever she goes when the pedals are turned off and it’s just her and her ukulele.

But the technique is for the academic chin-strokers at the back of the venue (or the front row, which is really the only place you could properly see the not-so-towering Garbus at work). Garbus’s appeal is far from technical. It’s animal, primal, sexual, all about release. It’s all id. That was evident from every corner of the venue, whether you could see her hands at work or not.

Just as refreshing as her performance was seeing the sold-out audience dive right in with her. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the Horseshoe roar like it did last night, and not just at the end of songs, but at every astounding trick Garbus pulled out of her hat mid-song—like the stratospheric high notes she hits at the end of the pseudo-R&B jam “Powa,” the kind that could even make Prince jealous.

The look on her own face suggested she was as lost in the music as the rest of us: holy crap, is this happening? Though fully in control and bristling with the necessary confidence to pull this all off, she still looks like she’s discovering all of this for the first time, with open-eyed awe and joy and humility, surrendering to greater forces than we understand. Of course, unlike the rest of us schleps, Garbus is no naïf: she’s somehow capable of controlling the gods and commanding them to dance both for and with us. How does she do it? Who cares? The world is a better place with Merrill Garbus in it.


Monday, May 09, 2011

Geoff Berner's Victory Party

Geoff Berner, the “avenging angel of klezmer,” is an old friend of Radio Free Canuckistan, and one of my favourite interviews. Though I’m obviously a big fan of his songwriting—his pitch-black humour, his wit, his empathy, his punk attitude and ability to write timeless folk melodies—his albums have been spotty at best. Since the Vancouver performer started embracing klezmer music, Berner’s touring band—percussionist Wayne Adams and violinist Diona Davies—were certainly capable of tearing it up on stage, yet never seemed adequate to flesh out the studio recordings. And though there are amazing songs on every Berner release, his best work is spread out over his discography.

His new album, Victory Party, however, is aptly named and rock solid from start to finish. Berner enlisted Montreal genre-jumper Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, to helm the production, and it’s a perfect match. [Full review here.] Dolgin gets exactly where Berner is coming from and pushes him to be his best, while bringing in auxiliary players (and switching Adams to a drum kit) to colour in all the corners.

I wrote about both Berner and Dolgin for a piece in a recent Maclean’s. Because the editor was more interested in Berner’s klezmer conversion—which took place in 2004—than the details of his new album, the only quotes used in the article came from a previous conversation I had with Berner in 2006. In other words, this entire conversation is a “deleted scene.”

Geoff Berner

Phone call for tour stop in Bochum, Germany

March 28, 2011

In your ongoing mission to be the avenging angel of klezmer, this record made me think that much of modern klezmer that I’m aware of is not only apolitical but largely instrumental. Is that true?

A lot of it is instrumental. Michael Alpert and Brave Old World have a lot of singing. There are a lot of vocals in a lot of the revival bands like Beyond the Pale, or the Klezmatics, who have an amazing singer. Music that is Ashkenazi Jewish music rooted in Yiddish has all been lumped in as klezmer. You have songs from the massive vibrant Yiddish musical theatre world are lumped in with the wedding tunes that have been played for a couple of hundred years, and even with Israeli folk songs. And they get lumped in with the street political rallying songs of the Russian revolution [one Victory Party track, "Daloy Polizei," is adapted from the latter]. It all gets put under the rubric of klezmer. It’s really just Yiddish culture.

Your mission to write the new drinking songs for the canon—do you feel like you’ve found more peers recently?

Yes. Dan Kahn is doing some great stuff. What Josh Dolgin does is different from me, but I feel it’s on a similar wavelength. There are some other people coming up, and a lot of kids learning klezmer at klez camp and stuff like that who are into what we’re doing. It seems like it’s working. People are requesting songs that I wrote some time ago at the shows and they know the words and are asking for the chords. That was the hope: if I’m lucky, if you have a good run at it, by the end you get a couple of songs into the canon, into the repertoire. You don’t know if you’re going to get there or not.

Would you say that a lot of it is apolitical?

Dan Kahn is even more aggressively political than me in some ways. I don’t know if Josh Dolgin is expressly political, but he refers to political issues in his songs, and his identity as an out gay man is significantly political. The Klezmatics, who are the old guard now, they did an entire album of Woody Guthrie songs. Woody Guthrie’s mother-in-law was a prominent Yiddish poet, and he lived across the street from her in Coney Island in a Jewish neighbourhood. He wrote tons of Jewish political stuff that didn’t really see the light of day because of his illness. They did a whole record of that. There’s always something political about Jewish culture, even if it’s conservative.

You write in your bio that your music is a vision of Jewish culture that is a “reaction to the conservative, knee-jerk pro-Israel, judgmental bullshit that has developed in recent decades.” Is that something you have in common with Josh and your other collaborators on this record?

It’s not something we discuss, because for us it goes without saying. We’re all on the same page. We all have stuff about us that those people hate. Some of us have people in our own families who don’t talk to us, or don’t consider us to be real Jews anymore. We all have that experience. That’s why we bond together.

There’s a song on the record where you take aim at ambiguous lyrics on “hipster radio,” but could that not be applied to any genre of music? The accusation that people aren’t writing about their surroundings or their times?

That’s true, but there’s something particularly irritating about the knowing emotionally distant tone of much of indie rock, because you get vague notions that somebody knows something about the world that they’re not sharing with you, and it’s some kind of weird social capital.

That by holding it back they’re maintaining that social capital?

In a way. Maybe that’s part of why there aren’t any overt expressions of political ideas in those songs, because it would blow the mystique. It’s mysterious.

The Dan Bejars of the world?

Are you asking me to take a shot at Dan Bejar [of Destroyer]?

No, because I’m a huge fan despite feeling that way about him.

There’s something oddly compelling about the new Dan Bejar record [Kaputt]. It has an aggressive decadence that evokes Thatcher’s England from the other side of the fence. He’s making this weird wine-bar music and yet there’s something just off enough about it. It’s like what Agatha Christie said about the nature of horror: you take the familiar and you make it just different enough that it’s uncanny and strange.

I await your record review of that album.

(whispers) The saxophones. The saxophones!

What do you have against saxophones?

Sorry, I was just trying to do my Apocalypse Now routine.

I was watching the surprisingly watchable Juno Awards last night…

Did the good guys win?

Many did, actually. Neil Young was given the Humanitarian Award, and one of the things he said in his speech was that musicians should focus on their art first, that the songs are the most important thing, and from that you can do other things. It made me think of a lot more didactic artists who don’t last, or who give a visceral thrill in the moment. You put down the newspaper and put on their record and you get the same immediate sensation, but you’ll never put that record on again two years later. Which is the challenge with political writing.

It’s tricky, but that’s also the challenge with all songwriting, to not to write a shitty one—because most of them are shitty. There’s a spectrum of goodness. Neil Young wrote his share of really crap songs, and some very of-the-moment songs—some of which turned out to be classics, and some were totally forgettable. But he keeps working, that’s the great thing about him. He goes to work.

How do you approach editing yourself or assessing what’s working?

It’s usually good with political stuff to have an element of humour to it. I don’t like slogan shoutiness. If you can pull off a purely political song like “Just Deportees” by Woody Guthrie or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” by Bob Dylan, or even “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” by Billy Bragg, that’s pretty good. But I like the dark humour songs. I grew up listening to Tom Lehrer and his satirical songs. They have a laughing-at-the-horror thing about them that I’ve always liked.

You finally revealed your religious agenda, which took you a while [on the track “Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religious Agenda,” which argues that the Bible is a test, that God wants you to do the exact opposite of what He prescribes there].

Yes, I’ve been working on that.

What was your aim with that track?

It’s more or less historically accurate depiction of the Frankish heresy. Here’s a funny thing: some people say [the heresy] was a harbinger of the Reformation, the beginning of the end of respect for the Church and powers that be and God at the centre of the universe. There was a large movement of people saying, “What if it’s all bullshit? What if we just did whatever the hell we want?” And it influenced Christians who witnessed this. “Oh, running around in the forest eating bacon—that doesn’t sound so bad. Why can’t we do that?”

Purification through transgression.

I’m always trying to relate Jewish culture to the general culture, and there’s a reason why they call it Judeo-Christian values: most of the shit you goyim think, we made it up!

Wasn’t Frank open to elements of Christianity as well? Didn’t he borrow parts that he thought were appropriate?

I’m not aware of all the aspects of Frank’s crazy, Jim Jones-esque religious plan, but the key to Christianity’s appeal—according to Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—is that it is Judaism unchained. You take the fanatic zeal of the Jews and you say, “Actually you don’t have to follow these dietary rules or do that thing to your dick or any of that other stuff and you still get into heaven.” And Frank was an unchainer.

Don’t the Hussites predate Frank?

Did they do that too?

Centuries before Luther, they were the Czechs who rejected the Catholic Church and in many ways were the first Protestants.

Right. Then there were the Gnostics. There’s a lot of fun stuff there. I like the vibe, and it’s just so funny.

What does the Golem mean to you? [A Victory Party track is called “Oh My Golem!”]

In different versions of the Golem story, it gets out of hand. Frankenstein was clearly a descendent of the Golem. In my song, the Golem is Israel. The whole idea of modern Zionism was invented by left-wing European Jewish intellectuals. Now those guys don’t give a shit what we think about them.

The Golem track sounds unlike anything else you’ve ever done, and you’re obviously stepping outside your comfort zone here. I love the way this record sounds compared to your others, and I assume it’s Josh’s doing. Sonically it’s much better, but the arrangements have more space. In some ways it reminds me of your first record, when you were primarily a solo performer, and the arrangements there weren’t just a replication of a live band.

We could bring things in, cut them out, try things out. Josh would muck around a lot and try things different ways. A lot of it is the quality of that studio, which was amazing and the engineer was killer. Bringing in the bass and clarinet and the piano, there’s less accordion on it, but it comes in when it’s supposed to. I’m glad you heard it that way; that’s what I was hoping Josh would do.

My impression is that it would have been easier for Josh to dig deep into klezmer, living in Montreal, compared to you in Vancouver. Is that true?

I went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. Klezmer and sacred music and Israeli folk songs were played there. I had a grandfather and great aunts and uncles who spoke Yiddish with each other. There is enough of a community in Vancouver; if you want to learn Yiddish, you could do it in Vancouver. A lot of what Josh knows, he learned picking through record stores or finding stuff on the Internet. And he’s been to the klez camps and hung with old people in Montreal and New York. I just started buying CDs and listening to them, buying songbooks and looking them over. I got some immersion from hanging out with Bob Cohen and driving him around Romania in 2004. But there were only one or two Jewish musicians there; these were elderly gypsies who played in the pick-up bands. Now I hang out with Dan Kahn and Josh and Daniel Blacksberg out of Philadelphia; I’m getting more and more immersed in it. Being on the road and doing this has been an invitation for other people to reach out.

Are you doing Germany extensively on this tour?

I do well here. The money is good. The anchor date is a four-city festival that happens once every few years. It’s a Jewish culture festival in the Ruhr valley.

Why do you think Germany in particular is so receptive?

I do well in Northern Europe where I opened for Kaizers Orchestra; I did two major tours with them. Now I do well in Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Scandanavia is really good. That’s what really broke things open, how I got an agent and stuff like that, when those guys took me on board. The climax of this European tour is their 10th anniversary spectacular show at the Oslo Spectrum Arena, capacity 9,000, and I’m opening for that.

How long have you been going to Europe and how often? Twice a year for 10 years?

That’s about right. Sometimes more.

Musically, obviously there’s a strong connection, but for me half the appeal is the lyrics and double entendres and satire. Why do you think that plays so well there?

Anybody under 45 is English proficient, especially anyone who is a music fan. The Norwegians speak better English than we do. The rest of them are really pretty good. It might be tougher in some of the smaller towns in Germany or Austria, but in the centres, it’s embarrassing because you laze out and don’t learn the local language because you don’t have to.

Right now politics in North America seems more polarized than ever. Do you think the climate is different than it was 10 years ago when you’re performing?

It’s hard to say, because 10 years ago I was trying to win over strangers in little bars, where they had their arms crossed and were wondering why the hockey game got shut off. Now people show up and they know all the words—and for some of them it’s their second language! I’m in a weird satire bubble of people who are totally into it. But the culture in general? I don’t know. When I pissed off the sponsors at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the audience loved it.

What did you do?

I did that thing where I was playing “Maginot Line” [a song about a key strategic military loss by the French in WWII] and I had a giant VW sign behind me, so it just occurred to me in the middle of it to say, “You remember Mr. Hitler, don’t you? He’s the one who brought you—the Volkswagen!” Which is true, he did. He ordered it into being. But apparently that was a no-no.

But surely that didn’t stop anyone from buying a Volkswagen.

I think people were already annoyed with Volkswagen, because they had paid to have a special parking lot closer to the campground, where if you owned a Volkswagen you didn’t have to schlep your gear as far. Everybody was pretty mad already.

So you do still play festivals where strangers don’t know what to make of you.

I think the culture in the past 10 years has moved somewhat to the right. The success of the American Idol stuff has reinforced the idea for some people in mainstream culture the idea that if you’re not No. 1, then you suck. And when you’re not No. 1 anymore, you’re ripe for the trash heap. Now that the brass ring—except for Arcade Fire, and the weird parallel universe they live in—the brass ring has been removed and less and less people care about going after it, which is good.