Friday, August 17, 2007

Chapter Nine

Complete!

Had he revealed too much of himself in an anxious haste to forge a bond? The loneliness of God is His strength. He had always held that it was unnatural for a man to impart fully his inner monologue, that it was against the fundamental mystique of human nature. But had he not been happy these few days? Was he not happy right now? It was good to have someone. Thoughtful and gregarious, Ava was good for him. She truly listened, and spoke truly, too. He cursed the slowness of time, wishing they were already long-time companions—that the years would erode the superficiality of their furtive glances and a deep, unspoken understanding would take root.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Chapter Eight

Complete!

They argued often when she was small. She remembered he was tender with her, laughed at her school-girl egotism, kissed the top of her head when things were settled. But it had always been Houari Nourallah, paragon of steady hands and resolute gait, who settled them. Evidently, Ava thought, she had learned her lessons, for she could not recall many such fights since her mother left them. There was the row over her tempestuous flirtation with the restaurant’s saucier (“My daughter will not spend her days with a vulgar miscreant whose sole achievement in life has been to reduce cabernets and combine warm milk with flour!”), the heated debate when she raised the topic of spending a summer with second cousins in Morocco (“A dreadful place. All they eat is couscous and tagine.”), and then, more recently, the distraction about university and the subsequent appearance of the gangly cyclist whose nerves got the better of him at their front door. Though Ava’s tactics had been revised—if not much refined—her father’s were as hard and unforgiving as bare stone.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Chapter Seven

Complete! (Following another hard slog.)

He noticed her as he reached to open the doors separating the living room and pantry from the rest of the main floor. Ava was not, in fact, sleeping soundly, but rather gliding almost ethereally through the kitchen, opening cupboards without a single squeal from the hinges, placing dishes delicately on the countertop. Her slim figure seemed to emerge from and disappear into the atmosphere at will—her small movements lit only by the muted first rays of the sun, ambient and cool. William watched through the glass. She still wore her denim jeans and t-shirt from the previous day, but they hung more loosely from her indefinite frame, as if the garments had come to mimic the relaxation of their wearer.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mr. Richard, Our Good Man

Friday, January 12, 2007

This just in...

Kind of Blue is a masterpiece.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Great Moments in the History of Music Blogging

Exhibit One, via the occasionally updated blog of Aaron Wherry, formerly of the National Post, now, apparently, of Maclean's:

"For one thing, Milli Vanilli are not the worst thing in the history of popular music. That title obviously belongs to Joanna Newsom."

Zing.

(Bonus points for anyone who writes, records and ultimately sends me a copy of what will surely be pop music's greatest-ever single, "Go Go Gorbachev.")

...

Speaking (writing) of fun quotations, here's one from Richard ("what a dick") Pound, from a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, regarding the alleged doping exploits of the Mennonite Madman, Floyd Landis:

"'I mean, it was 11 to 1!' Pound said, referring to Landis’s reported testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, a measure used to identify doping. 'You’d think he’d be violating every virgin within 100 miles. How does he even get on his bicycle?'"

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Monday, January 01, 2007

20 for 2006. (Also, the 200th post.)

Much earlier in the year, I ceased the practice of blogging, except to alleviate all the but most intense boredom. This was partly due to the fact that I finally got a full-time job in the media, but more to the point, writing online (and with no compensation and little feedback) about music was becoming a chore; listening to music was becoming a chore. It was (and, I suspect, remains) an endless weekly--even daily--cycle of keeping up with the latest, soon-to-be-defunct trends and tracking down albums by the newest indie-pop darlings, most of whom are either far too serious or utterly, uncomfortably twee. Sometimes it's a challenge to be one's own gatekeeper.

So this half-hearted forum all but closed down for most of the last six months. It's now a boutique establishment for occasional reviews of music, books and film, and has gone from 50 to 75 daily readers (yeah, I know, lah-dee-dah) at its late-2005 peak to approximately four. And really, who cares? The only music writers you really need to read are the ones that are good enough to get paid for it. The Globe and Mail's Carl Wilson comes to mind (though I admit to being baffled more than once by his superior intellect and relentless championing of "bad bands"). And one can always count on Frank over at Chromewaves to deliver some thoughtful "everyman" opinions while remaining true to his distinctive and refined musical sensibilities. The above-mentioned are pretty much the only music blogs I read on a daily basis, and I think I'm healthier for it. By remaining (to some extent) willfully ignorant other what others were listening to, I became far more intrigued by the fewer musicians/bands that I was hearing.

Which brings me to this post's raison d'etre. After the jump you will find my annual year-end favourites list. It's text-heavy and devoid of graphics (I can't be bothered to cut-and-paste 20 album covers and links just to fulfill some notion of visual pizazz). It also has, perhaps, too many "popular" choices, but hopefully fewer of the "buzz" albums you've read about on every other music list published since the beginning of December. That means no Arctic Monkeys! No He Poos Clouds! And I haven't even tried to discover this "Clipse" person/group that all the white middle-aged hip-hop guys are talking about. So if my long-winded ravings haven't made you want to rip out your spine, read on by following the precious little link below.

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony inherent in not caring what other people write about music while simultaneously creating one's own list of recommendations. But I like irony, so there you go.)



20. Tom Waits ~ Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards

I haven't had a lot of time to give Orphans much attention, but Tom Waits and his 56 youngsters sneak into the top 20 on reputation. At three (very loaded) discs, this set is a little unwieldy, and though nobody's officially calling it a b-sides release any longer, it still has a bit of that "compilation feel." In this sense, the concept doesn't always work, but when taken in smaller doses, Waits' indisputable songcraft reveals itself. The "Bastards" disc seems to be both the most interesting and most impenetrable of the package--with its erratic spoken word tracks and bizarre Ukranian kick-line numbers--while "Brawlers" features lots of Bone Machine-style crunchy rock, including "Road to Peace," the best song ever to name-check Mahmoud Abbas. The ballads disc, "Bawlers," will likely prove the lesser of the three sets once time has marched on, but for now, the world can use a handful of whisky-soaked torch songs with which to drown our sorrows.

19. Thom Yorke ~ The Eraser

Neither innovative nor surprising, The Eraser is the album we all should have expected from Thom Yorke, an artist who still undoubtedly spends most of his time working on Radiohead material as opposed to his own songs. Skittering glitch beats abound, and Yorke uses his ethereal homesick-alien whine to good effect, even when his lyrics falter (for example, the egregiously bad "I'm a dog" verse on "Skip Divided"). "Black Swan" is an ominous standout, and the obtusely relevant "Harrowdown Hill" ends with the hard-restraint riffing that's lately become a Radiohead trademark. Sure, The Eraser sounds like something Yorke could've done with a laptop and a few recording consoles in his bedroom (and with Nigel Godrich whispering constantly in his ear), but not everything has to be OK Computer.

18. The Brother Kite ~ Waiting For The Time To Be Right

A surprising pop confection; hi-fi ambitions on a lo-fi budget from this previously anonymous Rhode Island-based band. The soundtrack for a city sunset, Waiting For The Time To Be Right melds the typical elements of shoegaze and dream pop (fuzzy guitars, rudimentary drumming) with expertly crafted melodies and vocal harmonies that pay superb tribute to the Beach Boys. Power-pop songs like "The Coat of Arms," "Out of Sight" and "Get On, Me" are unabashedly broad, but also economical: behind the soaring guitars and anthemic vocals is an elegiac sensibility, a certain sincerity that keeps the album fresh, even if it's all been heard before.

17. The Hold Steady ~ Boys And Girls In America

The Hold Steady can't seem to shake its reputation as "America's best bar band," yet if Boys and Girls In America proves anything, it's that the band's sound is more suited to stadiums than dilapidated beer-swill hovels. From the opening guitar riff of "Stuck Between Stations" to mantra-like chorus to "Southtown Girls" (which just begs for thousands of unison voices), this is music that begs to be pumped through massive stacks at earth-shattering volumes. And with Craig Finn taking more time to sing actual notes, you might actually find yourself reliving the halcyon days when you stood in the front row at Giants Stadium, waving your acid-washed denim jacket with the Stars & Stripes liner in Bruce Springsteen's general direction. As a lyricist, Finn has few peers. The Hold Steady's previous album, Separation Sunday, dealt with big themes and numerous interconnected characters. This time around Finn isn't hampered by concept album conventions, meaning that his stories and characters can now stand alone, and are that much more focused for it. Musically it's all vaguely deconstructed but still sincere hard rock: every moment is bursting with energy; guitarist Tad Kubler shows off a cornucopia of monster licks; and the band incorporates piano into its tunes better than any currently active rock group. "Chips Ahoy" is a far better than such a horribly named song deserves to be, and "First Night" is the kind of anthem that cigarette lighters were made for. If only someone had listened to "Chillout Tent" and told the backup vocalists (Elizabeth Elmore and Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner) that their weirdly incongruous contributions weren't necessary.

16. Pearl Jam ~ Pearl Jam

Let's stay away from anything that states "this is Pearl Jam's best album since Ten." (I'll defend No Code to the grave.) Without making futile attempts to contextualize, the band's self-titled, avocado-covered record is a thrillingly vital work, full of monster riffs and vocal vitriol. Eddie Vedder's rabid dog howl is perfectly matched by the lean, rollicking guitar work of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, and the political overtones in songs such as "World Wide Suicide" and "Marker in the Sand"are both less obvious and more cutting than on Pearl Jam's previous efforts. One of the year's better pure rock albums, by a band that after 15 years knows exactly what it wants to do, and has the keen sense of purpose necessary to do it. [Read my original review here]

15. Centro-Matic ~ Fort Recovery

Perhaps this latest release from the prolific Texas-based rock veterans was drowned out by the blogger confetti strewn in Band of Horses' general direction, but I find it surprising that Fort Recovery hasn't appeared on more year-end lists. There's enough solid material here to satisfy alt. country and indie rock fans alike for many months. Songs such as "Covered Up In Mines" and "Triggers and Trash Heaps" are, on the surface, workmanlike and uncomplicated, but their consistent musicality and evocative lyrics cut deep. Will Johnson's mealy-mouthed vocals are confident on the mid-tempo rockers and sensitive on pathos-filled tunes like "In Such Crooked Time"--the album's centrepiece and a song that's perfect for morning, noon or night. There's very little here that can be considered "new," no reason for excitement. But in the context of a culture so fixated on the next big thing, the latest innovation, there's something to be admired about a group of musicians who know the value of a constant. [Read my original review here]

14. Grizzly Bear ~ The Yellow House

Like last year's Descended Like Vultures by Rogue Wave, The Yellow House is a full-band expansion on what was previously a solo vehicle, and it's much better for it. An endlessly fascinating--like a constantly changing, multi-faceted diorama--The Yellow House incorporates all of the best tendencies of freak- or psych-folk (lush harmonies, creative orchestration, tasteful use of electronic elements) without ever seeming overindulgent or cutesy. And unlike similar acts Architecture in Helsinki or Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear actually has a passable vocalist in band leader Edward Droste. There's a clear experimental bent on songs such as "Lullabye," "Colorado" and "Knife," yet somehow everything seems timeless, as psychedelic harmonies swirl around folksy acoustic guitars and thunderhead drumming, within arrangements that are often closer to sonato-allegro than typical pop. Intimate, emotionally enveloping music found no grander stage in 2006.

13. Cassandra Wilson ~ Thunderbird

Much more of a roots-influenced pop album that a vocal jazz record, Thunderbird nonetheless holds up with the best in either category this year. Wilson's voice is in fine, expressive form throughout the proceedings--sultry and smooth on the excellently-paced "Closer to You"; defiant against the bluesy stomp of "Easy Rider"; heartbreakingly weary on "Red River Valley"--though the staccato scatting toward the end of "Go to Mexico" borders on cheese. Producer T-Bone Burnett should be credited for many of Thunderbird's most positive aspects, including the recruitment of Jim Keltner, Marc Ribot and Colin Linden to play as backing musicians on a number of tracks. Their marked contributions elevate the record from the level of mixed-bag jazz-pop effort to that of an endlessly listenable collection of music. Soulful, if not entirely spontaneous. [Read my original review here]

12. Various Artists ~ Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound

I tend not to go for compilation CDs and "various artist" type soundtracks all that often. Most fall into one of two categories: either the album features a couple of great tracks jammed in with a bunch of mediocre ones, or it compiles a lot of good songs that, for one reason or another, don't fit together as a musically cohesive package. However, Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound manages to skirt both of these problems. And, wonder of wonders, it wasn't even my favourite compilation to be released this year!

"Tropicalia" refers to a particular style of protest music that came out of Brazil (particularly Sao Paolo and Bahia) in the politically turbulent late 1960s. The music is most easily described as post-Revolver Beatles with a bossa-nova beat, and while the most prominent flavour in the mix is indeed "psychedelia," the sounds are much more complex. Where we might think of Brazilian music as being exclusively of the Antonio Carlos Jobim/Joao Gilberto brand, musicians of the Tropicalia movement such as Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze and Os Mutantes combined psychedelic rock with samba, American funk and soul, and avant garde sound experiments to create an invigorating yet challenging sound all their own. The individual song quality is consistently high, and since most of the twenty included tracks were recorded within a relatively short time period and by musicians that were all in one way or another (however peripherally) associated with each other, the set list has a unified feel and sound--in essence, these songs belong together. A superlative album is made even better by the inclusion of a comprehensive (if not the most eloquently written), 50-page booklet that does wonders to contextualize this "foreign" music, especially for those listeners who a) did not live in Brazil in the late 1960s, and b) do not understand Portuguese.

11. Various Artists ~ Jamaica To Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967-1974

Another compilation that succeeds because of its focus on a very specific time and an equally specific style of music and performance. Jamaica To Toronto doesn't offer a "total package" on par with the Tropicalia set, but my musical tastes and geographic circumstances have meant that the former has received much more time blasting through my stereo speakers. The set leads off with "Fugitive Song" by Jo-Jo and the Fugitives, and it's a heavy Wilson Pickett-esque introduction to the Jamaican scene, combining R&B/soul vocals with reggae instrumentation. The Cougars' "I Wish It Would Rain" is far-and-away the best song on the excellent disc, with smooth harmonies that crescendo toward a horn-blast chorus that could make Cannonball Adderley shout for mercy. For an album featuring Jamaican artists, there's actually very little traditional reggae on offer, but that in itself is rather instructive: these artists managed to seamlessly integrate the sounds of Jamaica with the American R&B that was so popular at the time in Toronto, their adopted home.

It's both inspiring and disappointing to know that the city once played host to such a vibrant and eclectic R&B/reggae scene. The infrastructure and audience has always existed to support such "niche" musics, which bodes well for today's crop of specialist musicians, whether they are classified as jazz, funk, underground hip-hop or even part of that currently notable "bad bands" clique. Yet, the disheartening evidence also exists to show us that more often than not, these movements are unsustainable. The Jamaican music scene thrived for seven years before being left to history. How long, for example, can the stagnation of Toronto's jazz scene* persist before it too is forgotten.

*not including the burgeoning concert market for indie improv-based musics, which are not classified as "jazz" in the traditional sense.

10. TV On The Radio ~ Return To Cookie Mountain

It's something of a challenge to precisely how and why this album is so successful, but it's likely due to at least some of the following elements: Tunde Adibempe's unnaturally expressive vocal tone and delivery, which laments love lost over a raging fuzz-box guitar on "I Was a Lover," is eternally hopeful during the melodic chorus of "Province" (with one David Bowie singing over his shoulder) and approximates a rebellious howl on "Wolf Like Me" and "Let the Devil in"; the propulsive rhythmic force (hip-hop meets drum-and-bass meets shoegazer) that drives even the mid-tempo numbers toward catharsis, then pulls back to keep us wanting more. The guitar washes--occasionally edgy, always happily oversaturated; the barbershop quartet harmonies; or perhaps the prescient but suitably vague lyrics. Occasionally one wonders whether this very "of its time" music will be remembered in decades to come. But for now, whatever the formula for TV On The Radio's current success, it's one that few other bands have managed to replicate.

09. Asobi Seksu ~ Citrus

If shoegaze is the new dance-pop, then New York-based Asobi Seksu is the new Franz Ferdinand. Or something. Released early in the year and backed-up by constant touring, the feedback-driven rock on Citrus has inevitably drawn comparisons with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, along with the works of other dour late-'80s/early-'90s bands like Lush and Curve (plus the irony-laced noisy pop of acts such as Sonic Youth, Cibo Matto and Yo La Tengo). However, outside of the general use of guitar noise and tender-violent timbral shifts across the album, similarities between Asobi Seksu and the original shoegaze scions have been overstated. Citrus is joyously, expertly-arranged pop music that only hints and the insularity of shoegazers past. Lyrically, there's not much happening, but Yuki Chikudate's coy vocals are a delicate counterpoint to the crunching guitars and constantly pounding percussion on tracks such as "Thursday" and "Nefi + Girly," while "Exotic Animal Paradise" highlights a visceral, full-band intensity that's been missing from the indie rock of the last couple of years. [Read my original review here]

08. Rosanne Cash ~ Black Cadillac

Pure organic heartache, preserved forever in the digital domain, Black Cadillac is a true distillation of grief, sorrow and, ultimately, hope, that does Rosanne Cash (and, indeed, her parents) proud. My preferences lean heavily toward the album's mournful ballads, such as "The World Unseen," with its ever-searching lyric, and other less twangy songs like the excellent title track (rumbling bass line, mariachi horns and all), but really, almost every track is a fully realized testament to the singer's emotional nakedness.

07. Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra ~ Boulevard De L'Independance

I suspect most writers' token world music vote this year has gone posthumously to Ali Farka Toure. A deserving choice if ever there was one: Savane, the final album by Mali's answer to John Lee Hooker is full of soulful music that insinuates itself into the heart of the listener, leaving a simple yet indelible mark. However, Boulevard De L'Independance, recorded by Toure's compatriot Toumani Diabate, is 2006's real African jewel. The Malian kora player is in astounding, virtuoso form on each one of the album's nine vibrantly-arranged tracks, and his ensemble provides a balanced, invigorating backdrop. No group recorded material this year with so much infectious rhythm, joy and humanity that Diabate and his Symmetric Orchestra. With dozens of credited musicians, this is a band that puts Broken Social Scene to shame. The liner notes to this Nonesuch release state that, for the last decade, Diabate and his orchestra have played a weekly gig at a club in Bamako. From Canada, one can only speculate as to the amount of energy and spirit that must enliven those performances. Boulevard is the kind of recording that creates world travellers. [Read my original review here]

06. Augie March ~ Moo, You Bloody Choir

Moo, You Bloody Choir has the best name of any album released since Frank Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti. It also starts off with the most perfect trio of consecutive songs recorded all year, by anyone. Opener "One Crowded Hour" is a semi-strophic bar ballad for the literate set. Though lacking a traditional chorus, the song nonetheless harnesses a slow-burning melody and steadily builds to a singularly memorable hook. Once you've started singing along, you won't stop, as what follows is even better. Track two, "Victoria's Secrets," employ a more obvious song structure, but manages to be even more surprising and sublime. Third, "The Cold Acre," is similarly adept, but could stand alone based solely on the poetic lyricism of its chorus: "My heart is a cold acre." The album's subsequent eleven songs don't quite live up to the unbelievably high standard, and by the end of things one really starts to feel the length, but taken individually, each track is never less than above-average—painstakingly arranged, skillfully performed, and containing a elegant lyric thoughtfulness in the best traditions of The Band or Leonard Cohen.

05. Guillemots ~ Through The Windowpane

High-spirited and unceasingly ambitious, the debut full-length from this British quartet is saddled with lofty goals that are consistently and surprisingly achieved. Through the Windowpane is a musical kitchen sink of sonic elements that both complement and contrast: bold, orchestral washes of strings and horns; haltingly unrestrained banshee wailing; production tricks that sound as good as they did on Revolver; glistening guitars, graceful vocal harmonies, occasionally maddening lyric eccentricity ("sometimes I could cry for miles..." What the crap?!), more glockenspiels and vibraphones than Nigel Godrich would care to shake a stick at; the list goes on. Just try not to tap your feet to the effervescent "Trains to Brazil," with its gloriously over-the-top chorus of saxophones and oblique references to the London subway bombings. Then settle in for smaller pleasures of "Redwings" (with its authentically psychedelic coda) and "If the World Ends." Once in a while, band leader Fyfe Dangerfield overstretches--for example, his timorous vocals could use more backing than a simple plucked ukelele (or something) on "Blue Would Still be Blue"--but somehow such missteps only add to the endearing madness of the thing. Logically, it's all summed up in the album's final track, "Sao Paolo," a 12-minute epic that begins as a classicist ballad and ends in a swirl of strings, woodwinds and samba-style drumming and the aforementioned world-ending banshee screams. Elegant, enthusiastic and slightly unhitched, Through the Windowpane is a pop confection that won't soon be forgotten.

04. The Roots ~ Game Theory

Muscular and damned angry, this latest manifesto from The Roots is not to be trifled with. Anchored as always by ?uestlove's inimitable beats and stellar production (and by Hub's serious low end), Game Theory is the group's best record since Things Fall Apart: a no-fat mix of Phrenology's experimental bent and the hookier grooves that were brought out for a not-quite-successful test run on The Tipping Point. While Black Thought's delivery can be criticized as somewhat monotone, his lyrics, at least, aggressively reflect the political and social upheaval of our present times. And really, when tunes like "Don't Feel Right," "Here I Come" and the excellent title track are this funky, who cares about rap skills. Bonus points for a great Radiohead sample on "Atonement."

03. Junior Boys ~ So This Is Goodbye

Slick-as-ice production is warmed significantly by Jeremy Greenspan's breathy vocals on this second album by the Hamilton-based electronic duo. The Junior Boys deliver on the promise of
Last Exit in almost every way, turning functional dance tracks into completely memorable songs that are perfect for both the discotheque and the bedroom. "First Time" and "FM" showcase the duo's pulsating down-tempo beats, while the robotic arpeggations and crisp low end of "In the Morning" proves more seductive than the best doe-eyed efforts of any other "boy" band in recent memory. Music rarely sounds this effortless.

02. Shearwater ~ Palo Santo

Intensely understated (or, understatedly intense) Palo Santo is riveting from beginning to end. Like its natural counterpart, Okkervil River, Shearwater traffics in that certain brand of literate country-influenced music that engages on three levels: musical, intellectual and emotional. But where the River's Black Sheep Boy was and is filled with sturm und drang punctuated by moments of glorious clarity and climax, Palo Santo's tension is much more reserved, more focused. Melancholy, inside-looking-out numbers such as "Nobody" and the Talk Talk-esque "La Dame et La Licorne" are models of restraint, and while up-tempo tracks like "Johnny Viola" or "Seventy Four, Seventy Five"--and the expansive "Hail Mary"--mimic aggression, the stress built up in the arrangements stays smartly bottled. We keep coming back to these songs, hoping for a release that never arrives and that, ultimately, we don't want, for that would be too easy. Nothing here is as oppressive to warrant the Elliot Brood-coined "death country" label--in fact, there's quite a lot of crystalline prettiness--but the undercurrent of sadness and oppression is palpable, making it required listening for sad sacks everywhere. [Read my original review here]

01. Cibelle ~ The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves

It's hard to describe The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves with anything approaching literal accuracy. Monolithic explanation simply does not do this vibrantly eclectic album justice. Part sun-splashed bossa, part glitchy lounge electronica, part shimmery bliss pop and probably a hundred other things to a hundred different listeners, Cibelle, the Brazilian singer and songwriter, has created an album that defies classification, yet nonetheless begs to be heard. Upon first listen I was inclined the opinion that the album, with its multiple producers, lyrics in two languages and myriad tonal moods, was too varied to be wholly satisfying. Yet after a while, every twinkling note, every laid-back groove becomes unforgettable--insidiously infectious. Cibelle's song cycle achieves unity not through technical or stylistic means, but through a simple tastefulness that underscores every element of the production: the madrigal-like vocalese that opens and closes the haunting "Lembra"; the psychedelic break of "London London," a Caetano Veloso cover performed by Cibelle with Devendra Banhart, which harkens back to the great duets of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina; the impeccable electronic glitches that pop in and out of "Phoenix"; the way "Flying High" and "City People" both seem to crumble into dust mid-song, only to be born again seconds later as something new and more exciting. Taken individually these elements are endearing enough. Taken together they coalesce into a work of ambitious eccentricity and gentle beauty. Other albums released this year may have had a more immediate and visceral impact, but none, to my mind, displayed so much skill and subtle grace as The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves, a collection of music that has truly left a lasting impression. [Read my original review here]

***

And finally, other 2006 albums worthy of your time: Savane (Ali Farka Toure), Ain't Nobody Worryin' (Anthony Hamilton), The Last Romance (Arab Strap), Brightblack Morning Light (Brightblack Morning Light), Roots & Crowns (Califone), So Gone (Evangelicals), Jarvis (Jarvis Cocker), The Animal Years (Josh Ritter), FutureSex/LoveSounds (Justin Timberlake), Silent Shout (The Knife), Trompe L'Oeil (Malajube), Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Neko Case), Surprise (Paul Simon), Nashville (Solomon Burke), Harmony In Ultraviolet (Tim Hecker).

Onward Ho!

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Monday, November 20, 2006

The "Weekly", Volume Forty-One

Album:
9 (Damien Rice)

Three years is a long time between albums. Not only does it mean a band or artist is off of the popular radar for a considerable amount of time (regardless of touring schedule, the mainstream press rarely gets excited about anything but a new record from all but the most established acts), but when a new project is finally announced, expectations inevitably run high. Considering the prowess Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice displayed on his 2003 debut, O, one could be forgiven for laying a burden of anticipation on the artist this time around. Unfortunately, the obliquely-titled 9, Rice's latest effort, doesn't live up to its potential.

That's not to say that it's not a good record. The first three tracks are all musically excellent (if somewhat vague and over-earnest in the lyrics department): "9 Crimes" is a brooding piano feature with a pathos-filled vocal from Lisa Hannigan; "The Animals Were Gone" is languid and engaging, concluding with a haunting choral coda; and the furtive plucking on "Elephant" gives way to a stirring final chorus reminiscent (somewhat unsurprisingly) of Sigur Ros's best tendencies. The album's remaining seven songs also exhibit Rice's gift for melody and subtle arrangement, and the notable skill of his backing musicians. The challenge therefore lies not in the quality of the tunes, but rather in the listener's willingness to accept what is essentially more of the same from Rice. In the intervening years between O and 9, the musician seems to have done little to expand upon his talents. Each track on 9 fits squarely in the "lyrical folk with occasional bombast" format that was done better on songs such as "Cold Water" and "I Remember" on his debut. "Elephant," while excellent, could nonetheless be subtitled "The Blower's Daughter, Part 2", and more than one track affects a harder edge that comes far too close to Rice's B-side concert staple "Woman Like a Man" and, in general, sounds rather forced. More egregious, "Coconut Skins" is barely more than a campfire sing-along (akin to the insanely trite Coldplay ditty "Green Eyes"), in which Rice ridiculously croons "we can sit on chimneys, put some fire up your ass." It's a moment that, for some, may be a welcome relief from the album's general solemnity. But I suspect the majority will just think it's craven and stupid. To reiterate, 9 is for the most part quite good in relative terms. The disappointment comes in its most patent familiarity.

Album #2:
Out Louder (Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood)

Out Louder, the second album to pair avant-jam-boho-electro-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood with occasionally funky guitarist John Scofield is both enjoyable and somewhat frustrating. Nine years ago, Scofield recorded A Go Go with this band and it was (and remains) one of the best "popular" jazz albums of the past decade, with MMW's innate groove providing solid foundation for Sco's restrained six-string heroics. This time around, the foursome is more of a cohesive band (rather than a solo performer with accomplished backing musicians), but the music still tends toward the guitarist's strengths. Scofield takes the melody and fair amount of the solo time on a majority of Out Louder's 12 tracks, and while his playing is distinctive, his licks have a tendency to run together and become a bit noodly. Strong, memorable melodies (such as A Go Go's "Jeep On 35") are therefore harder to come by. Though John Medeski manages to utilize his organ and keyboard arsenal to positive effect on most of the songs, one gets the feeling that Billy Martin and Chris Wood are somewhat underused. As always, they lay down a supremely funky base, but their skills are far less prominent than on the best Medeski, Martin and Wood albums (such as The Dropper). For much of the album it feels as though the band defers a bit too much to Scofield, the elder (and somewhat over-rated) statesman. To their credit, the trio's restraint is relatively effective and their professionalism is evident. The tunes can meander, but there is never a sense that any one musician is playing for himself. "Little Walter Rides Again" is an ambling early standout; "Testament" and "Cachaca" offer memories of MMW's work with Marc Ribot; "Julia," the album's only true ballad, is quietly revelatory, while "Hanuman" is just a great jazz track through and through. Perhaps Out Louder doesn't have quite the staying power of the first Scofield-MMW collaboration, nor the sense of wild dancefloor-jazz experimentation found on The Dropper and End of the World Party, but this new album's deep grooves offer a glimpse of the possibilities if Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood were to share the studio more often.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chapter Six

(Finally) complete!

She had caught his eye at a discotheque, politely declining a hand-rolled cigarette being passed amongst her group of friends on the dance floor. Houari Nourallah did not dance. He was hulked over the bar while a drunkard in beside him made ill-advised advances toward anyone who dared pass by, wagging an indelicately manicured finger when they ignored him. An hour later the drunkard left and Sara approached, joking that she had been dared to kiss the most uncomfortable-looking man in the room. She spoke mediocre French and he said very little at all. Their courtship—sipping coffee on open patios, gazing across the Mediterranean as they walked beneath the stars on the Iberian coast—lasted two weeks.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Weekly, Volume Forty

I'm out of practice.

Album:
Nashville (Solomon Burke)

While not as consistently good as his 2002 tour de force Don't Give Up On Me, this latest record from Solomon Burke is worth owning not just because it represents the singer's first major foray away from R&B/soul music, but also because it's actually quite good. Alternately melancholy and rollicking, poignant and upbeat, the tunes on Nashville are very traditionally "country," (or, more broadly, "Americana") but Burke puts his stamp on all of them. His distinctive tenor is in fine form from the outset, and is matched well by a sympathetic backing band and, on a number of tracks, a duet partner. Of all people, Dolly Parton guests with Burke on "Tomorrow is Forever," and it's a surprisingly effective pairing: the two strong voices distinct on their own, but never threaten to overpower each other when together. "Valley of Tears" is another laid-back standout, with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch providing vocal support, and "Up to the Mountain" proves particularly heart-rending, as Burke croons over haunting harmonies from Patty Griffin. Depending on one's point of view, Nashville's up-tempo tracks may or may not work as well, for some of the subtleties of Burke's vocal performance become veiled behind busy arrangements: "Seems Like You're Gonna Take Me Back" is the most obvious offender here, and "We're Gonna Hold On" is bogged down by Emmylou Harris, who hasn't really brought anything new to the table for the last ten years or so. Regardless, by the time things conclude with the soulful "Til I Get It Right," you'll be ready to forgive the album's few missteps. This is a crossover album done right: timeless tunes performed by an ageless singer. Another fine edition in Solomon Burke's late-career renaissance.

Album #2:
Boulevard de l'Independance
(Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra)

The Malian musician's first "solo" album on the excellent Nonesuch label, Boulevard features Diabate on the kora (a traditional West African harp) and as bandleader extraordinaire. The album's nine lengthy tracks offer a pastiche of Malian traditional songs and modern compositions that take sonic influence from Ali Farka Toure's stripped-down blues, "stereotypical" chant-type musics and Cuban-Senegales salsa. All of them are excellent. Diabate's Symmetrical Band is heavy on horns, and as such, Western ears may find sonic reference in Paul Simon's Graceland-era work. Obviously, Simon's music was derivative of Diabate's and not the other way around, but things being as they are, it's occasionally difficult to separate the horn shots in songs like "Toumani" and "Ya Fama" (both lively, head-nodding tunes perfect for the open road) from those found in "Late in the Evening" or "You Can Call Me Al." A small gripe, if a gripe at all, for the rest of the music sounds both wholly original and utterly classic: "Mali Sadio," for example, is a slow-burn of Diabate's virtuoso kora playing, long-tone strings and a simple drum pattern, yet no other song released this year by a major label comes close to being as musically inventive or as emotionally stirring. In 2005 Diabate won a Grammy for his collaboration with Ali Farka Toure (In The Heart of the Moon). Thoroughly engrossing and endlessly rewarding, Boulevard de l'Independance should, by all rights, net him another.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hoo-boy! Original Content for the First Time in Weeks!

In the spirit of posting some legitimate culturally-relevant content (something that's not been done around these parts for a long time), here's an unpublished book review I wrote about a year-and-a-half ago.

Book Review: The Man In The Flying Lawn Chair, by George Plimpton

Writing about oneself might seem like the easiest thing in the world. And yet, any scribbler worth his or her byline will probably tell you otherwise, that "participatory journalism" is thorny business indeed.

Sure, it's all well and good to find an interesting real-life event or subject about which to discuss, and inserting your own voice into said happening or issue requires little more than a bit of journalistic moxie. But the trick is to retain a certain detachment – to describe the experience for an audience, without personalizing that experience to the point where it loses all significance for said audience.

Failure in this respect makes the final product little more than a personal diary entry. However, when done successfully, this manner of writing bridges the gap between description and interpretation like no other. Those who have done it well now rank among literature's greatest. Kerouac, Hemingway, and (when reasonably sober) Thompson can be said to have succeeded in this variety of non-fiction writing, but the grand master of them all is arguably George Plimpton.

A writer, editor, sporting enthusiast, bit-part actor, and all-around bon vivant, Plimpton passed away in late 2003 after spending more than half a century plying his craft. While books such as Paper Lion and his "oral biography" of Truman Capote made him famous, and The Paris Review will forever be his legacy, The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair, which collects some of Plimpton's final "excursions and observations," is a fitting epitaph for the gangly New Englander who rarely shied away from a new adventure.

The anthology compiles 18 short works of journalism published in various sources between 1991 and 2004, and is by turns compelling, heartfelt, uproariously witty and occasionally contemplative. But the hallmark of Plimpton's writing here is his boundless curiosity, capacity for vivid description, and the swift, elegant prose that brings the author's subjects to life. Whether he is writing about amateur night at the Apollo Theatre, the Playboy mansion, or a pornography convention, Plimpton reveals not only an irresistible vitality, but also his infectious love of the written word.

Although some of the capers depicted in these pieces might seem somewhat less exciting than Plimpton's earlier escapades (for example, playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, or pitching to Willie Mays) the intriguing trade-off is the wonderful sense of melancholy reminiscence that underlies the best of the articles. These include the poignantly straightforward narration of the story after which this book was named, and an article detailing the exploits of a zoologist and his love for particularly vicious African wildlife.

In a particularly charming piece, the author recalls helping Jackie Kennedy throw a "pirate party" for her children, complete with a longboat and buried treasure: "Her enthusiasm, her childlike delight in all this, was irresistible. She wanted me to write a little story that she could read to the children – a story of how the treasure cam to be buried, and with hints of where the treasure might be found. Would I do this? Of course."

The book's final statement, a 2002 article called "Wish List," similarly evokes wonderful memories of the past, both recent and long ago, as Plimpton recounts some of his athletic aspirations by evoking great people and events.

"I'd like to have a snappy moniker," he writes. "Wolf or Moose, or something as memorable as Joltin' Joe or the Splinter… I'd like to arch into the water without making a splash, the wake of my passage down the lane as I do the butterfly washing over the lip of the pool. 'Is that Mark Spitz?'… And I wish I could throw a knuckleball. I'd like to have it come to me one afternoon, perhaps while I'm throwing the ball to my son, a ball without motion so that it ducks and dances."

This high standard of descriptive writing is maintained throughout The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair, but it is the incredible depth of feeling that Plimpton has for his subjects that sets him apart. A lesser scribe may have indulged an impulse toward the farcically absurd when writing about attending a film premiere with Hunter S. Thompson, or indeed, in depicting the California man who tied weather balloons to a chair so he could find freedom above the clouds.

But Plimpton respects his subjects enough to tell their stories straight (though not without recognizing their inherent humour), and respects his readers enough to trust that we will treat those subjects just as he has done, with curiosity and compassion.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Counterpoint to the (Campagnolo) Chorus

Well look at this... Some sanity with regard to this whole cycling/doping drama. Sure, it may turn out that Floyd Landis really is one of the most notorious cheaters in the history of international cycling and the Tour de France. But there are so many things wrong with this case that it just boggles the mind as to how he has already been tarred and feathered in the media.

Thus, a link to this level-headed Op-Ed bursts forth from the ether! (Originally from the hallowed electronical pages of the International Herald Tribune).

And just so that we're not accused of playing favourites, here are some choice words from ignominious anti-doping shyster Dick Pound, a man who quite frankly should spend the rest of his days in a courtroom, failing to defend himself against hundreds and hundreds of libel charges. (OK, we played favourites).

Finally, for some appropriately terse Germanic content, I hereby declare myself the founding member of the Jan Ullrich Anti-Defamation League.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Be sure you want to know what you want to know"

In recent years, a number of forgotten film genres have been revived for a new generation of filmgoers. The pseudo-snuff horror film and teen sex comedy come to mind as prescient examples. One genre that hasn't really had an audience for a couple of decades is film noir, that classic mix of mystery, sex, thrills and detective work that made Humphrey Bogart into an icon. Sure, Chinatown isn't exactly gathering dust, L.A. Confidential was a very good approximation and Brian De Palma occasionally dabbles in the dark and gritty genre, but really, when it comes to this particular high-minded brand of suspense filmmaking, our cinemas have been found lacking for a long time.

Brick, a film that drew raves at last year's Sundance Festival, is perhaps the closest any 21st century director has come to replicating the particulars of story, dialogue and filmmaking style of film noir, without seeming cliched and utterly anachronistic.

The story is a slightly updated take on the noir-mystery staple: man loves woman, man loses woman, woman unexpectedly calls man for help and dies mysteriously soon after, man broods, man encounters all manner of manipulative rabble in quest to discover truth and return woman's good name. The difference with Brick is that the drama unfolds at a high school in modern-day California.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (formerly the annoying teenager on Third Rock from the Sun) plays the aforementioned brooder, a young man named Brendan who is seemingly in the throes of a messy break-up with Emily, an enigmatic girl played by Emilie de Ravin of Lost fame. Brendan receives a note and then a distressed phone call from his former flame. He seeks her out, only to find the poor girl lying dead in an aqueduct. Obviously there is foul play involved here, and Brendan suspects just about everyone in town, from the school jock to the neighbourhood crack head, and everyone in between. It goes without saying that the lad is soon drawn into a seedy world of violence, drugs, manipulation and various other noirish archetypes.

Interestingly, for all the familiar film noir plotting and characterization, Brick's director, Rian Johnson, shies away from lensing the film in high contrast (or black and white, for that matter), as one might expect from this particular genre. Instead, his depiction of the school environment is more akin to Gus Van Sant's Elephant, with dashes of Chinatown mixed in, along with some more modern contrivances like that weird type of slow-to-fast motion, used here to capture the impact of punches and gun shots. It's not hyper-stylized in terms of composition or editing, but it's not pedestrian either, and, if nothing else, XX's confident direction demonstrates that new filmmakers need not worship at the altar of hyperactive cutting and digital enhancement.

Regardless, Brick is a noir film at heart, and its defining characteristic is the decision to foist upon its actors not only a noir plot and character types, but also the kind of romanticized, hard-boiled dialogue that nobody has ever really spoken―not even in the days of gin joints and tommy guns.

It's fun for a time as characters take to saying things like "coffee and pie, oh my" "I ain't playin' lap dog to no gassed-up cripple," and "I gave you Jer because I wanted to see him eaten, not to see you fed," but the effect is to make the film even more unrealistic than it already is. For the most part, the actors acquit themselves well and take things seriously, but every once in a while they start talking about lockers, home room and lunch money, and things get a little too ironic. One is reminded of the Max Fischer Players in Rushmore: "Look at me! I'm a young kid talking like a grizzled police detective from the movies!" Such brief mentions are seemingly inserted as jokes by the filmmaker, and while a bit of levity is appreciated, it causes the viewer to become attuned to the ridiculousness of the whole situation, exposing the characters as fraudulent. Ultimately, what makes Brick appear superficially creative also limits its appeal as an otherwise respectable and ambitiously well-executed mystery-thriller.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

After All These Years

There's something rather surreal about watching a 300-pound man in a shining, purple-sequined suit as he serenades 50 or so grown adults, all seated like school children with rapt attention before the man andhis massive throne. Yet no amount of disbelief, no amount of dream-state pinching managed to change the scene at Toronto's Massey Hall last Saturday night, for it was all really happening. This was, of course, a Solomon Burke concert.

The 66-year-old R&B veteran was making his first appearance in Toronto in 15 years, riding the wave of a career renaissance ongoing since the 2001 release of his modern masterpiece, Don't Give Up On Me. The long absence might have contributed to the audience's apparent reservation as the singer settled into the first few tunes of his set list, which included the rollicking "I Need Your Love in My Life" and "Diamond in Your Mind," which drew applause upon the mention that it had been written for Burke by Tom Waits. Technical flaws also threatened to mar the performance before it truly got underway. Burke's heavy backing band played with such vigour that the singer's mic—thus turned way up—was hotter than a baked potato and sent a flourish of high-decibel feedback careening off the hall's concrete ceiling. But what might have spelled disaster for a lesser performer seemed to inspire Burke. He settled his band by cooing to them "easy" in his velvety tenor and managed a witty, mid-song rhyming couplet to notify the soundboard of the technical glitches.

From then on Burke had the sizeable crowd eating from his meaty palm. The self-proclaimed king of rock-and-soul focused his energies on the latter genre for much of the night, running through his own classic tunes with musical skill and no small amount of showmanship—a considerable accomplishment considering he spent the entire performance sitting down. By the time Burke and his band began ripping into soul classics by Ben E. King, Otis Redding and Ike & Tina Turner, much of the (middle-aged, white) crowd was on its feet and many women had rushed toward the stage to receive a rose from the charming crooner. Many of these people would end up actually on stage before the end of the show, invited up by the congenial Burke to take pictures, shake hands and dance (or, in some cases, jerk arhythmically) while he continued singer behind them.

After a time, this particular aspect of the love-in became somewhat distracting, but the fact that such a thing occured at all mitigated any ill-will from the spectators who chose to remain in their seats. One gets the feeling that exciting brand of performer-audience interaction was prevalent in the time when singers like Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, et al were in the prime of their lives and careers. Few performers, it seems, can weave such an wonderful spell in this day and age. The evening's highlight came, ironically enough, with one of the set's few ballads, "Don't Give Up On Me." And as Burke's voice faded on the last evocative notes of what has become his signature song, one longed for a time that no longer exists, but was glad in the moment all the same.

Monday, July 10, 2006

+10

Over the course of the recently-concluded World Cup, the International Herald Tribune's Roger Cohen offered insightful footballing commentary on his blog and in the "official edition" of the newspaper. I just thought I'd point a handful of readers to his post-mortem of the championship match between Italy and France. For a sport that inspires so much passion (of both the constructive and destructive varieties) and subsequently, bias, Cohen should be applauded for his even-handed, thoughtful analysis of the game, and indeed, the entire tournament.

On the other side of the coin, I decided to read the "conversation" section appended to this Globe and Mail article, and was dumbfounded by the sheer amount of trigger-happy ranting about how Italy "didn't deserve to win," and "heavens-to-betsy why did it have to be a penalty shootout!?" It's "conversations" like these that make me question the real logic and utility of this form of media interactivity. I understand the intention, but the outcome, for the most part, seems to be worthless grandstanding by people who feel compelled to pronounce their opinions seemingly before putting the bare minimum of thought or research into the enterprise.

(Sharp-witted readers of this barely-viewed blog will likely note that the above paragraph ironically comes off as little more than a "rant" itself. To which I shall offer the simple excuse that I, like the everyone else giving up a little bit of their humanity to exist in cyberspace, am shallow and lazy, and it's past my bedtime).

Related to the notion of penalty kicks being an unfair method by which to decide the World Cup championship, I offer these humble, but I think, well-founded, opinions: Soccer/Football is a game of near-constant motion, and most players are forced to run (or in the least, jog) for a full 90 minutes, with a small number of breaks that are barely seconds long. Before penalties ensue, they play a further half hour. Temperatures in Germany hovered around the 30-degrees celcius mark for much of the tournament. To ask players to compete until they drop, while no doubt spectacular to watch, would simply be an inhuman proposition. (Of course, there is a school of thought that says this could be rectified by allowing more substitutions...).

With regard to the "lottery" aspect of a penalty shootout, I say not nearly. Players practice penalty kicks. It is a specific skill that is required by the game. The best penalty-takers know how to shoot with accuracy and pace, and know how to hide from the goalkeeper any signs that might give away their intent (in terms of shot placement). Certainly it is a difficult task for a goaltender to stop a penalty kick, but the best of them are the keepers that can pick out an opposing player's "tells" and react swiftly and accordingly. It is a cruel fate to lose in a penalty shootout, but hardly an unjust one.
Finally, a word to those who would claim that France deserved to win because they outplayed Italy. I agree that, for much of the second half and extra time, France was the more "attacking" squad. Yet there is a lot to be said for defence, and Italy's was superb. Fabio Cannavaro, as the backbone of the Italian team deserved the golden ball (which he did not win) more than any other player in the tournament. Gennaro Gattuso, despite his swarthy looks, was a brick wall in the middle, and Gianluigi Buffon (or, as I call him "the clown"), is perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world. The Italian style seems to be to defend stoicly, and to explode in quick bursts of offense when necessary, and it worked to a T throughout the tourney. France, on the other hand, really played but one outstanding game (against Brazil) the entire month. Of course it was sad to see Zidane blow up so ignominiously, but his team's overall performance was not of a consistently high standard. Surely, when the emotions have settled, the world will look back on this year's World Cup and conclude that Italy was the rightful victor.