Monday, July 30, 2007

Dedicated to You: Work Song

In honour (or is that sombre acknowledgement?) of my wonderful wife CC’s return to work, after a year of raising our most perfect and beguiling daughter, I present a musical dedication to CC.

Duke Ellington composed a “Work Song,” as did Nat Adderley. My personal favourite is the Charles Mingus tune by that name, which manages the not insignificant trick of sounding at once slinky and downtrodden. But I have a feeling that CC would prefer Adderley’s “Work Song” as performed by ex-Maniac Nathalie Merchant, so I’m sending that one out to her.

It can’t be an easy thing, putting your life on hold and completely revamping the way you do things in order to give birth to and then raise to toddlerhood a lively little girl, and then to put all that aside and reenter the work force. Today, surely the cruelest Monday of all, I know that CC is feeling a little less “Whistle While You Work,” and a little more aligned with the work song tradition of field hollers and the quasi-musical chants of chain-gangs.

If it means anything, CC, your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Popsicle Trickledown

And so here come the dog days, days of standings that actually mean something, oven-hot days studded with rapidly melting frozen treats, the sticky orange or pink or purple juice dripping over your knuckles. Open the windows and hear the buzz of crickets, the hum of lawnmowers, and maybe the pock pock pock of bicycles with Topps stuck in their spokes. The long daylight hours chime aloud with ringing guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. In order to describe the feeling let’s amend that title and call it Powerpopsickle Trickledown.

In many ways I'm guilty of attempting to recreate the magic of a mix given to me by Miss Imperial long ago, a mix called Honey Punch. That cassette fairly lived in my Saturn’s tapedeck from May ‘til October. How could I resist? Redd Kross, Tom Petty, Blue Magoos, Posies, Ass Ponys, Lemonheads, Tommy Tutone, Plimsouls, Cotton Mather, Bangles…

This morning, speeding past cornfields and produce stands and the pretty, languid river, I caught that feeling anew, this time with a two-shot of Matt Murphy-led bands, The Super Friendz and The Flashing Lights. It was bliss! (Is there a better 1-2 pop combination to start an album than "10 lbs" and "Karate Man"? Doubtful!) And it underscored the fact that, whether the ‘60s worshipping, Beatle-booted paisley underground variety, or the more twang-fueled strain, I’m a sucker for this stuff, pure and simple.

During the hot months, the day breaks down into thirds, each with it’s own appropriate sound: the daylight hours belong to powerpop; dusk brings out the Cosmic American Music; once darkness has fallen, it’s Ethiopian jazz, obviously.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Internet Was Made For This

Thanks to modern technology, I can be addicted to a show I’ve never actually seen.

Monday, July 23, 2007

In Rotation: The Best of the West Coast Sessions

What? The Best of the West Coast Sessions by Stan Getz. It’s a single-disc compendium of this set.

Why this? Why today? Laid back, but with that undeniable swing. Stan Getz had chops, a fact his bossa-nova fueled visit to the top of the hit parade often obscures. These sides are easy, breezy, beautiful and light but, like I said, they’ve also got that unassailable verve (pun unintended), making you feel sophisticated while you savour the summer sizzle; your every move imbued with savoir faire even while the temperature demands a laissez faire approach to living. Life in short sleeves, brother.

Let me also vouch for the fact that these songs – especially though not exclusively “Four,” “Of Thee I Sing” and “Blues for Mary Jane” – provide the perfect sonic backdrop for a late July garden party, especially if that garden party is in honour of your daughter’s first birthday, and the green, expansive lawn is studded with frolicking children, the air peppered with their giddy cries, blankets and toys and wading pools strewn everywhere. The grandparents tucked aside in the shade, observing it all. The girl of the hour in a sundress and wide-brimmed hat, walking (tentatively) about, making time for everyone, all smiles. Dad trigger-happy on the digital camera. Cupcakes and punch for all.

Yup, perfect.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Disposable Fantastic

Prompted by this article, I have been, amidst an unseasonable chill, been contemplating the Summer Song, its nature and purpose. But mostly, yes, I’ve been in search of the song to stand emblematic of the Summer of Oh Seven! That platter which will hereafter call to mind, as vividly as any crisp digital photo, these summer days, the road trips, the colours, the smells.

As Kelefa Sanneh suggests, the Summer Song used to be decided by the masses – it was the song we all recognized from its incessant rotation on the one or two radio stations we had to choose from. It appeared on mixtapes, played in grocery stores and shopping malls and blared from passing cars. Nowadays, of course, that “broad cultural consensus” is elusive, if it’s even possible. In the ongoing fractal division of modern life, unanimity is no longer a factor in the crowning of such old mass cultural capstones. Those carefree beach blanket bingo days are long gone, and now the summer song, like virtually everything else, is a matter of personal choice. There are as many nominees for “The Song of the Summer of 2007” as there are earbud-wearing riders on the world’s public transit systems.

So my song of this summer? Spoon’s “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (jeez, how many column inches am I going to devote to this album?). The song is the point on Ga Ga etc. where, as before, Spoon leaven their appealing angularity with a moment of reverent pop sweetness (the Gimme Fiction corollary being “Sister Jack”). Like a good summer song, “Cherry Bomb” is brief, breezy, more or less nonsensical, and inspires handclapping and 120 km/hour sing-alongs.

[Question: would it be possible to fill up a standard 80 minute CDR with songs whose titles or choruses contain the term “Cherry Bomb”?]

So, what’s yours? And what are your all-time summer songs?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Death of a Teenager

Facing facts: I'll be 31 in a couple of weeks. I have a daughter and a lovely wife and a house in the country. I still listen to a lot of music, and I don't see that changing. But live shows? I’m coming to grips with the fact that that's more or less a part of my past now.

I still make it to the odd show. Very odd. Maybe a couple a year. Now that fewer friends' bands are active, that might dwindle to one. Or none. I think the thrill of being a part of something larger, a nascent social milieu grounded in music, has worn off to a degree. The shows that thrill me the most nowadays are by artists who fit beneath the broad umbrella term "improvised" - jazz, New Thing, fire music, out music, etc. The very fact that an artist is operating atop the precarious wire of improvisation is compelling enough to hold my interest. But rock shows, punk shows, even the best of these often feel rote to me. In truth I know that the charge is still there to be had, just not for me. I've mellowed, aged, settled down. I get that. I sure as hell didn't anticipate it, but there it is.

But, in the way of things dead and lost, I am moved to an unforgiveable nostalgia by thoughts of the things I have seen, and which I now acknowledge are largely in my past.

I remember knob-twiddlers – the spectacle removed from performance – men standing hunched over boards, seemingly ignoring the crowd. A single man at a desk, with a laptop, in a largely empty room, playing to a handful of people, coaxing forth drones and clicks. I remember not knowing if and when to clap. I remember “legends” doing nothing but spinning records and dropping anecdotes that seemed to anticipate LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” as well as calling back to Gregory Corso (“I did those then, but that was then, that was then”). I remember sitting onstage – literally on the stage – with a handful of other bewildered kids during a Fugazi show, and Ian McKaye having to lean near me in order to pick up his guitar from its stand. “Uh, hi,” he said. What the fuck were we doing on that stage? I remember Superchunk in Frankenstein make-up on Halloween in Montreal. I remember an impromptu show by a band stranded in town by a busted van. I remember sweating buckets – even the walls were sweating! – while the Planet Smashers played a small room, and thinking that I’d discovered, in ska, a new direction. I remember being wrong about that.

I remember Archie Shepp in the heat. It had to be 40 degrees outside, even as night fell on Montreal. And inside the hall, the air was bottled, still, thick as fabric. I rolled up my pantlegs and opened some buttons on my shirt. No relief. But then I remember not caring. Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd blowing sweet and furious. I sweated. I hollered. I stamped my feet, arched my back, clapped my hands. Andrew Cyrille’s drumbeat smacked against me, provided the only movement of air. My clothes clung to my skin. It was glorious. I remember that heat so vividly.

I remember interrupting Kahil El’Zabar during a conversation at the bar between sets. I said, “Thank you for bringing this music here.” “It’s my pleasure to do it, brother,” he said, not a bit perturbed that I had been so rude only a moment before.

I remember standing next to a friend while he had a similar conversation with Alan Silva. This was in Montreal again, on the way back from a show by the Hives. We had both been profoundly underwhelmed by that show and the people we found there. “That felt like the final nail in a coffin,” my friend said. “Problem is I don’t know what coffin.” So we headed home, or so we thought. Headed up the Main and, on a whim, and still disillusioned, we pulled over to see what was happening at Casa del Popolo. Who was playing but Sunny Murray, with Silva on bass. We peeked in the window, and the guy at the door said, “Set’s almost over – go ahead in.” Charged us nothing. We stood there for maybe half of one piece before they wrapped up the set, but what we saw and heard lasted a full ten minutes. And then my friend approached Silva, who was taking his rest near the bar, and said, “Thanks. You played on records that changed my life.”

I remember, too, accosting Joe Pernice one evening while I was on my way back from the washroom. He was humble enough, after I introduced myself and he put his water bottle beneath his arm and took his cigarette from his teeth, to say “My name’s Joe. Good to meet you.”

Such gracious people, these musicians!

So I remember it all, or most of it. The shitty little shows. The big ones that felt beforehand like they might prove momentous, life-altering, only to turn out to be something rather less. The surprises, the festivals, shows in tents, in churches, in basements, high school auditoriums. Taking in three shows in one night and driving home, arriving by the light of dawn. Being so broke I could only afford the cover charge and so drinking water all night. Stuffing my ears with wadded toilet paper when I forgot earplugs. Fred Anderson with a bottle of Jack Daniels smuggled in my pocket. Pulp, at the height of BritPop, attended by the strange feeling of being in the presence of celebrity, which ran counter to what I had learned to feel about punk bands. Hothouse Flowers in the pouring rain singing “Don’t Go.” Furnaceface. The Skatterbrains at a shitty club in Gatineau on Canada Day. Shotmaker. Kids on acid, drunk kids, hyper kids. Shouted conversations at merch tables, winding up with the wrong sized t-shirt as a result.

So yes, these things have largely passed me by now, or I them. Jazz/improv concerts likely pepper my future, and if the Pernice Brothers happen to be nearby, I’ll be there. But as an exercise, as a regular part of my life, live music belongs to those extended adolescent years, the passage of which I can no longer deny. And nor do I wish to. As a culture we're behaving like teenagers well into our 20s. There's really very little to differentiate one from the other now. Both are marked by fecklessness and restlessness and dissatisfaction. Well, my dissatisfaction’s still there; it’s just aimed at different targets. And the nervous uncertainty has morphed, in that I know what I want, I just don’t always know how to achieve it, or why anybody else would care to deny me my small rewards, nor those of anybody else on this planet. My life isn’t a project or a question mark the way it once was, it’s a life, attended by all the usual compromises and sacrifices and impossible decisions. What I don’t require is a musical culture to identify me. I don’t have to search for a tribe. I am me, and music is something I love. Period.

There’s an enormous freedom in that. It’s a personal choice; evidence of life hewn closer to my own truth. It is a glorious and wideopen and supremely democratic thing to feel as though you are approaching a state of knowing yourself, and that you are capable, in your mounting years, of tuning out the hivemind and connecting with something in a very real way.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mistaken Identity

I can't be the only one who, as a child, thought that Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" was in fact sung by Rod Stewart. Can I?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

In Rotation: Live - Evil

What? Live - Evil by Miles Davis

Why this? Why today? Listen to that funk! There's a mean hedonism running through it, a dark satin cruelty, but also a jump, an energetic and postive heart-flutter. Listen to track four on disc one, "What I Say." Synesthesia (music -> colour): I see jump cuts, I see handheld camerawork. Our protagonist is a man on the go, he's got affairs to tend. He's got a song in his heart, and nice shoes.

Think of the era! Cars that stretched a city block. Think of Betty Davis, Miles's ex, shouting and proclaiming and spreading the militant funk. Think of "jazz" casting a lustful eye in the direction of Jimi Hendrix. Think of Sly Stone.

You want specifics? Had the house to myself last night, so I opted to give the stereo a workout.

Tonight: Live from the brand-new studio, perched on the pretty banks, the first of a three-part, summerlong look at the work of David Murray. Part 1: the Black Saint years.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

It's a rare album that demands to be heard both on headphones and in a speeding car, windows down. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is such an album. Sing along or pay studious attention to it's myriad production nuances. Gimme Fiction Part Two? Maybe. But better. There, I said it.

Ain't summer grand?