Thursday, December 25, 2008

#1

Portishead, Third (Mercury/Island)

There was no reason to expect that Portishead would ever be relevant again. They'd had their heyday, inspired a decade or more of electro-acoustic mood music perfect for shopping or sipping caramel macchiatos (that music's blandness is not Portishead's fault), and promptly faded away. Fait accompli, right? And even if Adrian Utley, Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow were to reunite, they'd only be banking on past glory (box), right? Well, not so fast, it seems. A decade removed from their last perfomances together, the trio decided they still had something vital to offer, and lo, they were right.

Third is distinct from both of their previous studio albums, as well as their 1998 live release. They have sloughed off all signs of trendiness: gone are the scratches, the spy soundtrack samples, the vague '90s-ness of it all. What remains is the remarkable density of their sound, a deceptively smooth-seeming yet incredibly complex construction of live instrumentation and electronic augmentation. And still present is Beth Gibbons' voice, at once so strong and yet so vulnerable, the wounded ingenue, a singing style seemingly torn from a time now decades past (when I first head Dummy, almost FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, I was convinced the vocals had been ripped from a dusty 78 the producers had found at a rummage sale somewhere). But otherwise, so many references to who Portishead once were have been scrubbed away that Third represents an incredible act of reinvention.

In the past Portishead had, despite its air of longing and desperation, the ability to lull listeners. For all its inventiveness, this was ultimately the calling card of trip hop, the genre Portishead were said to have helped found: the easy tempi were for sipping beverages, for kicking back; for chilling. But Third is less Blue Room in a London club than it is Berlin warehouse-cum-sound-studio. It bristles, crackles, bucks and pushes. It unsettles. First single “Machine Gun,” with its rapidfire drum machine beat, is unapologetic krautrock. “Magic Doors” is backed by a wash of psychedelic tape-splice sound.

Third is so breathtakingly strong, so intricate and dark that it demands a rethink of Portishead's relationship to their earlier work. They were, I think, further ahead than we realized, more innovative and less interested in creating “a sound” than they were in exploring the possibilities of Sound. Dummy and Portishead suggested it, and Third has at last confirmed it: a familiarity with Portishead is essential to understanding the state of the art of music in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For most of us that century began about 7 or 8 years ago (probably it began on September 11, 2001, just as the twentieth century effectively began on June 28, 1914), but for Barrow, Gibbons and Utley, it started nearly a decade earlier, when they began their work together. The question is whether or not they can remain ahead of the curve, and what sort of art will result from their prescience. For the time being, we have Third, and we are fortunate, because Portishead could have easily called it a career ten years ago, when it seemed as though they had nothing left to prove.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

#2

The Walkmen, You and Me (Gigantic)

The buzz of a guitar's reverb in the skin of a drum, the rattle of a kick pedal as secondary percussion, the cracking of Hamilton Leithauser's voice at just the right moments, the rich hum of the organ... these are the subtle aural pleasures of You and Me. The intellectual pleasures are perhaps more acute; like a persistent stitch in your side, the Walkmen are here to remind you that aging isn't easy, and sure as hell isn't pretty, but it's unfailingly poignant, and real to boot. Y+M is an album-length rumination on that abrupt transition when you realize that you don't care if you look your age, because a) you can't be bothered anymore, and b) maybe there's an iota of dignity in not being 26 (or 29) anymore. The Walkmen sound tired, properly tired, and that results in a dropping of affectations. It sounds right, because damn it, who among us isn't weary? One foot in front of the other, we'll get by. They've been listening to Leonoard Cohen – we've got the proof right here – and they sound like it, courting melancholy and mule-headed hopefulness (the impossibly pretty “Canadian Girl”) in equal measure. When an album keeps its hat on for so much of its running length, the outbursts are all the more startling and meaningful. You and Me is a magnificent, well-tailored coat with fraying cuffs. It is elegant and desperate.

And then there's “On the Water,” which is about as perfect a song as I've ever heard. Its muted shuffle-step opening perfectly evokes, as Leithauser sings, “walking down this dirt road, watching at the sky, 'cause it's all I can do.” And when, at about the 2:13 mark, the song erupts like a shower of sparks, your heart does likewise, because you feel in an instant that you have permission to shout, ragged-voiced and pop-veined, every last damn thing that you've held back since things started to appear in your mind's rearview mirror. It is the wedding speech you've always wanted to give, the eulogy you hope to one day deliver, your tie askew, to a room full of gape-faced people. “On the Water” knows that you could have been somebody, and You and Me says you might be yet, but either way you'll have these songs; songs like heirlooms, songs like friends.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

#3

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

Every great album needs an equally great creation story, the myth of its genesis, the raw material of its run at immortality. For Emma, Forever Ago passes that test. Specifically, it is the end result of a broken relationship, a disbanded indie-folk outfit, and a period of intense isolation in the snow-driven Wisconsin woods. Justin Vernon, who adopted the Bon Iver moniker as a manglicized version of the French for good winter, endured a run of bad breaks, like many of us do, and reacted in a way that more of us should: he turned it into something of lasting value. Alone in that cabin, he might have made the worst sort of moping bedroom folk, but instead was able to hew something from the ice and wood and solitude that can only be called backwoods soul. His multitracked falsetto shimmers like windowpane frost, etched delicately atop solid rhythms punched out of an acoustic guitar, and spiced with a few horns, some spare drums and the odd electric guitar twang. There are the inevitable Iron & Wine comparisons, and they're valid, but only if you mean the mature Iron & Wine, as on The Shepherd's Dog, where the hushed folk plucking is seasoned with a broader musical palette. For Emma... is a lush, beautiful listen, the sort of album that worms its way into your life so that you find yourself conforming to its rhythms; background listening becomes focused listening. The strength of this record is in its ability to hold your attention, and I think it does that because of its unique genesis. It seems obvious to me that Vernon was writing and recording these songs for himself first and foremost, and that makes us spies on a series of very private moments. When an artist is this naked, the product can't help but prove compelling.

Monday, December 22, 2008

#4

Angles, Every Woman is a Tree (Clean Feed)

For a nation of nine million souls, Sweden has placed a proportionally high number of albums on this list – Love is All, Bengt Berger, and the Raveonettes have already achieved the great distinction of being named TiOM top 25ers. Add alto saxophonist Martin Kuchen and his latest project, Angles, to that number. Every Woman is a Tree is a stark and dark, Matthias Stahl's vibraphones darkening the corners of this roiling live collective improvisation. This is free music as Freedom Music; protest and dissent circa now. Thou ancient, thou free rouses Sweden's national anthem; this sextet certainly bears that second part to heart. The performances are tense and tight, the tunes aren't frothy but have enough head to satisfy. All of it adds up to my favourite free/improv/jazz recording of 2008 (that it came from an artist and group I'd never before heard of makes it all the more pleasing). ((And once again, Clean Feed proves itself one of the most interesting labels out there.))

Sunday, December 21, 2008

#5


Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop)

Not to repeat myself, but I was prepared to be disappointed by the follow up to the immensely satisfying Apologies to the Queen Mary. Well, I needn’t. At Mount Zoomer is almost completely devoid of a single, lacks the “naive, anthemic bluster” of its predecessor, rocks just a little bit less than …Queen Mary, and comes packaged in one of those shitty paperboard sleeves that’s impossible not to damage the first time you open it. Which is all to say that it’s just as good as Wolf Parade’s debut. I’d stop short of calling it better, because as debuts go, theirs was stupefyingly good. Zoomer is more of an album, though, in that it hangs together all of a piece, and several songs feel as though their primary purpose is to set a tone for the big set pieces (California Dreamer, Kissing the Beehive). All in all, it’s compelling, the rare album demanding a front-to-back listen in a way that’s commendable – weren’t we supposed to have witnessed the death of the album several times over by now? Wolf Parade didn’t make a second installment of their debut, though that would have been an achievement in itself. What they did instead was to grow up a bit and produce an incredible record shorn of the urgency of its antecedent, but one which is nevertheless deeper, more nuanced, and more patient. In short, they followed up one triumph with another, completely different one. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

#6


The Raveonettes, Lust Lust Lust (Vice)

I hereby nominate the Raveonettes to score every future David Lynch project, and while they’re at it, why not go back and provide new music for everything he’s already done? Those would be DVDs worth shelling out for. On Lust…, the ‘nettes seem to have clarified their purpose, shedding much of the bloat that troubled their last long player, and rededicating themselves to their role as recombinant masters of American Kitsch (as is so often the case, it takes outsiders to perfect this shit); promoters of trash as high art. With songs that flare up like magnesium, mechano-drums, robo-Swede vocals and fuzzy, tinny guitar, Lust… is perfect homage to the art of rock & roll self-invention. Harmonized vocals lie like bedrock beneath spiky guitars, and Buddy Holly smiles from the great beyond. So might Luxe Interior, if he were dead. Like Mulholland Drive, there’s a chance I’m not understanding everything that’s happening here, but I’m sure as hell enjoying it. Now, how about it: The Raveonettes do Blue Velvet?

Friday, December 19, 2008

#7


Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)

Nervy, rollicking, convulsive alt-folk-indie-rock. The best thing going in Scottish guitar pop. Equal parts hope and despair. Lush, tic-driven, and catchy. Hum it when you’re up, bellow it when you’re down. [Aw, jeezus, does anybody actually read this stuff?]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

#8


The Vandermark 5, Beat Reader (Atavistic)

Ken Vandermark’s mugshot ought to accompany the definition of “restless” in your Colliers or your OED. In jazz terms, he’s as promiscuous as they come, leaping from project to project, starting new bands, resurrecting old ones. – one-offs, touring ensembles, tributes, film music, intriguing collaborations… If it’s adventurous, he’s game. Once the tally is complete, I expect he’ll have released hundreds of recordings. But for better than a decade, he’s always returned to the Vandermark 5. That any working jazz unit has endured today’s climate for eleven years is truly remarkable; that it has managed to hold Vandermark’s interest is miraculous. There have been lineup changes, of course, but the core dictum of pushing free music in all directions has remained undisturbed. The V5, as it currently stands, is the exciting Dave Rempis on alto and tenor saxophone, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics, Kent Kessler on bass, Tim Daisy on drums, and Vandermark, who here sticks to the low end of the register, playing baritone sax and clarinet. It’s a good choice, because he spends much of Beat Reader’s 69 minutes exploiting the guttural qualities of the baritone to an effect similar to his work on Bridge 61’s (excellent) 2006 release Journal, which is to say that a lot of the time the thing flat-out rocks. Vandermark’s gift is his combinatory approach; simply, his palette is larger that most. Punk, rock and funk are as ripe for pillaging as are blues, jazz, classical, what have you. This inclusiveness is what has always marked the great Vandermark 5 releases (Single Piece Flow, Target or Flag, A Discontinuous Line), and here it means that the quintet veer from spastic energy to containment and austerity in the blink of an eye. They are simultaneously controlled and unhinged; propulsive and passive, as appropriate. Lonberg-Holm’s cello is capable of centering the proceedings in a way that Jeb Bishop’s guitar could not. Similarly, Rempis’ tenor pushes things further into the funk realm. All in all, it is what we have come to expect from the V5: more of everything, the world in an hour. I wouldn’t dare slight Ken Vandermark for his restlessness and his creative hyperactivity. It simply results in too much incredible music. But I do hope he always calls the Vandermark 5 home.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

#9


Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL)

So much advance hype preceded the release of Vampire Weekend that anything less than Album of the Year plaudits might be seen as a letdown. Well, whatever, they made a very good album, a wry, confident, highly listenable pop record replete with those much-discussed African pop influences. It’s like extras from a Bret Easton Ellis book put out a record, and though you long to hate them for their pedigree and their unearned trust fund security, you can’t deny the songs. Vampire Weekend pull off the neat trick of harkening back to a simultaneously ironic and carefree time that likely didn’t actually exist, and making you feel nostalgic for it just the same. Dance, deny, repeat. We knew "Mansard Roof" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" were good; turns out they weren't complete flukes. "Campus," "Oxford Comma" and "A-Punk" are just as solid. Dance, dance, dance.

#10


Dave Douglas & Keystone, Moonshine (Greenleaf)

No surprise here, really, as Douglas seems to show up annually on my list, he just continues to evolve and to impress. Keystone is the band which originally came together around the 2005 album of that name, a project inspired by the silent films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, he of the infamous Hollywood scandal, but this music is genuinely affectionate toward Arbuckle’s work. The 2005 disc even included a DVD containing an Arbuckle short film. In 2008 the band remains the same save for the keyboard chair, where Adam Benjamin replaces Jamie Saft. DJ Olive is present again, and he’s given more room to provide atmospherics and quasi-instrumental interjections than he was on the first album. John Kelman of AllAboutJazz.com sums it all up nicely:
What makes Moonshine ultimately such a success [...] is Douglas’ ability to cloak avant-garde concerns in accessible surroundings. As deep and challenging as anything he’s ever recorded, Moonshine remains an album that’s as much food for the heart and soul as it is for the mind, and continues Douglas’ remarkably unbroken string of superb and uncompromising releases.

Monday, December 15, 2008

#11


Francois Carrier, Within (Leo)

Within is the sound of a trio of musicians (Carrier on alto and soprano saxophones, Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and thumb piano, and Michel Lambert on drums, recorded live in Calgary) exhibiting group awareness and musical intuition so strong that it verges on telepathy. “The Moment” and “Experience” bookend the 40-minute “Core,” a staggering piece of creation-in-motion, an improvised statement of impressive depth and such obvious elation for the players that one is tempted to invoke some pretty heavy names as comparison points. But let’s resist that temptation and call it simply “singular,” perhaps even rapturous, and absolutely compelling.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

#12


Love is All, A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night (What’s Your Rupture)

Just like their debut Nine Times That Same Song, this year’s A Hundred Things… plays out like a breathless run-on sentence, a harried and frenzied burst of energy, my two-year old daughter’s sugar rush babblings set to chugga-chugga post-punk guitars, the skronking saxophone, nervous tic drums, bubbly keyboards and Josephine Olausson's amateurish (in a good way) English-as-a-second-language vocals all competing to see who can get to the end of the song first, and even when they do slow it down, like on "When Giants Fall" or “Last Choice,” they make it so damn poppy-sweet, but not too TOO sugary, that you probably dance just as hard as you do to the fast stuff, so the cumulative effect is one of, yes, YES I like this, and after the second or third listen you’re bleating right along with Jansson, doing the freak-spank, playing rhythm guitar on a wooden spoon (or broom or hairbrush), and when, after a scant 32 minutes, the whole thing is over, you think to yourself, well THAT was fun.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

#13


Matana Roberts, The Chicago Project (Central Control)

Chicago-born saxophonist Matana Roberts came to notice playing with the trio Sticks and Stones (with Chad Taylor and Josh Abrams) whose 2004 album Shed Grace was one of that year’s best. In 2008 she fronts an impressive quartet comprised of Jeff Parker on guitar, Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums. The group’s first release is The Chicago Project, a record notable for the quality of its quartet pieces as well as the three sax duets which place Roberts alongside the legendary Fred Anderson.

#14


The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant)

We’re still swooning over Boys and Girls in America, to be honest. That record’s bless-the-losers vibe, its rousing acceptance of advancing age and casual transgression, its ruddy heart, and its songs, were so on, so right, that it’s one of the rare records I’m listening to two years later. So expectations for Stay Positive were high, and for the most part, Craig Finn and co. deliver again. Opener “Constructive Summer” hits like a hot mid-afternoon beer buzz, and scores bonus points for referring to Joe Strummer as a saint. Then you find yourself in the midst of “Sequestered in Memphis,” which should already be playing on classic rock stations across the land on the strength of its piano-organ-guitar front line and its sing-along chorus. We’ll call “One for the Cutters” a brave misfire, because this band’s done enough to earn some of our patience, but yeah, the harpsichord (!) is a mistake. Things chug along like that, though, with pinches and dashes of a lot of the songs you’ve loved since you could turn on a radio yourself. It doesn’t all really gel again until track 8, “Stay Positive,” where the bile-and-nostalgia lyrics and the guitars mesh with the shouted “whoa-oh-ho-ho” chorus, and you begin to wonder if you haven’t shouted along with that chorus sometime in the hazy past, somewhere you can’t name. The Hold Steady frequently arouse such false memories; they’re sometimes called classicists, and sometimes labeled nothing more than a bar band, but as long as we have need for bars, we’ll have need for bar bands, especially ones as good as this. At their core such groups are made up of people who’ve obviously spent their lives listening to Big Albums, and hoping they’d make one themselves someday. These guys did – it was called Boys and Girls in America – and now they’ve followed it up with a Damn Good Album. It could never be as invigorating as hearing Boys and Girls… for the first time, but Stay Positive is the record that confirms that this band is one to grow older alongside. I said it in ’06, and I think it holds true: The Hold Steady’s failures seem terribly real, and their victories kind of feel like your own.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

#15


The Night Marchers, See You in Magic (Swami/Vagrant)

John Reis seems to know only one thing, and that’s how to play the world’s best grimy rock & roll. The man also known as Speedo has been the drive behind Drive Like Jehu, the mighty Rocket From the Crypt, the Sultans, the Hot Snakes, and now, having closed the lid on all those bands, he’s formed the Night Marchers. See You in Magic is the band’s debut, another winner in the Reis catalog, 13 more songs to add to the canon. The guitars on Reis-related records always sound the way angry guitars should sound: raw, loud, taut. The drums are big, the vocals are Reis’ trademark growl and yelp, and the songs are tuneful and tight. The loss of RFTC was lamentable for fans of no-bullshit garage rock. Similarly, both the Sultans and the Hot Snakes seemed incapable of wrong moves. They’re all gone now, but See You in Magic points toward a future where Reis continues to provide just what’s needed. Here’s hoping the run continues, though it shows no signs of doing otherwise.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#16


Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra, Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)

Head Exploding Star Rob Mazurek continues to enjoy an exciting career, neatly treading the line between Chicago’s fertile post-rock scene and all-out free jazz. Indeed, he provides a handy figurehead for that nexus, in that the point he occupies is now so thoroughly associated with both of those musical movements that they have probably now, or will soon merge altogether. For the second ESO release, Mazurek was lucky enough to attract the attention of Bill Dixon, who not only agreed to play on the set, but composed the two-part suite (“Entrances”) which opens and closes the album. Sandwiched between them is Mazurek’s “Constellations for Innerlight Projections (For Bill Dixon)”, so all in all it made sense to credit the project to Bill Dixon with… As with last year’s amazing We Are All From Somewhere Else, the Orchestra, made up of 13 Chicago improvising music scenesters, employ everything under the sun, from free blowing to melodic noodling to good old-fashioned space-age big band swinging, and once again flutist Nicole Mitchell is on hand to nearly steal the show. But Bill Dixon holds his own, too, and the end result is a thrilling recording which rewards repeat listens. Given the ever-present need for new and unpredictable sounds, it is perhaps no surprise that free jazz is alive and well; the big surprise is that its health is due in some measure to the mathrockers. With each daring and fresh release, they threaten their own oblivion, bound to become instead simply the next generation of improvisers. This record feels like a tacit acknowledgment of that very fact, a nod of appreciation from an elder to his natural descendents.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

#17


Sun Kil Moon, April (Caldo Verde)

Mark Kozelek’s tuneful drone of a voice and solid guitar chops, when wrapped about the melodies he snatches from thin air with alarming regularity, are always cause for celebration – or more accurately, for wistful longing and/or deep brooding. On April he conjures another set of stunners, an album which begins with the daunting “Lost Verses,” a song which, at nearly ten minutes long, provides something of a Sun Kil Moon primer. The next several tracks strum and wail and lull and thrash in a pleasing blur until the album crescendos on the ten-plus minute “Tonight the Sky,” an unruly guitar exercise which nevertheless retains its pretty core, lacing a tender vocal refrain amid the squall. If the final three tracks feel like a coda after that, it should be said that they form a damn fine one, and the four alternate performances on the second disc are similarly pleasing. On the last album of original Sun Kil Moon material, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek provided two interpretations of his own song; the first, “Salvador Sanchez,” was a ragged take, built around a big electric guitar riff, while the second, called “Pancho Villa,” was the same song performed with a strummed acoustic guitar and a subtle backing arrangement. Both worked. And the beauty of April, as with so much of Kozelek’s work, is that you have the sense that he could pull the same trick with any of these songs, and the results would be equally impressive.

Monday, December 8, 2008

#18


Bitter Funeral Beer Band, Live in Frankfurt ’82 (w/ Don Cherry & K. Sridhar) / Live in Nurnberg ‘84 (Country & Eastern)

In 1981 Swedish percussionist Bengt Berger, having studied West African music in Ghana, distilled his experience, convened a band, recorded and released Bitter Funeral Beer on the storied ECM label. He then put together a motley touring version of the band, a sprawling, boisterous ensemble, and toured Europe. The band never cut another studio album, but thanks to German state radio we have two extant live recordings, recently released on Berger’s own Country & Eastern label. The earlier set features the horn and personality of Don Cherry, who recognized in the project and in the person of Berger a kindred spirit to his own efforts to fuse world music and the jazz tradition (see: Cherry’s Mu suite), as well as sarod player K. Sridhar. It shines with a sense of inclusiveness and joyous abandon. The Nurnberg date feels more ragged, but no less exuberant, a rollicking percussion party so celebratory that it’s hard to decide who was having more fun, the audience or the band. Both albums are warm, well-recorded, and engaging, a pair of worthy additions to the global-minded improvised canon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

#19


The Dodos, Visiter (Frenchkiss)

The Dodos make a joyful racket, a clangy thumping folky noise that some might say is freak-folk, but since I hate that genre and I like this, it can’t be so, right? Logan Kroeber’s percussion makes this tick, but without songs, man, it wouldn’t hold together. Alright, sometimes Meric Long’s singing is a bit strained, a bird in search of a wire too high, but the inherent sincerity puts you in a forgiving mood. Visiter [sic] fits in ’08 because you can hear the WOMAD influence, like if When Your Heartstrings Break was less brass band, more African percussion. And like Beulah, you get a frenetic mind-rush without ever feeling rushed or frenetic, just like you’re being kind of pleasantly zipped along on a pop-rock bumper car. Junkyard pop? World indie? Seussian rock? Pick a tag, then enjoy.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

#20


The Baseball Project, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (Yep Roc)

Aw, c’mon, was there more of a sure thing for my list in 2008? A jangly power-pop record made by Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck (as well as Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon) and devoted to baseball? Not fair. There are no more sure ways to bypass my critical sensibilities. What’s fantastic about this collection of diamond-themed songs is that they aren’t mere wistful odes to a bullshit bucolic pipedream of innocence and father-son catch sessions. No, they’re genuine nods of appreciation to the real people who’ve played the game. In that sense, Frozen Ropes… is less Field of Dreams, more Bull Durham, and that’s alright by me. Characters are what make these songs fly, lyrically – be it Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Fernando Valenzuela, Harvey Haddix, Black Jack McDowell, or “Ted Fucking Williams.” Musically, the record rides the strengths of the amassed musicians, each of whom possess a heady power-pop CV. The titles suggests a second volume is forthcoming; if so, sign me up now.

Hey, how about that? I got through that whole blurb without resorting to the use of a baseball pun. Homerun!

Friday, December 5, 2008

#21


DJ /rupture and Andy Moor, Patches (Unsuitable)

With apologies to the much-lauded Uproot, Patches is the best thing that Jace Clayton, a.k.a. DJ/rupture released in 2008, an inspired duet with guitarist Andy Moor, best known as a cog in the great and terrible machine that is the Ex. Patches is a collision of abrasion and disruption, a series of sonicscapes fusing Clayton’s aural ephemera with Moor’s improvised guitar imaginings. The result is like playing cut-and-splice with your dream-reels as soundtracked by Fred Frith’s negative-image doppelganger. A serious headplay.

#22


Titus Andronicus, The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman Unlimited)

First impressions: Conor Oberst fronting a ragged punk band. But the more I listened, the more I began to appreciate Titus Andronicus’ blend of desperation and nihilism. The Airing of Grievances is a harrowing trip through the psyche of the thinking punk.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

#23


23. Peggy Lee Band, New Code (Drip Audio)

Vancouver cellist Lee (not to be confused with the original Peggy Lee) expands her group from a sextet to an octet with the addition of a tenor saxophone (Jon Bentley) and a second guitarist (Ron Samworth joins Tony Wilson). The result is New Code, a record of performances which strike the right balance between composed and improvised. Lee began her career as a classical musician before shifting into the new music and improvised world; classical music’s loss is the improvisors' gain (and ours too).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

#24


The Constantines, Kensington Heights (Arts & Crafts)

I was primed to push Kensington Heights right into the top ten before I’d even heard it. Something about this band hits me squarely in the chest, makes me want to champion them, spread their gospel. But the record unfortunately fails to deliver on the trajectory promised by their three album run (The Constantines -> Shine a Light -> Tournament of Hearts), instead surrounding a handful of strong songs with less impressive material. I’m choking on that last sentence, though, because sub-par material for the Constantines is still damn good stuff. It’s never less than honest, nothing but heartfelt, and obviously crafted with yeoman-like dedication. It’s all listenable, enjoyable and well made, but only on a couple of occasions – “Million Dollar Hotel,” “Trans Canada” and “Credit River” stand out – do they rise to the sorts of heights that you’ve come to expect of a Cons album. Call it a place-saver in the canon, something to tide us over until the next jaw-dropper.

Monday, December 1, 2008

#25


The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound (Side One Dummy)

I hate myself for loving you,” sang Joan Jett, and the words apply here, because New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem recycle so many worn clich├ęs that I wince when I think about the lyrics. But damn it if I don’t find myself singing along. They aim for a Springsteenian resonance; they come off as more of a Social Distortion retread (not that I don't love Social Distortion, but...). But there’s honesty in the effort. It’s true that singer Brian Fallon sounds a hell of a lot like the Bruce of “Johnny 99”, and there’s that shared Jersey heritage, so that’s fair; I expect there are worse things a kid from New Brunswick (New Jersey) can get caught up in than Springsteen worship. The whole thing reads like the natural outcome of a kid who’s spent his life relating to his hero’s lyrics and the characters brought to life therein. Musically there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but I’d be quick to say that though the Gaslight Anthem get lumped in with the Warped Tour mallpunk thing, they’re really just a rock & roll band with an ear for sing-along melodies. So, yeah, you take the good and you take the not-so-good. Over-obvious lyrics that borrow too many tropes about a halcyon past where guys wooed dolls by wearing their hearts on their rolled-up sleeves (sample song titles: “Miles Davis and the Cool,” “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”) and which actually quote Springsteen on more than one occasion? Check. Songs that you find yourself singing days later? Double check.

You Know What Time It Is

The holiest time of the year: list season! In deference to my multitudinous musical personalities, I made like it was 2007 all over again and produced an holistic list – no segregation, no sellout – of my favourite sounds, be they rock/pop, jazzy jass jazz, or otherwise. What follows this post will be expositions both witty and urbane on the best twenty-five slices of musical Valhalla that found disc space on the TiOM Sansa in 2008.

The plan is to reveal one a day for twenty-five days, right up to Christmas Day, so add TiOM to your feeds so as not to miss a second of the thrilling action, or whatnot.Thereafter, tune in for posts about my favourite songs, albums that count as also-rans, and maybe, I don’t know, an incredibly well-presented essay on the role of improvisation in establishing new markets for musicians in the age of the download. (That last one’s a big maybe, though.)

So settle in and prepare to waste the month of December with me. It's not like you had anything else planned, right?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tears in My Eyes

There were tears in my eyes -- quite literally, and I don't mean literally like I'm literally gonna kill you or, you know, when people say Literally...! and they mean the opposite -- when I read the news.

Unneccesary backstory: I used to work in a record store. A couple, in fact. Maybe you know that. And they thing about that is, you get used to being up to your armpits in CDs, just music everywhere. Reach out and there's a new musical direction to explore, somebody you work with turning you onto something you've never heard. And then there's the cost, of course: cheap. So, you're a young man and you have few responsibilities and you sink a lot of cash into the creation of a collection. It is a good time to be you. Alright, that's nice. Can't last forever, someday you move on. I moved on. But the jonesing for new music, that never leaves you. You can take the addict out of the record store, but you can't make him drink, or something. I'm always scotching those.

And not only do you not work in the record stores anymore, but you have responsibilities. The whole nine: mortgage, child, cars, dog and cat. So you can't funnel the money into the music anymore. But you find ways to cope. My way? eMusic, which is adding tons of new stuff daily. I don't do iTunes because ain't nobody gonna tell me how to use my files, plus it's a bit pricey, and I don't steal a lot of music because I still have this thing about maybe somebody ought to get paid. Karma, right, because maybe one day I'll be an artist, and it'd be nice if you'd lay out a bit of cheddar for my hard work (not musical, but art and work just the same).

I like eMusic. It gets me by. I pay my monthly and I get my alotment of downloads, and I'm through them in a day or two. Appetite sated, somewhat. You get your Love is All and your Gaslight Anthem and your Blue Giant and, yes, some John Prine too, and you feel contentment like a warm blanket over your heart. And the improvised music selection is good, like real good. I mean, lots of new, small labels (Clean Feed, holla atchya!) and some old stuff, like Fantasy Records. So no complaints.

But this? This is something other.

Ever heard of Black Saint and/or Soul Note Records? Well, god bless the Italians, because these sisterly labels contain an embarrassment of riches in their collective catalog. And that catalog? Now on eMusic. Which is insane. Which caused the teary eyes I mentioned a few 'graphs ago.

Already I have burned through some Jemeel Moondoc, some Dave Douglas, some String Trio of New York, some Geri Allen with Haden and Motian, and, of course, some David Murray. I'm debating whether or not to supplement my Old and New Dreams vinyl by obtaining the digital version. And on and on. There are like five hundred records in the stable now, and the only tough part will be prioritizing.

This right here is very, very huge. Thank you, Giacomo Pelliciotti! Thank you, whoever runs eMusic!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Currently Rocking (aka If You Were Me This Is What You'd Be Listening To Right Now)


1. Woody Shaw, Blackstone Legacy (Contemporary, 1970)
2. Sun Ra, Outer Spaceways Incorporated (Black Lion, 1968)
3. DJ /rupture, Uproot (The Agriculture, 2008)
4. The Gun Club, Fire of Love (Slash/Rhino, 1981)
5. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Live in Paris (Actuel/Charly, 1969)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

C/P/Z Postmortem

(L-R) Ed Zankowski, Rob Price (holding guitar), Chris Cawthray at Avant-Garde Bar, Ottawa, October 18

A huge thanks to Chris Cawthray, Rob Price and Ed Zankowski for a wonderful performance at Ottawa's Avant-Garde Bar on Saturday night. An appreciative crowd was treated to two wide-ranging sets, as the trio showed the impressive breadth and depth of their improvisational abilities.

From a logistical perspective, the first IMC-promoted show was hitch-free. Huge props to IMC'er Jim, who really carried the load on this one. We're all hoping to profit from his newfound experience as we look to the future and the possibility of putting on more shows (watch this space for info, of course, as well as the Official IMC Myspace Page), including a return engagement for C/P/Z. We're also weighing the possibility of expanding our burgeoning empire west down Highway 7 to Peterborough.

The future is ours.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Knocks Me Off My Feet


In the middle of the afternoon, I thought I might float away.

I'm in a new town now, and I'm still getting used to having a decent library nearby. I've been sampling liberally from the a/v collection, and the latest find is Stevie Wonder's meandering 1976 opus Songs in the Key of Life. It was always one of those albums I meant to pick up, when I thought about it, if ever the time was right, if I had the money in my pocket, if I found it on sale...

So this afternoon, washing some dishes, the sky low and heavy and the leaves, past their prime, coming down fast, I had Stevie on in the next room. Somewhere near the middle of disc 1, without warning, the voices suddenly became louder and more real than the music. It was as though a strange parade was making its way down my street and all my windows were open wide. Maybe there was a calliope on the back of a truck. Were there a dozen people, or a hundred? I put the dish towel down and stood, dumb.

It was a very strange and very exhilarating moment.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

C/P/Z on NTT


There's the fantastic poster for the IMC's inaugural foray into concert promotion, the show I've already hyped here (and I'll keep doing it until I'm sure you'll show up) featuring the fantastic trio of Cawthray/Price/Zankowski. If you're not sure what you might hear at the Avant-Garde Bar on October the 18th, tune in RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE to CKCU 93.1 FM in Ottawa, or listen live at ckcufm.com. Of course, the show will be available for download in the very near future. When it's available, I'll provide the details.

You might also consult chriscawthray.com for the drummer's perspective.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Palpable Liberation

That phrase in the title comes from critic Byron Coley in reference to saxophonist Noah Howard, an artist whose career began in the midst of fire music's heyday and continues right up 'til the present. Howard's a bit of a riddle: sometimes Earth-shattering in his brilliance, throwing colour through the air in new and unexpected combinations, conjuring church and brothel and NYC loft in the span of a few notes, while at other times he has seemed little more than a borrower, a gifted anthologist of techniques and tones originating with some of his better-known New Thing contemporaries (Ayler, Coleman, Marion Brown, etc.). But when he's good, he's very good. And as luck would have it, he was the subject of the latest episode of Now's the Time. I spun some of his best, including At Judson Hall, where the sound of his alto paired with Briton Ric Colbeck's trumpet is, at times, purely narcotic. Add Catherine Norris' cello, and you have something truly unique in the annals of free jazz. Worth hunting down. We also sampled liberally from Black Ark, where Howard's foil is a young and fiery Arthur Doyle.

Anyway, I'd like to think it all made for a pretty entertaining 90 minutes of radio. Judge for yourself:

Now's the Time - September 25, 2008: Noah Howard

I'm currently at a loss for a topic for my next show. Suggestions?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Entitlement," Priorities and Lies

[Forgive me while I get political, but damn it, music is art, and I'm firmly of the belief that art and culture positively and concretely benefit society, and when my society is being led by by a man whose relationship with the arts is best described as "openly hostile," I get upset. Harper is in a position to benefit from the cache of Canadian culture abroad, a status earned by artists, musicians, writers and thinkers who have themselves been helped along by Federal funding, and when those artists are denied that help, and such cultural products begin to dry up, both Canadian standing in the world, and Canadians' sense of themselves are bound to suffer. I'll be back later with non-political words dedicated to my profile of Noah Howard airing tonight on CKCU.]

Much bluster today after PM Harper's denigration of the arts (sorry, the Arts), claiming that ordinary folks don't give a fig about spoiled artists, who are themselves too busy attending galas and, presumably, shining their diamonds to actually listen to what real, honest-to-God, salt-of-the-Earth, everyday Canadians really want to see/hear/think about.

It's a shrewd political move, of course, as the number of citizens working in the arts and likely to vote Conservative anyway would probably fit in my living room, but at its heart it is a divisive and damaging position to take, an alignment with the American notion of culture warfare and anti-elitism. An avalanche of pro-art, anti-Harper articles have appeared today (did you read the Globe?), and it's hard for me to find fault with any of them. But almost to a one, they all emphasize The Power of Art, to borrow from Simon Schama, and that is well and good. But it's also a case of preaching to the choir; an op-ed piece by Margaret Atwood isn't likely to suddenly convince anyone heretofore suspicious of arts funding that their lives have been enriched by Canadian artists. But a blog post by MK Piatkowski, artistic director of the One Big Umbrella theatre company, does just what's required: turns the economic argument back on the Conservatives and those aligned against arts funding. Piatkowski invites readers to use her argument wholesale, cut'n paste style, and I'll do just that. Read it, absorb it, and please, keep it in mind when you vote:

The problem is that the government has obscured what the eliminated programs actually did. The cuts were to eliminate programs that provided industry support - training programs for cultural workers, research and development programs, seed money and venture capital programs. All supports to promote work internationally have been eliminated.

Most artists are small businesses. Small business don't have the resources to leverage expansion on their own when they're first expanding their markets. That's why there are government assistance programs. Bank loans are impossible to come by because banks won't fund artistic ventures because the way it is sold doesn't fit into their cost/benefit analysis. There are no venture capital funds for arts, unless you're writing a Broadway music or making a Disney film. So we look to the government to provide assistance, as do other industries.

Again, it's the specific programs that were eliminated that were the problem. We understand it's a tight economy, but we also understand that right now is a growth period for our industry internationally as there is a much higher demand for entertainment product. These cuts will stop the forward growth we've been experiencing. Remember, Canada is a small market. To develop alternative funding sources, we need to expand. And there was no discussion with the industry about how we were going to move forward before the programs were canceled.

But instead of actually talking about what these programs did, the government chose a few grants to people they didn't like and used it to paint the programs as wasteful and unnecessary and to rile up their base of supporters against supposed "elitist art". And now Mr. Harper drops a comment that implies that artists are rich off government funding, completely ignoring the convenient fact that the majority of artists live at or below the poverty line and the successful ones live a middle-class lifestyle, with only the rare, odd exception.

There's also a misconception out there that the government funds the projects 100% and that it's easy money. No proposal to any government program that looks for more than 40% funding gets accepted. And there's a whole competitive process to go through with no guarantee of seeing money at the end. I've blogged about the process if you're curious.

And btw, the C-10 fallout has made it much more difficult for films to find investors because there is no trust that the government will honour their commitment. You see, the dirty secret of arts funding is that private investors will not commit until they see the government has. This is how they secure their investment.

The point is, artists are average Canadians too. We work hard to create something of value for society. We're just asking for our industry to be treated like the important economic engine it is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Less-Than-Great Expectations, Immensely Pleasing Results


I had put off getting Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer, but I've now rectified the situation, and I'm glad I did. I loved both their debut EP and Apologies to the Queen Mary with an intensity reminiscent of the sort of devotion I lavished on bands like Superchunk in high school. It was innocent and riveting and it produced an almost physical swelling in my abdomen. Springsteenian songcraft, ELO chorusing and naive, anthemic bluster. This band, I thought, will soundtrack my early 30s. They produced something as torn between jubilant uplift and crushing sorrow as the Arcade Fire, but with a sound that appealed to my ears just a little bit more (which is not to denigrate the AF and their brilliant Talking Heads-meets-U2-and-Springsteen-on-the-Plateau-for-some-50s-and-some-deep-conversation sound). But their sophomore album came out, and for some reason, I sort of avoided it. In retrospect, I recognize that I was dreading a letdown of the sort common when you give your heart to a debut record. Let's don't spoil what we have, I felt. And I closed myself off to what Wolf Parade might offer me a second time around. It was shortsighted and wrong, but my instinct for self-preservation extends to golden memories, it seems. It didn't help that I wasn't particularly in love with Sunset Rubdown.

To make a long story only slightly less long, I finally bought At Mount Zoomer, and I'm both annoyed with myself for not getting it sooner, and pleased that it seems primed to provide the churning, soaring, diving, burbling and whooping soundtrack to my autumn (alongside the mellower charms of You + Me). It's proggy in ways that I not only forgive, but love. It's a bit more grown up, a bit less spastic than Apologies..., but then, I guess I am too.

Here's to Wolf Parade for confounding my expectations.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If These Walls Could Talk


While in New York last weekend to see the stadia (Shea and Yankee) before they meet the wrecking ball (or the memorabilia-seekers), my father and I put in at the legendary Village Vanguard to see the trio of Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. Needless to say, a fantastic set, with Lovano taking the helm on most pieces, and Frisell getting frisky with his gadgets and toys, but never overdoing it, and with Motian pushing things along without getting in the way. But as much as the band, we were there to see the venue, the venerable Vanguard. Consider the list of names who've played there (for reference, go to All Music, do an album search on "Village Vanguard" and see what comes up; then figure how many have taken the stage without the tapes rolling). It was quite a night. And yes, Lorraine Gordon still takes drink orders.

So, because lists are the new analysis, here are my three favourite Vanguard-born recordings of all-time:

3. Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

Sonny and his piano-free trio (Donald Bailey and Wilbur Ware on bass, Pete LaRoca and Elvin Jones on drums) took to the Vanguard stage in November of 1957 and cut enough material to fill two CDs (now available as The Complete..., whereas it used to be spliced into two volumes). The music is Rollins at his absolute best: agile, powerful, but with enough panache and humour that you might let your guard down and almost fail to recognize just how incredibly good, how dexterous a horn player he is. Few technicians sound this fun.

Also fun is running through these CDs a few times and then throwing Amon Tobin's brilliant Bricolage from 1997 into the CD player and spotting the samples culled from the former and sprinkled throughout the latter.

2. Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby (Riverside/Original Jazz Classics)

In June of '61, lyrical piano genius Bill Evans led a new trio down the tight stairway and into the club on 7th Avenue. The aforementioned Paul Motian occupied the drummer's stool (possibly the first time he'd been at the club, but not the last), and the bassist was the innovative Scott LaFaro. The rolling tapes captured enough music for two LPs that night, and they're both undisputed classics. Not bad for a day's work. Something about the sound of both Sunday... and Waltz for Debby is undeniably wonderful -- they sound like live jazz recordings should sound. I mean that both technically (the sound is clear, warm, perfect) and artistically. The interplay between these three men is astounding.

Listen to the title cut from "Waltz for Debby." Listen to Evans' sweet playfulness. Listen to LaFaro's ability to find the middle ground between Evans and Motian, and fill every nook therein. This record set a new standard for the piano trio. That's not hyperbole. This is not a piano backed by a rhythm section; it's three frontline instruments perfectly in tune with one another.

Now listen to "My Man's Gone Now" from Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Listen to the elegaic tone and try not to be affected by the knowledge that LaFaro would be gone ten days later, a victim of a car accident, not quite 26 years old.

1. John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse)

If this comes as a surprise, you haven't been paying attention.

This is the point where John Coltrane jumped off into the abyss of complete artistic freedom. This is where he began exploring Eastern motifs and themes. This is where Eric Dolphy's sometimes-membership in the band bore it's greatest fruit. Coltrane used these handful of dates in November of 1961 to throw all his ideas into the hopper and see what emerged. He experimented with the makeup of his band, with new compositions, and with new techniques. He did all this with the critics and the curious fans in attendance. What he learned from these experiments set the trajectory for his art until his death.

This is essential listening. The thought that I was sitting in the same room that had borne witness to the creation of this music was as humbling an experience as I've ever known. If Coltrane is a religion, this is the first book of his New Testament.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Long Distance Dedication




For Peter in Ottawa. C'mere. Go away.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Cawthray/Price/Zankowski

We at the IMC are pleased to be making our first, tentative foray into the cutthroat world of concert promotion:

On October 18, the IMC presents the trio of Rob Price, Chris Cawthray and Ed Zankowski at the Avant Garde Bar, 135 1/2 Besserer St., Ottawa. For info call 613-321-8908.

If you like what you see/hear in the clip, won't you please come on out and make our first kick at the can a resounding success?


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Band in Heaven Plays My Favourite Song

I don't remember if I've ever used this space to discuss Miss Imperial's endlessly wonderful Band in Heaven project (and I'm too lazy to look back to see if I have), so if I'm repeating myself, bear with me.

Several years ago, Miss Imperial slyly asked many of her friends via email what their favourite song was, and why. Months passed, and then, voila, in each of our mailboxes appeared a lovingly compiled and packaged CD containing all of the songs, and a booklet with our explanations as to why, say, "Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen (my pick) was the best song in the world, ever. And the CD was called The Band in Heaven.

And every year since, a new email has appeared soliciting picks for such themes as favourite dance song ("A Rollerskating Jam Named Saturdays," by De La Soul, since you're asking), favourite road song (don't remember), favourite discovery of the previous 5 years (The Constantines), etc. The first year, everyone's response had the air of candidness, but now the cat's out of the bag, so what you say about your pick is as important as the song you choose. You know that whatever response you give, your answer will be boiled down to its essence by Miss I and printed in the CD booklet for all to see. So, pressure, right?

Cut to this year, and the theme of sad songs, weepers, music for blue moods, etc. It took me a while to come up with the song, but once I did and it came time to write up the snappy reasons why, I got rather carried away with myself.

Reprinted below is my long-winded response, edited for legibility for those who haven't known me forever (or at all). The underlined text represents the portion Her Eminence, the Compiler chose as best expressing what the hell I meant:

It's a crowded field, because after all, sad songs say so much. But it has to be the poet laureate of sad, Leonard Cohen. "Famous Blue Raincoat" is about sizing up the detritus after the detonation of a three-way love affair, and the pain of losing both a lover and the friend who formed the third side of the triangle. It's not the specific situation that hits home necessarily, but the evocation of the painful knowledge that a part of your life has passed, and nothing on this Earth will bring it back again. The days and the people are gone.

To contextualize, one of the things I love about my wife's family is their sense of casual possession when it comes to their musical heroes. At family gatherings there's almost always a guitar or two, and eventually they come out and people start calling out songs. They call Cohen simply Leonard, as in "How about some Leonard?" That they do similar for Stan Rogers only makes me feel more giddy for the Canadian-ness of it all. Anyway, I suspect that it was out of these gatherings that my wife in large part developed her fondness for Cohen's songs, and it was those memories she was drawing on when she began using 'Famous Blue Raincoat' as a lullaby for our daughter, which worked beautifully, since the meter is so relaxing, even if the lyrics are paralyzingly depressing. So my relationship to this undeniably sad song is a complex one, for those are surely happy memories, of an infant baby held close in her mother's arms in the darkened bedroom of our house in the country.

But give me any shred of happiness and I'll surely find the sad side of it, for childhood is brief, and already I miss my infant daughter (she’s 2 going on 20 now), and every blissful moment I spend with her now also brings closer the knowledge of impending pain, because one day she will leave us, and that day is coming fast.

As for Leonard, I love the man as much as his effect on the people around me. Making kids depressed is surely like shooting fish in a barrel, but Cohen's particular brand of beautiful loserdom appeals absolutely to the adolescent psyche, and that's what friends and I would celebrate when we would sit in the dark saying nothing, listening to
The Best of Leonard Cohen. I remember several instances of this, maybe the most vivid being at Amy's house. It might have been hours that we sat there around an increasingly darkened kitchen table, remaining completely silent, listening.

I have also caught my mother expressing affection for Leonard and his work; my mother, who would be the last person I would ever expect to feel anything for Cohen. This rigid Presbyterian girl from smalltown
Nova Scotia and the dark and mysterious -- and frank in his sexuality -- Montreal Jew poet. When I caught the scent of this incongruous interest of my mother's, I was immensely comforted, because it hinted at a whole gray-tinted underside of her I did not know.

Anyway, good luck finding your brief one sentence sound bite in this overlong note. It's your fault, of course -- you asked.

And to think, I nearly chose "Atlantic City" again.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Where Do the Days Go?

Wow, sorry about that extended absence. I guess the fact is that, after the hubbub and clamour and fuss of moving from one town to another subsides (which is not to say that it's all over, alas), you kind of sit back and wonder if you still are the person you thought you were when you lived in that old town. Such life changes offer handy access points to inspect life's moving parts, to dissect and to reexamine. They are perhaps the most convenient times to affect a degree of self re-invention, if in fact self re-invention is something you are interested in doing. Simply put, I guess I had to ask myself if I still wished to be an obsessive music consumer, listener, lover, worrier, thinker, postulater, pontificator and, yes, blogger. I wasn't really sure I had my answer until I unpacked the CD collection the other day. Poring over the spines, fussing over the correct alphabetization, coveting the objects as artifacts both personal and cultural, I knew I had my answer.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...

But yes, I'm still a music broadcaster, or as much as I ever was, if you can call sharing a weekly jazz show on a campus radio station with 4 other guys broadcasting. Anyway, all that to say that this very minute, over at CKCU world headquarters, my first show in absentia is being presented. It's a re-edited, extended, re-cut version of the Michael White profile I did back in January, and my IMC cohort Ron is in the studio at Carleton U in Ottawa playing the digital files I have prepared and is inserting the appropriate ads (and many thanks to him for doing so). I've heard this show a hundred times now, what with the editing and so forth, and I've edited recordings of many of my previous shows, but this is the first time I have ever actually heard myself actually on air and I must report a strange, detached, almost out-of-body sensation as a result. Knowing that several other people (dozens? hundreds? thousands!?) are also hearing my voice as it is pushed out into the ether and onto the internet lends it a queer anti-weight. I am floating on invisible waves.

Anyway, if you're not listening right now, but would nevertheless like to hear the show, download it here:

Now's the Time - August 21: Michael White profile

Going forward, of course, all my shows will be presented this way (excepting those that aren't, I guess), which is a double-edged sword. There's no question that pre-recording gives the advantage of cutting, reconsidering, tweaking and perfecting, and all in all I know it will make for tighter shows. But there's an undeniable energy associated with sitting in that studio and working live into the microphone, and I'll miss that. Regardless, I'm glad I can keep up my association with the show and with the IMC. Seriously, those guys scare me with their knowledge, their passion and their devotion to the music and to the show.

Anyway, moving on...

If 2008 Ended Yesterday

No secret that this blog began as a simple list, an electronic version of the liners I used to make for the annual Best Of compilation that I, like countless other music obsessives, produce every year and foist onto friends too polite to tell me they don't really care. With that in mind, and because I'm terribly impatient, here's a pre-list, sort of a gestational version of the monster I'll unleash in December/January.

In not-yet-particular order:

The Walkmen, You + Me - this record made me cry last night, as much for its bang on evocation of what it means to be here and married and no longer prodigal as for its sheer perfection. It is as carefully crafted a set of sounds as you're likely to hear.

Portishead, Third - they had no right to produce something this incredible. None. They were over, washed up. What's impressive is that they recognized that a simple return to their sound would not fly in 2008; that the core ingredients of cinematic sounds and Beth Gibbons' unsurpassedly vulnerable voice were all that could remain; everything else had to be blown up and built again. Stunning.

The Hold Steady, Stay Positive - Frankly, it's no Boys and Girls in America, but then what is? Fact is nobody makes better classicist rock informed by punk, hardcore and '90s indie rock than this band, and the lyrics are always good.

The Night Marchers, See You in Magic - Rocket From the Crypt are no longer with us, but Speedo is, and his latest fling, The Night Marchers, continue with that band's basic M.O. This will kick your ass six ways from Sunday, and leave you happy it did. The perfect soundtrack to my re-insertion into suburbia.

Also:

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
The Dodos, Visiter
Angles, Every Woman is a Tree
Various, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-sounds and Nigerian Blues, 1970-76
Dave Douglas, Moonshine
Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
The Raveonettes, Lust Lust Lust
Titus Andronicus, The Airing of Grievances
The Vandermark 5, Beat Reader

More to come. Promise.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Isaac Hayes is Dead

Long live Isaac Hayes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Sound of Sound

Sound that stops the capacity for judgment. Sound that never decays. Sound that breaks free from every possible image. Sound that comes from both death and birth. Sound that dies. The sound around me. Sound like the symptoms of eternal cold turkey. Sound that resists private ownership. Sound that goes insane. Sound that spills over from the cosmos. The sound of sound.

- Kaoru Abe


If last Thursday’s edition of Now’s the Time had a goal, it was the approximate evocation of those words from the late saxophonist Abe. That, and keeping the needles pinned in the red. Happily, I think I did a decent job on both fronts.

Mark-O has an interesting story about Ascension, the 1965 Coltrane blow-out that I pinpointed as the baseline for the noise I played on the show. It goes something like this: One night he listened to Ascension really loud. Soon he fell asleep. The end.

See, the density of sound was so great that he began to hear it as a whole, not as disparate parts, and then it sounded to him like white noise, like a fan whirring in the dark, like ocean waves.

The point is this: reconsider what you think you know about noise. It’s uses and variations are myriad. Don’t try to impose conventional structure onto it, but instead celebrate it for what it is: the sound of sound.

I don’t expect to win over many with this line of argument; certainly for most, noise remains just that – an irritant, an aural eyesore, until organized into pleasing structures like melody and rhythm. I don’t mean to suggest that Abe’s improvisations, or Machine Gun, or Bells will make for nice dinner music. But if, having steeled your nerves, you want to engage this art on its own level (after all, real practitioners of noise aren’t about to meet you halfway), then I think you must view it in those terms. It is not tuneful. It is not easy. But it is vital. It expresses certain peculiarities of humanity that can’t otherwise be expressed with a musical instrument. It shrieks and careens and drops and exalts. Just as we do.

Anyway, that’s what I was trying to get across on the July 17 edition of NTT, an admittedly vague point illustrated by pieces from Coltrane, Abe, Albert Ayler, Peter Brotzmann, Frank Wright, the incomparable Last Exit, Ivo Pereman and Assif Tsahar. Feel free to download, listen and decide for yourself whether or not I was successful in doing so:

Now’s the Time – July 17, 2008: Free Radicals (or: The Sons of Ascension)


[PS - Hat tip to the amazing Destination: Out for that Abe quote.]

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father Knows Best

Father's Day, and what better way to celebrate on Now's the Time than to have my very own father (second from left) join me in the studio to play some favourites?

In truth, dad dug deep and donated $100 to the show during last fall's funding drive, and according to an IMC tradition, that automatically entitles him to co-host an episode of NTT. "Name your date," I told him, but we weren't able to co-ordinate our schedules until this past Thursday, June 12. It just so happened, of course, that that was the show closest to Father's Day. Fortuitous, no?

So JGF programed the music and sat in the studio with me to rap about jazz, his memories and experiences and, as it happened, the manner in which generations can pass music back and forth to one another. See, Dad fell into jazz in college (military college, no less), and he favoured the cool school and the Third Streamers. Somewhere along the way, he sort of left it behind. Cut to thirty or so years later, when his youngest son (that'd be me) began to develop an interest in jazz, beginning with Chet Baker and moving on quickly to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and so on (and so on and so on). Well, in doing so, I unwittingly pulled dad back into that world, and for that he has proven grateful. So having him sit in with me behind the microphone was a wonderful way to tie all that together.


We played some George Shearing (that's him in the Ray-Bans), some Oscar Peterson, a little Dave Brubeck. We went to New Orleans, we swung with Duke. And we iced the proceedings with some Miles, by way of Spain.

Suffice to say we both had a great time, and the proof is in the digital recording:

Now's the Time - June 12, 2008: Guest host Gordon Forbes

(Playlist available here)

Happy Father's Day.

PS - I'll be back on the airwaves in July with a show I've chosen to call Free Radicals. It'll be a skronky affair, with plenty of noise for noise's sake. Cover your ears.