October 31, 2009

all hallows eve (a list of sorts)

It's a pretty safe bet that at most of tonight's Halloween parties people will make a REALLY big deal out of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Ahh...he's back from the dead! I also wouldn't be surprised to hear an ironic shout out to Bobby Pickett's "Monster Mash." I used to hate the song, but now it reminds me of my favourite episode of Freaks and Geeks. And you can expect there to be a lot of folks dressed up like characters from Donnie Darko - especially the combination of a skeleton body suit with a zip up hoody from American Apparel. When I saw it in grade 10, Donnie Darko defined Halloween for me: the music (both the original score and the songs by Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, etc.), the eerie suburban setting, the freaky costumes, the whole atmosphere really. So what if the plot about time travel is pretty much incomprehensible and the straight to video sequel looks like absolute garbage. If nothing else, Donnie Darko captured the mood (see Bat for Lashes' video for "What's a Girl to do"), the macabre spirit of 80's for all of us who were 20 years too late.

Here's my list of albums that go bump in the night. In other words, it'd be a grave mistake to spin these records on a sunny afternoon. It's probably a good thing I'm not having a party because, as you can see from this list, it'd be a real downer...

Adore - Smashing Pumpkins (1998)
This dark but unexpected departure for the band was the first without their previous drummer, J.C., and a quickly turned into therapeutic project for Corgan after the loss of his mother. Featuring late Victorian style photography and oodles of over the top gothic costumes, skeletal song structures, flirations with electronica, and barely-there vocals, this subdued departure was also the Pumpkins' last great album.

Random Spirit Lover - Sunset Rubdown (2007)
Everyone seems to have forgotten about this album, now that the critically acclaimed Dragonslayer is out. Personally, I prefer the extended meanderings of Spenser Krug to the tightly wound pop of the band's latest release. This was an album that channelled a host of spirits in carnivalesque celebration.

Disintegration - The Cure (1989)
Seems like an obvious choice, but what's so bad about that? Droning synths and lush orchestration. The Cure have a lot of albums that could be on this list, but Disintegration remains my favourite, probably because I discovered it at the perfect time.

Limbo, Panto - Wild Beasts (2008)
Though this year's Two Dancers is touted as a step forward for the band, I was pretty satisfied with their heavier debut. Songs like "His Grinning Skull" and "She Purred, While I Grrred" can't be replicated - the seedy nihilism of Limbo, Panto is almost intoxicating.

Mezzanine - Massive Attack (1998)
I don't think there's a better rainy day album. It's industrial: slick, lethal ("Inertia Creeps") and all of a sudden so chilled out ("Exchange"). The first time I heard "Teardrop" I kept it on repeat for hours. This album manages to evoke a wide spectrum of moods, while maintaining a stylish core of consumer malaise on the road to perdition.

Ocean Rain - Echo and the Bunnymen (1984)
I must confess, I only really got into this album after seeing Donnie Darko, but since then I've sung its praises. "Killing Moon" and "Thorn of Crowns" are perfectly sinister, full of epic ambition and metaphysical jargon.

Maxinquaye - Tricky (1995)
He sampled "Suffer" by the Smashing Pumpkins (appropriately named "Pumpkin") and hasn't come close to this sort of consistency or execution since this was released in the mid-90s. He named the album after his mother, Maxin Quaye. "Aftermath" is undoubtedly one of coolest tracks ever, managing to sample both Blade Runner and Marvin Gaye. And there's a flute! Tricky gets all the credit, but its really his then-girlfriend Martina Topley-Bird, whose angelic vocals contrast Tricky's grit, that steals the show.

October 30, 2009

This Halloween, the most interesting/disturbing but eerily appropriate band is without a doubt England's Wild Beasts. I've sung there praises before and this year they've usurped the title, previously held by Sunset Rubdown. Halloween is, I think, the perfect autumn holiday because, in this season especially, the presence of death is so obviously everywhere that it's impossible to ignore. The golden harvest is over, but clusters of brightly coloured leaves hang on to bare branches with doomed resilience. The frailty, the beauty of time's passage, is never so immediate.

What began as a pagan festival, seemingly baptised by the Catholic Church's decision to relocate All Saints Day to the first of November (which was also the beginning of the new year until it was overrided by the Church), is still more or less pagan; and perhaps we need that (pagan) freedom to name death, to locate that absence which the saints have passed through, to find true communion. When you think about what Halloween's become --children in costumes visiting the houses of strangers and asking for candy-- it's easy to get cynical (especially for the particularly pietistic).

I complain about Halloween for a number of reasons. Some of them are more valid than others. Most of them have more to do with consumer culture and my own laziness. But thinking about the holiday's evolution, from an "pagan" pre-Christian festival to a failed product of Western empire-building renews my interest and appreciation in what is one of the weirdest holidays on the calendar. Fall is undoubtably my favourite season. I just wish it wasn't so damn cold.

October 27, 2009

*meanwhile, in popular culture:
browse the first bits...
Just in time for the big comeback!

My current classes deal with 19th Century working class autobiography. The bourgeois narrative of progress and fulfillment is strikingly absent from these texts, as are the sort of authorial tropes you'd normally expect to find in writing from this period.

Our professor started out last class by asking us what sort of things we'd include in our autobiographies. A generic list started to develop: birth, class, education, formative relationships, turning points and epiphanies all seemed like obvious subjects for inclusion. Finally our professor stopped us, admitting that he found it odd how none of us bothered to mentioned religion, spirituality or faith. Surely such a category is important most biographers. We had only mentioned secular items, he said. At this point, I was compelled to say something but I thought my words would be lost on most of the class: religion is not a reductive category among categories - it is not one domain of the humanities among many- it is not an object of speculation and observation in the social sciences. It is the grid upon which all other categories are situated. For the theologically minded, such categories of life are decidedly not secular but in fact deeply meaningful. The distinction does not compute. The day to day concerns of an underprivileged life are not somehow more basic than faith. Faith can't be separated out so easily. Material sustenance is not opposed to or set apart from transcendent aspirations, as the bourgeois autobiography narrates (for it is precisely a transcending of material shortcomings that is commonly narrated by affluent autobiographers). Indeed, many of the personal accounts we've looked at give little time to religious language, and those that do, write with a hope that (unlike the "literary" posturing of extensive quotations from Robert Burns and the like in an attempt to appeal to middle class readers) actually means something. It has to mean something because, for every one of these working class lives, the church has failed in every sense possible.

October 19, 2009

on youth and youngmanhood

I'm sorry to bump U2 from the top of my webpage, but it had to happen at some point. Huge egos are in no short supply. Don Draper, recently named the most iconic man in America (ahead of Obama!), knows how to where a tie - so well, in fact, that he's always tangled up in an affair of some sort, whether it's a businessman looking for a new image for his company, or a girl who can resist his uber-macho charm. Are we really that shallow? I think so.
Don Draper may be a fictional character on AMC's Mad Men, but he's just as real as any other public personality you can think of. Celebrities are brands, with carefully constructed images, and most of us are just as likely to have a beer with Don Draper as with anybody else on this list. What matters is that Draper's hardass 1960s persona represents something about male identity that is enduringly captivating but has nonetheless vanished. The man that Don Draper is -- value-driven and thoroughly masculine -- is the product of a bygone era; without him, there would be no contemporary figure to represent it. Yet, as removed as his persona may be, it is also contemporary and familiar. He's a postwar archetype, both a brilliant career man and a temptation-swayed philanderer who sincerely wants to be a family man. Like most men, us and our fathers both, Draper is permanently conflicted over how to reconcile his morals and his desires.
This from a website that asks their male visitors (creepy) to rate male and female celebrities out of a hundred. I remember when jocks used to do that in high school. No wonder us guys identify with Mr. Draper.

+ + +

There are three tracks of sublime pop on the new Atlas Sound record (which comes out tomorrow! and is awesome!). "Sheila" is a catchy, guitar driven anthem about love and death, while the album's heady centrepiece, "Quick Canal," features layered vocal stylings by Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadler. Arguably the weakest of these three, the attention-grabbing "Walkabout," voices the mid-midlife crisis for those of us into our twenties: "what did you want to be when you grew up?" Does growing older have to be a disappointment? The movie everyone is talking about right now (and when I say "everyone" I mean hipster twentysomethings and the websites they visit) is Spike Jones' adaptation of Maurice Sendeck's Where the Wild Things Are. I still haven't seen it but from what I've heard its sounds like its going to appeal to those of us who want our childhood back; those of us who still feel like kids that have been prematurely catapulted into an adult culture of glossy disappointments. I can hear Arcade Fire playing, I can see the "wild" celebration ("inside all of us"), and I'll admit that it makes me nostalgic (even though Karen O and the Kids, who provide the film's soundtrack, really piss me off). It's supposed to, isn't it? Nostalgia allows you get away with anything. It's all right there in Mad Men.

October 12, 2009

Hey, it's the world's favourite band (first and third world, and everybody in between)! They have such wide appeal that Bono and the Edge don't know what to do with themselves. Over at cokemachineglow, they ran an article about a father and son who embark on the "greatest concert spectacle ever." U2! People are finally starting to pay attention. They just made it on the cover of Rolling Stone. They're gonna be famous!

It's an awesome cover too, because it looks like they used a macbook to superimpose these guys onto a stock background so they're in space! I think I see Saturn floating above the Edge's beanie. And Bono so obviously wants to rock, with his fist in the air like that. He's all "yaaa!" and the Edge is serious, because he's a real musician. I saw him in a movie with Jack White and Jimmy Page where they talk about themselves and how they play with their massive libidos...oops, I mean, guitars.

October 10, 2009


On the new music front there's a lot to be excited about these days. This past Tuesday saw the North American release of new albums by Air, Built to Spill, (the mega-hyped) Big Pink, the xx, the Clientele, A Place to Bury Strangers, Lake, Califone and Karl Blau, to name a few. But it's the recent media flurry (flurries are smaller than blizzards, right? We're still talking about indie music after all) surrounding the Mountain Goats' new release that has me the most intrigued. I'm not a huge Mountain Goats fan by any means. But I've heard Tallahassee, and spent a few nights alone with The Sunset Tree. Frontman and principle songwriter John Darnielle has always had an interest in spirituality and the morally ambiguous. But only a year after releasing Heretic Pride and the Satanic Messiah EP, Darielle has (atoned?) structured the new Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, entirely around verses from the Bible. I've heard it and its standard fare for Darnielle & Co. He's been surprisingly candid in interviews (especially worth checking out is his interview with Tiny Mix Tapes: "I can’t stand the idea that Christian virtues are mainly humans celebrating their indwelling natural goodness; it’s probably true, but I want transcendence."), suggesting that he interested in religion, not just from a detached secular perspective, but because he finds the Bible important, transformative and surprisingly relevant. He, of course, isn't willing to commit to anything beyond agnosticism, but I'm not too concerned about that.

What I find interesting about all of this is how the album is being reviewed. Virtually every review I've read makes an almost apologetic defense of the album, despite its religious overtones. Here's a fairly typical example:
Overall, however, “The Life of the World to Come” avoids this trap. Darnielle’s use of the Bible to highlight his characters’ conflicts paints an intricate portrait on the neutral sonic canvas; the album’s slips into repetition are overshadowed by the power of this human struggle.
And my personal favourite:
Is it surprising Darnielle was able to transform the contents of a book that generates so much conflict into simply beautiful music with a passionate message? No, not really. If they can be counted on for anything, the Mountain Goats can be counted on for great lyrical composition. The Life of the World to Come doesn’t require its listener to be someone familiar with religion, a follower of Christianity or even a person whose only religious experience boils down to CCD classes. Although it might sound fairly cheesy, the Mountain Goats’ album is able to transcend religion and get straight to the message, whatever one believes that message to be. The Life of the World to Come is simple, magnificent music with an immense amount of depth.
This appeal to a higher, supposedly more inclusive, category - something "neutral" like Human Experience - is amusingly evasive and a rather thin attempt to accomodate a loaded work of art into the public sphere. Religion is now something to be "transcended." Ha!

October 9, 2009

grunge kids

Tonight Chad VanGaalen played at the Park Theatre. It was a brilliant set, half of it made up of new material. He said he was a bit embarrassed to still be touring with Soft Airplane, which hopefully means there will be a new album next year. The new material sounded great, but I was said to hear so little from his previous albums (Infiniheart was totally absent, and he only played a couple songs from Skelliconnection). It was a heavy show, and Mr. VanGaalen was as talkative as ever. He played the theme from "Friends" and discussed his bowel situation. He even consented to a request for "Poisonous Heads." Grunge is on its way back. It's about time.

My interview with him for Stylus is finally up.

And here's my review of his latest release.

I've also started doing artwork for the Uniter.

October 6, 2009

City's cyclists may follow 'Idaho stop law'

(from the Winnipeg Free Press, 6/10/2009)

THE city may consider letting cyclists roll through intersections with stop signs when there are no vehicles or pedestrians present.City council's protection and community services committee is poised to ask the Winnipeg Police Service to study traffic regulations in Idaho and elsewhere that allow cyclists to slow down and yield at stop signs but not come to a complete stop when no other traffic is present.

On Friday, councillors Gord Steeves and Jenny Gerbasi plan to formally ask the police to spend two months studying the idea and recommend whether it could work in Winnipeg.

The move follows calls from cycling groups to change Manitoba's Highway Traffic Act as well as a police initiative that saw cyclists ticketed for rolling through inner-city stop signs this summer, Steeves said.

"Nobody should complain about what police do when they're simply enforcing laws," said Steeves, noting it's up to politicians to change the rules of the road if it's deemed advisable to do so.

What's being called the "Idaho stop law" could work in Winnipeg if it's enforced, said Mark Cohoe, a director of Bike To The Future, a commuter-cycling lobby group.

"In the city of Winnipeg, it seems like stop signs are used for traffic calming. As a cyclist, it doesn't make sense to stop every block along the road," he said.

Bike To The Future also wants to see the provincial Highway Traffic Act amended to allow bikes to pass cars on the right, a move that's currently illegal, even in curb lanes.

The group is also pushing the province to make it mandatory for motor vehicles to come no closer than one metre from cyclists when they pass on the left, especially in the shared lanes known as sharrows, Cohoe said.

While any regulatory changes would likely require the province to amend its rules first, there may be moves the city could make on its own, Steeves said.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2009 B1