May 27, 2010

new music / highly anticipated

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (June 8)
Apart from wonderful new albums from the National, LCD Soundsystem and Frog Eyes, I'm currently enthralled with Toronto-based electro-pop duo Crystal Castles' self-titled sophomore effort. I'm finding it far easier to digest than their debut. With songs like "Baptism," "Empathy" and "Suffocation," it's more melodic and far more listenable than its predecessor (which I didn't much care for). There's still plenty of vocal manipulation from Alice Glass ("Violent Dreams") and the occasional screetch of static ("Doe Deer"), but everything that first piqued my interest in Crystal Castles has been channelled through a poppier medium. "Celestia" is slice of shoe-gazey dreampop (think Ladytron crossed with Slowdive) that's even more successful in its execution than Bradford Cox's recent work with Atlas Sound. Grinding basslines, ecstatic synths and shoegazer tendencies? They've finally won me over.

Here are some other upcoming releases that I'm REALLY looking forward to:

Menomena - Mines (June 27)

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (August 2)

Smashing Pumpkins - Teargarden by Kaleidescope Volume 1: Songs for a Sailor
Ha! Just kidding. Can you believe that album title? I can't help imagining Billy Corgan dressed up in a sailor suit. It'll be Corgan's first release with his new drummer, the 17-year-old replacement for Jimmy Chamberlin. And apparently it was released May 25. I don't think anyone noticed. Perhaps it was the unforgiveable album cover, which looks as though it was ripped out of a kid's colouring book.

May 24, 2010

This is a recent interview with Stanley Hauerwas, a promotional vehicle for his just published memoirs. In the video, Hauwerwas discusses his relationship with John Howard Yoder, his family background, the major problems he has with the religious right in America, and how we often go wrong in our generalized accounts of God. Hauerwas is typically wry and careful with his speech; and the fellow interviewing him has an annoying smirk, which the camera seems to love. Not the most exciting video, but there are some highlights. One of them goes like this:

When asked the question "How should one pray?" Hauerwas responds, "The same way porcupines screw: very carefully."

May 23, 2010

making (local) literature

Last week, I attended a book launch for a new novel that I had a hand in producing. With the production of Dora Dueck's new novel, This Hidden Thing, I was able to put some of my book history theory into practice, as I attempted to match the book's interior/exterior design to the aesthetic sensibility of its audience: an audience whose taste in literary books has been shaped and informed by other literary books. In other words, I had the task of making this book look like a legitimate novel; and with a novel this good --a novel that deserves a wide readership-- I hardly needed any extra motivation. (To learn more about the novel, click here for the news release.)

I should say, first of all, that I'm very pleased with how the book looks and feels. At the launch, someone asked me what font I'd used. Before I even finished saying "Times New Roman" we were both laughing sheepishly. It's a choice that seems too obvious. But it was a decision that was quite carefully thought out. The choice of font was even more significant for me this time around because, during the early stages of this book's production, my studies at U of M had focused on the relationship between aesthetic decisions in book production and the corresponding ideological context. Although I dealt with the relationship through the work of an early modern Venetian printer named Aldus Manutius (in an appeal to his humanist patrons, he was one of the first to use the italic typeface and the first to publish the classics (Virgil, Ovid, etc.) in a pocket-sized (octavo) format), the basic point of correlation is still very useful, especially in book production.

It's been said that the cover of a book is the best advertisement you can make at the level of its production. I mostly agree with this, but, looking at trends in the history of book production, one soon notices that interior design (font, layout, paper, etc.) is also means something to a book's readers (and whether it conveys something "good" or not is often dependent on its continuity with the tradition of literary book production); it is also, in this sense, an advertisement.

May 19, 2010

timely advice for cyclists AND motorists

Police examine the scene where a pickup truck hit a group of cyclists, killing three and injuring three on May 14, 2010, near Rougemont, Que.
Police examine the scene where a pickup truck hit a group of cyclists, killing three and injuring three on May 14, 2010, near Rougemont, Que.
(Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)


Share the road. Sounds good in theory. But in practice, pedal-powered two-wheeled vehicles and motorized four-wheeled vehicles sometimes don't get along very well when they're on the same stretch of blacktop.

And when they meet, the results can be grim — almost always for the person on two wheels.

According to figures from Statistics Canada, of the 14,135 people killed in road accidents in Canada between 2000 and 2004, 263 were cyclists. That's just under two per cent of all road fatalities.

In 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, 65 cyclists died on Canadian roads. That's 2.3 per cent of the total number of road fatalities, according to Transport Canada.

Around 7,500 cyclists suffer serious injuries every year. It's estimated that as many as 70,000 others are treated in hospital emergency rooms for cycling-related injuries.

It could be worse. In the United States, 698 cyclists died in road accidents in 2007. More than half a million others required treatment in hospital emergency rooms.

However, death and injury rates in several European countries are substantially lower. Cyclists in North America are twice as likely to be killed and eight times more likely to be seriously injured than cyclists in Germany and three times as likely to be killed and 30 times as likely to suffer serious injuries than cyclists in the Netherlands.

Part of the reason is more bicycle-dedicated routes. But researchers say there's also evidence of strength in numbers: more people riding bikes creates greater awareness by cyclists and car drivers which translates into lower accident rates.

In Canada, 56 per cent of cyclist fatalities and 85 per cent of serious cycling injuries occur in cities.

Other risk factors include:

  • Time of day: 17 per cent of deaths and 23 per cent of injuries occur in accidents during the afternoon rush hour.
  • Time of day: 30 per cent of cyclist fatalities occur at night or in artificial light situations.
  • Location: You're more likely to be killed or injured at an intersection or at road locations with traffic signals or other traffic control signs.
  • Rural areas: 44 per cent of cyclist fatalities that occurred in rural areas were on roads with posted speed limits of 80 km/h or higher.
  • Age: Cyclists under the age of 24 have substantially higher death and injury rates than the rest of the population.

What you can do

Most provinces have passed mandatory helmet legislation for cyclists. But in some provinces, the law applies only to people 16 years old or younger. In Prince Edward Island, the law applies to all cyclists, wherever they're riding a bike.

Transport Canada advises all cyclists to:

  • Always wear a helmet.
  • Always obey the rules of the road.
  • Use a light (front and back) at night.
  • Wear bright or reflective clothing when riding, especially at night.
  • Be vigilant at both intersection and non-intersection locations, especially in urban areas.
  • Never assume that motorists will yield, even if you have the right-of-way.

The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria recommends five basic principles to avoid collisions in its Cyclist's Collision Checklist:

  • Maintain your bicycle in good working order.
  • Be as visible as possible to others.
  • Learn the skills needed to control your bike.
  • Cycle in traffic safely and predictably.
  • Know and obey the rules of the road.

The rules of the road include properly signalling a turn or a lane change, stopping at all red lights and stop signs. Those same rules mean the lane you're riding in is yours — and a driver can either pass you in the left lane or patiently wait for your progress. If you do stay on the right side of the lane so cars can pass you, you should also drive about a metre from the curb. If there are parked cars in the lane, make sure you're a car door's width from those parked cars. A significant cause of bike accidents is driving into a car door that's opening.

Mirrors on your helmet or handlebars can help you see what's coming but — like in a car — there can be blind spots. You should look behind you before you change lanes, pass someone or make a turn.

You can also make your bike more visible during the day by attaching a fluorescent flag on a 1.8-metre plastic pole to the back wheel. This is especially handy for a child's bike — although it's not exactly ideal for someone out training for a bike race.

However, you can do all the right things and still find yourself in trouble. In an accident that left five cyclists seriously injured in Ottawa on July 19, 2009, the cyclists were all riding in a designated bike lane when they were struck in broad daylight.

On May 14, 2010, three cyclists were killed and three others were injured when they were hit by a pickup truck. The cyclists, who were training for a triathlon, were riding in single file at the time of the accident on a highway east of Montreal. The road did not have paved shoulders.

Transport Canada says there are steps car and truck drivers can take to help make the roads safer for everyone:

  • Always be on the lookout for and yield to cyclists and pedestrians, even if they don't have the right-of-way.
  • Always obey traffic signals and traffic control signs.
  • Be prepared for cyclists and pedestrians to appear unexpectedly at both intersection and non-intersection locations, on both urban and rural roadways.

Looking for answers

At the University of British Columbia, the Centre for Health and Environment Research is studying ways of making cycling safer in Canadian cities. Researchers are currently collecting extensive data about cycling injuries in Vancouver and Toronto. They're talking to injured cyclists and gathering information about the types of routes they were riding when their accident occurred. The study is still in its preliminary stages.

If you thought getting off the road is the key to avoiding injury, you might want to think again. Two studies of cyclists in Toronto and Ottawa found that cyclists riding on sidewalks were four to eight times more likely to suffer an injury than cyclists on the road — and 1.2 to 1.8 times more likely to be injured on a paved or unpaved multi-use path than on the road.

In the Netherlands, another study showed that while you are twice as likely to be injured while riding in an on-road bike lane than an off-road bike path, the pattern was nearly reversed when it came to intersections. The danger increased when an off-road bike path crossed a road.

Wherever you ride, it's driver beware.

May 12, 2010

The National - "Bloodbuzz Ohio" (official video) from The National on Vimeo. Their new album, High Violet, is reviewed below.

Prediction: this song will (deservedly) end up on many year end lists, in part because it captures the financial confusion of the present. Matt Berninger's best line, "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe," sums it up pretty well.

Also, I can't resist posting the opening paragraph of Alex Denney's review of High Violet for The Quietus. It's one of the best descriptions of The National that I've come across:
Empathy isn't a virtue readily associated with rock's emotionally-charged climes, trafficking as they usually do in excess and ego-driven chicanery of every description. The National honed their art to a supremely nuanced stadium rock over the course of four albums culminating in 2007's fantastic Boxer, tilling the poorly nourished soil of modern urban existence to unearth tales of weary self-forgetting, ideals run aground and those bone-chilling moments where the mask of autonomy slips and we see ourselves as we really are in the technocratic, ontologically-unsound west: frightened and alone. Theirs was a world of compromise; a bitter coffee ground comprised of telling defeats and the dreams that linger on, strange and small and sexy as week-old cologne. And if all that sounds like a tough sell, then frontman Matt Berninger's dry-as-dust humour and suave baritone went a long way to sugaring the pill.
Full review here.

May 9, 2010

New Music: The National

In many ways, High Violent picks up where Boxer left off. Musically, the band is at the top of its game: very conscious of atmosphere and mood, offering spacious settings for Matt Berninger's tortured ballads (the guitar flourishes, the brass horns, the driving jungle beats, and the choral backdrop of "Afraid of Everyone" are pitch perfect). Berninger has never sounded more in love with his melancholy and normally I'd consider this much brooding a bit tiresome. But, as Berninger has demonstrated over and over, he knows how to wear his misery. "Sorrow" is particularly depressing, as Berninger lists each possible avenue (his body, his honey, his milk) as a source of heartache. I just wish I could give him a hug. Especially after a song like "Lemonworld," which follows former soldier who escapes the city to visit his estranged children.

It may sound trite, but I'm quite impressed with the way he's been able to harness and channel his sadness. Berninger shows no signs of letting up. Nor do the melodies. High Violet is more accessible, more anthemic, more consistently upbeat and hook-driven than Alligator, perhaps even more than Boxer. It's commendable that The National can make such a solid album of new material and retain such a familiar sound, but you have to wonder how long this can last. As long as Berninger's songwriting is this strong, I guess, there's no reason to worry. "Bloodbuzz Ohio," which falls somewhere between biblical allegory and confession, and the piano-based "England," an epic slow-builder with lush orchestration and a triumphant swell of catharsis (this late in the album, I think we deserve it), are probably the album's most fully realized tracks, possibly The National's best yet. And I could go on. There really aren't any duds here. My only real criticism is that Berninger's vocal delivery is too one-dimensional, but things get better towards the end of the album, with "England" and especially "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" (the closest thing The National have ever done to a feel good sing-along).

Berninger is quite up front about his angst (still undeniably an urban kind of angst, where the social realm always ends up being tragically alienating); actually, the mood and aesthetic remind me of Mad Men. Don Draper and Berninger seem to be working through the same sorts of demons. I think Don would appreciate High Violet; well, at least he'd know how to sell it.

May 5, 2010

the wizard of AZ

I'm back from a trip to Arizona, from what feels now like a very distant place. There were a lot of very interesting parts to my trip. Not only was I able to spend some much needed quality time with my grandparents, we hiked in the Grand Canyon; we hiked to the Devil's Bridge; we ate at an authentic Southern grill, a Nepalese restaurant, and did our grocery shopping at place called Superstition Market. I suppose that's another thing I love about the southern states. So many landmarks and regions have wonderfully suggestive, eerily spiritual names.

The cacti were perhaps my favourite feature of what is very different climate.The weather was characteristically hot and dry, so it's taken me some time to adjust to the cold, wet discomfort of Winnipeg. It also happened that the political climate was quite heated (Winnipeg's on the other hand...?), especially regarding the state's decision to bypass the federal government's jurisdiction and clamp down on illegal immigrants.

If this is news to you, the story is certainly worth checking out because it brings up all kinds of disparities and disagreements between right and left, rich and poor. It also links quite nicely to my last couple of posts on colonialism. Each morning of my vacation began with the newspaper; each day began with a related story on the front page, featuring protesters and particular celebrities speaking out against the bill.

And there I was, right in the heart of this debate: comfortably situated in a gated community called Sunland Village where the only Mexican people you'll see are probably groundskeepers or delivery men. As an outsider, it became quite clear that I was in an environment of power, among a large population of people who support a bill that "requires local and state law enforcement to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country without proper documentation, and makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally." It made me wonder about how our decisions and opinions are tied to our cultural position, how as a white middle-class male I am always speaking from a position of power. Something we'd all do well to consider, I think.