June 30, 2010

what's up?

There's a lot of music to talk about right now, local and otherwise. Winnipeg's Jazz festival brought in indie-rock darlings Deerhoof on for a energetic and entertaining show on Monday (it was awesome!). Following the concert, we were all treated to a DJ set by ?uestlove, who rushed over to the Pyramid Cabaret after The Roots played the Pantages Theatre. It was a late night, but ?uestlove's set was worth staying for, sort of. It's the closest I've ever come to the "club" experience. Now I know for certain that clubbing is not for me.

Next week the Winnipeg Folk Festival gets underway, featuring Andrew Bird, The Dodos, Emmylou Harris, the Avett Brothers, Levon Helm, Etran Finitawa (who have the best promo pictures I've ever seen - above), Rock Plaza Central, Konono No 1, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and others.

Matador has just announced the line-up for its 21st birthday bash, and it looks better than most of the festival line-ups I've seen so far this year. Basically all my favourite indie bands from the 90s are playing it (with a few major exceptions): Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Guided by Voices, Spoon, Belle & Sebastian, Chavez, and Liz Phair (who, I'm sure, will be under strict supervision in case she makes the mistake of playing anything from the last 10 years). It's in October, by which time I'll be well into my MA program. And it's in Las Vegas. Probably for the best that I can't go. I wouldn't know what to do with myself and I'd probably blow a huge wad of cash on merch just out of sheer nostalgia for the late 90s. Just think of all the cool band t-shirts I never had access to, suddenly at my fingertips.

I should probably also mention that this Saturday I'll be joining a friend for an acoustic set of favourite rock/pop songs from the 90s. We've been talking about doing this for a long time and I'm pretty excited that it's going ahead, if for no other reason than that I can break out my XL band t-shirts that haven't gotten much use in the last few years. Here's a link to the event.

June 21, 2010

making art that matters

The new issue of Via Media is now online. Contents of this issue focus on the relationship of art to theology and vice versa. My article attempts to link our culture's appetite for kitsch to a perversion of sacramental theology: a desire to transcend the "resistence in the material" about which the Victorian craftsman/writer William Morris speaks. Here is an excerpt:

Our culture has a large appetite for art that evades the risks of craftsmanship. We hunger for art that allows us the false comfort of a space beyond discernment, beyond a reality of competing interpretations. Such dreams manifest themselves as kitsch.(1) With kitsch, all answers are given in advance of any questions. As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera famously put it, kitsch is characterized by “an inability to admit that shit exists.”(2) It is that sentimental fiction in which art allows us to forget and do away with our bodies.

Theology holds a special interest in the material world. We believe it to be given and entered into by God. For this reason, Christians must recognize that our taste for kitsch runs parallel to a belief in the disposability of materials. If we believe that God creates out of nothing, then we must understand the idea of waste, of kitsch, as a human perversion of creation. Even the vast amount of religious kitsch we take for granted is a symptom of contemporary Christianity’s tendency towards Gnosticism.

Andres Serrano’s much-debated 1987 photograph, “Piss Christ” (the image of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine), provoked outrage from Christians of all stripes, not least because Serrano had been granted funding for his artwork by the American government. Nothing about this image of Christ on the cross appears wrong or upsetting. It is only when we hear the title that we become uncomfortable. That this piece of religious kitsch from a gift shop could provoke such hostile reactions means that, whether he knew it or not, Serrano was making a profound theological claim. We tend to turn religious symbols into kitsch. The problem with our reaction is not that we are offended; rather, our error is that we are not offended enough, and our offense is not directed at the right target. There is indeed something monstrous and fundamentally horrible about Christ’s death; something that conservatives evade and liberals idealize. In the crucifixion we begin to see that “this monster is of our own making,” for to look at ourselves in Christ’s suffering and live “is to confess that the power by which we have brought the world to such a sorry pass . . . is but the reflex of frailty.”(3) Serrano’s work rescues the scandal of Christ’s humanity from a culture that prefers to keep religion separate from the threat of everyday life.

1 Thomas Kinkade, whose website boasts him to be “the most collected artist in America” is an easy target. Yet Kinkade’s work is a fine example of kitsch as sheer craft: the product of an artist who has transcended the “resistance in the material” and become a master of bucolic scenery: commodifiable images of cottages with glowing windows sterile gardens.

2 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 236.

3 Terry Eagleton, “Tragedy and Revolution.” Theology and the Political: The New Debate. Eds. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 16.

June 15, 2010

so long, stylus meetings

This evening I attended my last Stylus contributor meeting: the first in a long series of "lasts" for me here in Winnipeg. Because of this special occasion, I went for a second pint of Little Scrapper and the meeting just seemed to ease right along. Although there's one more issue in which my writing will appear, it already feels like the end. No more nachos, no more awkward introductions and no more nerdy music references (that I can get away with). Furthermore, how am I supposed to feed my addiction to physical media without a constant influx of promotional cds!?

My reviews from the last issue:

Happy Birthday - Happy Birthday (Sub Pop)
Snotty, lo-fi rock and roll styled after the British invasion of the ’60s may not seem as refreshing as it did a decade ago, and with bands like Girls currently enjoying massive success, the self-titled debut from Vermont’s Happy Birthday is unlikely to evoke many strong reactions from critics. It’s really too bad, because Happy Birthday have made one hell of a summer record. . . . (read more)

Eluvium - Similies
(Temporary Residence)
It’s always a risky move when an ambient artist transitions from experimental soundscapes to the more familiar territories of pop music. Eluvium is the moniker of Matthew Cooper, whose work is influenced by neoclassical musicians like Erik Satie and Philip Glass, and, more recently, takes its cue from Brian Eno’s work in the mid-’70s. . . . (read more)

Nice Nice - Extra Wow (Warp)
Nice Nice, an experimental duo from Portland, Ore., know how to have fun. On their third full-length (and their first for Warp), Nice Nice try to capture the energy of their bombastic live performances, and believe it or not, they actually pull it off. . . . (read more)

Kaki King - Junior
With such a personal arsenal of talent, Kaki King should succeed. But Junior, her sixth album, is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not terrible, but she’s capable of a better, more focused collection. . . . (read more)

June 14, 2010

Here are two new tracks from Arcade Fire's upcoming record, The Suburbs. If you were disappointed by the title track, these songs should help you regain your optimism. Let the wild rumpus start!

"Ready to Start"
RTS by a435927

"We Used to Wait"
Used by a437915

June 9, 2010

"The Dreadful Work of Justice": Some Thoughts on the Inferno

I'm lucky enough to be part of a reading group that's planned to read each volume of Dante's Divine Comedy over the summer months. Having just finished the Inferno, I can say that, daunting as it may be, I'm really enjoying the reading process.

Some key questions that have arisen for me while reading are these: How are the characters with whom Dante converses narrating themselves (i.e. are they trustworthy, are they contemptuous, etc.)? Furthermore, what is the relationship between Reason (Virgil not only represents the poetic tradition, but also stands in as an allegorical representation of Reason, which in itself is not sufficient for salvation) and Emotion (namely, pity or sympathy, which we as readers continuously encounter in Dante's reactions to the inhabitants of hell)?

What's important to remember as we explore this tension is that, although humanist interpretations have prized Dante's sympathetic response to the stories of those he meets, Virgil continuously reminds Dante that his pity is essentially a symptom of pride (at least, while in hell): "Who is more impious than one who thinks that God shows passion in His judgement?" (XX.29-30). Piety and pity both come from the same Italian root: "pieta." This makes things a bit tricky at times, but in this case it's quite clear that Virgil recognizes that such pity challenges God's authority. Another important point of clarification: if God were to show "passion in His judgment" it would mean that his judgment could be second-guessed - that it was subject to a whim. We also need to remember that "Virgil is not the Roman poet so much as he is human reason unenlightened by faith; when he acts or speaks in the poem he does so without the historical context supplied by his life and works" (Robert Hollander's "Introduction," xxix). In other words, as a pagan poet, Virgil can only take Dante so far. Reason names the limit of Virgil's sensitivity. He is interested in justice and has little to say about compassion or forgiveness (though, he does admit to feeling pity himself when he observes the friends of his that are stuck in Limbo).

Unsurprisingly, I've found John Milton's Paradise Lost an interesting point of comparison. Unlike his heroic representation in Paradise Lost (and unlike most of the characters we meet in Hell), Dante's Satan isn't given any dialogue, for it appears he's too preoccupied chewing on traitors. Also surprising is that Dante's Satan isn't associated with fire but with ice: "The emperor of the woeful kingdom / rose from the ice below his breast" (XXXIV.28-9); the three winds produced by the flapping of his wings are "the sources of ice upon Cocytus" (XXXIV.52). To finally escape Hell, Virgil and Dante must climb "down the thick pelt and crusted ice" of Satan's "hairy flanks" (XXXIV.73-75).

I've also found Menomena's new album, upon which I've been expounding in my last couple posts, the perfect music for navigating hell (in particular, the track "Killemall," which inspired my choice of image for post below).

June 7, 2010

Menomena's MINES (part 2): a track by track review

If you're confused by this post, click here to read my initial review of Menomena's new album Mines, set to be released July 27 on Barsuk Records. Below is an attempt to evaluate/describe each track on the album. I take for granted that I'm only scratching the surface.

Queen Black Acid - Although I'm still unsure what to make of the title, my appreciation for this song has grown significantly since first hearing it. It sets things up quite well, but the allusions to Alice in Wonderland are a bit lame. The minimal instrumentation of the first minute and thirty seconds really prepares you for the spaciousness of the chorus, thanks in part to that tremendous baritone saxophone. Down the rabbit hole I go.

TAOS - During this song I keep anticipating the massive drum fill and in that sense it's the biggest tease on the album: so much anticipation. But somehow "TAOS" delivers, if only for a few fleeting moments. Those sax fills could be samples taken from an early 90s sitcom. It's probably the best rock song on the album, the most out of control guitar is harnessed, nicely mirroring the interior/exterior struggle of our socially inept protagonist: "Underneath this fleshy robe lies a beast with no control. O my God bring me peace from this wolf clothed in sheep fleece. O my God set me free for I have no ability to cut my leash and walk away."

Killemall - From the title you might think this was a shout out to Metallica and maybe it is, but this song is far more subdued than I first expected. The verses are wonderfully sinister. It sounds like burning arrows flying through the air. It's about the devil, it's the harrowing of hell! But wait! The chorus is the most happy-go-lucky thing I've ever heard from Menomena. What am supposed to do with this?

Dirty Cartoons - A standout, ripping good song that ends with a very impotent, churchy version of the chorus, which nearly seems to undo the awesome darkness of the chorus' initial rendition. Like I've said before, Menomena are masters of context. As with other songs of theirs, "Dirty Cartoons" demonstrates that mood and tone are contingent upon a variety of contextual ingredients; in other words, the meaning of a song can shift with the flick of a switch or the removal one instrument from the mix.

Tithe - The xylophone beginning is a bit disheartening, but the eerie chords of a grand piano sound like they're echoing through a hollow church building. Here, Menomena actually goes for a devotional melody, but the lyrics are an ironic step back ("nothing sounds appealing") - could this be a bit of self-deprication? The song is full of dystopic imagery. The rapture comes and goes. Ho hum.

BOTE - Very reminiscent of TV on the Radio; and sounds like a musical companion to "The Pelican," with that baritone sax groove. It eventually shifts into a very catchy verse that's full of nautical ("BOTE"?) imagery and some gospel harmonies. The solo almost sounds like it could have been lifted from U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky." This song manages to sustain the feeling that all hell is about to break loose: "Oh sea legs please don't fail me now."

Lunchmeat - At first I thought this was bit underwhelming, but when the bass hook kicks in (with the long overdue drumline), I must admit I'm totally slayed by this song. There's a strange interlude about halfway through (with a mandolin?), right before the big hook is finally delivered. And again, I'm at Menomena's mercy.

Oh Pretty Boy, You're Such a Big Boy - This strangely concocted song has a fantastic groove: the ascending bassline that switches back and forth from sax to piano is ridiculously catchy. I'm also not sure what to make of the title, but the usual themes are present here: "All your love is not enough to fill my half-empy cup." No shortage of religious imagery here!

Five Little Rooms - The lead single is typically cryptic and rollicking. And it sounds massive. After painting an eerie picture of modern suburban life, we get the line "All this could be yours some day" sung repeatedly. Should we be grateful or pissed off? I love the bombast of the drums two and a half minutes in. For a much more insightful take on the song, check out cokemachineglow's track review (they're also streaming the song!).

Sleeping Beauty - I think I love this song, but I feel somewhat guilty for it. It may be one of the hokiest tracks on the album, but Menomena manage to make it interesting and compelling. The sing-along portion at the end goes for the triumphant rock anthem finale. I'm only slightly embarrassed.

INTIL - This closing track seems very much akin to what you'd find at the end of a Radiohead album. The plodding piano chords, the deadly slow tempo, the drawn out distancing of our singer from the last 40 minutes of music. It's almost like an apology for the audacity of such an adrenaline-filled album (INTIL is an acronym for the line "I never thought I'd lie - still haven't figured out the other acronyms - BOTE, TAOS - any help?): "I admit sometimes I say too much." A satisfying way to end.

June 2, 2010

Secular Parables: An Early Review of Menomena's MINES (part 1)

Click here for a track-by-track review of Mines.

Menomena's third (technically fourth) album, Mines, is probably my most anticipated album of the year. It leaked last Thursday and I've set myself the task of reviewing it long before any official sentiment spreads. The band hails from Portland, Oregon and have been a fixture on my blog since I first heard Friend and Foe back in 2007. I loved that record.

A few general things we can say about the album as a whole. The drumming is absolutely bombastic and continues to be one of Menomena's greatest strengths; the lyrics are never straightforward or dull; each song is unapologetically grand, even with the simplest musical ingredients. All the songs on Mines are potentially explosive, even volatile; and it can make for an album that's difficult to navigate. The first time listening through, I simply didn't know how to maneuver through some of these tracks. And I'm still guessing.

Menomena records are always constructed very deliberately. With song composition, its become their trademark to treat each instrument as an ingredient appears and disappears from the mix continuously. Rarely do we get everything all at once; and, indeed, that's one reason I find Menomena so engaging. They know how to show restraint and they use it to their advantage. That said, each musical ingredient is recognizable and quite distinct. Rarely do the piano, the baritone saxophone, the drums, or the guitar and vocals get lost in the mix. What we're left with is a collection of songs that never settle down. This is more or less how Friend and Foe functioned; Mines only ups the ante.

During our first listen, my friends and I came up with a theory that this album constituted by parodies of alternative rock cliches from the 90s; it unfolds like some epic battle between artistic ingenuity and the most sentimental rock music. Another theory that quickly developed among the group was that this was essentially the best (and perhaps the most self-conscious) "praise and worship" album ever recorded. As with Friend and Foe, it's heavy on religious imagery, but Mines doesn't skimp on the sort of "inspiring" melodies common to most "praise and worship" songs. It's also got moments of gospel-style delivery and more than once employs the sort of transcendent chorus that bands like U2 are know for. Menomena effectively deconstruct all of this. The songs on Mines are, at times goofy and irreverent, but Menomena never flinches. I won't be surprised if this album doesn't get a very positive reception, but one thing is certain: this is music only Menomena could make; and it is surely an impressive feat. In fact may be the strangest (and most intriguing) rock album of the year.

June 1, 2010

queer theology

Same-sex relationships are often rejected based on their biological inability to produce children and their departure from the so-called “healthy” heterosexual family. But, in fact, the Christian church has no long-term interest in the nuclear family. As Gerard Loughlin suggests in Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology, the starting point for the church is not the procreating heterosexual couple, but "the theological space of Christ’s ever extending kin, the family of Christ’s friends.”

Furthermore, Loughlin writes, “the church is right to insist on sexual difference, and to mark, enhance and celebrate this difference, while resisting those tendencies in modernity which would deny sexual difference in the name of neuter or egalitarian sex, which is always finally a male sex." A Christian understanding of difference does not reduce identity to immanent markers like gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Counter to the logic of the market, our desires cannot be fulfilled through practices of consumption and domination; nor can we find fulfillment in biological reproduction and familial life. These points of fulfillment express a modern attempt to essentialize subjectivity and fix human desire.

Recently, Loughlin edited a collection of essays entitled Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. In his introduction, he writes:
". . . even when theology was culturally dominant it was strange, for it sought the strange; it sought to know the unknowable in Christ, the mystery it was called to seek through following Jesus. And of course it has always been in danger of losing this strangeness by pretending that it has comprehended the mystery, that it can name that which is beyond all names. Indeed — and despite its own best schooling — it has often succumbed to this danger, which it names 'idolatry.'"
". . . queer theology is also queer because it finds — like queer theory — that gay sexuality is not marginal to Christian thought and culture, but oddly central. It finds it to be the dis­avowed but necessary condition for the Christian symbolic; and not simply as that which is rejected in order to sustain its opposite, but upfront on the surface of that opposite, playing in the movement of stories and images that constitutes the Christian imaginary. The most orthodox turns out to be the queerest of all. Moreover, queer theology — like queer theory — reprises the tradition of the church in order to discover the queer interests that were always already at play in the Spirit's movement, in the lives and devotions of saints and sinners, theologians and ecclesiastics. What could be queerer than the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, St John of the Cross or Hans Urs von Balthasar?"