June 27, 2011

Sled Island recap

I've spent the last five days in Calgary listening to live music, complaining about scenesters, and staying up well past my bedtime. The Sled Island music and arts festival boasts over 200 artists hosted by twenty-odd venues scattered throughout downtown Calgary.

As with most large-scale festivals, scheduling conflicts are inevitable, so you've got to choose your venues carefully. I was sad to miss the lo-fi prestige of Thee Oh Sees and Times New Viking, as well as Kurt Vile's nostagia trip through the sixties, and pretty devastated to miss an unadvertised performance by Purity Ring (a little-known group from Edmonton that has only released two songs, each of which are among my favourite tracks of the year).

For every amazing performance there was a band that turned my stomach. For me, the worst of these were Crocodiles (a band I was excited to see) and the Dandy Warhols (a band I stopped caring about ages ago). The same level of self-aware coolness was common to both. Perhaps I saw Crocodiles at the wrong point in the evening, but for a group of musicians so wholly infatuated with themselves, I expected some musical inventiveness or some acknowledgment of the crowd that was lapping up their lacklustre homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain. Pretense is a given at festivals like this, but intoxicated crowds aren't going to let you off the hook for merely producing cool-sounding drivel (then again, I can't see how else anyone can enjoy the Dandy Warhols). 

On a different note, here's a sampling of some of the outstanding artists I got to see perform.

Blonde Redhead were hit and miss. I consider myself a relatively devoted fan, but I can't say I was totally impressed with their show. It was clear from the start that they were seasoned professionals with loads of talent, but their setlist kept losing momentum. Their old material shone but their most recent songs, especially from the unsuccessful Penny Sparkle didn't translate well into a live setting. 

Wild Flag were one of the festival's most pleasant surprises. Despite being comprised of legendary rock 'n roll babes from the nineties (members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders), they played every show like it was their first: unlike dismally trendy hipster acts (Crocodiles, for instance), the girls in Wild Flag had no sense of entitlement. Every song was a struggle to win over the audience.
"Glass Tambourine"

I wasn't sure what to expect with Twin Shadow, but they managed to transform the disco stylings of their studio album into successful arena rock.
"Castles in the Snow"

Parts & Labor, another great band I came into the festival knowing very little about, put on a noisy, high energy show that I had to cut short. Three songs in, I could see they were just getting started and I was sad to go. Scheduling, dammit!
"Fractured Skies"

Chad Vangaalen, as always, did not disappoint. He seemed characteristically awkward and uncomfortable on stage, which I wasn't expecting since he was playing for a hometown audience. Then again, it's that social anxiety that makes his stage banter so entertaining. His set was made up mostly of new material from the reverb-heavy Diaper Island, and I think the songs actually grew on me as I saw them being performed.
"Freedom for a Policeman"

Of Montreal were as advertised. Kevin Barnes doesn't have the class of David Bowie, but he's probably the closest thing our generation has to the thin white duke. I was thankful for a strong showing of material from Hissing Fauna, are you the Destroyer?, which I still consider their best to date. There were about half a dozen extras on stage during a given song, each one dressed like a flamboyant Mexican wrestler; and they provided the crowd with balloons, streamers, and all the libido they could handle.
"Coquet Coquette"

Bob Mould on church going

I was recently sent this excerpt from Bob Mould's newly released autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. For those unfamiliar with Mould's significance, he's considered one of America's post-punk greats--the abrasive, absolutely relentless frontman of Hüsker Dü: a band that brought hardcore punk music into a head-on collision with arena-sized ambition and pop melody. Although I'm not very familiar with Mould's solo work, Zen Arcade (1984) and New Day Rising (1985) are among my favourite albums to blast when my mood is particularly volatile. In his memoir, Mould shares about his battles with substance abuse, coming to terms with his homosexuality, his ambivalent Catholicism, and his ongoing music career. Here's Mould on a recent church going experience:
It was a late-afternoon Mass on Saturday, and St. Matthew’s is one of the biggest Catholic churches in DC. . . . I walked in, went up the stairs, dipped my hand into the water, and motioned the sign of the cross. We went in, found Steve’s usual pew, knelt in the aisle before entering, and I again crossed myself. We lowered the altar bench, and for the first time in thirty years, I knelt in front of God. I hadn’t been to church since confirmation.

Down the aisle comes Father Caulfield, thirty-something, handsome, tall, inspirational—the kind of person who believes so hard that, when he looked up to the top of the cathedral, I feared he would shoot right through the roof. He’s that close to God, speaking in measured words, and we people begin singing again.

The routine comes back to me, the whole drill; it didn’t change one bit. It’s not like they start with the sermon and then put a Sun Ra song in the middle—everything stays exactly the same. The set list doesn’t change. I’m up, I’m down, I’m kneeling, I’m standing, I’m singing, I’m praying. The service lasted an hour.

Mass was a levelling and humbling experience that gave me a different perspective on life. There was music, there was readings, there was community. There was the moment in the service when you greet your neighbour, someone you’ve probably never seen before in your life and may never see again outside of the church. Everyone is united around one thing—the religious experience. It brings many different kinds of people together into one room, which is the opposite of living in the gay ghetto.

I realized I was going to be a ‘cafeteria Catholic,’ picking and choosing the parts that worked for me. Instead of rebelling against or wholesale dismissing the Church, I tried to find the goodness in what the Church had to offer. And I tried to find a point of compassion in the experience that I could build from. (348-350)
Bob Mould, with Michael Azerrad. See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. New York: Little, Brown, 2011.

June 22, 2011

New Music: Bon Iver

Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) has just released his self-titled follow-up to 2007's For Emma, Forever Ago, an album I never really got into. I streamed the new album last week and was struck by its dense orchestration and carefully crafted soundscapes. Now that it's officially out, Bon Iver (which probably has more in common with the style of Vernon's side project, Volcano Choir) is garnering rave reviews across the board: it's lush, layered, and, like Bon Iver's celebrated debut, seems to capture Vernon at his most intimate and vulnerable. It also features some beautiful album art (above).

Below you'll find Vernon in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert and a performance of the album's lead single, "Calgary." The guy is incredibly likable, and I'm expecting to see Bon Iver near the top of virtually every critic's list come December. It may sound a little too close to Coldplay at first, but don't let his Chris Martin-esque falsetto fool you: this isn't mere sentimental schmaltz. It's friggin' gorgeous.

bi on tcr by yardie4lifever2

June 21, 2011

The Lighter Side: Tina Fey's Bossypants and Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love

I wouldn't still be in academia if I didn't find some pleasure in it, but during the school semester there's usually something else at stake beyond personal enjoyment. Summer is a bit different. I've finally had the chance to get through two books I've been dying to read. The first, Tina Fey's new "memoir" Bossypants, is pretty much what you'd expect from the former Saturday Night Live writer (and 30 Rock star/writer/creator/etc.). In other words, it's full of smart, funny, sarcastic, and occasionally sentimental stories/observations from her experiences as a suburban improv nerd, Second City starlet, SNL writer, and reluctant Sarah Palin impersonator. The cover image gets the tone of the book just right: Fey is full of self-deprecation, and rarely makes a joke without including herself as the punchline; but she's equally eager to take up the feminist mantle, especially when it comes to equality in the workplace. Even though it's crammed with humour, Bossypants has a semi-serious subtheme: it's not a man's world anymore (well, in a lot of cases it still is, but Fey and her SNL buddy, Amy Poehler, aren't gonna let that dictate the terms of their comedy).

Second, and even more enjoyable: Carl Wilson's 2007 book for the 33 1/3 series, devoted to the 1997 album by Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. I've known about this book for a while and have had friends/roommates read it right in front of me. Why couldn't I take the hint and read it back then? I probably could have saved my self some embarrassment.

It's a strange little book, even within the context of Continuum's series on seminal or classic albums. Every other book in the series finds its writer enamoured with its subject, but Wilson chooses to write on the music critics favourite scapegoat, Celine Dion. Wilson took on this project because he's curious about her global popularity and because he wants to understand his own deep-seated bias toward her music. Some of the content is confessional (like myself, Wilson grew up listening to alternative rock music and made a constant effort distance himself from the "shmaltz" of contemporary pop), but the book seamlessly weaves together interviews with fans; cultural, economic, political and sociological analysis (including the Francophone tumult that gave rise to Celine Dion's career, the way this tension appears throughout her albums and career, and the apex of her popularity at the Oscars in 1997) ; as well as several brief accounts of aesthetic theory, from Kant's theory of "disinterestedness" to Pierre Bourdieu's sociological analysis of "cultural capital." The largest success of Wilson's book, in my reading, is in forcing me to locate my own cultural biases, and see the ways my taste for or appreciation of more "difficult" music is often more shallow than the mainstream offerings of ubiquitous artists like Celine Dion.

The "lesson" is well-represented in the dialectical pairing of Dion with another artist who performed at the 1997 Oscars. As Wilson recounts in an interview, "Elliott Smith serves as Celine Dion's foil in the early part of the book, partly because they met upon the field of not-much-honor at the Oscars in 1998 and Dion roundly trounced my own little indie-songwriting hero. . . . The irony is that when Dion and Smith met at the Oscars, she was so unexpectedly sweet to him that he ended up defending her to friends who criticized her, for the rest of his all-too-brief, burnt life."

Another related success of the book, for me anyway, is that it points out the hypocrisy of most anti-sentimentalist positions. Wilson is talking about music (we antisentimentalists are often prone to celebrating Noise/Industrial music, as well as the authentic sounds of lo-fi indie rock), but I think he also meant it to apply more broadly, to other cultural experiences. Especially in the more serious realms of literature and critical theory, sentiment (often characterized as the flip-side of cold rationalism) is often the scapegoat. Such critical posturing shows how much our culture still celebrates the strong and the stoic without questioning its presuppositions. Hating Celine Dion isn't just an aesthetic choice, it also has ethical implications: it's a way of elevating oneself above her fans, who tend to be poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores. Celine Dion's music, writes Wilson, "deals with problems that don’t require leaps of imagination but require other efforts, like patience, or compromise”; although it is “lousy music to make aesthetic judgments to,” it “might be excellent for having a first kiss, or burying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.” And he ends the book with a Celine-inspired plea for “democratic” criticism: “not a limp open-mindedness” but a refusal to let ourselves (and our own "conspicuous consumption") off the hook and pigeon-hole others. Celine, he says, “stinks of democracy,” and his effort to understand her has taught him to “relish the plenitude of tastes, to admire a well-put-together taste set that’s alien to our own.”

June 7, 2011

Beirut revisited

Today it was announced that indie pop darlings Beirut (the Eastern-European-gypsy styled project of New Mexico native Zach Condon) will have a new LP on store shelves this August. Beirut emerged in the latter half of the 00s, as I was beginning my first degree; so I have a special attachment to Condon's work--one that I'd forgotten about until today. It's always struck me as rather odd that Beirut could emerge from the annals of indie pop and find such favour among kids who've been conditioned by punchy guitars, new wave synths and driving disco beats. Perhaps what makes Beirut's deeply anachronistic sound so refreshing is the fact that it's defiantly not a trendy revival of, say, eighties synth-pop or sixties psych-rock--instead, we hear a style of music that our generation never had a chance to forget.

One of the remarkable things about Beirut is how little things change from album to album; and how wonderfully simple Condon's songwriting remains throughout his discography. This isn't mere nostalgia: every one of Beirut's releases is irreducibly romantic, sure, but such romance is deeply self-aware. Even Condon's most recent pair of EPs, which are decidedly less straightforward than anything he's ever done (one of them flirts with electronica), hold the clues of a past that we never knew.

I suppose what I'm trying to get across is that describing the music of Beirut as nostalgic, anachronistic, or even romantic (as nearly all music critics do), seems to miss something. I prefer to think of Beirut's music as a utopian form of art, not unrelated to the way in which Victorians like William Morris reproduced medieval legends (or alternate histories) in a context of rapid industrialization and the ongoing erosion of social distinctions. Of course, Condon's music doesn't really lend itself to any real kind of social unification; personally, I find it makes me mopey and introspective, and I imagine that it provokes similar emotions in other listeners. But the utopian impulse is there all the same, and I can't help thinking that Beirut's "no place" of the past supplements my generation's collective hunger for a better history.

On his forthcoming album, The Rip Tide, Condon returns again to the whimsical folk music and the Balkan sound that initially inspired him. Take a listen to the album's debut single "East Harlem."

Beirut - East Harlem by Revolver USA

Panda Bear - "Slow Motion" + Interview

June 2, 2011


Images of the spray booth I helped build a couple weeks back. This sleek, modern design has been brought to you by Global Finishing Solutions Inc., a massive corporation that's only half as scary as its name suggests. No doubt the Winkler labourers will feel inspired when they roll in to work.