July 21, 2014

Long Conversation: Joy

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked to describe a recent experience of exultant joy. Here's what I wrote.

A recent experience of exultant joy? The event that first comes to mind happened on a bike, which isn’t very surprising. I’ve found that riding my bike at every possible opportunity is the closest I can come to something like a joyful disposition. Even my daily commute feels worthwhile. This particular case of joy, however, was made exultant because of the way I was riding: communally, stripped down to my underwear, late at night.

That night I was with a group of friends who were celebrating the departure of a companion who had just finished med-school and was leaving to begin his residency in Winnipeg. Easily the wildest person I know, he’s gained a reputation for stirring up shit at bars and getting my friends into fights or injured on the bike ride home. He’s a bit of liability, in other words. Then again, he’s usually able to tell whether or not someone needs stitches. The kind of guy you feel weirdly safe around, despite his track record.

After drinking around a fire for several hours, we decided it was time for cycling (a pretty typical way to conclude a night of drinking among this group of friends). We have a standard route that takes us through Edmonton’s river valley, across the river, and onto an open dock, where we close out the night. On this occasion, it was settled that we needed to do something to make the evening a bit more memorable. Our course of action was to disrobe and ride our bikes in our undies. I’m not sure what prevented us from getting naked, but I probably wasn’t the only one who was relieved to have some (mild) protection from my bike seat.

I should probably mention at this point that it was only the men who stripped down. It’s a pretty homo-erotic, testosterone-driven group, and as you’d expect our collective exhibition that was part of the thrill. At times this group has made me feel like I’m on a varsity sports team, which is, in my experience, an ambivalent feeling, at once familiar and disconcerting. But I digress.

We began our slow descent into the river valley and were getting plenty of looks and a few honks. Together with the booze, the social adrenaline was enough to keep energy levels high. We turned down a large decline called “Connor’s Hill.” It takes about 30 seconds to reach the bottom and there’s a crucial turn-off just before the slope flattens out. It’s a terrifying hill to ride down at the best of times and I’m usually pretty cautious.

There’s no climax in this narrative. We rode down the hill as we’ve done countless times before. It was a clear night. Stars visible. City lights shining across the river. I usually dread going down that hill because I’m sure that, at some point, someone’s going to take a spill. I don’t even have rear brakes, so I’m basically dead if I have to make sudden stop. The rest of the boys ride fixies, and I don’t envy them. We made it safely down the hill, went to our next drinking spot and stood around half-naked for a while, basking in the reflective glow of pale skin in the moonlight. And then we got dressed and our bike ride continued.

My joy in the 30 seconds it took to reach the base of Connor’s Hill came from a combination of the view, the warm, summer night air, and the vulnerability we all felt, speeding down a long hill, slightly under the influence. But most of all it was the way the air hit my skin, the way my whole body felt alive and lifted up. Exultant.

July 7, 2014

Chad VanGaalen - "Weighed Sin"

One of my all-time favourite humans, Chad VanGaalen, released Shrink Dust, his fifth full length, at the end of April and I'm ashamed to admit that I've only just begun to really appreciate it. I may have been distracted by all his other endeavours: his work with Viet Cong, his new Instagram account, and Zooosh, his comic series for Chart Attack. Every couple of years, VanGaalen pulls back the curtain and let's us take a look at all the weird stuff he's getting up to. Most of the time, I just sit back in awe.

Shrink Dust is less punchy than some of VanGaalen's previous releases but it moves slow and steady through the same kind of sophisticated songwriting that touches the best tracks of his catalogue. Along with its alt-country vibes, the songs on Shrink Dust have a natural flow about them: a clear contrast to the disjointedness that, for better or worse, has defined VanGaalen's previous full lengths.

Perhaps because of their intended use in an unfinished film project, the songs on Shrink Dust consistently tickle the imagination with bizarre imagery and shifting first-person perspectives. If it weren't for the disturbing confessions of its grotesque, pitiable character, "Monster" might as well be a campfire sing-along for kids. The stoner jam "All Will Combine" shifts between eerie verses and the spacey, organ-fuelled sounds of its celebratory chorus. Other beauties like "Lila," "Hangman's Son" and "Weighed Sin" (see the video above) follow in the tradition of songs like "Molten Light" (from Soft Airplane) and "Sarah" (from Diaper Island), blending VanGaalen's creepy brand of melancholy into the kind of earnest folk ballads that tug on your heartstrings and don't let go.