December 28, 2015

What I listened to in 2015

At this point in the year, it seems redundant, even annoying, to again tout Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as the most important, if not the best, album of 2015. Anyone who follows the lists that accumulate around this time of year knows such designations mean very little. But perhaps this year is different. TPAB's surprise release in March was an event: that day I found myself glued to my Twitter feed, watching critics and others post their first reactions as we collectively experienced Lamar’s new album for the first time. Then came the think pieces: from celebrations of its artistry and explanations for its overwhelming amount of allusions and cultural references, to discussions of how the album links up with different social justice movements and how it may fall short. Along with provoking all this, Lamar's album performed the important work of disrupting familiar channels of white privilege in what felt like the most ambitious way possible.

On To Pimp a Butterfly Lamar isn't interested in preserving a safe space for listeners who choose to remain ignorant of what his album celebrates and what it condemns. For this reason, it remains a challenging, complex listen, from start to finish. To echo an old truism from one of my undergraduate theology classes: when we read scripture we don't simply interpret the text that sits in front of us; that same text also reads us. It's no coincidence that this point applies to TPAB in much the same way it applies to sacred texts. These works question the stability of our reading even as we question the reliability of their account. For listeners like myself, who haven't always known how to appreciate the music of nonwhite cultures (instead spending my youth in the comfortable recesses of indie rock) and whose fandom can very easily slide into appropriation, TPAB’s inaccessibility arrives like a revelation. Established voices will wax poetic about how Lamar's music is a testament to our times, that it represents the turmoil and trauma of what it means to live under white supremacy, as so many great rap albums have done and will continue to do time and again. But what makes TPAB so great is that, in addition to documenting and complicating our representations, it has little patience for its white audience. As kris ex writes,
[Lamar] took all of the acclaim he had received as a critical darling from his major label debut—the rightfully extolled good kid, m.A.A.d city—and doubled down on his Blackness, not for the entertainment of white people, but in near-total disregard for their experience of his conversation. He was Miles Davis playing with his back to the crowd, and in that sense, it's a miracle that this record has found the audiences that it has found.
For those of us who simply want to enjoy music on our own terms TPAB doesn't offer much. Rather, as it moves through what Lamar calls "survivor's guilt" and knits together the fragments of poetic monologue about Lucy (the temptation towards success, fame, or a flight from reality, aka the devil), TPAB confronts its listeners with wave after wave of radical truths, born out of Lamar’s own personal struggle to stay grounded and remain accountable to his community: a story that began on 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.

I was late to the party. I first heard “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools” the way a lot of people did: on the radio, in a social setting, wherever a catchy hook and ubiquitous chorus seemed appropriate. Like so many other casual listeners, I initially wrote off “Swimming Pools” as an ode to youthful debauchery when it was in fact a sharp indictment of substance abuse. It took me longer than most to finally listen to good kid, m.A.A.d city in its entirety, but it soon became clear why the album had been met with such wide acclaim. To hear “Swimming Pools” in its proper context is to Lamar’s this anecdote about drinking as part of a personal narrative, a grim precursor to the heartbreaking epic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” To hear it any other way is to miss something crucial to its message. The word “context” appears repeatedly on To Pimp a Butterfly, and if that’s not meant to be instructive, I don’t know what is.

Many of the songs on To Pimp a Butterfly are made to stand on their own, but as with most Lamar’s output, they’re richer in context. Even his first single from the album, the controversially sunny “i,” is granted a second life: refashioned as a live performance that extends into a impassioned plea from Lamar to a restless audience. But among TPAB’s many incredible moments and transitions, the sequence of "Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and "The Blacker the Berry,” strikes me as the most brutal, the most honest and disruptive pairing on the album. Over a delayed beat and bassline, the former track finds Lamar negotiating with his ideals of universal human worth, where “complexion don’t mean a thing.” The song slowly builds into celebration of black diversity that culminates in Rapsody’s beautiful final verse. As the track ends, we hear Lamar’s voice reemerge: “Barefoot babies with no cares / Teenage gun toters that don’t play fair, should I get out the car? / I don’t see Compton, I see something much worse / The land of the landmines, the hell that’s on earth.” Then comes “The Blacker the Berry,”  Lamar’s unflinching survey of that grim reality: a struggle that not only encompasses the ongoing legacy of racism, but of gang violence, trauma, and a “generational hatred” in which Lamar finds himself complicit. As he emphasized back in April, this song is as personal as it is political. “When I say these it’s for myself, it’s therapeutic for myself, because I still feel that urge and I still feel that anger and that hatred for this man next door.” To Pimp a Butterfly tears down the distance between artist and audience, but it has no time for listeners who aren’t willing to meet it on its own terms.

Other albums from 2015 found their creators grappling with similar kinds of distance, but rarely was it dismantled so effectively or delivered with such urgency. These albums held my attention for other reasons. Apart from To Pimp a Butterfly, no album felt as intimate and attentive as Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell; no album was as electric and unabashed as Grimes’ Art Angels; and no album made nostalgic self-loathing so attractive as Tame Impala’s Currents

At the local level, one of my favourite Edmonton artists, Jessica Jalbert, joined forces with Renny Wilson (another former Edmonton stalwart) to make Faith Healer. Their album Cosmic Troubles surpassed my already high expectations with a heady blend of VU-inspired ballads and stoner lullabies. My most memorable concert experience was provided by Regina’s Andy Shauf, who drew a sold out crowd to one of Edmonton’s most remote venues and held us all in quiet reverence for the entirety of his set. As I prepared to leave Edmonton, Vancouver’s Weed released the aptly titled Running Back, which provided just the right soundtrack for my journey back to Winnipeg.

It was a year of transition for me, as I spent significant amounts of time living in four different cities, stumbling my way through new social arrangements while attempting to figure out my next steps. As always, I’ve found comfort and energy in the discovery of new music. These annual lists are a chance for me to take stock of the year; but more than that, they illustrate how all the music I’ve listened to this year has had a key part in shaping it. This music is an inextricable part of 2015, not only because of how it challenged and inspired me, but because it often reflected what mattered most.

10 favourite songs from the past year
  1. Beach House – Sparks
  2. Jenny Hval – That Battle is Over
  3. Braids – Taste
  4. Thundercat – Them Changes
  5. Empress Of – How Do You Do It
  6. Weed – Stay in the Summer
  7. Tame Impala – The Less I Know the Better
  8. Vince Staples – Norf Norf
  9. Grimes – Realiti
  10. Bjork – Stonemilker
And a full list of my favourite albums from 2015
  1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  2. Grimes – Art Angels
  3. Faith Healer – Cosmic Troubles
  4. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
  5. Tame Impala – Currents
  6. Andy Shauf – The Bearer of Bad News
  7. Empress Of – Me
  8. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
  9. Weed – Running Back
  10. Thundercat – The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam
  11. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
  12. Beach House – Depression Cherry
  13. Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
  14. Viet Cong – Viet Cong 
  15. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
  16. Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
  17. Joanna Newsome – Divers
  18. Bjork – Vulnicura
  19. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
  20. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl

September 1, 2015

Geoffrey Hill - September Song

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

— from New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992

July 16, 2015

Walter Benjamin's Theory of Distraction

Yesterday I was informed via Twitter that it was Walter Benjamin's birthday. And as someone who's lately needed occasions (however arbitrary) for reading, I pulled one of his books off the shelf: the third volume in a set of anthologies I've up to this point mostly ignored. (I always figured Illuminations and Reflections were sufficient surveys of Benjamin's writing.) In it, I found this fragment, a list of speculative theses and directions for thinking about the development of technology and its role in the regimes of art, perception, and politics. Not surprisingly, the anthology associates it with the composition of what is probably Benjamin's most read essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducability," and dates its writing between 1935-1936.
Theory of Distraction
Attempt to determine the effect of the work of art once its power of consecration has been eliminated
Parasitic existence of art as based on the sacred
In its concern with educational value, "The Author as Producer" disregards consumer value
It is in film that the work of art is most susceptible to becoming worn out
Fashion is an indispensable factor in the acceleration of the process of becoming worn out
The values of distraction should be defined with regard to film, just as the values of catharsis are defined with regard to tragedy
Distraction, like catharsis, should be conceived as a physiological phenomenon
Distraction and destruction as the subjective and objective sides, respectively, of one and the same process
The relation of distraction to absorption must be examined
The survival of artworks should be represented from the standpoint of their struggle for existence
Their true humanity consists in their unlimited adaptability
The criterion for judging the fruitfulness of their effect is the communicability of this effect
The educational value and the consumer value of art may converge in certain optimal cases (as in Brecht), but they don't generally coincide
The Greeks had only one form of (mechanical) reproduction: minting coins
They could not reproduce their artworks, so these had to be lasting; hence eternal art
Just as the art of the Greeks was geared toward lasting, so the art of the present is geared toward becoming worn out
This may happen in two different ways: through consignment of the artwork to fashion or through the work's refunctioning in politics
Educational value and consumer value converge, thus making possible a new kind of learning
Art comes into contact with the commodity; the commodity comes into contact with art
From Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935-38. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland et. al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

June 30, 2015

Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"

Kendrick Lamar continues his incredible streak with the new video for "Alright," one of many highlights from this year's To Pimp a Butterfly. Although I've listened to the album several dozen times, it continues to thrill and unsettle me. "Alright" appears about halfway through and features part of the heavy monologue that peppers TPAB. Throughout the album, Lamar repeatedly cites "Lucy" while discussing his fame and his experiences with depression. But this isn't simply a spiritual battle, nor should it be an individual one.

Released back in March, Lamar's album remains timely. It also remains a useful tool for thinking through intersectional issues like race and class: a guide for those of us trying to wrap our heads around what's going on across North America, where white supremacy continues to spread violence and ignorance. For more background on To Pimp a Butterfly, check out this essay by Michelle Huxtable, which remains the most thorough review I've read.

June 25, 2015

Bento's Sketchbook

The other day I picked up John Berger's short book on drawing. It's one of several titles I've collected over the past year that focus specifically on the practice of drawing, as opposed to other forms of image-making. In the field of image studies, books on photography are as plentiful as they are canonical; in contrast, drawing, or conventional illustration for that matter, rarely receives much critical attention when it comes to discussions of form and practice.

In Bento's Sketchbook Berger reflects on his own attempts to render the world around him, pairing his rough, often charming sketches with quotations from Bento (Baruch or  Benedict de Spinoza), who once kept a sketchbook and drew in it regularly. Spinoza's sketchbook, Berger admits, has never been recovered. But when the British art critic receives an unused sketchbook from a Polish printer, he finds himself imagining a spiritual union with the sixteenth-century philosopher. That union is achieved through the practice of putting pen to paper. "As time goes by," he writes, "the two of us – Bento and I – become less distinct. Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable. And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead."

In an interview for the Paris Review around the time of the book's publication in 2011, Berger describes Bento's Sketchbook as a political book, in line with the interests and urgency that have defined his writing career. 
There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with.
But the best takeaway from the interview occurs at its end, where Berger elaborates on one of the book's more intriguing sections. Midway through, Bento's Sketchbook draws on the analogy of riding a motorcycle to explain the way drawing diminishes distance between the artist and her subject. As your pen maintains the line of a contour, the artist is "riding a drawing" the way one rides a bike. "The challenge of drawing is this," Berger writes, paraphrasing Spinoza, "to make visible on the paper or drawing surface not only discrete, recognizable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance." Berger compares his experience riding a motorcycle to Spinoza's work as a lens grinder; both are about fostering different ways of seeing, different forms of mediation that navigate the gravitation pull of formlessness. When this analogy is raised in the Paris Review, Berger responds (as a cyclist myself, I prefer to substitute "bicycle" for "motorbike"):
There are really two things about riding a motorbike that help to explain my passion for it. One is that the relation between a decision and its consequences is so close. And since you are so vulnerable, it demands a quality of observation that is extremely intense. This observation is not only of what is happening but also of what may happen in the very next instant. Most bikers observe ten times more than those driving four-wheeled vehicles—their actual survival depends on it!

May 7, 2015

"That Battle is Over"

"That Battle is Over" is a song overflowing with sarcasm, a glib survey of contemporary post-feminism – a site of conflict now dominated by what Nina Power has described as the "one dimensional woman," the feminine subject of late capitalism, where the hard won freedom of past feminist struggles culminates in the freedom to buy and the imperative to safeguard one's identity against precarious material conditions. Now Power's critique has a video to match.

Hval's song parodies the route taken by a good deal of anti-(or post)feminist discourse: gender equality has been won – that battle is over – and it's now simply up to individuals to choose the life they want. It's not uncommon for that same discursive field to privilege victim blaming, to understand power/agency as a matter of individual choice. What such discourse overlooks, in other words, are the conditions under which one's choices take place, the intersectional nature of oppression and the limitations of our current moment.

What we witness in this video are not scenes of contemporary solidarity but images of antiquated retreat: morose glimpses of conventional feminine activity. Such activity has been a crucial source of support for the proliferation of the nuclear family, not to mention white suburbia. As Hval poses her first few questions ("What are we taking care of?"), we're led into a dimly lit home, a worn-out domestic space: what has been the hidden site of work for many middle class North American women. Here, the role of caregiving demands to be performed: cooking, cleaning, attending to the needs of one's children. In the midst of these archetypes, our guide simply surveys the scene. She appears to be in uniform (a figure who has ostensibly benefitted from first wave feminism) returning from the labour force to that space which was once hers to look after.

The tinted colour palette, along with a cameo from Melissa Auf der Maur, draws parallels to the aesthetics of iconic videos from the mid-90s: videos by Hole, PJ Harvey and others, which, in their own ways, pointed to feminism's unfinished business. Despite the great progress made by women's movements, misogyny and sexism remain all to familiar. The male gaze continues to structure much of our popular culture and these videos, like Hval's, draw the viewer's externality into question. The figures who populate videos like "Violet" and "Down By The Water" are aware that they are being watched; they stare back into the spotlight that exposes them, recognizing the power of spectacle, which has become theirs to subvert. Their performances are parodic, but each one also approaches something emancipatory: an awareness of the deep power that spans across generations of mothers and daughters, a power that surpasses the residues of patriarchy and outshines its spectacles.

The video's director, Zia Anger, also provides some commentary:
I guess it goes back to '96 for me, and the ‘girl power’ mantra I've been repeating since I learned it from the Spice Girls. The female experience is far from singular (and even further from this white, suburban, American-retro dream), yet around every corner there is a common pain, a wisdom of ecstasy, and an obsession with the uncanny that we all share. Collaborating with an entirely female creative team (with the support of a few great gentlemen) gave birth to an exploration of Jenny's song and an inquiry into the sarcasm that pulses through it.
Jenny Hval's Apocalypse, girl arrives this June via Sacred Bones.


February 8, 2015

Virginia Woolf - "Craftmanship" (1937)

The only known surviving recording of Virginia Woolf is part of a BBC radio broadcast from 1937, from a talk entitled “Craftsmanship.”

February 1, 2015

Andy Shauf - "I'm Not Falling Asleep"

Last night I saw Regina's Andy Shauf perform here in Edmonton. Like the rest of the crowd, I was quietly taken with him and his band. Tender, but drained of any sentimentality, Shauf's presence was commanding, a soft intensity that his band took great care to match.

Shauf's full-length debut, The Bearer of Bad News, arrives February 3, via Tender Loving Empire / Party Damage. The video below features footage from 1920s Saskatchewan Agricultural Archives.

January 23, 2015

Viet Cong - "Silhouettes"

It's been a ridiculously good week for music releases. Stupidly good. Among the best is Viet Cong's eponymous full-length debut. Featuring two former members of the defunct Calgary band Women (whose Public Strain was my favourite album of 2010), Viet Cong's calling card is the brute force of its deadpan nihilism, which is near palpable in the video for "Silhouettes."