January 2, 2019

2018 in taste and appetite - 2: Listening

Albums from 2018
Be the Cowboy by Mitski
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa by Jeremy Dutcher
Freedom by Amen Dunes
Boygenius EP by Boygenius
Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest
Room 25 by Noname
Lush by Snail Mail
Double Negative by Low
Ark by Westerman
Foxwarren by Foxwarren

A song for Thomas
"I See A Darkness" by Bonnie Prince Billy

January 1, 2019

2018 in taste and appetite - 1: Reading

If there was ever an "end" to meta-narratives it was only a brief moment, enjoyed by the few who could name it as such — an alibi for those with resources and the freedom to spend them. For the rest of us, common stories continue but with renewed urgency. Climate change presents a very real and tangible meta-narrative, even if we don't yet have eyes to see or ears to hear. What we value, consume and celebrate in this moment will forever be relativized by our current way of relating to the planet and the destructive systems that plunder it. History, it seems, will not be kind to us in 2018, no matter how much music we listened to or how many books we read.

We all have rituals that help us cope with the forces that lie beyond our control. Each day I check my news feed because I want to see a breakthrough, a way to avert the coming catastrophe or halt this environmental assault on lives around the globe. But this expression of anxiety — my need to keep up with the news cycle — usually makes me more anxious. Time passes. Sometimes I simply want that impending limit, however destructive, to arrive and prove once and for all that our current trajectory is doomed. In those moments, which are frequent, I realize the pessimism of my appetite. This is not fruitful behaviour, nor is it a healthy place to be. 

Much of what appears in the list below prevented me from lingering there, on the edge of my news feed, for too long. Twitter helped but it also didn't help.

This year, I spent a fair amount of time reading about aesthetics, mostly from Marxist perspectives. Terry Eagleton's major study, The Ideology of the Aesthetic was a springboard for readings from Kant, Schiller, Marcuse, Sontag, Ranciére, Ngai and others. Those readings, mostly essay-length, were left off the list. The big highlights of my year in reading were Billy-Rae Belcourt's poetry collection, This Wound is a World, Miriam Toew's Women Talking and John Berger's posthumous collection, Landscapes

I was able to see Belcourt read and discuss his writing with Rosanna Deerchild this past November. His ability to weave through poetics, theory and the politics of indigeneity left a deep impression on me. I've been following his work since finding him in GUTS magazine's "futures" issue. At once personal and philosophical, Belcourt's writing navigates around and through the loneliness rendered by colonization — a form of negativity that "stalks" indigeneity — all the while gesturing toward a future that can't be contained by settler logics. Belcourt thinks deeply about his writing practice, at an almost ontological level, but he avoids the pitfalls of esotericism or academic jargon. I look forward to reading more of his work down the road. 

Miriam Toews also came through Winnipeg this summer to promote her new book. I've never seen McNally Robinson so crowded. Women Talking takes its premise from horrific real-world events — over several years, hundreds of women and girls living in a conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia were drugged and raped in their sleep. Toews's novel imagines a scenario in which the men of the colony have all gone to town, leaving the women behind to determine whether stay and fight or quickly pack up their belongings and flee. I found the novel quite moving and read it quickly. But in discussing the book with other Mennonites, I've come to realize that many of them have complicated feelings about the book and the way that it frames its subject matter. More than once I heard the complaint that Toews was stealing a story that doesn't belong to her and conflating cultural categories. How many of them actually read it, before levelling those critiques, is another question. I'm suspicious of those who treat Toews as inauthentic or even dangerous because she is "outside" the Mennonite church proper. Her work has always fallen somewhere between truth and fiction, and I can't help thinking that at least part of the Mennonite critique of Miriam Toews is couched in sexism. (It's not uncommon for Rudy Wiebe to be held up as the shining example of what a Mennonite writer should be.) Women Talking raises the stakes, helpfully for some, arguably less helpfully for others

In 2018, I continued to read more John Berger. Landscapes collects essays from his long career of art criticism but it's his discussion of drawing, which emerges in several essays, that interests me most. "For the artist," he writes, "drawing is discovery. . . . A line, an area of tone, is important not really because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see." Perhaps that is why I continue to draw, why it so often lifts my spirits. Drawing, at its best, is for me a practice of remaining open to the possibilities of whatever comes next. Often the effect of this practice arrives like the opposite of anxiety. 

This Wound is a World by Billy-Rae Belcourt
The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018)
The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère
No Strangers in Exile by Hans Harder
Little Fish by Casey Plett (2018)

Landscapes by John Berger
Stolen City by Owen Toews (2018)
Martin Heidegger by George Steiner
Civil Imagination by Ariella Azoulay
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Mourning Becomes the Law by Gillian Rose
Aesthetics and Politics by Adorno et al.

Why Art? by Eleanor Davis (2018)
Beverly by Nick Drnaso
Wendy by Walter Scott
Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael Deforge

April 16, 2018

Adorno on sports

The rules of the game resemble those of the market, equal chances and fair play for all, but only as the struggle of all against all. Thus it is that sport permits competition, now reduced to a form of brutality, to survive in a world in which competition has actually been eliminated. While sport does indeed express competition as a form of immediate activity, it also expressly thematizes a historical tendency which has done away with competition proper. [. . .]. In its naked literalness, in the brutish seriousness which hardens every gesture of play into an automatic reflex, sport becomes the colourless reflection of a hardened callous life. Sport only preserves the joy of movement, the thought of bodily liberation, the suspension of practical ends in a completely external distorted form. Yet perhaps because the violence which sport inflicts upon people might help them towards understanding how they could one day finally put an end to violence itself, mass culture takes sport into custody. Even if the sportsman might possibly be able to develop certain virtues like solidarity, readiness to help others or even enthusiasm which could prove valuable in critical political moments, nothing of this kind is to be found in the spectator. Here a crude contemplative curiosity replaces the last traces of spontaneity. But mass culture is not interested in turning its consumers into sportsmen as such but only into howling devotees of the stadium.

From The Culture Industry

Sport is ambiguous. On the one hand, it can have an anti-barbaric and anti-sadistic effect by means of fair play, a spirit of chivalry, and consideration for the weak. On the other hand, in many of its varieties and practices it can promote aggression, brutality, and sadism, above all in people who do not expose themselves to the exertion and discipline required by sports but instead merely watch: that is, those who regularly shout from the sidelines. Such an ambiguity should be analyzed systematically. To the extent that education can exert an influence, the results should be applied to the life of sport. 

From "Education After Auschwitz"

January 1, 2018

Some favourite songs of 2017

The year started like this: cold and foreboding, with many of us incredulous about the results of American election and somehow naive about its implications. But in the darkness of January, there was also Julie Byrne.

Julie Byrne's “Natural Blue” rehearses a memory as warm as the sun. “Back on tour / driving through southwestern towns / that I had been in before.” But this time, something different happens: there is a first encounter. In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes quotes John Ruysbroeck, a 14th century Flemish mystic: “Now, take all the delights of the earth, melt them into one single delight, and cast it entire into a single man — all of this will be as nothing to the delight of which I speak.” If this song is romantic, it is also about being locked into a posture of retrospection, where a remembered detail might gain a new kind of significance by its association with the beloved, might become a symbol of love’s excess. To quote Barthes again: “Excess has led me to proportion; I adhere to the Image, our proportions are the same: exactitude, accuracy, music: I am through with not enough. Henceforth I live in the definitive assumption of the Image-repertoire, its triumph” (55).

Kendrick Lamar completed another victory lap with DAMN. and, true to form, he brought a lot of other artists along for the ride. XXX is miraculous for a number or reasons. Lamar delivers a blistering performance, meditating on gun violence in America and again demonstrating how the personal is political; in addition, he also achieves something few artists could pull off: seamlessly incorporating U2 in a way that doesn’t detract from XXX.’s style, deaden its impact or cheapen its spectacle.

With Mythological Beauty Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenke unravels her own story of family trauma, a second person account of her mother, who gave up a son for adoption, with the eyes of an unknowing child, alert to her surroundings, who now sees the actions of mother with empathy. On her second album with Big Thief, Lenke demonstrates that she’s already a master songwriter, and with Mythological Beauty she strikes that rare balance between rhythm and wordplay, observation and introspection.

The joy of Dum Surfer lies in its power of estrangement. Since its release, I’ve returned to this song again and again, as addicted to its dizzy blend of genres (post-punk, house, reggae, etc.) as I am to its dystopian vision. You feel as though you’ve stepped into a scene from a crass film noir, where the familiar referents of urban life appear distorted, charged with meanings that you haven’t before encountered. Here is the world sparkling under a ghoulish tint. Here is the seedy underbelly you’ve heard about, lurking beneath the surface of everything.

This is a song for unbelievers of all kinds, but it’s especially for those of among us who aren’t able to believe that the God they worship has enough grace for LGBTQ* folks, or that such lives and experiences are in any way secondary to those of heterosexual, cisgender folks. If you’re still living in doubt, or if you prefer abstractions to people, then accept this song as a grace: another chance to consider which god you serve.

Like all of SZA’s songs from Ctrl, “Prom” highlights her vocal agility, navigating the uncertainties of interpersonal relationships while exploring just how spacious they can be. The “Prom” of the title is both promise and prominade: love’s performance, where emotions crash against expectations, where the couple form takes hold and we learn how to maneuver around/within it.

In this hypnotic but understated track, Andrea Balency’s voice glides over a steady beat. In one moment she sounds detached; in another she sounds fully present. With its backing music, Mount Kimbie echoes the shape of a party approaching its climax. There is chaos, confusion, cacophony but the song’s momentum doesn’t slow. Whether or not you’re having a good time, the world will look different tomorrow.

On every outing, Mike Hadreas writes an anthem that seems to steal the light from everything around it. “Slip Away” quite literally silences the haters and detractors who bully us into thinking ourselves unworthy, our desires invalid. A celebration of consensual love in all its forms, at once embodied and ennobled.

All day, every day individuals are collected into a metal box entrusted to someone who knows how close he can get to a curb or a car. Together, they lurch forward as their driver makes a sudden stop. For some of us, the bus is a space where we can steal some time to think, huddle over a phone, turn the page of a textbook, ask for directions. Jay Som’s Melina Duterte also sees the bus as a space of possibility. With The Bus Song, she turns a few contemplative moments in transit into one of the angstiest and uplifting songs of the year.

Despite it’s upbeat tempo and chorus, “Blood on Me” is as vulnerable as anything else on Sampha’s debut. It’s a song less about fear than about how one navigates one’s emotional terrain in the midst of crisis. How much fear belongs to us and what makes it counts as legitimate? “Blood on Me” is the sound of adrenaline facing off with existential ambiguity.

And, finally, here's a playlist that goes far beyond what's been annotated above.

They released albums this year but we paid them little notice. They defined the sound of indie rock in the first decade or so of the 2000s and now appear as the tired establishment: Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, Wolf Parade, Grizzly Bear, Feist, The National, LCD Soundsystem, Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes.

On a personal note: I enjoyed songs from around half of the artists mentioned (I even witnessed Broken Social Scene perform a nostalgia-infused set at a summer festival), but I’ve grown bored of bands like the National, Fleet Foxes and Wolf Parade, and by now I’m mostly annoyed by the Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors. This year Grizzly Bear released what might be the most inaccessible album of their career and, generally, I liked it, mostly because it sounded like Grizzly Bear. (“Four Cypresses,” in particular, is the sort beautiful, dense song that only a band like Grizzly Bear could pull off.) Feist channeled PJ Harvey and delivered a spare, guitar-driven album with songs (“Pleasure,” “Century,” “Any Party”) that resonated with me almost immediately. I’m fairly certain I will always like Feist.

When I look at my favourite songs from 2017, I observe what’s become a commonplace mixture of rap, r&b, indie rock/folk, and electronic music, but I also see a lot more diversity in the artists making it. To say my demographic (white, male, cisgender) is typically overrepresented at shows is an understatement. It’s one thing to observe new trends in the music scene, but it’s another thing to understand why they occur. And while it might look like the dominance of one is slowly receding with age, it should be noted that there has also been a lot of work done, most of it unrecognized, to claim space in the music scene for those it has traditionally excluded; there have been efforts to make concerts safer for people of colour, for women, queer and non-binary folks; there has been work done to create platforms for emerging artists who don’t experience the forms of privilege that indie rock has fostered over the years. And this is vital work that needs broader support in the new year and beyond.

December 30, 2016

When it sounded like 2016

In a year punctuated by celebrity deaths and ongoing geopolitical disasters, there was no shortage of music to challenge and inspire those of us who want the world to be better and still believe that it can be. The artists I listened to throughout this much maligned year brought into focus the gravity of our collective situation: the urgent concerns of race and gender equality, environmental degradation, and a need for intimacy that we just can't seem to shake. 

(See below for winning categories and spotty annotations)

Solange – A Seat at the Table
Song: "Don't Wish Me Well"

Song: "Lazarus"
Song: "Lost Somebody"
Song: "You Want it Darker"
Along with lots of Prince and Sharon Jones, and even a little bit of George Michael.

Angel Olsen – My Woman
Song: "Shut Up Kiss Me"
Beyonce – Lemonade
Song(s): "Sorry," "Formation"

Animal Teeth – Happy to See You
Song: "Chair"
Mitski – Puberty 2
Song: "Your Best American Girl"
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Song: "1937 State Park"

Anohni – Hopelessness
Song: "Drone Bomb Me"

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Song: "True Love Waits" 
Making Radiohead fans feel sad is too easy. We've been groomed for it; chances are it's what led us to Radiohead in the first place. A chicken/egg situation. But what would it be like to discover Radiohead in this day and age, without all that prehistory? What if A Moon Shaped Pool was your introduction? What would you do with a song like "True Love Waits"? Would you sense the weight of the years it carries, the way it's continued to evolve as time demands? Would you recognize that, in recording and releasing it as the closing track on their tenth album, it was Radiohead's way of saying goodbye? 

Song: "Best To You"
Song: "Nights"
Song: "Hallucinations"

Song: "Conceptual Romance"

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Song: "Same Drugs"
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Song: "Ultralight Beam" (feat. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin)
Chance the Rapper was one of 2016's beacons, and he helped redeem The Life of Pablo. Before he cancelled his Saint Pablo tour Kanye visited Winnipeg and did his floating stage thing for several hours at the MTS Centre. And although his banter was at times certifiably horrible, I left feeling that I'd again somehow been converted. Revisiting the latter half of the album weeks after the concert, beginning with the Chance-endorsed "Waves," somehow made me care about Kanye (and maybe even his family?) again. Empathy, maybe? Seeing Kanye isolated on that stage gave me a new appreciation for the audacious commitment he brings to his work. That concert captured the weird, self-conscious spirit that flows through TLOP. Here, I thought, was Kanye’s ego laid bare. Here was the artist, alone, with all his flaws. The truth of it, however, is that TLOP is crammed full of guests. Genius is one of our favourite myths and Kanye knows how to use it.

Royal Canoe – Something Got Lost Between Here and the Orbit
Song: "How Long is Your Life"

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style (this came out in 2015, whoops!)
Song: "Times to Die"

Mitski – Puberty 2
Song: "Your Best American Girl"
Dreams are still only dreams unless something changes. You can't, in fact, have it all, at least not if you're going to play by the rules. You live in a world that privileges certain kinds of people, lifestyles and ideas. This world tries to convince you that the only space you can rightfully occupy is one of competition. So burn it down, and also, fuck Weezer.

Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Song: "untitled 05 | 09.21.2014"

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Song: "Real Friends"
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Song: "Summer Friends"
Pinegrove – Cardinal
Song(s): "Old Friends" / "New Friends"

Diiv – Is the Is Are?
Song: "Healthy Moon"

Andy Shauf – The Party
Song: "To You"