Monday, December 03, 2007

Not quite a real post, but:

Good lord, I promised myself I'd never watch these videos because it'd just break my heart, but what on earth was wrong with me that I missed the last Deadly Snakes shows in Toronto last year?

"Gore Veil" at the "last" show (Horseshoe Tavern)

3 songs from the actual last show the next night at the Silver Dollar. Occasional camera pans of audience reveal the presence of beloved friend and one-time community radio conconsirator Bobby Lotz. Hey Bob.

This is probably my greatest musical regret. Not missing Fugazi on their last tour-- I loved that band and saw them on tours for In On The Kill-Taker and Red Medicine, but I've never really regretted missing them that last time. I saw the Deadly Snakes a few times too, but largely when they were still the greatest garage punk band in the world, rather than when they became one of the greatest bands in the world, writing absolutely fresh songs about the ubiquitously immortal themes of fear of death and frenzied joy in life. I must have been out of my mind to miss those shows.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Life, encapsulated:

Behold, the metaphorical soundtrack to my life as it is lived just now:

My life is even wearing that shirt and perplexing facial expression.

That's to say that I'm very, very busy right now. Though I'm working on a two-part retrospective look at the career of Toronto's late, lamented Deadly Snakes, Canada's greatest rock and roll band, that's going to have to wait a while. Sorry. In the meantime, I encourage you to go out and buy their entire catalogue beginning with their first two garage-stomp records before proceeding to their last two records in which the band grows up, has an existential crisis, and leaves behind it some of the most touching and emotionally raw music I've ever heard.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Less indirect self-promotion:

As of tomorrow evening, I will have a whole bunch of copies of a new zine, this one comprising a new short story and a very long introduction considering the topically resonant events of the first half of this year, during which time my house caught fire, I relived the early 1990s through bad home decor, we got illegally evicted, and general hilarity ensued.

Those in Montréal, or within driving range thereof, should come by Expozine, Canada's largest zine/indie-press fair, this Saturday and Sunday to buy the new issue from me. As I have in previous years, I'll have a table from which I'll be selling copies of my zines. Along with the new one, there will also be copies of back issues: last year's Jigsaw Youth: Two New Stories (shortlisted for Best English Book at the 2006 Expozine awards), 2004's Querencia 8: Our Lady of the Harbour (the excruciatingly personal issue!), and 2001's Querencia 5: Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste (aka "the one John K Samson liked"). Each of these goes for an affordable $3, which guarantees a high ratio of carefully crafted prose to the dollar.

It's happening from 12-6pm on both Saturday and Sunday at 5035 St-Dominique (l'Église Saint-Enfant Jésus, between St-Joseph and Laurier, near Laurier Métro). You can also check out a map here.

Also very exciting: Chris Landry from Ottawa will be up to table his hotly expected new issue of Kiss Off (which I've heard is fantastic), and Jeff "Otaku" Miller will have a new issue of the mighty Ghost Pine. As well, Adam "Tops" Thomlison is coming up from Ottawa to sell goods from his 40-Watt Spotlight Press; Nic Boshart will be selling stuff (including the guaranteed brilliant new Devin Code collection of short stories: buy this!) from Invisible Publishing, of which he's a key player; talented artist Leila Peacock will have... something unidentified, probably art, possibly riddles, likely both; and gifted magic-marker portraitist Arlene Textaqueen will apparently be back from Australia to sell pictures of people I know naked. I'm hoping, too, that Warren Hill will have a new issue of $2.00 Comes With Mix-Tape, which is two dollars and (surprise!) comes with a mix tape that's alone worth about ten times the package price.

That's not to mention the usual onslaught of talented locals and mysterious out-of-towners hocking neat stuff. I strongly advise you all to drop by, if only to buy things from me.

So I'll see you there, then? Awesome.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The mighty do fall, after all, but...

From time to time I get to wondering how Clarence Carter could fall so far from the mighty deep-soul melancholy of "Slip Away" to embarrassing novelty tracks like "Strokin'."

It's true the guy always played dirty novelty songs (and what compilation of listenable Xmas music is complete without "Back Door Santa"?); I'm not saying he shouldn't be allowed to have fun. But when I listen to the pounding, heart-racing chorus of "Slip Away," I find it hard not to imagine that Carter was destined for better things.

The 80s were a hard time for a lot of soul singers-- Aretha sure embarrassed herself, as did Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and a lot of other truly great performers. The influence of cocaine and synthesizers didn't flatter anyone. But still-- it's sad to think how many of those years were wasted on empty pop and digitally reverberating drums when they could have been spent honing artistry with the wisdom of age. It's always a little disappointing to listen to a heart-wrenching song like "Slip Away" and know that was the crest, there was never any more like that. Alas.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Terrible news!

I was listening to Electrelane's excellent No Shouts, No Calls this afternoon and decided to check their web page to see if they'd scheduled a make-up tour for those dates in North America that they canceled this spring when the Arcade Fire took them along as openers. All spring I waited for their scheduled May show and was totally distraught to hear it had been postponed, but an email from drummer Emma Gaze assured me that they'd be back sometime this fall. Since this fall is nearly over, I wanted to see if they were slated to be back soon. Instead, I found this message on the front page:


We have decided that the upcoming gigs will be our last for the foreseeable future. After ten years of much fun and hard work, we have realised that we all need a break and time to do other things. This was a tough decision for us to make, but ultimately a positive one.

A big thank you to everyone who has come to our shows, put on our shows, and bought our records over the years. It means a lot to us. We're really grateful to have had the opportunity to play gigs all over the world and to meet so many lovely people. This last year has been especially enjoyable and we feel happy about moving on with all these good memories to look back on. At the moment we haven’t made any band plans for the future, but we’re going to have a break and see what happens.

Love, Electrelane

Damn. So goes one of the most interesting, exciting, and infinitely listenable bands in present-day music, and barely nine months after releasing the nearly flawless No Shouts, No Calls, easily one of 2007's finest albums. That record that will forever bring me back to this year with every repeated listen, and it's good enough that I can say without doubt that I'll be putting it on again and again, year after year, as I do all of their releases. I suppose one could say it's good they're quitting before they put out a bad album, but that's small comfort, particularly given that I don't believe they're capable of a bad album.

Mid-November's always ugly, but this is just an extra bit of disappointment.

Monday, November 05, 2007

If you find the band The Doors absurd, and find the glorification of Jim Morrison even funnier, you should, by all means, read this magnificent review of Ray Manzarek's toadying memoir. That's right, he didn't just play in the doors and later ruin the production of the album Los Angeles by X with his banal, gurgling organ, but he wrote a book featuring the Doors as the most important thing that ever happened to culture.

Now when I was a pre-teen, I loved the Doors and was nearly obsessive about them, but there comes a time (usually around one's 15th birthday?) at which one must ask what, exactly, makes Jim Morrison a poet, and "An American Poet" (as the poster I had on my wall said) at that? Are we supposed to go easier on him as a poet because he was American, as though he was admittedly not Keats or Larkin, but did the best with his circumstances?

Anyway, read the review, since whoever wrote it expresses my feelings on the issue better than I possibly could.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's a busy season.

As my college rolls through the end of midterm season, picking up speed and mass like an educational snowball, my free time is being swept away in favour of marking, prep, and much more marking. I haven't had time for a decent entry in a while and apologize, but I will tell you what I'm crazy about right now:

Funky Kingston by Toots & the Maytals on the original vinyl

I'm more or less ALWAYS crazy about Funky Kingston, and it's traditionally the strongest challenge to Marquee Moon's title as my all-time favourite record. However, I lost my CD of it this summer (along with 44 other favourites) when I left my CD-booklet on the bus from Montréal to St-Jovite and have been missing it terribly since. How kind of my beloved gal Ang, then, to dig up a copy of the original vinyl to present me on my 30th birthday a week back! And just in time too, since this record has, for years, been my strongest psychic medicine against the descent of the grey misery of late fall. When it's dark at 4:30 and your fingers, toes, and nose all seem as though they're cramping up even when you're inside, you need something warm, and there's no sound warmer than "Pressure Drop," "Pomp & Pride," or the Maytals' cover of "Country Roads, Take Me Home." Nothing else sounds like comfort to me the way that Funky Kingston does.

Spirit of the Century by the Blind Boys of Alabama

I picked this up on Friday and have listened to it maybe 30 times since then. Simple blues-gospel arrangements that go miles on beautiful voices alone, the Blind Boys are unmatched in any recent gospel I've heard, and in spite of their modernizing of the sound, are fit to stand beside Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, and the Swan Silvertones. This record is mostly traditionals with a handful of covers of Jesus-themed popular music, and all of it is from the heart and gut both. Worth buying for their cover of the Stones' "Just Want To See His Face" alone, it's a record I find hard to listen to without singing along. And it should be so-- this is gospel music that moves you with its testament to the faith of the voices singing it, and one needn't share the same views to be shaken by the very human joy and conviction celebrated here.

Death to Idealism by the Red Dons

Everything I hoped it would be, this album goes a long way to harnessing the energy of the Red Dons' live show. Well-wrought classic west-coast punk rock along the lines of the Middle Class and the Adolescents that drives forward even as it shakes from side to side, with great melodies and an earnest plead to its lyrics. Highly recommended.

s/t by the Tranzmitors

Vancouver's best band (a Smugglers/New Town Animals supergroup) merges new wave and power pop into a tight, pounding record that's loud and fast and poppy in equal measures. Blasting new-wave organ, sharp juts of guitar with licked-surface leads, and fucking HAND-CLAPS ALL OVER, man, this is a record you need to have if you like fun. It's deeply danceable (I tested this at a party recently and it held up), charmingly arranged (see the late breakdown in "Alma Blackwell"), and sounds better with every notch you turn it up. Which you must and will.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore: 1927-1948 - Various

An unbelievable collection of early recordings of US music that's not what you'd expect of "early US music," this mixes a mindbending array of sounds stemming from massive 20th century immigration. Thus there's calypso mixed with Asian, Cajun, and Appalachian folk and blues. At a point in my music appreciation where I've gotten used to finding early blues/folk collections predictable and homogeneous, I'm absolutely amazed by this delightful LP which stands up to multiple listening and never tires itself out. Fans of roots music will clearly have to dig this up as soon as they can.

Reunion Tour by the Weakerthans

John K Samson has a well-earned reputation for putting together gently rocking indie-pop, but he deserves to have greater attention paid to his writing as well. The songs here, strangely Canadian for a guy whose musical career began with fervent anti-nationalist hoserpinkos Propagandhi, are musical portraits of people and places: an aging band reuniting in the title track, a tired Northerner ushering yet another group of skeptics to where he saw Bigfoot, a curler dawdling at the club at the end of a bonspiel, and a Winnipeg bus driver watching the descent of December dusk ("Civil Twilight"). This last track is the opener to the record but possibly its finest song, a big, warm-sounding song about cold, a gentle portrait of the routine of driving a bus and the emotions of the driver, and a subtle punch in Burton Cummings' gut (can there ever be enough of those?). Several years ago I interviewed Samson for CKUT-FM and expressed strong agreement with his heretical Winnipeger's statement in "One Great City!" that "The Guess Who sucked." I explained that I hated the Guess Who more than any band in music history and I was glad to find someone who finally understood, but Samson said his reaction wasn't so much to the vacuousness of their lyrics or derivative music as to the exalted place they held among Winnipeg cultural history. "I was listening to that song 'Bus Rider,'" he said, "And I thought, god, the Guess Who really does just suck. Did they have to write a song mocking poor people taking the bus to work? Wasn't there something better to write about?" Samson's response of a portrait-in-song of cold commuters who "bite their mitts off to show me transfers, deposit change" and a vaguely heartsick driver facing dusk and admitting "this part of the day bewilders me" is a humane and witty rejoinder to the Guess Who, one whose release is perfectly timed to give form to the emotions of this coming fall.

By the way, you remembered to turn your clocks back last night, right?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Awe and Nordic Melancholy ("nordiskt vemod"): Jan Johansson: Jazz på Svenska (1965)

I won't call this a jazz album, since that's gotten me into trouble before, but I will say that Jazz på Svenska, Jan Johansson's 1965 album of Swedish folksongs interpreted with piano and upright bass alone, is easily one of the most beautiful albums I've heard, and one of the saddest. Jazz certainly influences and to an extent determines some of the sound, style, and flourish to this record, but to describe it simply as a jazz record is to do a disservice to it and to jazz. It's something beyond jazz, but because of jazz.

This is an album of Swedish folksongs interpreted by two masterful jazz musicians, Johansson, a deft pianist and protégé of Stan Getz, and bassist Georg Riedel. The arrangement is minimal: piano and bass, the echo of ringing notes, and nothing else. While there are notes and touches throughout the album that swing, for the most part the album seems to follow a tonal scale divorced from what a lay-person (that is, I) would identify as jazz. It just doesn't sound like jazz, but it doesn't quite sound like precisely anything. Sure, it sounds like Swedish folksongs, I guess. At times it sounds almost like Glenn Gould (minus the muttering and embellishment). But it sounds less like any other music and more like a range of moods-- it drifts between generous warmth and desolate cold, between intimacy and lonesome abandon. There are tones and moments that seem to have all the deepest feeling imaginable bound up inside them; it's not hard to hear grief and despair here, helplessness and horror, but there is also faith and awe and wonder in abundance. This is a record that has given me goosebumps, over and over, which has at times chilled me with a sense of how truly alone I was, while at other times has reassured me of the unequivocal safety of the foundations of my life and relationships. It's not hard to find everything you feel expressed more precisely in this record.

As a means of explaining this, I'll offer the following story: in the spring of 2006, I felt as though I was at a point of intersection as far as my career was concerned. For several long years I had sought out one particular job, built up my qualifications so as to make myself more desirable to employers in that field, and endured several harrowing interviews. Finally, I got some work, and later, some more. By the time the third round of work came around, I was having drastic second thoughts, recognizing many of the grim faults in the job that I had not, in my dumbfounded fantasies of employment, imagined would come into play. By early winter 2006 I had begun to consider stepping away from the field of my aspirations, but when spring rolled around and it was once more time to send in applications, I dutifully filled out and faxed off my forms.

I had already been working for one particular outfit, but mid-week in late April I got word that union rules required they re-interview me for the job I'd already done. The interview was to be on Monday; on Friday I was stricken with some crisis of conscience. I couldn't bear to go on with the work, I figured. I hated it-- it was nothing like I'd imagined it would be. I hated myself, too, since I'd stupidly spent as many as seven years focused on a single goal that I now seemed to have to abandon. But between the ache of making active disappointment and the woe of letting drop my hard-won goal, disappointment still seemed the worse. On Monday morning I determined I was through, but nonetheless would still go to the interview out of courtesy for my colleagues: I put on my best suit and tie and headed out early for the 90-minute metro-bus combination that would take me to the job site.

Being late April, there was a cold rain coming down, mostly as a mist at first. I drifted over me as I followed Duluth street from my corner down to St Denis, where it thickened. As I ducked into the metro station it had begun to come down heavily, and waiting for the bus I felt it had grown dense and determined. Without an umbrella, I was soaked before my bus arrived: rain was dripping along my scalp and crawling past my tie-cinched collar. What little light there was in the sky was greyish yellow, as though passing through a grease-stained paper plate. I was miserable, beaten, and soaked, finally recognizing that the future to which I'd aspired was essentially a fiction in which I could not live comfortably, and at a loss for an alternate course. Having no future needed not, as I'd imagined it in my teenaged years, necessarily be set to punk rock. As the bus pulled away from Lionel-Groulx station, I leaned my dripping head against the window and put Jazz på Svenska on my discman, over which I could hear only the rhythm of the bus's windshield wipers and the occasional crackle of the radio. For the duration of the ride, that music was the only thing in the world, and the most beautiful thing. Then I got off.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Appreciation: "How Could I Help But Love You?" by Aaron Neville, Minit Records 1963

A friend polled me recently for my favourite love song, and after only brief consideration of the many, many possibilities ("I Found A Love" by the Falcons? "Turn It On" by Sleater-Kinney? "Something's Got A Hold Of Me" by Etta James? "Baby Baby" by the Vibrators? "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" by Otis Redding? etc etc etc.), I came to one unassailable conclusion: "How Could I Help But Love You?" Aaron Neville's 1963 masterpiece of New Orleans R&B on Minit Records.*

Many may find it difficult to imagine Neville responsible for a genuine expression of feeling-- after such crimes against music as "Everybody Plays The Fool," Neville seems doomed to association with "soft rock," that form of music favoured by those who don't want to listen to anything moving, honest, or exciting, but prefer nonetheless not sit in silence. But that wasn't always the case; like a lot of musicians who defenestrated their talent and dignity during the 1980s, Neville's very early recordings are in many cases astonishingly good. In particular, Neville's earliest sides with New Orleans's famous Minit Records, which lasted only from 1961 to 1963 and released early records by Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, and Eskew Reeder (aka Esquerita, strong influence on Little Richard), are all worth listening to. But chief among them is "How Could I Help But Love You?"

Every time I've described this song, the first word that's come to mind has been "ghostly": this is a song with the rare power to draw gooseflesh just by the way it sounds. A large part of this is in the brilliance of the instrumentation and arrangement-- the song progresses slowly and begins with Neville's imploring voice behind an echoing cymbal, tapped snare-rim, and gently ringing guitar which follow an almost hidden bass. The initial effect is like a faint wind rustling the last fall-dry leaves on a tree-- you're just as ready for it to die out as pick up. But lord, how it picks up: the chorus hands the melodic counterpoint from the bass to a strong piano in classic NOLA R&B form and distant backup singers (eerie and virtually unidentifiable as male or female) swell in utterly stunning harmony to Neville's vocal trills, which contain not one whit of bullshit or showboating. No part of this song is any louder or more prominent than it absolutely has to be: humility permeates it above all. The second verse doubles in length to fit in a saxophone and trumpet solo as quiet as breath and as gentle as the guitar that ebbs the melody away. The song is never agitated beyond its careful rustle by any drum-beat except the rim of the snare-- even with the intensity of the chorus, the entire song is piano, bass, and voice alone, its power in its scarcity, and when the chorus ends it returns to the quiet simplicity of that shimmering guitar.

Neville was barely out of his teen years when he recorded "How Could I Help But Love You?" and the awkward earnestness of youth permeates and defines the song. But the song is dominated by this nervous hesitance in a way that other tracks of the same era which sought to capitalize on a young man's stammering declaration of love (such as more polished songs by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Dion and the Belmonts, or the Orioles) are not. Quite simply, Neville sounds like he means what he's saying though he's terrified of saying it: he's full of the awe and reverence of falling truly in love at 20, and the song is arranged precisely so as to amplify every tremor of that emotion. When Neville sings, "You send cold chills down my spine," you don't just listen, you feel exactly what he means.

Performed by a different singer against a less deft arrangement, "How Could I Help But Love You?" might have been another hamhanded R&B throwaway, as there's nothing at the core of the words and melody to set the song apart from a dozen similar tracks. Yet between Neville's warm and tenuous voice and the perfect organization of instruments around it, this song becomes stunning. The lyrics are not, by any means, complex or witty, but they sound utterly sincere, and as a whole the song is likewise sincere in its minimalism. Where later Neville tracks would come to bury their lack of genuine emotion in an oily mountain of production, this song is structured to contain only what is absolutely necessary to get its point across. Its point is the feeling of being in love, and no song that I can think of does it better.

* - (to which I have the estimable Warren Hill, proprietor of Back Room Records and Pastries and publisher of $2.00 Comes With Mix-Tape zine, to thank for introducing me. Thanks, Warren.)

Small Favours:

Still sick, and worse than before. I got a substitute for my morning class, woke up early, and went to the neighbourhood clinic, where a kind young doctor told me I should probably take the rest of the week off of work. She figures it's a sinus infection that I left too long and she gave me a prescription for antibiotics, so hopefully I'll be able to get back to work for Thursday. I'm supposed to teach the first class on "The Dead" by James Joyce, and I'd rather not leave that up to a substitute. Angie's now as sick or sicker than I am (though without the apparent sinus infection, at least), so we make quite a pair of layabouts. We've succeeded in accomplishing soup and television watching today (we're already done the first disc of Season II of The Wire and have had to resort to Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and neither of us is feeling particularly good about anything.

BUT! The doorbell rang just after 5pm today, and a courier fellow handed me a box with my name on it, which I opened to discover was an order from Deranged records that I'd almost forgotten I'd made. Inside, the Tranzmitors self-titled LP plus s/t 7", the Teen Crud Combo retrospective LP, Fucked Up's Hidden World 2xLP gatefold, and (oo! oo!) the eagerly awaited full-length LP by Portland's Red Dons (see my giddy review of their April set at L'Esco here).

Of course, said package arrived just as Ang retired to the guest bed in her office with a grinding sinus headache, so I can't very well throw any of these guaranteed rock-and-roll blowouts on just now. However, I hope the potential energy of this stack of vinyl will encourage a swift recovery, since these are the sorts of records that demand dancing sock-footed around one's kitchen.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two notes from Pop Montreal

(photo by unknown party, posted on

Things have been quiet on this blog lately for a number of reasons, chief among them the amount of preparation and marking that I've been facing as we move toward mid-term season. As well, I spent much of the last week done in by a nasty cold that I hope I've finally bested. There will be more to come, and soon, I hope. For the time being, however, let me say that for all my mixed feelings about the Pop Montréal festival, seeing Patti Smith read in front of and sing with A Silver Mt. Zion last night at the Ukranian Federation Hall on Hutchison was pretty amazing, and paying only $5 for the show about tripled my amazement. The show had strong points and weak points-- it was, by and large, exactly what I expected it would be, but by the end I'd have paid ten times as much just to hear their emotionally flattening version of "Pissing In A River." Their treatment made the song new again and gave it more power and immediacy than when I first heard it on record ten years ago. It was the first of two encores at the end of a two hour show, for which I paid five dollars. Amazing.

Addendum (Saturday afternoon): Patti Smith played again on Friday night with "Her Band" at the St Jean Baptiste church on Rachel near St Denis. Tickets were $35-- 7 times what we paid to see her play a tiny hall with Silver Mt Zion. My partner Angie (who's a member of CKUT-FM's Venus Collective and had been taping Smith's keynote address at the Pop & Politics conference earlier in the afternoon) had a guest-list spot, so we could have split the price of a single ticket, but we both agreed to forego the show and Ang handed the guest-list spot off to a friend. It wasn't the price, nor even the fact that I've taken poor care of myself this week and been once more routed my a resurgence of my cold just as Angie's finally caught it from me. Instead, we concluded that a show in a larger venue with a practiced band couldn't possible top the intimacy and urgency of a palpably nervous Smith in a tiny hall, backed by a band with whom she'd had a single afternoon to practice. So much could have gone thoroughly wrong with that show, and I'm sure everyone in the audience was aware of that-- the tenuous, feverish atmosphere in the choking-hot room drove the band as much as the music stoked the room. Five fucking dollars-- it wasn't just the price, or the size of the room, the gamble of the band and singer united at last, but all of it at once coming together perfectly and powerfully. It wasn't worth trying to repeat it-- we knew it wouldn't be as good again two nights later.

Instead, we caught an exhilarating 90-minute set by the mighty Ted Leo & the Pharmacists at the Gymnase, their second show in the last six months. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Ted since the first Pharmacists show in Montréal at Barfly in May of 2001, but never have I seen give less than everything to the room. Last night was absolutely not an exception. The set list covered the last four records (though nothing off the early Treble In Trouble EP, which I'm always holding out for) as well as a long jam while awaiting a replacement bass-head that developed slowly into an cheerily improvised cover of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" with mostly-remembered lyrics and mostly the right chords. I'm happy to see James Canty playing second guitar with Ted again after several years away from the band-- he's got as much energy as Ted and drummer Chris, and between the three of them the band's live impact is staggering (for reasons I didn't get to hear, the more retiring bassist Dave is not playing on this tour; his shoes are being filled by a capable fellow whose name I didn't catch). By the end of the show both Angie and I were nearly catatonic with illness, but as we staggered down the stairs we determined it was, in fact, worth it. Even as I've spent all day today coughing up lung articles of ominous colour and feeling utterly destroyed, I remain convinced of that.

I will not, however, be seeing Tyvek, Fucked Up, Career Suicide, Jay Reatard, Kickers, Spy Machine 16, or any of the other bands I was hoping to get in tonight. I can tell when it's time to take it easy or do myself some serious damage, and the eighty minutes between waking and being able to get out of bed this morning were a clear indicator of what I must choose. Tonight will be about watching movies on the sofa with the cat and not feeling regretful for missing however many shows I wanted to go to.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Husker Du at Maxwell's, Hoboken NJ 06/84

Fans of Husker Du should check out this blog page, which has put up a complete set of the band playing Maxwell's in 1984, a month before the release of Zen Arcade. The sound is patchy, but the set is breathtakingly powerful.

My favourite Husker Du record has always been Land Speed Record, which most people I know seem to find unlistenable. For me, it works because it holds together breakneck speed and absurd noise with just enough melody for the whole thing to function. It's raw and rough and crazy, but its best songs are almost sweet as well.

The songs available on the above page are a great example of the band at their best doing essentially the same thing-- they plough through 15 songs virtually without pause, addressing the audience only at the beginning and then again well into the set when Bob Mould tells them to stay on their side of the stage since someone's already given him a bloody lip. The closing cover of Roger McGuinn's "8 Miles High" (originally released on a 7" and on SST's Duck and Cover! compilation, also arguably one of their many finest moments) is heartbreaking and worth the album's download alone. The set covers songs from almost the entire breadth of their career to date and play everything tight and fierce, but desperately lovely. In its own loud, abrasive way, this is a very pretty set of songs.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The right time.

For me, there was only one truly perfect moment in the summer of 2000.

It wasn't seeing Neko Case at the old Jailhouse Rock Café, where monitor problems meant that she delivered a command performance in the middle of the crowd in front of the stage-- that show was breathtaking and profound, but it was a show. I was, just then, working a job I hated and having no luck finding something else, and living in a friend's spare room for the summer while she was out of town but having no luck finding an apartment for August 1, and even experiencing Case's astonishing voice from a foot and a half away didn't make me feel the hope that had been for some time lacking. There were a few other amazing shows that summer as well-- the Dillinger Four at L'X and Alex Soria's Chino playing to a crowd of 15 at Barfly are both nights I'll fondly remember, but like the Neko Case show, even the best nights had difficulty penetrating my feeling of gloom and uselessness.

There was, however, one moment that was totally essential, at which I felt myself in the midst of all my desperation and depression and dread to be perfectly at peace. One afternoon in the middle of a hot week in June, I was at home doing nothing, as usual. That day I had already checked the want-ads and read through the apartment listings, from which it was becoming clear to me that I wouldn't find an apartment for July and would have to try to move in August instead, a change of plan that led to a variety of inconveniences.

The previous evening, I had been to bed absurdly late. I worked evenings at a busy café where the only free drink was coffee, so between my idiot caffeine consumption (I frequently drank five or six cups of coffee in the first two hours of my shift, yet remained perplexed as to why the remaining four hours were riddled with anxiety attacks) and the tension of constant, fast-paced work, it usually took me until nearly dawn to wind down after I got home.

So by 2pm I had eaten breakfast and drunk a pot of coffee, failed yet again to find better work and a stable place to live, and had lapsed into a bruxating state of self-loathing which I knew would keep me occupied until the beginning of my shift at 7pm.

I was sitting on the floral-print sofa trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on reading a book when I heard thunder outside. It wasn't easy to see the sky, as the building where I was staying was wedged between three poured-concrete apartment monstrosities, but by craning my neck out the window I could tell that the clouds had gotten so dark they looked as though they'd been beaten bruised. It was about to rain a lot.

At that moment I had an LP from the Atlantic R&B box set on the turntable and for some reason I felt at last as though I had broken through my grim feeling of failure as I listened to Ray Charles belting away. Outside a skull-splitting thundercrack announced instantaneous hissing rain, and I understood precisely what I must do: I threw the twin living room windows all the way open, ran to the stereo, picked up its two speakers, and wedged one against each screen. Then I brought the needle back to the beginning of the song, dropped it again, and turned the volume up as far as it would go. With a staggering saxophone squeal, "The Right Time" began again at thunderous volume. I gently walked to the window, stood behind the quaking speakers, and looked out over the street.

Rain was whisking past in white waves, prodding and smacking with thousands of drops the size of fingerprints. Several people were rushing up and down the sidewalk on St Marc street, running, hiding, and covering themselves with newspapers, jackets, and bags, but one person had given up and was allowing herself to be soaked. She didn't look too dejected. I didn't feel, suddenly, all that dejected either. I was inside, but I'd just as happily have been outside at that moment. Getting drenched to Ray Charles at earth-shattering volume, I wagered, would feel fine-- it would feel like something. I was, then, entirely at ease. I didn't know if I'd given up, or if I could give up, but like the woman in the street below I suddenly knew the sense in letting it come pounding down on me and not trying to run. I wanted her to know it was fine-- I wanted her to hear how beautiful Ray Charles was, how everything didn't amount to that much after all, and that while the night time was, indeed, the right time to be with the one you loved, there was so much freedom in being stuck in the rain in the middle of a summer afternoon. Charles's tenor call was sweet and rich as a butterscotch candy, and his slowly pounded piano as insistent as the rain. It didn't make sense to keep anything that good quiet, to keep it indoors.

My plan was that, when the song ended, I'd swap the record for another from the collection and lay into Ray Charles doing "The Mess Around" next, but the rain lasted only as long as the first song, then blew itself out. Soon enough there was a bit of hot sun jabbing through a crack in the clouds. Later that summer, I encountered the following perfectly valid algebraic notation: God = Love. Love = Blind. Ray Charles = Blind. Therefore, Ray Charles = God.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Appreciation: "When The Innocent Die" by Anti-Cimex (1982)

(download the song here while it lasts)

There are some fans of thrash and hardcore that positively worship at the altar of Sweden's Anti-Cimex. I'm not really one of them-- as far as hard, fast music goes, my only true allegiance is always and forever to the first two Bad Brains records. By and large I never had great interest in the nails-on-blackboard treble attack of Scandinavian thrash monsters like Anti-Cimex, Mob-47, or Terveet Kädet. At one point I found the speed of Swede/Finn thrash, coupled with its ultra-low production sound, totally overwhelming. I could hardly find the drums, but when I could make them out I couldn't keep up with them, particularly with the paper-shredder din of the cymbals and the rest of the instruments raging around them.

Times change, however, and for some reason the older I get the more sense this music makes to me. Lord knows why that should be so-- by all assumptions this should be the soundtrack to demented, spike-haired, angel-dusted youth-- but I enjoy it now in a way I never used to. Not all the time, but as a treat once in a while. As the esteemed Simon Harvey once said of S.O.A.'s No Policy 7", it's like double-chocolate cake: delectable, but you couldn't possibly eat it every day (Simon later reported a period of listening almost exclusively to d-beat thrash, during which he said he was afraid that he had cauterized his sense of taste and would be unable to listen to "actual music" ever again. These fears were ungrounded-- he's been lately obsessed with the Pipettes and Camera Obscura [the Scottish pop band, not the San Diego emo band]).

Thus I recently downloaded copies of Anti-Cimex's legendary and hard-to-find Raped Ass and Victims of a Bomb Raid 7" EPs and discovered myself with some surprise truly savouring their blistering speed and sore-throat barking. And I was reminded that deep inside I've always had great affection for Raped Ass's opening track, "When The Innocent Die." It is, of course, textbook Scandinavian d-beat of absurd speed and gruelling production, and if you're not listening to it carefully enough you may mistake it for pure white noise. However, what thrills me to no end about this track of the most stripped-down Scandi-thrash is that 50% of its two minutes are composed of a shrill, brilliant, and utterly simple guitar solo. I decided this afternoon to count how many bars of the song the solo actually comprised before stopping at 16 and realizing that it is, in fact, a minute long and comprises half the song's entirety.

Initially it struck me funny that as a band as defiantly and perhaps unlistenably "hardcore" (in several senses of the term) would brandish such an absurdly long solo, that most disdained product of rock stars. But after several listens I got it, and thus realized why the song had always stuck out in my memory: the first half of the song is shrill, murky, and pummeling, but the guitar solo, composed primarily of simply repeated single notes that don't move around the neck much, cuts through all the mangled noise that precedes it, providing a guiding point that leads you over the bristling wreck of the rest of the song. It's a light in fog, a howl in the night, a knife through the dough. In the blinding focus of the guitar line, the rest of the song seems to rage and rumble away in the background, pounding now the subconscious and seeming less like a blasting wind as heavy, fluid wave. It makes perfect sense to me now.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Late-Summer Picks

It's been a busy time of late-- I'm a full time college teacher all of a sudden and have devoted most of my waking energy to coming to terms with that. So in lieu of a post of any significance, let me tell you what I've been enjoying over the last week or so:

Various - London is the Place For Me Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (Vols. 1 & 2). Phenomenal Calypso compilations with a fine variety of sounds and rhythms, really showcasing the genre's lyrical wit and depth alongside its totally hip-swinging best rhythms. Essential.

Sneaky Pinks - s/t EP. Muddy, snotty, catchy, and dumb as shit, there's more fun in the four and a half total minutes of this record than in the rest of everything I've listened to this summer. "Life Stupid, I Stupid" ably sums up the total achievement of recent months in a minute and ten seconds and the perfect couplet, "I want a blowjob / I want a hot dog."

Mary Weiss & Reigning Sound - Dangerous Game. Remember how amazing the Detroit Cobras were when their first record came out, how breathtaking it was to hear smoky girl-group vocals driven by grimy garage punk? Then remember how, no matter how good that first record was and remains, their later releases just didn't measure up, and you started to realize that they were basically just a really, really good cover band with a live set that was spotty at best? I can't have been alone in those feelings, because someone finally had the bright idea of pairing Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las (they of "Leader of the Pack" fame) with Reigning Sound, latest project by Greg Cartwright (he of the Oblivians, the second best garage punk band of the 1990s) and having them perform originals, thereby instantly and thunderously rendering the Detroit Cobras obsolete.

"Oh! Sombra!" by Electrelane. I'm a perennial Electrelane listener and play at least one of their records on a weekly basis. They're easily one of the best bands in the world right now and their records are brilliant. "Oh! Sombra!", off of their second LP (and redone on their B-Sides/Rarities disc) however, is something above and beyond everything else they've done. Absolutely spine-tingling and transcendent, it's a human cry of awe, sadness, and vulnerability. Seriously. Also: entirely in Spanish.

Demon's Claws - Satan's Little Pet Pig. I saw this band at what might have been its first show several years ago and was put off by what was, at the time, their uninspired Gun Club impersonation. I didn't see them again and didn't pay any attention to them until the wise young Shaun Anderson insisted I check out their new record, which it turns out is the best piece of country-blues based garage rock to come out of Montreal since the era of It Came From Canada... comps. "Hunting on 49" stands out as the best track, a sad and soulful wail-n-stomp number that's actually sincere. I'll be seeing this band live soon, I hope.

The Dream Syndicate - The Days of Wine and Roses. I avoided this band for years due to its unfair inclusion under the "Paisley Underground" moniker, but I'm glad I've finally found them. Mixing protopunk sounds with American Roots melodies, this record seems tailor-made for me. The 7+ minute title track album-closer sounds like "I Hear Her Call My Name" by the Velvet Underground folded into "Tombstone Blues" by Bob Dylan, and how could there be anything wrong with that?

That isn't all I've been listening to, but that's what's worth mentioning most just now. There'll be more later.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hey, Montreal--

This weekend two of my favourite bands going will be playing shows back to back!

This Saturday evening, August 25th, Allston MA's mighty situationist bluegrass ensemble Bread & Roses will be playing a house show in Point St Charles (Metro Charlevoix) at 1981 Wellington Street. This is the first time they've played in Montreal since October of 2004, when my band (The Improved Binoculars, defunct) played our first show opening for them only to be shortly thereafter blown off stage by their performance at the back of the room. Those who've been following this blog for a while will recall my beaming review of a B&R show in Massachusetts back in the spring. If that show was any indication, the band is in fit and fighting form and will play a hell of a show on Saturday. Two local hardcore bands (?... don't ask me. Joan grabbed the show out from under me and set up the bill herself, saving me a whole lot of trouble) will open. Show starts 7pm sharp and costs a paltry five bucks.

The very next night, LA's danceable old school hardcore sensations Mika Miko will be playing at the Casa Del Popolo with local favourites Thundrah (at the beginning of their Eastern Canada tour), supporting the interminable hippie noise of USAISAMONSTER (mercifully, I believe, going on last). I glowed with joy over their debut LP on Kill Rock Stars, and all reports suggest Sunday night will be a heartstoppingly good set. There's one other band opening as well, and the show starts at 9pm.

I'm thrilled at the prospect of both of these! Hope you all can come out too!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says, "It's hard to give a shit these days."

God willing, I find myself saying with certain frequency, I want to look as damned good as Lou Reed does when I'm his age:

(Photo from some stranger on the internet; thanks, stranger!)
Not necessarily because he looks good-- at least, in any sort of objective or quantifiable sense. I suppose there are people his age (65) who look a lot better, but when I get to 65 I want to look as much like Lou Reed looks right now as I can possibly manage. Because here's a guy who's been through more than enough, who has done what would seem immeasurable injury to himself through years of self-abuse subsequent to being abused by his family and electrocuted, like Carl Solomon, at Rockland, yet he looks... fine. He doesn't look great, but who wants to? Instead, he looks like a shrug, a smirk, and a snort, and it's glorious. He looks the way the best songs on his record New York (1988) sound-- wise, wry, and unconquerable.

I don't usually pay very much attention to anything he's done since 1973, but I grew up on Transformer and virtually everything the Velvet Underground ever recorded; I have much love and respect for that band and that particular solo record. I've never had much affection for Reed as a person-- until recently my feelings for him have been closer to contempt and dismissal. As I get older, though, I find I have a grudging respect for his utter unwillingness to endure what he feels to be bullshit, even if it does manifest itself in self-aggrandized arrogance. To paraphrase John Cale in a recent issue of Mojo, you can't really expect anyone to live the life that Reed has endured and turn out nice, even if that means you have to live with the fact that he's a jerk.

New York is, in a lot of ways, a jerk record, but in no way devoid of real, if scaly, emotion. It's arrogant and disdainful but largely of those things most deserving of disdain. The attitude of the record is akin to that of Hunter Thompson, who said of the Bush administration in one of his last writings (the first, however, to be relevant in some years), "I piss down the throats of these Nazis, and I'm too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.” As many have said before, New York is a grown up record, marked by the cynicism and wrath of years of resentment. Thank god-- it provides dose of real feeling generally absent among the later output of rock-and-rollers of yore. As a document of aging, New York is phenomenal. Tracks like "Romeo Had Juliet" and "Dirty Blvd." are expressions of perspective from a personality sharpened, not daunted, by age.

I spend a lot of time thinking about getting older, and too often my feelings are grounded in dread. From time to time, I need to be reminded that there's more than one way to get old, and that it's entirely possible to be on your way to 70 and still look as cool as you sound. I will count myself lucky if I get to the age of 65 and wear my years so well without varnish or apology.

(Photo from Reed's website; don't sue, I'm broke!)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

My all-time favourite record:

It took me 11 months to find a copy of Television's Marquee Moon in 1998. Someone (Joel Taylor? Darren Peacock?) brought it over to my house and played it for me in the fall of 1997 and from that point on I was obsessed with finding it, but it had been out of print for years and required a lengthy search. I could, perhaps, have ordered it, but at that point mint copies were going for $50-$60 on collector websites, and besides, I wanted to seek it out until I had it in my hand. There's a thrill in that you can't find through mail-order.

Like a lot of bands for whom I searched obsessively at one point, I had always been aware of Television and had a couple of tracks that I liked on compilations. They were a band I knew I'd eventually get a record by and like, but I was never driven to seek them out, at least not until whoever it was stopped by my apartment one afternoon after shopping at (Montreal's late) Disquivel and dropped the platter on my turntable. In about twenty minutes they went instantly from a band that seemed promising to the greatest music I'd ever heard. Over the next year, I made weekly trips to every used-vinyl store in town looking for the record and turned up nothing, growing gradually ever more frustrated and conversely convincing myself that the more I worked to find it, the harder it would be for it to live up to my expectations (as certain other highly sought-after records had likewise failed). Finally after ten months of searching, the venerable Simon Harvey found a copy for me in Toronto and handed it off to me as I passed through town en route someplace else. Unfortunately, I squirreled it away so safely that I neglected to bring it with me on my departure and left it at my pal Zoe's house. I could have had her (or Simon in the first place) mail it to me, but that took away part of the quest element of it all. Two months after that, Darren alerted me that he'd seen a copy at Disquivel and I rushed over post-haste to snap it up.

I can't say anything critically about this record that hasn't already been said, and I can't give it more praise than it already has. Everyone who's serious about art rock, NY punk, guitar rock, or "alternative" music agrees it's a masterpiece and that's for good reason. It's hard to say anything worthwhile about something great that everyone likes, and truly the only statement about the album (beyond Nick Kent's famous NME review) that still bears repeating is Patti Smith's description of Tom Verlaine's guitar playing as "sounding like a thousand bluebirds screaming."

But I will tell you this: I'm not one of those vinyl people, really. I like getting records on vinyl when I can and at times it seems like they sound better than CDs, but I'm relatively easygoing about format (I still have 200+ cassettes) so long as I can hear the song I want to. Even so, Marquee Moon makes the most sense as a vinyl LP, and the day it makes the most sense is a day like today, a sunny but breezy Saturday afternoon in late summer upon which you might go out for breakfast or might stay in and read the Globe & Mail but either way you have a good strong cup of coffee, probably espresso, and when breakfast is done you make a second and you put this record on and lie down on the sofa. This sofa should be near the window and there should be enough air coming it that it's not too hot and you can smell the world outside, hear the various things that are happening (whether you live downtown like I used to when I got this album or outside of downtown or in the suburbs or the country, whatever incidental sound around you will be made perfect by the music), and taste your coffee with the freshness of late summer air. Then you turn the stereo up and you listen to the first side, then the second side, then the first side again, then the second once more, then you flip and continue until some sort of obligation forces you to finally (and regretfully) leave the house. You can read--something you feel good about, not just the paper or anything for work or school--or you can not. You can stare at the record with its famous Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo of the band, and wonder at great length about the intensity of their veins and whether any of them were close to healthy when the photograph was taken, and you can wonder whether the album is expressing something about the state of their health, or whether it's a statement against health. You can stare and wonder about all kinds of things; you can even start to drift off for a while, and then drift on again. But you must listen-- after nearly ten years of consistent enjoyment of Marquee Moon, this is the best means I have found of enjoying it absolutely. And the most amazing thing is that it's never gotten tired, never boring. Despite having played this record more than anything else I own, it still manages to thrill and surprise me, every time. A record this good demands a certain purity of enjoyment, so I strongly advise you to listen to it at least once in the manner described above. It won't ever disappoint you.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The under-appreciated: The Old Noise (2001) and Pyrokinesis (2003) by Jerk With A Bomb

The related bands Black Mountain and the Pink Mountaintops have received a great deal of acclaim from critics and fans alike-- that's fine. I haven't been totally taken with either band, and though I'd never say I disliked what they're doing, each plays too much in the mould of 70s rock and 60s psych for my tastes. However, I have nothing but love for their shared predecessor, Jerk With A Bomb, who released their last album in 2003 before regrouping into their two better-known progeny.

When JWAB passed through Montreal in May of 2001, I had no idea what to expect from them beyond a glowing recommendation from a friend recently transplanted from out West. We crowded into the tiny Barfly along with seemingly every other Victoria/Vancouver expat in the city and I was surprised to discover the band that had come so highly recommended was only a two-piece consisting of one guy with a guitar and another who simultaneously played organ with his left hand and drums with his right hand and feet. I'd seen my share of two-piece bands and generally found them acceptable but lacking--either they played two instruments well but left the absence of a third apparent, or they played more than two instruments at once, got confused, and sacrificed proficiency for the gimmickry of multi-instrumentalism. I wasn't, therefore, expecting to be blown away, which made my astonishment when the band began to play that much more acute. As a two-piece, Jerk With A Bomb was technically proficient enough that they sounded convincingly like three musicians, but more than that, the songs were great. They worked hard through their set, played encores to the wildly applauding crowd, and demurred to insistent demands for more that they were out of songs. A voice from the back of the room shouted, "You can't leave. We'll kill you." Chuckling, they bowed to audience pressure and repeated some of their earlier songs before the crowd would finally let them go home.

Live, JWAB was dense and intense. Their songs fit together perfectly and they played them with awe-inspiring skill, so much so that the whole crowd seemed to be watching carefully with consistent amazement that the band kept pulling it off. There were danceable numbers and the room shook for them, and slow mournful numbers to which we swayed, and thus the audience seemed to be in profound unity with the band. It would have been hard, at that point, to imagine JWAB outside of the setting of a tiny grimy bar filled with adoring fans hanging from every note.

On record, however, JWAB makes different use of space-- their arrangements are looser, sparser, sadder, but while their live performance was humble, in JWAB's recorded work there's a delicious contrast between lurching misery and the nihilistic cockiness of its delivery. This friction certainly gives the records their distinctive character. The debut JWAB LP, Death To False Metal (1999?), has some of this charm and is a thoroughly enjoyable record that borders at moments on pop and stands up well to repeated playing, but the band really grows into itself on their second record, The Old Noise, and their final release, Pyrokinesis, both of which hum with a distinct sound which would not be mistaken for another band.

Jerk With A Bomb got compared to a variety of other artists (Nick Cave, Smog, Calexico, etc.), most of whom they didn't really sound like, but while they share sonic qualities with other dark and rootsy bands, JWAB's sound is particular enough to be almost always recognizable. While there's enough range among the songs to prevent them from being boring or repetitive, they all roll out at a pace between a dirge and a shuffle, sounding funereal at either speed. The instruments are simple guitar and drums and organ with little embellishment beyond some echo and tremolo, and they play along a very particular line between country/folk and rock and roll. The sound is warm and organic and feels very intimate-- The Old Noise sounds convincingly like the band is playing in the listener's living room.

Thus there's a certain frankness as singer Steve McBean gasps, groans, whispers, and wails his lamentations, all of which sound wholly sick with grief, a sadness echoed all throughout the arrangement. The Old Noise is a heavily recorded record, with drums that sound cavernous, an organ like an open wound, and guitar that holds it back like gauze. The chord progressions seal the gloom-- the songs don't just flirt with minor keys, they writhe in them. Even a more upbeat number like "No Amount of Pills" is almost dreamlike in the depth of its helplessness, despair, and surrender. But rather than being overwhelming, there's a delicate balance between the anguish and the danceable that makes The Old Noise infinitely listenable. Every song sounds great, no matter how sad, and between engaging intimacy and fascinating emotional hollowness it practically begs for close attention.

Pyrokinesis adds a perhaps unnecessary third member, whose presence is not so obvious but probably contributes to the incredible murk that colours the record. More carefully recorded, the last JWAB album is louder and clearer and consequently runs between being more distinct and sparse than its predecessor and far muddier when the instruments all blend in at once. A few critics have recognized a "stoner rock" influence in Pyrokinesis, but to me that seems unfair-- so much stoner rock predisposes a stoner listenership by providing repetitive and derivative riffage wound around tired buttrock cliche, but this record remains fresh and true and sad. Even where the stoner sound is most evident, with tracks like "On the Rails," JWAB maintains its originality, toying here and there with elements of the genre rather than simply taking the mantle on and playing by the rules. Though it has several of rave-up numbers, Pyrokinesis seems like a slower album, and is even darker than The Old Noise. The album's key track is the six-minute trudge "Among Thieves," a song almost otherworldly in its despair, heightened by the power of its smudging, suffocating organ and the play between sparsity and density in its sound. It's never quiet-- like the whole album, even its quiet moments are quietly crushing-- but as it moves from the gentle spaces between notes to the huge warm waves of sound at its chorus, the interplay is just delicious. With this song JWAB perfect everything they had been working towards. They're in absolute top form here,-- "Among Thieves" is a perfect expression of sadness, disillusionment, and surrender that's uniformly strong and moving both in its construction and in the way it's played. It's a fantastic song on what is already a fine album.

"Those Hard Wrecks," the second last track on Pyrokinesis, is refreshing as a simple rock song that sounds almost like The Band or the Stones without ever forgetting the inherent gloom of the rest of the record (and the record before). It works here as a palate cleanser and should have been followed by a rich dessert of a final track. However, the title track which ends the album is its only minor misstep-- a short and halfway silly song, it seems unfinished and leaves the record on an uneven note. However, given the strength of everything that comes before it, this seems almost calculated to inspire the listener to put it on from the beginning once more.

I was disappointed to hear that Jerk With A Bomb were nominally breaking up, and doubly disappointed to discover their two offshoots were pursuing sounds that didn't entirely interest me, but it makes sense-- after Pyrokinesis it would have been hard for the band to continue putting out records without retreading material they'd already perfected. As such, Jerk With A Bomb's three records, and particularly their last two, are a complete package. They did very well what they set out to do, and they then moved on to other things. For that, I can only salute them.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Diary entry: Aug 1-3, 2006: America (Part One)

The massive heat of the past couple of days has been reminding me of exactly one year ago, when it was just as hot (if not hotter), and Ang and I, plus our friends Anne and Victoria, drove to Washington DC to see one of the last 3 Sleater-Kinney shows. I originally posted this account of the trip elsewhere, but it seems worth reposting if only in honour of the amazing heat (42c/106f humidex in Montreal yesterday afternoon). It's really long, so I'm posting it in two parts. Here:


So Tuesday morning, after too few hours of uneasy slumber, Angie and I wake to the alarm at 6am. We'd been stressed out the previous night trying to help get Greg ready to depart Montreal for indefinite travel and then dealing with a bunch of organizational stuff for the trip. We eat our breakfast and I have a cup of coffee and we take a taxi to the rental place with our huge bag of food, bag of pillows (thanks for the suggestion, Katie!), knapsacks, and sleeping bags. Anne arrives after us and we findout the car we were getting is not the inconspicuous sedan she'd booked, but an electric blue PT-Cruiser. Huh. Victo hasto run an errand for Anne, so she arrives last to find us sitting outside the rental spot in this absurd vehicle. Off we go-- first to drive around the city to run another errand, then slightly lost with the highways, and finally over the Champlain bridge.

Waiting in the huge lines for the border some woman in a minivan then hits our spotless PT-Cruiser at low speed trying to bud in line. She dents and scrapes the back but not too badly. As I'm getting her name and number and license plate info, she said, "I... I just couldn't believe that no one was in that centre lane." I said, "Guess they could tell there wasn't enough room, huh?" Border crossing is easy and then we're in America.

The driving isokay. I do it all myself because Anne hasbeen up all night the night before and she and Victo are sleeping comfortably in the back seats. Then Ang is also sleeping. There are a couple of moments when I am almost sleeping too, but rest stops and exciting US sodas and caustic snacks kept me alert. The farther south we get the hotter it becomes. I didn't realize it's this east-coast heatwave-- I just thought it was always like that down there. When we get out at the Kingston rest stop in NY, or the Walt Whitman rest stop (!) in New Jersey, the heat radiating off of the largely empty parking lot is like nothing else I've ever felt. Interesting set-up, I find myself thinking.

We arrive in DC just after 8pm. Mapquest gets us right to the club. By that point we've noticed that DC seemed kind of different than other places we've been-- the buildings aredifferent, for one, but there are also a lot of them boarded up, and the streets seem to go from looking really nice to really rough back to really nice in the same block or two. I've been warned by a couple of people that DC is a really heavy place and that I should watch my back, but what do you do with advice like that other than to feel a little more nervous than usual? We pull around the club and pass a bunch of enthusiastic fellows wearing fluorescent "SECURE PARKING" t-shirts trying to block the street and wave us into an old warehouse. "If they have to say 'secure' on their t-shirts," says Victo, "does that make you feel that secure?" The presence of "secure parking," however, convinces us that maybe we shouldn't park the shiny blue PT-cruiser on the street, so we see dudes in 9:30 Club t-shirts waving towards a parking lot (fenced in with barbed wire on top) and park there for $10. We ask the friendly lot guy ("You drove from CANADA? Welcome! Welcome!") about parking safely. He says, "In DC?" I say, "Yeah...?" He says, "Well, there isn't any place in DC where you can park safely on the street, so you'd probably want to park over night in a lot. If you can't, well, take your chances. There's a pretty good chance your car'll be left alone, but if not it might just be kids scratching it up or smashing the headlights or the windows." Huh.

We get inside and discover the 9:30 club has a kitchen with food, which we eat with the kind of gusto only possible when you've had nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and rest stop snacks for 14 hours. The Rogers Sisters go on and we watch-- they're better than when I saw them in Montreal, but I'm not that interested. Far more interesting is my looking around the crowd and realizing that as far as I can tell, there are no black people in the room. On our way in, we've seen almost entirely black people, and I recalled hearing that DC is black by a pretty large majority. Why, then, is the show crowd almost entirely white? What is it about this music that determines it wouldn't appeal to black people? I'd wondered that kind of thing before (like when I was at the Loud House with Teacher Mike and he saw a black dude in one of the bands and said, "Hey, cool, for once I'm not the only black guy in the room!") but it never seemed as predominant a consideration as in DC, where we've seen hardly any white people until we get to the venue, at which point we see only whites. I'm feeling distinctly uneasy about this, saying to Ang, "Do you get the feeling like we're a part of something much bigger than we understand, and that it's a bad thing? Don't you figure there's something really wrong with this?"

Gear-tech people are setting up SK's stuff and we've positioned ourselves early to the left, in front of Carrie's amps (Vox! Just like I play! Only not nearly as well!), and the techs are getting everything tuned and set. Then a guy in a 9:30 Club t-shirt who's previously been testing the mics comes on stage and says to the crowd, "How you all doing?" The crowd cheers. He says, "I suspect you're not going to be in such a good mood when I tell you what I have to say. The transformers for the club are completely overheated and overloaded and the fire marshal is here. By his order, the show tonight is cancelled. We need to evacuate the building immediately by the BACK, away from the transformers, because we need to shut down power to the whole block as soon as possible to avoid a possible explosion."

As Greg predicted when I told him this story, I kind of knew this was going to happen. You don't drive 12 hours into the worst heat you've ever experienced to have everything work out. That's not how things work. As we file outside without saying anything, I hear a fellow behind me complaining about how far he came for this. I say, "Man, I came from Montreal for this. 12 hours in a car." He says, "Montreal? That's nothing. I flew in from Calgary." I say, "Whoa, you win. Ouch."

We're dying of heat, we haven't found Angela, the person we were supposed to stay with, nor Mary Timony, who Anne needed to swap a snare stand with, so we get into the car, turn the air conditioning on, and sit a second in silence.

"That's it," said Victo. "Something really, really good had better happen. Things don't get this unlucky without something good happening. Something has to happen."

...continued in next post.

Diary entry: Aug 1-3, 2006: America (Part Two)

We sit in the air-conditioned car a while as the parking lot empties and debate what we could do next. Victo wants to go to NYC the next night even the show's been sold out for months. She says we might be able to get tickets on the street for some insane markup. I'm not sure I can pay for that. She says she'll loan me the money but I'm still uncertain, more about whether it's worth the effort to forestall defeat after driving 12 hours for nothing. We get out of the car.

Though Victo has been talking over cel with Angela (guitarist of DC band Partyline; Anne and Victo opened for them a week or two ago) who we're supposed to stay with, we haven't actually met up with her yet. We file out to the area near the front of the club (though the street in front is full of firetrucks and fire marshal people directing people away) and take a seat on a curb, four of us in a row, chins in hands, looking as dejected as we feel. We see Ian MacKaye and Guy Piccioto walk by, also looking unimpressed with the situation. Then a cheery looking fellow rolls up on a bicycle.

"Hey guys," he says, "What's going on with the show? Is it over? What's with all the firetrucks?"

Victo looks up and says, "Jerry?" At this point I realize that I've seen this guy's band before-- he's in French Toast with James Canty and I recall their show at Casa in 2002 descending into an all-out dance party which they extended by improvising jams when they ran out of songs: a fine time. I find out around about 30 hours later that he was also the unofficial fifth member of Fugazi. Cool. French Toast had played earlier this winter but I skipped the show for dumb reasons-- however, Victo and Anne's band opened for them and put them up that evening. Jerry says, "Victoria?! What are you doing here?"

We're introduced. Victo tells our sad story and Jerry agrees that this is, indeed, a stone-cold bummer. He also explains that DC's built in a swamp, which guarantees that even in the evening, the crushing summer humidity never breaks ("And the winters suck too, but you should see this place in the spring and fall!" he assures us). We're noticing this. It's 11pm and it's still hotter than I've been all year. But more importantly, when Victo tells Jerry that we're considering NYC (which I, secretly, am not), he says, "Listen. Give me your cel phone numbers. I don't want to guarantee you anything at all, but I'd like to see if I can try to do something for you. I've known the band for years and years and they're great people, so I'd like to find out if there's any chance at all they could maybe put you on the guest list for the New York show. It's a shame that you'd come all this way and not even see them." We are incredibly grateful for this, but it doesn't sound like the kind of thing that'd work out. Jerry heads off and we're fully appreciative of him, but we're feeling pretty bummed.

Finally we meet Angela, who is, frankly, kind of bizarre, but in a very friendly and welcoming way. We cram her into the back seat with Anne and Victo and head back to her apartment, about five or six blocks away. It's an interesting area, and I can't get a grasp on it. There are a lot of houses and apartments that look nicely-maintained, but as I look more carefully I realize there are also a lot that are boarded up or totally overgrown and falling down. I'm always a little on edge when I'm in big US cities and I'm never sure if that's justified or not-- we talked this over in the car later and concluded that we're just not used to being places where guns may be a part of the equation, so we assume there are guns everywhere and freak out accordingly. The area looks okay, more or less, though-- there are some friendly looking folks out walking dogs and generally not seeming frightening, so I figure I'm overreacting.

We go into Angela's apartment building and I'm desperate for the relief of air conditioning. So when she opens her door and we discover her apartment's about 10 degrees hotter than outside, I'm perplexed to the point that my brain almost shuts down from the confusion. Doesn't everyone in an absurdly hot climate live in air conditioning? Even the rougher looking houses on the street all seemed to have air conditioners in the windows. Angela, it turns out, has an air conditioner after all-- it's just cheap and doesn't work, but in honour of helping it try, she's shut all the windows (or they may be sealed-- we're not sure). She doesn't have ANY OTHER FANS. All she's got is one air conditioner dribbling lukewarm air that is indeed colder than the air in her 4-room apartment, but then most things would be.

We decide to go to the Black Cat club to have something to do, but when we get there our mood does not improve, particularly since some jerk figures it's funny to put all of Dig Me Out on the jukebox. Angela's off talking to friends and the four of us are glumly staring at the wall, so we decide to head back. Walking back up some large street that looks like it'd be pretty safe during the daytime, we're unsure of how safe we actually are. A family of six or seven is making their way towards us pushing shopping carts and carrying bags full of belongings-- my thought is they're homeless, but Ang figures since it's the 1st, they're moving (at 1:30am). This further drives home the fact that our problems are indeed of the first-world variety: driving 13 hours to go to a concert that gets canceled seems a ridiculous concern compared to the apparent lots of some people we're seeing on the street.

There are a lot of dudes just kind of hanging around and staring what feels like aggressively and I'm not sure whether this should or shouldn't be unsettling. People seem to just hang around much more in the states than in Montreal-- it's rare to walk around a major intersection at home and see five or ten or fifteen dudes just leaning against buildings, utility posts, or mailboxes, watching people go by. It might not be threatening at all to get stared down by some of these guys, but I'm just not sure. We go to a 7-11 that's entirely out of bottled water and are walking towards Angela's place when we pass a homeless dude who's drunkenly yelling, "I'm half white! I'm not dangerous." This is half-directed at us, but the guy's kind of ranting, so Ang and Victo and Anne walk past him. As I pass him he says something to me, so I respond by asking him how he's doing. He says, "I'm homeless, I'm harmless, and you're the first person who's talked to me all day." I say, "I'm real sorry to hear that, man." He says, "I'm half white." I say, "Doesn't matter what colour you are, so long as you're a decent person." He extends his hand and we shake. "You're right. You're a nice guy. It's real nice of you to talk to me," he says. "My name's Pierre. I'm a person." He pulls out his state ID and shows me. "See," he says, "I'm just a guy. How come your friends all just walked by me?" I said, "I don't think they thought you were talking to them." He says, "That's very rude, just walk by someone like that. You're a good person, but they aren't." He's starting to be more aggressive. I say, "Hey, they're good people. We've had a real long day and things aren't going very well for us." Pierre is annoyed at this and getting more aggressive about why people might not respond to him. I try again to explain that we've had a rough day and he says, "Your day's rough? I'm homeless!" which we concede is, by all means, a great deal rougher than we've had it. Pierre starts demanding to know why Ang and Anne and Victo didn't talk to him and they say they're sorry, tired, etc. So he starts demanding that each of us give him fifty cents. I dig in my pocket and give him what little change than I have, as does everyone, just hoping we can walk away before he gets more aggressive than he's becoming. We don't have much money between us and he's not impressed with his. He starts making comments about "rating" the kindness of each person, all the while telling me, "Not you, you're a nice guy, but these people...", which makes none of us comfortable. The whole scene is bizarre. We really just want to get back to where we know where we are.

Pierre lets us go, muttering that we make him ashamed to be half-white, and we turn down the street where we're heading to discover that the smoke we've been smelling the last couple of minutes is a car on fire in the middle of the street at the end of the block. There's a group of unfriendly-looking toughs around it, tending to it somehow. Anne and Victo begin saying, "We'd better go check that our car's okay," to which I reply, "No way, man. Our car's three blocks away and around that corner. It's fine." They say, "Let's just go check." I say, "Those dudes down there don't look very welcoming and whatever the deal with the car is, whether they're starting it or putting it out, they've got it under control. They don't need our help." Ang agrees with me, and Victo and Anne decide maybe we're right, so we let ourselves back into Angela's strange apartment, the sparse decor of which has been chosen out of the absolute ugliest of Salvation Army cast-offs. There are only two chairs in the apartment and it's the least welcoming home I've ever seen. Yet it's a place to stay, generously offered by someone who's nearly a stranger, and I'm sure glad we're not sleeping in the car.

Inside, it's no cooler than it was. We're spreading sleeping bags out on small available area of the floor to give us something to lie on and lie down as Angela arrives home. She's sleeping in her bedroom with the window sealed, no fan, nothing. I can't believe it. It's very giving of her not to stick us in there, but it's not that much cooler where we are. Somehow I manage to fall asleep-- having been awake since 6am on three hours sleep helps, but within an hour I wake up, absolutely certain I'm about to throw up. There are streams of sweat all over me and I've been asleep-- I"ve never been this hot in my life. I get up and stand in front of the air conditioner, which allows me to get a full lungful of cooler air, but I still feel sick. Finally I stagger through Angela's room into the bathroom, where my body decides that maybe I don't need to puke after all. I stagger back into the room where we're sleeping, lie down, and am immediately on the edge of vomiting again. I consider my options: garbage pail in our room, the smell of which would make sleep impossible for all. Bathroom, waking Angela-- faux pas. Kitchen sink: might not be able to wash it down. These thoughts do not temper my nausea. I stand in front of the air conditioner again considering it and see that Ang's awake. I tell her I'm sick and she gives me a bottle of water that's remained hot from being in the car. It makes me feel a little better, pushes back the lump of bile-infused matter that's rising in my esophagus, but doesn't take the nausea away. I say, dramatically "This is about the worst night I've ever had." She says, "Me too." I don't say it, but all I want to do is leave, get in the car, drive to a cheap motel with air conditioning, and shovel the four of us into one room-- except I don't feel safe enough outside to walk to the car with all our knapsacks and sleeping bags and pillows. There's a police helicopter circling around and around above us, spotlight trained all over, and it doesn't make me feel any safer. It's the strangest feeling of being trapped, one that I realize at the time i was probably overstating, but nonetheless I don't't feel good choosing between fear and advanced discomfort. Finally I manage to fall asleep and miraculously sleep until after eight.

After Angela leaves in the morning (she is truly kind, after all, and she's been as helpful as she could), we unanimously decide to leave DC forever as soon as we can. Turns out we all had the motel idea; we all didn't say it both for fear of offending Angela, and fear of going outside to where hard-looking dudes were setting cars on fire. We end up arguing over whether or not we should immediately try to get money back for our tickets. I say we should wait until we're home, but Anne wants to work it out while we're there. Everybody snaps at one another, fuelled by hunger, exhaustion, crankiness, and anxiety. Finally we go out for breakfast and when we have food in us we start to feel a little better. We agree that the best thing is to go straight home to Montreal, cut our losses, not mess around with NYC, and chalk it up to an experience we can learn from.

[incidentally, three months later I notice that Partyline has filmed portions of a video in the room where we slept (the parts where they seem to be playing in a house). All of the musical equipment visible was in place when we stayed there, leaving us only a tiny portion of floor in front of it all. That's no complaint-- Angela not only gave us a place to sleep, but offered us the room with the air conditioner in it, which makes her damned kind in my book. But it did make the accommodations a little cramped.]

We finish our breakfasts and wait until noon in the sweet coffee shop that's playing some sort of classic soul radio station (I could stay there for a long ass time), hit up a drugstore so Ang can get some migraine medication we don't have at home and I can get some hard-to-find pomade, and roll over to the 9:30 club, where we do, in fact, get our ticket money back. Huh. We get in the car and away we go, on the road, heading home. We're feeling a lot better with full bellies and the knowledge we'll be home soon enough.

Just past our first rest stop (we're making pretty sweet time), my cel rings. I pick it up (I NEVER do this while i'm driving, and felt bad, but I wanted to make sure we got it). It's Jerry. He says, "Where are you guys? What's the plan?" I say, "Were somewhere in Maryland and we're heading back to Montreal." He says, "You don't feel like risking it in NYC?" I say, "Well, we didn't know what the odds were, and i have to work tomorrow afternoon, plus we have to have the car back by seven."

Jerry says, "Because I just got off the phone with Carrie, and it actually looks pretty good for New York." I said, "What? Really?" He says, "Yeah, she really wants to help you guys, but she's not sure if she can. Chances are pretty good, but it's a matter of whether she can add four extras to their guest list. They filled it up a long time ago so she needs to get in touch with club and find out whether this will mess with capacity, but she's going to try. Does that change your mind at all?" I say, "There's a good chance of that. Can I ask the car?" He says, "Sure, call me back." Two minutes later we call back and tell him we're going to New York. He says, "What about getting back tomorrow?" We say, "We'll drive all night, it's fine." We figure that if we get there at 8:00 and we're not on the list, it'll only take us until 4am to get home. He says he should know even within a couple of hours, so we could be home earlier than that if it doesn't work out. On we go.

I should mention I'm doing all the driving because Anne doesn't like to drive and I'm more comfortable in urban areas. Plus I've slept better than anyone else, miraculously. We arrive in NYC via the Holland Tunnel in rush hour-- we're right downtown, following instructions Ang's copied off of Mapquest, in the most intense traffid I've ever seen. Stuck at an intersection, we see three plainclothes security dudes holding plastic handcuffs chasing another guy out of some brand-flagship store through four lanes of traffic. They tag him in a gas station, but he somehow gets away, and they're all running, only in the heat they seem only capable of a slow jog. It's unreal: they look like they're play-chasing him or reliving a scene from memory in slow-motion. We turn the corner, make another couple of turns, jockeying for position with cabbies who make Montreal taxis look like paragons of etiquette, find the club, and finally locate a place to stop behind it. We still haven't heard from Jerry, so Victo calls him. We listen to the conversation-- it starts out kind of sad and uncertain, and she's asking if he thinks we should pay to park the car if we're not sure we'll be able to get in. Halfway through her mood lifts and suddenly she's cheery, and she ends the conversation by saying that he's doing the nicest thing anyone's done for her all year. Turns out halfway through the conversation, James, Jerry's bandmate, got a text message from Carrie saying, "You're on-- 4 peeps on list!" We don't know this yet, but everyone in the car is yelling at the phone, saying, "Thank you Jerry for whatever it is Victoria's so happy about!"

Following this we find an great parking spot, leave the car, find an auxiliary cable for Victo's ipod that allows her to connect it to the car stereo (which she's been coveting for the entire trip, and pleases her greatly), and head through Tompkins Square Park to Kate's Joint, this tremendous vegetarian diner that Philippe had told me about ages back, where I get a non-turkey club sandwich and Ang gets fried unchicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy. It's fantastic.

We walk to the venue, get to go to the head of a huge long line, and go directly to the front left of the stage in front of Carrie's amps. We could have done without the Rogers Sisters again, and the wait for SK is long, but when they come on stage it's all amazing. They open with "Start Together" and the whole floor is bouncing up and down with the crowd. We're in front of the PA, so we hear the band largely from being directly in front of the equipment, and I realize from our proximity to Carrie's amps that she's responsible for all of my favourite guitar lines in all my favourite songs. I'm in awe of her ability-- she takes risks with open strings and notes just on the edge of being in key that she pulls off masterfully. Her playing has the effortless perfect expression of Mike Watt's bass playing or Richard Lloyd when I saw him with Rocket From the Tombs. It's phenomenal. They're dying on stage with the heat and we are too-- Carrie says at one point that the whole room is like a sauna minus the flipflops and strange men in towels. It only gets hotter-- I'm wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt that I'm progressively unbuttoning and i notice toward the end that the three pieces of paper in the breast pocket have turned to pulp from my sweat. I'm dizzy and keep thinking that I have to be able to get us out of NYC and should take it easy, but the show is too damned good-- they play every single song I want to hear except for "The End of You," which I can see is actually listed on the set list for their 9-song encore, but they leave out, assumedly because it's just too fucking hot. Carrie looks like she's lost about ten pounds by the end, and it's not like she's got a lot to lose to begin with. There's an atmosphere of ecstasy in the crowd-- the spontaneous handclaps in the choruus of "Turn It On" are mindblowing and I feel high with the music and the insanity of the previous two days, thinking back to Victo saying that something good had to happen and thinking, "did it ever."

We stagger outside, and my legs and feet are cramped to the point of limping from standing for four hours. At a food market I get a bottle of "vitamin water" with caffeine, a can of Rock Star "energy drink," and a bottle of water. For some reason I don't drink the water, but gulp back the caffeine-and-flavour water and the horrible "energy drink," which is just dumb, a decision that I'll regret when I'm throwing up at dawn into a ditch behind an 18-wheeler at a Robert-Frost-picturesque rest stop in northern new york (poor diet, exhaustion, and carsick from moving to the back seat when Anne was driving). We follow mapquest directions given to us over the phone by Kate who used to live in Montreal, get a little lost, but make it out of the NYC, get significantly more lost but eventually also make it out of New Jersey. I cede the wheel to Anne sometime between four and five when I'm seeing trails off of every lit in front of me. At 8am, we arrive back in Montreal, slurring our words and staggering tired, exactly 48 hours after we left. Whoa.

Happy to be home to our cat and our lovely, welcoming house, Ang and I fall asleep around nine. The end.