Saturday, March 29, 2008

Quasi-Podcast - Venus, Thus March 27 / 2k8

Some folks may be aware that Ang is part of a collective radio show called Venus, broadcasting every Thursday from noon to 2pm on CKUT 90.3 FM here in Montréal. The mandate of the collective is to play the somewhat problematic category of “women’s music”— for many, the term brings to mind primarily the Indigo Girls. Venus, however, defines “women’s music” as any music played, in whole or in part, by a woman or women. Thus, any band of any genre containing at least one woman can be played on Venus.

Over the decade-plus since its founding by my CEGEP colleague Erin MacLeod, the majority of Venus members and hosts have been friends of mine, or have become friends as a result of their working with Ang. As a result, once a year or year and a half, I get asked to do a last-minute fill-in on the show when it turns out that everyone else has gotten sick. Yes, to answer the half-dozen questions I get (even from other DJs and people at the station) every time this occurs, there's no law against "a dude" doing Venus when the entire crew has been wiped out by, say, the Norwalk virus. Men can also major in women's studies too. Amazing, huh?

Ang was feeling ill on Wednesday night, and I mentioned in passing that I could cover for her if she was a wreck the next morning and for some reason no one else could do it, which seemed an unlikely event. I didn’t think about it again until Ang woke me up the next morning looking bleary and awful and said, “So you can do the show, right?” Thus, Thursday I did Venus and today I'm putting it up for you to listen to. I pulled music for the show in a bit of a hurry, but having not done radio in over a year my set seemed fresh enough to me. You can download the show in two parts, for as long as Sendspace keeps the links open, and later on in a lower bitrate off of the CKUT-FM station archives (at

Part one (Skip ahead to 2:10, unless you want to listen to the tail end of the previous show about freeing Palestine)
Part two (cuts off amid my rundown of last tracks, which you can read below)


Lullabye Arkestra - "Y'make Me Shake"
Mekons - "Club Mekon"

One Reason – “The End Never Mattered”
Mika Miko – “Wild Bore”
Conversions (ex-Crucial Unit! Drumming by Chris Strunk) – “Give Up”
Loli & the Chones – “Pendejo”
Nymphets – “Borstal Breakout”
Brutal Knights – “Living By Yourself”
The Trashwomen – “Date’s On Me”
Shitbirds (early April March) – “Oh Joy!”

Thee Headcoatees – “Davey Crockett”
Doers – “Wicked World”
Gories – “Feral”
The Frumpies (ex-Bikini Kill) – “Wrong Way Round”
The Bell-Rays – “Changing Color”
The Cramps – “Human Fly”
The Kills – “Cheap and Cheerful”

Discount – “Accident Waiting to Happen”
Discount – “Pocket Bomb”
Epoxies – “We’re So Small”
Apples in Stereo – “Mystery”
Superchunk – “Detroit Has a Skyline”
Audrey Ryan – “Dishes and Pills” **(cuts off-- see note)
Millie Croche – “Careful With Guys”

Veda Hille – “This Spring”
Patti Smith – “Gloria”
Electrelane – “To The East”
Gravy Train!!! – “Hella Nervous”
The Gossip – “Red Hott”

Team Dresch – “Freewheel”
Cub – “Go Fish”
The Dagons – “Teeth for Pearls”
Thundrah – “Sinking Ship”
Hrsta – “And We Climb”
Sleater-Kinney – “Jumpers”

** - [I cut this off by accident, but subconsciously perhaps not so, because a publicist on behalf of Ms. Ryan called me directly to ask that I play this and talk about her upcoming show. He namechecked Venus member Catherine, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and played it on her behalf. I’m very proud that community radio in Canada is DJ-programmed, without interference from music industry people, and I was none too thrilled to have some guy call me up on air to pull on my coat about playing his artist instead of going to the music dept where he’s supposed to (and where they’ll tell him it’s up to DJs to play what they wish). Jerk then called back afterwards just as I was going on the air and said, “So you kind of fumbled that one, huh?” Nice. Catherine called to say hi a little later and I told her about it. She had no idea who the dude was and was none too thrilled.]

Friday, March 21, 2008

Discount: Half Fiction vs. Crash Diagnostic, vs. the Kills

I was in Florida recently, visiting family who rented a condo by the beach near Melbourne. It was a fine vacation for the most part, except for the touchiness that comes of various branches of the family tree in closer confines than usual for a longer period of time than anyone's accustomed to. So Ang and I took breaks some days with trips into town and farther-- and most of the time we listened to Discount, Vero Beach's teenage pop-punk would-have-beens whose breakup made way for their seemingly demon-possessed singer Alison Mosshart to form The Kills with British 90s-emo-boy turned paparazzi-bait Jamie Hince.

I've never liked the Kills-- I saw them at Montreal's Sala Rossa on their first tour in 2003 and found their late arrival to smacked-out garage blues totally unremarkable. They were doing little more than aping the equally tiresome Royal Trux, whose skag-rock usually forgot that Johnny Thunders wrote great songs in addition to being a dashing junkie. I watched unconvinced as Mosshart and Hince (or VV and Hotel, as they'd cringingly rechristened themselves) gambolled about the stage playing rawk gawds, and amping up some role-play routine where they pretended to have a creepy abusive relationship. They primped, attitudinal and devil-may-care, but the substandard garage rock they squeezed out was flat and rehearsed and lacking totally in danger or surprise--hardly worth copping attitude over. It hurt the most, though, because I'd loved Discount, and though prior to the live Kills set I'd found their debut EP uninspired and pretentious, I was convinced that seeing Alison (uh, VV?) on stage again would redeem everything.

The first time I saw Discount was at the old Café Chaos on St Denis, across from the Cartier-Latin theatre, in October of 1999. They played a more-than-sold out show with Born Dead Icons and Fifth Hour Hero, both still in the relatively early stages of their trajectories. Jeff "Ghost Pine" Miller insisted I come, though at the time I was still listening largely to dumb garage punk and looked down on pop-punk for not being, er, genuine enough (an absurd thought from the point of view of garage rock, but I was in my early 20s). Jeff kept telling me it would be worth it, first when he convinced me to meet up with him, then when we got turned away at the door of the sold out show, then at the coffee shop where we waited through the opening bands, and finally before sneaking in with the crowd before the headline set.

We nudged our way to the front through the morass as Discount careened into their first song, and my first impression was that they were fronted by a young girl on a lot of drugs. It took me a few minutes to recognize that the stupourous trance that gripped Mosshart disappeared at the end of each song, when she'd suddenly become a shy girl in her late teens, eyes downcast and chin shrugged into her chest, quietly saying a few words about the band and their tour or thanking people for clapping. Then a new song'd start and she'd be once more gripped with musical fits. It could have been pretentious, were it not simply so weird-- there was nothing cool about her comportment, which suggested equal parts spiritual possession, traumatic shock, and grand-mal seizure. Mosshart looked crazed, her eyes fixing at random on the floor and ceiling and speakers, mouth muttering and contorting and hanging open when she wasn't singing, as she snapped at herself totally out of time with the music, contracting, expanding, shaking uncontrollably and apparently surprising herself. Utterly awkward in the most refreshing way, it appeared to be happening beyond her control, and while there were moments when she looked embarrassed by it, these were always overtaken and distracted by her own performance.

The greatest contrast was, however, her singing-- she sang sweetly, in a young, pure voice, with high melody and yearning earnestness. The band behind this was tight and loud and they played what would probably be called, derisively, pop-punk. It was melodious, and it was punk too-- loud and exhilarating rock and roll that you could shake to, which I was doing, startled by how good the music was and totally focused on the band, hoping as one hopes amidst all great sets that they would never stop playing and that time would instead stop and leave me suspended aloft in the feeling of joy that I felt hearing and watching them play.

It would be a shame to write Discount off as pop-punk the same way one sweeps aside the army of overproduced boy bands begging meal tickets from the extreme-sport-energy-drink demographic. Jawbreaker influence aside, Discount didn't quite sound like anyone else at the time, and if they did it was only because they sounded young. They sounded mainly like themselves, and expressed the emotions and concerns of young people in precisely the manner as punk rock is supposed to. They'd been booked, I recall, by local kids in an anarchist collective venue, and were touring across North America playing shows in houses and basements, bookstores, cafes, bars, whatever, at what might have been a post-internet but pre-file sharing, pre-Myspace height of actually independent music. They were young and they made music about being young for young people. As many problems are inherent in that aside, they did it perfectly and their records today resonate with that youth above all.

Last week in Florida, Ang and I listened to Half Fiction and the second disc of the band's Singles collection, featuring mostly tracks from the later years. Because we were staying less than an hour from Vero Beach, Discount's hometown, it seemed appropriate, but there's something doubly satisfying about complementing the sun and warm salt-seasoned air with youthfully exhuberant songs played hard and and melodic and loud. We gave both albums plenty of play, which I supplemented by listening to the Love, Billy EP of Billy Bragg covers on the beach, and concluded that Discount was still a great band.

But I came to the following conclusion too-- the band was really at its apex when they recorded Half-Fiction. It's the best Discount album-- their debut, Ataxia's Alright Tonight, is good but uncertain juvenalia, and their final album, Crash Diagnostic is ambitious, but occasionally too much so. In the middle, Half-Fiction is the perfect balance. It's achingly well-played, tight, and full of driving momentum, and Mosshart's voice is sweet and plaintive, but more than that she sounds frank. Half-Fiction as an album sounds like someone trying to tell you something about themselves, including the uncomfortable things, but not dwelling on them. At no point does the record sound like it cares or even knows that anyone's listening. Instead, it records a band lost in trying to play as well as they can to say what they want to say about what they feel. No one could sensibly apply Negative Approach's accusation to Half-Fiction-era Discount-- they may not have been for everyone, but they're weren't trying to be something they were not. There's almost an utter lack of posture in this record (particularly when considered in hindsight against The Kills, for whom posturing is central and actual expression sounds almost tertiary), and I'm not entirely sure who to blame for that, except perhaps that the band was young enough to have believed in punk's ethos that it's enough to say what you feel.

By contrast, Crash Diagnostic is the sound of a band aware of how many people are listening, and trying to rise to the demand of that. Interviews prior to the release of that album found Mosshart and other members of the band sensibly pointing out that they didn't want to go on making the same records forever, they wanted to develop, try new things, and grow. These are obviously important and worthy pursuits for musicians, especially musicians finding themselves acclaimed at an early age. Yet from a listener's perspective, too much of Crash Diagnostic is agonizingly self-aware-- it's an album played for an audience, in direct contrast to Half-Fiction which sounds like a band playing only for themselves. They play with post-rock, pay homage to Fugazi and the DC/Dischord sound in general (drummer Bill Nesper now lives in DC and plays in Dischord band Routineers with former Fort Reno promoter Amanda MacKaye), make the music more difficult, challenging, less direct, all things that were considered important in 2000. There are those little 37-second non-songs of noise and feedback and tape loops; there are spaces left silent and great attention to the dynamic between loud and quiet; there are mysterious lyrics that border equally on the poetic and the unintelligible; there's album design borrowed heavily from Fugazi's graphic style. And there's the album's most obvious lapse, Mosshart's affectation in some songs of a quasi-English accent (now a constant, judging from her interviews as member of the Kills), which can be only partly explained away by recalling that she was 17 when the previous album came out and, at 20 when she made Crash Diagnostic, and was still discovering her voice.

Even then, it's not a bad album by any stretch, and its best songs are just great. Those are the moments when it sounds like Discount forgets, briefly, who they're playing for-- and they sound once more like kids expressing themselves through music, instead of an acclaimed band working on more challenging material. As a whole, Crash Diagnostic ends up sounding like a solid entry into a wide field of competitors, whereas with Half-Fiction, Discount was far and away the best band out there playing young songs for young people. I still quite like Crash Diagnostic and listen to it from time to time (each time remarking, "This is so much better than I remember it being"), but not half as often as I play Half-Fiction, which remains a flawless document-in-song of being young.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed (4AD, 2004)

When I was doing my MA research on literature of the First World War, there was a controversial critical division between the so-called "combat gnostic" literature (that at least written by those who experienced the war, if not actually written in the trenches, as the classic image of the "war poet" implies) and literature about the war written by those who didn't experience it. And while I very much understand and support the attacks on combat gnosticism--that it unjustly glorifies military service, places soldiers in a position beyond civilian criticism, demands that critics prove their manhood in battle, and if not, shut up about things they don't understand--I also understand why some of its proponents stand by it.

The First World War was, after all, a completely new thing, a 4-year non-stop orgy of mass-murder, mass-maiming, and miscellaneous brutality so destructive to the individual psyche that soldiers had to be constantly rotated out of it to keep them from mental collapse. Its continual shelling, gassing, mining, gunfire, and attacks (as well as long stretches of tense boredom) bore utterly no resemblance to anything--even the terrifically brutal things--that had happened before, and it was endured en masse by millions of people, largely men, who returned home to a public that felt it understood what they'd been through because it had read about the heroic exploits of "our Tommies" in propaganda cartoon reports of the war.

Many, like poet Siegfried Sassoon, were justified in arguing that it was nearly impossible to understand the war without having been in it, and others sensibly argued that to attempt to represent the war in words or pictures--even by those who were there-- was necessarily to encourage misunderstanding by placing it in a narrative whereby the public felt they could understand it. Thus, depictions of the war by those who did not see or experience it seem especially suspect. Sure, artists or authors are free to write or draw what the feel they should, but, in the opinion of those who've endured such a particular experience, how are we to trust the creative product of one who represents something of which he or she has not seen?

This is not to say that no one should have an opinion about war who has not experienced it, nor that one should defer ones feelings about war to those who've seen it. It's simply to say that we must understand that war, like so many things in the realm of human experience (eg, forms of violence, illness, pain, discrimination, etc.), may not be fully understood unless one has endured it, and that therefore a description of war by a veteran or civilian who was there--though incapable of approximating or representing the experience-- is probably more trustworthy than one created by an author's imagination.

Likewise, a description of any extreme experience endured by an individual is likely more believable than the same experience described as imagined. For that reason, I'm fascinated by John Darnielle's use of We Shall All Be Healed to tell the story of his addiction to methamphetamine and of the circle of addicts he was a part of. I fancy myself a pretty creative person, but I really can't tell you what the emotions and interactions of a group of people in the third week of a crystal meth bender are like. I just don't have any idea, and I appreciate having a storyteller as careful as Darnielle recall it to the best of his memory.

Darnielle, with his gawky lo-fi folk-rock, is an unlikely narrator of that sort of story, but that judgement betrays my own prejudices. I'm sure anyone from as shitty a family life as Darnielle's is not unlikely to encounter self-medication and addiction-- as he says (in "The Young Thousands"), "The dull pain that you live with isn't getting any duller." I'm as guilty as any other idiot in imagining for a moment that crystal meth addicts are probably trailer-dwelling illiterates, and this album is a deserved slap and continual reminder that addiction welcomes all classes and levels of education.

But that said, Darnielle's nebbish acoustic folk and indie rock nods to "all you tweakers with your hands out" are startling. His voice and music suggests the usual array of harmless "indie" subjects (love, sadness, self-absorption, dissatisfaction with the world, postmodernism), and thus snaps one to attention when he remembers a meth-binge in a Travelodge (in "Palmcorder Yajna," whose chorus foresees the eventual end to this social circle: "the headstones climbed up the hills") or killing in self-defence ("When I worked down at the liquor store, guy with a shotgun came raging through the place / Muscled his way behind the counter, I shot him in the face").

I've been a Mountain Goats fan for a while, thanks to the efforts of my old friend Bobby Lotz to interest me in the band/guy, and at first I was most enamoured of the early ultra-lo-fi records, each beginning with the hum of the boom box on which he recorded them. When Darnielle moved to 4AD and began recording in a studio with (gah!) other musicians, I was wary, but soon fell in love with Tallahassee, the last of the "non-fiction" (?) records. I didn't hear Healed immediately-- I first heard The Sunset Tree, the subsequent album chronicling childhood abuse at the hands of his alcoholic stepfather. Having heard the songs live and lo-fi before hearing the smoothly produced record, it took much longer to interest me, but eventually I grew fascinated with the storytelling and warmed up to the album itself.

At this point, though, Darnielle is like a lot of musicians and writers whose work I've loved long enough that I'm now just interested in them. I will listen to or read everything by, say, Mike Watt, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Ted Leo, or Primo Levi not because of what they write about, but because I feel that I've developed a relationship with them through their work (and, in some cases, in person) and I just want to enjoy the things they make. This has allowed me to, in some cases, forgive lapses in quality by artists I love and respect.

However, in spite of its smooth production, I was startled by the candour and quality of We Shall All Be Healed. There's an atmosphere of personal apocalypse all through this record, as sensibly one supposes there must be in a circle of people engaged in progressive self-destruction. Little details make the stories on this album resound with elegiac believability-- the contents of one addict's notebook ("free-hand drawings of Lon Cheney, blueprints for geodesic domes, recipes for cake") or the image of "guys in biohazard suits, mud caking on their rubber boots" arriving to (assumedly) dismantle a meth lab (perhaps one that alerted the authorities because, as a previous song mentions, it was "a great big drain on the power grid"? Or do meth labs consume power?). Out of context these might be more arbitrary images in the kind of random cataloguing Darnielle's been guilty of at points in the past, but taken together they suggest a deep and ugly backstory that's only told here through implication.

"In the cold clear light of day down here, everyone's a monster," Darnielle sings (in "Letter From Belgium"), "That's cool with all of us, we've been past the point of help since early April." These songs drip with this self-hatred, whether in the narrator wishing (in "Palmcorder Yajna") that, "If anyone comes into our room while we're asleep, I hope they incinerate everybody in it" or in concluding (in "Slow West Vultures"), "We are sleek and beautiful, we are cursed." The characters in Healed are obviously doomed, "chewing [their] tongues off, waiting for the fever to break," being ordered to "wrap this bandanna around your head, don't let anyone see that you're bleeding." They're paranoid, they engage in obsessive behaviour chronicled here and there throughout the album, and they meet the doom they know is coming. Darnielle relates the addict's fatalism in "The Young Thousands," opening with an image of "suspicious cargo" delivered from arriving boats to waiting addicts before quickly pointing out that, "The things that you've got coming will consume you / There's someone waiting out there in an alley with a chain." And even though "The things that you've got coming will do things that you're afraid to," the allure of getting high is strong as well, with the "pleasure index [rising]," "the warm love of God coursing through us."

The album ends with the deceptively fun number "The Story of the Pigs that Ran Straightaway Into the Water," a deliriously cheerful rejoinder to police sending the narrator to prison with the refrain, "I come from Chino, so all your threats are empty." It's oblivious and high and the right spot to end this record-- it suggests the reason why the narrator is alive to recount it all without beginning the story of detoxing in prison, another story entirely. We Shall All Be Healed is therefore as self-contained as the society it describes, ending before the narrator can come down, before the threat of death and misery that looms throughout the album finally likewise descends upon those who've been tempting it so long.

Monday, March 10, 2008

This afternoon I thought of the perfect analogy for the whistle solo in "Pink Elephants" by Oakland/Pensacola's successfully self-destructive ex-band Sexy, off their glorious LP Por Vida (see also: this post about that band from about this time last year). That moment in the song is like hearing wind chimes in the middle of a pounding thunderstorm. Amidst the amazing cacophony of the band thrashing away at its instruments, rendered even noisier through grainy, bottom-dollar production, the whistling cuts cleanly and faintly through like an instrument that only knows how to be pretty when called upon for sound, no matter by whom.

G.I.S.M., a band I'm afraid of:

Here's a surprisingly tame video (from of truly frightening Japanese hardcore legends G.I.S.M. performing "Death Exclamations," one of their better known numbers:

The first few times I heard G.I.S.M., the instrumentation and arrangement seemed far too metallic and the growled vocals didn't interest me. Stories about G.I.S.M.'s lead singer Sakevi and his comportment during their live performances, however, morbidly piqued my interest. Through various sources I heard that Sakevi was known for not just attacking audiences with fists and mic stands, but apparently graduating to brandishing flares, tear gas, chainsaws, and flamethrowers and chasing crowds with them. I assume he never actually hacked up or set anyone on fire (during a show, at least), but he was also purportedly responsible for piping nauseating gas into clubs where G.I.S.M. was playing, and for mass-poisoning audiences by spiking drinks with some mild toxin. Sakevi explained his motivation this way: "Our mission is to recall the mental tension of the people [...] and it would show as a guerilla band shooting out persistantly the fighting spirit against the collapsing world."

Hearing these rumours years after having heard and dismissed G.I.S.M., I became fascinated with the idea that an apparent sociopath would feel it necessary to form a band to "express" his opinions and feelings. How would someone given to these sorts of behaviours translate his feelings into song? That someone of Sakevi's inclination even had the patience to assemble a band and practice to perfect the art of making music to match his feelings about "the collapsing world" was intriguing on its own. Thus, I tracked down and listened to a copy of Detestation, the band's first full-length album.

While I still don't have much taste for metal or for heavily metallic music, I have developed some sort of feeling for Detestation. I don't really like it, but I respect (or, at least, am frightened by) it. In light of details about Sakevi's performances, as well as his institutionalizations and episodes of random offstage violence, the music becomes a lot more ominous. Elements that seemed absurd on first listen now seem unsettling (the same way behaviour that seems "funny" in an otherwise sensible individual becomes a red warning flag in a person with a history of psychosis), and the music itself seems to personify the mental state of the voice apparently leading it. The lyrics and song titles are in fractured, muddled English, which amplifies the feeling (in an English-speaking listener) of disconnection and breakdown. Sakevi's voice delivers with certainty frightening statements which make only partial sense, whose grey areas exacerbate the sinister implication behind them. That voice, incidentally, creeps from a standard Japanese-hardcore growl to delusional-operatic puppet vocals (for example toward the end of "Nih Nightmare") that are a good deal weirder than just growling.

But the growling is weird enough, especially when it's fanatically celebrating "Death, Agony and Screams" (pronounced "dess-uh, aguhr ee-uh scREEz!"), and the guitar-noodling that follows is likewise uneasy-- dizzy and barely in tune, it doesn't sound any more healthy than the vocals. Taken as a whole, the package of the record sounds truly evil. Unlike so many hardcore acts obsessed with toughness and violence and fighting, there's no test of strength inherent in G.I.S.M. Instead, this is music that sounds unwell, as though it lacks the strength to restrain its desire to poison your water supply or set your house on fire while you're asleep.

The video above seems filmed well after the band's mid-80s heyday, and is just the band performing the song with no apparent threat to the audience. However, I watch it with the same fascination as that with which I listen to the records, marvelling at the people responsible for this captivating and horrifying music.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I've been busy, what can I say? I have something on the go now--semi-related to this blog-- that might turn out to be very interesting, but could just as likely come up nothing, so I'm not going to jinx it by discussing it here. However, I'm happy to report that my story "What's Left" is going to be appearing in a new anthology from Invisible Publishing alongside a number of other writers I admire, including among them my former undergrad schoolmate Stacey May Fowles (whose new book, Be Good has been getting solid reviews).

There'll be more writing here soon. In the meantime, behold the greatest rock video ever made: