Monday, December 25, 2006

On some good albums from 2006

Neil Young Living With War
Sometimes the most powerful political messages are the simplest and rock music doesn't get much simpler than the three-chord crunch Neil and his crazy horses punch out on this record. Neil's pen points directly at the George W. Bush administration, but the melodies and arrangments - loud, massive, charging - ring with hope (and feedback and that nice, deep fried distortion). This is proof that rock and roll relevancy isn't something that passes with age; after all, the elderly are some of the angriest people in this world. (That said, the new Dylan wasn't nearly as blowjob-worthy as all the critcs made it out to be. And the less said about the new Who album, the better.)

Neil Young - Let's Impeach the President

Mates of State Bring It Back
In a year where war and environmental disaster were at the top of the news agenda, we all needed more joyful and whimsical to escape to. This record was one of those places. It's a pop masterpiece, all exuberant boy-girl harmonies, melodies as addictive as meth, bouncy drumming, and pump-it-up organ. This is what it's like, on a fantasy.

Mates of State - For the Actor

Loose Fur Born Again in the USA
Jeff Tweedy continues to disguise his obvious prog-rock tendencies with his all-too-human singing voice and a dash of country anytime things get too Genesis. Collaborating with indie uber-producer Jim O'Rourke and Glenn Kotche, possibly the greatest rock drummer in existence today, Tweedy indulges his passion for time-fucks and obscurist lyrics about the Bible. It's Tweedy, though, and Tweedy is the new God.

Loose Fur - Apostolic

The Raconteurs Broken Boy Soldiers
Apparently a lot of indie hipster types hate these guys, which proves a lot of theories I have about indie hipster types. Firstly, they don't actually listen to the music they claim to hate. This record is as crafty and varied as anything those Modest Mouse fools have released. It's smart, funny, and well-performed. Secondly, they care more about cultural elitism than they do about quality sounds. The Raconteurs were well-marketed, they sold a lot of albums and had a hit single, which, according to indie hipster creed, means they must suck. This creed is as problematic as the Scott Stapp fronted penis band. Thirdly, indie hipster types are pussies and don't understand rock. Because this, this fucking rocks.

The Raconteurs - Hands

Brightblack Morning Light Brightblack Morning Light
When I first heard the opening three chords of "Everybody Daylight", chords drenched in that elusive thing we call Soul, I knew I'd discovered something special. If mise en scene can be applied to music theory, than this album had the finest mise en scene of any album this year, showing us nothing but boozy and weedy nighttime recording sessions in Memphis, campfires in the California desert, and long, wet walks in West Coast rainforests. But more than that, for me, this record became that rarest of things: a close friend. On those rainy walks to the bus stop at six in morning, Brightblack was there. Coming down after psilocybe adventures by the ocean, Brightblack was there. And as we layed in bed, sharing our thoughts about nothing and everything, Brightblack, was there. Easily the best of the year, definitely one of the best of the decade.

Brightblack Morning Light - Everybody Daylight

Merry Christmas, baby.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Miles Davis

When I first met Myles, he wouldn't speak to me. One of my co-workers told me that Myles was a "selective mute" - in other words, he only spoke to certain people. This condition didn't last long, as Myles was soon speaking with us all. He's still relatively quiet, but he's also one hell of chess player.

As I mentioned in the "On working with kids" posting, I often call the kids I work with by nicknames. Myles, of course, became "Miles Davis." Last week, Myles gently tapped my shoulder.
"I know who Miles Davis is," he said. "He's a musician."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"I looked on the computer," he said.

Impressed and flattered, I asked him if he knew what instrument Miles played. He didn't, so I suggested he look it up that night.
"So, did you find out what instrument Miles Davis played?" I asked the next day.
I could see it in the kid's face that he had forgotten all about it, but, courageous to the end, Myles took a guess anyway. "Tuba?"

Thursday, December 14, 2006

On fall music

John Coltrane A Love Supreme
When I decided to get into jazz, I began with a Google search for "best jazz albums of all time." This album appeared at the top of near every list I came across, and after more than a dozen listens, I now understand why. Comprised of four distinct but related pieces of colourful composition and expressive improvisation,
A Love Supreme captures Coltrane at the height of his all-too-brief career. Exploring what was then a newfound spirituality, Coltrane pours showers of notes over stormy accompaniment from his three bandmates. If you don't like this, you don't like jazz. In fact, if you don't like this, you should probably rethink the whole listening to music thing altogether.

John Coltrane - Part 2: Resolution

Elvis Presley From Elvis in Memphis
In 1969, after series of kitchsy films and lacklustre LPs, the former King of Rock and Roll had become a washed-up parody of himself. Elvis was no longer vital. But a trip to down to Memphis, Tennessee, the birthplace of Presley's legendary fifties recordings, allowed the King a last moment in the sun. Backed by a band that's tighter than Brenda and Billy Chenowith (check out those mad basslines!), Elvis shouts and shimmys his way through these twelve rock, country, and R&B numbers with an unparalleled energy that would soon vanish forever.

Elvis Presley - Only the Strong Survive

Charles Mingus The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady
This is a massive piece of music. Composed as a four section ballet, it's really an in-depth self-examination of Charles Mingus by Charles Mingus (although the liner notes were infamously written by Mingus's psychologist). Although there are a number of blistering and beautiful solos, this is jazz as compositional music, rather than improvisational form, with Mingus developing a number of themes that recur in increasingly avant forms. The weaving and winding lines make this great head music while the dark and fragmented melodies fill your soul.

Charles Mingus - Solo Dancer

Captain Beefheart Clear Spot
Beefheart's music is not nearly as inaccessible as some reviews had led me to believe and this album, released in 1971, might be his most listener friendly. Although he's often written about in the same context as his good friend, the late Frank Zappa, Beefheart's music is less irony-laden than Zap's send-ups - he's far more focused on deconstructing and reconstructing the blues in a rock context. The weirdness of the whole thing makes it closer in spirit to the classic blues recordings of artists like John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson than to the cocky blooze rawk of Beefheart's sixties and seventies contemporaties.

Captain Beefheart - Crazy Little Thing

Miles Davis In A Silent Way
Whatever you might think of the fusion jazz movement that this record inspired (personally, I like where it took Davis and Herbie Hancock, but not the whole Weather Report thing), you can't deny that, in terms of exploring musical space, this is a masterpiece. Davis is one of those musicians whose sound is instantly recognizable, and his spare, melodic solos here are definitive examples of the massive impact he had on jazz. He takes the minimalist approach to its logical conclusion, while wholeheartedely experimenting with the of blending electronic instruments with traditional jazz. Shhh, peaceful.

Miles Davis - In A Silent Way/It's About That Time

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

On futility

Defining rock and roll is an exercise in futility. So let’s be futile.

The worst place to start is the music. Early rock and roll songs had three-chords, a danceable 4/4 drumbeat and songs that lasted two minutes fifty seconds. That doesn’t mean much today. Flip on any classic rock radio station’s “Top One Hundred Songs Countdown” to discover that an eight-minute acoustic English folk ballad that includes an epic guitar solo and ends with crotch-grabbing screamfest is considered the greatest rock and roll song of all-time. Surely an artistic genre that classifies The Monkees and Animal Collective under the same banner has got a severe case of schizophrenia. Shit, a rock and roll song doesn’t even need an electric guitar anymore.

You’ll also run into trouble if you start talking about rock and roll as a cultural movement. Sure you have your John Lennons and your Rage Against the Machines who thought they could change the world by moving from C to G, what about your Black Sabbaths and your Darknesses, whose ideas about invoking social change mainly involved taking drugs to make music to take drugs to? At some point in history, there were people who thought rock and roll music was going to change the world. And they were right. There didn’t used to be Who songs in car commercials.

Calling rock and roll a state of mind, as the lead singer of Stillwater did in Almost Famous, sounds cool, but then you have to consider the state of mind of the young male at the Metallica concert versus the state of mind of the young female at a Joni Mitchell gig.

Rock and roll’s original definition had something to do with sex, but anyone caught fucking to a Jethro Tull record should be arrested.

So maybe rock and roll is a personal thing, something you feel (or, if we go by Boston’s definition, it’s “More Than a Feeling”) where each person’s interpretation is given equal weight. But now we’re into relativism territory, and we know how the relativists are about their territory (they will bomb you if you enter it).

“Rock and roll defies definition, and that’s what makes it rock and roll,” says the punk rock and roller. The punk rocker has obviously never heard of Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone or Pitchforkmedia, or, more likely, he has heard of them and chooses to ignore them. But like any art form, rock and roll begs to be classified and consumed, defined and debunked.

Defining rock and roll is an exercise in futility. So fuck futility.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

On working with kids

In September, I took a job as a children's leader at an after school care program. For the first three weeks, I worked with kids who were in kindergarten. (Unlike Ontario, there is no junior/senior kindergarten in British Columbia.) These kids amused and fascinated me. They are remarkably well-behaved and well-adjusted, especially when you consider that around seventy per cent of them come from broken families.

These kids will not remember me in the future, but I will remember them for a while ("a while" being an appropriately vague expression for discussing memory.) I had many nicknames for these kids, most of them created by replacing of the last letter of their name with the letter "O." Lily became "Lilo," Grace became "Grace-o," Qaseem became "Qaseem-o" (also "Q"). On several occasions, I noticed Anya ("Anyo") using these nicknames when addressing her classmates.

Anya was a bright girl who showed affection in unusual ways. She also had a zany and well-developed sense of humour. Early in the school year, she would draw pictures and, upon completion, hand them to me, saying, "for you." Sometimes, I noticed these pictures showed a deliberate lack of artistic effort. This wasn't an act of hostility - it just amused her to give me crummy pictures.

Liam (Limo) was every leader's pet child, and although I made a point of trying to treat all the children equally, I must admit that Liam's charms were hard to reist. He was the youngest child in the class and also the smallest, and his adorable face made it clear that there will be plenty of women (or men) in his future. Liam was prone to minor behavioural indiscretions (mainly not listening to instructions because he was busy playing with Lego), but he always apologized when in the wrong, and gave affectionate hugs at random moments.

On the first day of school, Liam approached me with tears in his eyes. He claimed that Matthew had stolen his button. The buttons on Matthew's shirt clearly indicated that the button was in fact his, but Liam insisted otherwise. After my many fruitless attempts to convince Liam that the button wasn't his, I figured out a solution. I told Liam that, when she came to pick him up, I would ask his mother whether or not the button belonged to him. I then put the button into my pocket and told the boys to run off and play. When Liam's mom came, I forgot to ask her about the button. Liam never mentioned it again. Matthew did ask for the button the next day but I'd left it at my apartment. Eventually, he forgot about it too.