Monday, May 31, 2010

Marco: The Mix Tape (Tracks 6 & 7)

7. Spiritualized-Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

8. Wilco-I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

I consider myself a serious student of rock and pop music and my favourite kind of study involves individual artists or groups. When I reached university, I finally dropped my somewhat rigid “all music made after 1975 sucks” stance and got really into these two bands.

First of all, let me explain that they’re not really bands: Spiritualized is Jason Pierce, who goes by the stage name J Spaceman, and Wilco is Jeff Tweedy, who goes by the stage name Jeff Tweedy. I have listened to every record Spaceman and Tweedy have ever officially released, including their solo projects and work with the bands Spacemen 3 and Uncle Tupelo. I’ve also listened to a ton of bootlegs by both men. I’ve read interviews, biographies, and reviews of each artist. I’ve watched their videos (official and non) on DVD and on YouTube. I’ve even written essays (see below) and numerous blog posts and columns about them.

When I get into a band or an artist, I want to learn everything there is know about them. I want to understand their methods, their backgrounds, their strengths and flaws. I am, in short, intensely curious. And it’s this kind of intense curiosity, not just about art, but about life in general, that I want to pass on to my students when I become a teacher.

Here's a longer, kinda humourless piece I wrote on J Spaceman, for those who might be interested:

There’s a genre they call “blue-eyed soul.” It refers to white artists who play and sing music that sounds like black music. Think of Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Hall & Oates, etc.

There’s a genre they call “psychedelic soul.” It generally refers to black artists that incorporated elements of sixties psychedelic rock into their R&B and soul sounds. Think of The Temptations under Norman Whitfield, Sly & the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, etc.

Though his eyes are blue and his music draws much of its inspiration from gospel, blues and soul, J Spaceman, founder and auteur of Spiritualized, is not a blue-eyed soul artist. His rhythms are never syncopated, his singing is never gritty and his songs are never danceable.
Consider this quote from a 2003 article in Playlouder magazine, referring to Spiritualized’s most acclaimed record, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space: “For all the horns and gospel choirs and Dr John piano licks, it's a fundamentally classical, funk-free sound: one need only compare

Spiritualized's Stay With Me to the shuddering Lorraine Ellison classic on which it's loosely based to gauge the difference between Pierce's white light/white heat ‘Spiritualization' and the choked agony of black soul.”

To call Spaceman a psychedelic-soul artist would be stretching the definition of the label. His use of the wah-wah pedal, for example, shares nothing in common with the Hendrix-ian style that all the acts mentioned above borrowed from.

Instead, Spaceman has turned that definition of psychedelic soul on its head and created something we might call space-soul.

Spacemen first recorded “Shine a Light” for Spiritualized’s 1992 debut, Laser Guided Melodies, but that version is rather limp and tepid. Over the years, though, Spaceman has transformed the song in live performances and on his most recent tour, in 2008, he performed the definitive arrangement, that seamlessly blends the power and majesty of the best gospel music with the transcendental noise and feedback first pioneered by The Velvet Underground. Here it is, from the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, from 1997, saw Spaceman take his earlier experiments with soul and gospel to their logical extent. Speaking about his writing, producing, and recording method, he told The Varsity newspaper, “But it's normal for pop music to have backing singers, strings, a horn section and then a rock n' roll band—it's like Elvis In Memphis, it's Captain Beefheart on Clear Spot, it's Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. But we didn't want to do a regular session. We wanted to make something that was as unique as those records, but I didn't want to make the same records.”

On the album’s second track, “Come Together,” Spacemen mashes the dirty, explosive rock of Detroit’s MC5 (who, not coincidentally, recorded a song with the same title on their famous debut) with Phil Spector’s classic Wall of Sound production style. The effect, seen here on the Live with Jools Holland show, is mind-blowing.

Lastly, we end with “Lay Back In the Sun,” possibly the finest song in the Spiritualized catalogue. Spaceman has recorded at least four complete versions of the track but this version—accompanied by a decent mash-up of other Spiritualized videos—is by far the best, giving great prominence to the blowing Stax horns and the deeply soulful backing vocals.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Marco: The Mix Tape (Track 5)

Stevie Wonder-Uptight (Everything’s Alright)

My friend Daniele (better known as Jim—don’t ask) and I got really interested in making videos in high school. It started when our Grade 11 English teacher let us film a scene from Lord of the Flies as part of our unit on that book. We filmed and edited it using analog equipment. I haven’t seen that video in a long time but I’m sure it’s equally terrible and hilarious.

Still, we were very proud of the accomplishment and over the next couple of years, we made a series of films as class projects under our unregistered company named, Uptown Films (An Infinity Production), eventually getting our hands on a digital camera and editing software. These films included an anti-drinking public service announcement for English Media (set to Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride and featuring our friend Marco simulating vomiting in a toilet), a bizarre series of sketches for Paul’s philosophy class (including a slow motion scene of a rook taking a pawn), and a short movie about John Gotti’s rise to power (titled The Family and featuring a soundtrack strangely similar to the one used by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas). One of the many highlights was our preview for The Family, which aired before another video we made for a law class.

In OAC, Jim and I decided to create our piece de resistance, a commemorative film of our class’s final year in high school. I had my video camera with me every day that year and compiled hours and hours (and hours) of footage, covering everything from the boys’ soccer team championship run to Variety Night to Paul locking the DeCiantis brothers in the girls’ washroom. When Jim and I sat down to edit the thing, the only music we had with us was a four-CD Motown box set I’d recently purchased from Columbia House music club. The film opens with an in-car view of a drive up to St. Basil-the-Great College school, with the backing soundtrack provided by Lil’ Stevie and the Funk Brothers playing this track. We showed the video to our class on the last day of school and offered copies for $15. We sold out. One person also asked if he could also have a copy of the soundtrack.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Marco: The Mix Tape (Track 4)

Pink Floyd-The Great Gig in the Sky

Grade 11 was pivotal: I failed my driver’s test three times, I joined my first band, and I got my first copy of Dark Side of the Moon. I also launched Rock Is Dead-Long Live Rock, a website dedicated to reviewing albums from my collection. Looking back on them today, some of the reviews were actually pretty well-written; some (perhaps most) were dreadful, even for a teenager. But I put myself out there, I got a small audience and I practiced my writing, active listening, and research skills. And my rating system was kind of funny: I gave albums a score out of 11, a nod to Spinal Tap’s famous amplifiers. Only five albums ever received that score and Dark Side of the Moon was one of them. At the risk of serious embarrassment, here’s the full review:
Dark Side of the Moon
Best Song: Time, or Breathe, or Money, or The Great Gig in the Sky...pretty much anything except Any Colour You Like

This is the smoothest album I've ever heard. It's also one of the best. Yes I know that the cool thing for critics to do is to find faults with the albums that get proclaimed as "the best of all-time", after all I did it with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But I really can't find any faults with this masterpiece.

Everything about this record appeals to me. Roger Waters' simple but strong lyrics about the meaninglessness of everyday life; the cool and crazy special effects like the cash registers playing in 7/4 time in the intro to "Money" or the orchestra you can faintly hear playing at the end of the album (apparently they're playing the Beatles "Ticket to Ride" but I can't really tell); David Gilmour's rich vocals and smoother than silk guitar playing; and the gorgeous melodies throughout the album. There's a rumour that this album can be synced with The Wizard of Oz and I've checked out some sites which claim its true. I haven't really got the time to try it out though. (Note: I have since confirmed this rumour.)


Friday, May 14, 2010

Marco: The Mix Tape (Track 3)

Led Zeppelin-No Quarter

A common Zeppelin fan’s narrative goes something like this: 14-year-old boy discovers Zeppelin through dad’s old record collection, obsesses over Jimmy Page’s guitar tone, John Bonham’s thick drumming, John Paul Jones’ mysteriousness, and Robert Plant’s tight pants for three-to- five years, occasionally writes “Zeppelin Rules” on his notebooks and binders, then moves on to more mature adult bands and artists. It’s true that Led Zeppelin were a lot of things for me in high school: a musical inspiration, a substitute for girls, an excuse to play air guitar. And it’s true that at one time I thought I was so over Zeppelin. But like any addiction, a teenager who falls for this band never fully recovers , and these days, I feel no shame in getting the Led out. One of the great things about Zeppelin is that they were never afraid to try something new; they didn’t have a Sound, so much as they had Sounds. I demand creativity and risk-taking from my artists, and Zeppelin, despite their occasional cock rock tendencies, was never afraid to go somewhere strange and dangerous.

(P.S. I really hate the way Robert Plant sings this version of the song, which comes from the generally awful The Song Remains the Same film. However, if you can get past that, the keyboard and guitar solos (with a ridiculous fantasy sequence featuring JPJ!) are sick.)


Saturday, May 08, 2010

Marco: The Mix Tape (Track 2)

The Who Young Man Blues

I didn’t really get into music until my intermediate years. Before then, my love was sports, hockey in particular. As a die hard Leafs fan and four-times-a-week Downsview Beavers goalie, I spent most of my waking hours thinking about ice, skates, pucks and sticks. One day, when I was about 12, my dad came home with a CD called Who’s Missing by a band named The Who. For some reason, I kept playing this album over and over and over and a few weeks later, my dad came home with another CD called Who’s Greatest Hits. The hockey affair was over the first time I lifted my stick to use as an air guitar, though I continued to play the game for another year or so. In my final season, I had a pre-game ritual of listening to The Who’s Live at Leeds (on tape!) prior to every game. This track, a cover of an old Mose Allison blues tune, was always a favourite and the fact that its lyrics resonated so deeply with my 13-year-old self is probably not a coincidence.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Marco: The Mix Tape (Track 1)

The Beatles The End

For the Ursis, The Beatles are The Bible. My father and mother were huge fans of the band in their youths and passed on The Passion of the Fab Four to me and my two sisters, Danielle and Lisa. We know every record. We know most of the dialogue in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and even The Beatles Anthology by heart. Danielle, the most devout believer, has probably purchased more than $1,000 worth of lunch boxes, buttons, mugs and bootlegs from the now defunct Beatlemania shop in downtown Toronto. And where many kids played House, we played Band, and more often than not, the Band we played was The Beatles.

Many family dinners were spent on Favourite Beatle debates and though I remain partial to John, I do hold a soft spot in my heart (and my hands) for Ringo; after all, the Big Nosed One was my first drum teacher. Around Grade 7, I decided I wanted to play the skins. Only trouble was I didn’t have any. To alleviate this minor snafu, I arranged some chairs into something resembling a kit, put on one of my dad’s workboots to replicate the booming bass drum sound, and started banging along with The Beatles. When my Grade 8 music teacher asked me to play a solo for our spring concert, I duplicated Ringo’s solo from this Abbey Road track and got a massive ovation. As for my lack of drumset problem, I played the chairs for two whole years before Nonno Joe—sick of my banging on the table every time I visited his house—decided to buy me my first kit for Christmas.

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

On becoming literate, part two

In my teen years, I became addicted to rock and roll. I bought CDs by the handful. I took up drums. I started collecting band discographies--first The Who, then Led Zeppelin, then Pink Floyd. I’d visit the library to borrow and read every rock and roll history book they had. Rock music even infiltrated my hockey world - I developed the superstition of listening to Live at Leeds before every game (goalies being the superstitious type). The time and energy I'd once spent on Doug Gilmour, Damien Cox, and developing my butterfly technique was now being spent on David Gilmour, Dave Marsh, and developing my drum roll.

When my family got an Internet connection, I spent most of my web time reading three websites: Mark's Record Reviews, George Starostin’s Music Reviews, and CosmicBen's Record Reviews (at least when I wasn't as updating my wrestling column). As their titles would suggest, these websites were one-man operations, dedicated to reviewing albums both past and present. Prindle, who still keeps at it, had the wackiest style of writing I'd ever seen: off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness reviews that somehow always seemed to pick out the soul of an album. Starostin, a Russian writing in English, was amazing for his productivity; at one point, the guy seemed to be churning out multiple 1,000-plus word reviews daily. And CosmicBen was an insightful and intelligent critic with none of the pretentious, holier-than-thou attitude that still occasionally plagues more widely read music sites. These idiosyncratic and passionate writers gave me an education in rock music and music writing that I couldn't get anywhere else.

So I decided to be one of them. Sometime late in 1998, when I was seventeen, I launched my own personal music review site: Rock Is Dead - Long Live Rock. At the time, I owned about 100 CDs. Over the next five years, I published over 120 album reviews, sixteen concert reviews, five shorts stories, six short essays, and a series of fast food restaurant reviews. I updated inconsistently, my prose was riddled with typos and grammatical errors, and some of the opinions I spouted were just plain stupid. It’s painful for me to read some of what I wrote then now. Still, I had the occasional bit--a paragraph, a sentence, a word--that I can look back on with pride. I took the site down from the Internet when I got my first full-time job in journalism. This time, though, I backed up the files.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

On becoming literate, part one

When it comes to literacy, I, like many men, owe professional sports a great debt.

My earliest reading memories involve the sports section of the Toronto Star. I was cursed from a young age with a passion for this city’s sports teams, and the Star, delivered daily to our front step, was like a sacred text, offering not just scores and stats (though those were very important), but also news, photos, and analysis. As soon as I could make out the words, I read the sports section from cover-to-cover every morning. And as soon as my grade one teacher told us to write something in our journals, I began composing tales about my beloved Maple Leafs and Blue Jays, as well as the Tour de France and World Cup.

I don’t remember being a particularly voracious reader in my primary/junior years, but I did tell myself a lot of stories and pretty much all of them had to do with sports.

I would hit a ball against the wall and play out matches in the World Tennis League, a fictional, professional competition divided along international lines. In the WTL, John McEnroe had defected to Canada and led the league in “jacks” – unreturnable serves that weren’t quite aces. (N.B. There is no such thing as a “jack.”)

Other times, I’d pull out a piece of paper and write out the tournament bracket for the World Cup of Freeball. (I was, and still am, a great lover of tournament brackets.) In my imaginary world, Freeball began as a once-a-year competition between the United States and Japan, but it soon caught on in other places and eventually, the Irish, Italians, and yes, Canadians, were amongst the world’s top nations. Wales always posed a threat because of their terrific keeper, who stole more games than Dominik Hasek. I never quite figured out Freeball was played–I imagined it as a sort of cross between football, soccer, and rugby (though it wasn’t Aussie Rules Football) – but flipping through my dad’s atlases to pick out World Cup nations taught me a lot about geography. (I was obviously all about integrated units from a very young age.)

For a while, I used my hockey cards to develop an expansion NHL team – I’d lay the cards out on the floor, arranged by forward lines and defensive pairings. Then I would make trades with other, strangely generous general managers, to bring in better players and take my team to the Cup. (This little game probably accounts for my minor addiction to Football Manager 2010.)

This sporty imagination reached its apex with the WWO, or the World Wrestling Organization. Unlike the WTL and Freeball, the WWO went beyond my mind. The WWO was, in fact, my first major writing project.

I began it in the sixth or seventh grade. To begin, I used all the boys in my class as the basis for wrestling characters. Stefano was Tank, Jonathan was John Rocker. Jimmy was Viper, who later became The Punisher. Matthew was The Man in Black, Fernando was The Olive King (his own idea, actually), and I was Marco Marciano. Some of the girls acted as managers and often figured prominently in storylines.

Like the WWF and WCW, the WWO was built around a weekly television show (Wild Wednesday) that built up to a monthly pay-per-view and for every Wild Wednesday, I would write a match-by-match, interview-by-interview recap. I didn’t describe every move or write out the interview line-by-line, but dealt more in generalities. (E.g. “The Olive King came out for an interview and proceeded to insult Marco Marciano’s girl, Melinda, in his typically bizarre way. Marciano appeared with a steel chair and a brawl ensued.”)

I put a lot of time, effort and thought into the WWO. I enjoyed developing my characters and my plots, my conflicts and my resolutions. I’d even occasionally tell my friends about the goings on in the WWO, only to hear the inevitable complaints about the fact that their characters had lost to mine.(Marco Marciano was undefeated in his WWO career, though I never gave him the belt.)Then, about 80 pages into my story, I popped the disk I had it saved on into the drive, only to hear a strange, skipping noise. Nothing appeared on the screen. Having been trained on the original 8-bit Nintendo, I tried blowing on the disk, but to no avail. The WWO was lost forever.

You’ll be pleased to know that I don’t watch wrestling anymore. I’m kind of embarrassed I ever did. But it got me writing and reading (I religiously picked up Pro Wrestling Illustrated from my corner store every month). And for my first couple of years of high school, I even had an online wrestling column, though I can’t remember what it was called.

Then my dad brought home a CD called Who's Missing and everything changed.

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