I have a bit of block on the blog of late. Part of it is a drain on my time and energy. Part of it is that I feel flat about a lot of new music.
I’m not sure why, but I find too many bands sound too much like each other. Too much alt country and roots stuff, which is music I generally quite like. Too many indie hipster collectives with a flock of people pretty much playing all the same parts and singing the same chanting vocals. Sure, this stuff might not sound like some factory-produced corpo-pop, but neither is it very imaginative. I’m tired of their sameness, their self-important attitude, their musical timidity, tired of the hype bestowed upon them by my fellow music snobs.
In recent years, I’ve glommed onto new stuff in a number of ways, from Paste and Pitchfork, to NPR’s World Café and CBC’s Q. Ten years ago, I remember getting excited about records by Wilco and Sufjan Stevens, ones I still really like. At the time it seemed like the supply of good bands and artists was inexhaustible to the point where it overwhelmed me.
Most of these acts are still out there, and many are still making good music. On the whole though, I have been experiencing what can only be called buzz band fatigue. I frankly don’t care about most of what’s going on. There’s some electronic stuff (e.g. Dan Deacon, Tim Hecker) that perks up my ears, but many indie rock bands sound stale to me.
The other factor might be that most of the music I’ve bought of late consists of used LPs from the 60s or 70s, with maybe a few from the 80s thrown in. What’s evident to me is how unafraid musicians were of their instruments 40 years ago. It didn’t matter whether it was Zeppelin, Yes or Jackson Browne, you were likely to hear a well-crafted guitar solo. Real craftsmanship.
The guitar solo though has seemed like an endangered species in recent decades. I’m not advocating the argument that more always means more, but it seems like some many bands now barely learn to play their instruments. Again, athletics does not always translate into aesthetics, but neither does simplicity. Seriously, if you’ve got a dozen people jumping up and down on stage making music that could’ve been made by two guys with Roland synths and a drum machine back in the 80s, you’re not so much a band as you are a dance troupe. (Yes, that’s right, here I give a rare compliment to the 1980s.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been excited to come across acts like Sharon Van Etten or Tuneyards or Grizzly Bear in recent years, but I no longer feel the need to keep up with all this new stuff. Much of it is OK. Very little of it is great.
Who knows? In a few months, there might be a half dozen bands I suddenly care deeply about, but frankly the most exciting “discoveries” I’ve made in the last couple of years have been bands like Spiritualized or Swans, acts that have actually been around for two or three decades.
On the other hand, I might just go through one of my phases where I listen to little else but the jazz or experimental records in my collection.
I do hope the blahs pass; otherwise, I might have to start calling this my “blah-g” rather than my blog.
When I was a little brat, one of my sisters scared the pants off me by exposing me to the first Black Sabbath album. If the creepy green-faced woman on the album cover wasn’t enough, there was a song – I think it was “Wasp” – with a blood-curdling scream partway through.
I admit I’ve never been a fan of Sabbath – too sludgy – but I decided to listen to the song when I was in my 20s and found the thing, and my young self, a bit comical. The thought of being frightened by music seemed laughable.
I was wrong. A couple of years later I was listening to CBC’s late night music show, Brave New Waves, while lying in bed. Instead of drifting off the sleep, I was petrified by the sounds coming over the airwaves, strange Eastern sounding semitones, strangled whispers, sadistic groans, all under electronic keyboards and percussion. I hated it, but I couldn’t stop listening.
This was my introduction to the work of singer and performance artist Diamanda Galas. Again, my first reaction was revulsion, at least to the whispers and screams, but in the mix were some frighteningly beautiful, or beautifully frightening, passages. (Turns out I already had something by her in my collection, as she had collaborated with John Zorn of his first Filmworks CD.) If part of me wanted to turn the radio off that night, it lost out to the part that kept listening, though I confess I had to turn my bedside lamp on to keep from getting too freaked out. The CD that host Brent Bambury was playing was Galas’s operatic trilogy, The Masque of the Red Death (Mute Records).
A short time later, I ended up back at my old music warehouse job, where I made sure the collection was one of my first purchases, with other Galas disks to follow. On the surface, her work might seem like shock for shock sake, but I learned that most of it was in response to the AIDS crisis and her brother’s death.
I was able to catch Galas at the Moore Theater in Seattle when she and Led Zep’s John Paul Jones were in town to play a show. Then in 1996, I was sitting in the front row of the Knitting Factory in New York where Galas, alone onstage with four microphones, performed Schrei X in total darkness for 45 minutes.
It was one of the most intense things I’d ever witnessed, especially the ending, a seven-minute “shriek-out” called “Hee Shock Die,” which at times sounds like someone being tortured or laughing to death. I later reviewed the CD, calling the closing section possibly the most frightening seven minutes ever recorded. I also wrote that in a bygone era, she would like have been tried as a witch. My guess is her work would make Ozzy Osbourne shit himself!
I admit I haven’t dug into my Diamanda disks too frequently in recent years, but every so often at this time of the year, when the ghouls and ghosts are about, I like to turn out the lights, throw on one of her pieces and remember what it’s like to be one scared-shitless little kid. Happy Halloween!
It’s to the point where I’m almost boycotting Hollywood during the summer. I’m tired of the retreads and comic book movies.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t movies to check out. A couple of gems this summer were musical documentaries, both about obscure bands, one of whom I’d known for years and the other a new discovery. Obviously I’m not talking about the new One Direction movie. (How the hell did Morgan Spurlock sign on for that?)
A Band Called Death chronicles the Hackney brothers of Detroit. Its tagline is “Before there was punk…” While punk existed both in name and in form before Death (and certainly before it was exported to England), there’s no doubt these guys were their own band. Even though Detroit was a centre of shitheel hard rock and early punk, it’s clear that the Hackneys, especially brother David, were making music that was different what others in the African-American community, but they seemed to be on the verge of finding an audience.
They were shopped to the legendary Clive Davis, but the record exec balked, as did everyone else in the music business. The reason was the band’s name, which David Hackney refused to change. Even though David isn’t directly in the documentary, the movie really is about him, his singular vision and an unfolding of events that seems eerily fatalistic. As much as anything, this is a movie about the power of belief.
While Death was an unknown to me prior to the movie, the same can’t be said of Big Star. I’d first heard the band about twenty years ago while working in a music warehouse. Unlike Death, who seemed closed to getting signed but never did, Big Star recorded for local Memphis label Ardent, but both the band and Ardent were the victims of label wars being waged between bigger companies. The band’s story is chronicled in the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.
While they were never a household name, they should’ve been. In my view, they should’ve been one of the biggest acts of the 1970s. Unlike Death, who toiled in anonymity, Big Star influenced so many alternative bands: The Replacements, who honoured lead singer Alex Chilton with a song named after him, R.E.M., the dB’s, Teenage Fan Club, Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick and so on. (If you don’t know, the theme for That ’70s Show was Big Star’s “In the Street,” performed by Cheap Trick.)
While I knew much of the story already, the film did offer some treats, most notably a look inside producing giant Jim Dickinson’s home and studio. I also learned Ardent Studios landed the first mellotron outside of Britain. (The mellotron, if you don’t know, was an early synth-type keyboard that could mimic strings, choirs, etc. The Beatles used it, but it was best known in prog circles, i.e. the Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson.)
The documentary also doesn’t bury Chris Bell’s contribution to the band, or his truly sad story. In a way, he almost remained truer to the original Big Star vision than did Chilton, even though he was only there for the first album. Whereas Chilton had a solo career, albeit a checkered one, following Big Star, his bandmate seemed all the more tragic for leaving a band that was so far ahead of its time, due to drugs, mental issues, etc. (Like so many others, Bell ended up in the 27 club, dying in a car crash a couple of week’s shy of his 28th birthday.)
Both films follow the almost-rise and fall or better-late-than-never pattern of films like Searching for Sugar Man and Buena Vista Social Club. My hunch is there is no shortage of bands or performers that never made it, that almost got signed, that did get signed but whose recordings were shelved or never promoted. Many are probably better left to obscurity, but doubtless there are at least a few more flashes of gold in the pan amidst the pyrite, and I for one would look forward to checking these docs out – winter, spring, summer or fall.
There’s some quote (I can’t remember who said it) that goes something like writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a good point, but this hasn’t stopped fiction writers though.
I recently finished the novel, Half-Blood Blues, by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan. It won the Giller and was shortlisted for the Booker. It tells the story of a group of jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris during the Second World War, complete with a cameo from Louis Armstrong.
As a music snob, I can say Edugyan knows her stuff. The novel is far from alone when it comes to delving into the musical world. Here’s a sampling of some of the fiction books I’ve read over the years, so if you’re looking for something to read this summer, maybe crack one or two of them open:
Great Jones Street – Don DeLillo might have been one of the first writers to seriously tackle rock and roll. His third novel centres on jaded rocker Bucky Wunderlick, a character with a passing resemblance to Bob Dylan that’s hauled up in a New York apartment. Much of the plot centres around drug experiments, communes and the status of the protagonist’s unreleased Mountain Tapes.
Hard Core Logo – Michael Turner’s novel follows the exploits of the punk rock band that gives the book its name, as it threatens to burn itself out at both ends. It was later turned into a film by director Bruce McDonald, though the book ended on a more ambiguous note than the movie.
A Visit from the Goon Squad – There’s some debate as to whether Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer winner is a novel of loosely linked chapters, each from a different character’s point of view, or a book of connected short stories. No matter, it’s a worthwhile read. As it jumps around in time as well as a place, it tells us the stories of an aging music industry executive, his assistant, musicians and others in their spheres. There’s even one section that lists off the greatest pauses in rock songs. I listened to an interview with Egan in which she confessed that she wasn’t a music geek. She could’ve fooled me. Apparently, HBO has the rights to turn it into a series. Looking forward to it.
The Commitments – Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the movie but have read Roddy Doyle’s dialogue-heavy tale of two friends that put together a band with the goal of bring soul to Dublin. The story follows the usual tensions among members, all while trying to get a record out. Nothing unexpected here, but an entertaining read.
Whale Music – The late Paul Quarrington wrote this tale of reclusive rocker Desmond Howl, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Brian Wilson. Howl has tuned the world out since the death of his brother and spends his days composing music for whales. When a mysterious woman shows up at his house though, he just may face redemption. The Rheostatics named their masterpiece after the book, and when it was adapted for the screen, they performed the soundtrack.
High Fidelity – No list would be complete without a nod to the music obsessives in the retail trenches. First, there’s Dead Rock Stars by my pal Wes Funk, and Michael Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, which I haven’t read yet but sounds interesting. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity though is the most obvious example of a book about a person that perhaps loves music a little too much. It chronicles the story of an aging man-boy whose life could best be measured in mixed tapes and break-ups with girlfriends. The movie version was pretty close to the book, though with the obvious change of Chicago standing in for London.
I’ve just taken in a few shows at this year’s jazz fest, all good, but again the thought strikes me each year how these events are turning more and more into pop festivals.
On the one hand, I hate having to break down music into often-arbitrary genres. That’s one of the reasons I began this site. On the other, I think the festivals’ growing dependence on acts that are clearly pop or rock is troubling.
I know it’s about money. In Canada, through the 1980s and ’90s, the festivals’ big sponsor was tobacco, but then the federal government clamped down on how cigarette manufacturers could market their products. The fear was this would be the end of the festival circuit in this country, but other corporate partners stepped in to fill the gap, at least partly. I don’t think the festivals have ever fully recovered though.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no love for the tobacco companies and I’ve never smoked their products, even though I was a regular festival-goer in Vancouver back to the first Du Maurier festival in 1986 and was exposed to their corporate logos. I’ve also lost track of how many jazz players, all too often photographed with a cigarette propped between their fingers, died before their time. If they weren’t dropping dead from heroin overdoses in their thirties anymore, they were losing to lung cancer in their fifties.
I don’t miss the tobacco advertising, but I do regret that jazz festivals are losing their identities. I recognize the challenges they face in terms of keeping an audience and finding revenue streams, particularly over the last few years of economic turmoil in North America and Europe (The days of those festival tours by big bands from Europe, supported with generous arts grants from their governments, seem to be a thing of the past.)
I should also point out the mix of musical styles at festivals isn’t entirely new. The festivals have included funk, R&B, roots or world music acts for a long time, but they didn’t seem to be the focus. There might have been a “groove” series for funk acts or a double-bill of African musicians. Most festival headliners though always fit comfortably into the category of jazz, which albeit is a broad term for many styles of music. If they acts weren’t jazz, most of the pop acts at least had some relatively direct links to it, or at least blues.
The renowned New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has provided an example of mixing musical styles, though perhaps the word “heritage” allows an escape clause to account for the many non-jazz acts.
In general, jazz fests seem to be pushing jazz less and less. Even the venerated Montreal festival shows acts like the Specials, Xavier Rudd and Mother Mother as headliners across the banner of its website, with only a few clear-cut jazz names in the mix.
I know folk festivals and blues festivals have gone the same route in recent years by offering more acts that clearly fall outside their boundaries. In a way, it’s great chance for people to get exposed to more kinds of music, but it’s also a little embarrassing, at least to me, when your headliners have little to nothing to do with the style of music that your festival claims to be celebrating. I’d hate to see these festivals turn into pale imitations of Lollapalooza, Coachella, ACL or Bonnaroo, with a smidgeon of jazz, folk or blues thrown in.
I regularly listen to CBC Radio’s Q, and one of the things you learn quickly is that host Jian Ghomeshi is a certifiable David Bowie nut. Not a bad thing, but don’t expect him to be unbiased.
Back in March, he got into a debate with CBC Radio 2 host Tom Power about a cover of Bowie’s classic song, “Heroes.” The normally cool and composed Ghomeshi was unusually animated, even angry about the version by the Wallflowers for the 1998 film Godzilla. Power, to Ghomeshi’s disbelief, preferred the version by Jakob Dylan and company.
To me, it’s no contest. It’s Bowie’s song (well, Bowie and Brian Eno’s). I won’t get into the debate itself though. For that, you can listen to the Q blog.
What I was more interested in was the topic of cover versions and how possessive listeners can become of original, authentic versions of songs.
Way back when, popular music meant tunes that people would get to know through sheet music to buy and play at home. With the growth of the recording industry, the music itself, not the transcriptions, became the product. In other words, you bought a version that somebody had performed for you.
In the early decades of recorded music, it was commonplace for singers or musicians to offer their interpretations of well-known songs. This was stock in trade for most early jazz, as the performers picked songs, often from movies or Broadway musicals composed by the factory that was Tin Pan Alley, which they would then interpret.
Even in the early days of rock and roll, tunesmiths like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller cranked out hits like “Hound Dog.” You could then buy a Big Mama Thornton recording of the R&B tune, or one by this white kid from Tupelo. Elvis something.
Bob Dylan and the Beatles changed everything. The performers themselves increasingly became their own composers, or vice versa. Before long, the way the public experienced a song was not simply from a recording but the recording.
Sure, for a while, it was still a regular thing for performers to cover their peers’ songs, even if the song was still fresh in everyone’s ears, e.g. Jimi Hendrix tackling Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” or Santana scoring a hit with Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” (augmented by jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen”).
For a few years, you still had the occasional band like Three Dog Night that followed the old model and scored massive hits by covering songwriters like Hoyt Axton, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. Their cover of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was okay, but hardly stands up to the Newman original. But that’s kind of my point with all of this.
Don’t get me wrong. There are and will always be great cover versions, but most will still have to measure up against the original. Some, say the Talking Heads’ cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” become classics in their own right. Most don’t.
Then you get the occasional phenomenon like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” an amazing song with many fine versions but which might need to be put on ice for a while. As a Canadian, I know I’m supposed to prefer k.d. lang’s or Rufus Wainwright’s by default, but I don’t. I like them fine, but the late Jeff Buckley’s is my favourite. He played these tragic broken chords with lots of reverb. It almost sounds like some old 1950s doo-wop record. It’s one of the most heart-breaking things I’ve ever heard.
John Cale also does a simple, stellar version, from a 1991 tribute album to Cohen, long before most people had ever heard of the song. (By the way, he also does a one-of-a-kind version of “Heartbreak Hotel.”)
Thanks to modern recording, the chance anyone can do justice to an original version becomes all the more remote. The best covers maintain the spirit of the original but allow the artist do something different, perhaps explore meanings the creator didn’t even imagine. Hal Willner’s tribute albums (I keep threatening to write the Willner piece for this blog!) offer the best example, but to give you a bite-sized version of what I’m talking about, once again we can return to Leonard Cohen. I’ve posted a YouTube link to Nick Cave’s cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” The five-minute mini epic sounds like at least a half dozen songs and seems to reference everything from punk rock to Johnny Cash to that Elvis guy. (As an aside, it’s from the same tribute album as the Cale cover.)
It’s a small masterpiece, and to these ears, maybe the greatest cover song ever recorded. Wonder if Jian Ghomeshi or anyone wants to debate that question.
The name Joe Boyd is synonymous with the English folk-rock scene in the 1960s/70s, as much as those of any of the musicians with whom he worked.
The American producer set up in Britain during the 1960s and produced legendary singers and bands, such as Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, John Martyn and more.
In 1966 he started London’s UFO Club, which was home to the Pink Floyd’s early psychedelic performances. Boyd produced the band’s first single, “Arnold Layne.”
He later went on to produce others such as Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Maria Muldaur and R.E.M., and found the folk label, Hannibal.
Boyd is the subject of a recent interview on Salon.com. In it, he speaks about his memoir, White Bicycles, as well as his work with Drake, Thompson and R.E.M. Check it out.