Friday, February 07, 2020

Owen Pallet on Les Mouches reunion

ˆThis week, Wavelength Music celebrates its anniversary with a weekend festival. They do this every year. This year, however, being the 20th anniversary—along with current pillars (Haviah Mighty, Kaia Kater), some Montreal imports (Yves Jarvis, Little Scream, Lou Phelps) and plenty of largely unknown local talent that has always been their focus—they’ve pulled in some ringers from their earliest years. 

Electro duo LAL are performing their 2000 album Corners. Sandro Perri, a consistent presence in Wavelength circles from the beginning, put out two of his most acclaimed records in the last two years. Hidden Cameras, a band who arguably helped launched the so-called Torontopia scene of the early 2000s, makes an extremely rare local appearance; bandleader Joel Gibb decamped to Berlin years ago.

The most interesting Wavelength act of the weekend, however, might be Les Mouches. This band only lasted a year, 2003-04, before Owen Pallett became better known to the world as Final Fantasy and as a contributor to Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Drummer Rob Gordon also played with From Fiction, who recorded an album with Steve Albini and were signed to Last Gang. Guitarist Matt Smith went on to perform as Prince Nifty. Together, they were a combustible unit whose songs shifted between delicate beauty and jarring explosions, with lyrics filled with longing, sexual confusion and crude jokes. 

There was nothing remotely commercial about Les Mouches, even though they covered a Carpenters song on 2003’s Blood Orgy EP. It’s often uncomfortable listening. But it’s undeniably unique. And it left enough of an impression that the sole full-length, 2004’s You’re Worth More to Me Than 1,000 Christians, was reissued on vinyl in 2015. 

I talked to Owen Pallett this week about many things, for another project; this excerpt is just about Les Mouches, then and now.

What was the genesis of Les Mouches?

After I graduated [from University of Toronto's music program], I wanted to record some songs I had written. I was involved with Hidden Cameras, I was dating Gentleman Reg, and I was friends with a lot of Three Gut people, so I decided to record with Andy Magoffin in London [who made albums for all those people]. I wrote brass arrangements and recorded what I called The Polite Album. Nobody heard it. I think I burned five copies, but [Blocks Recording Club’s] Steve Kado somehow had one. He came into the Free Times Café where I was working, and said, ‘Dude, your album is awesome!’ He was so excited. I was playing some solo shows but it wasn’t doing anything for me. I wanted to start a band. I had seen Matt Smith play a set at the Free Times, doing improv, with a guy name Dane who has since passed away, and Owen Marchildon, who would later be in From Fiction with Rob Gordon. I had known Rob in second year. I don’t remember the early rehearsals that well. [Matt and Rob and I] had long discussions about how we wanted the music to be focused on epiphanies. There would be these moments where it would all make sense. We were all really into Xiu Xiu, especially me, and it was changing the way I wrote lyrics.

You had said you wanted Les Mouches to sound like U.S. Maple meets the Carpenters.

Exactly. That was basically it. We were trying to have that free, Storm and Stress aesthetic, but have it married to—not necessarily conventional songwriting, but really pretty songs. Our first show as a trio was April 21, 2003. It was in Guelph. Our second show was in Toronto with Lungbutter. We started playing a bunch. I didn’t have a concept of what our fan base was, but by the time 1,000 Christians came out we filled the Music Gallery until it was beyond packed. We asked everyone to wear white clothing—and they all did! Matt Smith said, ‘Thank you all for wearing white. Congratulations! You’re all racist!’ (laughs)

And Bell Orchestre opened?

Yes, and Wooly Leaves.

How did you know Bell Orchestre? Had you even met Arcade Fire by that point?

I had met Arcade Fire through Jim Guthrie. [Jim’s band opened for them at the El Mocambo in January 2003.] I remember Regine saying, ‘Bell Orchestre is my favourite band on the planet.’ I didn’t know Sarah [Neufeld] very well at all. Richie [Parry] I kind of knew. But I mostly was just friends with Win and Regine, and not close friends at that point.

Richie wasn’t even really part of the band yet. He wasn’t until spring 03.

It was Bell Orchestre’s first show in Toronto. Then we put out Blood Orgy around Xmas 2003. Those songs were done in the same session as the songs for 1,000 Christians; there was one other session where I did the songs with brass on them. There’s one Matt Smith song we left out because it just didn’t fit on either release, which is too bad because it’s an amazing song. Then we wanted to tour, but I didn’t know anything about touring or how it worked.

Did you tour much with the Cameras, or just around southern Ontario?

I toured Europe with the Cameras in 2003, after Smell of Our Own came out. I didn’t know how DIY touring worked. With the Cameras, we had a van, a tour manager, hotels, it was all set up. But I wanted to book shows for Les Mouches. I was also playing with Liz Hysen in Picastro and she was always talking about how she booked her own tours. Reg was always talking about how he booked his own tours. So we booked five dates. But we never played anywhere other than Guelph, Toronto and Montreal. We opened a few Montreal shows for Arcade Fire in the spring of 04, in the lead-up to Funeral’s release, at the Corona Theatre. But our last show was [in September 04] at a Pop Montreal showcase for Blocks, at Casa del Popolo. That was with Hank, maybe Barcelona Pavilion. The band had a second recording session for a pile of new songs we’d written. Not enough for an album, but I thought we could make things work with four songs that were in our set. We thought we could do more writing in the studio, but it went really bad.

Do you think the creative partnership had just run its course?

No, not at all. We just went into the studio with four or five songs, and afterwards we were just feeling an ennui. We did it at Tantramar Farm [outside Guelph], where they used to have Track and Field. While I was up there, I was wearing this fanny pack that had my birth certificate and my passport and everything. This was a week before we were supposed to go on tour. I lost the fanny pack, and I had no ID and no way of getting anywhere, so we scuttled the tour. I was pretty depressed about it. This was also the summer I had no money. I was also playing more Final Fantasy shows, which had started that spring. In August, or late July, that I played CineCycle and Stuart McLean [of the Vinyl Café] was there. He said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘I actually need a job. If you know of any, let me know.’ He hired me on the spot as a music programmer. I did a really fucking good job.

No job interview, nothing?

I think he just said, ‘What would you program on this show?’ I sent him some stuff, and he said I was hired. I was now working at the CBC and loving it, making money for the first time in my life. Not a ton of money, but certainly more than I’d ever made. From Fiction were doing their thing. Rob was mad at me for a reason I still don’t know. It was hard to book rehearsals and play shows. After that Pop Montreal show, Rob was so focused on From Fiction [who had recorded with Steve Albini and signed to Last Gang]. By the end of the year, Arcade Fire said they were going to do their heroic, life-changing US tour, and asked if Les Mouches were interested in opening. I said, ‘You know what? I want to bring my solo project instead—which you guys haven’t heard, but trust me.’ I showed up at the Great American Music Hall and hadn’t told them that I’d broken my ankle at an AIDS Wolf show. I show up with a cane and a walking cast, got up and played my set with my looping pedal on a stool, and I brought the house down. It was great. After that, Les Mouches really drifted apart. I didn’t really understand the resonance that band had. It was a surprise to me that [Deep Dark United's] Alex Lukashevsky liked it, [Rockets Red Glare's] Evan Clarke liked it, these people I thought were way cooler than I was, and fantastic musicians. I don’t think I got it at the time.

One of the best things about that band was the tension in the music.

Oddly enough, we never felt at odds with each other on a musical level. Rob and Matt always played exactly what was necessary. Robbie tried to explain it to me once. He told me his parents preferred the music he made with From Fiction, only because they could understand it.

Because it’s more linear?

It’s aggressive and complicated. But when they were confronted with Les Mouches music, they were like, ‘We don’t get this.’ After Blood Orgy came out, his dad used to make fun of him by quoting Les Mouches lyrics at the dinner table. He’s say, ‘Well, Robbie, you know, I never had a woman inside my dick.’

That’s an interesting parental dynamic.

I think they were like, ‘You’re in a gay band, Robbie!’ But it’s fine. I love his parents. My parents definitely didn’t get Les Mouches.

It’s not music for parents!

My stepfather had a very negative reaction to it. I think my mom told me that after hearing it he had to lie down or something. He went to my mom and said, ‘I think Owen may be seriously disturbed.’ My mom was like, ‘Oh, really!’ Then she listened to the record and said, ‘Nick, he’s joking! These are fucking jokes!’ Which was true. I was making fun of this shit.

What were you making fun of?

Depends, on song to song. ‘Daddy Needs a Daddy’ is making fun of tropes of gay male desire, while at the same time being very emotional. ‘I want to hold him in my arms and cradle him until his hair turns grey.’ That was pretty much how I felt about who I was falling in love with. ‘Carload of Whatever’ was satirizing bugchasers, which I didn’t know was a thing until I met one.

One of my favourite musical moments is the string arrangement on “Divorce the Ones You Love.”

Oh, really? I think it’s annoying. I don’t have a wide breadth of knowledge of classical music, compared to most classical music heads, but certain works really resonate with me. One of those is Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question.’ The backdrop of plaintive string chords, with these increasingly aberrant woodwind gestures, really had a profound effect on me. The beginning of ‘Divorce the Ones You Love’ is meant to recall that a bit, this very bucolic guitar thing with increasingly violent string gestures that try to interrupt this stillness.

How do you feel about playing this music now?

There are certain songs I’m not going to play, because I don’t think there’s much to commend them. A song like ‘Luci on Her Birthday’ I’m kind of amazed exists. That may be the fifth song I ever wrote. It’s on The Polite Album. It’s exquisitely sad now, when I listen to it. Other songs, I’m really into and really proud of. ‘Love Song to an Empty Room’ in particular I think is great. ‘Requiem to the Victims of Frankfurt’ I’m going to be playing at the Wavelength show—we haven’t played it since 2004—I’m really excited about. It’s so fun to sing this shit, like ‘My dream has a title: cunt marries asshole.’ It’s like—I don’t know. Maybe they’re just bad jokes, like Tim Kinsella in Joan of Arc. But I have a lot of affection for it.

For me, that music is very much situated in that time, which held great possibility. It was either you or Kado who once told me that it was a time of ideas: some projects were better ideas than they were bands, but they were great ideas so it worked. And of course there were also great ideas that were also great bands. There was an audacity to try things, musically or lyrically.

The environment was perfect. Rent in Toronto was so reasonable—

Okay, let's talk about that magical time in real terms. What were you paying?

At 19 Major, I was paying $350 for one room of five. I then moved into a larger room there and paid $400. Then $400 on Queen Street ... Later, [then-boyfriend] Patrick and I moved into a place at Dupont and Ossington, the building Will Munro lived in. Team Macho was based there. We were paying somewhere around $1,200. So rent was reasonable. We had also had the best form of social media back then, which was message boards. People were getting involved in local discourse. Twitter is too broad and international. Message boards were magical. I still post on message boards. It’s how my brain wants to interact with the outside world. I was there very early on in the Toronto message board thing: Anti Antenna.

That was before StillePost.

Anti Antenna was before Secret Arcade, which was before 20hz, which then became StillePost.

Anti Antenna was also a label, wasn’t it?

Yes. Post-rock stuff. The only people I knew posting there were [Feuermusik's] Jeremy Strachan and Shaw-Han Liem [I Am Robot and Proud]. And Jonny [Dovercourt], but I didn’t really know him then. StillePost became a hotbed of discussion. Everybody was on it. Just like Facebook would be today, but this was a much more interesting place because everything was compartmentalized.  It was not designed to be addictive, but meant to accessorize real-life social experiences. Facebook is designed to addict the consumer, to keep you at your computer. Message boards were not. On top of that, there was this new influx of attention. And people were still making money. If you put out a shitty CD and folded it together yourself, you could easily make $2,000 by selling 200 of them. It was a reliable source of instant gratification and income. Blocks made sense at the time. In 2004, we were having discussions about if we should put our stuff up on iTunes, and I was a vociferous ‘no’! I believed the packaging was part of it. I couldn’t foresee that 10 years down the line there would be no CD drives on laptops. I mean, I just recently took my CDs to a store, got money for the ones they wanted, and threw the rest out. Thousands of dollars worth! I kept the ones I play on, and my friends’ CDs, but I threw out my deluxe edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It had a really nice booklet! But I don’t have anywhere to store it anymore.

Les Mouches’ two CD releases on Blocks Recording Club are out of print, although 1,000 Christians received a 500-copy limited-edition vinyl reissue on Orchid Tapes in 2015. Bandcamp link here.

Full lineup and details for Wavelength's 20th anniversary weekend festival, Feb 13-16, can be found here

Monday, December 09, 2019

Best of 2019

2019 was the year I lost my weekly review column after almost two decades, but that just allowed me to pay less attention to trends and go wherever my ears led me. Are these the best records of 2019? Maybe, maybe not, but they were the fuel that kept me alive this year.

Spotify shuffle playlist is here
Apple Music playlist is here

1. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
This album is to Canada in 2019 what Fear of a Black Planet was to the U.S. 30 years earlier. Two MCs raised in a remote northwestern corner of British Columbia have grown into lyrically deft truth-tellers and provocateurs with a command of ancient and recent history. Their flow is animated and exciting; the music beneath it just as much so. While the rest of rock, rap and pop use a lot of language to say next to nothing at all, this crew is razor-sharp and almost always hits their target. Because fellow resistance leaders Jeremy Dutcher and Tanya Tagaq don’t sing in English (for very clear political and aesthetic reasons), that leaves SNRK to confront the oppressor straight on and in their own terms. These are the lyrics that Indigenous and settler audiences alike recite in unison at the high-energy live shows; these are the words that the youth will take to heart. It’s not all righteous fury; there is also a playfulness and levity that makes this music three-dimensional. Solid guest turns by the Sorority (feat. Haviah Mighty), Cartel Madras, Kimmortal, Boslen and others widen the narrative. Maybe there were objectively better albums released this year, maybe not, but this is the only one that felt essential.

2. Nakhane – You Will Not Die
An operatic, queer, black South African transplanted to London making art-pop that oscillates between euphoric R&B and disco to Nick Cave dread, with a few dead-stop solo piano ballads that would be in fine company with Jeremy Dutcher—some even conjure the ghost of Nina Simone. There’s also a guest turn from Anohni and a solo electric guitar cover of New Order. Is there anything this guy can’t do? At the centre of it all is an absolutely stunning voice that delivers goosebumps on every track. This album came out last year in Britain and was released to little fanfare on this side of the Atlantic in early 2019. Why was it so slept on? What’s going on in this world?

3. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
This New Orleans trumpeter has put out four albums in 18 months spanning 2018-19, and they’re all spectacular. Scott favours long, occasionally piercing tones, playing evocative, slow melodies over percussion and synth textures. In some ways, it sounds like what Yellow Moon-era Neville Brothers would sound like if they made an instrumental record with Lanois and Eno, but with a shit-hot trumpeter on top. The ever-fiery Saul Williams orates over a few tracks, and vocalist Chris Turner brings a haunting romanticism to “Forevergirl,” driven by Kris Funn’s acoustic bass line. In its swampy mysticism, Ancestral Recall harkens back to Gris Gris, the perversely psychedelic debut by the dearly departed Dr. John. But Scott makes modern jazz that doesn’t look backwards or sideways; to my knowledge, there’s nothing else quite like this in the landscape of Kamasi Washington or Donny McCaslin or Shabaka Hutchings or Thundercat. Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah is in a world and a class all his own.

4. Orville Peck – Pony
Yes, the guy wears a mask. Get over it. Behind that mask is a great songwriter that draws heavily from classic country music—the two-step shuffles, the twangy guitars, the whistling—but isn’t afraid to take it wherever he wants, including a few nods to Joy Division and Nick Cave. Yes, it’s a pastiche, but the songs are more than solid, and Peck’s voice is nothing short of magical. He reaches into deep valleys and climbs tall peaks, and his voice never breaks in between. Rumour has it that this mysterious masked man has professional musical theatre experience, and it’s not hard to believe: he could elevate anyone’s songbook. It just so happens that he has one of his own, and it’s better than most. 

5. Brad Mehldau – Finding Gabriel
I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about this giant of modern jazz piano, other than that I’ve tried at various points in the last 20 years to find an entry point and been left cold. It wasn’t until David Bowie’s Blackstar led me to explore the work of drummer Mark Guiliana that I only recently discovered that musician’s 2014 duo record with Mehldau, Taming the Dragon. Finding Gabriel doesn’t sound like that or anything else I’ve since heard in Mehldau’s discography. Guiliana is on drums for most tracks, but Mehldau handles them himself (or programs drum machines) on others. There’s no credited bass player; the other instrumentalists are string and wind players, who are used texturally, not in any lead capacity. The rest is all Mehldau, with a choral group providing wordless melodies that are majestic and magical. It’s a modern take on cosmic jazz that is more spacious and spiritual than the likes of Flying Lotus. And on “The Prophet is a Fool,” it uses a father-child dialogue to grapple with current political divisions and He Who Shall Not Be Named. All of which makes this music a necessary balm in 2019—and beyond. 

6. Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned
I owe this discovery entirely to the Polaris Music Prize jury; before she landed on the shortlist, there was next to no press about her in English Canada. Fils-Aimé is a Haitian-Quebecois singer with roots in jazz, but whose work draws heavily from gospel, R&B, and ’90s neo-soul. Needless to say, she has a killer voice, and her backing band is top-notch, as are the vocal arrangements. (She sings in English, in case that’s important to you.) This is the second instalment in what is supposedly a trilogy paying homage to a century of African-American music, which sounds like a ridiculously broad concept until you hear what Fils-Aimé and her collaborators are able to bring to the table. This deserves a much broader audience beyond provincial borders or genre barriers. 

7. Tobi – Still
This is a phenomenal debut album that stands head and shoulders above its peers, in Toronto and elsewhere. Tobi is an astounding singer, though that’s hardly unusual; so is his fellow Torontonian Daniel Caesar or Grammy phenom H.E.R. What sets Tobi apart is the songwriting, lyricism and production on display here. Two years in the making, it’s melodically strong and with arrangements worthy of the Roots’ more adventurous material. He can call out consumerism and misogyny on one song and sing about drunk texting on the next, yet he’s never preachy nor puerile. He’s no mumblemouth rapper either, and his flow isn’t an afterthought when he takes a break from crooning. A Nigerian immigrant to Brampton via Ottawa, Tobi brings a wide range of influences into his take on modern R&B: string-drenched jazz textures, Nigerian pop, kindred spirits Sampha, Anderson.Paak, Kae Sun and more. Here’s hoping Tobi comes to define the next generation of “the Toronto sound,” whatever that is or will be.

8. Lil Andy – All the Love Songs Lied to Us
If Leonard Cohen made a country record, it would sound like this. It’s too bad he never did. The Montreal poet did start out, after all, as a member of the Buckskin Boys, long before he published a single stanza. Sixty years later, Andy McClelland walked the same streets as Cohen, near Parc du Portugal on Montreal’s Plateau, and started a career as a country singer. After the bard died, McClelland spearheaded a local all-star tribute, and contributed to an international art exhibit dedicated to Cohen. The title track here borrows a melody from Cohen (1984’s “Coming Back to You”) and has cynical, wry lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. The song is a triumph, and worth the price of the album alone (along with the beautiful cover art). But the rest of the album is just as strong. McClelland enlists some of Montreal’s finest players, including guitarist Joe Grass, pianist Patrick Watson and vocalists Ariel Engle (La Force) and Katie Moore. His instrumentation and his motifs may be traditional, but his lyrical voice is not. “Even the social housing sparkles at night,” he marvels. Elsewhere, “Things are thin and flatter now / there’s no good way to be / my life feels like some tinny, shitty, bitrate MP3.” This record, however, does not feel that way in the least. No matter what format you hear it on.

9. The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Shabaka Hutchings is the new namedrop for midlife music nerds. Uttering his name is like some secret password into a new world of jazz that appeals to aging rockers and ravers alike. The British saxophonist broke out of obscurity when his tuba-driven band Sons of Kemet was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize last year, and in 2019 he returned to one of his other projects, the psychedelic electronic trio the Comet is Coming. Their second album isn’t as entirely mind-blowing as their debut, but it’s still a monster of a record, digging deeper into dub grooves and getting heavier than Hutchings’s more frenetic excursions in Kemet. No matter what moniker appears on the front of one of his records, he exudes ecstasy (the state) and brings the most out of his bandmates, and vice versa. 

10. Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble – Where Future Unfolds
I’ve always needed music for therapy, but never more so than in the last three years (for obvious geopolitical reasons). In 2019, I needed to hear voices. So the sound of a Chicago choir singing secular gospel songs of solace and justice proved to be just what the shrink ordered. This debut album is a live recording of the debut gig by this 15-member ensemble, helmed by a sound collage artist who started out sampling civil rights speeches before he decided to put voice to new ones of his own. There are electronics and loops at play here, but the focus is on the jazzy rhythm section and the choir, who promise to “rebuild a nation.” Also present is Angel Bat Dawid on clarinets; she put out her own fine record on the consistently reliable International Anthem label. As the world falls apart, gospel and jazz are two of the only kinds of music that make any sense to me anymore. 

11. Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
When this record won the Polaris Music Prize in September, it became the first hip-hop record to win a major prize in Canada, and she became the first black woman to do the same. No disrespect to all those who came before (say the names: Salome Bey, Liberty Silver, Nana McLean, Michie Mee, Lillian Allen, Molly Johnson, Deborah Cox, Jully Black, Fefe Dobson, Divine Brown, Zaki Ibrahim, Cold Specks, Sate, Dominique Fils-Aime, and no doubt many more), but Mighty is the whole package: as a poet, a lyricist, a singer, and a rapper. She’s got party tracks, historical lectures, love songs, and everything in between. She’s never short of breadth. 

12. Digawolf – Yellowstone
This guy lives outside of Yellowknife and has a voice that sounds like the gravel road he likely lives on. But this is no rural folk record: this is a ballsy, modern blues record that leaps out of the speakers. On the first two tracks, anyway; the rest of the record alternates between that mode (“Digital Nomad”) and a heavily Lanois-influenced take on arty, atmospheric folk songs that sound like a million bucks. The only hint you get that Digawolf lives anywhere near the tree line is when he sings in Tlicho, his native tongue, or on “Northern Love Affair,” which, like the rest of the record, is in English. 

13. GRLwood – I Sold My Soul to the Devil When I Was 12
Two self-described “Kentucky-fried queerdoes” in their early 20s open their second record with the line, “Be nice to sad boys or get shot.” Jeeeeeeeesus. It’s delivered over a killer riff and frenetic drumming, and by the end of the song, Rej Forester is unleashing full-on death-metal screams. The rest of the album gets even better from there. GRLwood do righteous rage very well, but it’s far from their only card. They’re also very funny: “I Hate My Mom,” “I’m Having Sex Tonight,” “Gay 4 U.” Most important, they are musically monstrous: Karen Ledford’s drumming, Forester’s guitar work and unique voice, her almost operatic range filtered through a punk rock rasp and shockingly pitch-perfect screeching (see also: Karen O, Kathleen Hanna). Even more important: GRLwood understand the power of dynamics, and so their quieter moments are just as, if not more, effective than the outbursts, making their music so much more than just a full-on frontal assault. I’m sad to report that you’re likely reading about them here first; I’ve seen next to no press about them. That needs to change. I saw them open for Man Man, a show where 500 people instantly fell in love with these young women women. I suspect that reaction is hardly unusual wherever they go. 

14. Murray A. Lightburn – Hear Me Out
This Montreal songwriter has been leading the Dears for almost 25 years now, through ever-changing lineups, management teams, record labels and degrees of bombast. Odd then, that he may have made his best album when he strips almost everything bare and becomes a full-on crooner. More likely, it says more about my own musical taste than his evolution, but the notorious control freak has admitted that he loosened the reins considerably on this project, bringing in jazz players and engineer Howard Bilerman to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The result is part early Scott Walker, part Belle and Sebastian, part Keren Ann, and even a bit Gordon Lightfoot. It’s always been obvious what a spectacular singer Lightburn is, but it’s at the lower volumes here that he really shines. Also, age becomes him: this is a wise, thoroughly satisfying midlife record he might not have been able to make until now.

15. Geoff Berner – Grand Cosmopolis Hotel
Berner is the kind of artist whose interests and opinions threaten to overshadow his music; reading his liner notes are almost as entertaining as the songs they’re meant to accompany. But make no mistake: the man is a master, as plenty of material from his almost 20-year career will illustrate. Berner, who recently founded an ecosocialist political party in B.C. in his not-so-spare time, writes here about the perils of being a left-wing Jew resisting orthodoxy from all sides of the political spectrum (“Not the Jew I Had In Mind”), of ever-present anti-Semitism (“Would You Hide Me?”), of smug preppers (“Oh You Survivalists”) and of clearly obvious political solutions to the world’s ills (“Why Don’t We Just Take the Billionaires’ Money Away?”). Instead of punchlines, he offers gut-punchers; a Berner song is much more likely to invoke impending doom than to resort to a one-liner. He’s not a political comedian writing songs; he’s an ace songwriter who trades in satire. And he’s one of the best.

16. Ice Cream – Fed Up
As debut records by Peaches and Le Tigre celebrate 20th anniversaries, two Toronto women wielding electric guitars and electronics lead a new charge of political grooves over post-punk no-wave disco that manages to sound remarkably fresh (see also: L.A. band Automatic). Grooves as sticky as “Peanut Butter,” textures as delicious as “Banana Split.” Surprising classic-rock lead guitar on “Bun Roo” (surprising because of the genre, not the gender). But those are just the pop songs that act as gateway drugs off the top. The title track rides a slower tempo and darker electronic sounds, while Amanda Crist and Carlyn Bezic sing, “I’m not a shell for your fantasies … real power, no glossy sheen / queens of the void, queens of everything / I want to be free.” 

17. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance
“And now you’re gone / you’re gone as if there ever was a you / who held me dying and pulled me through / Who’s moving on? Who’s kidding who? This is the kind of release that could’ve been what every fan dreads: a icon’s final breaths put to music, in some cases by people he never met—especially when said icon was a total control freak, who often resisted collaborators’ attempts to make his music more interesting (see: Sharon Robinson, Ten New Songs). Thanks for the Dance, on the other hand, is handled with care and respect. Son Adam Cohen is in charge, and he wrangles the likes of Patrick Watson, Feist, Daniel Lanois, Richard Reed Parry, Beck and others to flesh out what are essentially recitations rather than melodies. None of those players is out to hog the spotlight; everything about this record screams humility, from the arrangements to Cohen’s closing line: “Listen to the hummingbird / don’t listen to me.”

18. Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness
“Like Sugar” was hands-down my favourite single of 2018, and the follow-up album didn’t disappoint. The R&B legend sounds as powerful as ever, with a modern sound from producers Switch (Major Lazer, Santigold, M.I.A.) and Sarah Ruba. These are rollerskate jams that Daft Punk dreams of making: killer bass lines, rich funk, and a goddess on the mic. “Don’t Cha Know” harkens back to the slinky grooves of her Rufus days. “Too Hot” is a torchy blues song that puts all new pretenders to shame. “Isn’t That Enough” is a sexy dub jam, and the title track is every bit the equal of “Like Sugar.” Hello happiness indeed: this record is an instant mood-changer.

19. Jamila Woods ­– Legacy! Legacy!
A 13-track song cycle dedicated to key figures in African-American cultural history, set to progressive, jazzy R&B: it sounds like a lot of work, but Woods makes it sound almost easy. “Don’t ever let a textbook scare you,” she notes on the song about Octavia Butler. The grooves are sumptuousness, the production rich, the playing impeccable, and Woods is a captivating vocalist. But listen closer, because she has a lot to say. Obviously—you can’t write a song dedicated to James Baldwin and take it lightly.

20. Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk
Maybe you don’t have to be a Canadian over the age of 40 to appreciate this band, but it helps. If the lineage of the Band, Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Daniel Lanois, Oh Susanna and Orville Peck means anything to you, then Tom Wilson’s project of the last 10 years fits in perfectly. The industry veteran keeps getting better with age, and this is his first album since his bestselling memoir, Beautiful Scars, in which he discovered his adoption story and his Mohawk heritage. Loping bass grooves (Anna Ruddick), extremely tasteful lead guitar (Aaron Goldstein) and harmonica work (Paul Reddick), and the wind instruments of Darcy Heppner all elevate what could be standard bluesy folk rock tunes. Wilson’s rich baritone is central, of course, but it’s the balance of all these elements in the hands of producer Michael Timmins that really ties it together. As always with this band, this record sounds even better while driving through the Canadian Shield.

Honorable mentions:

Begonia – Fear. Powerhouse vocalist from Winnipeg is poised to break out beyond all borders.

Black Flower – Future Flora. Belgian Ethiopian jazz groove band concoct psychedelic delight.

Theon Cross – Fyah. The only solo tuba jazz album to ever make one of my year-end lists—which makes sense only because Cross is an essential member of Sons of Kemet.

Fet.Nat – Le Mal. Pattonesque high fuckery from Hull, Quebec, which led to the best WTF moments of this year’s Polaris gala.

Kevin Hearn – Calm and Cents. Toronto’s MVP doesn’t get nearly enough love for his solo recordings, and this more meditative collection is one of his best. Featuring just the trio of Hearn, bassist Chris Gartner and violinist Hugh Marsh. (See also: Rheostatics’ comeback Here Come the Wolves, also featuring Hearn and Marsh.)

Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka. The worst thing I can say about this record is that it sounds like an extension of his 2016 breakthrough Love & Hate. Which was excellent. So is this.

Reginald Omas Mamode IV – Where We Going? While we waited for a new Kaytranada album (which finally arrived Dec. 13, after this list was made), there were these funky little numbers, partially recorded during a trip to discover family roots in the Mascarene Islands, off Madagascar. Mamode went “In Search of Balance” and found a lot of off-kilter, Madlibbian and Dilla-esque beats, gospel melodies, ’70s funk, and lots of jazzy licks.

Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima. In which one of the greatest rock’n’roll singers of the new century shifts gears and lends her voice to an interstellar psychedelic journey set to a Serge Gainsbourg backdrop.

Purple Mountains – s/t. I’m very late to the David Berman bandwagon—too late, obviously. I look forward to diving deeper before the publication of a Berman bio by one of my favourite writers, due in 2021.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Will Not Hold. Of all the influences to hijack a new S-K record, I did not expect late-’90s Depeche Mode to be the one. This was a necessary experiment that works more often than it doesn’t. But one has to ask: was it worth losing Janet Weiss?

Best 2018 records I heard in 2019:

Gaye Su Akyol – Istikrarli Hayal Hakikattir. This Turkish singer sounds like Googoosh for the modern era, with a bit of Bjork, bossa nova, surf rock, flamenco, analog synths and ’60s psych pop on top of all the usual elements you would expect from the eastern Mediterranean.

Altin Gun – On. Speaking of Turks, this Dutch band embraces the diaspora and filters Anatolian sounds through seriously funky grooves. They followed this up quickly with the fine 2019 album Gece, but start here.

Kikagaku Moyo – Masana Temples. This Japanese band plays German psychedelia with a sitar and a bit of bossa nova, like a weird mix of Stereolab, Black Mountain and Ananda Shankar. Of course it’s great.

Kim Richey – Edgeland. This Americana veteran has been around for 25 years, and keeps getting better. Or at least, that’s what I thought when this here newbie stumbled across this record and then started working my way backwards.

Rosalía – El Mal Querer. The Spanish superstar deserves all the success she found in 2019, but you probably know that by now. For a totally different side of her, check out her understated, acoustic 2017 debut, Los Ángeles.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Rites of John Mann

"I'm grateful for what you did for me."

John Mann of Spirit of the West is dead at age 57, after a seven-year battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He went public with his battle in 2014, while in remission from a bout with colorectal cancer. Much like the Tragically Hip shortly after them, Spirit of the West embarked on a final tour in 2015 while their singer faced a terminal disease. They played their final shows, at the Commodore Ballroom in their hometown of Vancouver, a month before Gord Downie announced his own diagnosis with another deadly brain disease (glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer).

John Mann was a towering presence in Canadian music, a real mensch. Broadcaster Dave Hodge wrote this week, “I’m never sure how and when to use the word ‘beloved’. Except when describing John Mann, who couldn’t be mentioned without using it.” Fellow musicians have flooded online to testify to Mann’s generosity, his sense of humour, and his talent.

I met John Mann only once: the very first day I heard his music. I was 14 years old and my family was visiting Expo 86 in Vancouver. Spirit of the West were playing some crappy side stage in front of almost no one. Their debut for Stony Plain, Tripping Up the Stairs, came out that same year; I don’t know if it was before or after this Expo 86 gig, but this certainly didn’t seem like any triumphant show in front of a hometown crowd; far from it. I was immediately smitten by this acoustic trio; I was just starting to break out of my Top 40 tastes and veering off in all directions, so the Celtic instrumentation was new and exciting to me. And they were really fucking good.

Most important was that singer: he was electric, wiry, and completely compelling. He was funny looking, too. John Mann was incredibly handsome as he aged, but at age 24 he still seemed awkwardly adolescent, with exaggerated features: his unbelievably intense eyes, his nose, his forehead, his teeth. He was somewhat devilish, impish, and you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I was still at the age when pop stars looked beautiful and glamorous and seen only from a distance. John Mann looked real. The music wasn’t punk, but I was pretty sure he was. The Expo crowd was sparse and unresponsive. I later found out the band had considerably mixed feelings about playing Expo, when I heard their 1988 song "Profiteers," about forced evictions of lower-income tenants during the build-up to the world fair. My family went up afterwards to tell the band how much we loved the show. As anyone who ever met the band will tell you, they were gracious and thoughtful and polite to total strangers. John Mann became the first (future) rock star I ever met.

I heard the record a few months later, most likely on David Wisdom’s CBC Radio overnight show Night Lines, which was appointment listening for me every weekend. I bought it at Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. I became a huge fan, saw them whenever I could while underage (thank you, Ontario Place Forum and Concert Hall) and then as much as possible in my 20s.

I went to the University of Guelph and studied music, politics and Canadian history; I also took a lot of theatre courses. All that meant that my circle of friends were inevitably Spirit of the West fans. Music students loved their instrumental chops, especially those of muso multi-instrumentalist Hugh McMillan (Chapman stick!). Guelph is/was full of hippies and socialists and Billy Bragg fans, so naturally Spirit of the West had broad appeal there. “Political” was the soundtrack to most breakups in our social circle (allegedly written about Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith, I was once told). My own band and many others in town covered Spirit of the West songs in our infancy. The rockers and jocks had the Tragically Hip; the hippies had Spirit of the West. There was some crossover between the audiences, of course, and the two acts toured together quite a bit in the mid-’90s. Either way, these were the two most important Canadian bands on campuses coast to coast in the early ’90s. Such was our devotion to this band that when, in 1991, they added a drummer and electric guitars—a flying V, no less, on at least one song in their set—this was tantamount to Bob Dylan going electric. Spirit of the West were going pop, and they lost several diehard fans, especially when they made a “blasphemous” re-recording and rearrangement of the oh-so-sacred “Political.” I recall heated arguments in the bars of Guelph's Albion Hotel and Jimmy Jazz, no doubt replicated elsewhere in the country as well. Of course, for every acoustic ideologue lost, the band gained thousands more fans in the process. “And If Venice is Sinking” was a bonafide Top 40 pop hit, and it’s still in rotation today.

In 2019, Venice is actually sinking and now John Mann is dead.

I didn’t go see that final tour in 2015. I was too scared. Quite honestly, I hadn’t listened to the band since the turn of the century; my tastes had changed, and my memories were so good that I’d rather leave them in the past. Did I now want to see a once-great performer in a compromised position? Wouldn’t it just be sad and depressing? Would I just be lamenting my own youth?

Of course, within a year I’d be facing those exact questions again, this time about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. Honestly, if I wasn’t professionally compelled to witness the Hip tour, I’m not sure I would have, citing many of the same excuses. (I’m glad I did, for so many reasons.) In both cases, each man rose to the challenge and gave it their all in astonishing acts of bravery. (John Mann went to see Downie perform in 2016; Geoffrey Kelly told me about that here.) Spirit of the West were never as massively popular as the Tragically Hip; they never played arenas, not even in their hometown. Because of that, I fear their legacy is somewhat diminished, especially in the shadow of their friends in the Hip. But those who loved this band loved them deeply and with great fervour—even if they existed in a time capsule, as they did for me.

Spirit of the West had quietly faded away over the years, touring only occasionally. Mann put out a couple of solo records and had a successful career as an actor in television and theatre, returning to thespian roots he nurtured in high school. The band never broke up, but became known simply as the band who did the national drinking anthem “Home for a Rest.” (A song which, by the way, wasn’t even the lead single from 1990’s Save This House, never charted, and I don’t recall it ever being played on commercial radio in the band’s heyday. Its eventual place in the canon was achieved entirely through live shows, word of mouth—and pub DJs at closing time.)

Relegating Spirit of the West as a drinking band does them a huge disservice. Sure, “Home for a Rest” is easy to love, its appeal obvious. It’s now one of the few Canadian songs you’re likely to hear on the dance floor at a wedding. But throughout their entire discography, Mann’s sharp wit is always in full effect, and his pen is often pointed at a variety of social issues: environmentalism (“Save This House,” “Dirty Pool”), inequality (“Profiteers,” “The Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door”), and they were the only settler pop act I knew of other than Bruce Cockburn and Blue Rodeo to address Indigenous issues (“Homelands”). At times, Mann’s wordplay and puns could be overwrought (“God’s Apprentice”), downright clunky (“6th Floor”), or what would be referred to by later generations as “emo” (“Take It From the Source”). But you can’t fault a guy for trying; when you aim high, you’re bound to occasionally stumble. At their best, Mann’s lyrics brought a rare literacy and compassion to pop music, on par with his hero and peer Billy Bragg. Most important, they were one of the only Canadian pop acts of the day, like the Tragically Hip, to write explicitly about their surroundings: songs about streets in Vancouver and Halifax, videos with Mulroney effigies, and a biting, anti-patriot song called “Far Too Canadian” (“I am a sorry state”). They were ours. Maritimers loved them just as much as British Columbians, and they were steady draws in all stops in between.

More than a few Brits loved them as well:

Spirit of the West’s legacy was hurt by the decline of Celtic music’s influence, which was at an apex in the late ’80s and early ’90s (Waterboys, Sinead O'Connor, Proclaimers, etc.). I would argue that Spirit of the West, along with their British contemporaries the Pogues, were so good and singular at what they do (and very different from each other) that, for me at least, every similar band in their wake pales in comparison. The sight of flutes, whistles and accordions in rock bands was decidedly out of fashion by the mid-’90s (except for the Titanic soundtrack). Spirit of the West itself moved away from their core strengths, and by the time they turned their amps back down on 1997’s Weights and Measures, audiences—including me—had moved on. Seven years later, their next album, Star Trails, would be their last. Neither of those last two records made a commercial dent, though that’s hardly unusual for any band 20 years into their career.

In 1995, there was really only one band who took their torch and ran with it. Great Big Sea made chipper pop music from Spirit of the West’s template, devoid of the politics and darker side of life that made Mann’s lyrical world complete. It worked: Great Big Sea were far more successful commercially than Spirit of the West ever were. The Newfoundland band have multiple platinum records; the Vancouver band has two. Great Big Sea always give credit where it’s due: singer Alan Doyle always says Spirit of the West is the primary inspiration for his own band. In return, the magnanimous Mann was a big booster. In 2009, Spirit of the West was the opening act for the band they spawned (let’s call it a double bill). Doyle was one of many Canadian stars who re-recorded “Home For a Rest” in 2018 as a benefit for Alzheimer’s research, in Mann’s honour: he easily enlisted Sarah McLachlan, Jim Cuddy, Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson, Colin James, the Odds’ Craig Northey and others. 

Mann fought his disease publicly for the past five years—not just with Spirit of the West, but at a series of concerts in his honour where he was content to simply dance on stage while his musical peers took the reins. He wasn't going to fade away until he was past a point of no return—which eventually came. His passing should not be greeted with sadness as much as it is relief. His condition continually worsened, as Alzheimer’s does, and Mann was finally moved into an assisted-care home in 2017, after his wife, Jill Daum, had been his primary nurse for seven years. Their struggle was beautifully portrayed in the powerful 2016 documentary Spirit Unforgettable. It’s essential viewing for any fan, naturally, but just like the Tragically Hip’s Long Time Running or the 2014 Glen Campbell film I’ll Be There—about that singer’s final tour in 2010-12, battling Alzheimer’s—it’s first and foremost a devastating story about a beloved man choosing to live the fullest life he can, in public and on stage, while afflicted with an awful disease. Yes, it’s painful, but it’s a brilliant film on every level, and it's by no means just for fans. It's a great film, period, because of the bravery and openness of both Mann and Daum. You can find it on Crave or you can rent it from iTunes. Do it. Tears be damned.

John Mann leaves a hole in many hearts. It’s our duty to fill that hole with passion, with compassion, with music, with literature, with theatre, with care for society’s outcasts and downtrodden, with care for the land and our surroundings. Yeah, that's earnest. So was he. Mann made his friends and fans want to be better, in every way. “Save this house,” he urged, in a song that is now 30 years old. 

This beautiful, talented, witty, hilarious and indefatigable Mann died in a hospital on Nov. 20, 2019. He was surrounded by friends and family, including his bandmates. His musical brother-in-arms Geoffrey Kelly told CBC’s As It Happens about how they shared a final glass of Guinness in the hours before he passed.

As his song goes, “Those spirits we drank are now ghosts in the room.” John Mann’s unforgettable spirit lives on, in the hundreds of people who were close to him, and in the tens of thousands more who experienced his music. The circle is unbroken. He christened us with wonder.

Come on and lift me up
Raise me off the floor
Let me hear the band
Play the Rites of Man