Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stuart Berman: Broken Social Scene

The problem with writing a book about recent musical history is that someone—often even the artists themselves—will argue that it is “too soon.” Others will argue that until an artist leaves a sizable legacy behind, their story isn’t worthy of canonization.

So while Broken Social Scene remains an ongoing concern—they’re recording a new album this fall—it can be argued that the most fascinating part of this band’s career is already over, a point in history that’s tied up in a Torontonian musical renaissance that started around the turn of the century and has flourished ever since.

They were a band that weren’t really a band; they were an odd bunch of arty post-rock explorers and rock music refugees who created a hybrid outside of both worlds; they were everything and nothing at once, a blank slate onto which you could write the narrative of a new music industry, the soap opera about creative high school friends who made the big city seem that much smaller, and the document of how a ragtag collective of locals blew up internationally by forging their own sound from the salvageable detritus of the ’90s underground.

Stuart Berman has written all of these stories in his 2009 book This Book Is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story, an oral and visual history of the band and the scene that spawned them. It’s a worthy time capsule even if you’re not a fan of the band; if you lived through this period of time in Toronto—or wish you did—it’s as intimate as a signed yearbook, but with all the macro implications and ripples of that time on full view.

Berman has done an excellent job of weaving a narrative from his source material, and I have only two minor complaints.

One: you can definitely sense that there are stories that the band did not want told; Berman is very cosy with the band, and this book was made with their full participation. Anyone who knows anyone in the band has heard of greater dramas than the ones relayed here. That doesn’t make this a kiss-ass, boring book—far from it—but there is certainly more to be said.

Two: Berman is far too modest, and should be far more present in his own book, even if this is an oral history. He’s one of my favourite music writers to read, in Canada or otherwise (Eye Weekly, Pitchfork), whose descriptive powers, brevity, wit and contextual precision are all impeccable. And because he knows this particular subject so well, I really wanted him to fill in some blanks that some readers will no doubt require.

Yet oral histories seem to be the way rock books are going: witness Our Noise, the oral history of Merge Records (to be discussed here soon) or Liz Worth’s new book about Toronto punk, Treat Me Like Dirt (also hopefully discussed here soon).

Here is an oral history of my conversation with Berman last month. He’ll be interviewed by his old friend Ben Rayner, and interrupted by his friends in Broken Social Scene, this Friday, Oct. 30 at the International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront. Info on that event is here.

Stuart Berman

September 4, 2009

Locale: Lakeview Lunch

Some people were somewhat surprised that this band got a book to themselves.


And part of why it works is that they represent many satellite bands—although you don’t discuss those as much as I thought you might.

It was important to keep the narrative on a straight line. A lot of those bands have their own stories that predate BSS, so to get into the full nitty gritty of those would take the narrative into 20 directions at once. And those satellite bands appeal to different audiences—Jason Collett and Metric have very different audiences—and they all have different trajectories. From the start, in discussions with Kevin [Drew], he didn’t want this to be just a BSS book, but about the community as a whole. And I recognize that the story actually starts in the ’90s, in that if [Brendan Canning's first band] hHead had become a multiplatinum international band, BSS wouldn’t exist. You have to document the early failures to show how these people ended up together at the same spot at the same time.

Was that actually viable, that hHead would be a huge international act?

I remember being 17 or 18 when they started breaking, and they seemed like the first Toronto band to sound like all the American bands I liked, and they were doing the best at it. There was a lot of hype around them signing to IRS.

So You Forgot It In People—which for many people was their introduction to this band—is seven chapters into the book. I would even say that the early chapters of the book are slower moving, because that’s the way their lives were then: figuring out what they were going to do, thinking about giving up, etc.

I would argue they aren’t slow-moving at all; those are my favourite parts of the book. Once the band takes off, the story continues to be interesting because the dynamic of the band is so odd: how can they maintain this and keep going? But at some point, it does become the story of every other successful band. So to me, the story of how this came to be is more interesting than four random guys in a room.

I’ve always said that the ascent is more interesting than when you hit cruising altitude. I wanted to get back to the time when Scott Kannberg of Pavement was at one of their shows and that was a really big deal, that one of their idols was paying attention to them. Whereas now, if Kevin told me he was collaborating with Thom Yorke, I’d think, (shrugs), yeah, okay. That’s his life now.

With the early stuff, there’s a difference between American and Canadian perceptions of the book. And Canadians are really interested in this period of time because they didn’t know the roots of the band. For Americans who aren’t really plugged into that community at all, it’s pedantic and slow and they’re waiting for the juicy post-success stories.

Their career isn’t over, but I feel that the story is over.
From here on in, their success story is like any other.

This is the end of a certain phase in the band. A lot of these people will still be involved in the band, but not to the same extent. In order for the band to go forward at this point, they need to streamline, and it is about the core of Kevin, Brendan, Justin [Peroff], Charlie [Spearin], Andrew [Whiteman]. You might not have the same kind of representation from the satellite players, and you might have new ones come in as well. The first three records were the culmination of a certain narrative, and now it’s a blank canvas.

The other thing about the “too soon” argument, is that we’ve probably consumed more music in the last 10 years than we have in our whole lives before that, in terms of access to music being so easy now. Your iTunes playlist fills up with 80 new bands every week. I’m already thinking: “Wow, the Pains of Being Pure At Heart—was that only last February? It seems like five years ago.” I’ve consumed so many different bands between then and now, and they get pushed to the back of the queue. So the distance between now and You Forgot It in People is vast.

Even how much music has come out of this camp.

Exactly. People think BSS is in this inactive period, but they put out two solo records in the past two years, and that’s a good two hours of music.

This band is very much a microcosm for many stories: the Toronto community of the time, the way the industry changed and the way this band broke. Their narrative is very much one of the new industry model, the last 20 years of Toronto music history, and also international recognition of Canada, which was concurrent with their success.

I didn’t get a chance to go into some of those things. But I was trying to present this band as a new model of how things can get done. You could say that this was one of the first bands that the Internet broke, both in the sense of the Pitchfork review in the U.S. and the fact that there was this six-month gap between the Canadian release and the international release where people were reading about them online and going out and downloading it. And then the people who downloaded it came out to shows, and that becomes the new revenue model for bands, not based on selling records.

They were one of the first bands where right after the album came out and was distributed by EMI, they got caught up in DRM issues that the band was not happy about. This was the first time I had heard an artist openly say that they didn’t want that technology on their discs at all.

Another aspect of the band is the changing definition of indie rock, from being this dogmatic and anti-corporate stance to a band that is navigating and playing both sides of the field. They are self-sufficient: they make their own decisions and don’t answer to anybody. At the same time, they realize distribution is a valuable thing to have, and there are certain services that major labels provide that are still useful, like manufacturing and distribution. Now we’re getting into an era where TV licensing isn’t as heretical an idea as it used to be. Bands can still determine their own destiny without taking a hardcore, dogmatic stance against the man.

Part of what I enjoy about the early chapters is setting up the climate of the ’90s to explain how much the game was about to change. There was the false promise of the ’90s: a lot of excitement, but now not only does a lot of the music not hold up, but neither do the business models—from both sides of the corporate fence. How do you remember the ’90s?

From what I remember, it was the classic Canadian complex where you have a Canadian version of something that’s popular in the States. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t truly unique songwriters coming out of Toronto—there were people like the Rheostatics and Ian Blurton who had their own aesthetic. But when it got to a certain level of popularity, the videos you’d see on MuchMusic next to the new Nirvana video, it all seemed to be meshed into one thing. There seemed to be this mass of post-grunge bands who were getting picked up by major labels and getting big-budget videos.

There was a sense that Canadian bands were competing on the same level, but the reality of it was that no one in the U.S. cared. I remember going to CMJ and meeting American rock critics and they’d be making jokes about Canadian bands. I remember meeting a guy who worked at Atlantic when the Hip’s Day for Night album came out [1994], and they got on Saturday Night Live. He was saying, “There was no sales spike on Monday morning—and you always get a sales spike on Monday morning! No one cares about Canada down here!”

I remember having a conversation with you at Royal City’s Alone at the Microphone release, with the Hidden Cameras, in December ’01, and it was an incredibly exciting night of music.

At Lee’s Palace?



Yes. And I remember you telling me: just watch, Toronto is about to happen—everywhere. And I said, that never happens! Nobody gives a shit about Canada and Canada doesn’t know how to market itself anywhere. I remember being impressed with your optimism and yet extremely suspicious. And lo and behold, you were totally correct and I—normally Captain Canada—was a defeatist.

I think Dave Bookman and John Crossingham make this point in the book. This was the first time you remember friends talking to each other about Canadian bands that they really liked. But you realized that the U.S. had 10 years on Canada in developing a network of clubs, college radio, alternative media…

Really? I don’t buy that, because that was during the '80s, and we had that infrastructure here, too.

Maybe I’m referring more to a condensed network, the fact that in the U.S. there’s a college town every two hours down the road with some kind of club and media. Whereas in Canada you have maybe 10 markets that are 10 hours apart.

And yet oddly enough, Canadian bands felt intimidated or they were worried about the border; people wouldn’t make those north-south connections and would haul themselves across the Prairies instead. By the time of BSS, things could happen everywhere at once; it was less about traditional ways of reaching fans.

The barriers to the U.S. were so much more formidable 10 years ago, even bands that signed to major labels like Thrush Hermit. They became one of 100 new major label acquisitions. It really was the era of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks.

So the glut worked against us more than anything.


Reading this and Jason Schneider’s book Whispering Pines at the same time, it struck me that all these artists you talk about had the same “urge for going” that Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and everyone else had in the late ’50s, early ’60s, when there literally was no industry in Canada at all. There was no choice but to leave: there weren’t even recording studios here. And of course eventually we had all that, but then again by the late ’90s, people had abandoned all hope and moved to Berlin or wherever else to try and make it work.

There was a glass ceiling in Toronto, where you reach a level of headlining the Opera House.

And Metric are interesting because they were aggressively trying to work in that old model.

A lot of people in this band pursued those routes. Amy Millan [of Stars] had a lot of interest from people. But there really wasn’t a successful alternate model to look to.

I remember talking to Kevin Lynn about King Cobb Steelie years ago, and he said that in retrospect he had no idea why they tried to make it work with a Canadian major label, EMI, that didn’t know what to do with them. Had they signed to an independent American or British label and been among their musical peers, they would have been perceived much differently—and by the time they did, with Ryko, it was arguably too late.

I remember when [King Cobb Steelie's] Junior Relaxer came out [in 1998], and the bio from EMI read: “If you like Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, check this out!” I think with any major corporation you have people at the street level who knew what bands to go after and were fans of music, but then you have to answer to upper level management who are more entrenched in an old way of thinking. Dave Bookman says that that the fat cats would see these sloppy alternative rock bands and say, "What the hell?" So they signed Moist and Our Lady Peace and got the more “pro” version of this alternative thing.

One thing that surprised me about Broken Social Scene was how quickly it happened on a mainstream level. They were the guys you see around all the time, the guys you know from other bands, you know the band is good and that your group of friends is talking about it.

But it seemed to go mainstream really fast—I don’t know if that the fact that there was always something middle class Toronto about this band, and I don’t know if people related to them on some subconscious level there, but they attracted an audience very early that didn’t necessarily listen to a lot of other so-called indie rock.

I think the live shows they were putting on in 2003 were really electrifying. I remember being at a show, I think at the Junos in Ottawa, there was a big benefit show at Barrymore’s with Sam Roberts, Gord Downie, a Canadian all-star concert. BSS had already played at Zaphod’s earlier that night [also in Ottawa], so they got in the van, drove over for a 1.30 a.m. 20-minute set, and played four songs. Feist was in the band at the time. I remember K-os was there, just eyes open, jaw dropping. They toured their ass off between 2003-2005, and it’s a classic word-of-mouth thing. Overall, in a post-Strokes/White Stripes world, there was more attention being paid to indie rock by music supervisors and talent bookers on Letterman or whoever. Any band that had some buzz got on that mainstream radar more quickly.

But these new fans were people who didn’t go to clubs regularly, who didn’t follow stuff, and yet they were early adopters of BSS.

They moved beyond the geek market very quickly.
I think Soundscapes was a symbolic change in Toronto indie rock. Rotate This was the classic indie rock store, whereas Soundscapes was more like Mojo magazine; it was in an upscale neighbourhood, the presentation was clean and more like an art gallery. I imagine they got more curious passers-by. And in this age of downloading, it’s the 30- and 40-year-olds who are still buying records.

The first time I felt like “Wow, this is happening on a bigger scale” was when they played the Phoenix for the Eye Weekly CMW showcase. That was the first time I saw a lot of people I didn’t recognize, and the band would play one note from a song and the whole room erupted because they knew the whole song note-for-note.

And that was five months after the record came out with mostly a soft, local launch; maybe the Pitchfork review had just run by then.

In the U.S. I think it was a lot of touring and story of this crazy, unwieldly collective. And having Feist, [Metric's] Emily [Haines] and Amy really helped present them as more than just a bunch of bearded guys playing indie rock. It gave them a certain sex appeal that drew in more people. I find this band also has a lot of female teenage fans who are inspired by this band. Being at the Harbourfront show this past summer, there were a lot of 15- and 16-year-olds who would have been eight when You Forgot It in People came out. So they seem to be regenerating the fan base. They’re a band that’s being passed down to younger brothers and sisters.

Yet I know people who see the band as a boys’ club, and the story in the book about Kevin not letting Leslie play guitar is shocking to me.

(laughs) Boys will be boys.

As important as the ladies are to at least that one record, in some sense they’re still decorative. They’re not as part of the creative process, it seems to me, and it’s as brazen as them saying: Emily, Amy and Leslie are busy, and we need to find a new girl. [On reflection, however, this isn't that different from recruiting a new guitarist when Charles Spearin or Andrew Whiteman were unavailable.]

The flip side of that, I think, is that they realize how important it is to have a female voice to break up the boys’ club. I’d say the females are as involved as writing the songs they sing on as much as anyone else on there. “Anthems for a 17-year-old Girl,” Brendan came up with the melody but Emily wrote the words and the cadence. That’s a song that, every time I see them do it live, it’s a rapturous moment with the crowd singing along. So if she’s only on stage for 10 minutes of the show, they are the biggest 10 minutes of the show.

You make a point that Kevin and Brendan realized at one point that a two-man drone project wouldn’t cut it in the new participatory culture of Toronto around 2002, with bands like the Hidden Cameras and the Three Gut crowd having captured everyone's attention. I find it funny that part of what I didn’t like about Toronto in the 1990s was the amount of math rock and a lot of no-fun music, and some of what people in this band were involved with was a big part of that—including, in my minority opinion, Do Make Say Think. Which is why I think BSS became a joyous release for fans of those other projects, and for the players themselves, obviously.

The other thing about math rock is that no one went to those shows. If you want to talk about guy music, that scene was very dude-centric. Certainly, people in this band were doing things they hadn’t done before: whether that was coming from a more mainstream-oriented past who were allowed to do something more experimental, or people like Charlie being immersed in post-rock or electronic music being allowed to rock out again. I think the band was feeding something different to everybody. I think it transformed people like Andrew Whiteman: Apostle of Hustle pre-BSS is very different than post-BSS. It’s this nexus that transforms people. Even Jason Collett’s records started to get more experimental in their production.

I enjoy that you call Kevin a “fiercely passionate indie rock idealist,” which to me seems like an understatement. Then people like Brendan, Jason or Andrew—all of whom had every reason to by cynical around the turn of the decade—one of the interesting things about this book is seeing what he draws out of people around him.

And Bill Priddle [of Treble Charger] is another example. Those guys are all drawn to Kevin’s magnetism and enthusiasm. Kevin was part of this younger generation who grew up looking not at a major label model to aspire to, but an independent one, whether it was bands like Dirty Three, Thrill Jockey bands, Constellation bands. He grew up watching those bands be successful in an alternate system. That gave him the inspiration.

Godspeed You Black Emperor was very much a turning point in Canadian indie ideology. Not only did they reject the major label system outright, but the music they were making was non-commercial but so huge and it struck an emotional chord.

They rejected every part of the music industry, really, except for the necessities of touring.

Even then they were careful to pick certain venues.

One thing that comes up in the book but isn’t really explored is the connection some of these players have to Toronto’s Latin music community. That’s not written about anywhere at all; Evan Cranley and Dean Stone come out of that, and obviously Whiteman is heavily influenced by it.

In indie or alt-rock circles, musicianship is seen as a liability to your authenticity. Whereas in those communities it’s highly valued. People like Cranley and Whiteman are obviously well-trained musicians, and those scenes gave them the opportunity to develop their chops.

My understanding is that Latin music is huge here in Toronto, but very insular, and those local bands don’t see a point in trying to cross over because there’s no money; they do perfectly well playing to their own communities who are willing to pay a high cover price to see a hot live band with 20 players in it.

There’s a way of looking at music where it’s not just a career that facilitates celebrity—it’s a job, just like an office job. It’s an idea that’s totally now divorced from the North American or Western notion of an arts career, which is somehow is supposed to launch you into a stratosphere beyond mere mortals. In Latin communities and others, music is such an ingrained part of daily lives. When you think of music in those terms, you’re not seeing dollar signs.

I’m curious about your voice in this book.

Which originally wasn’t going to be in it.

I wanted a lot more. What’s your word count here?


No, your word count, with your voice—excluding the oral history.

Probably 15-20 per cent of the words. Originally I wanted this to be pure oral history, because I was looking at books like Please Kill Me and a book about L.A. punk, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb, and there was the backstage SNL book. When I submitted my first draft, it was all oral history. My editor is not a BSS fan, and she said, “Um, I’m gonna need a little help here, navigating this network of people.” I agreed; I didn’t want it to be just a fan book; I wanted to engage people who weren’t necessarily fans. Hence the scene-setting intros setting up each chapter. So I think we reached a middle ground.

There could also be the concept of a guiding voice. Reading the new book about Merge Records (Our Noise), there are often tiny, two-sentence intros to a next series of quotes; all the exposition isn’t front-loaded at the beginning of a chapter.

Some of my earlier versions had that, but it felt kind of out of nowhere. Hopefully people aren’t too confused.

You do have a cast of characters, which the Merge book does not.

Yes, it’s everyone who’s quoted. Word count was a consideration. It was always going to be a very visual book. Certain narratives were unfortunately not explored, and there were certain people I probably should have interviewed.

How do you think it would have gone had you done straight narrative?

I was toying with this idea. I went on tour with them in 2005 and took a bunch of notes. I didn’t know what I was doing it for. I was hoping to pitch it to somebody. It turned out to be the trip where [producer and sonic architect] Dave Newfeld was attacked by cops in Washington Square. This was around the time the self-titled album was being mastered, and they were listening to mixes, and there was a lot of tension. I was thinking of doing a flashback, flash-forward piece based on this trip where all the dynamics were playing themselves out. Kevin was totally stressed, and felt like he had to carry the weight of the band on his shoulders. At the same time they were opening for Dinosaur Jr., who were their heroes, and MTV was out to interview them, so all these parts of their career were playing out on this one tour.

Then there was this other idea that was going to be completely visual, profiling each important person in their lives and giving them a scrapbook sheet of personal ephemera…

That seems like a bad idea.

Uh, yeah. It was the total teenage fan magazine approach. Then I realized that there was a lot of fodder here for a good oral history of the scene, which has always been my favourite way to think about a scene. Magazines like Magnet and Spin do that, for the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain or whatever.

I rarely read rock books anymore, unless they’re written by someone I know. I feel like all the big topics have been covered—births of genres, etc.—and a lot of more recent topics aren’t as deserving of contexts or conjectures. Plus, the way people consume music information now is so much more about a quick glance of facts on the web. So is oral history the way to go?

When I was younger and reading press religiously, I was always bummed out when the writer’s voice was more prevalent in a profile piece than the subject’s. “I don’t want to read about this guy!” Oral histories feed that impulse: “Just tell me what Feist has to say!” At the same time, there’s a lot of editorializing in piecing the transcript together.

Wait until you see what I do with this.

The writer is always leaving stuff on the floor and deciding how you feed the narrative. I think there are still great books to be written. I just read an excellent one called Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper, about the downfall of the music industry. But it doesn’t start in 1999; it goes back to 1979 and how disco was a cash cow that the industry pulled the plug on because they were worried about backlash and “disco sucks” rallies. That was one of the stupidest decisions they ever made, was to stop promoting disco when it was huge. Then there was a slump until the mid-'80s with MTV and Thriller, and then the CD. It’s a great picture of that time in 1999 when it was a perfect storm, with Napster emerging. The labels were not paying any attention to the Internet because they were making record profits from Backstreet Boys etc., who were selling stupid amounts of records. I did 40 interviews for this book; this guy interviewed 300 people, everyone from artists to all the bigwigs through the years, and the guy who actually invented CD technology. And he frames it all in characters, not facts and figures.

I do find I’m more interested in reading about the business than I am about some indie band’s story. In a way, this book was a closing chapter of that part of my life, chasing the next big thing as a writer.

It’s very exciting to be at ground level and watch something like this.

In a funny way, this band still has a capacity to get bigger. Arcade Fire sold more records and have been more welcomed into the establishment, in terms of the Bowie/Bono/Byrne/Springsteen endorsements. BSS never broke through on that level. They’ve done Letterman and Coachella and those markers of success, but I’d hesitate to call them a mainstream band—even though some people in Toronto are sick of them.

What radio station plays them, other than CFNY, and even then certainly not in high rotation?

Exactly. That’s the funny thing about a lot of indie stuff that people think is overexposed: no one plays these bands! It’s not like media is stuffing them down your throat. We’ve all gone to see bands that have a lot of hype and there’s 20 people at the show. Maybe it’s to BSS’s benefit that they’ve never had the hit single that became the one song at a show that people respond to. They became big by engaging their fans and turning them on to their way of thinking.

I remember seeing a big CMJ show they played at the Bowery, I'm guessing in 2004, where they opened with a 10-minute dub song. I remember thinking: “This is their moment, and they’re going to do whatever they want with it.”

At the same time, they’re not doing this to play squats and basements. They want to be a big band, but they don’t want to conform to any expectations.

Spiral Stairs talks about how they may be the last band with mystery, now that we know everything about every new band within a week of an MP3 going viral. I now find that if there’s a record with any kind of mystique to the sound, I don’t want to know anything about them. I really like the Bat for Lashes record, but I don’t want to read anything about her.

I feel that way about The XX record. It exists in its own world. I know they’re 20 years old, but that’s about it.

Ultimately, people will always be confused by this band. Who’s there? Who’s playing? Why are they playing a 10-minute dub jam? Why is “Major Label Debut” so fast and catchy live but slow and weird on the album? Every time I expect this band to go more conventional, they pleasantly surprise me. In a way they bridge mainstream and underground: Feist races up the charts, and Charlie does the weirdest record of his career.

Historically, my tastes have been very similar between the two extremes. Simon Reynolds says in Bring the Noise that he loves it when something underground breaks into the mainstream because it forces people to question their own assumptions. That’s how art moves forward; if something stays underground, its legacy will be protracted.

This book busts all the mystique then.

Ehhhhh. Yeah, you probably know more about their personal lives than you did before. But in terms of how they operate and what the future holds, that’s just as much a question mark as it was 10 years ago.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Oct 09 reviews

The following reviews ran in the K-W Record and Guelph Mercury.

Air – Love 2 (EMI)

Love 2 is not actually a sequel to anything, but it’s certainly the strongest album by French band Air since their 1998 classic Moon Safari, which almost single-handedly ushered in a new era of Moog synthesizers playing a parade of planetarium pop and easy-listening sci-fi lounge music. They’ve found some muscle and backbone, making this a rare Air album that actually makes you want to get off the couch. The album opens with fuzzy, distorted guitar playing a serpentine riff, and from their Air moves through spy movie soundtracks, reggae rhythms, sunbaked latter-day Sly Stone soul music, bossa nova, and psychedelic pop, all filtered through a French sensibility that makes everything that much more lush and lascivious. A breath of fresh Air, indeed. (Oct. 15)

Michael Bublé – Crazy Love (Warner)

I don’t remember "Cry Me A River" sounding like a James Bond theme, but that’s what Michael Bublé does to it here to open his new album—and it totally works. As he gets older, Bublé is getting better at being an interpreter rather than just singing old songs in a new suit; it doesn’t take much to pull off a widely covered standard like "All of Me," but it does take serious cojones to pull off "Georgia on My Mind" and battle the ghost of Ray Charles. His jokey side is still present, of course: a big band arrangement of the Eagles’ "Heartache Tonight" is nothing if not campy.

Bublé would also like to be known as a songwriter; he only ever offers a couple per album, but they have been his biggest hits ("Home," "Everything"). That’s unlikely to happen here; neither "All I Do Is Dream of You" nor "Hold On" hold a candle to his earlier hits—and juxtaposed next to some of the strongest songs of the last century, they sound even weaker.

What’s most revealing is to hear Bublé and producer Bob Rock visit the eight-track studio of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in Brooklyn; there, they leave the album’s co-producer David Foster home in Vancouver and let their hair down with some gritty Southern soul. Bublé and Jones sing a playful duet on "Baby You’ve Got What It Takes," and for three short minutes, we hear what it would sound like if Bublé were to follow in Amy Winehouse’s musical footsteps. (Oct. 22)

Champion – Resistance (Saboteur/Maple)

DJ Champion struck gold with his 2005 single “No Heaven,” driven by a soaring vocal from Betty Bonifassi (Beast) and grinding bluesy guitars over a techno beat. He returns with a male vocalist replacing Bonifassi, less intense beats, and plenty of guitars that owe as much of a debt to metal as they do blues—all of which often ends up sounding like late-’80s period ZZ Top (remember "Sleeping Bag"?) with a gothier edge.

Singer Pierre-Philippe Côté tackles most of the lead vocals, and he doesn’t have half the personality of Bonifassi; though it’s not entirely his fault that every song here with vocals is incredibly annoying. No matter who’s singing it’s impossible to spin a gold chorus out of the lyrics: “I like it so much! Yes, I like it so much!”

Champion may have made his mark with a huge anthem, but he’s much more successful with the moodier, instrumental pieces here ("Plastiques et Metaux," "L6"), which could give Moby a run for his money. (Oct. 1)

The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)

How much you like The Clientele depends entirely on how much you can stand wispy British men singing autumnal odes over languid dream-pop with sparkling guitars, tinkly keyboards, brushed drums, and a melodic bass player who ties it all together. If that works for you, then Bonfires on the Heath will sweep the clouds away from your rainiest days.

Most of the references here date back to ’60s British folk-pop; at times it sounds like Nick Drake fronting The Velvet Underground; there are shades of the Zombies and hints of Pink Floyd (especially the Dark Side-ish pedal steel on the title track). The sunny optimism of their game-changing 2006 album God Save the Clientele surfaces only on a couple of tracks; here, they’re back to being their mopey selves, only now they sound a lot more muscular doing it, and relatively recent fourth member Mel Draisey fleshes out the arrangements beautifully with violin and a variety of keyboards.

Singer/guitarist Alisdair MacLean has threatened that this will be The Clientele’s final album. And after the excellence of both this and the previous album, he might just be spinning his wheels from now on anyway—it’s hard to imagine The Clientele capturing their essence any better than this. (Oct. 8)

Hugh Dillon – Works Well With Others (Warner)

One of the most tired clichés of criticism is complaining about actors who embark on a new career as a musician—as if artists are somehow supposed to be locked into one discipline for the rest of their lives. Hugh Dillon started out as a rock’n’roll frontman, slowly built a respectable acting career that now finds him with two leading roles on acclaimed TV series, Flashpoint and Durham County. He now returns with a solo album that is much more sombre and reflective than his days fronting the Headstones in the ’90s.

Dillon always had an eye for lyrical detail, even if it was all too often wrapped up in his own taste for self-mythologizing rock’n’roll. Now that he’s escaped most of the demons that accompanied his days of excess, he’s taking stock of life and translating the personal into the universal. “I’ve not the strength to fade away,” he sings—these are obviously tales he felt he had to tell, and there’s no questioning his conviction on tracks like "Friends of Mine," "Well on Your Way" and "Lucky."

He doesn’t surrender to rock’n’roll abandon often—Reel to Reel being the rollicking exception—and he’s more likely to slip into a Leonard Cohen croon on these largely mid-tempo pop songs, produced by longtime friend Paul Langlois of The Tragically Hip. It all suits his voice-of-authority persona well—he may have mellowed, but still sounds like a man you don’t want to mess with. (Oct. 29)

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner)

Less bubblegum, more brown acid.

The Flaming Lips have never been anyone’s idea of normality, but this is easily the freakiest and flipped out they’ve been in more than 15 years. And back then they were grungy novices still recovering from their first acid trip: now they’re serious about it, and capable of concocting chilling soundscapes, truly psychedelic sensory overload, and ways to melt your mind that music alone shouldn’t be able to do.

Gone are the sunny, uplifting pop songs that buoyed their fantastical live show of the past 10 years, and made fans out of everyone from Beck to Justin Timberlake—and scored the occasional TV ad. Now they’re diving deep into the heaviest Black Sabbath grooves, the trippiest side of early Pink Floyd, and the wide-open experimentation of Germany’s Can. And yet the melodic sense they honed on recent albums still lurks in the background, which means more recent converts have some kind of road map for this strange journey.

Even the biggest Lips fans had their patience tested by the patently ridiculous and long-delayed film Christmas on Mars, which was finally released last year to a collective shrug after nearly a decade of anticipation. Yet if anything good came of that, it was the eerie and sparse sci-fi soundtrack; Embryonic takes all the lessons learned there and reins them into to only a somewhat more conventional rock band format. Lyrically, there’s some sort of astrology motif going on ("Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast," "Aquarius Sabotage," "Scorpio Sword")—but it’s best not to ask, really.

Just when the Flaming Lips risked becoming a parody of themselves, Embryonic is a sign of a whole new life. (Oct. 15)

Flight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky (Sub Pop)

Being freaky is one thing—being freakin’ hilarious is another. And being both fearless and peerless musical mimics is yet another thing altogether, which makes this deadpan duo all the more impressive for creating a comedy album of songs you’ll want to hear much more than once.

On this, the soundtrack to the second season of their HBO series, they’ve stepped up the songwriting to exist separately from their scripts (in fact, the second season’s scripts were arguably weaker than the debut). At times they’re certainly shooting fish in a barrel by satirizing R. Kelly/Usher duets ("We’re Both In Love With a Sexy Lady"), pointless folkie ’70s singer/songwriters ("Rambling Through the Avenues of Time") and Vocoderized techno pop (potential lesbian club anthem "Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor"). But they do so with such precision (the Prince/Beck backbeat of the title track), lyrical zingers (the boast in "Sugalumps" about how “the ladies they hustle to ruffle my truffles”) and actual pop hooks, that they transcend the novelty genre entirely. Especially when some of their main targets are almost as unintentionally hilarious in their own right.

Best of all—and rare among both musicians and comedians—they know when to stop milking the joke; nearly every song here is under three minutes. All killer, no filler. (Oct. 29)

Gossip – Music for Men (Sony)

Most people who know of Beth Ditto don’t even know she has a band—never mind know that she’s one of the most powerful singers of her generation.

In the three years since The Gossip’s last album, Standing in the Way of Control, Ditto has become a celebrity—primarily in the U.K.—for her fashion sense and her brash, articulate views on feminism, queer rights, and the fallacy of a fashion industry focused on impossible beauty standards—and ironically, she’s been widely embraced and courted by that same fashion industry. That this has happened with minimal discussion of her music is a shame, and something that this major label debut might rectify.

Beth Ditto grew up in a small town in Arkansas full of rednecks; she and her band moved to Olympia, Washington, a small town of artsy punk rockers. Her vocal style is steeped in blues and country music, and until now was delivered with the screaming and exhilarating abandon of riot grrrl punk rock—all unmistakably the sound of a small-town girl dreaming of escape.

Here, under the eye of producer Rick Rubin, those blues and country debts have been erased, and many—some would argue all—of The Gossip’s rough edges have been smoothed over in favour of a slick combination of modern pop, electro R&B, and trace elements of post-punk disco, all of which are the soundtrack for that small-town girl’s new life under bright lights in the big city. “Pop goes the world,” sings Ditto here, echoing Men Without Hats. “New salvation … new translation … new relation … new sensation.”

For those with pre-existing expectations of The Gossip, Music for Men is at times a radically different record—although no more unusual a transformation than Ditto’s peer Karen O, whose celebrity outshone her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as she led them from noisy punks to pop stars. While previous Gossip albums didn’t stray from their live line-up—voice, guitar, drums—Rick Rubin encourages the band to throw everything into the mix, starting with bass guitar to drive the dance floor, followed by every kind of keyboard and even a few timbales for that extra Studio 54 touch.

But if this is a pop sell-out, it’s one that works. As a vocalist, Ditto can sell you anything; previously, her appeal was the raw power of her voice and the liberation she shared with the audience about shaking off shackles of expectation. Now that she’s grown and evolved in the spotlight, she dials it down a bit and focuses on the pop hooks, with the inspiration and optimism she’s always espoused finding an easy home amidst the synths and electronic percussion of disco deliverance.

Her bandmates Brace Paine and Hannah Blilie are by no means lost in the shuffle, however; they’ve also stepped up their game while still keeping things raw and raucous—although there are more than a few tracks here where they’re all but invisible ("Love and Let Love," "Four Letter Word") on what could be Ditto solo tracks.

Beth Ditto is already the star she deserves to be, but Music for Men proves that she’s much more than just a celebrity of the week. She was an artist first, and here she embraces the oldest adage of American show biz: go big or go home. (Oct. 22)

Hidden Cameras – Origin: Orphan (Arts and Crafts)

The Hidden Cameras have always aspired to make epic music with mostly amateur musicians, with leader Joel Gibb writing deceptively simple four-chord pop songs that were a canvas for as much or as little ornamentation for the revolving door of musicians to provide. On his fourth album, Gibb aims much higher: the orchestrations are more grandiose and bombastic, and three songs here—including the Arabic-influenced opening track "Ratify the New" and the anguished pseudo-industrial angst of the title track—are the most dark and brooding Gibb has ever been, with low brass adding considerable gravitas. He’s always excelled at melancholy, but on these songs he sounds downright ominous.

The sunny side of the Cameras is still present; songs like "He Falls to Me" and "The Little Bit" could easily have been culled from any Cameras release; the characteristically provocative "Underage" (“Let’s do it like we’re underage”) sets African backing vocals to cheezeball ’80s programming that conjures memories of the Culture Club, of all people. (Oct. 22)

Islands – Vapours (Anti)

Nick Thorburn just created one of the biggest bands to ever come out of Guelph, by reshuffling the Islands line-up. Thorburn himself is from Vancouver Island, started the band in Montreal, and has lived in New York and L.A. But for the third Islands album, he brought back founding drummer and Guelph native Jamie Thompson, as well as the Gordon brothers, Evan and Geordie, who have been a huge part of Guelph’s music scene in the last ten years with The Magic, the Barmitzvah Brothers, the Sad Clowns, the Salt Lick Kids, and backing up their father James. And all this Guelphness comes on the heels of Thorburn’s 2008 collaboration with Jim Guthrie, Human Highway.

This new line-up creates the most cohesive Islands line-up to date; gone is the breezy orch-pop of the debut, and the overwrought prog rock of Arm’s Way. The Gordon brothers bring their army of synthesizers, and Thompson sounds like he spent most of his time programming his drum machine (to great effect—these are largely atypical and surprising beats), yet Vapours is for the most part very much a rock album, informed as it is by pop music of the ’80s and the ’50s, hints of reggae, disco, and plenty of the post-9/11 dichotomy of wartime dread and stubborn optimism. Thorburn has always been good at forging his own musical vision, but not until now has it sounded so natural and rewarding.

Too bad that Thorburn’s gain is our loss; hopefully Islands’ extensive international touring schedule won’t put off that long-delayed Magic album any longer. (Oct. 8)

Corb Lund – Losin’ Lately Gambler (New West)

Corb Lund calls his band the Hurtin’ Albertans and this album title alludes to a string of bad luck. But there’s no self-deprecating flagellation necessary, because not only does this prairie poet continue to improve, but his popularity continues to rise around the world, and this is his first album with a new American record deal (with one track recorded in front of hundreds of rowdy Australians). And so if you’re not already familiar with Lund’s mix of powerful prose and traditional country music—there’s nothing urban about this cowboy—this album is as good a place to start as any.

Part of Lund’s charm is the specificity and regionalism of his writing: he’s an Albertan cowboy, and most of his songs are about horses, prairie life, horses, gambling, and a few more about horses. Although he’s most intriguing when writing unconventional narratives about veterinarians’ pharmaceuticals or bull riding, he’s also charming and entertaining on mundane topics like keeping a white shirt clean, or when he’s tugging heartstrings of even the most hardened easterner with a ballad like "Alberta Says Hello." If the tales of military history that peppered his 2008 release (and arguably his masterpiece) Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! were too ambitious for mainstream listeners, the tales here strike much closer to home—especially the rollicking anthem "Long Gone to Saskatchewan."

If Lund’s lexicon sets him apart from almost everyone else in country music, his ace band would fit in anywhere that appreciates a twangy guitar picker, an upright bass with jazz chops, and a rock’n’roll drummer. Simply put, country music doesn’t get any better than this, in Canada or anywhere else—America is now his for the taking, and this Losin’ Lately Gambler is about to land Lund a big score. (Oct. 8)

Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle – Let’s Just Stay Here (Mint)

This is supposed to be Carolyn Mark’s rock album, so you’ll forgive an old fan for being disappointed in the fact that it clearly does not rock. It does have electric guitars, making it in some ways the opposite of her last album, the all-acoustic Nothing is Free. But there is none of the blood or the sweat and only a few of the tears that one would expect from such a normally gutsy songwriter and performer to shed on a self-professed rock’n’roll album.

By any other standard—say, that of her collaborators here NQ Arbuckle—this wouldn’t matter, and Let’s Just Stay Here would be a pleasant enough slab of mid-tempo CanRock that goes down well with a few pints at the local watering hole. Much of it is mid-tempo and mournful, with little of the larger-than-life personality that Ms. Mark brings to all her other recordings. The one song with any fire in it, "Canada Day Off," is one of her weakest; and the one song that deserves a raucous run-through, a cover of Edmonton cowpunk legends Jr. Gone Wild, could use a serious sense of urgency.

Mark’s finest moments here are on the haunting opening "All Time Low" and the lonely lilt of "Sunday Morning" (not a Velvet Underground cover). The album closes with the title track, one of her loveliest tunes, where Mark—who titled her 2004 album The Pros and Cons of Collaboration—asks the ironic question: “Do compromises all feel one-sided?” In sharing the billing on this album, Mark sounds like she’s been submersed into the NQ Arbuckle band rather than taking charge.

The always-productive Mark already has a new album in the can, a tour-only release with her longtime guitarist Tolan McNeil made at home in Victoria; maybe that contains the magic we’re missing here. (Oct. 29)

Amy Millan – Masters of the Burial (Arts and Crafts)

Perhaps the true strength of a duo is how much their solo work pales in comparison (see: Blue Rodeo). Amy Millan charismatically co-fronts the band Stars with Torquil Campbell; Campbell’s two albums with side project Memphis sounds flaccid in comparison, and now Millan’s second solo album suggests she’s no better on her own.

But at least she carves out a different sound than her main project; in her solo work, she’s much more sombre and dips her toes into traditional sounds, albeit mixed with her decidedly modern sensibilities. And so banjos and mandolins take solos over treated guitars and various electronics, with her femme fatale voice front and centre. The best song here, in fact, is "Day To Day," featuring just Millan’s lullaby voice and a drum beat.

But aesthetics only take her so far; the songs are forgettable, and even the covers of Sarah Harmer and Death Cab For Cutie—though they boast considerably more memorable melodies—fail to leave any impression.

Millan sounds like she’s in bad need of some creative friction to get her juices flowing. (Oct. 1)

Karen O and the Kids – Where the Wild Things Are OST (Universal)

Are you sure Karen’s O doesn’t stand for Orff? In taking on the daunting task of scoring a highly anticipated film version of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—whose surname is actually Orzolek—sounds like she enlisted a public school music class to help her out, one where Carl Orff’s approach to music-making is encouraged by empowering every child with a glockenspiel.

There are children involved—how could there not be?—and their role is restricted to helium choirs, with Karen O getting adult help from the rest of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well as members of the Dead Weather and Deerhunter. The resultant music evokes the childlike sense of wonder you would expect, one that at once aspires to the epic while being anchored in folkie chords and primitive rock’n’roll. Karen O’s voice is perfectly cast; behind the bravado of her gusto-grabbing role as glammed-up, shrieking punk rock frontwoman has always been a strong singer just as capable of tender acoustic ballads, the likes of which comprise almost half of this album. In its more stirring moments, the album shares similarities with Arcade Fire (whose “Wake Up” was used to great effect in the film’s trailer, although does not appear here) and a more even-keeled version of Danielson’s Broadway-meets-marching-band-meets-art-rock weirdness.

It’s a perfect match for Spike Jonze’s vision of Maurice Sendak’s novel, but what’s even more intriguing is to see what else she’s capable of outside of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Oct. 15)

Ohbijou – Beacons (Last Gang)

Forlorn cellos, melancholy moods and autumnal atmospheres combine to create Canadiana folkie art-pop—sound familiar? There is no shortage of great bands mining this territory lately, including Ohbijou’s comrades and collaborators The Acorn, Forest City Lovers, and seemingly dozens of others, compiled on two excellent compilations called Friends in Bellwoods—the bulk of material on which was recorded at Ohbijou’s live/work space. So as hubs of the scene, expectations are high for this, their second album and first to get international distribution.

And they stick to their formula: tasteful and stately string sections, melodic bass, subtle shadings from keyboards, mandolins and drums that all add up to what could be a soundtrack to a wintry NFB documentary. Singer Casey Mecija attempts to stray outside her comfort zone on a couple of tracks, straining to reach for a big emotional moment while the band almost rocks out—but she’s much better off cooing softly with her sister Jenny on harmonies; a belter she’s not. Mecija’s real strength here is her imagistic lyrics; they capture tiny details of gothic Canadiana: thunder and lightning and very, very frightening things like cities and maps aflame, wicked mysteries, black ice, and dying underneath heavy snow.

But although she sings “Bring back wickedness/ bring back temperaments,” the music never really breaks a sweat or suggests anything remotely sinister. Not that it has to, though a few cracks in the ice would go a long way to inject some life into an album that could use some wickedness in its polite, reserved temperament.

Ohbijou and The Acorn play Dublin St. United Church in Guelph this Saturday, October 17. (Oct. 15)

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Through the Devil Softly (Nettwerk)

It’s been eight years since Hope Sandoval’s last album, her first solo project. Before that it was another five years since the last album by the lazy, hazy duo Mazzy Starr. The reason for all the long delays? By the sound of this record, it’s because Sandoval has trouble getting out of bed.

No one expects Sandoval to transform into a rip-roarin’ rocker, but Through the Devil Softly not only trudges along at a snail’s pace, but Sandoval sounds as bored as we are. The songs aren’t very strong and the arrangements are drab—with the lone exception of "For the Rest of Your Life," with its sliding bass line, 6/4 time and luminous vibraphone; here, Sandoval bends her notes in bewitching ways, the one and only time she sounds invested in the material.

Otherwise, no matter how lovely and opiated her voice may be, there are plenty of other acts who do this far better (Brightblack Morning Light being the most recent example), often by tapping into the psychedelic mystery that was Mazzy Starr’s specialty. Whoever these Warm Inventions are, they leave Sandoval shivering cold. (Oct. 1)

Spirits – s/t (Sonic Unyon)

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ian Smith and drummer Nick Skalkos of the Miniatures and new friend Brad Germain of The Marble Index on vocals to indulge in some mid-’80s British new wave circa The Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen, with plenty of acoustic guitars, subtle synths that never steal the spotlight, and soaring vocals courtesy of Germain, who puts his guitar down to focus on full-on singing. Such is the strength of the latter that Germain successfully reaches Bono’s heights on several tracks; early U2 is an admitted influence. The Anglophilia gets a bit much at times, however, especially when Germain adopts a drab Brit accent that becomes downright comical on the track "Cold War." When he plays it straight, as on the surefire pop songs like "When the Sun Gets in My Eyes" or "Heart Pump," Spirits start to forge their own sound, independent of their formidable influences. (Oct. 1)

Two Hours Traffic – Territory (Bumstead)

This Charlottetown power-pop band is known to traffic in summertime singalongs, but Territory is a much more mature and autumnal album, one that exchanges teenage exuberance for more measured reflection. This doesn’t mean a turn down darker corners, necessarily, but their jubilance is now balanced with gravitas, making Territory the most rewarding album of their brief career.

Once again produced by Joel Plaskett, this time out instrumentalist Alec O’Hanley puts down his guitar to focus on keyboards, while singer Liam Corcoran sharpens his songwriting skills and pushes himself vocally, especially when the intensity relents. Which is often—of these 11 tracks, there are really only three that move along at any kind of clip. Much of Territory rides a mid-tempo groove, focuses on melody, and chooses instrumentation carefully; in some respects, Two Hours Traffic are where Spoon where around the time of their early masterpiece Girls Can Tell, when they stopped being the kind of rock band they thought people wanted them to be and just focused on being themselves.

Territory is the kind of album that elevates a promising band to a strong one, with signs of true greatness within easy reach. (Oct. 1)

You Say Party! We Say Die! – XXXX (Paper Bag)

This Vancouver band sing of a love that dare not speak its name. Or print its name, anyway; the track listing and lyric sheet—and the album title itself—routinely replace the word love with XXXX. For a band that started out shouting and shrieking and filled with childish punk naïvete, perhaps speaking the word “love” without irony is still too emotionally raw. And when singer Becky Ninkovic writes lines like “I love your love light,” you might wish she still had her earlier reservations.

But largely, XXXX finds YSPWSD continuing to mature and move beyond their obvious influences—early ’80s post-punk pop, and more recent progenitors like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Metric—and develop their own voice, one that is just as comfortable with mid-tempo brooding rock as it is upbeat herky-jerky new wave. The rhythm section is a big part of this, but Ninkovic has also developed considerably as a singer, not just a shouter.

Unlike their early contemporaries The Organ or Controller Controller or Hot Hot Heat, this is a band that, though spawned by a trend at the time, will continue to grow and evolve—partying and death are no longer their only options. (Oct. 8)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll

It’s always more exciting to listen to The Clash than to read Greil Marcus write about them.

And so it goes that Tom Stoppard’s academic approach to revolutionary rock and resistance in Communist Czechoslovakia is not as visceral as its title would suggest: Rock’n’Roll.

Currently playing at Canadian Stage in Toronto until October 24, this play is about the idea of rock’n’roll—and how the very idea of it can be a subversive act. It’s a thesis that’s hard to swallow in an era of mall punk. It also doesn’t help that, as a Gen X-er, I’ve had self-righteous boomer nostalgia shoved down my throat my entire adult life, so I’m predisposed to spit on anyone who takes the Rolling Stones seriously, and cringe when a central character dances, alone, with abandon, to “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” at the end of a play’s first act.

And yet that’s all easy for us to say, here in our Western comfort. It’s not a frivolous academic argument to suggest that rock’n’roll is, in all its Dionysian glory, the antithesis of totalitarianism, and the one creation of Western culture that must have been the most terrifying to Communist thought police.

This is story of Jan, a Czech student studying in Cambridge who, in 1968, returns to his native country during the Prague Spring to resist the Soviet Invasion and help promote Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face.” Once there, he—like many other idealists—quickly becomes disenchanted with the concessions to totalitarianism that creep back into society, and prefers to drop out by hiding in his living room surrounded by Western psychedelic rock, and telling his activist friends not to get so worked up.

Once his hippie freak friends—and eventually Jan himself—start getting locked up just for putting on rock shows, the naivete is over, and apolitical dropouts become unlikely allies of the activists. This struggle eventually—and slowly, over 12 years—convinces the rest of Czech society that this isn’t just a struggle between pro- and anti-Communist factions—two oppositional camps that feed on each other to survive—but that totalitarianism is, by its very nature, anti-freedom and anti-joy.

It’s rich material, and Stoppard dives in deep, spinning his tale via dialectic debates between Jan and his two greatest influences: Max, his Marxist stooge of a professor in Cambridge, and his Czech mate Ferdinand, who shares Jan’s love of rock music but considers it trivial next to concrete political aims; in turn, Jan considers Ferdinand guilty of “moral exhibitionism.” As Jan, Shaun Smyth is required to not only age physically, but manifest a philosophical evolution; the entire weight of the play falls on him, and Smyth is entirely convincing at every turn.

If the play stayed in Prague, it would be focused, fascinating and near-flawless.
As it is, however, Stoppard shifts the action to Cambridge, fleshing out the family life of the Marxist Max, an aging academic who makes great hay of the fact that he was born in October 1917—the month of the Russian Revolution—and, as a Soviet apologist, he displays just as much contempt for the proletariat as the Politburo does. The great irony, of course, is that this champion of the working class is a stuffy academic who is free to hold dissenting political views in his country in ways that those behind the Iron Curtain most certainly cannot.

The character of Max—as unfortunately overacted by a blustering Kenneth Welsh—is necessary as a foil for Jan. But subplots involving his wife and daughter are more than distracting. Wife Eleanor (Fiona Reid) is a scholar of Sapphic poetry and a victim of breast cancer; her academic discussions are boring at best—especially if you don’t know anything about Sappho, as, like the rest of the play, there’s a lot of assumed knowledge imbedded in the dialogue. Sadly, her personal tragedy is also overwrought. Daughter Esme is a pot-smoking flake with too much freedom, as befitting her overly liberal upbringing, and fantasizes about Syd Barrett, who—as a citizen of Cambridge, where he retreated after leaving Pink Floyd—ends up a recurring, if physically absent, character in the remainder of the play. Other characters are even more superfluous.

The politics of the main plot are more than enough to make an already dense play. As Alex Ross might say, the rest is noise.

At one point, Jan gives a Western reporter an LP by the Plastic People of the Universe—the Czech rock band who soundtracked the Charter 77 resistance movement—and says, “Maybe you can write about the album. Foreign journalists never mention the music, only about being symbols of resistance.”

Ironically, we only hear one brief snippet of the Plastic People here; most of what Stoppard’s stage directions refer to as “smash cuts” are classic rock clichés to these ears. It’s obvious that a language barrier in Czechoslovakia granted far more importance to lyrical trivialities in Western rock’n’roll; it was the music itself that sounded revolutionary—and in the case of Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground, it’s easy to agree. Sensitive liberal ears might wince at the inclusion of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Don’t Cry” in the play’s post-Velvet Revolution scene, though GNR were every bit the apolitical hedonists who represented rock’n’roll danger in 1989, and therefore represent the same thing that Vaclav Havel’s beloved Rolling Stones did.

The Rolling Stones may have been washed-up jokes in the West during their 1990 Urban Jungle tour, but they were greeted as liberators of Prague when they played post-revolution Czechoslovakia then, and Vaclav Havel personally showed them around Prague Castle.
That concert provides the backdrop to Rock’n’Roll’s conclusion. Which is apt, as that concert may have metaphorically represented the end of rock’n’roll itself. It had already shaken up Western society, it had culturally colonized the world, and by 1990 it was the soundtrack to a revolution.

Where else could rock'n'roll (the music, not the play) go from there, but empty retro retreads being repackaged to subsequent generations? Even its revolutionary power has been neutered now that it's another luxury good,
another bone that the Chinese government throws its people in lieu of free expression.

A trivial question compared to the play's other themes, perhaps, but you can't accuse Stoppard of skimping on provocative thoughts.


The Globe ran an article on the Plastic People's Canadian connection here.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Sept 09 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Scott H. Biram – Something’s Wrong/ Lost Forever (Bloodshot)

Scott H. Biram calls himself a “dirty old one-man band,” and here he’s credited in the liner notes with, among other things, “footstomp, knockin’, holler, bitch, moan, heart, liver, drive.” Such is the enormity of his presence that you barely notice that precious few of his friends show up in the studio to lend a hand.

Biram growls, grunts, hollers and has his way with blues, country and primal punk rock, less interested in any kind of tradition as he is in squeezing blood from every genre he touches. As the dual album title suggests, he sounds like a desperate and at times despondent man; on the song “Judgment Day” he’s running out of time in a world about to explode, and he’s got a few scores to settle before that happens. When he slows down for a ballad, he’s “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue.”

Biram closes the album with a ferocious a cappella take on Leadbelly’s “Go Down Ol’ Hannah,” making it entirely his own. (Sept. 24)

Cuff the Duke – Way Out Here (Noble)

One of Canada’s best-loved roots rock bands heads to Greg Keelor’s farm to make a largely acoustic album, marking a new maturity and laid-back vibe. Sound familiar? Comparisons to Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July, the 1993 album that guaranteed that band’s longevity and gave their career a new lease on life, might be inevitable, even if the parallels to Cuff the Duke don’t entirely line up; for starters, Way Out Here doesn’t shy away from loud electric guitars when necessary.

But seven years after their arrival on the scene, and with the first album to take full advantage of their current line-up (witness the glorious four-part harmony on opening track “You Were Right”), Cuff the Duke are sounding less like a band who have something to prove, and more like the cozy and consistent CanRock stalwarts they were born to be, singing lyrics like “growing old with you my love is something I don’t fear.”

Not that they’re entirely in Lightfoot territory, although their songwriting continues to improve along more conventional lines. Keelor—no stranger to elongated psychedelic jams—knows well enough to let them stretch their wings and milk the mood of his idyllic rural retreat, allowing the band’s new in-house guitar wizard Dale Murray a chance to shine.

The greatest revelation here, however, is vocalist Wayne Petti, who has outgrown the nasal voice of his youth and is stretching his range in both directions, to its depths on broken and hushed lullabies, and to soaring heights everywhere else.

There are no new directions here—it’s hard to imagine this band getting more diverse than they did their classic debut album—just a sign of a great band growing old. And if the Keelor connection puts them in touch with Blue Rodeo fans wondering why their heroes don’t make albums as good as this one anymore, all the better. (Sept. 17)

Amelia Curran – Hunter Hunter (Six Shooter)

Amelia Curran sings with the voice of a perpetual heartbreak victim—but not the kind who is willing to wallow. Instead, this Maritime songwriter sounds resilient and comforting. No matter what your pain may be, she’s felt that and more and lived to sing about it. While her Sunday morning hangover songs are her forte, her bare bones arrangements are more diverse than surface impressions. “The Mistress” has almost a hip-hop cadence to it; there’s nothing at all missing from Curran’s solo acoustic guitar accompaniment, but there’s a barnburning cover version of this song waiting to happen at festival workshop sometime next summer. The songwriting here is a step beneath her stellar 2008 album War Brides, but even when she’s not at the top of her game, Amelia Curran makes a formidable impression. (Sept. 3)

John Fogerty – Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (Verve)

John Fogerty may have helped invent country rock with Creedence Clearwater Revival, but he hasn’t often dressed himself entirely in fiddles, pedal steel guitars and honky-tonk rhythms. Of course, it’s a natural fit for his voice—which hasn’t aged a bit—and it’s a safe bet that many of his original fans won’t consider this album a left turn in the least.

In fact, it’s the follow-up to his very first post-CCR solo album in 1973, which was also a collection of covers. Here, Fogerty borrows from John Prine, John Denver, Buck Owens and others—yet he never goes for obvious choices, and any one of these songs could just have easily come from the pen of Fogerty himself, who is undeniably one of the great American songwriters of the last 50 years.

He gets some help from famous friends and fans: two of the Eagles sing on Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party,” and Bruce Springsteen chimes in on an Everly Brothers song. But this is John Fogerty we’re talking about—those guys are mere window dressing. This is Fogerty’s back porch party, and we’re all lucky enough to be able to eavesdrop. (Sept. 17)

Joe Henry – Blood From Stars (Anti)

If you had happened to read Joe Henry’s self-penned liner notes before listening to his latest album, you might have serious hesitations about even removing the CD from its case. Being the hyperliterate sound geek that he is (and producer for hire), Henry attempts to wax eloquent about the snare drum used on this recording, describing it as sounding like “Fats Waller taking a fall down a flight of stairs into a damp alley, bottle caps stuck to his heels, cape flapping and late to a beginner’s flamenco lesson already in progress.” If you ever thought music critics were overwrought blowhards, musicians aren’t much better.

Needless to say, Joe Henry takes himself very seriously. And why wouldn’t he? He’s a historian and scholar of classic American music: jazz, country, blues, gospel, rock’n’roll and the folk tradition. And on too many of his recent albums, he has seemed a bit too impressed with himself: the music was overly mannered, the lyrics dense, the vocals overly affected.

On Blood From Stars, Henry learns to let go and appreciate the simpler things. After spending much of the last several years coaching comebacks from soul great Solomon Burke and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (see 2009’s fabulous The Bright Mississippi), Henry strips his songs down to the bare essentials. He’s still using plenty of chords lifted from early 20th-century standards, but he makes them sound as natural as a three-chord blues or gospel standard, with the help of an all-star band that includes guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Jay Bellerose. Henry’s saxophonist son Levon also proves himself worthy alongside such storied session greats. Henry Sr.’s singing is more powerful than ever, perhaps because this is the first batch of songs he’s written in a long time that one could actually envision other people interpreting. (Sept. 10)

Inglourious Basterds OST – Various Artists (Warner)

Quentin Tarantino is getting a lot of slack over his latest film, for the fact that 15 years into his career, he’s still recycling old movie motifs and paying obvious homages instead of creating his own vision. That’s certainly true of his approach to soundtracks as well: it’s one thing to repurpose old pop songs for a new film, but it’s a whole other level of graverobbing to take pieces of music from other soundtracks and use them in your own movie.

Surely Tarantino can afford to hire the renowned and prolific Ennio Morricone (The Mission, Clint Eastwood’s westerns), but instead he uses four of his pieces from different films here. Throw in a couple of wildly inappropriate funk and pop songs that are out of time for this World War Two film (both of which—David Bowie’s "Cat People" and Billy Preston’s "Slaughter"—are the theme songs to other films, of course), and it’s obvious that, on top of being lazy and cheap, Tarantino is doing this just to anger purists.

Intentions aside, there is some great music here—much of it unknown to most music fans, and Tarantino deserves credit for his taste. But, like his recent films, having good taste doesn’t mean he knows how to glue everything together without it sounding/looking like a tossed-off found-object art project. Maybe that’s the point of his basterd-ization. (Sept. 3)

Os Mutantes – Haih Or Amortecedor (Anti)

Brazil’s Tropicalia movement of the late ’60s is associated with bossa nova, psychedelic pop and folk music—but the scene’s legendary freaks Os Mutantes are first and foremost a rock band, even though they draw influences from all over the musical map. After over a decade of renewed interest in their original recordings, they reformed in 2006 and this marks their first album of original material in 35 years.

And like nearly every similar comeback album, it can’t possibly live up to expectations or retain the magic of their early records. Yet it does show that bandleader Sergio Dias Baptista is still restless and unwilling to take his music in any predictable direction. He is just as playful as ever—at times downright goofy—and working with old peers Tom Ze and Jorge Ben, who provide him with some of the stronger numbers here. Normally, comeback records with star-studded cameos are a bad idea, but there are more than a few occasions when one wishes Baptista had called on some of his many famous fans in younger generations to lend a hand.

No matter—Os Mutantes are back on the road again, and this may well be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in their storied career. (Sept. 10)

RickWhiteAlbum – 137 (Blue Fog)

Rick White’s discography is so vast that only the certifiably insane would bother to collect from every last corner of his prolific output, which began with Eric’s Tip in the early ’90s, though to his work as Elevator, and now various solo recordings. At his best, White is a master of hazy psychedelic rock and lazy lo-fi folk, with a consistent aesthetic that’s attracted Greg Keelor and the Sadies. That association led to the collaborative project The Unintended, a band that proved how White is at his best when working with others and not left to his own devices in the studio.

That said, 137 is the most focused that his solo work has been in years. In many ways the haze has lifted, due in part to digital recording and the absence of tape hiss, but White also appears to be in a headspace where the curtains have been allowed to part, sunlight is shining into his studio, and the fog has lifted. Certainly, the spookiness is still there, but it sounds like White has crawled out of a rut—even if, at 21 songs, it’s obvious that White still hasn’t acquired editing skills. Both his acoustic and electric guitar playing—and his trippy production aesthetic—have stepped up considerably here; they survive even the more superfluous songs. (Sept. 24)

Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions (Outside)

Like the Arctic Monkeys, Tinariwen also recorded their latest album in the desert. Except for Tinariwen, that’s where they actually live: in the southern Sahara, bordering Mali, Niger, and Algeria. And this, their fourth album, was recorded by setting up a generator and recording equipment outdoors in the desert and in the bush and around campfires; this is how they played all of their earliest gigs 20 years ago, and is still the way they perform for the Touareg communities that spawned them.

Their 2007 North American breakthrough Water is Life sounded, however subtly, more Western, with the connections between African guitar music, American blues, and hard rock clearly on display. Imidiwan is just as electric as its predecessor, but it is languid and with more emphasis on vocals than on guitar solos. This is desert blues for dark nights, sung by men who’ve endured 30 years of displacement and only now sound like they’ve found their home. (Sept. 3)

Rachelle Van Zanten – Where Your Garden Grows (

Rachelle Van Zanten doesn’t have much of a profile in this part of the country, but that doesn’t make her a newcomer. The B.C. native grew up playing bluegrass, fell into ’90s rock in her university years, and was seduced by the blues after moving to Edmonton. Her first serious band, Painting Daisies, was named Entertainer of the Year at the 2001 Prairie Music Awards—they beat out Nickelback and Jann Arden.

The depth of that experience all comes through on this, her second solo album, which opens with a chorus of “do you want to go steady?/ do you want to get heavy?” There’s no question that Van Zanten has slide guitar chops—which landed her an opening slot on a Derek Trucks tour—but most of Where Your Garden Grows is about her development as a songwriter and arranger. While the blues influence is strong, her melodies draw from a variety of non-Western sources, as well as some of the artier alternative songwriters of the ’90s such as Mary Timony.

Van Zanten’s talents are enough to set this album apart from much else going on in Canada right now; she also got some nice finishing touches courtesy of mixing engineer Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Los Lobos) that make everything that much tastier. (Sept. 3)

Rufus Wainwright – Milwaulkee At Last (Universal)

While he’s been busy working on his first opera—which gets its North American debut in Toronto at next spring’s Luminato festival—Rufus Wainwright releases this, his first official live album. Of his own material, that is; his last release was his re-creation of Judy Garland’s Live at Carnegie Hall album. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of live Wainwright material floating around; between bonus discs and iTunes EPs and DVDs and documentaries.

That said, Milwaulkee at Last starts off strong and swinging with the title track from 2007’s Release the Stars—the album that forms the bulk of this set—but after four songs, Wainwright dips into the more maudlin and plodding part of his repertoire, never to return for air. Considering what a joyous live show he usually gives, this set does a disservice to his overall body of work, failing as a stand-alone live album and looking more like a stopgap than anything else.

But that’s just the stand-alone 10-song CD version, of course. This being Rufus, you could also opt for the deluxe version with full-length concert DVD and bonus EP, or the stand-alone DVD version, or—surely there must be a picture book or documentary coming soon, no? (Sept. 17)

The XX – s/t (Young Turks)

For a band that makes such wonderfully ghostly pop music, it’s entirely apt that The XX (not to be confused with Dutch punk band The Ex) sound like zombies struck them on the way to the studio: it’s hard to imagine a more deadpan duo than this.

Yet that’s part of their charm, and rather than detached ennui, singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft—who bears a slight vocal resemblance to Amy Millan of Stars—sounds like she’s a recovering misanthrope who’s only just begun to seek sunlight and redemption, suddenly alive to the wonder of the world. This makes her a perfect foil for the low moans emanating from her bassist, Oliver Sim, who sounds like he recorded his vocal parts face down in a pillow.

All four members of The XX are 20 years old, which means they likely didn’t grow up with the influence of New Order (whose bass lines are echoed in Croft’s guitar lines, which are bathed in enough reverb to satisfy Daniel Lanois) or—on a more obscure note, but a reference that comes up often—the cult band Young Marble Giants (who were equally sparse and spooky). It also makes it remarkable how complete and satisfying this is, for a debut album; they’ve arrived with their own sound and 11 songs that leave you insatiable for more—especially when Croft sings: “I want to drown whenever you leave/ teach me gently/ how to breathe.” (Sept. 17)

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador)
The Clean – Mister Pop (Merge)

Talk about—pop music? Any artist coy enough to use Popular Songs or Mister Pop in their album title is likely too coy and knowing to actually make popular music in the literal definition of the term. Note: U2’s 1997 album Pop is widely regarded as the stinker—artistically and commercially—of their entire career.

But Yo La Tengo and The Clean—both of whom love droning organs, fuzzy guitars and deadpan vocals—aren’t under any illusions about commercial breakthroughs, even though both are writing some of the catchiest melodies of their storied careers. Yo La Tengo have been a band for 25 years; The Clean for 30. The new albums by each will be pleasant comforts to longtime fans—no radical reinventions here—and likely to each other as well, as the two acts have often collaborated and toured together.

In many respects, New Zealand’s The Clean haven’t aged a bit; Mister Pop sounds like the kind of ’80s college rock album that they never made, as they sat out most of the ’80s while their influence seeped into younger bands, including Yo La Tengo. Mister Pop recalls the heyday of Robyn Hitchcock, Lou Reed, and early R.E.M. Psychedelic excursions on tracks like “Simple Fix” and “Tensile,” or the long, slow reveal of the violin-driven “Moonjumper,” all sound perfectly at ease beside the paisley pop of “Are You Really On Drugs” and the surprisingly catchy chorus spun from the title “In the Dreamlife U Need a Rubber Soul.”

Yo La Tengo cover much of the same ground on this, their twelfth album, though they stretch further back to delve into ’60s pop more than they ever have before, either by lifting a string-section intro directly from the Four Tops, or riding a Booker T groove with some Zombies pop on top in the obtusely titled “Periodically Double or Triple.” It’s these pop songs, aptly enough, where Popular Songs succeeds the most; attempts at epic jams, of both the noisy and somnambulant varieties, are belaboured and tiresome. Thankfully, those three tracks—comprising half an hour of this 72-minute album—are tacked on to the back; if you consider them extraneous bonus material, you still have a regular album’s worth of material that stands with Yo La Tengo’s finest hours. (Sept. 10)