Monday, October 24, 2011

Too Cool to Live, Too Smart To Die

While revising Have Not Been the Same for the 10th anniversary edition, it was very much on the mind of all three co-authors that the last 10 years has been incredibly fruitful in Canadian music, and left a recorded legacy even greater than the time period of 1985-1995 that we documented in the book. We also felt that it wasn’t enough to just put out a new, improved version of the book: we felt that the music we discuss had to feel alive, not out of print and hidden in a dark corner of a campus radio station’s soon-to-be-dismantled vinyl library. And so while my co-author Jason Schneider is working on Vol. 2 of this series, which will unearth out-of-print classics and make them available again—including the long-sought-after title track (!!!)—I asked current artists to pay tribute to Canadian acts that inspired them early on.

I feel blessed to know many incredible musicians personally, and so that helped narrow my scope when it came to who to invite to be a part of this. I also wanted to focus on the new, so while I could have asked some legends associated directly with the book to cover their contemporaries, I wanted people who made some of my favourite records of the last 10 years to be the first people I approached. Unbelievably, over 25 of them responded positively, and the 19 heard here managed to record a track in time. Interest was so strong that I could easily commission a second installment at a moment’s notice.

I couldn’t be happier with the end result: every single artist gave this their A-game, and it’s clearly audible what a labour of love this was all around.

All proceeds from this project will go to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the leading such facility in the country (and right across the street from me). I feel like every musician I know—including myself—has been affected either directly or indirectly (through peers) by the issues that CAMH deals with every day. And there are more than a few tragic tales in the book about artists who lost precious time, talent, or even their lives to personal demons that plagued them. The life of creative people is as complex as it is rewarding, and sadly addiction and mental health are occupational hazards.

Without further ado, here’s the track listing:

Pop Goes the World (Men Without Hats) – The Burning Hell

In Contempt of Me (Jr. Gone Wild) – Corb Lund

What Was Going Through My Head (Grapes of Wrath) – Great Lake Swimmers

Daylight (The Nils) – Owl Mountain Radar (Jim Bryson and Chris Page)

I Will Give You Everything (Skydiggers) – Bry Webb (of the Constantines)

The Lines You Amend (Sloan) – Forest City Lovers

Happens All the Time (Eric’s Trip) – Light Fires (Gentleman Reg and Ohbijou's Jamie Bunton)

Grace, Too (The Tragically Hip) – Selina Martin with the Faceless Forces of Bigness

Too Cool to Live, Too Smart to Die (Deja Voodoo) – Mark Davis and Lorrie Matheson

Your Sunshine (Hardship Post) – Jill and Matthew Barber

North Window (The Inbreds) – Cuff the Duke

Throw Silver (Mecca Normal) – Hidden Cameras

Buddah (Al Tuck) – Snailhouse

Odette (Circle C) – Veda Hille

Teenland (Northern Pikes) – Andrew Vincent

Bound for Vegas (Art Bergmann) – Geoff Berner

Shaved Head (Rheostatics) – Neil Haverty (of Bruce Peninsula)

When You Know Why You’re Happy (Mary Margaret O’Hara) – Little Scream and Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre)

We Got Time (Bob Wiseman) – Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene)

Have Not Been the Same Vol. 1: Too Cool to Live, Too Smart To Die will be available on on November 15. Artwork by Nick Craine. Mastered by Andy Magoffin. Liner notes by myself and all contributing artists.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Portishead live


Sound Academy, Toronto

Monday, October 10, 2011

I turned 40 two days before this show. It was awfully nice of Portishead—in Toronto for the first time in 14 years—to allow me to cross their name off my list of must-see acts, acts whose music has altered my life in one way or another. At this point, I’m not sure there’s anyone left on the list who is a) alive, b) still performing, and c) not in an artistically decrepit state.

Though their beloved debut album came out in 1994, Portishead are not an oldies act; their 2008 album Third found them pushing themselves into darker directions much more abrasive than anything they’d ever done, and worlds away from the trip-hop movement they helped spawn—and that they quickly grew to despise for the milquetoast yuppie sex-party soundtrack it was. In Eye Weekly’s 2008 cross-Canada critics’ poll, Third took the top spot.

That album is now three years old and apparently there’s a new one on the way. Despite defining the zeitgeist in the mid-’90s, Portishead have always existed in a timeless continuum, borrowing heavily from the past (soul, jazz, blues, hip-hop, film soundtracks) while simultaneously forging future sounds. So while there was the occasional moment at this show where Geoff Barrow’s scratching sounded gimmicky whereas it once sounded groundbreaking, Portishead still sounded as fresh as they did the first time I heard “Sour Times” in a record store and was stopped cold in my tracks.

Portishead don’t do anything half-assed; they take their time, do what they want when and how they want to do it. It’s well worth waiting for. The visuals, a mix of live editing and animation resembling early ’70s children’s TV shows (hello, fortysomethings), were stunning. The band was almost flawless; the only quibble I could make was that the keyboardist didn’t use the theremin placed right in front of him for “Mysterons.” Beth Gibbons’ voice is even more impressive live: not just for the way she injects extra intensity into every line, but for her ability to convey fragility and strength at the same time. Like Feist, she can project intensity without belting it out; unlike Feist, she sounds like she deeply feels every single word.

The set leaned heavily on Dummy and Third, almost ignoring the self-titled second album, which is my personal favourite (only “Over” and “Cowboys” made the cut). I’ve barely listened to Dummy in the past 15 years, just because it was played to death in the college town where I spent the ’90s; hearing this seasoned band dig into those grooves now was extremely satisfying.

It seems silly to criticize Portishead for being too good at what they do, but the cumulative intensity was almost overbearing. Welcome breathers came from tracks like “Magic Doors,” with its cowbell funk, and a stripped-down version of “Wandering Stars,” with Beth Gibbons singing over just two guitars and embarking on the scariest scat solo you’ll ever hear in your life.

So: amazing band, amazing show, bla bla bla. Here’s the thing: as someone who spent the better part of his 20s in love with the first two Portishead records, finally seeing them live as I turn 40 was revelatory. I’d never really fully absorbed the torturous angst in Gibbons’ lyrics, although I obviously knew they were there, and her delivery alone speaks volumes more than the words themselves. Mostly I was in love with the music. Listening closely to her now, I realize how perfect her pain sounded to an owner of a lonely heart—and how I’m no longer that person, thank God.

In my youthful na├»vete, the song “Glory Box,” with the chorus “Give me a reason to be a woman,” went right over my head. Why does she need a reason to be a woman? I wondered. Now I hear the narrator as a young person slightly terrified of her own sexuality, tired of playing teasing games with childish men, and longing for deep connection with someone outside the shallow small-town dating pool she’s swimming in. She’s stuck in an arrested adolescence, longing to transform into a confident, mature adult—which most of my generation (and my small college town) did for far too long, myself included (and some are still there). What’s more, the song ends with Gibbons abbreviating the line to just “Give me a reason to be”—an existentialist demand if there ever was one.

The newer material from Third is musically just as impressive as anything they’ve ever done, with the exception of “Machine Gun,” which works well enough on the recording but is interminable live, saved only by the visuals. And yet there’s something missing for me; I don’t feel it as deeply as I did when I wallowed in woe alongside Gibbons, when I felt every emotion with much more intensity than I do now. On Third, she’s still in that same emotional place—in her lyrics at least, I hope not in real life—and sings, “I’ve travelled so far but somehow feel the same / I’m so unsure.”

Now that I’m 40 and under the illusion that I’m somehow more mature and wise, I don’t expect nor want Portishead to sing about shiny, happy people. I want them to continue to do whatever the hell they want and make brilliant records and stunning stage shows. And I want to thank them for coming back into my life at this particular milestone—and not just so I can check them off on my gig scorecard.