Friday, March 22, 2019

Farewell, column

I just lost a job I should have lost a long time ago.

For almost 20 years, I wrote a weekly album review column for a newspaper in a mid-size Ontario town. The man who hired me, and who was one of my biggest champions, died in 2008; he’d retired a few years before that. I’d had little to no contact with anyone at the paper after that (*). I filed a column every week; they printed it. No one ever told me what to do, which meant I could write about whatever I wanted. If I wanted to ignore the new Shawn Mendes and review a soca artist from Saskatoon instead, I could do that.

Remember the film Office Space, where one character keeps showing up for work five years after he was fired, and no one notices? I felt like that, although I was still invoicing and still getting paid.

It was too good to be true—except that it only paid $80 a week. Back in the day, I could supplement that by selling dozens of promo copies to a local CD store, which would justify the time and effort I put into the column; that hustle dried up a decade ago. Since then, I’d been doing it mostly for love, to alleviate boredom from well-paying desk jobs, and to exercise my writing muscles.

I reviewed roughly three to five new records a week, 50 weeks a year (two weeks would be year-end round-ups), for almost two decades. That's between 3,000 to 5,000 records in total.

In early March, the new arts editor asked me to call him. He was shocked to learn I’d been doing the gig for so long. He then apologized before telling me that the column was being retired. The reason? Being the new guy, it wasn’t his call, he claimed, but those above him told him that the column did not perform well online.

Here’s the irony: my column rarely ever went online. I checked every few months or so, and for at least the last decade it seemed to be completely random where and when my column might pop up: sometimes a couple of weeks in a row, sometimes on websites for affiliated papers, sometimes not for months on end. The day it was canned in March—for not performing well online—my column had not been posted online since Christmas. If it had, I could find no record of it.

(That’s why I’ve been reposting my reviews on this blog since I started it 13 years ago, for my own archives and so they’d be accessible to artists. I almost always did so several weeks after they ran on my employer’s site, so that they’d get the primary traffic.)

So getting fired was hardly shocking. Instead, it was funny; the very last record I reviewed just happened to be called You Will Not Die. And it was a bit of a relief: right before March break, for the first time in 20 years, I didn’t have to file two columns in advance before going away on vacation. Phew!

There’s also the fact that, while I’m still an intensely curious listener, I’m a total dinosaur who probably shouldn’t have a music column. (**) I think Drake is downright terrible; I had to admit to myself years ago that I’ve lost that battle, and should stop yelling at the cloud. I refuse to take Taylor Swift seriously. Trap has ruined rap. EDM is one big headache. Metal and punk were never for me. What used to be called indie rock ran out of ideas a long time ago, says this old man. I’m not a poptimist who suddenly re-evaluated George Michael’s music when he died; I still think it was terrible. (***) These are all huge blind spots for a columnist to have, and my mental health is better for not having to care.

I’m now one of those insufferable jackasses who tells you he only listens to jazz and “world music.” God help me. I’ve become a Scharpling and Wurster sketch. I’ve become an LCD Soundsystem song. More likely, I was always both of those. 

In 1999, album reviews still ran in newspapers, glossy mags and alt-weeklies (there were still alt-weeklies then, too!). Back then, I would write my columns with the consumer in mind: along with your time, is this record worth your money? Even when people stopped paying for music (UGH), reviews were still a useful tool for navigating new releases. With streaming, of course, algorithmic playlists became the new “recommendation engines.” We didn’t need people for that anymore, apparently.

In 2019, having an album-review column was downright archaic. It felt like I was running the last video-rental store in the province. Hell, even music blogs have all but disappeared. Nobody wants to read about music. They just want a playlist to do the work for them.

I still buy CDs and vinyl, but I’m not a total Luddite: I’ve discovered some amazing music from algorithms. The multi-faceted world of Shabaka Hutchings (Shabaka & the Ancestors, The Comet is Coming) and the new British jazz scene (Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia) all came to me when Sons of Kemet popped up as a recommendation several years ago, long before that band was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. But I still had to research to discover different threads and to learn more context that increased my appreciation of the scene—a scene where threads and connections are important, not random bits and bytes. (****)

I still learn about a lot of music from Pitchfork, Aquarium Drunkard, NPR Music, Said the Gramophone and others (as well as my fellow Polaris Music Prize jurors, for whom I am eternally grateful). I recently fell back in love with campus radio. But it takes work. Streaming doesn’t make active listening easier for fans of new music; it makes it overwhelming. We still need filters. I needed filters when I was a filter. There’s a reason “curation” is such a buzzword.

In my post-columnist life—which is all of a couple of weeks now—it’s been a pleasure to spend more time with recent records that I filed away as soon as I finished reviewing them. There are a bunch of new things I’m excited about without feeling that I have to be excited about them—or even be all that articulate about them (hello, Dominique Fils-Aimé!).

And, like every cliché of a 47-year-old former hipster dad, I’m suddenly listening to a lot of Wilco lately. But that’s because Jeff Tweedy’s recent memoir was so good—or maybe I’m just entering my Sky Blue Sky years after all. (*****)

The editor let me run a farewell note at the bottom of the last column I filed. I don’t know what, if any, feedback they got. I received some nice notes on social media; one person said they grew up reading my column. Several artists and publicists have expressed their gratitude. In the past, I’ve had strangers stop me on the street or at festivals in the town where the column ran, to tell me how much they enjoyed a certain record I’d recommended. (******) That’s a wonderful feeling.

I’m now writing an online Toronto city column for the West End Phoenix. I’ll still write reviews on this site. I’ll no longer feel I have to hold the hands of mainstream newspaper readers. Will that change my writing style? We’ll see. I like to think that my experience writing with those readers in mind made my book so accessible and popular.

Thank you for reading. Now. Then. Tomorrow—possibly, maybe.

* To be fair, I'd get a couple of notes a year from a copy editor. And someone would actually notice if I didn't file at my normal time.

** I'm also the only person in the world (other than Juno voters, FWIW) who thinks Everything Now is Arcade Fire's best album. In the eyes of my peers, this alone is reason enough to set me out on an ice floe. 
*** Not sure why I didn't mention this the first time, maybe because I considered it obvious, but "rock" music is also all but dead to me, especially if it's made by four white guys. 
**** This is a score for the algorithm: I'm not aware of anyone else in Canada who reviewed the first Sons of Kemet record. However, despite the fact I often stream the first Comet is Coming record, the new one that came out this month didn't show up on the weekly new release page I check every Friday. So unless I was reminded by someone else acting as a filter, I'd likely have forgotten that it was coming out. That's a score against the algorithm. 
***** I draw the line at The National, though. That's too fusty even for me. 
****** Shout out to the stranger at the Hillside Festival who thanked me for the Angelique Kidjo nod.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Nakhane – You Will Not Die

Nakhane – You Will Not Die (BMG)

The title sounds melodramatic. It’s not.

Nakhane is a queer 31-year-old South African actor, novelist and musician who fled his native country after starring in a film called “The Wound,” which was vilified by homophobes and led to death threats. He moved to London and started working on this album. On it, he captures the emotional depth of his personal story: growing up closeted, subjecting himself to conversion therapy, trying to find solace in the church, having a breakdown and ultimately coming through to the other side with confidence and an articulate artistic vision.

Somewhere along the way, he released a debut album as a guitar-playing folk singer, in a scene that didn’t welcome a lot of queer Xhosa men. Though You Will Not Die is rooted in piano compositions and electronic textures—sounding not unlike a gospel-tinged sibling to Perfume Genius—there are still traces of the folk singer here, as on a stellar version of New Order’s “Age of Consent” performed with just voice and electric guitar.  

This record came out in Britain last year, and has been expanded by an additional seven tracks for North America, including the New Order cover, a Bowie cover (“Sweet Thing”), a clubby collab with Anohni, and a less syncopated, radio-friendly remix of the track “Clairvoyant.”

Some of the material is much stronger than the rest, but Nakhane’s multi-octave, almost operatic voice is a sacred gift that sets him far apart from every other new male R&B singer of recent years.

That’s his physical voice I’m talking about; his voice as a lyricist, and as a public figure, is also crucial. He told GQ magazine about how he discovered James Baldwin novels when he was 15: “I was like, Oh my god, I'm not the only one. I'm not crazy, I'm not alone, my existence matters.’” 

It’s entirely possible that his music will inspire the same reaction on unsuspecting listeners around the world.

Stream: “Violent Measures,” “You Will Not Die,” “Hey, Lover”

NOTE: From the beginning of this blog until now, all the reviews here originally ran in a weekly column I wrote for the Waterloo Record. That column got canned today. I'm grateful for the man who hired me, the late Philip Bast, who gave me the extended opportunity to write about whatever I wanted in a mainstream daily. I do love the fact that my last column featured a queer South African living in Britain with an album called You Will Not Die

Murray Lightburn and Hawksley Workman

Murray A. Lightburn – Hear Me Out (Dangerbird)

Hawksley Workman – Median Age Wasteland (Isadora)

On Murray Lightburn’s second solo outing, the singer best known for his 20 years fronting Montreal rock band the Dears teamed up with jazz players, a string section, and some old friends (including Ariel Engle of LaForce, whom I first saw open for the Dears more than 15 years ago with her first band, Moufette). Together they create a late-night, melancholy soul record that brings out the best in Lightburn’s voice and his songwriting.

If the Dears were always about the grand gesture and bombast, Lightburn’s solo work is decidedly low-key. Musically, that is. The light touch not only puts the depth and range of his voice into sharper focus, but also illustrates his lyrical eye, which can be wistful and wise (“Anew”) or weird and wry (“Fan Fiction (Ballad of a Genius)”). Producer Howard Bilerman (Basia Bulat, Arcade Fire) captures the mood with gentle grandeur; Scott Walker’s early records were likely an inspiration. Even if you were never a Dears fan—in fact, especially if you were never a Dears fan—Lightburn’s latest definitely deserves a hearing.

Lightburn is also behind the boards for the 14th (!) studio album by Hawksley Workman. That’s an interesting choice for Workman, who has a side career producing others, including very early records by Tegan and Sara, Serena Ryder and Hey Rosetta. But for the prolific singer/songwriter’s first record in an unusually dry four years, he turned to Lightburn for some outside guidance.

It helps. A lot. Workman is insanely talented: as a singer, a drummer, a writer and a producer. But many of his records fell into the trap of “first-thought-best-thought,” which for him meant a lot of cringe-worthy lyrics and odd production decisions. In the press release for this record, he writes, candidly, “I’ve always had this constant hunger to innovate, re-evaluate what I do, and keep remaking it to confuse myself and maybe confuse my audience. This time, I’m just committing to writing focused and honest songs.”

And so Median Age Wasteland finds Workman playing it straight: folkie pop-rock that sounds identifiably Canadian (this is a compliment). Lead track “Birds in Train Stations” even owes a tiny melodic debt to Bruce Cockburn’s “All the Diamonds in the World.” When he inevitably turns up the testosterone on a track like “To Receive,” he proves that he’s one of the only singers in this country who could successfully begin a song with a line about “the retired pharmaceutical baron and his silver-haired, beautiful wife,” delivered with full gusto.

When the album falters, it’s when Workman is in an overly nostalgic mood. Songs like “Battlefords” and “1983” name-drop banana-seat bikes, Vic 20 computers and other childhood mementoes of someone in their forties. It’s quaint, cute and certainly paints a picture of a specific point in time, but it’s no substitute for storytelling or a vivid character portrait—things that Workman ably proves he can do elsewhere (“To Receive,” “Skinny Wolf”).

These aren’t comeback records per se, but they do mark key turning points in each man’s career. Wonder if they ever talked about that.

Stream Hawksley Workman: “Birds in Train Stations,” “To Receive,” “Stoners Never Dream”

Stream Murray Lightburn: “Hear Me Out,” “Changed My Ways,” “When They See Me”