Sunday, June 29, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #23

Of course this week's mix had to be one for my country's national holiday coming up this Tuesday. I seem to reflect most on Canada and being Canadian when I am away from home or have recently returned. Five years ago, when I went backpacking across Europe, as North American youth tend to do as some bourgeois rite of passage, the Canadian flag sewn to my backpack produced a rather awkward moment. While the very same embroidered patch had garnered both me and my travelling companion much gleeful recognition from fellow travelling Canadians and general camaraderie from European strangers, it also prompted an American girl to ask us why we wore it. We had been hanging out with her for a couple of days rather pleasurably in the Italian villages of Cinqueterre, and the question seemed to come out of nowhere, but was nonetheless very serious. Both my friend and I just stood there, completely unsure of how to proceed. We knew we didn't want to say outright that we didn't want to be mistaken for Americans even though we knew that was the truth and that that was what the girl was driving at. I don't quite recall how we wriggled out of it, but considering we're Canadians, we somehow managed to defuse the situation diplomatically like the peacemakers we are.

This incident illustrates something at the core of being Canadian, and that is negative definition, a Kenneth Burkean concept meaning we define ourselves by what we are not and against what we are not, in this case, namely, American. When asked to come up with what makes us Canadian or what defines Canada as a national identity, Canadians shrug their shoulders and say "We're not like the US." Despite the flawed logic to this response (especially considering the fact we are very much like Americans in a lot of ways), it points to an interesting and seemingly unique Canadian conundrum: we are a non-nation, a cipher. I remember the provincial English exam for Grade 11 asking us to write an essay on what Canadian national identity consists of. Probably because the school board didn't have an answer and really wanted to know. What country but Canada would ask such a question on a high school exam? Having written and passed that exam, I'm still unsure about Canadian national identity myself.

Being the rather sparsely populated but land leviathan that it is, Canada often struggles against its heavily populated and rather bolshy neighbour to the south, whether in terms of cultural production or economic strength. When we're not inundated with all things American, we are greatly reminded of our ties to Britain and its Commonwealth - we have a Governor-General, who is the Queen's representative in our federal government, and the Queen graces all of our coins. And I think all of these close, sometimes smothering, connections often force our very young country into some interesting issues, including one that has bearing on Canadian music.

Since I was a teenager and first listening to the radio, I noticed that Canadian artists were played at regular intervals, and that was when I first noticed the Canadian content requirement put in place by The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). This requirement is there to "protect" Canadian culture against a powerful influx from other nations' music. I'm not sure how I feel about this mandate or how I feel about radio in general, especially considering I listen to very little radio, and when I do, it's college radio. Does our music need protection? Do we need to pump our radio stations full of Canadian music even when it's not worth promoting just for the sake of it? For the most part, most of us Canadians probably don't really care.

Yeah, Canada, we stand on guard for thee, but only if we have to. From what I can tell, most Canadians, including myself, aren't particularly patriotic - you don't find a lot of maple leaf flags hanging outside houses, even on Canada Day. However, I like to think of Canada's seemingly lazy non-patriotism as a healthy apathy and as our saving grace; after all, patriotism leads to all sorts of mess, violent and otherwise. We carry on day to day in our multicultural mosaic surrounded by rather massive, unpopulated areas full of natural resources and bilingual food packages without really thinking about it. I read somewhere that the reason Canada has produced such prolific academic figures in the area of communications is because communication has always been one of our prime concerns in a country this large and this full of gaps.

At the same time that we are unpatriotic, we are often, humorously so, quick to "claim" the best celebrities any way that we can. For example, though Arcade Fire has members from both the US and Canada, we undoubtedly claimed them as Canadian, and I think several of us still want to claim Rufus Wainwright even though he technically wasn't born in Canada. If you're enormously talented and happened to live on Canadian soil for a few weeks, we'll count you as one of us.

My memories of Canadian music while growing up consisted primarily of Bryan Adams and that crop of '90's "alternative" bands like Our Lady Peace, Moist, The Tea Party, Econoline Crush and I Mother Earth - to be honest, I was more impressed with early Bryan Adams than I was by the latter. Also, from my high school years, I remember the pre-Gorillaz animated band Prozzäk (which despite their beating Damon Albarn to the punch, should best be forgotten, umlaut and all), the bubbly pop of Sky (as short-lived as Prozzäk), the one-hit wonder band Pluto (blink and you would have missed them), and the pop-punk of Treble Charger (who will likely forever be known as the band who discovered and promoted Sum 41 only to disappear completely under their protégé's shadow). All in all Canadian music was rather bleak to me when I was younger. In addition to this rather sad array, we had and still have our drivel just as much as any other country, including the aforementioned Sum 41, Nickelback, Avril Lavigne, Three Days Grace, Loverboy, Shania Twain, and the national disaster that is Celine Dion, but as this mix reveals, we also have a lot of music to be proud of. I may have come late to an appreciation of Canadian music, but better late than more clichéd phrases.

No Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, or KD Lang on this mix - they are legends to some but not to least not at this juncture of my life. There may very well be a large contingent from Montreal - it wasn't deliberate in the sense that I favour Quebec over other provinces for music, it just so happens that this one city has made much of my favourite music of late, and often within an incestuous group of musicians weaving in and out of each others' work. I also have artists from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and of course from my home province of Manitoba. They range from electro acts to political punk acts to quirky indie to dreamy pop. For an honest, yet quirky, look at what truly makes Canadians Canadian, read Douglas Coupland's books Souvenir of Canada and Souvenir of Canada 2 and watch his documentary of the same name. Of course Coupland was technically born in Germany, but he's definitely Canadian to us. I'll call this mix Canadian Content. I don't think we have any reason to worry about CRTC regulations. Then again, we probably wouldn't worry anyway.

I Was a Pre-Teen McCarthyist - Propagandhi

Blood On Our Hands - Death From Above 1979

Monster Hospital - Metric

Black Flag (Juan Maclean Remix)- Duchess Says

Teacher Teacher - Dragonette

The Looks - MSTRKRFT

In the End It's Your Friends - Shout Out Out Out Out

Call Me Up - Chromeo

You're a Hologram - Hexes & Ohs

Dacha - Montag

Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles) - Arcade Fire

Heart - Stars

Falling Through Your Clothes - The New Pornographers

Lola Stars and Stripes - The Stills

Fine Young Cannibals - Wolf Parade

Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961) - The Weakerthans

Still Life - The Russian Futurists

Drifters - Patrick Watson

You and I Are a Gang of Losers - The Dears

Shampoo Suicide - Broken Social Scene

Present of Future End - The Most Serene Republic

Of Resurrected FOPP and the Importance of a Real Record Shop

I was looking at an issue of Uncut the other day, and when I got to the back cover, there was a full page ad for FOPP, the UK chain of record shops. There was a time when this wouldn't have attracted my attention in any particular way, but this time it did. It was a bit like seeing a ghost of a loved one. You see, I thought FOPP was still dead.

FOPP, a record store chain that had evolved from a Glaswegian one-man stall, shut down all of its 100+ stores last summer - I was, in fact, there when the stores mysteriously closed for "inventory" right before they closed for good. I had been purchasing CDs from their Cardiff, Bristol, and London locations right up until they shut down, completely unaware that as I left for home at the end of June, they were slated for execution. Apparently, FOPP's takeover of rival chain Music Zone put them into cashflow problems, forcing them to close. I was rather crushed at the time because despite the fact it was a chain store, FOPP came to mean a lot to me. FOPP allowed me to buy tons of albums from British artists for as low as $10 each, which is pretty magnificent when all of these albums would cost much more back in Canada. It was the type of store I could browse in for hours, and even when I had gone through all the music, I could then turn to the books and DVDs. It had a more independent vibe than shops like HMV and Virgin, and would often showcase in-store artist performances. Apparently, when FOPP shut down, the slimy white knight that came to the rescue was HMV. Now there are only eight FOPP stores throughout the UK and they're owned by one of the biggest music retailers. And so the story of music stores continues with the larger ones eating up smaller ones while still fighting for their lives in the age of digital music.

I will admit that I do like browsing in the British HMVs because they're often multi-level edifices with more of the music I like than any store in my hometown. I once said I could sniff out an HMV from miles away, and I don't even want to try to count how many I've visited up and down the UK. At the same time, they don't have the soul a real record shop should have - they feel like corporate shrines to music, bright, shiny, superficial, and more often than not, very overpriced. The HMVs in Canada, barring big city ones like the ones in Toronto, are like the shrivelled corpse versions of the British ones - they're usually one floor with one album per artist available in their racks. They make me hugely depressed. I prefer to spend my money in record shops that feel like proper record shops, including Selectadisc, independent music shops in Camden Town, and the beloved Spillers.

Established in 1894 and located on The Hays in Cardiff, Spillers is the oldest record shop in the world and feels like a true record shop, the kind every real music fan feels nostalgia for. The people who work there are obviously there because they're passionate about all sorts of music and want to tell people about it, and despite the tiny size of the place, it holds more quality music than an entire Virgin Megastore. The walls ooze authenticity with the numerous music/concert posters and jam-packed racks, which include the best selection of Welsh music you'll ever find. The people who shop there are the type who could spend half a day within this small darkened space, hunting for an obscure find that will potentially change their lives, and these people are the type whose lives will be changed by records over and over again. Of course like all fantastic record shops, Spillers was seriously threatened with closure a couple of years ago (of course because of further commercial development of the city centre, including a second phase of St. David's Mall), and for all I know, it may very well still be in danger. I signed a petition a couple years back (I think I also signed one to save The Electric Ballroom in Camden a long way back and more recently I signed one to rescue The Point, a Cardiff music venue, which just shows you how many decent places connected to music are consistently in need of saving), and I know there were several others pushing to save Spillers, including the Manic Street Preachers who used to shop there all the time in their youth.

Because the choices for music shops in my hometown have shrunk considerably, I've turned to online sources, especially for all the imports I inevitably buy. I realize that this kind of shopping is no replacement for a real record shopping experience, but I've been forced into it by the meagre selection in Winnipeg. Aside from Into the Music, which sells a lot of used music in both CD and vinyl, I don't have anywhere else I can go to really feel like I'm in some blissful music haven. Music shopping should be a dialogue - there should be passionate people present to engage you in music discussions and introduce you to new stuff you would never have heard of otherwise. Music shopping should be visceral - you should be able to try out new music in headphones before you buy it and you should be regularly surprised and impressed by the music playing in the store itself, prompting you to find out what it is. Music shopping should be tangible - I love the click-clack of flipping through racks of CDs and the excitement of lifting a vinyl LP out of the rack to survey its sleeve. Online shopping can never replace any of this.

In my opinion, when the music industry has been turned upside down and their pockets have been turned inside out, there will still be a place for independent record shops that exist purely because of the music. All the Tower Records and Sam the Record Mans can shut, along with HMVs and Virgin Megastores, as long as the real ones stay open and offer more than just a commodity, including a proper experience that befits the affective relationship people are meant to have with music.

While the old Web site URL still reads RIP FOPP, the relaunched FOPP resides at, promising a resurrection for loyal customers. Time will tell whether I'll ever be able to ignore the ghostly epitaph forever lurking in cyberspace like the whispers of black box messages in the Bermuda Triangle and accept the re-animated over the venerable corpse.

I Buy American Records - Saint Etienne

This is Capitalism - Snog

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Three Quarters Full Or One Quarter Empty?: The New Pornographers at the Groove FM Jazz Festival

And so I returned to the Groove FM Jazz Festival and the Pantages Playhouse for the second show of the "indie package" - Canadian indie supergroup The New Pornographers. This was a make-up show for the Winnipeg gig they had to cancel earlier, and it was my first time seeing them live. Due to their supergroup nature, not all members are present at all shows, and unfortunately, at this one, both Neko Case and Dan Bejar were absent, and thus Kathryn Calder, AC Newman's niece, took over all of Case's vocals with delicate aplomb. The audience was definitely lively, often shouting out to the band, and they still put on an excellent show live despite the fact they were missing a quarter of their members, but at the same time, I didn't quite feel like I saw a complete show. I don't know if this was because a quarter of the band were missing and because they were vocalists, or because I'm not as huge a fan of the band as I am of others, or because the some of the ludicrous banter coming from the audience appeared to be making the band feel a bit awkward (continuous requests for Freebird were annoying me and no doubt annoying them as well).

Following a rather raucous and fun set from Winnipeg mod-popsters and Mint Records labelmates Novillero, who also managed to get the crowd dancing early, The New Pornographers took the stage led by Newman with his Challengers-emblazoned guitar, and launched into a set that included Challengers, Use It, All the Old Showstoppers, Unguided, Adventures in Solitude, Stacked Crooked, All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth, Testament To Youth in Verse, and Twin Cinema. My personal highlights were hearing the bouncy, shuffling classic Mass Romantic played live, and singing and dancing along to Sing Me Spanish Techno - one of my favourites despite the fact it doesn't seem trendy to state as such. I was also impressed with the tender duet between Newman and Calder for Adventures in Solitude as both closed their eyes in rapt emotion. One point at which I really noted the fact members were absent was when I missed Bejar's vocals for Testament to Youth in Verse - the feel of the song seemed to shift from quirky to gentle and bland.

Newman attempted rather sarcastic banter with the audience (including a shot at Winnipeg's Burton Cummings - the audience's utter silence spoke volumes about the crowd's apathy for their "hometown hero"), and at one point a rather vocal older man, who kept screaming how much he loved the band, decided to yell "We still love you," prompting Newman to ask "Despite what?" in a bewildered tone.

Somehow the set still seemed too short and I was still missing key songs I wanted to hear like Myriad Harbour, Mutiny, I Promise You, and Falling Through Your Clothes. There were also some sound issues where the bass appeared to be overpowering the vocals, muddying the sound so much that I grew frustrated - I was thankful when one of the audience members piped up and told them to turn the bass down a bit, but it came too late in the show to really make too much of a difference.

The set proper concluded with a nearly endless cover of ELO's Don't Bring Me Down, which was fun and a crowd pleaser, but I think I would have preferred a more powerful original song as a closer. If anything, the cover might have worked better as an encore number, especially since they had a disappointingly short two-song encore, finishing with usual show ender The Slow Descent into Alcoholism. I was left with a strange feeling of incompletion and I still don't know whether I should look at the show as an above average gig for a regular group or a below average gig for a supergroup. I would really like to see The New Pornographers live again to get a better sense of how I feel about them, and hopefully, I'll get to see the full line-up next time.

Mass Romantic - The New Pornographers

Adventures in Solitude - The New Pornographers

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #22

This week's mix is for a road trip. I quite like road trips, especially if I get to choose the soundtrack for it. I take the crafting of a road trip mix quite seriously (not that any other mix is any less a serious undertaking for a nerd like me) - it should have a feeling of abandon, a feeling of escape, a feeling of forward motion. For someone like me, it also has to have an element of singalong silliness. When I was thinking of an appropriate image and/or video for this post, my immediate thought was the music video for Sneaker Pimps' Postmodern Sleaze - a Thelma and Louise-like mini-movie featuring the band as runaway criminals in an American desert. I was also reminded of the suicidal music video for The Cardigans' My Favourite Game and that bizarre video with Tom Jones and Chicane, where the robber wearing a Tom Jones mask is revealed to be...gasp...Tom Jones. Needless to say, I went with Postmodern Sleaze. Apparently, people must always road trip through a desert in the US. Preferably running from the law. Or with a death wish.

Because I seem to have an innate need for travel and motion (I can be thoroughly entertained on day-long roadtrips by watching the landscape change as it whizzes by and listening to music), it often doesn't matter to me where a road trip goes. For me, the journey very often is more fun than the destination. Also, radio can rarely be depended on for a decent road trip soundtrack, so the music compiled for the trip is hugely important. I chose to go for a fair amount of variety, beginning with the driving force of one of the greatest bands for escaping to: The Jesus and Mary Chain. I can't help but feel like I'm speeding on a motorway under a sunny sky when I hear Automatic. I then included several electronic-based songs before launching into a few singalong songs from Duran Duran, Prince, Gary Numan (pretend you're Vince Noir, rock 'n roll star) and The Knack (this time, pretend you're a hopeless Gen-Xer dancing in a gas station). Also, along the way are songs I can't help but be exhilarated by, including Echo & the Bunnymen's The Cutter and The Clash's Car Jamming. I end the mix with some gentler, but no less propulsive music by Bedroom Eyes, The Brunettes, and Camera Obscura. And all along the way, I managed to fit in appropriate road trip references. I'm going to call this mix Obligatory Road Mix. Buckle up.

Here Comes Alice - The Jesus and Mary Chain

Get Away - 120 Days

We Rise - Chris Corner

Piccadilly in Sepia - Nemo

An Honest Mistake - The Bravery

Lights & Music - Cut Copy

Burning Up - Ladytron

Sex City - Van She

Hungry Like the Wolf - Duran Duran

Little Red Corvette - Prince

Like a Motorway - Saint Etienne

The Cutter - Echo & the Bunnymen

19-2000 - Gorillaz

Cars - Gary Numan

My Sharona - The Knack

Car Jamming - The Clash

Chase - The Cinematics

A Trip Out - British Sea Power

Motorcycle Daydream - Bedroom Eyes

Obligatory Road Song - The Brunettes

Let's Get Out of This Country - Camera Obscura

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Performing Love, Thorny and Fragrant: Stars at the Groove FM Jazz Festival

I got to see Montreal-based band Stars play live a couple of years ago when they came to the Garrick Centre in Winnipeg to promote their 2004 album Set Yourself on Fire. And it was definitely a fantastic show. Then within the last eight months I've managed to miss them twice - the first time, they played Waterloo just before I moved there, and the second time, they played Winnipeg in winter while I was still in Waterloo. That's why I was so thankful that they decided to play the Groove FM Jazz Festival as part of the "indie package." I would finally get to see them play material from their latest album In Our Bedroom After the War. Of course being part of the Jazz Festival, they ended up slotted in Pantages Playhouse, an old vaudeville theatre building with proper seating and a balcony - not exactly my favourite kind of setting for a live show. As I sat there in my eighth row seat, watching the opening act, Winnipeg band The Details, I started feeling a bit grumpy and put off by the situation. The audience appeared to have drawn all sorts of demographics, and especially ones I never thought I'd see at a Stars show. Frankly, I think some of these people were wondering what they were doing there themselves (if they were expecting jazz, they were in for a surprise). And I was wondering how I was going to bear sitting through the show trapped in the eighth row.

After the intermission between The Details and Stars, the pulsing introduction from the opening track from In Our Bedroom After the War, The Beginning After the End, started up and the real Stars fans began to scream in recognition. The band sprung out onto the stage, and instantly, Torquil Campbell told everyone to come down to the stage - he later said that we should have to stand if they fucking had to. I joined the exodus of indie-pop fans as we stumbled and leaped over the bewildered older people who were completely content to remain seated. I was so grateful I could have hugged Torq. The moment that all of us crowded against the stage the gig started in earnest. And Stars are always completely earnest.

The stage was decorated with white and red roses, which were flung from the stage at various intervals, some of them disintegrating into showers of petals. It was a beautiful idea and completely fit the honesty and tenderness that Stars embody. The first track they played was the second one off the latest album, The Night Starts Here, and indeed it did. Torquil and his lovely singing partner Amy Millan demonstrated the perfection of their united vocals - I think their voices complement each others so perfectly it's emotionally alchemical. Amy lightly chanted the refrain of "The night starts here, Forget your name, forget your fear" and I did exactly as I was told, dancing and letting myself soak in the bittersweetness. Then Torquil asked the audience where our Barack Obama was and when would we finally elect a First Nations person for Prime Minister in this country before launching into Soft Revolution. This was only the beginning of the banter that he and Amy would engage in throughout the night.

The sheer intensity of the music was incandescent - Torquil has been accused in the past of being "hammy" (cough, Pitchfork), but I only see his theatrics as passion of the order of Morrissey. Being a consummate performer who believes and feels every word he/she has written is the opposite of "hammy" fakery, and Torquil is the consummate performer. There were so many highlights, and many of them were due to Torquil's energy as he played off Amy, who serenely played brilliant guitar, electric and acoustic. They ended up making two dedications to the couple whom they stay with whenever they're in Winnipeg - the first was The Big Fight, dedicated by Torquil, and the second was My Favourite Book, which was dedicated by Amy, ostensibly to rectify the dark implications of the first dedication and to elicit further banter between them (including a comment by Torquil that sex was always painful and you end up regretting it - a theme that works its way into several of their songs). The former was seductively sinister as Amy and Torquil exchanged lines in a dark dialogue of a fractured relationship, and the latter definitely balanced it out with its retro elegance and twee melody. Ultimately the spectrum that these two songs span, the pain and the elation of relationships, is completely representative of their body of work, and it's what makes me adore them so much.

The Ghost of Genova Heights, a track I wouldn't have immediately pegged as one of my favourite Stars track has proven to be exactly that, especially after seeing it live. It shifts between two different styles and moods, between a dreamy New Romantic feel and a soulful funk. Torquil was hugely impressive with his falsetto, breathing and yelping like Prince, making this song's chorus one of the most memorable ones of the night. Humour was also constantly present - before shooting headlong into the raucous Take Me To the Riot, Amy attempted to talk to the crowd about the Manitoba Moose hockey team and the AHL, only to have Torquil jump in and say that this audience was probably the only 800 people in Winnipeg who had no interest in hockey, prompting a hearty cheer. He also prefaced One More Night with a dedication to the newly re-formed New Kids on the Block, complete with an accapella satire of boyband trite emotion and dance moves, singing the chorus of Phil Collins' saccharine One More Night with a modified ending complete with profanity. The set-up served to demonstrate the contrast between Collins and the honesty of Stars' One More Night in which lovers hurt each other as much as they long for each other. There was also a sweet little moment in which it appeared Torquil lost himself in the middle of the song, standing there holding his trumpet and muttering "shucks" before eventually returning to the microphone and continuing on to the second verse.

I also have to mention one of the most exciting segues in which they moved from What I'm Trying to Say into Elevator Love Letter, two of my favourite Stars songs flowing together in an ecstatic tribute to complex emotion. To round out the entire set, they also played Your Ex-Lover is Dead, Set Yourself on Fire, Ageless Beauty, Midnight Coward, and Window Bird. The vulnerability and uncertainty that accompanies love and intimacy in reality pervades Stars' music and transforms these seemingly unromantic characteristics into a new form of romance. My only petty wish is that they would have done Barricade, a fantastically perverse ballad from In the Bedroom After the War, in which two football hooligans fall in love, turned on by violence.

One of the most intense moments was the final song of the set proper, the title track of their latest album, an epic ballad to the necessity of rebirth and reinstatement of humanity after the horrors and dehumanization of war. A person in the audience asked Torquil if he could dedicate it to his friend in Afghanistan, and Torquil replied with "Of course, my friend," his voice choked with sincerity that nearly made me tear up. The song built and built to an incredible climax of catharsis as Torquil ended up throwing his head back and howling "war" over and over. I felt my eyes close along with him as I sang with him, my vocal cords straining.

After the set proper ended, Torquil was the first to bound back onto the stage to tell us that he would have to perform accapella and that he knew some great Captain and Tenille songs; when the rest of the band reappeared, he feigned disappointment and told us that we could catch his solo material at a softball game in Ontario, trailing off with "the bus there is cheap." Stars then proceeded to perform a stellar four-song encore - it was like they read my mind. They needn't have told me to dance. They began with their fabulous laidback cover of This Charming Man - once again, anyone who could accuse Torquil of heavy-handed overdramatic performance couldn't have ever heard the subtlety of this understated cover version where Amy and Torquil's voices approach whispers as Marr's famous riff gently pulses in the background. They then slipped seamlessly into Reunion, one of my favourite songs off Set Yourself on Fire, a joyful trip of nostalgia and reclaiming missed opportunities. The show then ended with the gentle loveliness of Calendar Girl and then The Woods, the only other song that night from their second album, Heart.

Stars restored my faith in live gigs after the last lacklustre one I attended. I wish I could have gathered up the gig in my arms like a bouquet of roses, thorny and fragrant, and buried my face in it forever. Instead, it will have to remain pressed and dried in the folds of my memory.

The Ghost of Genova Heights - Stars

Barricade - Stars

Elevator Love Letter - Stars

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brave New Artists: Andrea Liuzza and Volenté

This post is going to be about singer-songwriters because there's something rather brave about them, especially those who write, play and produce themselves. There's nowhere to hide when you're a singer-songwriter. I've recently found two of them that I'm impressed with. Andrea Liuzza, who hails from Italy, and Volenté, who comes from Wales, both create vulnerable songs, but in different styles; the former is a mix of lo-fi indie and raspy theatrics, while the latter is gentle, melodic acoustic music with electronic elements. Liuzza has just released the follow-up to his first album Countless Ways For Pressing Flowers, which is called Melancholia I, and Volenté is about to release the follow up to her first album Cold Clean, which is entitled Butterflies Fall Away.

I only became aware of Andrea Liuzza recently via a post by The Devil Has the Best Tuna, and the fact he was compared with Patrick Wolf and Radiohead caught my attention. I took a listen to his latest album Melancholia I, which can be streamed and purchased at CD Baby, and I fell in love with the broken voice and broken music. I agree that there are links to Patrick Wolf, Radiohead, and even Bright Eyes, but Liuzza definitely crafts his own distinct anatomy of melancholy. The album is bookended by tracks called Born and Unborn. The former is a low-key piano ballad that only lasts a minute, but it nonetheless touches you and lingers in your imagination with its child-like vocals singing words of despair; the latter acts as an instrumental reprise of Born. The title track lurches about as it tells the story of a boy who "never makes love, just makes war," and a girl who "cuts her skin with a knife, looking at blood to find life." The crashing chorus and desperation in Liuzza's voice eventually ends in heart-drenching rain. The track Birdie shuffles along to screechy bouts of feedback as it recounts the memories of childhood naivete and holds them up against the reality represented by a bleeding bird. I Kissed Alice is a slower, acoustic ballad that demonstrates the fragility that underlies the album - the heartbreak and longing is a frosted window into Liuzza's soul, translucent and breakable. Then the track Sick swoops in with theatrical flourishes and spins around in a bitter waltz of a diseased mind - the narrator denounces everything about human interaction and reveals the dark inner workings of depression and self-loathing at the song's beginning, but is plaintively asking "Do you love me, too? Can you care for me?" by the end, clamouring for the affection he cannot believe himself capable of returning.

Pink Rabbits Are Always Happy is another completely vulnerable track with Liuzza's honesty raking over you like razor blades. The reckless, breathless Wolf reminds me of a rockier Clinic and splatters nihilism against the wall like the blood from a burst heart only to revel in smearing it all over itself. In anticipation of this track, Liuzza wrote this telling piece on his Web site: "Wolf is a Pleistocene survivor. He risks extinction. He spends his wild life with only 1 partner. Wolf is the dark side of Little Red Riding Hood. Wolf is the undesired reverb of music. There's a Wolf in you. Cry, cry Wolf." Penultimate track I Miss You Forever is a dreamy tune and the most peaceful one on the album, a brief surfacing from the shadowy depths of the previous tracks, or perhaps a surrender before voluntarily going under.

In contrast with Liuzza's acrid torment and brooding, Volenté (whose full name is Volenté Lloyd) creates sweeter, wistful music, but is no less personal. Her voice is alternately reminiscent of Kelli Dayton/Ali, who used to sing for Sneaker Pimps, and Kate Bush. I've only been able to listen to five of the twelve tracks for her latest album, which can be heard on her MySpace page, but they've given me an excellent feel for the record, and I would love to hear more when the album releases in late July. Title track, Butterflies Fall Away, layers acoustic guitar over washes of woodwind sound as she implores her loved one to keep strong. Middle Ground pulses with an arcane magic, organic rhythms paired with shimmery synth lines and her voice sounds both delicate and tribal. Heart of Gold pushes Volenté's vocals to dizzying, enchanting heights as an Eastern melody line runs in the background - the refrain of "always all about you" continues to build and emulates Kate Bush at her most dramatic. Volenté shifts back into a more soulful timbre for Old Love and advises that it "ain't no good going back to an old love" to the ticking of drums and bold guitars. Missing You is a beautiful atmospheric track with ethereal vocals but without actual lyrics, expressing the sentiment of the title without having to articulate it with language; in many ways, a sentiment like this is best left unarticulated when music can say everything that words can't. Just as the best graphic designers are the ones who know how to use white space, I think it's a sign of a true musical artist when he/she knows when to let the music speak for itself, and Volenté does that with this song.

Andrea Liuzza's MySpace:

Andrea Liuzza's Web site:

Volenté's MySpace:

Sick - Andrea Liuzza

Wolf - Andrea Liuzza

Middle Ground - Volenté

Heart of Gold- Volenté

Monday, June 16, 2008

This Is the Industry, But For How Long?: Thoughts on the State of Music Today

It's undeniable that the world of music is changing, and along with it, the industry that has accompanied it ever since the music publishing boom and the likes of Tin Pan Alley. The twentieth century made music more of a commodity than it had ever been before, and now the twenty-first century is seemingly tearing all of that down. I feel like discussing all of these thoughts here, so it can serve as a bit of a brain dump for the ideas that have been floating around my head ever since I started my MA thesis on music blogging and music journalism. As sustained arguments and their attendant research tend to do, this thesis has led me well beyond my original hypotheses and topics. And all this expansion into other areas is about to tear my brain into its separate hemispheres.

With the advances of digital technology, the world has seemingly both exploded and imploded in a McLuhanesque way. Privacy and publicity have morphed into "publicy" and the alternative has effectively blurred into the mainstream. So many people have more access to ideas and commodities, and at the same time, many people are putting more of their ideas and products out there. I consciously use "commodity" and "product" differently - to me, commodities are primarily there to be bought and sold for financial gain while products can be creative results produced for the sake of those producing them with or without financial gain. This distinction is significant for me because I feel as though music is moving from being a commodity back into being a product, and those who depend on it being a commodity, are the ones most upset about this shift.

Due to the emergence of the MP3 file and fast Internet connections, music now freely circulates the globe, both legally and illegally. The music industry itself was slow to realize and anticipate this fact, and will probably forever pay the price. As I mentioned in an earlier essay on digital music, the medium does transform the message, and in the case of the Internet and music, the medium is multiplying and fragmenting the message. Because making, promoting and distributing music has become so democratic (technology and software in combination with the Internet has made it quite possible for anyone to create and promote their own music), there is a proliferation of music, bands, and artists out there in cyberspace. So many, in fact, that it would likely cause you brain damage if you tried to listen to them all. You also can't possibly know about them all. One look at MySpace and you can hear them all screaming for your attention, for their fifteen minutes. MySpace has made Warhol Nostradamus.

With the glut of music, worthy or not, the market for music has both exploded into fragmentation and imploded into solipsistic subcultures and subgenres solidified by the smaller communities who support them. Musicians used to depend on a major label deal to gain global publicity and popularity - even the bastions of DIY, the punks, all ended up selling out to the majors. Now musicians are able to promote themselves globally, but often within a sliver of society - definitely not to the heights of bloated stadium pomposity.

The danger of having so many people claiming to be musicians and claiming that their music is worth listening to and/or buying is that people become overloaded and apathetic. This has already happened in the realm of politics and news. If there's too much music out there, most people cannot be bothered to care and take the time to figure out which artists they actually like. Mainstream media serves a purpose for those people who are casual music fans by literally telling them who to adore and whose music they should purchase. Mainstream media, which includes television, advertising, and regular Top 40 radio, selects the reality these fans see and hear. In the latter half of the twentieth century, music journalists came into the music scene to help influence those who weren't as likely to be convinced by mainstream media and the popular music it was flouting. They became more discerning selecters of music reality and those music fans who were more than casual looked to these journalists as their tastemakers.

Now here we are in the twenty-first century, the irony and skepticism of the 1990's still fresh in our minds, and the big media pundits have only gotten bigger and swallowed up smaller ones, while consumer markets have shattered into thousands of slivers. Casual music fans are being influenced by media conglomerates, passively consuming the next bland music act, while true music fans are being smothered by the choices offered by the Internet. These people who are truly passionate about new, innovative music, have largely abandoned traditional music fan publications. The NME, which used to be the tastemaker for rabid music fans, is now the most maligned piece of music press out there. Because music publications like the NME cannot and/or will not keep up with the explosion of new music that anyone with an Internet connection can find for themselves, they are becoming increasingly obsolete for those who are passionate about music. But even these truly passionate music fans need help in this sea of undiscovered music talent, and so step in music bloggers.

Music bloggers, or MP3 bloggers as they are also known, are the new tastemakers with a word-of-mouth style rather than the official, paid stance of a journalist. These disparate voices in the wilderness of cyberspace have now also been united by music blog aggregators like The Hype Machine and Elbows, making the disparate seem unified. These aggregators can generate little waves of hype for artists as they crawl the Internet for new music blog posts and reveal who has been blogged about the most at that particular moment. Is this hype having an impact in today's fragmented market? It can be difficult to gauge. In looking at some traditional music publications, it seems music bloggers can have an effect on the music press that they are slowly and quietly subverting. Spin featured Vampire Weekend on their cover before the band even had an album out - instead, their popularity and worth was based primarily on the hype generated by music bloggers. At the same time, I know for a fact that most people I know do not even know what a music blog is, let alone religiously check aggregators and music blogs for information. In effect, music bloggers often seem to be preaching to the converted, and the ostensible unity shown via aggregators is an illusion of solidarity, where music blogs serve various fragments of music fan audiences. If there is a soldiarity amongst all these blogs, it comes from being a solid genre with tacit rules and conventions. And perhaps this sort of solidarity will eventually change the face of music journalism.

As more of the mainstream public become aware of music blogs, maybe they will serve a larger purpose than they currently do. In a world wary of advertising and continual corporatization of the Internet's freedom, music blogs provide a way for music to exist outside of a commodity-driven framework. Most music bloggers use a distinct discourse about music, a discourse which puts love and passion about music above all other goals. They want to share music that has touched them or meant something to them with their friends, and because of the blog medium they use, they also end up sharing that music with the world.

And they do literally share this music with their audiences. Music blogs feature a few tracks for free download with every post, allowing their audiences to sample music before making a decision to purchase and/or support live gigs. This practice points to a new way of consuming music - it is no longer the commodity it once was. Because of the onslaught of new music available, much of it not terribly good, true music fans have become more selective than before, they have had to become more selective in this current explosion of bands and artists. This provision of free music, legal and often not, has been one of the contentious issues surrounding the music blogosphere, but in light of other filesharing issues like torrents, they are hardly worth the RIAA's batting of an eyelash.

The fuss about illegal sharing of music and copyright violations just leads me to another question about whether music should even be the commodity it once was. It isn't a coincidence that the first law about copyright and intellectual property came about in the eighteenth century when capitalism was moving into full swing. Music itself, whether it is an intangible file stored on a computer or a groove on a record, has rarely been particularly lucrative for the artists themselves. Most of the money made on album sales is sucked up by the record label. If a musician was going to make any significant amount of money, touring live shows would be the most effective way of doing so. Of course the arguments put forth by music labels and the RIAA always conveniently sidestep these facts.

It has also been pointed out before that many artists, including writers and visual artists, cannot support themselves by their art alone, so any musicians who believe millionaire stardom is their birthright need to re-think things. Perhaps music itself shouldn't be viewed as a commodity anymore. Perhaps it needs to be seen as art once again in order for it to make sense in this brave new world. I, myself, am a firm believer in abolishing the whole middleman music industry. Those musical artists who can grasp and hold onto fans' attention will continue to do so without interference from bottom-lines and media blitzes.

Music blogs are just an increasingly more visible portion of a seachange in the way music is created, promoted and consumed. There are so many other Web sites and platforms out there that are promoting a democratization of music tastemaking. Sites like MOG,, muxtape, and The Sixty-One, are all ways to share your impeccable music taste with the world, and in cases like The Sixty-One, the concept of choosing who the best artists are becomes entertainment itself. Ordinary fans are increasingly taking the place of A&R people, and even festival promoters are taking note of this.

With the proliferation of music-makers, corporate-sponsored events are becoming just as ubiquitous and overwhelming as the waves of new bands on MySpace. It seems every mobile phone provider hosts a music festival, and looking at many of the line-ups, very few of them deviate from the same roster. However, more and more are attempting to get fans involved in choosing those bands who get to participate, including the Green Man Music Festival and their Green Poll ( and Benicassim Festival and their contest via Supajam (, yet another music social networking site. Whether all this A&R frenzy at being the first to discover a new band is actually productive or not, time will tell. Yet another danger of music blogs and their online offshoots is the hyper-speed of music discovery, where finding obscure music and being the first to post about it becomes the sole goal, barring any actual commentary or connection to the music being promoted. And in the end, posts like these disrupt the music discourse set up by music bloggers in the firstplace, making them less of an alternative to and subversion of the traditional music press.

Where is all this heading? I don't have a clue. And that's probably why I find it so fascinating and chose it all as a topic for my thesis. For the most part, music bloggers don't promote music for money, nor do they do it at the behest of record labels (unless they feel the music warrants it), and they don't have editors to please and/or contend with. These facts about music blogs can very likely change in the future as each new medium topples the next, and for some music blogs maybe these facts have already changed. But as it currently stands, music blogs are at the frontlines of music, wading through the mind-boggling masses of music out there and separating the wheat from the chaff for the benefit of those who have otherwise grown completely apathetic in the face of such choice. Too much choice can end up eroding any interest at all and weakening people's passions. Music blogs will hopefully continue to make sure this doesn't happen. Music is a special, affective art form (the most affective one for me, personally), and it deserves a promotional medium that matches that. Not another commodity-driven "industry."

Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll - The Killers

This is Industry - Calvin Harris

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #21

Since I did a Mother's Day post a few weeks back, I must, of course, do a Father's Day post today. And despite the jazzy image above, there's no jazz included in this mix. The image above, and the one further below, have more to do with my father than the mix itself - they're his paintings.

Ever since I can remember, I've viewed my father as an artist, as a wish-granter. No matter what you wanted him to create or dream up, he'd find a way to do it. Formally trained as a display artist for stores, he can pretty much make anything out of nothing. If you were in the fifth grade and needed a model of a squid, he'd make a realistic one out of papier maché. If you wanted a two-storey, fully-decorated Barbie dollhouse, he would build one with scrap materials, and it would have a fireplace and a completely detailed bathroom and kitchen. And even if you were in college and needed an IV stand as a prop and needed to turn your basement into an operating room for a short film shoot, he would do that, too. He was a magician who turned ordinary newspaper into boats and Venetian masks. It's something you take for granted when you're young, and I only realized much later that not everyone had a dad who could do these things. The two-foot high, carved, wooden jewellery box of St. Basil's Cathedral that my father made sat in my parents' bedroom for my entire childhood without me really giving it a second thought. Now it sits in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.

When my father was eight years old, to prevent starving to death, he had to flee East Germany with a stranger, who was paid to smuggle him over the guarded border. His father had already died in World War Two, and he didn't see his mother again until just after the Berlin Wall came down over forty years later. He survived and kept going, having adventures of his own, taking off to Paris by himself to emulate all the great painters and live la vie bohème. In the '60's, he immigrated to Canada, again by himself, learned English, and started a family of his own. When he was unfairly forced out of his job eighteen years ago, he persisted and made sure our family was always provided for - even when the work he had to do was beneath him and something he never wanted to do. And through it all, he always had a sense of humour, often making me forget our seriously precarious financial situation. The same sense of humour that, when he was younger, had him trying women's hats on in department stores with his friends until they were kicked out.

I get quite a few of my characteristics from my father, including wanderlust, obstinance, self-reliance, natural curiosity and a wacky sense of humour. We also like to shop for music together - even if I like Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett and he prefers them without.

So, I decided to honor my father by creating a mix of artists from his home country, Germany. Germany has always been a leader when it comes to experimental electronic music whether it was industrial or minimal house, and this mix reflects that electronic exploration. Berlin, itself, has continued to have a magical hold on musicians from David Bowie's magnificent Berlin trilogy to the current scene in and around Chris Corner's IAMX, including bands like Cupcake and The Beaks; people often go there when they want to escape and create with like-minded freespirits. I, myself, loved Berlin when I visited it five years ago - its fractured and layered history is fascinating to me even though so much of it was horrific. I found myself tearing up at the sight of the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall - it was the physical reminder of what kept my father from his mother for so long. This mix also includes some of the truly unhinged experimentalism of the likes of Nina Hagen and Klaus Nomi, the airy indie of Apparat and The Notwist, and the poppier sounds of Nena, Wir Sind Helden and Kettcar. This mix is called Für Harald. Ich liebe meinen Vater und ich wisse, dass er mich auch liebt.

Hero - Neu!

Nach Haus - Abwärts

Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen - Nina Hagen

Abstieg & Zerfall - Einstürzende Neubauten

Trans-Europe Express - Kraftwerk

Verschwende deine Jugend - DAF

Father Cannot Yell - Can

J'ai mal aux dents - Faust

After the Fall - Klaus Nomi

99 Luftballons - Nena

Einer - Kettcar

Nur ein Wort - Wir sind Helden

Pick up the Phone - The Notwist

Arcadia - Apparat

Pogo - Digitalism

Vogue (12" mix) - KMFDM

Night Falls - Booka Shade

Discosau - Siriusmo

Vergiftet - Boys Noize

Fly - Tiefschwarz

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Flesh is Weak and Without Reason: IAMX's Release in North America

I'm sure a lot of über music fans have had this bittersweet feeling before. It's really a ridiculous, unfair feeling to have, but no matter what I do, I still get it. It's that feeling of possessiveness over a particular band or artist that makes you simultaneously want to keep that artist a secret for your own selfish purposes and want to share the brilliance of that artist with the rest of the world that was too thick to notice him/her in the firstplace. You also get a feeling of superiority for being an early adopter - you're the one who "got it" first and made all the necessary effort to support that artist. And then all of sudden, that artist is made more accessible to others, who think their new discovery is indeed new. This is how I'm feeling about IAMX right now.

I've loved and supported IAMX, which is former Sneaker Pimps mastermind, Chris Corner's solo project, for at least three years now. I think I was first alerted to the fact I might be interested in IAMX via a small blurb in the NME (oddly enough, it was through an article written by Noel Fielding, but this was before I knew anything about The Mighty Boosh - it actually took me over a year after reading this article to watch The Mighty Boosh and subsequently remember their connection to Chris Corner when I saw his face appear on various magazine covers used in the television show), and when I went to check out the IAMX Web site and MySpace, I was completely hooked. The decadent darkwave with ethereal vocals trapped me, and combined with Chris Corner's androgynous, theatrical look, pushed me to search out import copies of both of his albums, Kiss & Swallow and The Alternative. I think I ended up obtaining the former via someone in Russia (hopefully, the supplier wasn't particularly shady) and the latter via a European Web site. Because IAMX is self-produced and self-distributed and based in Berlin, the albums were only ostensibly available in mainland Europe - they hadn't even released in the UK yet, which confounded my usual online retail sources. At any rate, I did get the albums and haven't stopped listening to them since. I then proceeded to see IAMX live in both Toronto and Detroit last fall (see my earlier post for a review of those incredible experiences) - I was thankfully living in Waterloo, Ontario at the time rather than Winnipeg, but I can't say I wouldn't have tried the same thing even if I would have had to fly out there for that purpose. However, now IAMX has signed a deal with Metropolis, finally making the albums available to North America - The Alternative was released on May 7 while Kiss & Swallow will follow on June 24.

I should be very happy about this turn of events, especially considering it's sticking it to people who believe a band couldn't be successful and tour without massive major label promotion. And I am happy. But at the same time, I get this rather nauseated feeling about all the American college radio stations touting the "new" IAMX that I've loved for a relatively long time now. Of course, people who have always loved Chris Corner from his Sneaker Pimps days probably hate my guts, too - to be fair, I do also quite love Sneaker Pimps, but that love followed from my love of and emotional investment in IAMX.

IAMX will now be doing a small American tour later this year (as far as I know, no Canadian dates - not even Toronto), and I can only hope that the venues don't get too massive. Venue size on tours becomes an equally great concern for me when a band/artist I like gains more popularity. I need and crave intimacy in a gig, meaning being too far from a stage is pretty much useless for me. The small IAMX shows I did get to see rank in my top five live gigs because the energy and atmosphere was just so perfect, and being wedged against the stage contributed massively to that feeling. I'm one of those people who doesn't like casual fans - give me the unhinged obsessives every time, they are what change an ordinary gig into an event.

But in the end, I do want IAMX to be successful, probably also for selfish reasons: namely, the fact that success will likely lead to future releases and a long career of music for me to enjoy. So, everyone who reads this: please do purchase IAMX albums and go to the live shows. Kiss & Swallow is a slower affair than The Alternative, but you truly do feel like you're having an affair with the album in all its filthy glory. The Alternative tends to rock more violently, but put together with Kiss & Swallow, creates the perfect variety of intensity for a music relationship. Chris Corner has the uncanny ability to meld cryptic lyrics into dark soundscapes of passion and perversity, and his voice creeps over your skin like a velvet glove, sometimes slapping you in your willing face. IAMX makes you want to push your limits, push the boundaries of who you are and what you're capable of. IAMX is the transcription of the fantasy of what you would like to be but cannot be in the daylight. You, like Chris Corner, become x.

And if you're not convinced yet, listen to the sample songs I've included for download. Mercy, off the Kiss & Swallow album, is absolutely breathlessly brilliant - probably my favourite track off the record. And the title track off The Alternative is a genius electro-stomp of a song with Corner's voice soaring and breaking with desire. I have also included the re-tooled version of Nightlife, which is on the new US release. Corner is a consummate artist with an evident perfectionist streak, always making sure that from the visuals to production IAMX is a complete self-contained vision of heartbreaking beauty. He takes chances and they always pay off.

Looking directly into Chris Corner's dark eyes while singing his lyrics back to him is an experience like no other. And I have to learn to let others experience it, too.

"the flesh is weak and without reason...they say the wretched get their kingdom" - Bring Me Back a Dog

IAMX MySpace:

IAMX Web site:

Metropolis Web site:

Mercy - IAMX

The Alternative - IAMX

Nightlife (US Version) - IAMX

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Please Make Way and Pull to the Side of the Road: The Slow Return of Ambulance Ltd.

Unfortunately, more often than not, opening acts are forgettable for me. They were either very obviously chosen as tourmates because of their affiliation with the main act's record label without any consideration for compatible music styles, or they lacked the confidence and stage presence to hold their own against the main act to follow. Of course there have been some exceptions where I actually attended the gig for the support act rather than the main act, but in these cases, I obviously already knew and liked the support before going. Having said this, there has only been one time that I went to a show not knowing anything about the opening act and was then convinced by the end of their set that I wanted to buy their album and then actually followed through by buying the album within the week. This opening act was Ambulance Ltd, a shoegaze-indie-rock band out of New York and they were supporting The Killers gig in Winnipeg four years ago.

The gig was at the rather small (and precariously constructed) West End Cultural Centre because this was September 2004, the eye before the Killers media storm that would soon follow, ensuring that The Killers will never play a small stage in Winnipeg again. My friends and I were waiting impatiently for The Killers, not expecting much by way of an opening act. Ambulance Ltd., then came onstage in their unassuming indie attire and proceeded to blow us away. I still remember to this day the sound of Yoga Means Union flooding the small venue, the five-minute instrumental seemingly stretching to infinity in a refreshing wash of guitar arpeggios, that kept building and retreating and building and retreating like a tidal wave. Using an instrumental in an opening set can be dangerous in terms of losing the audience's attention, but it mesmerized me and I was riveted to the stage. Stay Where You Are was equally as memorable with its gentle riff and soaring melody. I can also clearly recall the catchy hook and sinister sound of Primitive (The Way I Treat You), which tipped the balance, convincing me to purchase Ambulance Ltd.'s debut album LP. Frontman, Marcus Congleton, has a hypnotic quality to his voice akin to Mew or The Radio Dept. with shades of Marc Bolan, and my oldest friend (not oldest as in age, but in how long we've been friends), Crista, still claims to this day that Congleton was the most beautiful man she's ever seen in real life. See my photo from the gig above and decide for yourself.

Needless to say, both Crista and I purchased copies of LP, and then waited for new releases. And waited. And finally lost track of Ambulance Ltd. Aside from a rumor of Congleton in talks with Sophia Coppolla about being in one of her films, I didn't really pick much up about them. Then, two years after I first purchased LP, Ambulance Ltd. released an EP entitled New English EP, which I found out about a fair time after the actual release. I liked what I heard, but it wasn't enough. Then I lost track of them again only to find out that everyone but Congleton has now left the band, that others have replaced them, and that their record label is currently in legal trouble, preventing any official new releases. For information about why the record label is in legal trouble read the NME story about it. Thankfully, all of this turmoil hasn't stopped the fans from being able to hear new material as Ambulance Ltd. continues to post the latest demos on their MySpace. And I've become a fan all over again. And once again, I wait.

Apparently, Congleton has worked on eighteen new tracks with the magnificent John Cale, and there are three new demos up on the Ambulance Ltd. MySpace. New demo Ivy reveals a funkier influence, but still mesmerizes me with vestiges of their earlier psychedelic melodies. In many ways, it feels like an interstellar journey in Parliament's spaceship. Upsetter shambles along to a lazier melody in a country-western vein, but with a an airier delivery, which makes me like it even without really have a predilection for the genre. And two thirds into the song, it also starts to sway and swagger in a funkier way. Ladyfingers slinks along to a subtle horn line and has a greater effect on me than anything Mark Ronson has done so far. Congleton's vocals slip and slide along in a fantastically soulful way while still preserving their signature dreamy quality.

Ambulance Ltd. Mk II did a short tour earlier this year in April and now have a show set up for the end of July at The Bowery Ballroom in New York. I really hope they get to release a new album soon and that they do a larger tour. Hopefully, they will still be willing to play Winnipeg after all these years. This time as a headliner.

Ambulance Ltd.'s MySpace:

Ivy (Demo) - Ambulance Ltd.

Upsetter (Demo) - Ambulance Ltd.

Primitive (The Way I Treat You) - Ambulance Ltd.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #20

I'll be honest and say I'm not exactly a fan of psychedelic music - I'm pretty much the antithesis of a hippie and its culture (I'm far too cynical to think "All You Need is Love" is the solution to the world's problems, and I'm probably more apt to think the world's problems can't be ameliorated at me, imperfect humans = imperfect world); however, there are some places where I enjoy a bit of the fantastical element of some psychedelica. I quite like the idea of hedgehogs singing, people riding white swans, and statues leaving their pedestals and heading to the beach. To this day, I like imagining tiny Marc Bolan riding a giant white swan through the forests like a king of the pixies. My daydream world can be a colourful place to live. I can also hear those links between psychedelic bands and the later twee genre of which I'm a big fan. Because my knowledge and/or collection of psychedelic music is a bit spotty, I'm going to round out this mix with music which is more generally in a fantasy vein, so once again, there will be many notable absences, including Cream, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. After all, this mix is of the songs I like and/or listen to.

Out of all the characters in the genre, I still find Syd Barrett to be particularly fascinating. He has all those myth-making features: huge creative talent, incredible physical attractiveness, unfulfilled potential, and the fact he went completely bonkers. Arnold Layne, which is included in this mix, is a brilliant off-the-wall story of a transvestite who steals women's clothing, and ranks up there with the storytelling of See Emily Play - both of which are my favourite Pink Floyd tracks. I, myself, can't be bothered with the prog rock of post-Barrett Pink Floyd, but the sheer craziness of Barrett's psychedelic vision put The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in my record collection. When Barrett passed away a couple of years ago, many people praised his short-lived career, albeit his death had that way of solidifying his talent all over again, a talent which wouldn't likely have been mentioned all that much while he still lived in his mother's house painting abstracts. It took his death to make the cover of the NME.

A close second for psychedelic heroes is Arthur Brown and his legendary fire helmet - anyone who deliberately sets his/her head on fire and dances around scaring the crap out of Health and Safety people is a hero to me. He's not allowed into the sacred Marc Bolan pixie forest, mind.

Aside from songs from Syd Barrett in both Pink Floyd and as a solo artist, and Fire by Mr. Brown, the god of hell-fire, I've included several other fantastical tracks. Among them are tracks from Captain Beefheart (a Mighty Boosh favourite), Ariel Pink (lo-fi surrealism), Donovan (famous Scottish psychedelic folk), Devendra Banhart (I want to be a little seahorse, too), The Beatles (as indifferent as I generally am towards the Fab Four, Penny Lane captured my imagination ever since my dad first gave it to me on a cassette tape when I was young - it's a piece of nostalgia, if you will), and even an earlier track from Queen (who needs Bohemian Rhapsody when you have a song called The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke?). To finish the whole thing off, is a little piece of self-indulgent nostalgia (of course, what is a blog, if not self-indulgent): the theme song for one of my favourite films The Princess Bride, A Storybook Love, sung by Willy DeVille of Mink DeVille fame. I restrained myself from adding a track from the Labyrinth soundtrack, but believe me, I'll find a way of working one in on another week. And you were all also in danger of Limahl's Neverending Story, but I judiciously refrained. I'm going to call this mix Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk. Go ahead. Lose your mind.

Fire - Arthur Brown

Run-Away - Super Furry Animals

Higher and Higher - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Underwater Moonlight - The Soft Boys

Lichtenstein Painting - Television Personalities

The Village Green Preservation Society - The Kinks

Penny Lane - The Beatles

Arnold Layne - Pink Floyd

Ride a White Swan - Tyrannosaurus Rex

Sunshine Superman - Donovan

Zig Zag Wanderer - Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band

You're Gonna Miss Me - 13th Floor Elevators

The Hedgehog Song - The Incredible String Band

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke - Queen

Baby Lemonade - Syd Barrett

Seahorse - Devendra Banhart

Loch Na Fooey - Fern Knight

Storybook Love - Willy DeVille

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Shaken, Not Stirred...and Pass the Jelly Bellies: Sparks' Exotic Creatures From the Deep

The outrageous and witty Mael brothers of Sparks are back and to celebrate the release of their latest album, Exotic Creatures From the Deep, they decided to create a mad twenty-one night run of London shows in which each gig showcases an album from their back catalogue. The run kicked off on May 16 with Halfnelson and will run until the premiere of Exotic Creatures From the Deep at Shepherd's Bush Empire on June 13. The album itself will release this Tuesday. I really enjoy Sparks, and I've come to realize even more keenly with this album how they never fit into any one genre or period, so their sound constantly appears contemporary and unique. While they were originally included in the glam scene early in their career, their blend of genres like vaudeville, classical, jazz, pop, electro, and rock, combined with Russell's fey, semi-operatic vocals and characteristic staccato delivery, put them in a strange class of their own. In some ways, they had similarities to their contemporaries Queen, but with a wittier, artier slant. Perhaps Sparks altered their sound a bit with each development in music technology (ie: their '80's albums utilize a lot more synthesizer and drum machines), but they still make the same zany, tongue-in-cheek theatrics. I love their mixture of sophistication and absurdity. They're like a martini garnished with jelly beans. And they continue with this album, which is a natural progression from their last album Hello Young Lovers.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep is loosely held together by an intro which then appears as a reprise halfway through the album, only to reappear again at the very end of the last song of the album, Likeable. The nearly accapella refrain of "I don't care if you love me, just so you like me" is a memorable hook and makes much more sense when it finds itself in the final song about a narrator whose best feature is his intangible likeability. The second track of the album, Good Morning, features newer musical techniques by dipping into the electro scene for fuzzed out beats; however, this story of a man who wakes up without any recollection of the night before, has the signature Sparks schizophrenia with soft, symphonic interludes and Russell at his most falsetto. This flirtation with new sounds persists in I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All the Crap in This Song, which could have been an electro-burlesque tune by either Kylie Minogue or Goldfrapp, and features lyrics that satirize the genre of love/lust songs. One of my favourtie songs on this album is the completely mad Let the Monkey Drive. Sparks' staccato, clipped style works magnificently in this tune about allowing a monkey to take the wheel on a Californian highway, so that the narrator and his companion can do as they like in the backseat. The melody is hugely catchy and romps along so fluidly you can almost miss the fact that apparently the car is actually the monkey's in the firstplace.

Their wit is in full working order with songs like Strange Animal, which comments on the process of making a song in a postmodern fashion, and the enormously catchy (She Got Me) Pregnant, which places lyrics about a woman getting a man pregnant over dark cabaret worthy of Danny Elfman. The intelligent craziness keeps going with This Is the Renaissance, a song that strings together facts about the Renaissance period to another dark cabaret backdrop, praising the rebirth of art and science, and insisting that Gutenberg is printing a centrefold, "so let it all hang out." Any band who adds "contra butto" to their lyrics in passing is bound to make me happy. And to prove their fabulous consciousness of pop culture and their currency (see Perfume from their last album for an example of their exhaustive pop culture observances), they created a song entitled Photoshop, which takes melodrama to new heights in the age of technology as Russell belts out "Photoshop me out of your life." Another one of my favourite tracks on this record is Lighten Up, Morrissey, which tells the frustrated story of a man who cannot get a woman to notice him because she idolizes Morrissey so much. She criticizes the narrator's intellect, masculinity and meat-eating ways to the beat of a stomping rock song. Sparks revealed in an interview with Jonathan Ross that they first ran the song by Morrissey and he found it very amusing and gave his approval.

Overall, Exotic Creatures of the Deep maintains the cinematic flavour and ambition of Sparks' music that began with Halfnelson, and which has held my attention through twenty-one albums. If anything, they've just expanded into even bigger and bolder soundscapes and storylines, though maybe not quite as ambitious as 2006's Lil Beethoven. In the aforementioned Jonathan Ross interview, the Mael brothers expressed their desire to write a film soundtrack; with their signature ability to shift styles and genres within songs in order to tell their stories, I would love to hear their soundtrack score. Maybe they need to attempt the next James Bond soundtrack. Who's more sophisticated and absurd than 007?

Let the Monkey Drive - Sparks

This is the Renaissance - Sparks

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Missing Wales: Mechanical Owl's Snowdonia EP

I'm not sure how I first stumbled across Mechanical Owl - it may have been an e-newsletter of some sort, but all that really matters is that something led me to Mechanical Owl's slightly off-kilter folk-electro-rock and it was like stumbling through the trees in Snowdonia National Park and discovering a hidden waterfall in the mountainside. Mechanical Owl is the solo project of Mike Payne, who recently moved back from Leeds to his hometown of Mold in Northern Wales, and who also participates in the bands Mrs. Dice Feet and Crayon. Payne's self-produced, self-distributed six-track Snowdonia EP is a lovely combination of the pastoral and the technological as electronic buzzes and ambience bolster plucked guitar strings. And Payne manages to weave music that captures and distills the magic and majesty of the Welsh landscape, often sounding like The Radio Dept. at their wispiest.

The first track of the EP, Brittle II, begins with an insistent guitar riff and then Payne's dreamy vocals kick off with evocative lyrics like "Rain rivers flow through your kitchen cupboard." Title track, Snowdonia, uses with the sounds of plucked strings, somehow sounding like Asian influences while still maintaining a driving rock melody. If I close my eyes, I can see the Welsh countryside in its hyperreal green glory. Row Your Boat spins around like dust in a sunbeam, sounding like an Air song, and it's my favourite track off the EP. Somehow, with its lackadaisical three-four rhythm, it also reminds me of the hypnotism of Heaven is Inside You by I Monster. Make It Last is a more rock-propelled tune with thrumming guitars and smashed cymbals, and the refrains of "ooh la la's" makes it all that more anthemic. Our Loss Their Gain takes light organ strains and skipping drums and Payne's vocals can get unwieldy in a Frightened Rabbit sort of way, emulating the cascade and spray of Welsh waterfalls between the misty hills. Gravel Grain is a slower affair with gentle electronic pulses, and Payne's plaintive plea of "I hope that it does not start to rain again" melds with the music into a hovering fluidity like mist hanging in the air. There is also a bonus track, which is a reprise of Make It Last, replacing rock bombast with thicker, slower sounds.

If you like what you hear as much as I do, you can purchase the Snowdonia EP at Mechanical Owl's MySpace. And if you live in the UK, Mechanical Owl is playing a few dates this summer, including ones in Manchester, Leeds and at the Good Times Festival in Wrexham. Even though I'm probably not technically allowed to feel hiraeth, the homesickness specific to the Welsh, the way Mechanical Owl makes me miss Wales feels pretty close. However, at the same time, the Snowdonia EP is like stretching the vista of Welsh mountains and valleys through my mind from headphone to headphone.

Mechanical Owl's MySpace:

Snowdonia - Mechanical Owl

Row Your Boat - Mechanical Owl

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #19

It's been feeling like it will never be summer where I am, but I decided to make a mix for it anyhow. Summer isn't my favourite season, mainly because it's too hot and sunny - I often become an indoor dweller through the three months that we actually have a semblance of summer. Not to mention I don't enjoy the prospect of donating my blood to mosquitoes (after a few hours out in a friend's backyard this weekend, I already have six bites on my legs, which had been covered with thigh-high socks). I prefer travelling if I can, but this year, my summer is devoted to finishing my MA thesis, and so I must toil, otherwise unemployed, trying not to scratch my mosquito bites.

So, I've made a mix to raise my spirits. It seems many artists like to include "summer" in their song titles - I suppose, for most people, summer is a time of rest and celebration. In many respects, summer has gone the way of Christmas for me, meaning it used to be hugely exciting and wonderful as a child, but as I grew up it just lost all its magic. I'm going to include several songs that are rather twee in nature and finish it off with some more danceable electro tracks. I'm going to call it Summer of '08.

Another Sunny Day - Belle & Sebastian

Summershine - Strawberry Whiplash

Summer Swirl - Bouquet

Summer Days - Phoenix

British Summer Time - The Boyfriends

Sunny Afternoon - The Kinks

Mr. Blue Sky - ELO

A Summer Chill - This Is Ivy League

Le soleil est pres de moi - Air

Swim - Ambulance Ltd.

Summer Babe (Winter Version) - Pavement

Holiday Hymn - Orange Juice

Beach Bum - Flowers Forever

Pool Side Music - Bridge

Pacific Palisades - Ash

White Palms - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Noisy Summer - The Raveonettes

Hot in the City - Billy Idol

Summer Party - Breakbot

Heatwave - IAMX