Friday, April 28, 2006

Unrestrained! has taken over my life right now. I'll come up for air and post more often when I'm done in a couple weeks.

This post starts with The Office, the American version of which has won me over. It's about the only U.S. network TV series with interesting-looking people on it. Steve Carell is fantastic as Michael Scott, a walking, talking hangnail of a human. I find the series doesn't centre on his constant humiliation the way the British series did, probably because that sort of humour would be hard to sustain (and tolerate) over 20-plus episodes a season or however many they're producing. The utter destruction visited upon David Brent (Scott's British counterpart) just wouldn't work over a long U.S. network season.

The American series also lacks the poetry of Gervais & Merchant's version. I'm thinking specifically of John Betjeman's "Slough" and how it informed every moment of the original 12 episodes of The Office. I need to read more of his work.

I first saw Betjeman's name mentioned in some Charisma Records "historical notes" inside my copy of Genesis's Nursery Cryme. Charisma founder Tony Stratton-Smith (RIP) writes, "We maintained too, a certain eccentricity: the comic invention of Monty Python (like Genssis, with Charisma for almost a decade) was laid beside the quintessentially english recordings of Sir John Betjeman..." Aha.

I've never actually seen a John Betjeman record—I'm sure they were deleted pretty quickly if they reached these shores at all—but I'm on the lookout now. According to this article in The Guardian, Sir John's hipper than ever. Anyone who treated guests to Scotch and shortbread—never mind wrote something scathing as "Slough" and was labelmates with Peter Hammill—is all right by me.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I watched American Idol for the first time last week. Sure, this show embodies evil in popular culture, and its producers, contestants, and audience should be castigated as the worshippers of Mammon that they are. But last week's episode was a salute to Queen, with the would-be Idols plundering the golden catalogue of Mercury/May/Deacon/Taylor for songs to massacre. I couldn’t miss that car wreck, could I?

The guy who sang a country-rock tainted version of “Fat Bottomed Girls” got voted off the island after the show. Good call, America.

Actually, all last week was Queen Week, with the Rodgers/May/Taylor "Queen Company" rock revue finishing their tour here in Vancouver. I didn't go, but I'm sure everyone had a good time. I also just picked up a Classic Albums DVD about the making of A Night at the Opera, an album that, when I was 12 or 13, I played until the vinyl was worn as thin as Bohemian Rhapsody's master tape. Because I've internalized that LP and taken those songs for granted for so long, the show contained some revelations. I'd never realized that "Sweet Lady" is in 3/4 time until Brian May demonstrated the riff in one of the DVD extras—the drums play it completely straight and mask the song's time signature. Clever. And May's explanation of "'39" really knocked me for a loop. He says it's about interplanetary time travellers, not emigrants from Europe going to the New World as I had always assumed. Guess my 12-year-old powers of interpretation were off, or I thought Rush had cornered the market on space opera stuff and didn't bother reading any of Queen's lyrics in the same light. Brian May, you are an extraordinary nerd and I salute you.

I haven't had cable for the past four years, so I've missed out on a lot of these Classic Albums shows. I don't mind being out of the loop too much. If I want to find out what's going on in mainstream culture, free TV can always offer me something, whether I want it or not. Locally, there's the Kool Countdown, a music video hit-parade roundup that fancylady and I end up watching with disturbing frequency on Thursday evenings. I think we can't look away for two reasons. 1) The show is based in Victoria, so it has that Island television low-budget CRTC-mandated local programming feel to it, as the host, the Garofalo-like Robin Farrell, touts whatever acts are playing the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre (Rob Thomas is coming!) between Madonna and James Blunt vids, and 2) Robin herself has a witty persona, enhanced by our suspicion that she hates all the music she presents on the show.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

This one's for Super Robertson—Robert Wyatt singing "I'm a Believer" on Top of the Pops, a performance the BBC didn't air at the time (1974) because the sight of a paraplegic singing on television might have upset sensitive viewers...or something. Too bad about the prat doing the voiceover at the end. Seeing Wyatt blithely singing away while teenagers dance (not to mention Nick Mason on drums) more than makes up for it. Inspiring!

I first heard Wyatt's take on Neil Diamond's Monkees hit last year, after buying Solar Flares Burn For You, an odds and sods collection of Robert Wyatt material on Cuneiform Records. The album comprises two BBC Radio sessions from 1972 and 1974, a soundtrack for a short film (the title track), and three home recordings from 2002–2003, just to stop things from getting too nostalgic. The 1974 session is brilliant—Wyatt alone at a piano playing "Alifib" (shattering), and a more fleshed-out version of "Sea Song" from Rock Bottom, along with "Soup Song" and "I'm a Believer." The rest of the album is pretty inconsistent, from the abstract sounds of the title track to the silly "We Got an Arts Council Grant," to the cloying-yet-heartfelt "Little Child" (a song sung by Wyatt's childhood hero Danny Kaye), to the groovy loop-based jam "Twas Brillig" from 2002–2003. While they're inconsistent in terms of flowing together as a coherent album, each track is as defiantly eccentric and unique as its creator.

My Sunday rhythm-section teammate Christian Scum lent me a few Mojo mags last weekend, including the November 2005 issue which features a lengthy Wyatt interview. The inspiring quotes fly thick and fast: "I do have an intense greediness for stimuli. I get bored quickly. But I'm really scared of breaking the law. Pathetic, isn't it?" Or "I'd love to be a perfectionist. I always think I am until I hear the results, then I realise I'm not."

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Once again, I hitch myself to Doomed to Rock's coat-tails and enter the realm of list making. Here are some of the best, most important gigs of my life.

Rush, Pacific Coliseum 1980
Fourteen-year-old me at my first concert, with Rush on the Permanent Waves tour. A shattering, otherworldly experience; the first collision between my limited self-perception and an existence more exotic, extreme, and intense than I could ever imagine for myself. I went home with my tour programme, ringing ears, and my rugby shirt reeking of dope and cigarette smoke. Again! Again!

Voivod, Soundgarden, Prong at the Commodore Ballroom, 1990
I can’t overemphasize the importance of this gig in my life. Not only were the bands either at their peak (Voivod) or ascendant and eager to slay (Soundgarden & Prong), but virtually all my present-day musical friends and collaborators were at this show. If it wasn’t for the bonding power of Voivod, my life would be a boring, drab thing at the moment.

Monster Magnet at the New York Theatre, 1992
I remember being really distracted the day of this show. I’d completely forgotten about it until my friend JR called, ready to pick me up. I think the lack of anticipation left me really vulnerable to Monster Magnet’s swirling space-rock assault that evening. The whole history of ROCK unfurled before me. Was it 1967? ’72? ’92? It could have been any era. Sandwiched between Paw and Raging Slab, they stole the show and prompted a personal epiphany regarding rock as a cerebral vs. visceral experience. An evening of flying hair, sweat and fists (none of which were mine).

Jesus and Mary Chain, UBC Thunderbird Stadium, Lollapalooza 1992
I remember a damp summer’s afternoon, with steam rising from the pit, and having pretty low expectations for these irascible Scots. But they came on and I was blown away by the strength and depth of their songs and their hollow-body guitars-and-shades look—unapproachably and unattainably cool. I knew them to be arrogant bastards, and based on this performance, they had every right to be.

Neurosis at the Town Pump, 1996
Man, I’ve never been so glad to be completely sober. My friend Smash and I bought tickets at the door and walked in blind, going on hearsay that Neurosis put on a good live show. Very true, as it turned out. Neurosis aren’t a rock band, they’re sensory overload, adding films, slides, and tribal drumming to their crusty/crushing avant-rock. Unbelievable that they could summon the will to pull something like that off every night on tour.

Sacramentary Abolishment in Edmonton, 1997
Hyped up by the unfathomable rage and fury of S.A.’s River of Corticone album, Smash and I flew out to Edmonton for this Halloween show that also marked the release of S.A.’s The Distracting Stone CD (their last before drummer Paulus left and the remainder of the band formed Axis of Advance). From the “Faces of Death” type video showing on the club’s TV monitors to the prospect of witnessing S.A. in the flesh, this was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life at that point, replaced in short order by the moment S.A. themselves took the stage and launched into a full set of Apocalyptic Nuclear Hate-filled Blackness.

Sonic Youth at the Vogue, 2002
A seated venue with great sound, a near-perfect setlist, and the best Sonic Youth gig I’ve ever seen. They weren’t out to stir shit up; they weren’t experimenting with new material; they weren’t limited by being part of a larger bill or festival. This was their night to be the best band in the world. I think they played every song off Murray Street. At a lot of gigs, you kind of just tolerate the songs from the new album; this was the kind of show where the new stuff sounded instantly classic.

Opeth at the Commodore, 2005
I’ve already posted a review of this show, so you might want to track that down. Suffice to say that after seeing two truncated Opeth gigs in Vancouver (one where their drummer bailed on them and one at the Sounds of the Underground Fest), a full-length Opeth show was a satisfying, heavy experience.

Honourable mentions: All Iron Maiden gigs, especially Scorpions/Maiden/Girlschool (Number of the Beast tour, 1982) and Maiden/Saxon/Fastway (Piece of Mind tour, 1983), long-gone local band Red Sugar, Morbid Angel, all International Guitar Nights, Between the Buried and Me, Removal, pre-Nevermind Nirvana, and the Melvins.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Here's a picture of Judge Smith to cap off a day I spent out of my mind with excitement after learning you can get Not the Nine O'Clock News on DVD now.

The picture also answers the heretofore unpondered question "Which member of Van der Graaf Generator went platinum?" Peter Hammill contributed to a couple of mega-selling Peter Gabriel albums, but it turns out Judge topped the charts first!
Race Highlights

Schumacher picks off another backmarker.

Torrid late-race action at the hairpin.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Peter Hammill (with Stuart Gordon)—Veracious
Peter Hammill has been generous with the live releases over the last few decades, starting in the mid-'80s with The Margin, a double set with the hard-rocking, short-lived K Group. Roomtemperaturelive followed in 1990, a lengthy document of his amazing North American tour with bassist Nic Potter and Stuart Gordon on violin—a bit of a cherished artifact personally, as this tour was the only time I’ve seen PH in the flesh. There Goes the Daylight appeared in 1993, another rock band recording reminiscent of the K Group sound. PH didn’t release a truly “solo” live album until 1999’s Typical (recorded on tour in 1992). As you might guess, the different collaborators and instrumentation result in Hammill exploring different facets of his music on various tours—reviving old songs, reworking the staples of the set, and generally mutating material away from its studio album staidness—which makes bootlegs a fairly valued commodity among the tape and CD-R traders in his fanbase. I think it’s Hammill’s “beat the boots” philosophy that’s resulted in the regular stream of live albums on his own Fie! label.

So here we have Veracious, one disc's worth of the gracefully aging Hammill performing at various European venues with Stuart Gordon sawing away alongside. The dozen songs are all drawn from his ’90s and ’00s albums except “Easy to Slip Away,” an ode to departed friends from his wrenching second solo album Chameleon in the Shadow of Night, and “Shingle Song,” a rarely performed ballad from 1975’s proto-punk concept LP Nadir’s Big Chance. “A Better Time” is a strong opener. PH hammers out a steady tempo on piano and SG follows suit, lacking the panic to fill musical space I often sense when I hear him play, all supporting the hopeful message of the song: “I’ll never find a better time to be alive than now.” The more delicate “Gone Ahead” and “Nothing Comes” are solid performances as well. Both songs depend on central hook melodies that Hammill, a performer who willfully abandons himself to the moment, is careful not to lose. As the album progresses, other songs aren’t treated so appropriately. Either they’re recorded inconsistently (“Like Veronica” sounds distant and boomy), or their arrangements abstract them almost beyond recognition and enjoyment. “Primo on the Parapet,” which received a majestic, hard-driving treatment by the band on There Goes the Daylight, suffers most from the sparse duo format. Another victim is “Shingle Song.” Hammill starts it a cappella, with guitar and violin gradually joining in. It’s here that Gordon’s onomatopeic playing becomes a nuisance. Nearly every lyric receives some kind of flourish in reply, and the effect becomes cheesy. For example, immediately after the line “Against the caterwaul of scattered call winds,” Gordon zings and zooms and whistles away as though caught in the breeze himself.

I can’t say Veracious features any definitive versions of these songs, but for fans it’s a decent document of PH’s recent activities, and serves to jog the memory regarding the finer tunes from his recent solo it did for me.