Friday, February 20, 2009

These Were the Week that Was

Samurai (Esoteric) were an odd duck of a band who did one album in 1971 before packing it in. Their sound blended some jazz, soul, and progressive, ending up somewhere in the vicinity of Gentle Giant's departure point. With sax and vibes to colour the guitar/organ foundation, it's a fun listen, and the songs are mighty catchy. Songwriter, vocalist, and keyboardist Dave Lawson went on to Greenslade, whom I have no idea about.

I'm really into Popol Vuh at the moment. I guess they're best known for their Werner Herzog soundtracks, and their non-soundtrack work is definitely "cinematic" as well. I have three of their albums now, and they all sound completely different while retaining similar atmospheres, which is something I admire. Letzte Tage-Letzte Nachte (1976, reissued by SPV) is supposedly their hardest-rocking's certainly the most guitar-based of the three I've heard. What amazes me is how contemporary this sounds. If you'd told me this album was recorded by some cool Mount Pleasant kids who played the Biltmore last week, I'd be impressed, but I wouldn't doubt you at all.

A new Zombi album is cause for celebration. This Pittsburgh duo gets better and rocks harder with every release. They hit some amazing grooves in 7 and 5, and of course it's a tone picnic from beginning to end. Steve Moore's bass tone alone brings a big grin to my face, never mind that he's got a ruling drummer to play along with. Seeing them with Isis a couple years ago was a treat, and I hope they come back while touring for Spirit Animal (Relapse).

It's high time I picked up No Pussyfooting (DGM), which I did at Soundscapes in Toronto last month. Originally composed of two side-long pieces of tape-manipulated guitar and synthesizer drones, this two-disc edition also features each selection in reverse—exactly the way the album was aired (mistakenly) on BBC Radio in 1973.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Saxondale: Rage Hero

My friend Super Robertson introduced me to the notion of a “rage hero.” I’ve never had the term formally explained to me, but I take it to mean someone who’s not afraid to express the anger that we all feel from time to time—anger at the annoyances that can accumulate during a typical day: lousy service, pushy salespeople, navigating automated switchboards, international students, and so on. The rage hero says the things we’re too inhibited, for want of self-preservation, to say. We may be afraid to cause a fuss or spark a confrontation, but the rage hero has no such hangups. In the face of stupidity, hypocrisy, or insincerity, he’ll let loose and take one for the team.

Tommy Saxondale is a rage hero. The title character of Steve Coogan’s latest series is an ex-roadie who’s gotten off the tour bus and settled down in suburbia (Stevenage, to be exact). He’s now an exterminator, trapping vermin wherever they may roam. He does have anger management problems—exacerbated by thoughts of his ex-wife, banks, DJs, and animal rights protesters—for which he attends a men’s encounter group at the local library. Each episode opens at one of Tommy’s anger management sessions, where he inevitably disrupts the session by calling bullshit on the therapist, or mocking his fellow classmates and generally giving the impression that he’ll be going for counselling for some time to come.

So he can be a dick (and is frequently called out on it), but Saxondale is basically a happy guy. He loves his girlfriend Magz (Ruth Brown), proprietress of an anti-establishment t-shirt boutique, and he loves his Boss 351 ’72 Mustang. He seems to enjoy his work, even though he'll seize any chance to talk about his old life in the rock & roll circus. Coogan’s last TV character, mediocre chat show host Alan Partridge, was driven by unhappiness and self-doubt that revolved around his god-given right to a second series of “Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge.” However, Saxondale has no overwhelming drive to transform himself or his life. He's got more than enough self-assurance. His primary struggle is to keep a lid on his anger, and live a life free of idiots and the institutions that house, employ, or produce them.

One thing I like about Coogan's approach to his characters is how he defines them by their taste in music, movies, and culture in general. Alan Partridge admired Roger Moore, Wings (“the band The Beatles could have been”) and, of course, Abba. Saxondale lives and dies by the heavy rock of the ’70s, namechecking Ritchie Blackmore, Tull, and Brian Eno. And whereas Partridge’s über-middlebrow sensibilities were played for laughs and emphasized what a shell of a man he was, Tommy wears his tastes like a cloak of superiority. He’ll quote a Rush lyric at someone who threatens to shatter his integrity, or he’ll lecture his young charge Raymond on the finer points of Pink Floyd while out on a pest control job.

The humour on Saxondale is more gentle than the sometime excruciating travails of Alan Partridge. Perhaps resentful of his more popular character, Coogan heaped indignity and humiliation on Partridge over the course of three series. This time around, Coogan seems to genuinely like Saxondale and relishes simply having him interact with his nemeses in minor skirmishes during his daily rounds. One such annoyance is Vicky, the blonde, tanned receptionist at the pest control dispatch office, whose faux-chummy repartee is a machine-gun spray of thinly veiled insults that leave Tommy little with which to fire back. Where Partridge’s struggles encompassed his livelihood and, eventually, his sanity, Saxondale’s trials aren’t so severe. That’s not to the show’s detriment at all; it’s hilarious just to spend time in this guy’s company and watch him go off at whatever pests come his way.

This three-disc DVD set includes both seasons of this superb series plus your standard array of extras. Season one sees Coogan playing Saxondale with a moss-like fake beard and a twitchy demeanor. Each episode is named for the pest that he’s assigned to eradicate. In season two, Coogan tones down the facial ticks and sports a more convincing, if less comedic, beard. Perhaps in an effort to get away from the “pest of the week” premise, the second season introduces a few new characters to tear at Saxondale's hard-fought serenity, including Jonathan, a neighbour who plagues Tommy with petty residents’ association matters, and Keanu (also played by Coogan), a more realized version of an emo/junkie youth featured in series one. Having just finished watching all 13 episodes, I think I’ll watch ’em again. Saxondale’s my kind of guy, and long may he rage.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

For whose is the kingdom?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Millions—Gather Scatter (Seventh Rule)
Considering their label (Seventh Rule is home to Wetnurse and Light Yourself on Fire), I expected Millions to deliver a high level of intensity on Gather Scatter. Millions also features Seventh Rule founder Scott Flaster on guitar/vocals, so again, I expected to hear the label's aesthetic of no-nonsense, hard-hitting musical intelligence in full flight. Expectations are fully met as “Lest the Professor Catches Fire” bursts out of the gate, jarring, dissonant, yet still rocking a bunch. Unlike a thousand other tech-punk bands disappearing up their own arseholes with shrill, soulless études, Millions manage to sidestep everything clichéd and “core”. I can’t point to anything that’s “metal” about their sound, other than the sheer volume and aggression. They don't gum up the works with secondhand At the Gates riffs and rehashed Maiden harmonies. Such boyish pursuits won't do here. Millions are taut and relentless, yet they rejoice in rock ’n’ roll riffs and churning bass lines that doff the cap to The Jesus Lizard, Black Flag, and Nomeansno. They’ve got the approach, the mixture of elements, fully sussed. What makes Millions special is their ability to temper the clamour; mainly with those big riffs, yes, but also with twin guitars that do battle masterfully, peeling off and converging like a formation flying team. The action never flags. Sure, I might need some quiet time after noisefests like “Saddle Up and Ride” and “We Make Poor Decisions,” but fully functioning songs like “Getting the Last Word” and “Life is Satisfactory” pulse with hooks and urgency. What's a little turbulence when the trip as a whole is so enjoyable?