photo

The 2014 PFG Playlist

Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!

The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.

Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.

While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.

Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.

If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.

I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’tBecause all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.

Look at  it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.

Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.

(more…)

rscholar

On Bob James

In what’s been a monumental development for me but standard operating procedure for most of you, I am now finally, legitimately on Spotify.

You’re confused. You would be. I will explain.

Despite being available to our Southern neighbours for over three years, the online streaming music service only launched in Canada last week (making it the site’s 58th market. Oh yeah, Lithuania had Spotify before we did).

I’d managed to finagle backdoor access to the site here and there and understood the appeal, but having the full experience via the app on my phone has been game changing. I’m using the service for free for the time being, so there are some limitations, of course, but who cares if I can only shuffle my playlists, I made them, so I like everything on them.

As an aspiring and inexperienced vinyl collector, Spotify’s already proven itself a godsend. I can search for songs I might have own on vinyl but not digitally, or albums I’ve been thinking about copping, add them to a playlist, and check them out while working overnight at the day job. It’s given me a chance to gain a deeper appreciation for songs I knew, but couldn’t really listen to closely because I’d only ever had them on vinyl.

Songs like “Nautilus.”

“Nautilus” is the last song on One,  the debut solo album by jazz keyboardist Bob James. Blending a stinky groove from bassist Gary King and drummer Idris Muhammad, the spacey pings and tones of James’s organ and cinematic string flourishes, the song immediately caught the ears of hip-hop producers rifling through their parents’ record collections.

In the subsequent years, flipping “Nautilus” became a compulsory part of a producer’s education: everyone has taken a pass at it. Which is amazing enough in itself, but what’s even crazier is, according to an intervew James gave to Noisey last year, the song was kind of a throwaway to begin with.

“It was almost completely ignored in 1974. Back then you put the best track on Side A at the beginning and outside of the record because it always sounds best because the groove is wider. “Nautilus” was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really,” said James. “It was the last track we recorded and it was recorded last minute. I had a little bass line and everything else we [improvised] in the studio. So it wasn’t the focus of the album whatsoever.”

I spent a morning this week exploring some of my favourite interpolations of the track, amazed at how a truly exceptional producer will find some kernel of the song that hasn’t really been explored yet, or slice and dice the track like a samurai and reassemble it into a speaker-blowing monster.

(more…)

Perfume

All In

Back when I was playing in the band, occasionally friends who knew me outside of the group would ask what I got out of the experience. I was never shy to point out that I rarely listened to the sort of proggish-metal we composed and performed in my personal life, Tool/A Perfect Circle and the odd System of a Down track being the occasional outliers. The response I would always give is that the simple explanation behind my musical preferences is likely no different than anyone else’s, I just require music to make me feel something. When I was striving to be the loudest thing onstage with three of my closest friends, that made me feel transcendent; when I listened to 90’s-era Manic Street Preachers I felt invincible; when I heard Sam Cooke I felt longing but never lonely.

You could argue I experience emotion a little more acutely than others (while being simultaneously oblivious to the feelings of those around me. It’s a process), I don’t think I’m unique in what I want out of music. We all have our artists that we cherish more than others because they strum that string in our souls that can be guaranteed to instantly summon a certain feeling. But it’s important to reiterate as I investigate how I became the guy who wrote a book on J Dilla and became totally enthralled with a Japanese girl group in the same year.

(more…)

community-basic-sandwich_featured_photo_gallery

Greendale Saved

It’s just a silly TV show. Some gags and some chucklery once a week by a smart and talented cast and crew.

So why has news that Yahoo! has saved my beloved Community from the brink of extinction yet again filled me with such elation? Is it because Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna are returning to run things? Is it because Donald Glover seems to be finding his smile again after a year of touring and expressed a willingness to bring closure to the story of Troy Barnes? Is it because one half of the prophecy contained in a throwaway line from Season 2 will be fulfilled? Yes to all, but also more.

Community has always been, in many ways, a show about failure, about characters who couldn’t function, or gambled and lost as they stumble back to solid ground. The victories, when they come at all, are tiny and fleeting, a truth mirrored by the show’s history. Renewals tempered with shorter episode orders, no scheduled premiere dates  midseason hiatuses. When it did make the air it was put in a punishing time slot facing down the Chuck Lorre twin-ratings-behemoth of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two shows it could never really compete with because it was too busy gleefully jumping up its own ass. It almost seemed poetic that the show would die brushing its fingertips trying to reach the improbably prophesied sixth season.

But for those of us who love the show, who really love it, with the sort of all-encompassing passion usually reserved for Whovians or Browncoats, the show speaks to us because we recognize the struggle. Maybe we gambled and lost, too. Maybe we took the long way around to discovering why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do. As Jeff Winger says to the Dean after his bout of insanity while producing a TV commercial for the school, “We’ve all been there. Which is why we’re all here.”

And there will be many who bemoan that the show was never the same after the “Gas Leak Year” of Season 4, and the losses of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover. That it never regained its spirit even after Harmon returned, that it felt tired and out of ideas and should be left to die. And they can feel free to lean back with their arms folded and a smirk on their mugs. Yesterday I might have agreed with them, but it would only be to soften the loss I was feeling. From now until next spring, I just don’t have it for them. This isn’t refusing to let go of a notion the show may have outgrown, I don’t think Harmon’s the sort to do something he didn’t want to do, even if it was to honour the fans. If he didn’t think he had any stories to tell, he would walk. It’s a silly little TV show, but despite everything going against it, it’s still kicking. And so are we.

Darkest timeline averted, Human Beings.

wood_texture_by_yasse_inne-d5eu9w2

Graining on That Wood

Five years ago I sat in a Starbucks in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, pulled out my then-girlfriend’s burdensome six-pound Dell laptop and started a WordPress blog. I named it after something I’d had scrawled on a white board in my apartment, something I thought might have ended up the title of my first story collection.

Poetry for Gravediggers was my fifth blog, and my first after being downsized as the ‘Online Editor’ of The University of Windsor’s Lance newspaper. Freed from the demands of mandated content creation, I had a surplus of time on my hands and no receptacle in which to dump my ramblings. So I started this.

This is some of what I wrote on May 28, 2009:

“Maybe you got away from your city, eager for the opportunities for reinvention such a move would afford you.  Maybe most other aspects of your life are happy.  But that need to tell stories never really goes away, does it?  Whether retelling truth or crafting your lies, stories have strong roots, you can never fully pull that need out of you. So you start writing your little stories again.

And if you’re like me, you fail. A lot.  You don’t finish. You despise every word that goes on the page, you question the sanity of anyone who ever had faith in your “talents.”  You get irritable with family, coworkers, friends and lovers.

And if you’re like me, you probably get sick of feeling like that.  So maybe you decide to take some of the skills you picked up when you weren’t writing, and use them to keep  you motivated as you try to make something of yourself, because your thirtieth birthday is already fading behind you and you finally understand that no one is going to make it happen for you.

So maybe, you start a blog.

This site is for me, as I call the bluff of adolescent mentors and supporters; we’ll see if you were right.”

Yesterday morning Okayplayer, a site I’ve read off and on long before I started this site, posted a lengthy and complimentary review of my first book.

You could say it’s been an eventful five years. My then-girlfriend became my ex-girlfriend, I moved to a significantly less-fancy Toronto neighbourhood than Rosedale (as ice cream truck jingles and sires waft through my window) and somehow instead of getting any short stories out into the world I messed around and became a non-fiction writer.

And suddenly this blog  shifts from chronicling ‘How I Got Over’ to ‘How I Stay On.’ One of the best things I ever heard was from the songwriter Mike Doughty when someone asked him why he finally decided to write a book about his time in the 90’s alt-hop band Soul Coughing. He said the reason he did was because someone called his bluff: he’d been saying he should write a book for so long someone finally handed him a little money and said, ‘So go do it.’ And that’s terrifying, because, as Doughty said, if you actually try, if you put yourself out there, you lose the comfort of being an undiscovered genius. It’s a comfort I enjoyed a lot over the last five years. And now I don’t have it anymore, which is good, if unsettling.  I’ve heard it enough that the fear of failure is really just the fear of success, and I finally know what that means. Because now that I’ve achieved some infinitesimal measure of success (I’ve almost stopped shuddering when I refer to myself as a “writer,” which is huge if you know me), I have to do it again. Which I really have no idea how to do, judging from the wall of silence that greets me after I get introduced to editors by mutual friends.

Which is kind of….great?  I recently pointed out to a new acquaintance that I have zero connection to the literary community of this city, not out of any aversion to meeting them, I’m just socially awkward and keep weird hours to pay the bills, so don’t have much of an opportunity. But part of me likes being an unknown quantity who came out of nowhere. Part of me likes that whatever small ripple my book’s announcement made in the community was essentially, “Wait, who?!” Or, to quote that unsung poet, Miguel: “I’ll do it all without a co-sign.”

So what does that mean? Part of it means refocus on the next book (pitch being refined daily) double down on posting around here, make connections when I can but don’t relentlessly network to the detriment of the real work.

In 2009 I wrote a post reviewing two volumes of the 33 1/3 series. Five years later,I have my name on one. This blog may have fulfilled the promise it was created for, but its purpose never ends.

And we won’t stop.

Cause we can’t stop.

 

alistair_macleod

On Alistair MacLeod

Considering the book launching this week will likely lead to an influx of traffic around here, I should probably keep the proceedings hip-hop-centric, but I’ll have to go outside my primary demo for a moment here.

Sad literary news today as we learned the award-winning Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod passed away at age 77, likely due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered last January. I find myself surprised at how taken aback I am by the loss.

I had the good fortune of taking one of MacLeod’s classes on the Early Romantics during my undergraduate studies at the University of Windsor. I am not unique in this regard, he must have taught hundreds if not thousands of students during the four decades he was on the Faculty. I found him a charming and engaging teacher, prone to interrupting his lectures to chat with a pigeon who’d flown onto the windowsill of our classroom in Dillon Hall. He also had a disconcerting habit of breaking into coughing fits that would turn his entire head the a shade of red so deep we would glance at each other with brows furrowed, kids who barely knew each other looking for someone to take the lead and call for medical help. But he always shook it off and went right back into his lecture on The Castle of Otranto without missing a beat, leaving us to roll our eyes in relief like, ‘Can you believe this guy?

But more than any of that, what I always appreciated him for was knowing me.

I maintain I was an unexceptional teenager but I’d managed to stake a small reputation as ‘The Writing Kid’, the one who always put on a show of scribbling bad poetry into a journal during study period to make it seem as though I was deliberately keeping other people away from me.  It was a good gimmick, it served me well.

When I got to university, majoring in English because I didn’t really know what else I could do with any degree of success, I became one of hundreds of ‘Writing Kids’ many of whom were far more adept at self promotion than I was, so I set about the business of staying unnoticed. I met few people and made fewer friends during my time there, I walked through campus like a ghost.

One afternoon I had to drop something off at the Department Office (I had a habit of skipping class to finish papers and leaving them for the professor before the end of the business day). I admit I was creeping a bit, wandering the hallways of Chrysler Hall North, reading the bulletin boards and single-panel comics on the office doors (English Major Gangs: “What’s the word on the street, Johnny?” “Hermeneutics.”), fascinated by this world running parallel to mine that I was ostensibly a part of but felt no membership in, when he rounded the corner.

“Ah, hello!” he said. I think I may have actually jerked my head around to make sure he was talking to me.
“Uhm…Good afternoon, Dr. MacLeod.”
“I’m just coming back to grade your fun papers!” He was always calling our assignments “fun papers,” in that east coast baritone of his.
“Heh, ah, I hope you think mine was fun after you read it,” I stammered awkwardly.
“Oh yes, yes, you do well, don’t you? Where’s your friend, the young lady with the..” he pointed at the corner of his eye. He meant my then-girlfriend, who had a habit of taking Crayola stamps and applying them along her lower eyelid. Be nice, it was the 90’s.
“Oh, she’s gone home. I’m just waiting for my ride to finish his class, and had to drop something for Dr. Atkinson.”
“Ah, I see. Well have a fine evening, I should have your fun papers back for you on Monday.”
“Thanks, Dr. MacLeod. I’ll see you next week.”

Such a boring and pedestrian exchange. Nothing he would ever have remembered. One could make the case that I’m trying to take some inconsequential encounter with a recently deceased person of note and inflate it with meaning but trust, that’s not what this is.  I’ve never forgotten that five-minute chat we had in the hallway of the English Department. That’s why I’ve always been so proud to tell people he taught me once, not because he was this titan of Canadian fiction, winner of the most lucrative literary prize in the world (The IMPAC Dubin Award, won in 2001 for No Great Mischief), but because he took the time to see a confused, angry, directionless kid and speak to him as an equal, when I thought it was my mandated role in life to remain invisible. I will always remain grateful to him for that.

Rest in peace.

galleys

The Pitch

During my trip back to the Windsor area last Christmas, my father got a call from a childhood friend, someone I vaguely remembered having visited us once when I was younger, but not anyone I thought my father still communicated with. They didn’t talk long, but from where I was reading the paper at the kitchen table, I could hear him on the phone in the basement rattling off the state of the family: Cousin 1 just had a baby and has turned into quite the sailor; Cousin 2 took a job as a news reporter in a big city; Cousin 3 is graduating journalism school this year and thinks he might look for a government gig, since J-schools produce far more graduates than there are jobs. Then there was a pause.

“Oh, no, no he’s here. About a week. Uhh, well he lives in Toronto now, working for [redacted]. It’s not a particularly high paying job, but he likes living in Toronto, I guess. You know my brother [redacted] had some health issues there for a while…”

And that was it. My cousins all had lives worth talking about at length, but his only son works a low-paying job and lives in Toronto. No mention of crossing the one thing I never thought I would ever do off of my life’s list of ambitions. Remember this if you think having your name on a book spine will change your life in any meaningful way.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

(more…)

grbg

The 2013 PFG Playlist

Every year since I started running down some of the songs I enjoyed most in the previous 12 months, I’ve lamented in the intro about what a chore selecting the songs had become, as I grew more and more distant from the popular tastes of our age.

To my surprise and delight, 2013 broke the streak. I have no idea if that’s due to an improved ability at finding things I would like or an overall increase in quality this year; I have no overarching ideas or unified theories on music in 2013, but the fact that I actually to cut my list down to ten selections was a welcome surprise. Even more surprising is how this year’s selection ran across more genres than in previous years. There are actual guitars, y’all! Enough preamble! Let’s dig into this, in no order.

(more…)