Monthly Archives: July 2010

Little Boxes #5

(Untitled, by Renee French, 2005)

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Tea With Chris: New Geometry

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are our favourite things from the internet this week:

Carl: The person who passed this along to me quoted the person who passed it along to him: “Tremendously pleasing. Don’t know why.” There’s a geometric relentlessness to a lot of our lives-at-desks. Trees grow, cliffs jut, birds nest on angles, not in constant foursquare; but we stare into the same boxy windows at both work and leisure. Being knocked askew can be either relaxing or upsetting, but at least it often feels accurate. Please feel free to read Back to the World unevenly. 

Chris: Gratuitous yet obligatory. I want to see Kanye team up with Moon Knight.

Johan Palme of Birdseed’s Tunedown posted a bunch of music videos from Bhutan. Maybe I’m a bad ethnomusicologist for saying so, but what fascinated me the most was those drum machines.

Finally, Noz from Cocaine Blunts explained why fawning over perfunctory efforts from legendary rappers is bad for criticism and MCs alike.

Margaux: I am excited about Joaquin Phoenix’ hip hop documentary. I don’t know what’s happening in this video with Miley Cyrus, Joaquin Phoenix & Liv Tyler on “How to Vote for TWLOHA and Suicide Prevention”, but I bet the hip hop documentary will be just as good.

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Friday Pictures – Nigel Cooke

 

Nigel Cooke / Morning is broken

 

Nigel Cooke / Crumbs of the horn that speared you

 

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L to the O, V to the E


we’ll always have those boots

by Chris Randle

The-Dream is famous enough as a performer, but the roles he played in his biggest hits were invisible. He wrote Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” allegedly in 15 minutes (more like a passing drizzle than the single’s Biblical tempest). A year later he partnered with Christopher “Tricky” Stewart to produce “Single Ladies,” striking up the beat that Beyonce and thousands of emulators bounced on. Patronizing tracks made especially for the ladies are one of modern R&B’s wrinkliest clichés, although some guys have an improbable knack for the subgenre. But Dream writes a striking number of his best songs for women, interweaving those trademark synths from one remove, obliged to balance pure craft with the necessary empathy.

This week his relationship with Christina Milian publicly fell apart. Maybe it was predictable; the album he released last month did boast about having “girls in Toronto.” But sifting through the forensic evidence from a dead marriage is pointless unless you’re implicated in the case, so I’ll focus on the music. Several people I follow online joked that Terius Nash must be rushing to buy his lady one hell of a make-up bag; on the single of the same name he suggests that $5000 of Prada can absolve any sin. (In a singular example of incorrigible horniness, he also marvels that “she cursin’ me out with nothin’ but her panties on.”) Money = sex is an old equation in pop music’s economy, but the Twitter lolz cut to Dream’s sometimes-hidden vulnerability. As you can probably guess from the picture above, Terius is not a handsome man; he’s nondescript, a little dumpy, even awkward-looking at times. And several of those music videos depict both his suaveness and his swagger struggling to convince. But he’s got money, by which he really means his creativity, and few can compete there. So what does it mean for that elan when even the love king can’t ransom himself from his doghouse?

It’s not like The-Dream never considered these questions before – I mean, his last album was called Love vs. Money. The title track laments: “Anything she wanted, I brought it / Broke my neck so this girl didn’t go without it / And I can’t even hate homie, / I am to blame, / Instead of loving you I was making it rain.” I suppose you could file this under Terius’ broader reinterpretation of loverman tropes, the way he redecorates worn scenarios with his polished idiosyncrasies. My favourite track on Love vs. Money was “Kelly’s 12 Play”, a sex jam Nicholson Baker could’ve written, pointillist and ruminative and finally Oedipal (in the sense of being homoerotic, and also in the sense of being thoroughly crazy). “Fancy” unwound six minutes and seventeen seconds of spare, languorous beauty before bringing in drums with 0:12 left to go. “Sweat It Out” is the tenderest, most evocative song anyone’s ever sung about their hair fetish. (And there’s strong challengers: not just Prince but Milton too.)

A lot of critics, myself included, are predisposed to crush on pop formalism or metacommentary, but Dream knows his way around an earnest, uncomplicated love song too. Here’s “Yamaha,” from Love King, which went on sale shortly before Terius was photographed frolicking with his personal assistant:

Infatuated with Kells, infatuated with Prince. He might be gazing at his beloved’s unbelievably huge ass, but it sounds like his eyes are only filled with stars. “Love King” the song mostly bangs on about how Dream’s black book transcends barriers of class (“Got a girl up in Target / A girl outta college”), creed (“I got girls in the club / Girls in the church”) or phone carrier (“Got a girl on my Sprint / My AT&T”). There’s one couplet that latches onto me, though, sap that I am: “Got a girl when I’m sick / She watch what I eat.” I don’t know if Terius ever had that girl, or if he only wants her now, but I know that I do.

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Tuli Kupferberg: For Nothing’s Sake

by Carl Wilson

This weekend, I watched the Spanish not-so-gloriously defeat the Dutch in the World Cup, and figured that would be about that: Unlike the Italians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Italians, Koreans and other past contenders, whose victories bring masses of revelers into the streets of Toronto honking horns and waving flags, there isn’t to my knowledge an especially big Spanish-expatriate community here. So I bicycled down to the Kensington Market area to attend a panel discussion about the “avant-garde” (“old school and new school”). But when I arrived in the neighbourhood I found pandemonium had broken out and there were hundreds on foot and wheels jamming the streets with Spanish flags.  It seemed anyone who spoke a Romance language had decided this win was fairly theirs to celebrate.

I watched for a little while, especially blown away by the fact that there was a stopped streetcar that had a crowd of some 40 people dancing high atop it, blowing vuvuzelas, rocking the vehicle on its tracks.

Then I went into the back of a bar, where for some reason in what was billed as kind of an open-discussion forum, the lights were dimmed to nearly black, there was a group of people on stage giving (very intelligent) semi-formal presentations, and the matter at stake was the survival of the “radical gesture.” This seemed like a strange juxtaposition. I wanted to shout, “Um, guys, there are people outside dancing on top of a streetcar!”

Not that I mistake a soccer party for a radical gesture – as others pointed out, shutting down several city blocks for a sports party is just dandy with authorities, but doing so to protest an international financial summit makes you a criminal. But such communal outpourings certainly can approach poetry, while the debate that bogged down in that dark back room about “difficulty” versus “accessibility” (as if, among other things, accessibility is not difficult) seemed only to get further away from poetry as it progressed. The participants weren’t to blame; it’s just such a hard question to frame in the present moment, or maybe a hard one to refrain from framing.

Yesterday, poet-singer Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs died, which was kind of a reminder of an idea of the avant-garde that didn’t measure itself by “difficulty” or even “innovation” (and not that all self-identified avant-gardists do now), though challenge was certainly involved. It seems the sensibility was that you are experimenting or innovating when you change the stakes, and only secondarily the form or material.

My friend Erella tells me that she knew Kupferberg in New York years ago and remembers him selling his newsprint poetry zines – the pricing structure was something like $9.99 for one, and 79 cents for two.

This other avant-garde might have been marked by sloppiness or lack of rigor at times. But then there are other definitions of rigor: The song above was recorded not long ago when Kupferberg was already housebound and blinded by a series of strokes and other illnesses (he was 86). The rest of the Fugs laid down tracks in a studio to support his home-recorded vocals. Kupferberg probably did all this – along with his regular YouTube video posts – because he understood himself to be a bohemian, an existential label, instead perhaps of being a member of the avant-garde, more a matter of aesthetic affiliation.

It doesn’t seem viable to call yourself a bohemian now, among other reasons because anticonformity has been adapted as a dominant capitalist value. (Although Tupferberg seems to have felt being foolish or clownish in that identification was better than the alternative – he’d always prefer to be on top of the streetcar.) But looking at yourself in that mirror you can see some barred doors in shadows behind your back, and wonder if they lead to a room where we could propose talking about avant-garde poetry and it wouldn’t break down into a factional fracas about criticism – which seemed more like a fight over whose fault it was that we were sitting in a cold dark place and not out playing in the sunlight of victory, however purloined.

Below is one of the Fugs’ more beloved early songs, which I won’t try to connect to all the above. It’s based on a popular Yiddish folk song about eating potatoes, day after day after day. The Fugs changed “potatoes” to “nothing,” and I’m not sure, Toto, that it’s about eating anymore. Not bad, as radical gestures go.

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Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles

by Margaux Williamson

(I had rented Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Twilight #2 at the video store. My friend Carl Wilson called just as Twilight #2 ended to see if I wanted to watch a movie. So Carl and I watched Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Neither of us had seen it before. We asked each other a lot of questions about the plot throughout the movie. If you get the DVD, don’t miss “The Making of…” documentary. Melvin Van Peebles is a pretty easy man to listen to. )

A young black orphan is taken in by a lot of black women in an arty brothel… or a sexy art performance space. The young orphan quickly becomes a man and is then named Sweetback – I think because he is such a good lover. Sweetback doesn’t talk much… or at all. He is a good performer and is also very passive. The arty space looks oddly familiar to me – as though this movie wasn’t made that long ago or made from that far away.

Some white cops enter and watch the end of a performance that Sweetback is part of – they watch from a distance. They are digging it – everyone is. The show is about a dyke’s dream of becoming a man. Two women, one in drag with a beard and a dildo, and one with bride of Frankenstein hair, perform a loving courtship in the middle of the space’s red-carpeted room. The audience, seated on chairs, circles them intimately. A tall man, in a pale blue fairy godmother gown, tells us that even dykes have dreams. With some distraction tricks and lighting effects, the dyke’s dream comes true and the woman in drag becomes Sweetback the man, with a real beard and a real penis. The loving courtship is then consummated.

After the show, the cops ask the boss of the space, Beetle, if Beetle can give them “one of his boys” for them to take downtown. On account of a recent murder, the cops want to bring in some suspects so they look good to their superiors. We’ll bring him right back, they say. In exchange, the cops offer continued good relations and a bit of dope. Beetle considers, then suddenly sees the camera and glares at the camera’s intrusion – or glares at whoever the camera is supposed to be.

Sweetback is so well-liked by everyone that when the cops take him to an abandoned field (with another “suspect” they pick up) Sweetback is freed of his handcuffs by one of the cops. “Oh sorry about that Sweetback” the cops says to Sweetback, noticing eventually that Sweetback is getting jerked around as they hit the man who does not yet “look like a sniper” whom Sweetback is handcuffed to. The cop frees Sweetback and then returns to beating the other man. Sweetback looks out to the distance for a while and, after an incredibly long moment, eventually turns and hits both the cops with his half open handcuffs. Everything is stilled, the movie framing only Sweetback as the only man standing. After another moment, Sweetback returns to beating the cops at his feet. After this, hell breaks loose.

The black community is internally torn by Sweetback’s actions and is also turned upside down while cops look for Sweetback. People are angry at Sweetback for causing all this trouble, but excited, too, that Sweetback is still alive. The longer Sweetback escapes the reach of the cops, the more excited people get. During this time, there is some self-protective love-making that Sweetback engages in with ex-girlfriends, racist bikers and non-communicative hippies.

Also during this time, a lot of conversations take place – between Sweetback and people offering to help Sweetback, between Sweetback and people who are not offering to help Sweetback, conversations between the cops and the press, the cops and the cops, between the religious minister and the people, the religious minister and Sweetback – between the cops and Sweetback’s friends. During most of these conversations, the talkers talk right into the camera, the camera standing in for the “listener” or for Sweetback – since Sweetback is most often the one being talked at. It creates the effect of feeling, as a member of the movie audience, that you are in the position of the person who is being talked at. The movie could have been called “Things People Have Said To Me (Sweetback) and To You!”

The effect works so effortlessly within the traditionally structured narrative that I didn’t even notice it at first. It’s pretty impressive to stretch the rules of a traditional narrative to include the audience in this way without actually breaking the narrative. It is especially impressive when the effect is both subtle and effective, where the silence of the main character most clearly mimics the silence of an audience.

It also works to create empathy for almost all of the characters – for the audience to be put in this position of being yelled at, or turned away, or treated as a villain or an insider or as a friend.

It is not the most obvious choice to make a movie about a revolution where the main revolutionary never speaks, but it sure makes for a sound revolution. “Run Sweetback, Run!” the band Earth, Wind & Fire sing/ scream at Sweetback over and over again from the musical score as Sweetback makes his way out of the city, across the fields and into the desert. If Sweetback saves himself and makes it to Mexico, he might one day return.

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Little Boxes #4

(from “The Breakfast Crew,” by Jon Vermilyea, 2008)

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Tea With Chris: Popcrime

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are our favourite things from the internet this week:

Chris: The comics writer Grant Morrison, who develops meme-ready ideas at the pace other people build cars, recently described Batman’s ’60s villains as pop-criminals. British comics blog Mindless Ones took that stray reference and ran with it, elaborating on “popcrime” in a post somewhere between criticism and free-association performance. That’s their specialty.

Philip Glass does not commit popcrimes, but composing for Sesame Street (via David Balzer) might be the closest he ever got:

Margaux:“This reality-TV show is making me look fat.” I suspect art critic Jerry Saltz’s fucking hilarious article about being a judge on the reality show “WORK OF ART: The Next Great Artist”   might be more interesting than watching the show, but the show still sounds pretty interesting.

For people who grow or who would like to grow vegetables on their rooftops: Will Allen, a genius, grows enough food in 25,000 containers for Milwaukee’s northwest side neighborhood.

Carl: Back to the World has discussed Toronto actor Tracy Wright’s recent death. This is the email her partner Don wrote to communicate the experience of her last moments, sent to friends that week. To let Macleans magazine publish it this week was extremely generous. You don’t need to have known Tracy to understand it, but it will make you wish you had.

That piece demands being followed with a love song. In fact, it demands this one: New England folk singer Kath Bloom originally recorded “Come Here” in the mid-1970s. In 1995 Richard Linklater put it on the soundtrack to Before Sunset (the lesser but not inconsiderable sequel to one of my favourite movies), hoping to revive Bloom’s career. It didn’t, quite, but should have.

(And, DJ, this is also a ((figuratively)) long-distance dedication.)

To lighten things up… you’ve seen the Double-Rainbow Guy video and listened to the AutoTuned remix already, right? That’s all I’ve got.

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Friday Pictures – Allison Schulnik

 

Allison Schulnik

 

Allison Schulnik

 

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Horns of Plenty

by Chris Randle

In 1863, teams with names like Forest of Leytonstone, Crystal Palace and Civil Service agreed on universal rules for the game they decided to call association football. Their representatives also created England’s still-extant Football Association, but that act of codification was far more momentous: the 1863 rules presaged FIFA’s modern Laws of the Game, their accessible simplicity spreading the sport with pandemic speed. Over a century later, on a date no one bothers to recite or remember, another group of Englishmen recorded another milestone, the first World Cup song. Any national primacy in either endeavour proved to be fleeting.

The World Cup song is one of those characteristic eccentricities the British music charts enjoy, like the annual race for a #1 Christmas single (which occasionally kicks up some golden dust). Like “Back Home” above, the first few FA-approved tracks were performed by the various England squads alone, as shouting singalongs that flattened out any individuality. None of them are a triumph for outsider music, though I like the resemblance to those mass chants urging each team on. The FA apparently agreed, because as years and defeats went on they began substituting pop stars for the players.

The official 1998 single, care of a supergroup including Echo and the Bunnymen, Space, and the Spice Girls, was outpaced at the charts by two unofficial efforts: Fat Les’ beery anthem “Vindaloo” (featuring the scarcely less unlikely lineup of Blur’s Alex James, Charles Saatchi’s Damien Hirst and Lily Allen’s dad) and the re-released “Three Lions,” a meta-World-Cup-song about the sentimental self-pity and masochistic optimism that come with being an England fan. That new approach didn’t really work; it just made the quadrennial kitsch sound more generic. But there’s a single exception from the transitional tournament of 1990, England’s only good World Cup song.

A lot of New Order fans hate “World in Motion,” partly because it’s their sole #1. I kind of love it. Bernard Sumner’s lyrics are silly, but no sillier than the ones he wrote for all their previous hits. The central melody has the relentless forward motion that one would hope for in a World Cup single. And while John Barnes’ featured cameo – that tentative, arthritic rapping, so unlike his run – is harder to defend, it should be contextualized. Born in Jamaica, Barnes was the first black England regular at a time when such players might be pelted with bananas from the stands, when the National Front hawked its literature outside stadiums. He helped banish the fascists by making it blindingly obvious that his place was deserved: integration of the deed.

I can only see his spotlighted guest spot – not much worse than other ’80s Anglo-rapping, and certainly better than Barnes’ previous outing as an MC – as a small extension of that. The man’s flow was, if nothing else, game. His prominence also complements the song’s lyrical tactics, which adapt football jargon into the terms of utopian rave culture: “beat the man,” “don’t get caught,” “create the space.” The band almost got away with calling this track “E for England.” If the contradiction at the heart of the World Cup is between its cosmopolitanism and its nationalism, New Order et al managed to unify them.

Whether due to quiet self-confidence, administrative monomania or the slow-motion collapse of the music industry, there was no FA-sanctioned anthem in 2010, for the first time since England actually won the thing. The number of unofficial themed singles had exploded to 15 in 2002 and 30 in 2006, but that just meant most no longer had even novelty going for them. Fat Les chose well with their Euro 2000 comeback “Jerusalem” (an anthem in search of a nation), and Simon Cowell got Dizzee Rascal to front the chart-topping “Shout For England” this summer; otherwise, the artistic and commercial failure of England’s would-be trivia contest answers has paralleled their national squad’s. Luckily, the rest of the world seems to hunger for timely gimmicks too. You can shimmy to Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)” (endorsed by FIFA), K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” (rejigged for Coca-Cola), or countless other tracks with only a vague immediacy in common. Most of the compelling ones, such as JJC’s “We Are Africans,” are either from the continent or inspired by it.

Appropriately, the greatest controversy of this World Cup was a musical one. Some people would balk at calling what vuvuzelas make music rather than noise, but some people would also reply that the noise is music. When the games began and that drone descended on every stadium, my friends of a certain persuasion exchanged jokes about Tony Conrad and Steve Reich. The vuvuzela’s buzz could be heard as another overlooked affinity between black pop sounds and an avant-garde, like Darius Milhaud’s infatuation with Louis Armstrong (or indeed Satchmo’s own use of the cut-up technique in his private collages). The racial dimension to some of these arguments, for or against, is blatant: FIFA president Sepp Blatter condescendingly shrugged that African football is all about “noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment,” and elderly Canadian right-winger Peter Worthington sneered that “maybe the vuvuzelas are the apex of [African] cultural achievement.”

It would probably shock the joyless reactionary to learn how many producers are gleefully incorporating his hated horn. On “Cumbia de la Vuvuzela” it provides an unmistakable texture; Mr. Benn’s “Vuvuzela Riddim” uses it as sharp punctuation; 985’s “Mabeze” is a defiant tribute. Perhaps these are the vuvuzela’s most natural positions, superseding even the ceremonial purpose of its ancient forerunner. It can’t deafen you in a crowded pop song, or exhaust its lone note. And it’s a blaring reminder that, while the “World Cup finalist” club remains relatively elite, a different game is playing out across the fields of Sendspace and Mediafire.

that is what African and South Africa football is all about — noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment”.

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