Tag Archives: intimacy

Mark Eitzel at the Rivoli, Toronto, Nov. 28, 2012

by Carl Wilson

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“This isn’t the kind of show I ever imagined myself going to,” I think I heard my friend say a song or so into former American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel’s set at the Rivoli the other night. I saw what she meant. Eitzel was standing there in Playboy Mansion 1970s beard and moustache, suit and fedora, with a plastic cup of wine, as he crooned and a pianist half his height sat at a red electric keyboard following charts.

She was saying (if she said it) that she wasn’t usually the cabaret-act type. But time had caught up to us, the way it caught up to Mark Eitzel: When he was young he wanted to be Ian Curtis, and even in AMC, a band marked by its pushy quietness and its pedal-steel of despair, he would get stupid drunk live and fall on the other band members yelling. (This Hyde-Jekyllness helped to endear it to a few and to ensure it would never bite even a crouton of commercial success.) Now by both penury and predeliction he is a cabaret performer, and we are cabaret-goers, and we were naked and not ashamed.

We’d last seen him – the first time for both of us I think – in a beautiful theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as the jester-hat-crowning performance of the Merge Records anniversary festival a couple of years ago, with a grand piano. I’d been thinking about that show ever since. Now it was like we were at a supper club managed by Frederico Fellini, watching a lounge act by God’s estranged black-sheep son – not Satan, just the one with a cheap apartment who never calls.

Although I entirely should have been an AMC fan during their prime, I missed out, thinking they were too West Coast for me (they were a San Francisco band, and Eitzel is still a San Francisco dweller), and that the AMC fans I knew had overly fastidious tastes. Now it feels like I was saving Eitzel for later, when I would need him.

The tiny club was only two-thirds full and I kept thinking of more people I wished I’d invited: sometimes so they could have laughed at the joke Eitzel had just made; sometimes so they could have heard the way he’d just hit that note, holding the microphone half a meter away from his face to tame the sound (that antique science), throwing that loudness out like a golden net that caught all the air in its mouth and then released and slumped into a goofy grin; but usually because his songs were so populated with breathing people and broken plaster in a way that made you miss everyone you’ve ever known, the ones you loved and particularly the ones you just liked okay, so you never noticed the moment when you would never see them again.

In between that last time in the theatre and this evening in Fellini’s Man Hole, Mark Eitzel  had a heart attack, so it was possible we would never have seen him again.

dontbeastranger

Before the show I was telling my friend that having not really been in a relationship for a while, I’m lately hyperconscious of living alone, a position of almost exactly equal parts privilege and very bad luck. I hardly know anyone else who lives alone anymore. I’m fond of it but for the fact that there is never anyone home waiting for me or whom I’m waiting for. I’ve been playing Eitzel’s new album Don’t Be a Stranger around the house a lot; the title seems like good advice to the unaccompanied. I usually listen to no music at all, but podcasts, because that’s more like a conversation, but cabaret music is chatty, a good medium for a little talk about being guilty of being ungrateful for the things we chose for ourselves.

After the concert I went to the toilet at the back of the club and when I came out I was awkwardly looking into the open dressing-room door. I glimpsed the unnamed keyboardist and assumed Eitzel was standing a couple of feet away. I had the impulse to saunter in.

But as I told my friend afterwards, I was too embarrassed at my over-eager desire to hit it off with Eitzel immediately and become the best of friends. His easy, charming stage manner  made that a breeze to imagine, but performers are not the same off stage, so it’s a trap. He had said that he’d like to move to Canada. But then he demurred that as an “over-the-hill singer-songwriter fag with a heart condition,” he figured he wasn’t high on anyone’s admission list (though come on, Mark, it’s Canada). So I guess he’s not about to be my neighbour.

I was also too eager to go meet other real-life friends at another bar, because I had been missing them, wishing they were there, and it won’t do to try to strike up an intimacy for life when you are in a hurry. For instance Eitzel couldn’t have been in a hurry when he wrote that first song he sang tonight, for the 1994 AMC album San Francisco, with the chorus that goes, “The world is held together by the wind/ That blows through Gena Rowlands’ hair.”

The drinks at the other bar were cheaper and better than the ones at Fellini’s Last Hope Dwarf Rodeo Saloon, and I prefer the Eitzel chorus they use for last call there, “We all have to find our own way out,” to the one that marks time, gentlemen, please, at Fellini’s: “No one here is going to save you.”

But I hoped he wasn’t lonely after the audience was gone, and that he had some music back at his hotel to tell his troubles to him. (Don’t you always hope artists you like have another artist who does for them what they do for you? And then wonder if the reason for what they do is that they don’t?) I hoped he’d gotten that wine stain out of his blazer, from that spill late in the show. And I hoped we’d meet again, some sunny day.

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Tuesday Musics: Kevin Coyne & Dagmar Krause, “Come Down Here” (Babble, 1979)

by Carl Wilson

Babble: Songs for Lonely Lovers is a concept album (based on or the basis of a musical) by the late British rock songwriter Kevin Coyne and German singer Dagmar Krause (perhaps best known as a member of Slapphappy), recorded in 1979. It’s the depiction of a relationship for which the word “troubled” would be much too mild – Coyne  intimated here and there that it may have been inspired by child-murdering lovers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, though I don’t think it needs such macabre embellishment to do its work with a chilling sparsity and intensity of purpose – to evoke the perils of intimacy at their most harrowing.

Given that, it’s not entirely surprising that the album’s been adopted as kind of a cause by another bard of brutal closeness, Will Oldham, first by covering a couple of songs on a Portugese single, then in an appreciation for Mojo Magazine, and finally with a full-blown tribute band, The Babblers.  (You can hear their vocalist Angel Olsen cover “Come Down Here” here or watch them do it starting at about 1:30 here.) His most powerful cover is probably of the album’s opening track, “Are You Deceiving Me?”

But nothing can eclipse the original Babble, despite its obscurity and general neglect. It should be alongside Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the Thompsons’ Shoot Out the Lights and the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee as records that throw into serious doubt how wise it is for humans to get to know each other too deeply. As Oldham put it, “the transference of horror (at ourselves) into music has not been done so well. It’s a record that fully reverberates the fear.”

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Scud Mountain Boys at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, Sat. Feb. 25, 2012

by Carl Wilson

Memory, as everybody knows, is an odd, perverse thing. When I first saw the reunited Scud Mountain Boys’ stage setup at Lee’s Palace last weekend, I said, “Oh, that’s funny, it’s just like the photo on the back of one of their albums where they’re sitting in somebody’s apartment around a kitchen table, playing and drinking.” Then I came across the above 1990s-era photo online, clearly not a candid home snapshot but one that includes microphones and at least a bar booth if not an actual stage. Was this the album shot, or a publicity picture I got with the Sub Pop CD reissue of their first two albums, when I worked at an alt-weekly in Montreal in the mid-90s, which is how I first heard of the band? Or another picture altogether? I wanted to dig out my copy of the CD to check, but almost all my CDs are walled in with a bunch of boxes in a nook off my kitchen and retrieving it would be basically a home-renovation project.

What a more exhausting and error-fraught sort of excavation it must be to dig up three people with whom you were once intimate, but haven’t spoken to in 14 years, and propose that you do the thing you used to do together, before you stopped talking. But now-Toronto-based songwriter Joe Pernice (better known for his subsequent and current band, the Pernice Brothers) did that after a close mutual friend of the group’s unexpectedly died. The deceased had been a fan and the idea was to honour his memory. Not right after, though. As Pernice explained on stage, it took him a year to make the phone calls. But whatever he was afraid of happening didn’t happen, maybe because “nobody really remembers what caused all the shit any more.”

What I hadn’t known was that the kitchen-table-on-stage was a standard live Scuds motif in their initial run, around the Boston area, not a cute reunion gimmick. You could argue that now it has become a cute reunion gimmick. I think it is more apt to say that it is a technique, one of those stage-magic tricks you discover and maintain because it works, makes the show the way you need it to be. Now I find it virtually impossible to picture them standing in standard band configuration, rather than drinking beers off the table (Americans visiting Toronto always love Keiths), bending over in the uncomfortably expressive angles around their instruments that people do in a home song-swap session (not a “jam,” as Pernice admonished), mumbling in each other’s ears, telling tales between tunes.

But this was not folksy-homey coffeehouse shtick. Pernice’s songs are too infused with rue for that, as much as classical pop craftsmanship ever has been, lying (their pretty white asses off) where the mouths of the George Jones, Jimmy Webb, Alex Chilton and Joe Strummer rivers meet. His persona now is laid back and salty-charming, but the songs make it easy to picture it when his back-in-the-day yarns tend to include heavy doses of anti-anxiety meds. Then you’re tempted to imagine “all the shit” wasn’t so much the bass player, the mandolinist/drummer or the lead guitarist’s faults – but maybe that’s just because they weren’t talking as much on stage. Second-guessing other people’s memories is an even less reliable thing.

Indeed, I wondered what the person in question would have had to say about the story Pernice told about writing one of his best-loved songs: A girlfriend at the time, he said, kept going on about what a romantic song “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms was, and he exasperatedly responded that the guy in the song was just trying to get laid. To prove his point he wrote a seductive, early-70s-style, gorgeously hazy tune in which a guy tries to wheedle his way back into a girl’s bed (“I would give anything to make it with you, one more time/ I would give everything I own”), which builds up to chillingly menacing insinuations. He titled it, “Grudge Fuck.”

The crowd was full of pushing-middle-aged folks, no doubt with their own recollections to husband. There wasn’t a lot of dancing or swaying, as if everybody were still following the cool-rules of 1997, when they went to more shows, when audiences stood or sat nodding with their arms crossed whenever not moshing. But when they did express emotion, it was with surprisingly rowdy outbursts, of varying appropriateness: Why did people scream every time Boston was mentioned? Was the room really full of Mass. expats or were they just trying to bonafide their in-the-knowdom? Even on a Saturday in a bar, do you shout every time a song mentions drinking and drugging, when those are the things clearly killing the protagonists? Jeez, it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day.

Unfair. But the intimacy made it tempting to rubberneck into people’s minds. Pernice suddenly did a double take at a woman holding up a homemade shirt in the front row: “Is that you?” He explained that she’d shown him the same shirt at a show in another town 15 years ago – when her parents brought her, and she was, “like, 13. … Wait, I don’t like the way that sounds.” The dysfunctional-neighbourhood feel was cemented when Sadies (and former Pernice Bros) drummer Mike Belitsky cracked the singer up so much from the back of the room with a text message (his iPhone was on the table, to watch the time) that Pernice had to take a few minutes’ break after corpsing on his first couple of tries at the Scuds’ somberly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” He had to think of “nuns beating me” and other dark childhood images to regain composure.

After all, I’m not the boss of anybody else’s nostalgia. (Though I’m tempted to call Pernice on leaving out that he didn’t just “work in a bakery” when the band started, but was doing an MFA in creative writing.**) Hell, I’m not even the boss of mine. I was grateful finally to see a band that never played near me in their original lifespan. And to see them enjoying each other’s company. Even though there’s a part of me that selfishly hopes this slight return will be the sum of it. That even wishes they’d remained, as the slogan of Lubbock, Texas’s The Flatlanders had it, “More a Legend than a Band.” (Yet even they later reunited for a string of shows and new records.) That sympathizes with Darren Hayman’s title, “We Love the Bands that Don’t Re-form.”

It’s an adult pleasure to have memories that stay memories, memories you can’t recover, even ones you never got to attain in the first place. Perhaps we just confuse reality with rarity, essence with inaccessibility. We think there’s only so much room around a kitchen table. Or, whether superstitiously or maybe with real folk wisdom, we long for minor rites of sacrifice, destruction, some kind of preview of death and loss to gird us for the real thing, even fantasizing it can homeopathically prevent the real thing: “I’m going to burn the silo when you go,” a farmer whose wife is on the way out sings in one sterling Scuds song. “You’ll see the flames, and maybe know.”

We’re damn fools, the thing is. Can’t we be allowed sometimes to forget that? The sugar-lick torture of the Scud Mountain Boys was to remind us and make us like it.

 

** Joe informs me that there was a significant time lag between the bakery and the grad-school period – sorry for presuming on my own in-the-knowness!

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How Should a Person Be, Teenager Hamlet and Don’t Go to School: MFA, Oct. 14, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Tonight, in a couple of hours, three of my closest friends are holding a launch party for the results of their three respective long-term projects, a novel and a movie and an album.

They all examine the relationship of life to art, using the people and places right around them as their subjects and sources. (It’s less obvious with the album, but we tend to forget that almost always when a band plays, we’re listening to a set of dynamic relationships in space; the “community band” element of Tomboyfriend emphasizes that.) They also served as each others’ characters and aides-de-camp.

The launch party takes place in a bar basically across the street from the apartment where I lived in the years they worked on their projects. And that seems apt. I was a participant too: I played a plump, pasty-skinned, city-slickened swamp ghost in the play-within-the-movie, the “ex-husband” around the peripheries of the action of the novel, and the music critic doing what he can do for friends-within-a-band. But mostly I was in another room, at middle distance, framed by a window, finishing my own project, my own book about art and life, which likewise involved them, though mostly less visibly. I almost wish I hadn’t finished it so long ago so I could be launching it tonight too. Instead, I marked the occasion by moving out of that apartment.

There are many tests and lessons involved in being a close part but not a collaborator in other people’s projects. Some have to do with ego, with the way the bubble can envelop you in warm inclusion but then pop you out into chilly dispossession. It’s good for the metabolism to get used to the coming-and-going.

More importantly it’s really educational to be sampled – that is, to be reproduced, in snippets, to be recontextualized and rewritten, to meet a blurry third-gen doppleganger who sounds more like someone else. Most of us aren’t 1970s funk musicians so we’re probably more accustomed to being on the other side. We may be accustomed to being linked or quoted in social media, but being sampled is a more intense sense of self-displacement. To adapt to your life being sampled may be a 21st-century necessity.

That it’s a little harder than you expect gives you sympathy for some of those older artists who take the copyright issue so much more personally than the scope of the financial issues involved. There’s the nightmare vision of being disassembled and reassembled atom by atom in a Star Trek transporter, but put back together in an utterly wrong order. (See also Cronenberg’s The Fly.) Or the subtler nightmare of being reassembled perfectly and yet no longer being “right.” Yet it is also deeply meditative, allowing oneself to be copied, mistranslated: When you think, “Wait, that’s no longer myself,” the next natural step is to wonder whether it was yourself to begin with and whether there is such an animal as yourself or whether you would recognize it if you met it.

So sweetly intoxicating to dare to think not, especially when a crowd of people are daring it with you (out of bravado, perhaps, too proud to be the one to say no, but it doesn’t really matter why, only that you did). It’s becoming the done thing, perhaps, in commercial and fame-economy culture to look at reality as a liquid commodity, worth more in exchange than in savings. But when what you’re buying with it is a dispersal rather than a magnification of self, it seems different enough to matter, which may be as far away from a dominant paradigm as one is usually able to get. Anyway I’m going to let me be proud of us, tonight.

My friends have themed their event as a kind of senior prom for their collective auto-didactic artists’ post-grad education (their autonomous “MFA”), but I think of it like a wedding, perhaps because I also think of all their projects as love stories. (Any launch is like one’s wedding anyway – you are obliged to talk to every person there, you mostly miss the actual party, and you’re completely exhausted by the end.) So I’ve composed a brief epithalamium for the occasion – in places, since fair isn’t fair, reappropriating lines from their works and others. Here’s to being foxy in one another’s henhouses.

From an Extra in the Movie,
Novel and Album of Your Lives

By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame
That I don’t have to participate in. It’s the real guilty
Pleasure – like sex with animals: Licking Crisco
Off a gibbon’s tongue. Consent doesn’t equal silence,
But you can’t make an omerta without breaking legs,
As Aunt Jemima said to Jimmy Hoffa at the Inferno Disco
Roller Rink between choruses of “Bad Girls.”

Both their mothers were out at the pro-capitalist marches,
And they needed new ideological parasols
But didn’t have the language, or the polkadots.
When buttons came in, about 1650, private life was
Completely transformed. The purpose was
To leave them
unbuttoned. Leave more
To be abandoned without visible support by the imagination.

I know you only made it with me to help you
Make it without me. And it looks suspiciously
Like we made it out alive, but that might just be Art.
(Ho ho, did any actor ever have a better name than
Art Carney? It’s all the barnumanbaileying ballyhoo
Of the old commedia long con, in one pow
Straight to the moon, where love is just a word.)

If you’re not better off than dead here, where they all
Speak Esperanto underneath the ground,
You can’t make it anywhere. It’s up to you, new yore,
To be the first generation to swear off posterity
And disappear
Down the block, red-rain slatternly with all your
Fire-engine cherries on, three emergencies to go
Unanswered but arm in arm in arm.

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“Hawaiian Baby” by The Spinanes (1992)

by Carl Wilson

(The subtitle up top says, “Untimely talk,” so I thought, let’s go for it with an 18-year-old indie-rock single, obscure and yet still venerated enough in mixtape-type-cult circles not to be any special discovery. It was just on my mind this week. In the midst of doing it I learned it wasn’t as “untimely” as I’d thought, as Rebecca Gates is on the verge of finishing her first album in 9 years, partly recorded at Hotel2Tango in Montreal. Exciting.)

(By the way, this post is lengthy, but it will be a lot more worthwhile if you also listen to the embedded songs.)

What is this odd, enchanting tune by long-defunct Portland duo The Spinanes, from a time when “underground” was just turning into “indie rock,” as you almost hear happening here between chords? (In another song they had the line, “Have you given up punk for Lent?” This is how that might sound.) Is it a breakup song? A song about infidelity?

It’s surely somebody gumming up the works of love, willfully or by helpless reflex. But its viewpoint is so interior as to yield not much more than a hint at how the process the singer’s going through – perhaps that of going through a shoebox full of mementos – resolves. Or whether it does.

Rebecca Gates wrote, sang and played guitar on all Spinanes songs (she should be honored as a guitar hero who anticipated Sleater-Kinney and Marnie Stern); the only other member was drummer Scott Plouf, and by the third and final Spinanes album, the salty and soulful Arches and Aisles, he had left (to join Built to Spill). But this was long before that.

Plouf is vital to their harder-rocking songs but mostly in the background here. Is it coincidence the drums become prominent only when the singer’s most challenging and direct with her partner – the man (we’ll assume, from internal cues) who plays “you,” likewise mainly peripheral? This is less a duo than most Spinanes songs. It isn’t really the voice of one person to another. Maybe the chorus, with its full rock drumming, is the only thing she says aloud, and the rest is inner monologue, talking to “you” in her head.

The guy’s been on a trip and brought her back a kitschy, ’90s-sounding gift, a postcard of an out-of-place Santa Claus in sunny Hawaii, “with a baby.” We never know if she likes or hates it – funny? not funny? “please don’t mention babies to me right now”?

She stands in the “back screen door,” half-watching him do domestic things, while she’s mentally “writing love letters to others.” They move apartments. They go out for a family dinner and on the way she’s watching for a moment, and a mailbox, to send the transgressive note (more, I think, nudging the door of an affair than having really opened it yet?).

When she tries to explain to herself why – “just for kicks,” “just because it’s cool on [her] skin” – they seem like phrases she’s only trying out. They’re not-quite-right alibis for fleeing whatever is keeping her from genuine contact with “you,” for an intimacy breakdown (“can’t you hear me? … can’t you feel it?”) that seems to have struck like weather, like flu, an immune-deficiency inherent to passion even, rather than a particular grievance. The guitar sound gradually swells, distorts; chords test their harmonic boundaries; as if in a world growing bigger but also less controlled, more jagged.

Which is what makes this a song that, for all its specific and eccentric detail, everybody knows: It’s about the persistent mismatch of romantic love to everyday life. “It’s my heart, and it doesn’t fit yours” – it could be a blunt personal assessment. But all the displacement of feelings into and out of objects in the lyrics makes you ask what is this “it” that is the heart. Is the cause socially constructed, personal-psychological, biologically innate? Early-90s-preoccupying questions about gender/sex and essence/choice come to mind.

(So: Why a picture of a cowboy? Why is LOVE spelled in “letters scrawled across the bottom,” as if by a child?)

This brings us to the strangest turn, the one that makes this song especially worth talking about. Suddenly we’re out drinking and we’re not sure if any of the characters, even the narrator, is out with us. “Graeme’s down at the bar, teaching hardships…” And then the vocal doubles and someone sings, “Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines…” What is that doing there?

When I first heard “Hawaiian Baby” in the late ’90s, I took the reference to the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to signify that Graeme (boyfriend, rival or third party) was a student type, tossing “Verlaines” around with masculine pretension, almost like a drug with his drink (valiums, valiums, valiums). But later, having caught up a bit on New Zealand rock, I realized it was an almost-direct quote (heard as if from a distance) from this song: The Verlaines‘ “Death and the Maiden” (a single from 1983).

It’s the band’s best-known song, and its anthem for obvious reasons. Gates has just pluralized “Verlaine” to “Verlaines” – a cute band-to-band tribute (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement in the same period lifted a cadence from “Maiden” for the verse of “Box Elder”), but again, what’s it doing in the middle of this emotionally precise song?

“Graeme” who’s “down” at the bar seems to be Graeme Downs, lead singer of The Verlaines. So maybe our narrator’s at a show, and the “teaching” is in song. While I don’t know the Verlaines’ repertoire well enough to detect further references (I was more into the Clean, 3Ds, Chills, Peter Jeffries, Chris Knox, of the NZ scene), the off-kilter syntax of “sex and cigarettes and slow-sad says he” points to “Slow Sad Love Song,” a wild gorgeous Downs composition from 1987’s Bird-Dog:

Am I wrong to hear traces in the main chord progression there (before it goes so beautifully off the rails) of the chords to “Hawaiian Baby”? Suddenly what we have seems less a breakup or cheating song than … an answer song.

The two Verlaines songs both come from trad literary-romantic POV’s (see Downs’ former Flying Nun labelmate Matthew Bannister’s extensive scholarly paper on Downs’ poète maudit persona and its dissonances): In “Maiden,” he’s kissing off a hoity-toity acquaintance who’s always dropping names and theories: “You’re just too obscure for me.” If he sticks around, “We’ll look like Death and the Maiden” – the dark vice-ridden rocker sucked dry by the duality of feminine clinging/feminine Eros – or she’ll “end up like Rimbaud, get shot by [his lover] Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine…” (Though since Downs is the real name-dropper here, and it’s his band name, you have to allow for irony.)

By contrast “Slow Sad” features a guy who’s been crushed by a girl who “had me well-read… beautifully put down,” and has flopped into his pitiful little bedsit to die.

They’re well-drawn portraits of the male side of a romantic split, with women getting blamed for holding too much power or too little, with at least mock-violent consequences.

“Hawaiian Baby” is a revision of that bohemo-vinist underground guff from the indie-feminist side of the looking glass. Yes, Gates’ protagonist will accept blame. She doesn’t justify herself, except with rationalizations that survive barely a few measures. (The worst we can charge her boyfriend with is tacky taste in postcards.) Sure, sure, it’s not you, it’s me. But unlike Downs’ women, her “me” is a three-dimensional perplexed person whose power is in several senses beyond her.

(On the other hand, I have no idea why the distant vocal also intones, “six days, six days” – any suggestions?) *Later: See comments!

One of the most generous pleasures of “Hawaiian Baby” is the girl-group “la la la” that enters on the chorus, but it also seems incongruous in its sweet conventionality of language and lilt. It makes me question this suddenly simplified “heart” talk – too Cosmo, too advice-column. As if to say, don’t confuse hard truths with easy outs.

Or perhaps to say it’s impossible not to resort finally, amid complexity, to cliché: Gates’ protagonist may be saying what she has to say to dig herself out of the mud hole, or to counter the mud one lover or another is now “slinging” at her. You could take the closer – “someone does it just because/ it’s not on their skin” – with its indeterminate pronoun, as “I do it because I can’t feel it” or “you do it because you can’t hear me,” or both: “It’s not you or me.”

Where this hole came from, the one that cannot find a heart to fit – that part’s a mystery. The song only knows it’s not solved by labeling villains and victims, or volunteering to play those parts: That’s just a picture someone brought here from somewhere.

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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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Filed under chris randle, music

Working in Close-Up: Fiery Furnaces, Patti Smith, Will Munro, Tracy Wright

by Carl Wilson

When I first saw Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces perform, I was (like many others) reminded of Patti Smith. But it’s in the angle of E.F.’s nose and the insolence of her mouth and the willfully untended hair, not in her voice really. E.F. has a well-bred, kids’-TV-meets-cabaret approach to singing a story, like a book on tape, her consonants so crisp it’s like they’re sweating little beads of tart apple juice. It’s more as if Edith Nesbit fronted a rock band, or Edith Wharton. Still, Smith and the Fiery Furnaces both build word-drunk narratives over a musical scaffold from the heavier end of classic rock (though in Smith’s heyday those classics were new); and they both depend on partnerships between a woman who sings and a guy who plays guitar. Smith’s most famous collaborator is Lenny Kaye, though there have been others. Eleanor Friedberger’s foil is Matthew Friedberger, her brother.

When you hear or see Patti Smith, you know that for all her generosity, she’s also a diva. The songs are her stories, the music the altar on which her words are burned and transfigured. It can be inflected, recharged, reframed by different partners, but its essence is singular. When I first heard the Friedbergers, by contrast, I imagined that the process of making music for them was like a couple of siblings goofing around with a tape recorder and making up stories.

Later, my impression shifted. Maybe Matthew was the controlling creative interest and Eleanor a performer/interpreter. But then on their most recent record, I’m Going Away, Eleanor apparently wrote the majority of the lyrics. Such a back-and-forth makes as much sense as any sort of specialization between a creative pair; my desire to get at the truth about their method – was Matt really some kind of Richard Carpenter figure, the music nerd exploiting his beautiful singing sister? – was my own problem. It was a compulsion to pin the artists in place. (The better to explain you with, my dears.)

I dropped in to see the Furnaces again last night at the Drake Underground in Toronto. The place was only half-full, surprising for a band that used to crowd much bigger halls. Their excursions into long-form suites, one of them based on recordings they made with their grandma, seem to have worn down the more fickle listeners’ patience, even though every record the past few years has been praised as a “return to pop form.” I hope it doesn’t make the FF’s feel that they’re on any kind of downward drift. They certainly don’t play like it. They must appreciate having an audience instead that’s mouthing along with every multisyllabic line.

The band (with Jason Lowenstein [Sebadoh] on bass and Robert D’Amico on drums) doesn’t make it easy for the would-be karaoke singer to follow the bouncing ball, the way it collages their recorded tunes together live into non-stop rolling medleys (I thought of Gilbert & Sullivan more than once, and Glee) that change from show to show. That element is, no matter who contributes what, perhaps the most fascinating outgrowth of this living study in collaboration. It’s difficult to know, but there seems to be no solid set list; Matt would just veer into another song at the tail end of the last, and with a practised grace, Eleanor would land on the first, wordplay-packed line as if she’d known what was coming and had already baked it a cake. Serve and volley; call and response.

Eleanor stands in the traditional place of the preacher, at the centre of the stage, to whom Matt plays choir director (or talk-show band leader); it’s not a role reversal in which second banana is secretly boss, because once he’s called the cue she once again has primary command (instrumentals are brief and gestural). It’s more like Lester Young and Billie Holiday, maybe – each power sovereign in its canton within the federated state of the song. Even on record Fiery Furnaces songs seem built like a collective of interconnected duchies or archipelagos, and the jumps between locations can weary. They’re a band whose albums can give you jet-lag.

It’s pure speculation but it seems like all these stratagems – and more I haven’t mentioned, especially an album coming out this fall called Take Me ‘Round Again, on which they cover their own songs but re-write each other’s parts – spring from the special nature of inter-sibling collaboration. Perhaps you have to play a lot of games to keep it seeming fair, like dividing up the ice cream evenly. You be the Nazi this time, I’ll be the Allies.

I’m fascinated by familial or romantic collaboration. It’s difficult enough to collaborate with friends, as on this new blog. I’ve been to the outskirts of that even-closer experience, but seldom deep inside. I was once in a band with two of my best friends, one of them an ex-, along with her brother. The interpersonal dynamics were one of the reasons we played only two shows in three years. I’ve been an assistant, a doorperson, a driver, a publicist for other intimates, but usually stayed a step back from the cauldron, kept my potions to myself. I’m not sure whether I think that a lover or family member would know too much about me to take my input seriously, or if I fear that they’d find out too much to go on loving me.

But the prospect definitely spooks and thus beguiles me. When I look at the McGarrigle-Wainwright family, or Toronto’s husband-wife Lullaby Arkestra, or the Furnaces, or any number of other such partnerships, it’s as if they have superpowers. I might over-mysticize the art that results. There’s a sci-fi aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps the same could be said of any art that is sufficiently free of fear.

This doesn’t require the conventional kind of family. I am thinking of two people that my city, Toronto, has lost, far too young and almost exactly a month apart, to cancer: One was Will Munro, an artist and party organizer and more, who managed to remap queer (and straight) life in this city. It looked like he was doing it just by getting people to dance in different places to different music. But that wasn’t it. Will was doing it by loving people’s differences more than their similarities; the effect just radiated out, and enabled others to do as he’d done. He died May 21.

Another is Tracy Wright, an actor who brought her sharp, soulful presence to all she touched, whether an experimental performance piece, TV series or movie. She collaborated with loved ones but she also made loved ones of collaborators, a category you could say extended to much of Toronto’s theatre community, as evidenced by the benefit performance of Brecht’s Galileo staged in her honour last month. She was meant to star in it, as Galileo, but then surgery was scheduled and she ended up watching over Skype from her hospital bed. She died this morning. Perhaps her talent was too sharp and particular to attract popular fame; as Galileo apocryphally said, “And yet it moves.”

These days it seems like divas, grand as they are, are too much with us. A sister playing an intricate game of musical catch with her brother shouldn’t be mistaken for and measured by Patti Smith because of her haircut. I hope that because of the way they shared their too-brief creative lives, like siblings or lovers, not bosses or stars, Tracy’s and Will’s spirits will still move and stir among us. Perhaps with enough circulation, enough give and take, this can somehow set to right what, at the end of a sad day, seems so very out of balance.

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Filed under carl wilson, music, other