NXNE

I have the bad habit of missing major events in Toronto like TIFF or NXNE. This year I did slightly better by taking a short walk down to Yonge and Dundas Square Thursday where Danny Brown played a free concert. A large crowd emitting herbaceous vapours packed the square. I had to miss part of his set, and truthfully broad daylight and no booze aren’t the most favorable conditions, but he was delivering nicely.

Danny Brown – Monopoly (Official Video) WARNING: EXTREMELY EXPLICIT LYRICS

Swans drew a good crowd Friday, blasting out continual noise through most of the downtown core. They fired up the crowd nicely, and when St. Vincent went on shortly after, the sun dropped and she did her thing very well.

St. Vincent – Digital Witness

But the highlight for me was Spiritualized at Massey Hall, who packed their hour-long set with a blend of loud and quiet, electric and tender, new and old material. It was great. My only regret is missing Spoon at the Horseshoe later that night.

Spiritualized at Massey Hall

Spiritualized – Come Together

Drink It In

If I expect a good cup of coffee in the morning, I go to bed excited for it. Everything about coffee appeals to me. The aroma of coffee is one of the most compelling I can think of, and the flavour of a really good cup lives up to that aroma. So for years it has boggle my mind that most people tend to drink coffee like this:

Tall French Roast

Congratulations, you have successfully robbed yourself of half the pleasure of coffee. It isn’t a fluke that when we raise a glass for a drink, our noses are in that glass. That’s just good evolution. If all you want is the caffeine, you can get that in a pill. Likewise, drinking beer out of a bottle is only a good idea if you don’t want to fully taste it.

Our senses are not as cleanly delineated as our language implies. The sense of taste is an overall impression made up of multiple brain processes. The taste from the taste buds is part of that impression, but the olfactory receptors play a vital role as well. Similarly, when we listen to music, the bass drum thumping in our chest and the vibrations through the bottoms of our feet contribute strongly to the experience.

This is why you cannot beat live music. To be inside a physical environment tailored for live music, to hear the music loudly, to feel the music and to see it performed in front of you – this is to experience music fully. The more nerve centers we can engage, the more sense data our brains have to build up our experience.

So-called holy sites can really evoke sacred feelings in people because these places are full of sights, smells, sounds, textures, and all the other sensory paraphernalia correlated to holiness. In places like these, brains simply have more to work with, more “food for thought” that can be used to build up a holy experience.

Of course it also helps to pay attention. Our senses and brains have evolved to extract meaningful data from a noisy environment. You can be inside that concert hall–band wailing away, laser light show twirling all around you–and remain totally oblivious because you are watching a YouTube video on your phone. And with all that noise in your environment, how deeply can you expect to be engaged by that YouTube video?

Mindfulness exercises teach us to connect with experience, to tone down distraction and stay present with the task at hand. Whatever we turn our attention to has the potential to completely fulfill our experience. A fully engaged experience doesn’t want for anything; the more fully we are engaged, the further we must be from worry, depression, and pain.

You can make an exercise in mindfulness out of your morning cup of coffee. It might change your life. Turn all your senses to your task, and drink it in – with the lid off.

Whole Foods Coffee

P.S. These days I roast my coffee from green beans on my stove, then grind the beans into a French press with filtered water I’ve heated to just shy of boiling. It makes for a great cup, but it takes time. Obviously this can only be worth my while if I know I’ll have the time to relax and enjoy the drink fully. You may wonder how much time I spend on coffee. The answer is…don’t worry about it.

Your Life Is A Lie

It’s great when labels put up good money so bands can make ridiculous videos. Let me direct your attention to “Your Life Is A Lie” by MGMT. Their latest, self-titled album is bizarre, alien-themed, and fan-tastic. The video fits the song – short and sweet like this week’s blog post.

If you liked that, you might like “Cool Song No. 2″. This video is much stranger, pretty violent, ultra-slick, a little disturbing. It looks like it cost a fortune. I’m looking forward to the live show.

 

Goblin wsg Secret Chiefs 3

Friday I went to The Opera House to see Italian soundtrack legends Goblin with their special guests Secret Chiefs 3. SC3 opened the night and blew everybody away with their matchless blend of Middle Eastern music, prog-rock, surf, and Spaghetti Western score steeped long and hard in a narcotic brew of esoteric philosophy and magick.

TreySecret Chiefs 3 do not put on your typical concert. The material can be challenging for listeners. Bizarre time signatures, Middle Eastern scales, and enough dynamic range to scare you means that you’re in for a real experience as an active listener. Musicians out there couldn’t ask for a more prodigious group.

SC3Watch this video from their visit in May when they played Ananada Shankars “Renunciation”.

I have seen these guys three times in the last year and a half. Each time has been more impressive than the last. When they left the stage I wondered how anyone could follow them. I particularly wondered how Goblin would sound. Sometimes a band comes back after a 40-year hiatus and their sound isn’t fresh, feels put-on, and they play new material that is vastly inferior.

goblin-2013But Goblin’s appeal was never about tight performances and musicianship, necessarily. As the soundtrack music for some of the most stylish horror films ever made, it was always about the style, about the emotional climate they created and their distinct mood. When they came on stage they brought the goods.

Goblin

They rocked. Their songs have such distinct character that they could have hardly messed it up. I don’t believe they were ever a touring band, so maybe their act hasn’t been on the shelf so long it’s stale. The attitude in the room was perfect, the performances were impressive and their set list was great.

The show made me pretty eager to dip back into some Argento horror films. Suspiria makes for a good Halloween tradition.

Dig The Uneekness

Why do titles need to be misspelled nowadays? Arcade Fire have just released “Reflektor”, the first single from their upcoming album of the same name. The word “Reflektor” is a fairly clean, easily understandable misspelling, much better than Ne-Yo or DIIV or Anfernee Hardaway. But it still begs the question, why a K instead of a C?

Obviously a unique spelling is meant to set the word apart as a title, a proper, capital-letter noun instead of just a plain old noun. A lot of artists look for a way to stand apart and be remembered. I probably couldn’t pick Ne-Yo’s sound out of a lineup, but I know his name. It’s a guy, right?

So when Arcade Fire builds hype around their new album, the word “Reflektor” becomes a unique meme, signifying the band and its music instead of orange and yellow work site vests or bicycle safety gear. Their hype definitely worked. Media outlets have buzzed for a while now and the album doesn’t come out until October 29th.

But does the spelling have any significance beyond being recognizable? When Quentin Tarantino was asked about the awkward spelling of his movie Inglourious Basterds, he said, “I’m never going to explain that…When you do an artistic flourish like that, to describe it, to explain it, would just…invalidate the whole stroke in the first place.”

Tarantino wants us to ponder what it might mean, wants to cultivate some mystery here and get us wondering. But most importantly, he wants us to know that the spelling he chose has some artistic meaning that we may never understand. To misspell something plants the suspicion that there is at least a double meaning at work here.

Even though we might infer some added meaning from the title, the content of a song/movie/band might be completely mundane. Tarantino’s films generally leave little to the imagination. We want to believe that the artists we give our hard-earned money to are observant, with meaningful insight, have something to teach us about life, or at least some unique ability to resonate with us. But the name is not the thing named, and sometimes a title can be much more intriguing than the thing itself.

With so may artists vying for our attention, we have come to expect misspellings for no meaningful reason. Look at all the stores that use this technique when it is completely irrelevant to the content of their business. The one thing I know for sure on this score is that a unique spelling is uniquely Google-able.

Here’s the new video for “Reflektor”. Judge for yourself.

Why Guided By Voices Rocks

I bet if you think back to your high school days you can remember the soundtrack. And I bet that when you hear songs from that era, they often call up old memories. We bond emotionally with the music we hear through puberty and adolescence. As we learn our social roles with a little more sophistication, our tastes form and our identities crystallize to an extent. That soundtrack is likely to remain a familiar comfort through our lives.

Besides the constant rotation of Zeppelin and Sabbath throughout my youth, two bands played incessantly during my high school years. These bands are Pavement and Guided By Voices. Indie rock, lo-fi, and DIY recordings dominated my spare time. When I wasn’t being social, I was in my room listening to one of those two bands. I know every nuance of some of those mid-90s records.

Naturally, I began playing in bands. I felt the need to make music. The standard basement/garage accommodations prevailed, and a lot of my time went into jam sessions, practicing, tinkering, experimenting, and eventually playing shows around Windsor. This just seemed like the right thing to do with my time. Better than homework, anyway. I just wanted to be a part of the fun.

Lots of people get to know rock and roll this way. Like physical maturation, identity as a musician forms during those experimental years. In high school, if you want to play rock and roll, you have to do things yourself. You have to find spare time, people to play with, a jam space, etc. So maybe the amps aren’t crystal clear, there’s bleed from track to track, the vocals are buried and the drummer keeps fucking up. That’s all good because this is the sound of people playing for the sheer love of playing music. If they’re doing it right they aren’t worried about being lucrative or looking cool in those moments; they’re just trying to make something awesome happen.

Guided By Voices typified this ethos back in the day. They had a sturdy reputation as a prolific indie band but they treated music like a hobby and a passion, not like a business. Robert Pollard, the main creative force of the band, seemed unstoppable. He absorbed the British Invasion, classic rock, punk, and the spirit of DIY and subjected it all to a unique, Dayton-Ohio-brand drunken alchemy, rolling out one two-minute gem after another like an assembly line.

Their foray into the commercial industry eventuated in a collapse of the band (this detour arguably started with their album Do The Collapse). But after a headshake and a 2010 reunion tour, the band reclaimed their native sound. Even if they haven’t quite recaptured the magic of the glory days (Under The Bushes, Under The Stars, 1996), Pollard’s output has been downright phenomenal. His most recent solo LP Honey Locust Honky Tonk is a gorgeous, country-infused rock album that proves his total mastery and love of the craft. And he’s not showing signs of slowing down.

As recording and production techniques improve with technology, commercial producers seem to think that in order to deliver the fullest experience of music, each instrument should be recorded maximally for frequency and volume, and they accomplish this by isolating the instruments, generally enriching and rounding out the low frequencies and brightening the highs. This can produce amazing quality productions and songs with such aesthetic impact that you can’t help bob your head. And it all looks good on paper.

But not all music should be recorded this way. To isolate any instrument is to create a sonic vacuum around it, removing it from its environment and stripping it of its natural resonance. Lots of the magic in making music depends on the blending of tones. A musician’s inspiration comes from somewhere mysterious inside, granted, but it also comes from his or her environment, the other people playing, the way the amplifiers reverberate in that weird corner of the room and the resonance the bass picks up through the flue of the fireplace. Even the lighting in the recording space will have an effect on the performer and inevitably, on the recording.

Shut your eyes and listen to The Grand Hour, a 10-minute EP from 1992, and tell me if you aren’t transported back in time, to a magical, albeit dingy basement where some drunken buddies are doing their best to blast out some great rock and roll. Hear GBV’s narcoleptic friend snore through Ex-Supermodel, and try to imagine the spontaneous joy that must have been felt during the recording process. They bring you right into their process and let you share in their enthusiasm.

I enjoy everything from Aerial M to Zappa, but there will always be a special place in my heart for home recordings. My favorite psychedelic gurus Bardo Pond record their albums in their home studio the Lemur House. The sound of the room has evolved along with the band, and by now it’s part of the identity of their sound. The day may still come when I pester Michael Gibbons into letting me record there.

Bloemfontein, the post-rock band I played guitar with during university, jammed in a Windsor basement for years. It wasn’t a particularly good room for sound. It was pretty bad, actually, but we were comfortable there and our performances were enhanced by that familiarity. That basement has seen a lot of creativity over the years. When I think that the house is up for sale, and that I will likely never play there again, a little ironic grin breaks out over my face. I’d still love to do one last recording down there in all its sloppy, wood-panel-reverb, amp buzzing glory.

For anyone whose love of music grew up from the basements of high school friends, GBV captures the spirit of rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. They are a bunch of guys having fun playing music together. If you ask me, the heart of rock and roll is in Dayton.

Anticipations

Can’t write a post tonight. I’m busy rubbing my hands together over these goodies.

Sleeper by Ty Segall – August 20

SleeperDrag City’s most exciting newcomer just released one of his best albums, and that’s no small feat considering his output. Sleeper is mostly acoustic and mighty touching. Segall draws inspiration from a recent loss and transmutes it into something beautiful and even joyful. Big notes of John Lennon on the palate, whiffs of Neil Young in the nose, and just dripping with Segall’s signature sound that’s just…what’s the word…San Fran-tastic.

 

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon – September 17

Bleeding EdgeThis countdown has been running on in my mind for a while now. Every Pynchon novel excites me, and this brand new Manhattan-set, dot-com-disillusionment tale has received a lot of positive buzz in advance of its release, which I have been trying, nearly successfully, to ignore. Considering how fun and funny his last novel Inherent Vice was, expect Bleeding Edge to deliver one of the hippest, most hilarious narratives of the year, with all the juicy esoteric details you need to feed your paranoia.

 

The Growlers play Toronto – October 1

Surf-rock outfit The Growlers are playing at Lee’s Palace. I’ve been spinning Hung At Heart a good deal lately and I expect this show to be non-stop entertainment. Their show should look something like this, minus Bill Murray.

 

Peace On Venus by Bardo Pond – October 28

Peace On VenusThe essential psychedelic rock experience Bardo Pond release their newest creations in October. These Philadelphian sherpas always reach for the most rarified gnostic noise to push yer head where it needs to be. The recordings out of the Lemur House continue to knit the band closer together while taking the sound farther out. I can’t wait to add this to my already-perversely-large Bardo Pond LP collection. They’ve even given us a little taste of what’s to come.

Snoop Lion From On High

Who’s ready for a new spiritual leader? Religions are less popular than ever, but obviously if some guy somewhere has a spiritual awakening, that’s a big deal for everyone. Things get especially serious if that guy is former pornographer, pimp, and rapper Snoop Dogg. His third eye was opened on a trip to Jamaica. He is now the reincarnation of Bob Marley. You will call him Snoop Lion.

Obviously his rapping ability and life of good works has augmented his karmic balance sheet. The gods have moved him up the animal kingdom to the top of the food chain…in certain specific climates. Now that I think of it, wouldn’t “Snoop Human” be a better leap up the karmic ladder? We still have time, I guess.

The saving grace for Snoop Lion is that he’s always been pretty much hilarious. He’s a musician, and he’ll continue to do his thing. His reincarnation carries about as much weight as one of Madonna’s reinventions. Snoop’s charisma will ensure he has enough fans and haters no matter what he does, but what the world needs now is a cult to form around him.

Usually, anyone who claims to be “enlightened” or “awakened” is almost surely not enlightened. I’ve observed this maxim over and over again. A person might truly believe they are ”enlightened”, but this doesn’t make it so.  Sam Harris seems more “enlightened” to me than Deepak Chopra even though Deepak rambles on and on about cosmic consciousness like an authority. There is a big difference between words and works.

Charisma can work wonders for charlatans. Having a magnetic personality, a face that’s easy to look at, and a certain way with words might be all it takes to build a base of devoted followers. If you’re charismatic enough, maybe your followers will go out and recruit other followers to your cause. Thus, cults spring up around individuals, from Buddha to Charles Manson. It also helps if the leader knows his or her audience.

Unfortunately there is no litmus test for enlightenment. A one-pointed mind might be a good indicator, the way Jesus was constantly on-message, but that same behavior could also be viewed as mania bordering on psychosis. Equanimity might be a sign, but some people are naturally stoic and others comport themselves in a way that only looks serene. Other than a certain mysterious good feeling we get from a person, the main indicators that we’ve witnessed genius are the works left behind.

Charles Manson left behind some crappy works. I’d call that fraudulent guru-hood. Beethoven left nine amazing symphonies. John Lennon’s Imagine always reminds me how potent simple instructions can be. Put Imagine on, do what he says, and tell me that guy wasn’t a genius. The last time I heard from Snoop, I think he was telling me to “put some Kush up in it”.

While that is sound advice, Snoop Lion’s new music is supposed to be family friendly. Can he really undergo a Rastafarian rebirth and come out on the other side talking less about weed?

Close Your Eyes

When I was in university I co-hosted a radio show on CJAM called “Close Your Eyes”. We played a lot of mellow psyche/post rock and instrumental music. Someone came in to talk to us for an article in the university paper and I explained to him our philosophy that music can occupy your complete attention just like a film or concert or television show. You were meant to listen to our show, not just have it on in the background. The article said that I liked music as much as I liked TV. The dude wasn’t listening.

When you sit down to a movie it goes dark and quiet. You face forward and your senses of sight and sound get bombarded by the movie. Sight and sound is all you get, but it’s enough to keep your brain engaged in a continuous flow of attention. I can feel equally absorbed by a record even though it’s only half the input.

Most popular music stations play only lyrical music, unsurprisingly, because our culture talks way too much. But if I pay too much attention to the words of an unfamiliar song, I distract myself from feeling the music. That’s why I love instrumental and ambient music for deep listening, when I have nothing else going on.

I’m not sure why we find it so easy to sit down for an hour television show and so hard to sit down and listen to a forty-minute record. The Breaking Bad finale premiers August 11th, so before you start losing evenings to that, try to close your eyes and take down an album. I caught this one today from my brother Martin on SoundCloud. It’s experimental, ambient, electric, acoustic, weird, great, and shorter than an episode of Breaking Bad.

 

Signposts

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find new music to listen to. Same goes for movies and books. There are websites that offer options like, “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” or “People who purchased C also purchased D,” and that can be helpful, but usually the recommendations are very safe, almost tentative, and the results are mediocre. A lot of the time the recommended artist or piece of media doesn’t live up to the connection.

I’m much more likely to trust a recommendation from an artist. The artists that I like (most artists, really) usually draw inspirations from other artists. So when an artist mentions a name or references a specific album or book, I try to pay attention. When there is a drought in good new music, for example, it’s easy to comb through artists I already like to find references, usually to older artists. People who create something that fits your tastes will usually have good taste themselves.

Led Zeppelin’s third album, arguably their best, ends with a song called “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. For some reason it took me years to actually look up Roy Harper. It’s not a very popular name outside of its own niche. Roy Harper is a genius of his own variety and influenced his friend Jimmy Page. Harper’s innovative recording techniques, lyrics and intriguing decisions on albums like Lifemask or Stormcock are mind-blowing. Once I tracked it down, I took my hat off to Jimmy Page for “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”.

But even Zeppelin fans I know claim they’ve never heard of Roy Harper. I find this strange, and it makes me wonder why it took me so long to look him up. If artists are doing something innovative and new and they go out of their way to point out an influence or inspiration, it only makes sense to pay attention. But often the references go unnoticed.

The flip-side to this is that artists often name-drop because they feel it will increase their cache. Generally, I find that if the referenced artist is a household name, you don’t need to go on the hunt. This form of name-dropping acts similarly to the “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” recommendations. When the band Franz Ferdinand calls their song “Ulysses”, I don’t expect their fans will run out and read Homer or James Joyce, but the reference is there as fodder for critics and nerds. That’s fine too, but it’s not as exciting as discovering some obscure gem brought to light in a conscientious way.

When the reference is little-known, my natural inclination is to investigate. When Six Organs of Admittance named an album For Octavio Paz, it got me wondering about Octavio Paz. What was it in the poetry of Paz that inspired the songs of Six Organs? It’s worth finding out.

This all happens on a conscious level. But often references aren’t as obvious as these examples. A lot of artists like to drop references more subtly, and by that I mean wordlessly. These types of references won’t put you on the lookout, but they can be much more rewarding when they are stumbled upon, like hearing John Coltrane in “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. A lot of the time I’ll catch a connection long after the reference and it will give me a rush of enthusiasm.

Imagery in David Lynch’s films, for instance, calls up the dark mystery of the paintings of Francis Bacon. When I see certain Bacon paintings I am totally thrilled, and I can trace the aesthetic connection back to something I’m familiar with (Lynch’s films). Now I have the entire oeuvre of Francis Bacon to look into, and that’s exciting.

For years now I’ve been a sucker for spiritual literature and philosophy. There’s something about witnessing a mind groping for truth that’s exciting to me, and to an extent I think we’re all on some sort of path toward understanding our existence. So when an artist chooses to leave signposts in this direction, I am drawn in. There are spiritual guides in my life. They are usually artists, and they’ve been ushering me along a path to self-knowledge.

The albums of Bardo Pond are my favorite example. Philadelphia’s ultimate psychedelic rock group know what they are doing. Take this recent vinyl reissue of Ticket Crystals.

Bardo Pond - "Ticket Crystals"

I see this picture and it makes an impression on me. So when I stumble upon the picture in Aleister Crowley’s Book Of Lies, a little masterpiece of Kabbalistic and philosophical puzzles, I know I’m on the right path.

The Book of Lies

Their albums are full of these symbols, and whether through coincidence or conscious decision, I’ve discovered a wealth of books, movies and music to get me further down the path, or at least let me know that I’m looking in the right direction. Even if I’m not drawn in by the referenced work, at least I’m looking at something new.

It’s as though certain artists exist to act as a psychopomp. The psychopomp’s role in mythology is to guide dead souls into the afterlife. In this real world version, artists use the symbols they have at their disposal to guide people out of the mundane world into new levels of understanding. It might sound high-flown, but I’ve been on the path for a while now and it hasn’t let me down.

Disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained. The roaring of the engines diminished, the squeaking rhetoric lapsed into an inarticulate murmur, and as the intruding noises died away, out came the frogs again, out came the uninterruptable insects, out came the mynah birds.
     “Karuna. Karuna.” And a semitone lower, “Attention.”
- Aldous Huxley, Island