Up Your Music Game

One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of music appreciation is that everyone listens his or her own way. Think of the last time you listened to music. What was it? How did you listen to it? Were you paying attention to individual instruments, lyrics, or do you remember how it felt?

In my experience, musicians tend to hear individual instruments; they can tell you what instruments are being played, and they can hear what each is doing and explain it to you. Listening in his mode makes it easy to hear each type of sound as an extension of the person playing the instrument, and appreciate the creativity and skill, or lack thereof. Musicians can break apart a song and explain it rationally.

But it seems to me the average listener hears the song as a whole; they have a connection to how a song feels, but couldn’t tell you what went into making it, and they tend to remember the vocal melody and lyrics before the instrumentation.

Here’s an experiment: if you’re the type who hears individual instruments, try to turn that off for a while and listen to the song as a whole. Pay attention to how it feels. If you’re the type who listens to songs “as a whole,” try to delineate what instruments are making what noises, and pay attention to what each is doing (this might take a few listens). Switching back and forth and listening to songs different ways can lead to surprising changes in opinion.

You can listen any number of ways. Listen to the rhythm section. Listen to the amount of reverb on the vocals or the distance of the mike from the drums. Listen to the lyrics and pay attention to their meaning. Manipulating your own consciousness around the music can be an interesting experience.

You might realize that you disliked a song your entire life because there is one small aspect of it that rubs you the wrong way. For instance, once you muscle through the totally bizarre opening two minutes of “Aja” by Steely Dan, the song is unstoppable, and the last minute is mind-blowing.

You might also find out one of your favorite songs is actually terrible. That’s not a fun discovery, but do you really want to listen to garbage your whole life just because you lost your virginity to Def Leopard?


Reading Vineland or Inherent Vice, you can really feel Thomas Pynchon’s love for surf music. His books stoked my interest in the genre, but it was my brother who introduced me to The Growlers. They’re one of my favorite current acts, and it was a trip to learn they appear in P. T. Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

I assume The Growlers are playing the notorious cult/surf band The Boards, because it would be perfect. The timeline of a) my rising interest in surf music; b) reading Pynchon; and c) getting into The Growlers makes me feel like this cameo came to being just to give me a thrill. It’s just great timing.

Assuming the universe caters to my interests, it makes sense that the return of Twin Peaks should feature some of the other music I’ve been listening to these days. Two groups that stand out, probably because they seem to have been heavily influenced by Angelo Badalamenti’s enveloping original score, are Beach House and Bohren & Der Club of Gore.

Check out this ridiculous Beach House video with another interesting artistic convergence.

If you’re feeling darker, drape yourself in this thick cloak of a tune from Bohren.

Or maybe David Lynch will offer up some of his own work. He’s released a number of projects on Sacred Bones Records, including The Air Is On Fire, which plays like the soundscape of one of his films (think Eraserhead OST, but much more sophisticated and subtle).

This one requires headphones, volume, twelve minutes and a dark room.

The Growlers

I saw The Growlers at Lee’s Palace last Friday and it was just beautiful. Their sound was perfectly gelled and poured over the crowd like clarified butter. It was potent enough to pull about 40 dancing people up on stage uninvited, one of whom had his shirt off for no good reason. As far as I could tell, Bill Murray was not in attendance.

These guys are a band with a voice, and their songs are so damn catchy I cannot understand why I’ve never heard them on any kind of radio. I’ve had their tunes running non-stop in my head since the show, blocking out potential blog post ideas. So enjoy a couple classic videos below and pick up their new album Chinese Fountain.

Something Someone Jr.


One Million Lovers (fleetingly NSFW)


Upcoming In Toronto

The Toronto concert season is getting sexy. The following shows are ones I’ll either go to, or kick myself for missing.

September 5

Sir Richard Bishop at Geary Lane. A guitar-driven journey into territories no map can find.

September 6

Tim and Eric w/ Dr. Steve Brule at Danforth Music Hall. Absolutely ridiculous.

September 12

The Growlers at Lee’s Palace. Dose regularly on these surf-people.

September 15

The War on Drugs at Phoenix Concert Hall. I’m new to these guys but I like everything I’ve heard. According to their site, this show is SOLD OUT.

September 21

Ty Segall at Danforth Music Hall. On tour with his new album Manipulator.

Steven Wright – Oakville Center for the Performing Arts. Always thought this guy was fairly genius.

October 3

Beach House at Lee’s Palace. I’ve never seen them, but I have been to Twin Peaks. This show is apparently SOLD OUT.

October 11

Secret Chiefs 3 at Lee’s Palace. SC3 are simply unhinging.

October 28

Slowdive w/ Low at Danforth Music Hall. It’s Slowdive.

And since the Moon Duo show was cancelled, you can watch this:



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.


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.