Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Review: Sarah Slean, "Beauty Lives"

There's a tricky logic involved with collections of b-sides; the songs included are ones, by principle, deemed unfit (for whatever reason) to be included on an album - yet including them on a separate release gives them a strange sort of legitimacy that abandoned outtakes don't possess.

Sarah Slean's last b-sides album, The Baroness Redecorates, consisted of songs from the same sessions; tracks united by their shared era and similar instrumentation. Beauty Lives is not only comprised of songs from all periods of Slean's career, but the chosen songs themselves were largely determined by her fans.

Thankfully, Slean manages to avert a potentially sticky situation - what if her fans chose weaker but more popular songs over stronger material? - and produce a collection of songs that offers an enjoyable display of her talent, serves as a holiday gift to her fans, and provides enough to occupy oneself with until her double album Land and Sea hits shelves sometime in the new year.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Being Erica: "Fa La Erica" Episode Review

"Fa La Erica" starts out on shaky ground, redeems itself partway through with one of the best ideas the show has had all season, and returns to the unjustified happiness that denotes its nature as a holiday special.

Being Erica has done worse, though, and while it could be better, it's not unwelcome at this time of year.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

10 Best Albums of 2010

I still don't know how I feel about this year in music, to be honest. I spent a lot of it busy with work and various commitments, and I don't remember any particular major musical events that made the year particularly memorable for me. Yes, there was Michael Jackson's death, and there was the world discovering Janelle Monae, but that's all I can think of, if pressured. The Grammys were predictable, the VMAs were predictable, and most of the music that came my way this year was by independent artists generally below the radar, rather than from major-label signings.

2010 seemed to be a year defined by the escapism of electro and the sincerity of folk. As a culture, we seem to crave descending into our own Monster Balls, locking the doors, and doing whatever we want - within reason, of course. People seem to be aggressively resisting hype - even when someone genuinely talented comes along, like Janelle Monae, people still resist.

A lot of the artists on my list either kept their head above water and refused to hop on the electro-pop bandwagon so many seemed to be on, or took electronica and worked it into their personal vision, tapping into the Top 40 zeitgeist while remaining true to themselves. Some are established acts, some are newcomers, but above all these are the records that fascinated and captivated me in 2010.

10. Pomplamoose, Tribute to Famous People
9. She and Him, Volume Two
8. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
7. Laura Veirs, July Flame
6. KT Tunstall, Tiger Suit
5. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
4. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
3. Miss Emily Brown, In Technicolor
2. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Sea
1. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

How Does My List Stack Up?
  • PopMatters
    • The ArchAndroid - #1
    • Have One On Me - #13
    • The Age of Adz - #19
  • Paste
    • The ArchAndroid - #2
    • Sigh No More - #3
    • The Age of Adz - #9
    • July Flame - #23
    • Volume Two - #30
  • American Songwriter
    • Sigh No More - #2
    • July Flame - #10
Honourable Mentions:

Click on each album title to hear a song from that record.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #1

1. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

“Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?”

English folk band Mumford and Sons do something interesting with their debut, Sigh No More: they take the grandeur and universal statements of Arcade Fire and inject a dose of humility. It’s not as simple as that, of course – other bands have done the same – but Mumford and Sons have done the best job of melding folk’s lyrical honesty with the sheer escapism proffered by electronica. The title track and “Roll Away Your Stone” are the best examples of this: they start out slowly, then whisk the listener away on a stampede of guitars, banjos and drums. It’s a record that sounds like it was made on top of a mountain, but doesn’t get ahead of itself, finding ground in Marcus Mumford’s voice – part prophet and part everyman – instead. It’s stirring, and, even in its lesser moments, undeniably authentic.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #2

2. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Sea

“You were unnervingly delicate.”

Corinne Bailey Rae is best known for the bubbly 2006 hit “Put Your Records On” from her self-titled debut, so it comes as some surprise that her second album is a profound look at the nature of love and loss. Taking inspiration from the sudden death of her husband in 2008, The Sea spans a wide range of styles and textures; everything from the sweeping “I’d Do It All Again” to the rocking “The Blackest Lily” to the poppy throwback soul of “Paris Nights/New York Mornings” finds a place on the record. With The Sea, Rae has created the soundtrack to anyone’s life: an equal mixture of pain and pleasure, a work both intensely personal and remarkably universal. Like its titular inspiration, it ebbs and flows, searching for a truth always hidden just below the waves – and while it may seem hard to absorb at first, the deeper the listener dives, the more they uncover.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #3

3. Miss Emily Brown, In Technicolor

“It was nothing like dancing with you.”

Miss Emily Brown’s second album is a brilliantly beguiling blend of electronica and folk— brilliant even more so because its eight tracks deal with the most ordinary things and never feel pedestrian. Drawing on the WWII journal of her grandmother for inspiration, Brown captures the slowly creeping despair of wartime life in “The Diary of Amy Briggs”, the chaos of a blizzard in the extraordinary “Blackout” and her grandmother's dreams of escapism in the title track. Her songs are multifaceted and sparkle – autoharp, drum machines, and music boxes all work seamlessly here -- and feel like old friends with each listen. Brown brings the listener right in with her, and proves history is still relevant in the wireless age.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #4

4. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid

“Whether you’re high or low / You gotta tip on the tightrope.”

One of the most ambitious major-label debuts to come along in years, The ArchAndroid tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android on the run in the futuristic city of Metropolis for falling in love with a human. Monae’s voice and scope may invite comparisons to James Brown and Lady Gaga, but Monae has a vision all her own, particularly on the jubilant hit “Tightrope” and the burbling synths of “Wondaland”. Monae’s music is as rich and breathtaking as her album cover and, with any luck, will be treasured for years to come.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #5

5. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me

“Come on, little life giver / Give your life.”

American singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom is one of those artists whose lyrically and musically dense work takes months, if not years, to unpack, so Have One On Me could be seen as a difficult work to decipher on first listen – and rightfully so, as its eighteen tracks are spread over three six-song discs. Therefore, it’s a pleasant surprise that Newsom has crafted her most accessible album to date, filled with rich, enveloping melodies and playfully literate lyrics in the vein of a 21st-century Joni Mitchell. The rousing opener “Easy” and the stunning “Jackrabbits” are only a taste of what Newsom offers here, on an album that requires a patient ear but rewards richly in return.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

10 Best Albums of 2010: #6

6. KT Tunstall, Tiger Suit
“It’s easy saying nothing when there’s nothing to say.”

For the longest time, it seemed like there would be two sides of KT Tunstall – spontaneous, looping live KT and pensive, polished studio KT – but with Tiger Suit, her third album, the fiery Scottish songstress has melded her two selves. The result: an adventurous and passionate, yet perfectly-judged, pop record. Whether it’s the uneasy beauty of “Golden Frames”, the thrilling way “Lost” builds up, or the tongue-in-cheek stomp of “Glamour Puss”, Tunstall shows why mature musical perspectives like hers are so desperately needed. The album is as well-crafted as it is a joy to listen to, which can be said as rather lacking in most of today’s pop music.


10 Best Albums of 2010: #7

7. Laura Veirs, July Flame

“Can I call you mine?”

Portland-based singer-songwriter Laura Veirs has been releasing consistently great albums over the past decade, and July Flame is the latest chapter in her storied career. Veirs makes her songs a study in what is and isn’t said, especially the title track and the haunting Appalachian folk of “I Can See Your Tracks”. Charmingly folksy at first, July Flame reveals itself over time as a reserved yet piercing look at passion’s inherent joys and dangers – the backing vocals in the otherwise effervescent “Summer is the Champion” say ‘Don’t search them out’, and "Wide Eyed, Legless" pairs unsettling imagery with a restless melody. One of the year's overlooked gems.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #8

8. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz

“The scariest things are not half as enslaved.”

Reevaluating his approach to songwriting after composing for an orchestra, indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens has returned with a compelling chronicle of our times, The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds”). The album is an accessible but layered take on electronica and Stevens’ familiar lyrical themes of love and faith. A song like “Too Much” wouldn’t sound out of place on a dancefloor, while “Vesuvius” and the devastating “I Want To Be Well” take Stevens’ indie-folk blend on classic albums like 2005’s Illinois in compelling new directions. By the time one reaches the magnum opus of “Impossible Soul”, there’s little doubt that Stevens has added yet another album to his already lengthy list of greats.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #9

9. She and Him, Volume Two

“That won’t stop me crying over you.”

She and Him -- Zooey Deschanel and singer/songwriter M. Ward – made waves in 2008 with Volume One, a collection of songs that were charmingly retro and impressively modern all at once. Gifted with a larger production budget, the two have once again crafted a compelling soundworld; penned entirely by Deschanel (aside from a couple of covers), songs like “In the Sun” and “Over It Over Again” strike the balance between melancholy and pep so many musicians mastered in the 60s and 70s, but are far from just a nostalgia trip. They’re vibrant and compelling – a new canon to melt the hearts of a new, more cynical generation.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #10

10. Pomplamoose, Tribute to Famous People

“We’re only making out / We’re making out all right.”

While covers are a dime a dozen these days, indie pop-jazz duo Pomplamoose stand out from the crowd thanks to their inventive yet faithful takes on familiar hits and old standards, all anchored by Jack Conte’s sly arrangements and Nataly Dawn’s effortless yet captivating voice. Through their lens, “My Favorite Things” is reimagined as a wide-eyed walk down the Champs Elysees, and “Single Ladies” finds new life as playful hipster pop. Tribute to Famous People is a tribute to the fact that talent, both of the duo and the original artists, is timeless – and that the YouTube generation, for all its supposed shallowness, doesn’t seem to have gone entirely to waste.


Friday, 5 November 2010

Being Erica Season 3: "Two Wrongs" and "Wash, Rinse, REPEAT" Reviews

Note: Yep, this is weeks late. I've been busy, so posts that I've had in the works for a while will be published here in due time. Thanks for your patience!

Being Erica is becoming a much darker show than anyone anticipated. Last week's episode dealt with the consequences of fighting fire with fire and the destructive (and violent) consequences, and this week's episode begins with a revelation that could change the direction of the show permanently. What "Two Wrongs" and "Wash, Rinse, REPEAT" have to show is that the new tone they establish, while welcomed, isn't just a passing fad.

After all, it's kind of hard to think of a show both culminating in a semi-bloodbath and having serious discussions about the content of a sex book.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Being Erica Season 3: "The Rabbit Hole" and "Moving On Up" Review

Only a show like Being Erica could make me hurt so much and still make me come back for more. After a mediocre second season that seemed more like a Canadian version of Sex and the City than the smart, funny series the show was in its brilliant first season, I had understandably low hopes for Season 3 premiere "The Rabbit Hole". I mean, come on: when you create an entire story arc revolving around a sex book, as the show did in Season 2, it's quite clear that it's run out of ideas.

At the end of Season 2, the show-- and Erica-- desperately jettisoned a lot of baggage, including Erica's one-note boyfriend Ethan, her job at River Rock Publishing, and her half-baked fling with fellow therapy time-traveller Kai. Erica found herself at a literal (and metaphorical) door, ready to face whatever was on the other side.

So were we, in a way. And I must say, we weren't entirely unwelcome houseguests.

Monday, 13 September 2010

"Still a Weirdo" by KT Tunstall and "Pinch Me" by Barenaked Ladies: Distant Cousins?

KT Tunstall's new single "(Still a) Weirdo" for her upcoming album Tiger Suit is pretty great. It also reminded me of a song I hadn't thought of in ten years.

"Pinch Me" by Canada's own Barenaked Ladies.

Tell me if I'm crazy, but there seems to be some mysterious cosmic link between these two songs. I don't know why, but there is.

What do you think?

(Unfortunately, none of the "Pinch Me" album version videos on YouTube are embeddable (thanks WMG!) so I had to go with a stream from Grooveshark. KT still gets a video because, well, because she's hot and Scottish. Any further questions?)

Monday, 8 March 2010

Pomp Without Circumstance: Oscars -- The Musical!

I was originally considering writing a proper prose-style article on this year's Oscars and how awful they were, but, considering how devoid the Oscars were of proper musical numbers (five, to be exact), here's my Oscar recap this year -- in song!

All lyrics in italics are sung by the Chorus.

ACT I: The Opening Number

(Curtains open. NOMINEES stand awkwardly on stage as Chorus sings.)

Hello, hello,
So nice to see you here!
Please don't change the channel!
Don't go and get that beer!

Nominees: Oh, we're so lucky to--

But wait! But wait!
Martin Short is late!
Oh, to Neil Patrick Harris
We'll have to delegate!

Nominees: Oh, we're so lucky to--

Ladies and gentlemen, your time is UP!

(A miniature house, identical to the one in "UP", blows in from stage left and crashes on stage. NPH emerges in a white tux, flocked by women dressed like Kevin from "UP". Inexplicably, he is wearing red slippers.

He begins singing the opening number.)

"The Same Old Song"
Lyrics, Music, and Orchestration by Neil Patrick Harris
(Minor Contributions by Martin Short)

For those who may not know me,
I'm the one and only
Neil Patrick Harris
And I've come to save your show!

But we don't need saving!

Oh, what do you know?

This isn't the same old song (La-la)
You'll love me before we're done (Woo-hoo!)
I'll be here all night long
So go ahead and call me whatever you want
This isn't the same old song!

(Cabaret-style piano)
This used to be a stunning duet (Cha-cha-cha!)
With someone I've never met
But he's in a tourniquet (We think!)
So I'm all you're gonna get!

I know you don't want someone new
But I sing just as well as Hugh!


And speaking of hosts
Jackman was a joke
Stewart nearly blew it
And Ellen? Don't make me laugh!

So tonight we have two
Especially for you
They had no rehearsal
So they'll have to read the cues...

Who knows how well they'll do!

Oh, this isn't the same old song
You'll love them before we're done
You'll be here all night long
So go ahead and call 'em whatever you want
This isn't

Oh, this isn't

This isn't the same old song!

(Tepid applause. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin descend from the ceiling flanked by beautiful models.)

Steve: Thank you, thank you! Isn't he great? He really should be hosting this thing.
Alec: Next year, Steve, next year. For those of you who have been living under a rock, or in Pomona, Texas, I'm Alec Baldwin, and he's Steve Martin.
S: We're your hosts, as unlikely as it seems.
A: Guess one of the producers was a little too obsessed with our movie It's Complicated.

(Cut to sullen George Clooney, whose mullet appears to be breathing.)

S: Look at all these stars, man!
A: I know! There's George Clooney! Oh, wait, we already cut to him. Sorry.
S: Don't you just hate it when the teleprompter malfunctions?
A: Oh, yes, Steve. Especially when I'm about to make a telephone call.

(Awkward silence. Steve begins to sing.)

"Look At All These People"
Music and Lyrics by Tina Fey
(C) Sickly Little Mole People, Inc.

Look at all these people!
They all look so lovely!
It must be the bubbly
Or maybe it's the light!

The camera adds ten pounds, you know
I hope you're sitting tight!

A: Steve, what are you doing?
S: What do you think I'm doing?
I'm just here and singing
Is that really a crime?

A: I thought this number
Would've been in double time?

S: Oh, lord, just end it already.

(They retreat backstage. Gagging sound is heard. Cheerful Announcer comes on.)

CA: Hi! You can't see me, but stick around! We have all sorts of wonderful things to see and do! Nine out of ten Americans trust disembodied voices to tell them what to watch!

(The curtain falls.)

Monday, 1 March 2010

My best albums of the decade: explained!

When I posted my 20 best albums of the decade list on the blog, I was expecting for some of my readers to agree with me. I was expecting some of my readers to disagree with me. I was even expecting there to be a lot of confusion, especially considering my list differed quite a bit from the ones suggested by the folks at Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

I was also expecting, inevitably, having to explain some of my omissions, many of which seemed to a few people I talked to as verging on bizarre. I still stand by my list, which was guided by personal taste as much as anyone's, and hopefully the below Q&A will help explain the albums I chose and in what order I found myself placing them.

Five questions, in the order I thought they belonged. Here goes.

5. Why don't you have more rap/metal/punk/soul/etc. on your list?
Simply because I a) don't listen to enough rap/metal/punk/soul to consider selections from that genre (the last amazing rap album for me was 1999's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which I'm not sure is even rap, so that shows how up-to-date I am) or b) found the albums I did listen to in that genre disappointing. Also, I can't stand screamo.

4. Why is Kid A by Radiohead only #5 on your list?
Here's a fun fact: it was even lower, until I gave in to someone I know that said something to the effect of "You can't have Coldplay in 5th and Radiohead in 19th! Are you out of your mind?" and I, kind of grudgingly, accepted.

I think they were right, too -- A Rush of Blood to the Head is a great album, but doesn't seem to be as definitive as Kid A was. As for why it is where it is... honestly, Thom Yorke's vocals are hit-and-miss with me, as they tend to be a bit too depressing for my tastes, and suffer from the same sort of bland rock-god posturing that seems to plague every male-dominated group once they achieve success.

Radiohead without vocals would be a much better band, in my opinion. Kid A is the closest thing we have to that, so that's why I put it in.

3. Why isn't Death Cab for Cutie/Stars/Kaki King/etc. on your list?
Either I haven't listened to them enough (like Death Cab for Cutie), or I find their albums marked with a few moments of euphoric brilliance and not much else (like Stars, for whom "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" from Set Yourself on Fire will always be their finest hour). I also have a crush on the strings in "My Favorite Book" from In Our Bedroom After the War, but that's pretty much it.

2. I haven't heard of half the artists on your list. Why do you have to choose albums that nobody's heard of?
Actually, quite a few of the albums on my list are highly acclaimed; Sufjan Stevens' Illinois was the highest-rated album of 2005 on Metacritic, for instance. But you're right: I don't have to list great albums that aren't the top sellers on iTunes this week, I can just make up a list based entirely on Britney Spears or something.

And besides, just because you haven't heard of them doesn't mean you shouldn't at least check them out. Be a musical warrior!

1. Why didn't you include Funeral by Arcade Fire?
This is the question I get asked the most. Nearly all of the music blogs and sites I frequent had the Arcade Fire's debut pretty high up in their lists, if not in the top spot. So why didn't I?

I have to confess: there is something about Win Butler's singing -- and overall attitude, for that matter -- which really irritates me. He sounds like a pompous, vain indie-rock frontman that thinks he's King of the World and the creator of a new musical pseudo-evangelist movement, which he doesn't (and I hope he doesn't) seem to be; have you seen any cults dedicated to the Arcade Fire lately?

Their music for me is good, but not great, and the devotion surrounding them is something I just don't get as far as their music is considered. Especially one of the band's most popular songs, "Intervention", which to me gives everything away on first listen -- if the yes-we-are-anti-religious-blah-blah-blah chorus doesn't do it, the irritating and overused bells that seem to hit you over the head like a sledgehammer probably will.

Or maybe it's the way Win Butler sings the whole thing.

Maybe the Arcade Fire isn't such a bad band. Maybe Funeralisn't such a bad album. Maybe I just crave a little subtlety in the music I listen to.

Who knows?

Monday, 15 February 2010

What do a 29-year-old Russian-American and a Japanese man in his 60s have in common?

No, this isn't one of those tasteless jokes you find so often on the Internet.

The problem with being a creative person is sometimes having too many ideas. So I've come up with this series of posts, each of which contains some brief musings. I'm calling them Espresso Shots, because they're quick and don't last long but hopefully leave you with some sort of energy, if I do them well enough.

Here goes.


A few months ago, I had the idea that, as much as I liked Regina Spektor's newest album Far, it would have worked even better as a collection of short stories. It even seemed structured like a short story collection might: you had your charming, offbeat, subtly sad opener in "The Calculation", deeply human protagonists ("Human of the Year", "Genius Next Door"), and a mysterious but oddly satisfying closer ("Man of a Thousand Faces").

Now I realize that Far is an awful lot like a Haruki Murakami story, or collection of stories. Haruki and Regina seem to have that same off-kilter charm and eye for details. Like a couple that chooses to, seemingly on a whim, hold up a McDonald's in the middle of the night.

You should read Murakami's story "The Second Bakery Attack" here, and listen to the songs below, and tell me what you think.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Saturday Spotlight: Ariana Gillis

If I told you that this generation’s Bob Dylan hails from a small Ontario town and recently won the Canadian Folk Association’s award for Young Performer of the Year, you’d probably believe me. But what if I told you that this generation’s Bob Dylan has vibrant red hair, wears plaid socks, plays the ukulele and is only nineteen years old?

Ariana Gillis began playing music at the tender age of six, and by the age of eleven had already recorded a demo CD. Accompanied by her father— the esteemed Toronto musician David Gillis— she began touring across Canada, introducing audiences to her unique style until it came time for her to record her debut album. To Make it Make Sense was released in 2009 and quickly won listeners over with Ariana’s intelligent lyrics, bold arrangements, and dynamic, appealing vocals. Listening to Ariana Gillis is like enjoying a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on a sunny afternoon; her music is the perfect blend of youthful exuberance and precocious maturity.

From the rhythmic drums of opener “Blueberry Ocean” to the Dylanesque "Project Man", To Make it Make Sense is an album that honors Ariana’s musical influences and breaks with tradition. The resulting sound is captivating and utterly personal, as likely to put a smile on your face as it to bring you to tears.

To Make it Make Sense’s most recent single, the jubilant “Simon Brooke”, is currently enjoying regular rotation on CBC Radio 2; the song perfectly encapsulates its singer’s personality, with its warm, burnished arrangement giving a rousing accompaniment to Ariana’s quirky lyrics about her fascination with an obscure Vietnam War soldier – a man whose name is rapidly becoming familiar to listeners across North America.

The stories she tells are unconventional, frequently brilliant, and painfully relevant, yet they are anchored by her natural talent, innocence, sweetness, and fresh outlook on today’s confusing world. Like Bob Dylan, she holds a candle to the darker parts of humanity, and is not afraid to speak the truth.

Listen to more songs at her Myspace, or visit her official website here.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Grammys 2010: The good, the bad and the ugly

When it comes down to it, the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards were an awful lot like an old-fashioned western. You had your heroes -- most of which were country musicians, come to think of it -- and your villains -- the most ominous of which, Kanye West, could have been compared to Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget for the way he remained behind the scenes at the Grammys while still managing to win one of the darn things anyway.

In keeping with western tradition -- and the sorry state North America seems to be in -- the evening had a distinct air of escapism; the King and Queen of Camp themselves, Elton John and Lady Gaga, had the opening number, for Pete's sakes. It was an evening that offered those watching a chance to escape from the humdrum of their ordinary lives and witness the end of a storyline that had been going on ever since the MTV Video Music Awards earlier that year.

On January 31st, plans were made, guns were drawn, and music's highest earners prepared themselves for a long battle -- a battle that, like any good western, was effectively over before it already began.

Here's how it went down.

The Good

  • Lady Gaga's opening number was interesting and kind of fun, but it was ruined by the cheesy cries of "She's a monster and she's turning all of you into monsters!" and was painful to watch at some points, almost becoming as laughable as her performance on Oprah when she tried to smash a car window and couldn't. While Elton John was a welcome addition halfway through, the choice of "Your Song" seemed awfully self-congratulatory, and it was weird, not necessarily glamorous.

  • Stephen Colbert was essentially given the opening monologue of the evening, which could be compensation for not hosting the Oscars. It was very funny, his daughter had great comic timing, and he managed to get in a few priceless jabs at Adam Lambert and Jay-Z without bursting the fairytale bubble of the whole thing.

  • Even though she's been doing it for a few tours now, Pink's aerial act while performing "Glitter in the Air" was stunning and classy -- and, according to visitors,their favorite performance of the night.

  • Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli singing the Simon and Garfunkel classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in support of Haitian relief. Very passionate, but the pairing was a bit odd -- she seemed beside herself and he had virtually no facial expression. I'm not sure if I like this as much as I did upon immediate viewing.

  • Leonard Cohen and Neil Young finally won some sort of Grammy Award. Need I say more?

The Bad

  • Let's face it: Beyonce's performance on Sunday was, vocal theatrics aside, pretty uneven. That she decided to perform something from the bloated, melodramatic I Am... part of her ridiculous so-called alter-ego "concept" album instead of a fun, upbeat song from Sasha Fierce and throw Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" into the mix was bizarre enough. But did she really need to pull a Jay-Z and start grabbing at a, ahem, certain part of the human anatomy that she doesn't even have?

  • It's no wonder Taylor Swift won Album of the Year, because she clearly has some of the best computers in Hollywood to be able to turn that voice into something that could stand against someone like Stevie Nicks. Unfortunately, while she can carry a tune, she didn't do her best on Sunday night, and the fact that she used elements from the far-superior Butch Walker cover of "You Belong to Me" -- a cover that doesn't even suit her voice -- didn't help either.

  • Justin "I Entirely Benefit From Studio Trickery" Bieber and Ke$ha "Why Am I Here?" Sebert easily won the Grammy for Least Enthusiastic Reading Off Of Teleprompter, Duo or Group Presenter Division. The 15-year-old Bieber also referred to Bon Jovi as Beyonce, covering himself by claiming "Beyonce's always on my mind." Thank you, Justin dear. Excuse me while I cringe.

The Ugly

  • Some sort of lowbrow parody of opera, Jamie Foxx, T-Pain, Slash, some other guy nobody's heard of, and Robert Downey Jr. This was so incredibly awful that even Jay-Z was speechless.

  • I was speechless myself when Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, Usher and the postmortem voice of Michael Jackson joined together for a performance of "Earth Song" that, aside from the well-thanks-for-not-telling-us-about-the-3D-earlier special effects, seemed rather ironic considering that a group of people whose combined carbon footprint is probably larger than Mali was up there crying "What about us?" At least they had good intentions, but the irony was too evident not to notice.

I'd like to end this post on a positive note, so I'll direct you to Taylor Swift's lovely acceptance speech after winning her first-ever Grammy for Best Country Album. Good night.

Monday, 11 January 2010

White Album Redux #5: Wild Honey Pie

What can you honestly say about "Wild Honey Pie"? It's less than a minute long, features Paul McCartney screeching over a cacophany of instruments, and probably should have never made it off the cutting-room floor. Yet it made it on The Beatles -- something most attribute to Pattie Boyd, George Harrison' wife, having an overwhelming fondness for the song -- and must be written about.

Out of the entire White Album, "Wild Honey Pie" tends to divide people the most, as does "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", possibly because they ended up on the same side as classics like "Dear Prudence" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". It's almost as if we're annoyed at songs like "Wild Honey Pie" for the way they seemingly come out of nowhere.

Whether you like the song or not is entirely your own opinion. PopMatters labelled it "coherent and memorable". A casual listener looking for the much, er, sweeter "Honey Pie" on their iPod might stumble upon it instead and wonder if they've gone mad.

There's a kind of joyful madness, though, that "Wild Honey Pie" represents -- that messing around in the studio that can lead to some happy accidents. Whether "Wild Honey Pie" is one of those happy accidents is still up in the air; appropriately enough, only two professional covers exist, according to Wikipedia at least.

Here's the better of them - "Wild Honey Pie" as covered by Pixies. It's about as weird and unpredictable as the original song itself.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Freezing That Frame: Memories of 2009

It seems hard to believe that another year has passed. I spent most of it working, moving from Point A to Point B, but incredible things still managed to sneak their way into my life, often without my noticing.

You may have noticed the title: it's a lyric from the Tori Amos song "Gold Dust", a masterpiece that manages to be beautifully oblique and sharply relevant at the same time. I find music is so often linked to memory, so it's fitting that this recollection is guided by music.

Here we go.


The first thing that comes to mind is the Carol Shields Festival of Voices in late spring, which I found out about quite by accident and came away from it feeling truly alive. A three-day event where writers flew in from all over the country to discuss Carol Shields' work -- although that really wasn't the point, the point was appreciating words and the power they have.

I remember chatting with Andrew Davidson and Jane Urquhart and feeling slightly starstruck. I remember a poetry panel where I became convinced that poetry is somehow a dying form of literature, but only regarded as such by poets themselves, who all seemed interested in talking mostly about their own work and not about Shields. Chief among them was Chandra Mayor, ruthless in pink.

I remember attending the dedication of the Carol Shields Labyrinth and watching the Shoestring Theatre Company perform selected scenes from her play Departures and Arrivals -- a play I later saw in a high school theatre, and read about as having also occurred at a local university. I met an actor, Duncan McGregor, that had played the pilot in the Shoestring production quite by accident in line at the Neil Gaiman signing in December.

Neil Gaiman. An author I had been familiar with through Tori Amos' work (where she references him occasionally with lyrics like "Seems I keep getting this story twisted/So where's Neil when you need him?" An apt question; the man makes the extraordinary seem perfectly ordinary, as if every person beside you on a plane just happened to be a Norse god. I found this out while reading American Gods, and am still reading that book, diving into it every so often and emerging, delighted, at what I discover.)

I met a few people on planes this year. There was a man with a British accent on the flight from Munich to Toronto (or was it from Toronto to Frankfurt? Frankfurt to Toronto? Was the plane even in Germany?) in March who talked endlessly about how he'd had the chance to see Salman Rushdie speak. Rushdie ended up in Winnipeg much later, in colder months, where he kept on calling Canada 'the United States'. I didn't go, but everything ends up in Winnipeg anyways, drawn by the magnetic power of the Forks, and I'm confident he'll end up here again, one way or another. Everything ends (up) here.

That's what Guy Maddin's brilliant film My Winnipeg says, and doesn't say: it's such a collage of memory and myth, fact and fiction, that I'm not sure it says anything at all. It just is. My Winnipeg ended up later as Roger Ebert's 10th best film of the entire decade. I went to a free lecture by Maddin at the University of Manitoba's St. John's College, saw a short film I've been trying to hunt down ever since (it's called "Tango" and won an Academy Award), ate some suspiciously decadent desserts, and had a poster signed. I wish I had taken a picture.

I wish I had been more adept with a camera in Italy, as I somehow managed to delete all of my pictures from that magical two-week trip and was left with a journal filled with many memories and song lyrics. I remember watching CNN and sending emails to my parents, who were in London at the same time as the economic summit, to check if they hadn't been swarmed by protesters. I remember watching MTV and seeing a Britney Spears video for a song that should have long since been forgotten. I remember singing along -- as Carmen Electra walked in a field wearing a not-quite-traditional wedding dress, heavily dubbed in Italian -- in a high-pitched voice, to "I Will Always Love You".

Whitney Houston made a comeback. I got the distinct sense it would be a flop. I don't know if I was right.

Much music came my way this year -- I cringed at Katy Perry and Owl City, was slowly won over by Lady GaGa, and still can't understand the hype for MGMT and Bat for Lashes (who seems to be popular only because people seem to have forgotten Kate Bush). Rolling Stone slowly gained irrelevancy as I learned they had given U2 and Bruce Springsteen albums I found aimless and plodding "classic" status almost immediately. Also, they got into politics, which seemed pointless.

I discovered PopMatters. I agreed, and disagreed, with Roger Ebert. I started a blog.

I became firmly convinced Meryl Streep could be playing a Dumpster and still be fantastic. I watched films I hadn't seen since 2006 -- a critical year in my life this decade, when my world expanded drastically -- and saw them with new eyes. But back to 2009.

I got a cat, and it was the victim of fate's cruel hand almost a month or two later in late August . Goodbye, Ebert. I went the same weekend to West Hawk Lake with a group where we found ourselves lost, and had to climb up cliffs to get back.

I climbed up my own cliffs when I left a job that was wrong for me, even if I was trying to convince myself it wasn't. Looking elusively for that bookstore job, which will be much more difficult with the 100 people that used to work for McNallys Polo Park now in the job market again after it closed.

That same store was where I met Morley Walker back in 2008, who I might never have met if I hadn't been late because I thought the Andrew Davidson signing was at Grant Park. I met him again at the Festival of Voices, at a party I attended quite by accident.

I made contacts and didn't follow up on them. I made contacts and did.

I volunteered at Folklorama and found myself in a strange position, explaining about a culture I wasn't a part of to people that assumed I was.

I ate a lot of good food.

I had a birthday.

I saw Pink Martini in concert, who I missed the year before, and Meaghan Smith, months before she made it big. Or was that last year?

This year I definitely saw Leonard Cohen, who stunned me with his three-hour set, and didn't see Sarah Slean or Danny Michel, who was recording a live album.

I saw a lot of really good theatre, including The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, which I recommend anyone seeing if it comes to your hometown.

I saw Madama Butterfly and was mesmerized. I saw Il Trovatore and wasn't.

Meaghan Smith released her long-awaited debut. It still didn't beat seeing her live, which was stunning. She also opened for Chantal Kreviazuk, who I became a huge fan of again after somehow convincing myself she was "just okay" in the three years between 2006's Ghost Stories and 2009's Plain Jane.

(I didn't see that concert. There were a lot of concerts I didn't see.)

I saw 500 Days of Summer and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the former of which a lot of people loved, and the latter a lot of people didn't. I didn't see Synedoche, New York, which is Roger Ebert's best film of the decade (his best film of the Nineties was Hoop Dreams), which flopped at the box office but could be a sleeper hit on DVD.

A box office hit was Year One, which most people came away from with the intense feeling that they were owed their money back -- or a public apology by all involved, at the very least. It was the only film I saw in 2009 that I actually hated -- I don't see a lot of films, so not sure if that counts for anything, but I'm putting it out there regardless.

I can say with confidence that In Rainbows by Radiohead could have been much better without the first two tracks, that honey mustard is delicious, and that Gunn's Bakery has the best poppyseed strudel in the city. I can say that Kanye West is a jerk, that Taylor Swift isn't bad, and you may be hearing big things about another country starlet named Mallary Hope.

I can say I haven't warmed up yet to Grizzly Bear, that I saw a bald eagle, and that a city seen from the top of a hill on a clear blue day can be one of the most awe-inspiring sights. I can say I may be running on too long, that I've gone into mundane trivia, that this list should really be ending.

I can say that President Obama was elected, that lipsynching is perfectly acceptable under certain circumstances, and that life is wonderful.

It was a busy year.