Some seven years after the last time I saw them, I went with Leah to see Wolf Parade at the Imperial last night. &, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
But let’s start with the Pack AD, who’re amazing, impeccable and can rock. I’m pretty sure I saw them a long time ago when they were participating in Shindig (maybe 2007? so after I was there every week, but before I stopped going entirely). I have a personal fondness for the stripped-down sounds of a guitar-drum two-piece. Add in serious vocal chops and yeah – just see the Pack AD if you enjoy garage rock, at all. There’s a line in their official bio that is pretty perfect, and true:
the Pack A.D. have owned every spotlight and stolen every show they’ve ever played. Becky and Maya are relentless and riveting, playing with the kind of fuck-off freedom that makes everybody in the room vicarious rock stars, even if it’s just for the night.
Wolf Parade is really a tale of two bands: Spencer Krug’s Wolf Parade, and Dan Boeckner’s Wolf Parade. And they really are two bands dressed up at once explains why still, some seven years later, the same line still applies – they don’t really know how to run a concert. There’s awkward silences (they had technical difficulties tonight as well), for most of the night there didn’t seem to be a lot of joy on stage, and while no one can fault their musicianship, they didn’t seem particularly tight for a band that’s been around as long as they have (even given their long hiatus).
Songs that Spencer (keyboards) sings lead on (and presumably, wrote), are synth/keyboards-driven melodic garage pop. They are ambitious, involve everyone in the band, are lyrically more diverse. Songs that Dan (guitar) sings lead on (and presumably, wrote), are straight-up guitar-driven guitar rock. Both are excellent – but different. I definitely have a preference, based on last night’s show, on Spencer’s version of the band (at the same time, it wouldn’t be nearly as good a band, or show, if it was just his stuff). Everyone seemed more involved, more together on those songs. Perhaps they are more difficult to play? Not sure.
It’s worth noting that by the end of the night, they’d really come together. What was a really rough start was totally put aside by their finale, an amazing, long, high-energy jam to end the night. It was the first time all night I saw Dan and Spencer looking at each other, smiling, playing with each other. If that’s the band that’ll show up the next couple of nights (this was the first of 3 shows at the Imperial this week), everyone else is in for a real treat.
One of Liam’s favourite artists is Vance Joy, who’s an Australian folk singer, in the vein of Jack Johnson, that is to say he’s very charming, pleasant and not particularly challenging, so absolutely radio-friendly and enjoyable.
As a last-minute thing, I found a pair of reasonably-priced, decent seats at the Orpheum, and so suddenly I was taking Liam to his second concert ever (his first being Mumford & Sons out in Surrey).
And… it was perfect. He was happy – singing along, clapping along, dancing in front of his seat – exactly what I want as a parent when I take him to something for him, rather than for me. The late night definitely meant a few yawns, and I think he’d have preferred if people didn’t stand up for the whole concert, but a rousing success.
The show itself? Well, it was mixed. The opening act, Rueben and the Dark were excellent. Really enjoyed their show, their energy, their music – Liam too – he immediately wanted to add their stuff to his music.
Vance Joy was charming as all heck, telling short stories to intro the songs he was singing. But… it all felt a little too pleasant. Charm, not excellence was the tenor of the night. The quality of songs is also widely varied – I’m not sure if he has on occasional collaborator who is responsible for his 3 (to date) radio hits, but they (+ 1 other) stood head-and-shoulders, quality-wise, above most of his material. Then, closing the night, he covered Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, which.. while an excellent cover, really showed up his own music as lacking a certain something.
But – maybe that’s just where we are. According to one story Vance Told, just 2.5 years ago, he was playing the Media Club, just him and a guitar. And now he’s got 2 sold-out shows at the Orpheum. That’s a pretty good 2 years of work. I definitely enjoyed the show – he’s so damn pleasant you’d have to be a real asshole to not – but, I can’t say he was excellent.
But, that wasn’t really the point last night. The point was to go with Liam to see someone he really likes, for him to experience the pleasure of live music being played well in front of other like-minded fans and that, that was everything I could have wanted it to be. Liam’s just now developing his own distinct tastes in music, and I look forward to learning from him about new and different acts in the way I started teaching my parents about music I discovered, sharing back. This night was a great start to that, sharing his enthusiasm.
I used to do this regularly (see 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 & 2010), but apparently haven’t done it in a while. I suspect that it is no coincidence that my stopping this corresponds directly with Kellan’s arrival in my life.
But this year has felt like a particularly good year in music, and one where there’s been lots of changes in how I listen to music (good bye Rdio! hello Apple Music!). So, as in previous years, here’s an alphabetical list of albums that I liked a lot. Unlike previous years, I won’t be linking to Amazon, because who buys music anymore! Also – only a top 8 this year: If I had to think about it, it didn’t make the list. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something I really loved at some point, but these albums all stuck with me.
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
A stunning mix of gospel-blues-electronica, powered, unerringly, by Brittany Howard’s unbelievable voice, this album has the distinction of being my most-played album of the year. I couldn’t get the first eponymous single out of my head
Beach House – Depression Cherry
Lush, ethereal, moody. Dark like a grey afternoon, but maybe just after the rain has cleared, this feels like a slightly rawer album than their last.
Björk – Vulnicura
A strange, moving, personal album about painful divorce, it is cathartic, raw, and even occasionally really hard to listen to.
Coeur de Pirate – Roses
A most Canadian of albums, this was my favourite “pop” album of the year. Introspective lyrics and some well-done orchestral arrangements make this a lovely listen.
Grimes – Art Angels
Local-via-Montreal wunderkid Grimes can really do no wrong in my book. I’m not sure I “get” this album, but I sure can’t stop listening to it! One reason I really like this is in comparison to her last – she, as I understand, wrote, performed, produced, art-directed – the whole thing on here. Incredible craftsmanship.
Jamie XX – In Colour
The standout techno album of the year, an amazing, astounding mix of anthemic and yet somehow really small, detailed, personal music. It also has this weird sense, from the earlier-era samples carefully paired with modern collaborators of being not really of today of being a really timeless, yet somehow immediate, album
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I’m not really knowledgeable hip-hop, but some albums cross over – this one crossed way over. It felt like a window into a completely different world – as Pitchfork wrote, this album is “black as fuck”. It tied together social consciousness and politics lyrically, with amazing music. This album was my intro to Kamasi Washington, who’s album The Epic should probably be on here too.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Right up there with Vulnicura as perhaps the most depressing album of the year, this is also one of the most beautiful: a loving, detailed look at Sufjan’s parents. Not self-pitying, not aggrandising, but a really intense look inwards that we all get to peek at.
I finally saw Jack White last night! Fourth time’s the charm (I failed 2 times during the White Stripes era, once since – a mixture of weather problems and my own incompetence).
Note 1: I did not take the photo this post. That photo is by David James Swanson, whom I understand to be the “Tour Photographer”, and, if I heard the announcement right, both he and Jack White are totally cool with us using his photos. great!
I went with Iva & Leah. Not really Leah’s thing, but Iva was excited, and Leah’s a good sport & I think still enjoyed herself.
This is the sort of live show that I live for: Full of improvisation, different treatments on well-trodden songs, mistakes, and, above all, a showcase of musicianship that only occasionally veered into wankery.
The best: I’m guessing that Jack White & the band make up (or alter) the set-list on the fly. Before each song, there’s this hurried conversation between Jack and one or more band members – whomever has to bring in the song with him, while the others catch up. When they start to improvise mid-song, bringing in snippets of other songs, this requires more conversation. Watching the drummer & bassist intently watching & listening to that musical lead was a highlight.
The mediocre: This band is not quite tight enough for this to work. At least once, the band got confused as to where the song was going, and there were some audible mis-cues.
The bad: With Jack White, I’m beginning to think “less is more”..the songs where he lets his band really stretch out worked the best. His solo & lead guitar work definitely veered into wanking showmanship too often, Ball & Biscuit being the song that really stands out in my mind as Jack White wanking off musically, rather than working the song. But letting his bandmates run – even a gorgeous theramin solo! was truly remarkable.
The inexplicable: Why was the sound so bad? I’ve been to several shows at Deer Lake now, and this was by far the worst. Everything was off. Why was the side-of-stage-piano mic better levelled than the lead? What was wrong with the acoustic guitar pickup? Why was there a distinct right-to-left echo going on? Why the muddy? I was wondering if perhaps they were aiming for some “old school” muddy, mono-mix blues sound…but it didn’t work.
The acceptable: That was a short set…just under 2 hours. I partially blame the rules for playing at Deer Lake…hard to have a long show when you’ve got to finish at 10pm. But boy did they pack a lot into that short set.
The everything-is-alright-in-the-world: Singing the guitar riff to Seven Nation Army with 100s of other humans with the band backing you and Jack White singing over it was a beautiful collective-joy moment, and a great send-off for the night.
Stop. Before you read any more of what I have to say, go read Lauren’s beautiful take on the concert. She’ll describe it much more beautifully than I. She also experienced a very different concert than I. Perhaps the one I wanted to have.
Much like Lauren, seeing Bruce Springsteen live was on my musical bucket list (& perhaps my actual list). I knew going into the show that this would be a tidy, soul-based, big-band experience. But it didn’t connect for me. Maybe it was my vantage point. I was high up, slightly behind the stage as you can see from the instagram above.
It irked me that the band started the show in “mid-concert” form – there was no warming up the crowd, we were just suppose to already be fully swayed by the awesome that is the band, and call-and-answer, sing-along and glory by the end of the first bar. I wasn’t. I don’t care you are, you earn my devotion through the course of a show, not before I show up.
Watching from above, the show seemed so choreographed, so pre-planned that nothing felt spontaneous. I got the distinct impression that the hand gestures, the rock-god posing – it would have happened whether there was an adoring audience or not – not that there’s ever any fear of there not being an adoring audience at a stadium rock show.
What I love most about live music is seeing musicians on stage who appear to truly love being there, who are present in that moment, with whom I can share a sense of a special moment. At one point Bruce said that he loves his job. Which is great, I’m glad. But I guess I want him to pretend, for me, that playing live shows isn’t a job – it’s a passion, something he simply couldn’t exist without. Because no matter how much you love your job, you can walk away, leave it behind and get back to your life.
I can’t fault the band’s stellar muscianship, his showmanship or the effort put into the show. I cannot believe that at his age Bruce Springsteen can still work a stage the way he does. Hell, I couldn’t keep up with him, and I’m only slightly over half his age (he’s, I believe, 64; I’m 35). But the whole event felt clinical, precise to me. Cynical, even.
For someone for whom music has always been central to my life, I was very late to the CD party. I grew up in a house where there was a communal stereo in the living room. First, custom built shelves of old bricks & boards, LPs stored underneath, a row of cassettes, then the amp & cassette deck. The record player held the place of privilege, alone atop the unit. My parents had a sizeable record collection: dozens of folk & singer-songwriter era records from their youth, along with an even larger, but to me, largely invisible classical collection. the LSO’s recording of Brahms was only an obstacle to find the Cat Stevens or the Beatles.
Upstairs, in their rooms, my much older siblings had their own music collections. MY brother had an even larger collection of LPs, stored in milk crates. His collection was largely contemporary, and for the era, pretty outside the mainstream. When he wasn’t home, or I thought I wouldn’t get caught, I would sneak up into his room and just gaze at the albums. Slip Diamond Dogs out of the sleeve, careful not to rip the paper liner, cringing as inevitably the corners would get folded. He had a small lint-brush kept atop the milk-crates that was to be used solely to clean his records. I cleaned so many records that I dare not actually play, hearing in my head the music held within them. My sister, to my memory, did not have records in her room. She had posters and cassettes, and it was all much scarier and I left it more or less alone. Teenage boys can be angry towards their little brothers. Teenage girls fiercely protective of their space are downright scary.
The CD already existed during all of this time – but it was a non-factor in my family’s life until it had been out for nearly a decade, around 1990 or so. Somewhen after my siblings left for university, when I was 12 or 13, our house was broken into. The record player, visible on its pedestal from the porch outside, was a victim of that burglary, along with any number of records from below. When the stereo system was replaced, my parents bought a CD player. My mother was a fan of the Concerto de Aranjuez, and that LP went missing during the robbery. For her birthday I bought my first ever CDs, 2 different renditions of the Rodrigo’s masterpiece, for my mother.
Even though there was a CD player in the house, I continued to buy tapes for myself for entirely practical reasons: When my brother left home I relocated my bedroom upstairs into what used to be his, and in that room I had a double-tape-teck-radio blaster. It was terrible, essentially monaural because the right-side speaker was constantly shorting out and I loved it. Late sunday nights I would stay up in bed, desperately hoping to keep the signal so I could listen, & record, the Grateful Dead Hour radio show. I bought 120-minute tapes so I could record the entire hour on 1 side of the cassette. I would carefully label each episode, and stored it in a pleather-covered cassette-holder briefcase. I would also endlessly make mixtapes. Some were themed (songs starting with the letter I, spelling the recipient’s name), some were educational (all songs produced by Rick Rubin), some were mercenary (I would give and sell and trade tapes to friends). But every single one of those tapes was made on my crappy double-cassette-deck, painstakingly lined up to optimize each side of the cassette. CDs just didn’t lend themselves to easy trading. They were artifacts of consumption, not catalysts for creation like cassettes were.
The first CD I bought for myself was (keeping with my love of the mix-tape & live music), a bootleg 3-cd set of a live Led Zeppelin show from Montreux that sounded terrible, contained mistakes but I thought was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I bought it at a market in Paris while I was on exchange there. I didn’t have a portable CD player with me in France. I didn’t have a CD player of my own at home, but I wanted that set.
It wasn’t until a year later that I got my first CD player, in 1994: for my birthday, my parents gave me a stereo amp. I hooked it up to the 4-ft speakers my brother had left behind nearly 5 years prior in my room. All it could do was play the radio. I was both thrilled, and crushed, that it sounded so good and I couldn’t play my music on it. But that christmas, 2 months later, came part 2: the double-cassette-deck component, and, a cd-player. It all came to university with me, including the way-too-large-for-my-dorm-room speakers, and I loved it. I had acquired a bunch of CDs & quality headphones that I bought second-hand from the owner of a nearby headshop. I still use those headphones today, but nothing else remains from that stereo. Not even the CDs.
For having started collecting CDs fairly late, I made up for it quickly. I bought dozens of magazines that came with sample-music CDs. It was a fantastic way to learn of European techno from Toronto, or music from the New York folk scene. Nearly every spare dollar I had went to buying music. When I moved in with Leah some 8 years later I owned just north of 1000 CDs. I spent hours re-arranging my CDs – if you’ve seen or read High Fidelity, you’ll recognize the obsessive levels of re-arranging I would do. It wasn’t until I realized that Leah didn’t understand how to browse my ordered by alphabetical by producer/songwriter that I gave up on all that & started grouping roughly by genre, then alphabetically. It’s amazing that less than 8 years after that, not only could I no longer arrange my albums by producer, I don’t even know who produced the vast majority of albums I own: it seemed so vitally important to know then, so trivial now.
In 1996 I started working at the student computer help desk at UBC. A manager there, named Jeffrey, had a SCSI CD burner. For work purposes, of course – legitimate duplication of software to hand out to UBC employees (trumpet winsock, anyone?). But late one evening he showed me that he could also duplicate CDs. Create an exact digital duplicate. No loss in fidelity like as what happened to my mixtapes. I was hooked. I couldn’t begin to afford to buy a new CD-R, but when UBC upgraded his machine, they let me buy his old CD-R for a couple hundred bucks. It was single-speed, but It. Was. Awesome. Everyone I knew and loved received a custom-made mixed CD for christmas that holiday. I printed my own album covers & liner notes on my brand-new bubble-jet printer. I asked my girlfriend of the time to hand-write on the discs because my handwriting is terrible.
I experimented with buying CDs, duplicating them and then returning them to stores, but I discovered that I missed the liner notes, so that only happened a few times. I also discovered that because there was no “skill” in making mix CDs that I didn’t enjoy it as much as making mix tapes. The fade-control, time-limits could all be effortlessly predicted through the software. I played with DJ mixes, but was terrible at it, and the software for making such things was very bare-bones back then.
I last bought a CD about 4 years ago. I started a project to digitize my CD collection, and now buy all my music digitally. I don’t miss the format at all. Well, that’s not entirely true. I miss the thrill of examining the packaging, reading the liner notes terribly. There is nothing quite like rushing home with a new purchase, peeling it out of the plastic wrapping, putting it on the stereo and lying there, headphones on to really hear the album, and browsing the liner notes. You can’t do that with digital music. There’s nothing to hold. When my toddler is old enough that I don’t have to worry about him breaking things, I’ll likely buy another turn-table and buy some favourites on vinyl, but not another CD.
I don’t know if I stole it from my brother, or inherited it when he outgrew it or if it was a gift. But when I was a kid, I had a tshirt. I ratty, thread-bare tshirt that had the iconic album cover image from The Clash’s London Calling on the front. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who The Clash were or what they sounded like but I knew I loved that shirt. The abandonment of smashing a guitar spoke to me. I was a reserved, ultra-shy kid. I could never in a million years imagine doing such a thing. But I loved it.
Growing up, music was important in my family. We had a quality stereo, with good speakers. It sat in 1 corner of the living room. The unit was home-built, cobbled together from some bricks and wood boards. The bottom shelf was storage for our LPs. The second shelf held the amplifier and the cassette-player. There was half-shelf on top of that, which was cassette storage on the left. & the crown jewel: the record player. I’ve no idea if it was a particularly good player, but the sound that came from those speakers when listening to an LP was sublime. We had a stiff-cushioned couch that was perfect for building forts (or a tunnel) out of. I would put on an album – the Beatles, or Cat Stevens or something else from my parents’ collection, which tended heavily to singer-songwriterly & classical, and sit in the semi-darkness of my fort, dreaming of the wide world outside my windows, listening to the record player, bursting forth from my fort when it was time to change sides of the LP. It my memories these were always solo pursuits, but I think the truth is more that I was so lost in my world that I was oblivious to the rest of my family around me.
Much as the tshirt that preceded it, I don’t know if I stole the album from my brother’s collection, or if it was a gift – I’m certain I didn’t buy it. But it was the first gate-folded double-LP I can remember. There was some water damage, in the bottom-centre corner, and the cardboard had sponged out & torn slightly. The sleeve, yellowed & made brittle with age or use, of LP 1 had torn, and someone had taped it back together with cello tape. The album cover had that slightly musty smell of damp cardboard that I will eternally associate with good music. I’d pull the disc out of the sleeve carefully, so as to not further damage it – sleeves were always really important to me, despite their almost by-design replaceable nature. I’d lift the plastic lid up off the record player, situate the disc on the centre spindle, gently place the needle-arm at the start. Then always, always, turned it UP. The initial crackle and pop, and Oh, that opening riff. Snarling, choppy guitars howling scratchily out of the speakers. Then the surprisingly musical singing from Joe Strummer, London Calling. Heaven.
I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to London Calling. I’m by no means a good guitarist but I can play every song straight through. I know every lyric. Our LP had a scratch in the middle of Death or Glory – the first “just another story” was never sung, just bounced over. I’ve since bought this album on Cassette, CD & ripped it to FLAC, but in my mind’s heart, these digital versions are what’s wrong, not the scratchy version on my album.
I don’t own a record player right now. The convenience of the digital library, accessible anywhere, instantly being able to play any tune is just too hard to compete against. But digital music doesn’t have the soul of an LP. They say scent-memory is particularly strong. And it’s true. For many of my favourite music from when I was a kid, I have an olfactory response of the musty smell of the cardboard LP covers they lived in, the hot-dust smell of a record that had been played on repeat for too long. Liam won’t have that. When he wants a song, he’ll find it on our digital library, on on YouTube. There’s an inconvenience in flipping through stacks of LPs, but there’s also a joy of browsing too – how often did I put on something entirely different because my fingers happened to pause on that LP while searching for another one all together?
Which got me thinking – what was my first solo show? I’d been to earlier shows with family, and I knew that in 1992 I went to a bunch of shows. But thanks to the miracle of the internet, I have discovered which was (I think) my first “solo” concert.
On March 20th, 1992, 3 friends and myself all did the “I’m staying at so-and-so’s house” trick with our parents, and traveled from Toronto to Hamilton to see The Grateful Dead at Copps Coliseum. I can’t recall if we were discovered or not, or if my parents know to this day (if not, surprise!) that I did this. I must not have gotten in immediate trouble if I did because my second concert concert was only a few days later – U2’s ZooTV show at Maple Leaf Gardens on March 24th, 1992 – although maybe my older sister took me to that concert? I can’t remember who it was with.
Those two concerts started about a 15-year run of my seeing lots of concerts that ended more or less with the birth of Liam (I still get to the occasional show, but at a much lower frequency).
Thanks to tickets I won from Miss 604, I got to go see Tokyo Police Club, along with Dinosaur Bones & Said the Whale on Saturday night. As part of some promotion, these tickets included what was originally to be a soundcheck party with Tokyo Police Club, but instead became a pre-set backstage visit. I’ve been backstage a couple of times – about a decade ago when I saw Moby, at the Commodore, and also seeing Toad the Wet Sprocket at, I think, the Opera House in Toronto (the old concert venue on East King – not the current fancy opera house) (did I just age myself with that last band?). Both previous times, backstage was a party. Fun, relaxed, energetic. But both Moby & Toad were acts at their height at the time, whereas TPC are still figuring stuff out. So there was an awkward meet-and-greet lineup. I suppose I could have got my picture taken with them, or had them sign my pass, but I’m not really that sort of guy. Were I covering the show for someone, sure – but then I’d have interview questions. Instead we made awkward small-talk, and I think everyone involved was glad when it was over.
Coming back outside, I caught the end of Dinosaur Bones’ set. They were fun. I’d need to give them a dedicated listen to decide if I liked them, if they had anything original in their sound, but they were fun. After a short break, Said the Whale came on, and played the house like they were the headliners. Given that they were local, it might actually have made sense for them to headline this show. The crowd was right into them and the feeling seemed to be mutual. I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of theirs. As Day said, they’re a cross between Spirit of the West & Maroon 5: they don’t know if they’re a hell-raising party band or smooth radio-friendly pop. Currently, they fall awkwardly between. Their two most well known songs, or at least the two I recognized from the radio, seemed to epitomize either end of that spectrum. For all that, however, I greatly enjoyed their set. I think a couple of years on the road and they will be an utterly amazing live act, regardless of the quality of their studio material.
As I said earlier, perhaps Said the Whale should have headlined. Tokyo Police Club, despite their great hooks and catchy lyrics that have made them a deserved success, are not well-seasoned on stage yet. Sure, they perform well – they ran through their set cleanly from what I could tell, but there was a certain something missing – a spark, a connection, a something that Said the Whale had instantly from the first chord. But I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like the set – I did. I’m a big fan of the material, which goes a long way to overcome a less-than-stellar stage presence. & they played a good mix of stuff from their last & current album, and I bopped along happily.
Update: Just found this, unpublished, in my drafts. I’m spitting it out, as is, for…posterity? anyway. these were apparently my 3 favourite albums of 2009. Stands to reason – they’re all still on heavy rotation.
So I’m getting to this super-last minute, due to a variety of real-life things, but here it is. Oddly, when I started this list, I was thinking that overall this was a pretty bad year, but then as I started getting into doing this, I found I’ve had a really hard time narrowing this down to just 10. I’m purposefully excluding all re-releases, re-mastered & so on and so forth, because, if there’s one thing my 2009 music collection is full of, its really, really fantastic re-releases of old releases.
Without further ado, here is the list, in alphabetical order:
Bitte Orca – Dirty Projector
This is perhaps one of the most surprising albums of the year for me. A difficult, proggy, sometimes dischordantly abrasive album that somehow transcends all those “difficult music” attributes to be a warm, lush, lovely listen time and time again.
Flaming Lips – Embryonic
Definitely gets my vote for the most unexpected re-incarnation of a band I’d written off as no longer critically relevant. It’s dark, it’s heavy, it’s a non-stop assault on your ears that is just incredible from start to finish. Like most of the best albums, I didn’t really appreciate this one until I stopped working, put on the headphones and really listened to it.
Girs – Album
This album is sort of a Gen X masterpiece – a detached, perhaps ironic look at love, relationships, and the question of just what exactly to do with one’s life. Also, the first, and most x-rated video I’ve ever seen.