Writing about music is something I’ve often found to be quite challenging. It is a confounding struggle penning meaningful criticisms over such fiercely subjective matters in a way that is both engaging and intelligent without coming off like pretension made flesh – especially with real ballpark, A-1 sentences such as that one. Taste makers today write these adjective stuffed hamburger paragraphs, castigating records the collective deems to be awful and heralding the good; comparing them to messianic troubadours, capable of ending the social unrest and bullet swaps in Syria with a lone “dreamy trance witch house trip hop” single. The collective – who of course enjoy being on the razor’s edge of the avant garde – feed on these reviews, the subsequent forum discussions and barstool exchanges that follow, perpetuating the cycle with likes, follows, deified emoticons and other vapid forms of praise. And then what? A new abbreviated and muted way of language reveals itself, Wagnerian-like columns of re-pressed vinyl reach to the sky and everybody glosses over the things they liked in violent earnest for that forgotten moment of their lives. With all of this in mind, here are five records I really enjoyed listening to before lunch this year.
For breakfast, I am ruminating over the sexual inefficacies of my entire life, the what-seems-like-hundredth-invasion-of-Iraq and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Most album of the year lists or top tens, twenties, thousand lists would be remiss in adding this brilliant piece of music to their respective catalogues and I don’t blame them. Composers, in the realm of contemporary and popular music, generally get the cold shoulder and it is very unlikely you will find the likes of Zimmer rubbing his Dolce and Gabbana clad shoulders with Miley Cyrus’ completely naked pair at the Grammys. Interstellar’s haunting organs, ghost howls and relentless string arrangements in Place Among the Stars are slightly reminiscent of Wendy Carlos’ work in A Clockwork Orange. The rest of the album is a torrid emotional experience, rife with palpitating crescendos and oppressive, bulldozer piano sequences, though at times giving way for moody expanses of cloying respite. Absolutely choice for a breakfast of autumnal solitude.
I leave my house dishevelled, forgetting my keys in the bathroom sink and buttoning my jacket three buttons apart but not without hitting play on Taylor Swift’s latest effort 1989. I am a twenty eight year old bald male wearing a Pallbearer t-shirt and thinking about what a tragedy it is that I don’t have the emotional capacity to fathom the thoughts of my cat Puma. In this sense I’m probably a very atypical candidate to be touting the neon virtues of a Taylor Swift album. Not so. I have been listening to Swift since her second album Fearless whence I was working in a butcher shop as a meat cutter, bereft of shame and full of pride. Now everywhere I look, bearded men who build espresso makers/smokers out of their broken motorcycles the world over are jumping on the Taylor Swift bandwagon talking about what a “timeless pop effort” 1989 is like they just found her…because they just did. I’ve long appreciated Swift as both a country and pop artist that in ways channels the greats Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline while elevating her genre to a commercial audience with a well-articulated sensibility that speaks to millions. In the pop netherworld populated by cartoon caricatures of human beings like Nicki Minaj and lecherous codeine promethazine addicts like Riff Raff, it is especially refreshing to hear a musician who can be taken seriously on a level of sheer musicality while portraying a wholesome picture of clumsy irreverence and warm honesty – an honesty especially of note at the close of the album wherein she details just how she goes about writing a song.
Like the Mississaugans playing house in the condos I pass, the street car is broken, hibernating, probably watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix and thus, I am forced to walk to the subway station. For a murder of idiots, this would be irksome but it provides me with the opportunity to reflect on life in the city of the unitesticular concrete skycock and listen to Toronto’s very own Alvvays. I feel the gamut of feelings when listening to this record and it makes me honestly believe that today will be the day that when I scan missed connections for the hundredth time and see a posting from that girl I fell in love with on the delayed subway. This record just makes me smile, it puts a proverbial pep in my step and if I had listened to Archie, Marry Me in grade eight when I was fat and my nickname was “Joel Joel the Jellyroll” and the concept of holding hands with a pretty girl was so exasperatingly alien, I would have felt less alone. So thanks Alvvays, for making a record that brings me great comfort in the twilight years of my wasted youth and sounds the triumphant return to my pastry-like state.
Lunch is a traditionally derivative affair in the four-one-six area code. I’m out at some restaurant where some guy who staged at Noma for a week is preparing me a traditional porchetta sandwich that comes with an elevated “take on” cole-slaw, a newly interpreted “play on” fries and a six dollar “not hot” cup of coffee. While albeit edible, well-seasoned and reasonably tasty, it is not worth the twenty dollar price tag and is not the “BEST THING I’VE EVER EATEN EVER OH MY GOD”. This is an example of something derivative being bad. Ty Segall’s Manipulator – which I’m listening to at full volume as to obfuscate the Drake album the restaurant is blaring – is surely derivative but decidedly brilliant. There’s something going on in the Californias, in the Austins, in the Nevadas, on the beachheads and in the deserts and that something is a revival of all things psych – atonal fuzz and twangy riffs. Lyrically and musically the record comports the time and feel of Woodstock and free love on sandy towels with an endless supply of jazz cigarettes, but the production value places it very much in the here and now. Segall is anything if not prolific, releasing seven full lengths in seven years, while also working with a ton of other bands and releasing demos and singles under different names and hopefully Manipulator is not the culminating result, but a larger piece in an ultimately concussive puzzle.
It hasn’t rained much in 2014, the year of the single platinum blonde, and when it has, I’ve left my cat-patterned umbrella at home so on the odd days when the heavens open up, I’m a dripping wet fat mess and like the cats that pattern my umbrella, I get very solipsistic indeed and the only panacea for said misery is music of a louder measure. While writing this article, I spent some time boning up on my glossary of antiquated Italian musical terms and I stumbled across the word dolore which is immediately preceded by the word dolcissimo. Together the words roughly translate to “very sweetly pain, distress, sorrow, grief” and I think this combination best describes Swans’ To Be Kind. Some of the songs stretch as long as half an hour, crush and compartmentalize the listener into a tiny cube and then stomp on that little cube until there is nothing left and you’re just a smear of human shit and used offal on Swedish particle board. Singer Michael Gira, the sixty year old front man and melted brains behind the band, is one of the most creative disturbances to enter the encompassing artifice of “music” since the blisters on John Lennon’s fingers. The sickness shows in this dissonant opus where incendiary sonic bursts javelin through otherwise creepy soundscapes reminding you that sometimes brilliant music is not supposed to make you feel good, but nauseous and terrified. Stock music critic line number four hundred and thirty. It’s still raining and I feel weird, dolorous and alone so I cry like a man does and prepare for work.
And reading back over this, I feel like a self-effacing equation in a greater problem. The only real difference between the pretentious, holier than thou reviews of yore and this one is the fact that I’ve thread the eye of the needle with a narrative about getting fat. Take that out and you’re still left with a smattering of poorly placed furniture in a room that only I could find comfortable and therein lies the essence and structure of any artistic evaluation. I graciously apologize for having put you through this – and all before noon no less.