Josie by The Darcys

“I liked the film, but the book is better,” is a phrase so often repeated it’s almost a truism. It makes intuitive sense: a 90 minute film cannot possibly capture the richness and depth that exists in a novel. And no one is arguing that Troy sums up the Iliad in a satisfactory way. The reasons seem logical enough: in a novel you can capture multiple perspectives and an ongoing internal monologue that would be distracting and unrealistic in a movie. Novelists are also unburdened by format – novels are meant to be read in multiple sittings, and so are unrestricted by length. Movies longer than a couple of hours (looking at you, Peter Jackson) are tests of patience and bladder control. So the handicaps are obvious.
However, and this feels self-evident, there are things that film adaptations can and do accomplish more handily than a novel. Beyond the obvious sensory elements, films capture moments of nuanced emotion with greater economy. They are more effective at triggering empathy. And I’ll argue that in at least one case, they can improve the story.
The best example (and one thematically related to the blog) is the John Cusack vehicle High Fidelity, based on the novel by Nick Hornby. Hornby is a great storyteller, and the plot that drives both the film and the novel are his. However, it’s how the actors play the record store employees and the influence of director Stephen Frears that makes the film so compelling. And Catherine Zeta-Jones as Charlie makes you understand instantly what kind of woman she is. Hornby spends pages describing her; but in the film, you understand so much about her because of what you know already about Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Which is all to bolster my argument that interpretation is an art in itself. The song I’ve chosen is a cover song, originally by Steely Dan. Josie is one of Steely Dan’s best known tunes, but that band was never really all that popular. They’re often called musician’s musicians, appealing to jazz geeks and people who don’t balk at odd time signatures and syncopated horn lines for hooks. I’ve got a soft spot for them. In fact, I’ve gone once or twice to see Pretzel Logic – a faithful Dan cover band who play monthly at the Orbit Room here in Toronto. So I heard this cover by The Darcys and was immediately intrigued. Add to this the fact that I’m fascinated by covers – Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, etc, meant that I couldn’t pass this up.

The Darcys interpretation here is organ heavy, and lacks entirely the disco feel of the original. They sing about an octave lower too, but it really works. This version of Josie amps up the melancholy and ambient noise, giving the tune a skittish, anxious feel.

Try it, you’ll like it. The Darcys cover of the Aja album in its entirety (!) drops January 24th. They’re touring North America for the next couple months. They’re in Guelph on the 19th, and will be back in Toronto March 1.

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Turn A Light On by Kathryn Calder

In anticipation of the snow we’re supposed to have on Friday, everyone should watch this lovely video and remember how beautiful and wonderful it can be.


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Darkness by Leonard Cohen

Darkness is the second advance track from Old Ideas, which is set to be released later in the month on Columbia. Old Ideas is Cohen’s first record of new material since 2004’s Dear Heather. At 77, it’s a bit of a surprise that the living legend is recording new material at all, but damn, I’m glad he is. Darkness finds Cohen at his best, his voice an intoxicating growl, his lyrics biting, funny, and bleak. Musically, his strength has always been his restraint, his ability to simmer and cook without coming to a boil – and on Darkness he uses this tension to maximum effect. Out of all the Woodstock Generation singer-songwriters, Cohen alone continues to progress and produce work that is not only consistent with his best, but also contemporary and relevant 45 years into the singer’s career. Astonishing.

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Lightshow by Plants and Animals

photo credit: Caroline Desilets

I first saw (and heard of) Plants and Animals as part of a Pop Montreal Showcase at Guelph’s Hillside Festival in 2007. I remember them being a mostly instrumental guitar band. They were a very musical three-piece, and had lots of countermelody and acoustic noodling. They fleshed out these ideas out on their first full length Parc Avenue, which was a sparse affair. The seeds of their new sound was planted in songs like Faerie Dance, which built from softer beginnings into full on rave-ups by song’s end. Plants and Animals followed that record up with La La Land, an album startlingly full of songs ready for the dance floor. Extensive touring tends to turn even bedroom artists into party starters, and these guys are no exception. La La land was one of my favourite records to drive to of 2010. Standout tracks like American Idol, Kon Tiki, and The Mama Papa are still part of my rotation.
Lightshow is the first advance single from The End Of That, set to hit a record store near you on February 28. Immediately apparent is Warren Spencer’s increasing vocal confidence and range. His plaintive timber isn’t for everyone, but I find it really works. Lyrically, the song explores more sophisticated images and ideas than on previous records, though there are a few awkward platitudes: “it’s desperation for everybody/ it’s wishful thinking for the whole human race”. However, Lightshow is also more immediately accessible than the songs on La La Land save perhaps The Mama Papa.
The guitar playing is fantastic, in turns restrained and spastic. The lyrics allude to natural disasters like earthquakes, and the song itself builds like an avalanche. It’s almost chorusless, and there’s the obligatory wordless melody in the coda which I still can’t seem to get enough of in Canadian rock. I’ll be spinning this one pretty constantly, and eagerly awaiting the rest of the record.

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Brian Wilson is A.L.i.V.E. by Rich Aucoin

I feel like each year some publication declares the death of the hipster. Ironic detachment and slackerdom are no longer all the kids have to strive for, they say. Hope and compassion are in. Meta-cool is out. And every year, these publications are wrong.  The thing they keep forgetting is that it’s cool to be cool. And detachment is cool. James Dean perfected it in the fifties. Styles do change (some), but attitudes rarely do.
All of this comes down to power and age. Youth are, often by their own admission, pretty powerless. They have come of age, realized how fucked up the world is, and, seeing no way to positively engage, responded (appropriately) with cynicism and contempt. With no real way to change broader social structures and mores, young people instead take ownership of the only thing that they truly own: their youth. With no power and no responsibility, we become self-possessed and disaffected. We remain like this until we earn enough responsibility to warrant a reshuffling of our priorities.
Which is not to say that young people do not want to belong to communities. On the contrary, it is as youth that we tend to develop our closest friendships. We seek out communities of like minded people through new media, because again, we can own it. And we create. We collaborate. With so much time to think about ourselves, we have no choice but to contemplate a unique way that we see the world. Sometimes this is startling. Sometimes, it’s grotesque. The art we create as youth draws the generation closer together by being different than the art of the preceding generation. We define ourselves by this difference. Enter Rich Aucoin.

He’s not the first of his kind. Since his record We’re All Dying To Live was released in late October on sonic records, a quart of pixellated ink has been spilled about the similarity he has to the Arcade Fire (which is true, at least sonically). But the cycle is short. Arcade fire have graduated to a different echelon of pop music. The orchestral pop they perform is no longer in the bars and basements where independent rock is vetted, where Rich Aucoin has been making his mark. His situation is more akin to a band from the previous generation: The Flaming Lips. Both acts do this in a kind of musical short hand. The Flaming Lips were able to attract a huge following at the height of the nineties slacker culture by writing songs not about human disaffection, but instead about aliens and machines. They wrote songs about interplanetary travel and pink robots, but a million teenagers knew they were really singing about the kids. And Wayne Coyne the messiah figure was born. Aucoin is playing the same bars as the lo-fi barebones indie rockers, but he’s asking these fans to dance, and chant his life-affirming lyrics along with him. And the kids are doing it.

Live, Rich Aucoin delivers an interactive, multimedia marathon of cathartic belonging. Aucoin sings songs that are literally about life and death, but the larger message is about remembering that you are a person, with a body, and there are others like you. All the biggest bands in the world have been able to tap into this as well, but Aucoin does it with sonic arrangements that are best understood by this generation of listener, who has the whole history of pop at her fingertips.

Brian Wilson is A.L.i.V.E. begins with a wordless call-and response melody that evokes the titular Beach Boy before moving into a Micheal-Jackson-by-way-of-Justice verse replete with buzzsaw synths and a killer backbeat. Did I mention that this tune is a banger? The chorus, sung by children, of remember what you’ve been given harkens back to both You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II. Elsewhere on the record you can hear everything from Chris Martin crooning to Dirty Projectors-style math-y melodies and harmonies. Somehow it all works. And it had me singing along to my headphones while I rode the subway.

Rich Aucoin Plays the Drake in Toronto this Friday.

Also: Rich Aucoin has made a youtube series of videos that his songs apparently all sync up to out of found footage from public domain films. Check them out on his website!

(photo by brian banks)

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Future Active Kid Pts. I & II by Sandro Perri

The formula for indie rock in the last few years has become worryingly predictable. Since chillwave became first a word, then for some reason an acceptable subgenre, there’s been a trend even among garage punk and roots acts to incorporate icy synthesizers and way too much reverb into seventies AM radio style melodies. “Hazy” and “chill” have become shorthand for “in-vogue indie”.

While Sandro Perri is no stranger to 70s AM radio (having covered “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac in 2007), he eschews most of the trappings of contemporary guitar music to create songs that feel like they were stitched together from his best experiments. Difficult or complexly arranged pop tunes are often (mis)labeled “tapestries”. While I’m tempted to use this term to describe Perri, I think it implies too much structure. The new record Impossible Spaces is more like something painted – sounds are incorporated for colour, texture, and mood. The result is a cohesive collection of songs that have impressive movement and trajectory. This music takes you places.

Future Active Kid parts one and two appear on the record after the exuberant and playful opener “Changes”. Pt. 1 starts out as a sparse 4 chord dirge as the protagonist describes his agoraphobic, possibly post-apocalyptic existence. It’s not until the second half of the song that we start to hear Perri’s trademark experimentation, A bass clarinet(?) enters, then quickly is replaced by a backwards guitar line. Both create a real sense of malaise as the song disintegrates before transitioning into Pt. 2.

The impressive but dense pt. 2 is bursting with ideas. Melodies enter, loop back on themselves, and leave abruptly. Found sounds mingle with guitar and synth punches. Perri’s voice floats delicately above the melee. Anxious but exhilarating, this song makes you feel like you’re getting away with something not allowed. Every moment in the song feels both deliberate and on the verge of collapse. I’m already excited to see this performed.

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Asa by Bry Webb

Asa is a song for at Bry’s son. Carry on and play, he says, Let the day be long. Let the shadows grow to the end of the road. I will carry you home. He gets across the joy and beauty of new fatherhood so simply. On Asa, Webb shows us that even punks can be proud fathers. The emotion is raw, the writing direct. This is a simply a beautiful tune.

This blog was almost named after a Constantines song. When I was in high school, with no cable and dial-up internet in small-town Ontario, there wasn’t much by way of culture. Hungry for anything current, I used to get nearly all my cultural cues from Ben Raynor, who wrote about youth culture in the Entertainment section of the Toronto Star. On his recommendation alone, when my family made it into Guelph every couple weeks (there was no place to buy music in my town), I would buy CDs that I had never heard before. Some of my all-time favourite records come from this era of my life: Who will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? by the Unicorns, S/T by Cuff the Duke, You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene, and Shine a Light by the Constantines. There was excitement in hearing sounds and ideas that I had never heard before. This music was loud, experimental, and more than anything (to me) urban. This stuff was my escape.

In comparison, the suburban punk and nu-metal that was played ad infinitum in basements and at absent-parent house parties sounded so pale and rote. Distortion and shouting were par for the course, but seemed so paradoxically devoid of emotion. The Constantines were different. They used distortion to channel rage, anxiety, and pain. They wrote of modern masculinity, vacant posturing, and the death of rock and roll. Bry Webb shouted and meant it. Theirs was a mature, poetic anger that was triumphant and defiant, not self-centred and vapid like so many others.

Ten years later, the Constantines are gone. Bry Webb has moved (ironically for me) to Guelph, and has started a family. His new solo record, Provider (out on Idee Fixe) is all about fatherhood, marriage, and the next chapter in his life. This record retains the stark, vivid lyrics that defined his Constantines writing, but he places these songs on a sparse, atmospheric backdrop of pedal steels, acoustic guitars, and little else.

Critics often compared the Constantines to Springsteen, for their open-hearted lyrics and incendiary live shows. If that was the case, then this record is Webb’s Nebraska. Understated and haunting, this record finds the troubadour at full lyrical maturity, and he lets his voice stand open and naked, unencumbered by the Cons’ distortion and drums. As he opined on a recent Q interview – any wrong notes are right out in the open. This gives the record a very intimate and personal feel. However, Webb is cautious to abandon the punk spirit, which he says is more about economy and immediacy than about fuzz pedals and loud drumming. These unadorned arrangements, by that logic, are punk rock distillate.

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Cheerleader by St. Vincent

For the first minute, you would be forgiven for assuming that Cheerleader from St. Vincent’s excellent record Strange Mercy belongs in the crowded category of nice-but-boring introspective female indie pop. You would, however, be playing right into her hands. Musically, this whole record feels confident and brash, full of indie rock swagger and, impressively, guitars! Absent from her last record  Actor almost entirely, Annie Clark gleefully blasts us at the one-minute-mark with 5 bursts of super-saturated distortion, adding heft and bravado to her declaration that I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more. While Cheerleader is noticeably lacking the bold riffs and solos that litter the rest of the album, this song concisely  encapsulates the play between cautious confidence and pithy introspection that make St. Vincent such a pleasure to listen to. Sample lyric: I’ve played dumb when I knew better/ tried too hard just to be better.  While not the earworm that other standout tracks like Cruel and Surgeon are, Cheerleader manages to update the sound St. Vincent established on Actor with bigger arrangements and more satisfying melodies. On this track St. Vincent rocks, albeit self-consciously.

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