Saturday, July 30, 2011

Someone Like Adele

[Originally posted on May 26, 2011. Updated to include new tour dates and venue information.]

The Blogger nearly walked out on a date a few months back. When he professed his love for the music of Adele, whose gloriously bluesy soul has not left his iPod since the start of 2011, his dining companion declared, “Yeah, I can see why you like her. But I think she’s too easy to like, you know?” No, I don’t know. Why should good music be difficult to be appreciated? Sometimes, all you need is a piano and a voice.

British singer Adele finally achieved global domination in 2011. She scored the dual honour of having the Number One album and single in the UK at the exact same time for several weeks earlier this year, a feat achieved by few artists. Her popularity was such that she had two singles in the Top Five at the same time that she achieved two Top Five albums simultaneously, a feat that only she and the Beatles have accomplished. Adele’s current disc 21 entered the American album charts at the summit and her single “Rolling in the Deep” is the reigning Number One hit. See? It’s not too easy to like, is it now?

Adele herself may have underestimated her own appeal in North America. When tickets went on sale for her current tour, there was a small hysterical dervish evidenced by the hordes of Facebook account holders who despaired at not being able to get tickets. Adele is playing the Blogger’s hometown of Vancouver at the Orpheum Theatre on August 9 (rescheduled from the original date of May 31), and tickets were literally sold out in seconds: 180 of them, to be exact, or a scant three minutes. The only show in recent memory to sell out so quickly is the pair of Lauryn Hill shows last May. Despite the move from the intimate Commodore Ballroom to the larger Orpheum, one feels that there was a missed opportunity for the newly-minted global superstar to sell out even larger venues or play over several nights.

But what’s so easy to like about Adele? It’s simple, really: she’s a blue-eyed soul singer, tinged with a hint of blues. Imagine a combination of Dusty Springfield’s grit, Kate Bush’s lush crooning, Bonnie Raitt’s rockabilly groove and Etta James’s growl, simmered to sonic perfection. Now add Lauryn Hill’s wisdom and sensibility to the mix, combined with Amy Winehouse’s wit (although unlike the recently deceased Winehouse, Adele has been clean and sober for years),  and you’ll understand the gift Adele shares with the world.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Modern Film Classic: Milk

[Programming note: this article first appeared on June 28, 2011, and is being re-published today to mark Vancouver Pride. Happy Pride everyone!]

The Blogger noticed, in the month of Gay Pride worldwide, a striking difference in gay rights in the world. Late Friday evening, the New York State Senate elected to allow same-sex marriage in the state. At the exact same time, in St. Petersburg, Russia, a small group of Russian gay rights activists were beaten, harassed and imprisoned for a peaceful demonstration. The gay pride parade in Moscow, a city fast priding itself on becoming more open and cosmopolitan, remains illegal. The juxtaposition of joyous reaction from New York and Tweets from Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev from prison showed in stark and real-time contrast the rights we enjoy and take for granted. The struggle for gay rights may for some be a distant memory or simply a part of history. 

This past weekend also marked the 42nd anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the first major battle in the world where gays and lesbians fought back against oppressive authorities and asserted their right to live freely, openly, and without shame, just like everyone else.

Milk's campaign headquarters in the Castro,
taken by the Blogger on a visit in the fall of 2010
We live in a time where political cinematic art is almost nonexistent, at least in the West. This doesn’t meant that there are no exciting works out – one does not need to be political to be cinematically merited – but you’d be hard-pressed to find the next Spike Lee, Derek Jarman, Lina Wertmüller or Oliver Stone. It was indeed rare to find political film made by a major studio, the NBC/Universal-backed Focus Features, in Gus van Sant’s 2008 masterpiece Milk. This was a project that deserved a time and a place when the culture was ready to embrace (or at the very least tolerate in peaceful coexistence with) gay rights culture.

Penn, left, with Victor Garber as Mayor Mosconi
Everything about van Sant’s passion project works brilliantly. There’s Sean Penn’s uncanny Oscar-winning turn as the pioneering Harvey Milk, the world’s first elected openly gay politician. Penn’s sensitive embodiment could have been simple mimicry or a caricature, but what he captures is nothing less than lightning in a bottle in the performance. Some criticized the film slightly for not providing a portrait of Milk before he became a politician, but Milk himself acknowledged that he was nobody before his political awakening. He was just an insurance salesman without any idea of who he could have become. Penn captures the tireless energy seen here and in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary on the same subject, The Times of Harvey Milk. The man was indefatigable and passionate, but he never let ego get in the way as he fought for the collective whole. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beautiful Life: Ace of Base at 2011 North America Outgames

There’s a line in Almost Famous, when Zooey Deschanel’s character says to her un-hip but sweet brother, “don’t worry: one day, you’ll be cool”. Some have claimed 1990s dance band Ace of Base were anything but cool, even if they were the most successful musical act of the planet and sold 20 million records in a single year. It’s rather appropriate then that the group gets to headline the forthcoming North America Outgames Closing Party during Vancouver Pride Week, arguably the single coolest event on the social calendar in Lotusland this summer.

Ace of Base is the brainchild of Swedish singer-songwriter Ulf Ekberg and initially composed of five members, including sisters Jenny and Linn Berggren. Eventually, other members of the band left and the Berggrens' brother Jonas stepped in, forming the most familiar line-up of the group in 1990. Ace of Base first attempted to bring techno-dance sound to the airwaves, but were prevented from major breakout success even in their native Sweden due to the prominence of heavy metal in the early 1990s. Eventually, they broke through with “All That She Wants”, a dub-reggae single that came to represent their signature sound and conquered European pop charts in the fall and spring of 1992-1993.

Ace of Base, the "classic" line-up
The band first emerged on the international music scene in the summer of 1993, when “All That She Wants” appeared in North American clubs after conquering the European charts over the previous three seasons. In a rare feat, and in an era when grunge, New Jack Swing R&B and gangsta rap ruled the airwaves, the dub-reggae-infused dance club single gained significant airplay in the United States and crossed over on the pop, adult contemporary, dance and R&B charts, ultimately peaked at Number Two and selling well over a million copies domestically. Follow-up single “The Sign” gave the band their only US #1 in 1994, but it proved so popular and enduring that Billboard magazine named it the #1 single of the entire year. Parent album The Sign topped the charts as well, and became the year’s best-selling disc.

The band, however, was unable to repeat the same success. Their 1995 follow-up disc The Bridge was a failure on the American charts, peaking at #37 just a year after having the most successful disc in the country. The band quietly reined in their North American efforts, although their cover of Bananarama’s immortal “Cruel Summer” made the Top Ten in 1998 and “Beautiful Life” remains an enduring hit on recurrent radio. Elsewhere in Europe, the band’s success continued through the rest of the decade, even if the Berggren sisters both receded to the background voluntarily before eventually leaving the band. Eventually, they were replaced by Clara Hagman and Julia Williamson, forming the current lineup.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Back to Black: Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011

The Blogger has been haunted lately. The sound of Amy Winehouse’s tortured soul has been hanging around, wailing to be heard. The singer passed away on July 23, 2011, at the young age of 27. She leaves behind a musical legacy consisting of just two albums, both of them amongst the most highly accomplished works. In particular, her seminal sophomore album Back to Black remains, despite her personal troubles and disturbing public behaviour, one of the greatest music albums ever recorded.

Back to Black was a shot of musical nirvana upon its release in the fall/winter of 2006/07. The album combined blues, jazz, Motown and R&B into an inventive hybrid that crossed several genres and showcased a unique musical talent. The result was lightning in a bottle.

Critics and audiences enthusiastically agreed, as Back to Black topped the British album charts for several weeks and ultimately became one of the three biggest-selling albums of the decade. In the United States, the album peaked at Number Two and sold millions, also producing a number of hits including a Top Ten placing for “Rehab”. Amongst the numerous honours Winehouse earned for her work were prizes from the Brit Awards, the Ivor Novello Awards, MTV Europe Awards and a record-tying five Grammy Awards.

Lead-off single “Rehab” was not only Winehouse’s most autobiographical song, but it was also a defiant cri de couer that laid bare her most destructive tendencies. Her refusal to go to rehab, her eventual brief visits (bookended by visits to the pub) and the romantic troubles that likely fed and resulted from her alcoholism and drug abuse, in a vicious and cannibalistic cycle, were all captured in just three minutes. Her self-destructive habits were very bravely explored here but arranged so in such a sonically genius fashion that it not only made a thematically dark song wildly popular, but also a karaoke staple (which was usually sung, appropriately enough, after a few rounds of drinks).

The other songs on Back to Black grew out of Winehouse’s depression and personal struggles. “Love is a Losing Game” and “Tears Dry on Their Own” speak to romantic disappointment. “He Can Only Hold Her” tells of a destructive codependent romance. But perhaps the darkest, most honest and shattering moment of the album is the disc’s title track. It is a disquieting breakup song that hints at the self-harm Winehouse inflicted upon herself in her young and tragic life:

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: Midnight in Paris

Want a little intellect with your cinema? Woody Allen’s latest concoction, Midnight in Paris, is a joyful piece of tantalizingly literary cinematic candy.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter engaged to a Park Avenue princess (Rachel McAdams). They are on holiday in Paris with her moneyed Republican parents. Mother and daughter are the sort who enjoy art not for art’s sake, but for its acquisitional value. They run into a couple she knows, in particular a dilettante (Michael Sheen) who enjoys correcting local tour guides on the information they provide in their tours. Needless to say, this is the type who does not take kindly to being corrected, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

One evening at midnight, Gil is wandering around and comes to a stop at a particular street corner. A car pulls up and invites him to attend a party. He accepts, unaware that the party acts as a time machine to the 1920s. How does he know about that the party takes place in that era? He meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at that party, that’s how. Soon, every night, he is at that same street corner and whisked away to drink with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), take editorial meetings with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and hobnob with the Surrealists. Tampering his enthusiasm somewhat is the angelic Adriana. She is a flapper girl who blithely declares that Paris in the 1920s just isn’t that great, not compared to the belle époque of the turn of the century. Pretty soon, the future in-laws suspect that Gil’s up to something and the fiancée is spending increasingly more with the dilettante …
At this stage in his career, Allen has moved beyond the confines of his nebbish New Yorker persona. Gone is the neurotic, therapy-heavy, self-deprecating humour that tied so much of his previous work to Manhattan. Given the continuing propensity of Hollywood to make craptcular, mass-marketed action films, Allen wisely makes all of his films in Europe, with European money. It’s a great decision that has rejuvenated his creative spurt. Since 2005, he has produced the Bergman-esque thriller Match Point, the sexy ménage-a-trois comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now Midnight in Paris. It’s appeared that The Old World has released new creative juices in our favourite neurotic Manhattanite.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Harry Potter & the Harvard Commencement Address

Now that the hysteria surrounding the record-breaking opening weekend of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 has subsided, one is left with a feeling that the Hogwarts kids we’ve seen grow up and matured in the last decade has undergone a “graduation” of sorts. It’s a fitting time to reference JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech for the class of 2008

Rowling’s story has become one for the ages. A single mother who wrote the Harry Potter series while still on welfare, Rowling has seen her series grow from a cult children’s classic into a string best-selling of novels, wildly successful film series and theme park. Rowling herself said when she appeared for a one-on-one interview on Oprah that all of her accomplishments, including becoming the world’s first billionaire author, surpassed her wildest dreams.

For the Blogger and for so many others who have felt powerless, weakened, frustrated by career aspirations and paths, perhaps the most effective and rousing motivational speech ever delivered was Rowling’s now legendary Harvard Commencement Address.

The magic in Rowling’s speech comes from her title: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure”. She speaks of her time as a single mother, her failed marriage, her frustrated career path, her financial struggle and clinical depression. It’s not often to hear such a successful individual speak so candidly and honestly about the miseries in her own life, but Rowling does not truss up her accomplishments in the guise of false modesty, nor does she attempt to give self-help lessons that mean nothing. What guided her out of the dark was that at one point, she “stripped away the inessential ... and began directing all my energy to doing the only work that mattered to me”. That work happened to be the Harry Potter series.

I return to this speech from time to time. It’s wise, pithy, honest, candid, and yet at times screamingly funny. In short, it is pure perfection.

I can’t say much more than what’s already been said. All you have to do is to listen, and you will learn. Click after the jump to hear the remainder of the speech, and to see a copy of the speech.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: "Inside Disaster: Haiti"

This Thursday, July 21, the International Federation of Red Crosses, the Canadian Red Cross and REEL Causes jointly present the documentary Inside Disaster: Haiti at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver.

Inside Disaster: Haiti is a groundbreaking documentary by Nadine Pequeneza capturing the response of the International Federation of Red Crosses (IFRC) as they are faced with responding to the single biggest disaster in human history at the time. Given that the quake rocked with 59 aftershocks in a country rife with abject poverty, the emergency response team put together by the IFRC would have to be considerably more prepared with logistics and emergency responses than usual. For instance, in other common disasters, Emergency Response Units (ERU) are prepared and deployed at the site itself. Haiti was such a catastrophe that the IFRC dispatched 10 ERUs before they even arrived in Port-au-Prince. While the word “epic” has been used to describe frivolous entertainments with aspirations of greatness, the word “epic” in the context of this operation lends the term weighty gravity and real consequence.

Understanding the state of the nation, the documentary crew prepared themselves for arrival as if they were in the middle of a war itself. This is gritty, down-to-the-bone filmmaking, capturing real human drama, unmanufactured unlike “reality” television, in real time. The crew (and everyone else working in relief, for that matter) had no luxury accommodations and understood that such conventions like leisurely paced editing and careful lighting orchestrations would have been logistically impossible while they bore witness to the horrors of the aftermath. In other words, this was not a working holiday for bored trust-fund babies “doing” an internship because it looks good on a resume. Everyone who came aboard to work believed in the project and was committed to documenting the efforts of the IFRC to raise awareness of the disaster and still-ongoing humanitarian efforts.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sound of the Underground: Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine”

Perhaps it’s the unexpectedly cold, rainy summer weather that has infected Vancouver, and also London, Seattle, Portland and even LA. Perhaps it’s the run of MI5 episodes in the last few wet, rainy evenings. Perhaps it’s the effects of the triumphant Shpongle show this past week. Regardless, the Blogger cannot stop listening to Massive Attack’s classic Mezzanine album.

 Released in the spring of 1998, Mezzanine was a radical departure from the Bristol trip-hop outfit’s prior output of trance-y but danceable beats. This disc gathered distorted guitars, fuzzy bass lines and muffled high-hats into a down-tempo setting. The new sound unveiled on Mezzanine is that of lush sonic layers, built organically to create a sinister and almost disturbing effect. This is the album that creeps up on you and doesn’t let you go. Sonically, Mezzanine conjures up images of meetings between government informants and secret agents in underground car parks to exchange sensitive intel. It’s no accident, perhaps, that tracks are named after potential code names for spies and there are two tracks named “Exchange”. It’s dank, ambient and decidedly British industrial music. For all intents and purposes, the album could have been subtitled “if you’re feeling sinister” (the title of a Belle & Sebastian album which was released in the same era).

The Blogger had so looked forward to this record at the time that he purchased the rather expensive imported version from Germany, just to get the now sought-after original gatefold packaging that has since gone out of print. (The disc remains available in standard jewel box and in MP3 format.) He was not disappointed.

The disc is one of the most perfectly constructed and engineered records of all time. Each track builds on the previous one, layering instruments and taking them away to create different effects. This is an album you could play end-to-end and not have to skip any tracks. “Angel” is the muted opening, but one that builds its power with a stop-and-go rhythm that doesn’t assault the listener all at once. “Risingson” is its ice-cold stepbrother, one that gives way to the majestic centerpiece “Teardrop”, still the album’s most popular track. “Inertia Creeps” could be perfectly tied into the image of being shackled to a table and tortured, but beautifully, rhythmically so. “Mezzanine” is the sound of an interrogator whispering threats of further harm to his captive: this is the dark cousin to one of Massive Attack’s earliest singles, 1991’s “Safe from Harm”. The album ends on a muted note, the downbeat “(Exchange)” that acts as a release from the dark and into the light. In totality, the album sonically starts at midnight for a clubber and appears to end with the vertical rays of the sun at 6 am, just when the wearied reveler emerges into the light (although the disc is 60 minutes, not 6 hours, long).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Roads: Portishead's 2011 Tour

Sometimes, nothing hurls you gob-smack into the middle of your youth like hearing from an old favourite band. In the spring of 2008, the Blogger gleefully heard that the long-dormant, presumed-defunct mid-90s British trip-hop combo Portishead were releasing their first album of new material in over a decade. Suddenly, the writer shed all layers and armour of his presumed adulthood and opened the closet door (pun intended) to an awkward adolescence defined by sexual anguish, bad complexion and an unfortunate amount of flannel.

Portishead’s landmark disc, 1994’s Dummy, swept onto our shores with the emo movement, well before emo was even a catchphrase. Its numbing, sonic landscapes provided a lushly enveloping cocoon as turbulent as our feelings. Lead singer Beth Gibbons’s faraway vocals may have sounded disconnected at times but would descend into whispered anguish so potent it hardly dared to unleash its full force for fear that it might smash your stereo to smithereens. The chilling, spooky lead track “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)” brilliantly married a seemingly runaway snippet of old Hitchcock score with a fractured, hurried beat that somehow made for a brilliantly gruesome aural death match. The song laid siege to my Discman (remember those?) for several months in the spring of 1995, winning the prestigious Mercury Music Prize along the way.

“Sour Times” was accompanied by a haunting video with a now-cult-iconic image of Gibbons being interrogated in the bowels of MI-5’s office. Its juxtaposition of musical elements and the accompanying clip almost dared the listener to tell us just how awful we felt about ourselves at the time. How we felt at the time was a closely guarded secret, as personal and potent to us as the whereabouts of certain political renegades are to heads of state. Such experimental fare had maximal impact on MTV and radio at the time, but would have no room for the crass “reality” swindle and shallow, cookie-cutter contemporary radio that currently pollutes popular art and the public consciousness.

A decade passed after Portishead released their acclaimed second disc in 1997, and promptly vanished. In particular, they developed on their self-titled second disc the drama and orchestral sweep which would later inform Third. In particular, the magnificent, gut-wrenching “All Mine” that is nothing less than a shriek of passion from the depths of romantic misery and possession.

Take a listen and maybe you’ll see understand how it wouldn’t be out of place in a modern updating of Wuthering Heights.

They left behind a musical legacy evident in works by trip-hop artists like Massive Attack, who continue its evolution of sound long after the public was distracted by more disposable fare. Proof of Dummy’s lasting popular impact was immediate when, within nanoseconds of posting the news of the tour's announcement on Facebook, three of the writer’s friends wrote to proclaim their love for this remarkable band. Such swift declarations of love from a decidedly uncommercial, almost obscure British band speaks volumes on Dummy’s remarkable, lasting visceral power. Gibbons and company had cut through to the emotional core of its audience when first released and unwittingly held onto it. If the album were not as effective, then it would not have brought about such spontaneous adoration.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Random Acts of Culture, #1

Tovey and the VSO (source: The Georgia Straight)
It’s often said, at least in North America, that the higher arts are inaccessible to the public due to high ticket prices and the esoteric nature of the material. While the Blogger easily sees the former being a barrier to access, he believes the latter is indefensible. Although many clearly don’t have any affinity for culture, and that’s all well and good, decrying it as being obscure and pouring money into the latest big-budget seizure-inducing Hollywood enterprise or pop star’s juggernaut concert tour while claiming to enjoy “the arts” reeks of sheer laziness.

The Blogger was thrilled yesterday to take part in the City of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary celebrations this past weekend. There were numerous outdoor events such as concerts and public performances meant to collect our citizens together in celebration of our glittering city of glass, still smarting from the ugly Stanley Cup riots of last month. Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered to peacefully partake in public events with minimal or no damage to civic or private property. Citizens were orderly, picked up after themselves at picnics, were generally polite on their cell phones, and there was little to no shoving, pushing, or unruly cattle herd-like behaviour. Who says we’re an unruly mob?

New York City free public concert in Central Park:
most of this, please. Lots more.
In particular, I was thrilled to see tens of thousands of people gathered in Stanley Park’s Brockton Oval to take in a free classical concert performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Just when I thought higher culture had all but committed seppuku. Led by Grammy Award-winning conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey, the VSO performed to a rousing but orderly crowd under immaculate blue skies and a blazing yet beautiful sun. This is not unlike the free public concerts that are popular all over Europe, particularly in Vienna, and in the summertime in New York City. Why can’t we have more of these, please? In Vienna, they have free public concerts every weekend in the late spring and summer months. They support their arts enthusiastically. Even if you can’t afford a ticket to see certain plays, the opera house, culture exhibition halls and public parks are equipped with giant video screens in piazzas so that like-minded citizens and tourists can have picnics while watching the performances outdoors, live. And they don’t destroy it afterward, unlike the spoiled brats who defaced the downtown core during the hockey riots. That is how you make culture accessible.

Yesterday’s playlist was filled with instantly recognizable classics:

·     Rossini - William Tell: Overture
·     Strauss - Blue Danube Waltz
·     Baker - Through the Lion's Gate: Mountains
·     Wagner - Ride of the Valkyries
·     Haydn - Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major: I. Moderato
·     Borodin - Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances
·     Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
·     Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture

The VSO also snuck in a piece by Canadian composer Michael Conway Baker, whose ode to our very own Lion’s Gate Bridge was far more ethereal and sublime than traffic on that bridge ever was or will be. The crowds peacefully took in the immaculate sounds and were transported to a world away, where people could literally waltz to the Blue Danube along the water. In fact, given that there was a large public space to do so, several couples got up and actually waltzed through Strauss’s The Blue Danube, and we were mere feet away from the ocean. Bliss. Given my obsession with German opera, I was thrilled to hear Wagner live.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mystical Journey: Shpongle on Tour

It seems everyone is a DJ these days. Throw on the latest Britney Spears “song”, stretch it three times the radio edit’s length, and liberally throw in some monotonous autoerotic come-ons. Jack up the speed, throw in a few more beats and be ready to pummel the average clubber into submission. The result is that clubbing is not just tiring, it’s a primal assault on the senses guaranteed to level the hardiest partier.

Thank goodness there are still adventurous electronica artists with Shpongle’s vision and ingenuity.

Formed in 1996 by Simon Posford, British musician and mastermind behind the noted electronic act Hallucinogen, and Raja Ram, co-creator of The Infinity Project and owner Tip Records, Shpongle started life as a downtempo electronica project. Their style has evolved organically from psychedelic conglomeration of analogue and digital sounds into a marriage of western psychedelic trance beats with aboriginal, Indian and Brazilian musical influences. Do not mistake this for now-trendy but faceless “world music” you’ll buy off the counter at your local Starbucks on impulse and play harmlessly at your next dinner party. The problem is that such music has no personality.  Shpongle is anything but that, do not confuse the two.

Posford (left) and Ram (right)

The band’s persona is that of a human face with the eyes layered and superimposed one over the top of the other to create a distinctive mask. One can’t help but be immediately faced with an alternate consciousness that recall both mind-altering psychedelic states and long-forgotten ethnic deities. In other words, unlike so many contemporary electronic artists, Shpongle are intent on giving their music its own multi-sensory signature and creating it organically, rather than building a set of remixes for other artists. This is not your mama’s electronic band, and certainly has a different philosophy than the “mix” that you run to at your local gym.

Posford’s background is unconventional by electronic artist standards. Trained as a sound engineer, Posford’s musical influences include psychedelic 70s rock bands such as Pink Floyd, The Cure and American humourist Bill Hicks. It’s not difficult to see the scale and influence reflected in the Shpongle oeuvre. He went to work as an engineer in the infamous Butterfly Studio in Brixton, under the tutelage of pioneering dance music artist and Killing Joke bassist Martin Glover, better known as Youth. It was here that Posford honed the art of creating psychedelic trance music under the stage name Hallucinogen. Posford then went on to found Twisted Records in 1996, which since has been the home to Shpongle and other boundary-breaking electronic artists such as Ott, Prometheus and Younger Brother.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sound Advice: Yoko Ono’s “Open Your Box”

Yoko Ono gets a bad rep. I think it has something to do with her involvement with the Beatles or something.

Few forget that she was a groundbreaking, madly genius (or genuinely mad?) musical artist who introduced free-associating performance art to pop music. Composed of deconstructive beats and graced by her one-of-a-kind vocal stylistics, the art of yodeling and shrieking was elevated to shocking and sometimes hilarious effect. Although ridiculed and vilified for the greater part of her musical career, she had influential admirers who adopted her style and brought its elements forward. In particular, the Icelandic chanteuse Björk has been most remembered in recent years as the primary advocate of using the primal scream in pop music. Much of her performance art and musical recordings were focused on channeling baser mortal desire and suffering through song. It doesn’t have to be verbalized, she argued, it just has to be communicated.

Perhaps no one single piece of music has so summarily captured the art of Ono’s music as her 1971 single, “Open Your Box”.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Babywoman: Naomi Campbell’s Recording Career

Album cover: "Babywoman"
Part of the fun in writing about pop art and high culture is acting as a cultural anthropologist. There are countless one-hit wonders in terms of music, books, films, and other media that at one point or another captured the public’s attention and may have been lost, forgotten, or just dimly remembered. What may have seemed like a gimmick or a high-concept lark may, in hindsight, prove to be highly-executed but misunderstood art, or just a bit of cheeky fun, as the Brits say.

Into the category of one-hit wonders falls supermodel Naomi Campbell’s 1994 album. Christened Babywoman, after one of her nicknames, Campbell’s album was an attempt to cash in on the British R&B-inflected dance music that was in vogue at the time. Artists popular at the time and to whom Campbell’s producers worked with and whose sound they emulated included M People, Eternal, Gabrielle and Soul II Soul.

The "Big Five", Vogue, January 1990
To understand the need of a supermodel to release an album, one had to recall the status in what became known as the era of the supermodel. From 1990 to about 1995, a small collection of the world’s top models gave rise to the term "supermodel". In particular, five were instantly immortalized in Herb Ritts’s iconic January 1990 cover of Vogue magazine. These women were the world’s top models, instantly recognizable and who were known by only their first names. They included Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz. Known as “the Big Five”, they were joined by Kate Moss and became collectively known as “the Big Six”. Their presence immediately elevated the tone and marketability of any product, and they were in-demand by every conceivable designer on the planet. Their status, visibility and near-ubiquity had the residual effect of helping to make fashion one of the most high-profile and serious global industries. Campbell, Evangelista and Turlington in particular were such close friends and so sought-after that they became another subset of the “Big Six”: they were known as “The Trinity”.

It was in this cultural environment that the idea of the multi-hyphenate entertainer first appeared. Although it was not uncommon for actors to also direct and write films, plays, and TV at the time, it was unusual for models to attempt a career in the arts and in business at the same time that they modeled. It was with much media attention, tempered with a good deal of curiosity, that Campbell released her debut single “Love and Tears”.

Friday, July 1, 2011

O, Canada! Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir

O, Canada!

Wherever you are in the world, you might think that the recent very ugly Stanley Cup Finals were representative of my hometown of Vancouver and of Canada in general.

Wipe that condescension and disdain off your face. Have you forgotten that just a year and a half ago, you were fawning over how absolutely glorious our Olympics where? They also took place in Vancouver, you know.

On this Canada Day, I have chosen to honour one of my favourite moments of the 2010 Olympics: the free dance of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian Olympic ice dance champions.

Because everyone loves a back story, especially for the Olympics, here it is. Tessa and Scott have been skating together since childhood. They were world junior champions in ice dance and debuted spectacularly at the senior level by finishing sixth at the worlds in 2007. They then made the leap to second in 2008, and complimented their silver medal with a bronze the following year. They were one of the contenders for the 2010 Olympics, having won numerous pre-Olympic meets in the 2009/2010 season. They faced stiff competition from their American training partners Meryl Davis & Charlie White, their teammates Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto, and the Russian world champions Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin. This does not include the French, British and Italian couples nipping at their heels.

In the preliminary compulsory dance
By the time of the final free dance, the Canadian Olympic team had collectively taken a bit of a beating. The ambitious “Own the Podium” program was designed with the goal of putting Canada atop the medal rankings with the most medals. It was the midway point of an Olympics darkened by the death of a Georgian luger on the day of the opening ceremony, a lack of snow in what became a record warm winter for the city of Vancouver, and a respectable but unspectacular medal tally for the Canadian team at that point. A rather nasty British journalist sensationally wrote that these Olympics were about to become “the worst ever”, and we were just barely halfway. This was Monday, February 22, 2010.

Then Tessa and Scott took the ice.

Somewhat unexpectedly the leaders going into the free dance, Virtue & Moir were predicted to win a medal, but a lot of prognosticators had forecast silver or bronze for the team, behind the Americans and / or Russians. The country was hungry for a moment to really shine and gain momentum.

What happened next was sheer magic. The clip is below.