Month: February 2019

An effigy blessed.

It’s an odd feeling when you get old enough that the deaths of your musical heroes are no longer isolated events.

I’ve loved a lot of music over the years, but I can’t say there are many artists who have had a profound impact on what I do. Mark Hollis belongs on the short list of those who have. As the main songwriter and voice of Talk Talk he helped to create some of the most glorious pop music of the 1980s. Then, at the peak of his success, he turned around and committed commercial suicide with music that played a large role in paving the way for what we now call post-rock, as his lyrics took on a new depth and left things like rhyming and conventional metric ideas in the dust.

I mean, how do you get from this (pre-Talk Talk, with a short-lived band called The Reaction)…

…to this…

…to this?

They’re all great songs, but all three of them live on different planets. Few musicians are open to allowing this kind of artistic evolution to happen, let alone capable of pulling it off in a way that feels not only natural, but inevitable.

Random thing: “New Grass” features what may be my all-time favourite recording of an electric guitar. There’s something so beautiful and pure about it — a sound in constant bloom.

There’s also evidence that Mark had this kind of music in him before Talk Talk existed. Maybe he needed the right people and resources to do justice to the sound in his head, and he was biding his time until everything lined up the way he wanted.

Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are albums that create an endlessly evolving world of sound for you to get lost in. They achieve this not with synthesizers or sonic trickery, but with real instruments recorded in the most organic, dynamic way possible, and with silence treated as an instrument in itself. Weaving in and out of the sounds and the spaces between them is Mark’s voice — one of the most unique in all of “pop/rock”. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand much of what he’s singing in a given song without looking at the lyric sheet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a voice that can move you even if you don’t know what it’s saying.

Those last two Talk Talk albums, along with Mark’s lone self-titled solo album, form a triptych of uncommon power. Each one grows quieter and more minimal, until there’s silence and nothing else. Few bodies of work have trailed off with such grace.

This music has taken me places little else has, moving me near to tears one minute only to scare the bejesus out of me the next. Years ago I was listening to Mark Hollis late at night. During one of the more turbulent instrumental passages I noticed a tree branch flailing against my bedroom window as if it was having a visceral reaction to something only I could hear. The song sounded like a storm, and here it was storming outside, the wind shaking that tree’s arm with almost enough force to pry it loose.

“This is music that knows the world,” I thought.

Then I wrote the thought down, because I don’t often think things that sound so poetic.

I think Mark felt he’d said all he had to say after his solo album was finished. It’s difficult to fathom where else he might have gone after those half-whispered tone poems. What was there left to strip away? He even explained his vanishing act in the songs themselves, singing about his family and the joy it gave him. He wanted to step away from the music industry and dedicate himself to being a good father and husband, making his life his art instead of the other way around. There’s a great nobility in that.

The one bit of new material to surface in recent years was a brief instrumental piece heard over the end credits of an episode of Boss. It sounded like the soundtrack to a made-for-TV horror film that had been disassembled and reinterpreted by curious robots. Whether it was the beginning of a beguiling new direction or just a one-off, we’ll probably never know. Maybe it was only a wink meant to say, “I’m still here.”

Now the man who fell off the face of the earth is gone for good. I doubt we’ll get the usual deluge of reissues and biographies to cash in on the renewed interest in his work, and that’s as it should be. In a strange way, the permanence of his absence feels like it’s brought him closer. When he sang he sounded like a fallen angel, but it turns out he was one of us after all.

My introduction to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk came in 1994. MuchMusic played the music video for “Life’s What You Make It” one Saturday morning. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen or heard before. I picked out the song’s insistent piano line on a rented keyboard, feeling proud of myself for being able to figure it out at a time when getting my fingers to play anything that sounded like music was a challenge.

You might think I’m going to start bragging about how I was hip to The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden when I was ten or eleven years old. I’m not. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t even catch the name of the band on the TV screen that day. I would read about Talk Talk a little later on when I found the book that would become my musical Bible for a while. It still took me much longer than it should have to go out and buy one of their albums. I didn’t get my hands on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock until I was in my early twenties. The first time I heard “The Rainbow” and that overdriven harmonica solo kicked in, I wanted to scream with happiness.

If there’s such a thing as perfect music, I think this stuff is about as close as it gets, but I’ve rarely tried to emulate it in any direct way. I think that would be a mistake. From the time I started banging on a tape case with a drum stick and singing in the absence of an instrument to play, my goal was always to develop my own voice without taking cues from anyone else. Besides, to take a real, honest stab at tapping into the specific magic of late-period Talk Talk would be…difficult. In a number of articles and interviews that are available online, you can read about how a lot of the songs started as nothing but a man-made click track of light percussion or a drum pattern and were then built piecemeal over a painstaking period of time. While the songs sound like continuous performances with all the musicians playing together in one space, that’s an illusion created through a lot of creative editing. A trumpet player might come into the studio to record ten improvised takes only to find what was used in the final mix was two seconds of them clearing their spit valve. Or a performance meant to sit in a certain space might find itself moved out of context to a different part of the song.

In a lot of ways it’s music as meticulous collage. That it sounds so spontaneous and untethered from time is a testament to the brilliance of all involved. The contributions of producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Green and recording engineer Phill Brown can’t be overstated here.

It might have taken me five years to finish an album I’m still not quite finished yet, and I might build things a piece at a time out of necessity (and a lack of Johnny clones), but I don’t have the patience or the technology to work the way those guys did in the studio. I don’t think I’d want to even if I could.

The inspiration I’ve taken from these albums lives somewhere deeper than the desire for mimicry, though I’m sure the way Phill Brown recorded Lee Harris’s drums on Laughing Stock — a great example of the “drums in a room being played by a human” sound we don’t hear too much of anymore — had as much to do with my decision to start recording my own drum kit in a more minimal way as laziness did.

A confession: there was this one time, in early 2008, when I did go out of my way to do something that sounded like a poor man’s version of a song that might have been recorded for Laughing Stock, just to see if I could pull it off. I played some unresolved chords on an electric guitar and gave them a lot of room to linger, without using a click track. I added a second guitar part, bouncing a pencil on the strings before playing in a more conventional way. Bass and drums followed. The vocals came last. Each part was improvised and recorded in one take without any preparation. I sang without knowing what the vocal melody was supposed to be, feeling it out along the way.

I didn’t have the assortment of instruments or the musician friends I do now. I couldn’t add piano because I didn’t yet have a real one, and it was clear something digital wasn’t going to cut it. I thought about buying a violin and trying to get something out of it before finding a cheap melodica at Belle Air Music. The melodica was the secret sauce I was looking for, and it felt like it tied everything together.

The freakout section a little over two minutes into the song is more me than Talk Talk. And I didn’t begin to try and sound like Mark Hollis. No one else can sing like that. But as homages go, I felt it was pretty successful. Eleven years later I still like it and believe there’s a place for it on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to share it here.

The Trance Lethargic

Boulevard of bokeh dreams.

I just bought this thing — a 50mm Canon lens that’s been nicknamed “the nifty fifty”. For a year or two I’ve been talking myself out of getting it for one reason or another. I’m not a professional photographer, I doubt I’ll ever progress far beyond “bearded hobbyist”, and I don’t need an assortment of lenses for what I do…but it doesn’t hurt to have a second option.

That inescapable thought was what swayed me in the end.

For less than $200, this lens is insane. It isn’t a Zeiss Makro Planar, but it isn’t trying to be. One thing it allows you to do is blur parts of the image that are out of focus in a way that’s really pleasing to the eye. This effect is called “bokeh”. It’s also called shallow depth of field, but I prefer the idea of someone trying to say “bouquet” and sneezing at the moment of truth. Best of all, it’s fast, so it doesn’t mind low light situations.

Though this isn’t a great picture, it’ll give you a bit of an idea. The light in this room is far from ideal. Most lenses would either refuse to take an in-focus picture or laugh at me while ejecting themselves from the camera body. The nifty fifty didn’t care. The shot is a little grainy, but it has no business looking this decent given the lighting situation. Notice how the floor beneath the snare drum isn’t just out of focus in a conventional way — it has a creamy quality to it.

Sneeze it with me now: bokeh!

I’m just starting to play around with it, but I’m not feeling any buyer’s remorse.

There’s a learning curve here. With no zoom, you’re forced to move around and really think about composition. I’m not sure how much I trust the autofocus when it comes to still images. I’m probably going to have to get more comfortable using manual focus to get the most out of this lens.

These are good things, and they’ll lead to better, more artistic pictures.

Even so, the nifty fifty has given me a new appreciation for the kit lens that came with my Canon T5i (an EFS 18-55mm zoom lens). Everyone craps all over this thing and says you can’t take good pictures with it, but for my modest purposes it’s been great. The autofocus is fast, quiet, and almost never seems to hunt. The image stabilization allows me to shoot video handheld without things getting too jerky. It isn’t amazing in low light, but it sure beats the pants off of the Pentax point-and-shoot of yore and shoots much cleaner, deeper-looking video than my Flip friends. It’s never prevented me from getting the shot I wanted, and sometimes that zoom really comes in handy.

My point is, it isn’t the glass in the lens, but the lass and her hens. Wait…that’s not right. Ask not what you can do for your camera, but what your camera would do if forced to watch Samurai Cop on an endless loop. No…that’s still not it.

Eh, you get my drift.

(Seriously, go watch some clips from Samurai Cop if you want to collapse in a bewildered fit of animal laughter. It has to be up there with The Room and Troll 2 in the pantheon of the most hilariously bad films ever made.)

The answer, my friends, is written on a cheque.

Apparently Bob Dylan accepted a big smelly bag of money so Budweiser could use “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a new commercial they debuted during the most boring Super Bowl of all time. Somewhere someone who once believed Bob was the voice of their generation is vomiting up a winter scarf.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I can understand why a young or struggling artist would allow their song to be used in a stupid commercial. If they’re offered a life-altering amount of money, they can tell themselves the payday will enable them to make the art they want to make and get it into the ears of more people. That’s not a bad thing, assuming they’re not making bad music. I’m not going to tell you I wouldn’t at least be a little tempted if a good offer came my way, and I don’t even want my music to reach a lot of ears.

With Bobby, I just don’t get it. You can’t tell me the guy needs the money. If there was any doubt, at least we now know the man doesn’t hold any of his songs sacred.

Let us remember better times.

Worse than this weirdness — far worse — is the news that Disney is releasing a live action remake of Aladdin. Are they really that bereft of ideas? In the right hands it might not have been horrible. Guy Ritchie does not have those hands. His hands are wrong. Very wrong.

From what I can tell, he handed CGI duties over to a blind mouse with a drinking problem. A lot of what’s in the trailer looks less realistic than the animated film did. Hell, this looks more true-to-life than some of the backgrounds in the new movie:

Will Smith is playing the Genie. Nothing against Will, but his character looks like the most hilariously half-assed green screen creation in the history of film. Think “The Fresh Prince in blueface with the body of a random beer-swilling amateur wrestler Photoshopped beneath his head” and you’re most of the way there.

Enough about that.

My grant proposal went off into cyberspace about two weeks ago. It’s in the hands of four strangers now. I should get an answer in a month or two. Fingers, toes, and earlobes crossed.

WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD has finally slipped off of the CJAM charts after nine weeks straight in the top thirty. That has to be a new record for me. I have no idea who was giving it airplay for such an insane length of time, but I bow before them in gratitude.

I’d like to be able to tell you I’ve been recording up a storm since my last post. That would be a lie. It’s been slow going so far in 2019.

I got my little replacement effects-generating red kidney, the piano was tuned for the fifty-third time, I was all set to get back down to business, and then I got sick. Again. At least this time it wasn’t so bad (I started eating zinc and vitamin D the second I knew something was coming, which seemed to cut my usual symptoms in half), but I still lost some time when I don’t have a wealth of it left to work with.

Motivation has been a problem. Even now that I’m not trembling beneath the covers with an upset stomach and angry elbows, it continues to be a problem. But you know what hasn’t been a problem? Writing songs.

The well kind of ran dry for a little bit. Well, that’s not quite right. It only felt like it did. See, I’m used to writing all the time. Musical ideas show up on a daily basis, pretty much, even when I’m asleep. Some of them turn into songs. Some don’t. And then the words show up when they feel like showing up.

For a while nothing much was showing up at all. I didn’t sit down and try to force it. I don’t work that way. Nothing good has ever happened when I’ve tried. It just wasn’t happening, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

I started to think it was my first real brush with writer’s block. Then I looked at how much writing I was doing in the run-up to the supposed dry spell.

I started writing for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK in March of 2014. Not counting the latest batch of songs, and not taking into account any of the sketches that haven’t yet been fully fleshed-out, in that time I’ve written six songs with Adam (Mr. Shimmer Demolition himself), eleven with Steven, twenty-eight with Gord, and two hundred and thirty-six on my own. A dozen of those two hundred and thirty-six songs were meant for either AFTERTHOUGHTS or FLOOD. The rest were written specifically with SLEEPWALK in mind, even if a few ended up on STEW and a few more ended up on FLOOD because they made sense there.

Two hundred and twenty-four songs written by one person for one album might not seem like a whole lot when it’s spread out over a period of five years. That only averages out to forty-five songs a year. But consider: about a hundred of those songs were written in the last ten months of 2014, and the vast majority of the rest were written in 2015 and 2016. Things slowed down a lot after that. I wouldn’t be surprised if I only finished a dozen new songs last year. By my standards, that’s downright anemic.

What happened was, I went on a real tear for a while there. The sketches and undeveloped ideas from 2014 to 2016 might even outnumber the finished songs. I’ve been pretty prolific for a pretty long time, even if I haven’t released a lot of albums in recent years, but I don’t think I’ve written with a sustained fury like that since I was in high school and had to resort to writing lyrics in the middle of most of my classes to save my brain from atrophy.

When I look at the bigger picture, it makes sense that things would taper off at some point. You can’t keep writing like that without your brain exploding. And I think on some subconscious level the songwriting part of my mind probably said, “Maybe it’s time to take a bit of a break. You’ve got some serious catching up to do in the recording department.”

Still, going too long without writing has never been good for me.

Just as I was starting to get worried, I picked up a guitar and a new song happened. Then I sat down at the piano and wrote another one. And another one. And it snowballed from there. In the past week I’ve written eight new songs. Three of them still need some more words, but other than that they’re done.

There was no feeling of a switch being flicked. Songs just started coming again. You know what they say: visions come to prepared spirits.

I’m not sure how many of these most recent songs will end up on the album. I think at least a few of them are worth tackling. I’ve already recorded piano and a vocal track for one of them.

Baby steps.