random rant/tirade

You stink, levy.

When I first made the switch from cassette tapes to digital recording — a transition fraught with both growing pains and excitement — I never imagined I would someday be operating as my own DIY record label. The thought of making more than a single copy of a given album and sharing the music with anyone outside of my home was still a foreign concept to me.

The second proper song I recorded on my spiffy new eight-track mixer in the summer of 1999 was a twelve-minute improvised piece about the hypothetical death and unwanted resurrection of a bully I would pretend to kill off in a few more songs down the road. This was their first imagined death. Things were going well until a little past the nine minute mark, when I threw in a little spoken word passage.

“From the corner of the swing set, someone was watching,” I said in a faux-British accent. “Someone was watching very closely. What they were watching was unclear, but it was indeed something.”

What I wanted to say next was, “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know was what it was.”

Instead, I tripped over my self-made tongue twister, and what came out was this: “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know what was it was. That was was t’was tos tosteestostas. Teestostas. Tosteestostas.”

I have no idea how the song would have ended if I didn’t accidentally reverse the order of “was” and “what”, turning my mistake into an excuse to do away with intelligible words altogether. There’s no way to know. There’s only what happened in the moment, and it’s preserved on CD for as long as CDs continue to function. Over my best synthesized impression of a string section, I repeated this nonsense word “tosteestostas” dozens of times, wailing it, screaming it, moaning it, turning it into the climax (and unexpected title) of the song.

When I was finished recording it, I thought, “That’s it. There’s my imaginary publishing company and record label wrapped up in a neat little bow. Tosteestostas Music.” I can’t explain why it felt so right. I think it was the absurdity of it that appealed to me. I could have spent months trying to come up with something meaningful, and I never would have found a phrase that grabbed me as much as this one word that wasn’t a word at all, that came out of a moment of tongue-tied silliness.

Even before I knew anything about album packaging, when my idea of liner notes was turning whatever inserts came with a CD-R inside-out and writing whatever information I could fit in the available space, copyright information was always attributed to Tosteestostas Music. Once I figured out I could have proper inserts printed without too much trouble, it started appearing on album spines along with the name of the album and the catalogue number.

Somewhere along the line Tosteestostas became something like a real record label, albeit a very low-key one. If you really think about it, I do everything a label would do for me if we lived in an alternate universe in which I sold my music and some A&R person was insane enough to want to sign me, from the recording and production of an album, to working out cover art and designing the packaging, to getting inserts and booklets printed, to duplicating the CDs myself, to “distributing” them (which now involves little more than giving them to a handful of friends, but used to be a much more involved process) and “promoting” them (which I don’t do at all anymore aside from writing about what I’m working on here, but again, promotion used to be a thing I flirted with, sometimes, sort of). I even make my own music videos, if you can call them that, and book my own shows when I play live every century or two.

So what began as a made-up thing isn’t so made-up at all anymore.

I came within a cough and a sneeze of registering it as an official business the other day. The nudge to do that came from the strangest place.

There’s this thing called the Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC, if you like acronyms). In the interest of education, here’s some of the information they offer on their website:

Established in 1999, the CPCC is a non-profit umbrella organization whose member collectives represent songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies. It is responsible for collecting and distributing private copying levies.

A “private copy” is a copy of a recorded track of music, or of a substantial part of such a track, that is made by an individual for his or her own personal use. A personal compilation of favourite tracks is a good example of how people typically create private copies.

Part VIII of the Copyright Act allows consumers to copy recorded music for their own personal use. In exchange, the private copying levy was created to compensate music rights holders for private copies made of their music. Similar levies are collected in over forty countries around the world. Copies of music have value — if they didn’t, people wouldn’t make them. In a public opinion poll conducted by Praxicus Public Strategies Inc., 67% responded that music rights holders should be paid when copies are made of their music.

The private copying levy is a royalty that exists to provide compensation to songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies for private copies made of their music. It is applied to the kinds of media that are ordinarily used for private copying. The media that the levy applies to and the rates that are charged are determined by the Copyright Board of Canada, based upon evidence presented in a formal hearing.

The private copying levy is not a tax. It is a royalty paid to music rights holders. Unlike a tax, which is collected by the government, the private copying levy is collected by the CPCC to provide remuneration to rights holders for private copying. The private copying levy is earned income for rights holders and helps them to continue to create music.

Private copying royalties are distributed to music authors, music publishers, recording artists, and record companies through the CPCC’s member collectives. While music authors and publishers may qualify regardless of their nationality, only Canadian performers and Canadian record companies qualify to receive the private copying levy.

I first noticed this levy around 2012 or 2013 when I ordered some recordable CDs and the price was higher than usual. I paid the levy and didn’t think much of it. I went on paying every time I had to stock up on CDs.

Long before that, when I got serious about taking care of the duplication side of things myself, I tried a lot of different brands of so-called high-end recordable media, settling on inkjet printer-friendly Taiyo Yuden CDs after a whole lot of over-thinking and hair-splitting. These were touted as being just about the best CD-Rs money could buy, and it turned out the touting was justified. In all my years of buying recordable CDs, these have by far been the most reliable for both archival and musical purposes.

At some point JVC took over production. The quality stayed pretty much the same. Then JVC/Taiyo Yuden announced they would be ceasing production of all optical media at the end of 2015. A company called CMC Pro bought all the necessary rights and dyes to continue producing the very same CDs, just under a different name. But things haven’t been the same at all.

In spite of their stated commitment to uphold the same standards of quality set by Taiyo Yuden, once CMC Pro took over the failure rate of their CDs jumped from almost nonexistent to somewhere around 30%. That’s atrocious. I’ve probably gone through a few thousand of the JVC-branded TY CDs over the years, and in that time I think maybe there have been two discs that failed on me.

Word on the street is CMC Pro have finally sorted things out and are now producing CDs more or less on par with the Taiyo Yuden media of old. But to go on making and distributing a product they knew was defective for years before deciding to do something about it…that’s not great business acumen. I’d rather not take a chance when everything I’ve read screams at me to run far away from what these once-great CDs have become.

My workaround was to buy up as much of the leftover JVC stock as I could. Sadly, eBay was the only place I had any luck, and I was only able to buy a few stacks of a hundred before they all seemed to disappear. I’ve only got a little more than a hundred of those trusted TY CDs left now.

Time to switch to another brand, then. Looks like some people in my position have had good results with Falcon Media CDs. From all the information I can gather, they seem to be a solid choice.

I was about to pull the trigger on a hundred of these discs when I noticed that pesky levy again. I don’t know if it’s increased over the last few years, but it effectively doubled the price, and I don’t remember that being the case before.

This got me to read up about just what this levy was designed to do. And it pissed me off a little.

am a songwriter, a musician, a recording artist, and a record company. This “royalty” is supposed to reimburse me for others privately copying my music without my knowledge. And yet I get nothing. It isn’t a royalty at all. It is a tax, and I’m the one paying it. As an independent artist, I’m being penalized for something I don’t do, when I only use any of this recordable media to make sound recordings of my own music — which I own the rights to and choose to distribute for free — and to back up data that pertains to…you guessed it…my music.

It’s pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but I still think it’s ridiculous. I mean, technically, the CPCC owes me money. I’ve been paying for a few years now for something I’ve never done.

The only way around this stupidity is to apply through the CPCC to have the levy waived. In order to do this, I either need to be a member of a recognized musician’s organization (no thanks), or I need to be the owner of a registered business. Registering my record company as a business made the most sense here, as far as I could see…until I read a sample of one of the CPCC’s application forms and learned I would need to keep meticulous books documenting how many recordable CDs I bought, where I bought them from, and what each disc was used for. I would have to agree to make myself available for an audit if the CPCC ever decided they wanted to check up on me. And I would need to pay a $60 application fee (plus tax), on top of the separate $60 fee to register my business, plus whatever “administrative fees” they decided to add on top. And then every year I would need to pay to renew my “membership”, if you can call it that.

I can understand this kind of policing when you’re dealing with distributors who buy and sell hundreds of thousands of recordable CDs and DVDs. Plenty of people in those positions have tried to screw the system, and there are court decisions documenting their startling lack of ingenuity. But by assuming everyone is using recordable media for the same thing, we all end up paying for something only a select group of people do. Does anyone even make “mix CDs” anymore when you can make a playlist on the internet much easier and full albums are made available to listen to for free on YouTube the moment they’re released?

Besides, do you know how many recordable CDs I buy in a year? Two, maybe three hundred. At the peak of my infamy, when I was making my albums as accessible to the public as I could, I probably went through a few hundred more. Even then, I doubt I ever bought more than five hundred CDs in a year, and every one of those discs was either used for backup purposes, for rough mixes, or to facilitate the free, independent distribution of my own music.

It’s outrageous that these people would have the right to audit me. Not that they’d find anything incriminating. I have very little to gain by cheating, and I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try. The whole thing is just goofy to me.

In the end, I decided it’s simpler to pay this absurd levy that again claims to be designed to benefit me when it does no such thing, eat the small bowl of liquid shit being served to me by the CPCC while they claim to have my best interests in mind, and live with it. It’s a little irritating to have to spend an extra $30 every time I want to buy a hundred CDs, but at least I don’t need to jump through hoops to satisfy an organization that couldn’t care less about someone like me.

On a happier note, here’s a song off the forthcoming final Papa Ghostface album. I’m not sure if this is a final mix, but it feels pretty good at the moment.

Prayer for Redemption

Maybe call it a sneak peak instead of an advance single. I think singles tend to either be about putting your poppiest foot forward or offering a pretty clear idea of what the rest of the album sounds like in microcosm, and this does neither of those things (though the dark alt-folky flavour is an indication that some of the songs do have that taste to them). It isn’t any bold musical statement, it doesn’t begin to hint at some of the weirdness that transpires elsewhere on the album, and it’ll probably show up somewhere around the halfway mark. So it’s pretty much the definition of a “deep album cut”.

I think I just felt like sharing it because I was working on tidying up the mix and thought it was a neat little song.

All the electric guitar tracks were amplified care of this old friend:

Most of the time I use this amp for grittier moments when I want some natural tube breakup. Lately I’ve been trying something different, turning it down just past the point of being turned on — there’s very little headroom, which has always been part of the amp’s charm — and getting some nice clean sounds. There’s still a throaty quality that sets it apart from the Fender Twin, but I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness of some of the tones I’ve been getting.

Not bad for an amp I got for free as an add-on when I bought my first electric guitar many moons ago.

All the guitar tracks were mic’d in stereo with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421. The initial rhythm part was played on the Telecaster I’ve been neglecting for a while. I added a bunch of fiddly bits on acoustic guitar, but it didn’t quite feel right, so I replaced all those parts with more electric guitar, this time playing the newer Jazzmaster that’s become one of my go-to guitars. It’s got this nice chiming thing going on in the middle pickup position, and that seemed to play well off of the Telecaster’s rounder sound.

Recording the leg slaps was, as usual, pretty tedious. When you want to create the illusion of a bunch of people smacking their thighs and it’s just you in front of the microphone, it takes a while to build up a decent bed of body percussion. I did six or eight tracks and then made a stereo sub-mix to free up most of those tracks for other things. Thought about adding drums, but I liked the feeling the song had with just the leg slaps.

I seem to gravitate toward this sound over handclaps a lot of the time. There’s a softness to it I like. Clapping is a more confrontational sound, and it doesn’t always work in a mix.

The last thing I added was the six-string banjo. I could feel something was missing, but I had no idea what it was. Since the main guitar riff almost felt like something I should have played on a banjo in the first place, it was the sensible thing to try, and once I worked out a few little counter-melodies it felt like the void had been filled. It’s funny how you can introduce a single acoustic instrument into a mix that’s swimming with electric guitars, and all at once everything opens up in a subtle way.

Technically this is a solo song, but Gord expressed some enthusiasm when I played him the music before it had any words to go with it, so there’s a good chance it would have ended up on the album even if things didn’t fall apart, and I probably would have ended up playing most or all of the instruments anyway. I guess the main difference, now that I’m going it alone the rest of the way, is the freedom to include whatever songs I want and arrange them however I like without being second-guessed, which is always nice.

I’m going to try and get this album finished — mixed, mastered, packaged, and everything — in the next month or two. Not sure I can pull it off, but I’m going to give it my best shot. When STEW was about as close to being finished as this one is now, I had a lot more on my plate and started doubting my ability to mix the songs to my satisfaction. Too much time was spent thinking about the work I needed to do instead of sitting down and doing it. I don’t want to let that happen again.

I know I’ve said this sort of thing in recent years and then failed to stick with it. I’ve been better over the past six or seven months — still prone to the occasional crummy lethargy lapse, but a lot more productive. Finishing things continues to be my achilles’ heel, when it used to be one of my strengths. Hopefully some sort of regression to the mean will happen one of these days and I’ll revert to my old routine of putting out at least a few albums a year.

A home at the end of the frozen river.

Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.

I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.

So I decided to go for it.

I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.

By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.

This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.

A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.

The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.

It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

When the winning song was announced, it wasn’t mine. I was expecting that. What surprised me was the song that did win. It was one of the worst things I’d ever heard in my life. The lyrics alone were so awful they defied belief.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:

For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know
that keeps my temperament even during times of snow.
I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow.
It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low.
Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do.
But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.

We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.

There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.

Sufjan had this to say about his decision:

“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”

I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.

As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.

It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.

At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.

Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.

Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.

The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.

A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.

Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.

I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.

I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.

(As for how to describe the scent of self-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)

About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.

I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.

Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.

Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).

“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.

I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.

If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?

Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.

Radio killed the video star.

The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.

MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.

MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in North America — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.

There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.

Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.

CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEntire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.

When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.

Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.

Last year the CRTC decided the folks at CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.

A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.

For some of us, this is what hell looks like.

Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.

Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think I was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — people like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.

In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned (and it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I always seem to want to hear a little more grit or weirdness or something that isn’t quite there).

I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.

But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.

Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). And every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.

Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.

My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.

I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.

One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.

But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.

We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.

So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.

The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.

But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.

In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.

There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.

There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.

When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.

I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.

Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.

A Well-Thought-Out Escape

(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)

I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.

I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.

Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.

No creativity among thieves.

Every once in a while it’s fun to type one of your own album or song titles into a search engine to see what pops up. Sometimes you find out someone played one of your songs on their college radio show six years ago without you ever knowing. Or maybe someone wrote about your music on their blog.

You find other things as well.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I’ve been slowly picking away at remastering a whole slew of albums. At the moment I’m working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.

For years I’ve been meaning to tweak the packaging for this one. On the tray insert, beneath the place where the CD sits, there are several links to internet places that no longer exist, like my now-long-dead Myspace and CBC Radio 3 pages. The formatting of the booklet also came out a little wonky the first time around (that was my doing), and I wouldn’t mind fixing it now that I know a bit more about the whole graphic design thing.

I was just finishing up one last read-through of the redesigned booklet to try and catch any lingering typos before bringing the art files to Minuteman Press when I thought I’d punch the album title into Google for no real reason. I don’t know what I thought I’d find, but I know I wasn’t expecting this.

The best way I can figure it, a few years ago this dude did an internet search to see if there were any albums out there with the name he wanted to give his EP. He must have ended up here, must have seen I’d already made an album with the same name, and then he must have decided not only was he going to keep the name, but he was going to steal my cover art while he was at it, to save himself the trouble of making his own.

Either that, or he found his way here some other way, didn’t have that album title in his head to begin with, and decided he liked the name and the cover image enough to appropriate both of them.

Here’s what the cover of my album looks like.

I’m the first one to admit it’s not some of my more creative work in the design department. I had the title kicking around for years but could never come up with an idea for an image that made sense with it. I was writing and recording the songs that make up this record in the middle of a pretty strange emotional time in my life, and when it came down to it, simple white text on a black background felt about right.

Now here’s his album cover art.

I don’t claim ownership of any phrases in the English language. There are tons of albums and songs out there that share names, themes, chord progressions, lyrics…you name it. So if someone puts out an album or song that happens to have the same name as one of mine, even if it isn’t a straight coincidence, that doesn’t bother me. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.

This is another thing altogether. To rip off my existing cover art and then just tack your own name on it in a font that doesn’t begin to make sense with the one I used, with no credit given and no permission asked…that’s pretty lame. Why the hell would anyone do that? It’s not even an interesting album cover to steal! It’s just text.

If you really feel a need to have cover art that looks similar to mine, at least use your own font and make something yourself that’s inspired by what i did. It would take you all of fifteen seconds. Invest a minute or two of your life and you could probably come up with something better than what I did back in 2010.

I’m sure there are some people in the world who would find a way to interpret something like this as a warped compliment. I’m not one of them. I don’t like it when someone steals my shit. It’s not like he stole my songs, so I’m not livid about it. But I have to say the whole thing is a little weird to me. I don’t understand why anyone would go to the trouble of doing a thing like this. You steal an image that has nothing for the eyes to get lost in, you can’t even be bothered to copy it at a reasonable resolution, and then you type your name beneath the title and pretend it’s yours? Really?

If I’d included my name on the cover along with the title of the album, I imagine he would have crossed it out and penciled his in above it, thinking no one would notice.

It’s a whole lot more rewarding to put a little thought and effort into creating a visual component to your music that’s yours, or even asking a talented friend to make you some art, than it is to steal something someone else has already done. Believe me.

Try coming up with your own stuff. The rest of us do.

All the things she said.

Remember this song?

It was a monster hit a little over a decade ago. You couldn’t escape it. Every time you turned on the radio or the television, it was bound to show up within about six minutes. Even if you found it annoying, it had a way of affixing itself to your brain. I can still sing you the chorus from memory, and I haven’t even heard it since probably 2003.

Yulia Volkova, the dark-haired half of the group, was recently on a Ukranian TV show. She said if she had a son and she found out he was gay, she would disown him. A man has “no right to be a fag”, she said. According to her, men were created by God to procreate, and to deny that and sleep with other men is a terrible sin. A homosexual man isn’t a “real” man. The audience, apparently in agreement with her, applauded.

She did say it would be okay if she had a gay daughter, because “aesthetically lesbians look much nicer than two men holding their hands or kissing”.

I didn’t realize selective homophobia was a thing, or that what you like to look at determines what is and isn’t acceptable for other people to do.

Then again, this is someone whose entire career was built on the controversy of two teenage girls kissing in a music video and onstage, with her and Lena Katina effectively playing “lesbian dress-up” to sell records. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and tell it it’s got halitosis.

I guess what she said at the height of her fame about supporting the LGBT community was just PR spin. And I suppose next she’ll claim God appeared to her in a vision and said, “Behold! The gay man shall burn in hell, but the gay woman shall sit at my table forever, for it is mighty fun to watch women kiss! Spread my gospel!”

Seriously. How can there still be people out there who believe this shit? People are attracted to who and what they’re attracted to, for reasons they do or don’t understand. To deny that, or to be made to deny it by others, is the real sin. God, Goddess, Vishnu, Urkel, Giant Running Shoe, Disembodied Generic Head…whatever is or isn’t up there supposedly watching over us has got nothing to do with it.

Your body. Your libido. Your heart. Your business. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, no one has the right to tell you what to do with any of it.

If there really is a heaven and a hell, you know who’s going to that place of burning and pain down below? Hate-spreading homophobes. That’s who.

Competition and malnutrition.

the mystical thong fish.

This is a fish made out of thongs.

To that end, I used to have a CBC Radio 3 page. I had a bunch of songs up there, along with some pictures and video content. I ended up getting a little bit of unexpected airplay through that, though it didn’t lead anywhere meaningful. When I sent an email to the guy who gave me some short-lived attention thanking him and offering to send him more music, he didn’t respond, and he never bothered acknowledging that I existed again after that. As you do.

A year or two ago I tried to delete the page. The site wouldn’t let me. So I gutted it of all its content and left it as an empty shell. A digital husk.

Part of the reasoning behind this was realizing I’d lost any interest I might have once had in playing any part of the “game” when it comes to music and networking, and I’d grown tired of making myself so easy to find while some people persisted in painting me as being inaccessible. I figured if I was going to be called a recluse all the time, I might as well start acting like one — you know, give the people what they want.

If I’m completely honest, another one of the reasons I wanted to obliterate my CBC Radio 3 page was because of contests and competitions like the one that’s going on right now. In this case, it’s The Search for Canada’s Best New Artist or some such thing.

Let’s talk about that for a second.

This contest isn’t even what it claims to be. If it really was a search for the best new artist, most of the bands and artists who’ve entered would be disqualified by default. Because they’re not new. Many of them have been bands for quite a few years now. Hell, I’m nowhere near being new myself. I’ve been creating and recording music since 1994. So I couldn’t enter this contest and honestly call myself a new artist.

But that’s kind of beside the point. And what is the point? I don’t like competition in art. At least not this kind. I don’t like contests. I think they’re kind of stupid, and often altogether pointless. And I think a real artist is someone who’s too busy creating art to care much about getting involved in these kinds of things.

Let me be clear here: I support local artists and anyone who’s trying to make a living through their art. I’ve done a lot of things to help a lot of different people over the years in an effort to facilitate that. That I usually ended up getting stabbed in the back for my trouble and/or tossed aside once I fulfilled my purpose doesn’t diminish that my motives were good and I at least did what I said I was going to do, unlike most of the people I went out of my way to help.

I’ve given a lot of money, time, effort, thought, and whatever skills I have — not because I thought I might look good doing it or get a reach-around when it was all over, but because I wanted to, and because it felt like the right thing to do. Even after all the bad experiences I’ve had, that impulse is still there, at least most days. When it comes to music, I’ll help a friend if i can. I’ll help someone I don’t even really know if I can, as long as they seem like a decent person who isn’t going to force-feed me liver and onions at knife-point.

I just can’t stomach that stuff.

I’ve been a voter in these kinds of contests before. Once I even played a small role in someone winning. At least I thought I did. I felt like I’d been part of something incredible, and it proved to me that a small community banding together really can make a difference and carry an underdog to improbable success. It kind of restored my faith in people a little bit.

Those good feelings were short-lived. I learned the real reason for the victory was a whole lot of cheating, lying, and some clever exploiting of loopholes. This was encouraged by the victor, tacitly if not directly, and then bragged about after the fact. I voted the legitimate way, playing by the rules, thinking I was making a difference, while all around me people were creating countless fake profiles and using different email addresses to stack the deck in their favour.

When I found out about that, I felt dirty. I felt like I’d been robbed of something that was never really mine to begin with. And then I got to watch the person who’d stolen it manufacture a tale of how they came to possess this thing they didn’t really deserve, while an audience assembled and gave truth to the lie of how it came to be theirs so they too could claim to be a part of the story.

It didn’t matter to them that none of it was based on anything real. A good story tells itself, after all. They were little more than peripheral characters who got to write their own dialogue.

Some people will make — and have made — the argument that the ends justify the means. That if the “right” person wins it doesn’t matter how they won. And if one individual or entity in a community wins, everyone wins. So who cares?

Those people are entitled to make those arguments. Doesn’t mean I’m going to see any validity in them, just as they’re not going to agree with what I have to say. And if they want to respond to my rant by using my name in a pun designed to denigrate me, they’re entitled to do that too. I feel what I feel, and they feel what they feel, and never the twain shall meet.

(I would make sure I knew what a word like “pragmatism” meant before using it to try and jab a stick in someone’s eye. I would also make sure I wasn’t just holding a mirror up to my own hypocrisy by making such a public show of taking a simple difference of opinion and turning it into an excuse to stoop to the level of ad hominem attacks because I was trying to win this very contest and didn’t like some of the sketchy tactics I was employing being criticized. I wouldn’t engage in a bizarre two-tiered attempt at publicly shaming the person I disagreed with and drumming up some attention for myself by trying to bring our disagreement to the attention of the CBC. And I wouldn’t then take the coward’s way out and make my entire blog private so no one could read my side of the argument after it didn’t really play out in my favour. But hey, that’s just me.)

Back to the contest. Really, the whole thing has nothing to do with talent or the artistic merit of the submissions. Whoever wins will be the artist or band capable of getting the most people to vote for them, through whatever means necessary. It’s a popularity contest. Nothing more. The prize is $20,000 worth of musical equipment from Yamaha and a professionally recorded radio session to help give the winner some exposure. Chances are whoever wins this thing won’t need the equipment, and they’ll already have a pretty large built-in audience.

The whole thing is a mirage designed to give assistance to those who don’t need it while ignoring those who might benefit from it.

Here’s an idea. Instead of having a competition that rewards popularity, how about pooling your resources and finding a few artists who are making amazing music in their basements, who don’t have any real audience, who don’t have much money or equipment but love what they do and have talent that transcends their technical limitations? How about giving them some of this equipment you’re able to obtain for free or next-to-nothing thanks to the deals you have with manufacturers, and giving them the opportunity to record a song or two in a professional environment, and giving them a little bit of exposure if they want it, because you think what they do deserves to be heard by a few more people?

But wait! That would require some research and dedication, and the only real reward would be doing something great for someone who’s deserving but might not ever get the chance to show many people what they can do for one reason or another. You couldn’t just set up an automated online system to tabulate votes and let the whole thing take care of itself, knowing you would end up with a nice-looking, inoffensive, creatively bankrupt musical entity to promote at the end of it all. You’d have to do some actual work and use your brain and heart in order to make something happen.

It’s a nice idea, anyway.

I guess this is all just my long-winded way of saying I think this facet of competition as a general thing is pretty silly, and it’s not something I’m interested in being any part of anymore. I don’t even want to watch from the sidelines.

I have better things to do. I have music to make.

Beyond bad.

I try to stay away from what I feel is bad music. Most of the time I’m successful. But sometimes it finds me, and there’s nothing to be done. Once in a great while, this unwanted music that finds me is so bad, I have to pause for a moment and ponder the big, universal question: “If there is a God, why would he/she allow this stuff to exist? What purpose does it serve?”

You might tell me that’s two questions instead of one. I’ll tell you it’s a two-pronged single question. Then we’ll fight over it, and Olympic scoring will lead to a controversial result.

I digress. I was unlucky enough to hear K’naan’s new single “Hurt Me Tomorrow” for the first time just now. When I say I heard the song, what I really mean to say is that I heard the first twenty seconds of it, vomited, turned off the television, and changed my clothes. Instead of listening to the rest, I did an internet search to read the lyrics. I guess it’s been a while since I was confronted with a song that shook me to my very core with its awfulness, and I was due. But man…this one sure is something.

K’naan spends most of the song trying to convince a girl not to break up with him by throwing out bad forced rhymes, most of which end with the names of famous people. I’ll just touch on one of those rhymes, and then we’ll examine the chorus, which is the real heart of the song.

I need a button I can push so we can start again,
’cause girl, you bring me to my knees…Nancy Kerrigan.

Think about this for a second. The guy is equating romantic longing with a figure skater being violently clubbed in the knee with a collapsible police baton.

First of all, Nancy was not brought to her knees. Her knee was the part of her body that was attacked. She didn’t then fall to her knees and aggravate the injury further. She sat down and cried. You don’t get shot in the stomach and then poke around inside the wound with your finger to make it worse.

So right away the comparison isn’t really on-point, because the details are wrong.

If what he’s trying to get at is the object of his affection causing him pain that’s comparable to being hit in the knee with a police baton, well, I’m sure that’s going to work out well. Telling someone they’re causing you physical pain without even touching you isn’t going to come off as desperate or self-pitying at all. In fact, being a drama queen is a great way to endear yourself to someone who’s considering leaving you, and it doesn’t give them any indication that they might be moving in the right direction by cutting you out of their life. Doing it in a way that isn’t the least bit poetic or interesting is another selling point. She’ll really appreciate that!

You know what else? Nancy Kerrigan was attacked in 1994. The girl who’s breaking up with you — how old was she when that happened? Three? Does she even know who the hell a 1994 Olympic figure skater is? I’d select my pop culture references more carefully if I were you, man. Ubiquitous as information is now with the internet at everyone’s fingertips, maybe consider dropping a name she might know without having to look it up.

As soul-stirring as that little snippet of song is, the chorus tops it.

This ain’t a good time,
but when is it ever?
I know the perfect time,
and baby that’s never.
So don’t you dare leave me now —
throw my heart on the ground —
’cause tonight ain’t the night for sorrow,
but you can hurt me tomorrow.

Awful rhymes aside, note that he isn’t asking the girl not to break up with him. He’s telling her. “Don’t you dare,” he says. That’s the kind of language you use to threaten someone. That’s the language of an abusive partner.

He says the perfect time is “never”. So, the time it’s okay to break up with him doesn’t exist. And yet, a few lines later, he says tomorrow would be okay. Just not tonight. It’s never a good time, you understand, but tomorrow would work for him.

Maybe it’s a scheduling issue?

If the girl really did throw his heart on the ground, well, there would be no tomorrow. He’d be dead. The body cannot live without the heart, and the physical damage done would be catastrophic beyond the possibility of repair. So I can understand him not wanting her to do that. But why even give her the idea? She just might get so fed up with your shitty song she decides killing you is worth her while.

If you treat the language as being allusive or metaphoric, it’s hackneyed, sophomoric, and lame beyond belief. More than that, it’s an insult to the possibilities of the English language. If you take it at face value, it’s the talk of a person who’s insane and has no concept of time, and no understanding of the workings of the human body.

Oh, pop music. You get dumber all the time.

Play like you mean it.

I have this thing where when someone is both a singer and a musician I tend to feel a little less connected to their music when they make an album on which they don’t play an instrument. I also like it when they do their own vocal multi-tracking instead of relying on backup vocalists (unless the backup vocalists are really, really good).

I don’t know why this is, really. It’s just the way my brain works.

I’ll give you an example. Tim Buckley played acoustic — and later electric — twelve-string guitar on every great album he made. Even on Greetings from L.A., his first somewhat “commercial” effort after the record company clipped his wings and demanded more conventional music they could sell, he’s still in there playing guitar on every song, buried as he is in the mix at times. It’s on those last two albums that you barely hear him playing at all.

In Dream Brother, David Browne’s joint biography of Tim and Jeff Buckley, a friend of Tim’s remembers visiting the studio during the recording sessions for Look at the Fool and being unsettled by the image of Tim recording vocals with his guitar nowhere to be found. That instrument was a vital part of his artistry. When it was taken away you could tell something wasn’t quite right.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the few really great songs on those last two albums all feature the unmistakable sound of Tim’s electric Fender twelve-string. And to hear someone with his earth-shattering vocal range being forced to rely on female backup vocalists, knowing he could probably hit higher notes than even they were capable of reaching…no. That ain’t my Tim Buckley. That’s record company bullshit.

Or here’s an example that’s much more current and pop-culture-approved. There’s this reality TV show called The Voice that’s little more than a slight twist on the old American Idol karaoke singing contest thing. I watched a few episodes of it some months back, because I felt like it had been a while since I really got angry about anything related to shitty music and it was about time I had an excuse to shout profanity at my television again.

Some of the performers were actually pretty good. And in some cases they were rewarded for having some amount of personality. So that was nice to see. It was a fun way to kill a bit of time.

Something happened early in the game that made me angry enough to stop watching the show and promise myself to never watch it again out of silent protest.

For those of you who have never watched it, there are four celebrity singers/songwriters who act as judges and mentors to the contestants. Each judge gets to pick his or her own team, which they whittle down throughout the course of the show. The judges are also competing against one another for the distinction of being the one who can say they discovered “The Voice” when it’s all over. This wrinkle makes it all a little more interesting than it would be otherwise.

One of the judges/mentors is the frontman douche from the band Maroon 5. I know his name, but I prefer to call him The Douche. He’s probably the most arrogant and outspoken of all the judges.


Operating under the apparent assumption that cruelty is the best method of developing talent, after each judge has their team in place they have what are called “battle rounds”. The judges pair up singers on their teams in groups of two and have them perform the same song together onstage. Then they decide who did a better job singing the song.

The winner gets to stay another week. The loser goes home and gets nothing. They don’t even get the chance to perform during the part of the show where people at home are able to vote for who they like best. I think that’s even worse than being sent home because you didn’t get enough votes. The rejection is much more personal, and it’s coming from the same person who gave you the chance to be there — and the belief that you might make it all the way through — in the first place.

For one battle round, The Douche paired up two women. One of them played piano. She was pretty good. He chose a song for them both to sing. When they were rehearsing, he decided he didn’t want to see the one woman behind the piano anymore. He was going to push her to step out into the spotlight.

The piano was a huge part of her musical identity. That was where she wrote songs. She always played and sang at the same time. Without the piano, she felt uncomfortable. Like part of her had been stripped away. She said as much to The Douche, who dismissed her fear and told her she needed to do this to really push herself to the next level. Typical Douche “I know more than you know” arrogance.

So they had their battle round. And you could tell she wasn’t in her element. She wasn’t herself. Part of who she was had been taken away from her. Neither singer really gave a performance that stole the show. There was no clear winner. Even so, everyone chose the other woman over the one who used to play piano until The Douche took the piano away.

One of the judges told her she didn’t seem to be breathing properly during the song. Gee, do you think maybe you breathe a certain way when you’re seated at a piano, feeling connected to the instrument, when that’s the way you’re used to singing, and maybe you breathe a different way when you’re standing with a microphone in your hand, without the piano, having been given almost no time to acclimate yourself to a way of performing that is completely alien to you?

No. Of course you don’t think that. Not if you’re judging a singing contest when your own vocal talent is debatable at best.

The Douche made it clear he wasn’t thrilled with either performance. He sent the piano-playing woman home. He never apologized for ripping her out of her comfort zone without giving her enough time to adapt. He didn’t comment on the hypocrisy of being unimpressed with her performance when he was the one who went out of his way to create the atmosphere that led to the performance being less than what it might have been, had he allowed her to just be herself.

Do you see now why I call him The Douche? Do a little reading up about him and his exploits with women, and you’ll start to feel like you need a cold shower. Writing horrible songs that will make you a dumber person just for listening to them is only the icing on the Douche cake.

That incident on The Voice was what really took me beyond simple contemptuous indifference and into the realm of serious anger. It’s pathetic that people who are this artificial, little more than blobs of unjustified ego bouncing around and shitting on everything they come across, who say and do nothing, are given fame and celebrated as being important and worthwhile when they’re neither one of those things, just because they look like someone you could have sex with without feeling like you were slumming it. What he did to that woman made me want to projectile vomit in his face.

Back to the point.

Maybe the best demonstration of the phenomenon I first started talking about is the way I feel about Chan Marshall. I was, and still am, a big fan of the raw, angry, sometimes almost uncomfortably vulnerable early Cat Power albums. What Would the Community Think? and Moon Pix are two of my favourite albums by anyone. You Are Free and The Covers Record aren’t far behind. Her solo piano version of “I Found a Reason” is the best Velvet Underground cover recorded by anyone, anywhere, ever. It’s so beautiful I almost can’t listen to it. I like the first two albums too, and though I find them a little uneven in places, I like how it sounds in a lot of those songs like she’s making up all the words as she goes along, discovering her voice while the tape is rolling.

When The Greatest came out in 2006, it was hailed in some quarters as Chan’s masterpiece. If I’m honest, it kind of left me cold for a while. The first time I listened to it I almost fell asleep halfway through. Aside from the title track  — the only non-Big Star song I’ve ever heard that feels like it captures the dilapidated beauty of some of the piano songs Alex Chilton wrote for Third/Sister Lovers (whatever writer described the song as the sort of thing Alex might have written if he’d been a beautiful woman was right on the money) — and “Love and Communication” and the slight-but-weirdly-effective hidden track, the album felt kind of flat to me.

It dawned on me after a while that part of the problem I had with the album was not being able to really hear Chan playing on it. Aside from two songs where I could tell it was her playing piano and two or three others where it was clear it was her on electric guitar, she let the session musicians guide the music and stuck to singing.

I think she’s got one of the most unique and beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. I could listen to her sing the Yellow Pages. The session players she chose are fantastic musicians with great feel. And still, I really missed hearing her play guitar and piano. It felt like part of her personality had been amputated, and there was no getting away from that disappointment.

The kicker is — and she’s admitted this herself — Chan isn’t anywhere near being a virtuosic musician. On the first few albums you kind of doubt she even knew how to tune her guitar. On the piano she tends to pick a few simple chords and stick with them, doubling them up with the left hand instead of playing octaves or fifths.

But it works. It makes her music her music. And without her being involved in the songs that way, I have a more difficult time getting involved myself.

I did warm up to The Greatest after a while. I came to realize it’s great driving music. I like it now, even if it doesn’t hit me in the stomach like some of her other albums do. I still can’t get into Jukebox, though. And while I was glad to read about Chan conquering her addictions and finding some peace and contentment, it seemed to have that all-too-common effect of the happiness snuffing out some of the spark that used to exist in the music when the artist was a little less sure of themselves.

Today I found out she’s finished her first album of new material in six years, it’s going to be released in September, and she played every single instrument on every song herself because she felt a need to be completely connected to the songs again. She used the dissolution of a long-term relationship to fuel the songwriting.

If I knew how to do joyful back-flips (or any kind of back-flip at all), I would have done one then. I’m not happy a relationship she invested years of her life in didn’t end up working out, but all of those things are almost guaranteed to add up to the best album she’s made in close to a decade. It’ll be fascinating to hear how the maturity she’s gained in the intervening years plays off of the back-to-basics approach.

So that’s something to look forward to a few months from now. It has to at least be better than Sharon Van Etten’s last album. Man, did that thing let me down when I finally got around to giving it a good listen. There are two songs on the album I think are fantastic, two others that are really good, and then the rest kind of settles into a samey soup that gets a little boring for me after a while.

Whatever the critics say, Epic is Sharon’s crowning achievement, at least up to this point. Tramp doesn’t even come close. It just goes to show that a more professional production job provided by someone with more name recognition doesn’t necessarily translate to a better album. It’s also further proof, if we needed any, that the hype something receives is not always a guarantee you’re gonna dig it.

But hey, that’s just my opinion, as always.

(Edit: I had a similar experience here to what happened with “The Greatest”. I put “Tramp” away for a while. Then I dug it out again for another listen a year or two after writing this and was knocked out by how much better it was than I thought. Maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake at first. “Epic” is still the album of Sharon’s I connect with the most, and I know part of that is because of what was going on in my head and my heart when I first heard it. But it turns out “Tramp” is a fine album, and there are some gorgeous songs there. “Kevin’s”, “In Line”, and “Warsaw” are worth the price of admission alone. Sharon, like Chan, has one of those voices that just…does stuff to me.)

On a different note, remember how I posted that acidic thing a little while back about the MuchMusic Coca Cola Covers contest? I predicted the person who won would be young, attractive, and completely inoffensive. They would be able to strum a few chords on a guitar and sing in-tune, but there would be no real personality or uniqueness there. They’d be a blank slate waiting to be shaped and marketed in whatever direction some creatively impotent producer decided to guide them.

They’re airing commercials on TV now as part of the run-up to the MuchMusic Video Awards, acting as brief advertisements for the three finalists, one of whom will be crowned the winner. There are two girls and one guy. And wouldn’t you know, they’re all young, attractive, and completely inoffensive. All three of them are able to strum a few chords on a guitar, and they can sing in-tune, but there’s no real personality or uniqueness there. They’re all blank slates waiting to be shaped and marketed in whatever direction some creatively impotent producer decides to guide them.

Sometimes you just gotta laugh.

June rhymes with moon, spoon, goon, and pantaloon.

Well, the month of May sure was busy in blog land, wasn’t it?

That has to be the first time I’ve posted almost nothing in a month since the infancy of this site-thing. Just didn’t have much to say in May, I guess. I took my foot off the gas a little musically after finishing the second disc for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, and when I’m not doing much in the musical department there usually isn’t much to say here. It’s probably time I remedied that and got some momentum going again.

I had to change the entire design of the blog — not something I was planning on doing again. I was very happy with the theme I’d been using since last summer and was content to keep things looking that way forevermore. A week or so ago I learned WordPress was in the process of adding a function called “infinite scroll” to a number of themes, and the one I was using was one of the early victims. Not many people seem to be a fan of this new feature, but that isn’t stopping WordPress from ramming it down our throats.

Basically, it works like this: when you scroll down to the bottom of the homepage, the blog will keep loading more posts infinitely, or until there are no more posts left to load. There’s one problem: if you have as many posts as I do, the loading never ends. I have a fast internet connection, so there’s no freezing up, but not everyone is that lucky.

The real sticking point for me is that there’s a hideous white border at the bottom of the screen displaying the name of the theme in use and a link back to WordPress. It doesn’t matter that it’s small and only takes up the equivalent of two lines of text. I hate it. I think it’s ugly as hell. It obscures anything it happens to be on top of at any given time, distracting me to the point that after a while it’s the place my eyes are always moving toward by instinct. Because there’s no end to the loading of posts, there’s also no way to get to a point where the border isn’t in the way of one thing or another.

Since there’s no way to disable this new feature no one asked for, my choices were either to kill this blog and set up shop at Tumblr or some other such place, or to find a theme that wasn’t an unwilling victim of infinite scroll. I managed to make option #2 work, and the current theme is the best one I could find next to the theme I can no longer use if I don’t want to end up loathing the way my blog looks.

The text is actually larger and easier to read than it was before. So that’s a nice unintentional side-effect of the change in appearance. About the only thing I don’t like is the way the second line of the blog title is difficult to read. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make it stand out more. I’m also not a huge fan of the dates-in-grey-circles thing. I think it looks a little funny. Those are things I can live with, though.

If infinite scrolling is added to this new theme and it becomes something that’s impossible to get away from anywhere on WordPress, I will delete this blog and set up shop somewhere else. I’d prefer not to. I’ve been happy with WordPress as a blogging platform over the past four years and change. The support has always been excellent, with lightning-fast replies to the few messages I’ve had to send when I’ve had technical issues. I’m comfortable here. And I really don’t want to slog through the process of taking the insane amount of content I’ve built up here and transferring it to another place one piece at a time.

I just don’t like people messing with my stuff. Let me have a good old-fashioned blog where people have to click on things to get to different places and their computers won’t explode if they scroll all the way down a given page, and let me be happy with the way it looks. I don’t think that’s asking for the moon.

What else is new? I’m off Facebook again. After my four or five-month hiatus I thought I’d dip my toes back into the water, only to find myself immediately wondering why I bothered going back there. And then it became an easy time-killer all over again, and though I wanted to deactivate my page I couldn’t quite motivate myself to do it. Finally I just said, “Fuck it, this is a complete waste of time,” and pulled the plug.

Maybe this time it’ll be for good. Or maybe I’ll be back in another few months. I’m not sure. I just know Facebook makes it far too easy for people to pretend they’re talking to you when they’re not communicating with you in any real way at all. And that shit pisses me off. I don’t need any more reasons to be pissed off at people. They give me enough of those without Facebook having anything to do with it.

Still haven’t made another video progress report, but I haven’t forgotten about it. I’ll do that pretty soon, I hope. There’s quite a bit to say now, and Elliott’s been cooking up some good rants. When I do get around to making the next progress report, I doubt it’ll be less than half an hour long. Couldn’t have asked for the unexpected increase in storage space to come along at a better time, really.

Decided to get the inserts made up for the first two ANGLE discs before the other two are finished, to make the whole process of putting the album together a little less taxing. This way I won’t have to do it all at once and deal with four times the normal workload. I’ve got all the artwork finalized anyway, so it just makes sense to do it this way. The booklet is really the only thing that needs to wait until the very end, since I won’t know how the lyrics need to be laid out until the final disc is nailed down.

I might look into having the outer shell (the box that will hold the CDs and booklet) made while the album is still in-progress as well. I have a pretty good idea what I want that to look like, and I think I’ve found the place to manufacture it. Should look pretty cool when all is said and done (or played and sung).

I haven’t trimmed my beard in any meaningful way all year. Not sure I’ll make it to 2013 without grabbing the scissors, though. At a certain point it starts to get more scraggly than bushy, and thoughts of trimming the shrubbery start floating around. Then again, if it makes me less attractive to a potential suitor, I’m all for the beard being a scraggly mess.

I think that’s about it off the top of my head. I’ll put more effort into getting back in the groove of posting here roughly once a week (at least), for anyone who still might pop in on occasion. If nothing else, it’ll be a good excuse to talk to myself more. And that’s always a good time, because nothing’s off-limits. I mean, what could you ever say to offend yourself?

A bite’s as good as a kiss to a complacent cat.

ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE update —

Number of songs finished/mixed/mastered/album-ready: fifty-five.

Number of songs only in need of some minor tweaking (like a slight remix or remastering): thirty-four.

Number of songs that have been recorded but still need some significant work: thirty-three.

Number of songs that have yet to be recorded: seventy-six.

Those figures don’t take into consideration a large group of songs I’ve decided are probably not going to make the cut, new songs I’m saving for something else, or songs/sketches meant for this album but now perhaps not worthy of inclusion.

What can you take away from all that? Three things, I think.

(1) I’ve technically passed the halfway mark, even though the second disc hasn’t quite been finalized yet, because there’s no way I’ll be able to squeeze a hundred songs onto the album, even spread out over four CDs. And I’ve already got more than half that amount in the bank, as they say.

(2) There’s a ridiculous amount of material to work with, and now it really comes down to what feels the strongest and most worthy of getting on the album, especially when it comes to figuring out which of those unrecorded songs to take a stab at (recording all of them is out of the question, unless I want to obliterate my goal of having this thing finished by the summer).

(3) Another misfits compilation might not be so far away.

About that hypothetical misfits collection — when I do sit down to put it together, it’s going to be a much tighter, more consistent affair than the first one. Part of that comes down to drawing from a shorter period of time. Volume one reached from 1999 to 2007. As it sits now, volume two would cover 2007 to 2012. But a larger part of it is the desire to be a little more selective. While I’m all for being exhaustive when it comes to these kinds of things, there’s a fair amount of stuff on the existing misfits collection that’s only there in the interest of being thorough, and not because it’s especially good or illuminating.

I think for the second go-round I’ll stick to the out-takes and cast-offs that feel most worthy of being heard, and only include sketches where they really add something interesting. And I think I’ll be going with the chronological approach to sequencing as well if it flows alright. That would never, ever work with ANGLE, just because of how many songs there are, but when it comes to compilations I do like the idea of setting it up so it’s easy to chart how things have progressed over time.

What else? I was lucky enough to see a new music video by some piece of shit pop band in which the lead singer would rather play video games than acknowledge his girlfriend, and he flirts with scores of other women at a party while posting pictures and videos online for the world to see. Yet, somehow, the girlfriend is spun into being the villain when she finally snaps at him for being a pathetic piece of shit who won’t even wash his own clothes. She doesn’t even do anything that terrible. She just tries to make him jealous in an attempt at getting him to pay some small amount of attention to her. The video would have us believe it’s just proof she’s a psycho bitch and he’s super cool.

We’re looking for a word here, and the word is misogyny.

How much do you want to bet the guys in this band don’t even know how to spell that word?

In my imaginary director’s cut of the video, the girl starts her own band and writes a song called “I Dated a Walking Cliché with a Micropenis”, humiliating her asshat of an ex-manchild to the point that he castrates himself in shame. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.