someone else's story

Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Ricky Jay passed away a week ago. He was seventy-two.

You probably know him as Burt Reynolds’ right hand man in Boogie Nights. He had a number of memorable supporting roles in films like House of Games, The Prestige, and Magnolia. One of my favourite bits of acting he did was as cardsharp Eddie Sawyer, a recurring character through the first season of Deadwood.

Ricky was much more than a character actor. He wrote the wonderful Deadwood episode “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking”. He was an incredible, charismatic sleight of hand artist. He lectured and wrote books about magic, and served as a consultant on a number of Hollywood films.

The above performance is Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, written by Ricky and filmed by David Mamet in 1996. It’s well worth an hour of your time whether you’re into card tricks or not (I’m not, and I still found it riveting). The man was a born performer — a poet with a deck of cards and a historian in love with his craft. We won’t see his like again.

Watching you without me.

Leo Kottke once described his singing voice as sounding “like geese farts on a muggy day”.

I think he deserves immortality for that alone, but he’s much more than a self-deprecating part-time vocalist. He’s a great storyteller and a brilliant guitarist. Throughout a fifty-year career he’s traversed a long and sinuous musical road. It’s almost impossible to believe the mind-bending syncopation and speed heard on 6- and 12-String Guitar and the spacious, meditative pieces on A Shout Toward Noon are the work of the same person. And yet they are. And those are just two of the many varied and eclectic albums in his discography.

He’s worked with high-profile artists as disparate as Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and Phish, without ever seeming to catch the spotlight himself. Something tells me he prefers the artistic freedom a low profile affords him. Though he hasn’t made an album in well over a decade, he continues to play live into his seventies. The man probably won’t put down the guitar until he doesn’t have the strength to hold it anymore.

In a recent interview with the Times Colonist, he said: “I’ve been trained to think — we all have — that when you get old, everything gets old. But it’s exactly the opposite. If you have something, one little handle of some kind — writing, playing — I think everything does continue, and it is a work in progress. If that isn’t happening, what’s the alternative?”

My introduction to Leo’s music came in late 1997 care of the Sessions at West 54th TV program — something of a short-lived sister to Austin City Limits. I was channel-surfing with Johnny Smith late on a Saturday night. We came across Leo and stuck around to hear him do his thing.

For twenty-one years one specific song from that show has haunted the back of my brain. Last night I was able to give the song a name. It’s called “Across the Street”. I thought I’d search for it on YouTube, not expecting much. And there it was.

The finer details were lost to me over time. I remembered the story being about a father and his son. Not quite. But the sense of loss and the sombre quality of the music…that wasn’t a twisted or faulty memory.

To begin with, it’s a haunting story. But the way Leo tells it, it doesn’t feel like an introduction to a song. It feels like the music takes over mid-thought, filling the space between what isn’t said and what can only be imagined.

It may be the simplest piece of music he’s ever written. I think it’s also the most powerful. This must be the definitive performance, stripped of the strange reverb tails that threaten to overwhelm the sound of the guitar on the studio version from the 1997 album Standing in My Shoes.

At the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995, Leo told a longer version of the tale behind “Across the Street”. I’ve made just a few light edits for grammar and readability. I think it makes for a compelling short story in its own right.

I have a friend in Ljubljana who I’ve been unable to find recently named Seka Tavčar. I met her when I first did a tour in the old Yugoslavia with Paco de Lucia, who started in Ljubljana and went to places like Spit and Una and a couple of others I don’t remember. I came back every year for about four years and did this same little tour.

On our fist stop, we were introduced to Seka Tavčar and a mountain climber, a heart surgeon, a physicist, and some other people the government at the time trotted out to meet everybody. Nobody wanted to be there. We tried to be polite to one another and admit it was something that had to be done. We were forced to have dinner together after the show.

By that time we were enjoying ourselves naturally and I asked Seka, since I didn’t know yet, what she did. She was the token artist in the group. She was a lithographer.

I said, “Oh, lithographer from Ljubljana,” and she did not smile.

I gave up on limericks and asked, “Could I see your lithographs?”

She said, “No, you can’t.”

So I said, “Sorry.”

And she said, “No…I’ve only made TEN of them.”

I couldn’t figure that out. I asked her why, and she said, “I break the stone.”

Usually, as I understand it, you make a lithograph. You run off three to five hundred copies of this lithograph. Then you smooth the stone and make another one. Otherwise it’s like Sisyphus or somebody, to break the stone. It sounded nuts. So now it was a lunatic lithographer from Ljubljana.

I asked her why she did that.

She said, “It’s none of your business.”

I saw her again the next year and she said, “I can’t stay for the show. My father found his way home. He’s sick. I’d better go back and take care of him.”

The year after that she came to the show and I asked, “How is your father?” picking up the conversation where we left it off.

She said, “He died.”

I said, “Oh.”

She said, “Would you like to see some of the things he did?”

The next day she took me to downtown Ljubljana and showed me, among other things — he was an engineer and an architect — a bridge he had built. And while she was showing me this, she said he had been arrested when she was three years old and imprisoned. And I asked why. Which is a question you wouldn’t have to ask, I guess, if you’d lived there. She ignored me and showed me the bridge, which was a beautiful bridge, starting on one side of the river with three roads, which in the course of the bridge merged into one road on the other side of the river. So I had an idea why he’d been arrested.

It was a beautiful bridge. And as I looked at this thing, she told me what had happened. She said he was imprisoned for twenty-six years.

“We were never told,” she said, “where he was imprisoned, why he was imprisoned, or for how long he would be in prison. What we were told, once a year at some indeterminate time, was that he was still alive. That’s all we ever knew.”

When he got sick, they let him out after twenty-six years.

“That’s,” she said, “when I found out he’d been imprisoned across the street. And for twenty-six years, he’d been able to look up through a gun slit window in his cell and see my sister and I grow up playing on the balcony of our apartment.”

And then she said, “That is why I break the stone.”

What good does the night do me?

I came to the music of Shudder to Think in a pretty backwards way. My introduction to the band was their soundtrack for Lisa Cholodenko’s underrated 1998 film High Art.

Every poster, DVD cover, and promotional image makes this movie look like a steamy soft porn flick. It’s a universe away from that. The story goes much deeper than “pretty people getting naked”. There’s some sex in the film, but it grows out of the characters and their interactions in an organic way. It isn’t there to titillate. When it happens, it means something. Ally Sheedy gives what might be the performance of her life in the role of a talented but troubled photographer, and the always excellent Patricia Clarkson is terrifying as a drug casualty who’s much more intelligent and manipulative than she lets on.

As good as the film is, the music was what stayed with me. When “She Might Be Waking up” played over the end credits, it was a hard kick to the chest that made a devastating ending hit even harder, and I knew I needed to own the soundtrack album.

I ordered it online. There was no way I was ever going to find it in a record store anywhere. When the CD showed up in the mail, the packaging was just as it was supposed to be, but the music on the disc wasn’t the High Art soundtrack. It was live jazz. The first track was “All Blues”. Given the crisp drum sound and the large band, I assumed it was a single-disc distillation of highlights from Miles Davis’s 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival performance.

I loved Miles even back then, but I didn’t listen beyond the first song. This wasn’t what I paid for, and I was a little pissed. I ordered another copy of the CD, got the music that was supposed to be on it in the first place, and tossed the “defective” copy aside. I forgot all about it.

A week or two ago, that mysterious jazz album popped back into my head. I was pretty sure I still had it somewhere. It took a while to dig it out of my CD collection, but I found it hidden away in one of the dustier corners. I was long overdue to give it a real listen and figure out just what I had here.

Two songs in, someone started singing, and I knew straight away it wasn’t Miles. It was Chet Baker. There’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else’s.

What I got, on what was supposed to be my first copy of the High Art soundtrack, was My Favourite Songs: the Last Great Concert, recorded in April 1988, two weeks before Chet died. It only took me close to twenty years to realize it.

The story behind the album goes something like this: some German fans who were involved in the music business wanted to honour Chet. They probably knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. They said, “Chet, here’s the deal. You tell us what your favourite songs are. We’ll take care of the charts and put a big band and an orchestra together, and we’ll record the show. All you have to do is show up and play.”

Chet took that a little too literally. He didn’t bother to materialize for rehearsals. He walked into the concert hall for the first time the day of the show. You’d never know it to listen to the recording. It isn’t late-period Chet at his absolute best (for some of that, check out 1979’s Broken Wing and then Chet Baker in Tokyo from nine years later), but it’s still great stuff.

Watching video footage from the last years of Chet’s life is like eavesdropping on a ghost. He looks far older than his fifty-something years, with the crumbled majesty of his once beautiful face serving as hard-won proof that heroin can turn James Dean into the Grim Reaper. Then he raises the trumpet to his lips and is transformed, playing with a level of grace and invention someone in his condition shouldn’t be capable of.

One of the great twisted tragedies of the Chet Baker story is that he made some of his best music while he was slowly killing himself. He bragged about never needing to practice, but in his later years he played more than he ever had before, taking every gig he could get. He needed the money for drugs. The more shows he played, the better and deeper his playing became.

Rarely has such beautiful music been made under such sordid circumstances.

The mystery for me is how what might be the last recording Chet ever made ended up packaged as a Shudder to Think soundtrack CD. Every issue and subsequent reissue of My Favourite Songs is on the German label Enja. The High Art soundtrack was issued on Velvel Records, an offshoot of Koch. As fas as I can tell, the two were never affiliated in any way. The only thing I can think of is maybe both labels used the same media broker at some point in the late ’90s and someone fell asleep at the wheel.

At least there’s an easy way for me to differentiate between the two CDs with identical packaging.

As for Shudder to Think, taking in the rest of their discography after only hearing the music they made for High Art was a bit of a shock, the same way I imagine the soundtrack startled fans of their earlier work.

This is my favourite kind of band — the unclassifiable kind. To try and squeeze them into a genre is to drive yourself insane. They were labelled “post-hardcore”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and on some of their early albums on the Dischord label you can hear traces of Hüsker Dü. By the time you get to an album like Get Your Goat, they sound like no one else.

The tricky time signatures, unorthodox guitar riffs that balance melody and dissonance on a knife edge, and pinpoint dynamic shifts might have slid them into an uneasy position somewhere in the realm of math rock if they were an instrumental band. But then Craig Wedren’s unique, elastic, theatrical voice (once described as sounding like “Michael Stipe’s psychotic uncle on LSD”) bends everything in a different direction. It’s at once the last voice you would ever expect to hear singing this music and the only voice that makes sense. Imagine Jeff Buckley singing with Stone Temple Pilots after being held hostage for years by The Dillinger Escape Plan and developing some serious Stockholm Syndrome, and you’re still only halfway there.

When they signed with Epic Records in the mid-’90s, a lot of fans cried “sell-out”. And yet the first album they delivered to their new label, Pony Express Record, is probably their finest moment. It sounds like a distillation of everything the albums that came before were working toward.

From the hard rock deconstruction of “Hit Liquor”, to the power ballad from another planet that is “Earthquakes Come Home”, to the eerie beauty of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”, it’s a funhouse mirror album of elements that shouldn’t work together finding a way to coil themselves into something harmonious and wonderfully strange. No list of the least commercial albums ever released by a major label is complete without it.

The lone cover song is a deranged take on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You”, exposing the latent creepiness buried beneath the soft rock sheen of the original.

Random confession time. When I first heard the ARS version on the radio as a twelve-year-old, I thought the opening line was:

When you walked into the room, there was doo-doo in the vase.

Not quite the romantic sentiment of “voodoo in the vibes”. But if a whirlwind attraction can survive the smell of random crap, surely it’s built to last, no?

The next Shudder to Think album, 50,000 BC, was seen by some as a betrayal of everything the band was about. One angry fan called it “art rock for losers”. It didn’t help that an Epic press release hailed it as “a totally commercially accessible album that includes pure alternative rock ‘n’ roll songs and simple ballads” — in other words, the opposite of everything Shudder to Think had ever done.

I can’t help feeling this album got a little more hate than it deserved. It does feel like a bit of a step back, and if there was some record label pressure to make music that was more accessible to the masses, well…it sounds like it. The confrontational energy of Pony Express Record is gone. But this band was incapable of making boring music.

Listen to the opening track, “Call of the Playground”, with its stop-start rhythm and some sweetly-sung lyrics that read like a confusing childhood nightmare. It sounds more like a demented parody of an alternative rock hit than anything anyone ever could have believed stood a chance of garnering significant airplay on mainstream radio. And “Red House” is a glorious song by any measure, even if it was first recorded for 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, recorded another three times after that, and loses a bit of its punch in this final, more polished incarnation.

The fans that didn’t jump ship after hearing 50,000 BC were probably baffled by the mood pieces that made up the soundtrack to High Art. Recorded for the most part in Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson’s respective apartments, this music is more about creating atmospheres and soundscapes than constructing or deconstructing conventional song shapes. Only “Battle Soaked (Amnesian Mix)” features the sound of Craig’s voice, multi-tracked and mostly wordless, adding splashes of colour to a funky electronic workout.

The one song with a full set of lyrics just happens to be one of the best songs you’ve probably never heard, and it’s proof that Craig wasn’t the only great singer in the band. Guitarist Nathan Larson takes the lead for “She Might Be Waking up”, revealing a voice capable of moving from a broken, half-whispered croon to a soaring falsetto. In a way, this is a dress rehearsal for the songs Nathan would go on to write for Jealous God, his first solo album. It’s also better than anything on that album — darker, deeper, and with the lo-fi production lending it more character.

There was more soundtrack work ahead, with the band contributing a few songs to Velvet Goldmine and then a whole pile of tunes to First Love, Last Rites — a classic example of the soundtrack being a lot better than the movie it’s attached to.

This last one is a bit of a mixed bag of genre exercises, but the idea to write songs for a lot of different singers and then play the whole thing off as a series of radio broadcasts throughout the film was kind of brilliant, and there are some real gems knocking elbows with the near-misses. You could make a pretty wonderful EP out of “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Jeff Buckley), “Appalachian Lullaby” (sung by Nina Persson), “Speed of Love” (sung by John Doe), and “Day Ditty” (sung by Angela McCluskey).

And then the band very quietly called it quits.

Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have both gone on to have successful film scoring careers punctuated by the occasional solo album. There have been a few reunions here and there and a live album or two, but there hasn’t been a new collection of Shudder to Think songs in twenty years now.

Elsewhere in the abandoned old bowling alley of life, Dale Jacobs asked me a few weeks back if I would be willing to be an interview subject for a class he’s teaching at the University of Windsor called Writing about Music.

I’ve unofficially “retired” from granting interviews to anyone, for any reason. I think the last one happened back in 2011, and it might not even exist on the internet anymore. I had a few good experiences during my thirty-eight minutes of local fame/infamy, but after too many run-ins with agenda-humping writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I am, what I do, or why I do it the way I do, I decided it was better to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there’s already more information about me and what I do available here than anyone could ever want to know.

Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but I’m not talking about something as simple as not being a fan of someone’s writing style or not liking the way I was presented in a certain piece. I’m talking about shit like this:

I once spent an hour or two talking to a writer, giving him a ton of material to work with, and when the article he wrote was printed, I learned he didn’t use a single thing I said. Not one word. Instead, he lifted uncredited quotes from my blog, defeating the whole purpose of meeting with him.

This is someone who began the interview by complaining about other people plagiarizing his work. Then he turned around and did the same thing to me.

Smooth move.

Another writer invented quotes I never said in an effort to bend me to his purpose, because I wouldn’t say what he wanted to hear. He thought he could bully me into submission by painting me into a corner. When that didn’t work, he took every opportunity he could to denigrate me in print and deliberately misrepresented the nature of a show I was playing to try and perform some small, impotent act of subterfuge. When that didn’t work, he settled for trying to drag my name through the mud whenever I came up in the course of a conversation he happened to be privy to.

I’ve been told by a number of people this is something he still does from time to time. How do you respond to that kind of absurdity? I don’t know if it’s funny or sad. Maybe a bit of both. I guess a half-hearted laugh-shrug is appropriate.

My point is, you have enough experiences with people like that, and you don’t feel much like giving an interview to anyone anymore.

This was a little different. Dale has been supporting my music for years. He was one of the people who gave CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN some serious airplay on CJAM during the surreal summer of 2008, back when he was still hosting Steel-Belted Radio. And when he told me the other local interview subjects were going to be members of Diane Motel, I thought, “I might be able to offer an interesting contrast to that interview.”

So I said sure. Why not?

Earlier this week, four students from Dale’s class — half of a group called The Sound Collective — came over to the house and interviewed me. I went into it with an open mind while bracing myself for the usual one-size-fits-all questions.

My least favourite, and one that’s come up in almost every interview I’ve ever done: “What are your influences?”

I hate this question. I hate it because it implies the person asking it couldn’t be bothered to listen to any of my music to work out for themselves what they think they might hear in it. It also says to me, “What you do can be boiled down to a sentence and a musical reference or two.”

I’m not sure that’s true of anyone. I know it isn’t true in my case. I’ve always thought the whole point was to discover and develop your own voice — not to see how much mimicry you can get away with without being called a ripoff artist.

There are two ways I can answer this stupid question.

I can tell you my music has always been more influenced by my personal life, where I am emotionally at any given time, and the people I interact with. It’s the truth, but it sounds pretty pretentious.

Or I can name some of the bands and artists who have had a serious impact on me. But if I do that, I want to explain why their work grabbed me and how it spoke to me. I want to tell you how certain singers turned me on to the idea of using the voice not just as a vehicle to deliver the lyrics, but as an instrument in its own right. How hearing a specific album at a specific time in my life short-circuited my brain and forced me to recalibrate all my ideas about what a song could be. How pianists as disparate as Thelonious Monk, John Cale, and Nicky Hopkins changed the way I approached playing the piano.

Most writers don’t want to hear all that, because they’re not really writers at all. They don’t want a story. They want a soundbite.

The other night, that question I hate wasn’t asked. In its place was this: “Is there anything you’re listening to right now that you find is influencing you or inspiring you in some way?”

A very different, much more thought-provoking question, this one. And it opens the door for a story to sneak through.

Every question they asked me was unexpected, and intelligent, and forced me to give some serious thought to how I wanted to respond. They did some actual research beforehand, which is more than I can say for most of the folks who interviewed me in the past. What’s more, they all seemed genuinely engaged and enthusiastic to be talking to me.

It was the most enjoyable, surprising, and stimulating interview I’ve ever been involved in. Kind of restored my faith in the whole process.

Thanks to Brittany, Iovan, Aria, and Shannon for a really positive, memorable experience, and thanks to Dale for asking me to be a part of the project. It’s the first time in years I can say I’m looking forward to reading something that’s being written about me instead of dreading it. I’ll link to the piece here when it goes live on the Sound Collective blog.

Yes? Woah.

I’m always surprised by the people who want to come and record music in my humble little laboratory. Nothing that walks out of here is ever going to sound super slick or mainstream radio-ready, but maybe some artists are after something more human, without all the character airbrushed out of the frame, and maybe in some of those situations I’m not the most off-the-wall choice out there. Just the second or third most off-the-wall choice.

The most recent visitor was this talented human here. She came over on Friday and we recorded a whole album live off the floor in an afternoon, except for one ukulele song that wasn’t quite live.

As a rule I like to record vocal tracks as an isolated thing, separate from whatever instruments are being played. It wasn’t always like this. I used to be all about keeping everything live and unembellished. Then I got better, more sensitive microphones, and I found there was a world of difference between recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time with, say, a Shure SM57 and an SM58, and some hyper-sensitive condenser microphones that will pick up the sound of a squirrel throwing a tantrum six miles away. Once I wasn’t using dynamic mics on acoustic instruments anymore, when I did try to record guitar and vocals in one shot I found the bleed too difficult to control, phase issues too tricky to avoid, and centipede visitors not prevalent enough during daylight hours.

Jess writes songs that blur the lines between folk, indie rock, soul, and punk. They’re wonderfully dynamic, with a lot of unpredictable shifts in tempo and intensity and some great, evocative lyrics.

Not exactly the sort of thing that lends itself to piecemeal recording. We tried, but it was clear from the start it was going to feel pretty awkward for her if we tried to separate guitar and voice. You can do all the takes you want, but in the end the best performances are going to come when the artist is relaxed. Sometimes that’s only going to happen if they can play and sing at the same time.

I thought I’d slide the Shure SM7B in there as a vocal mic and we’d be set. I should have accounted for the way my SM7B seems to pick and choose when it wants to cooperate with me. Friday was one of its testy days. No matter what preamp/compressor configuration I plugged it into, the thing wouldn’t pass sound. Even after I routed it in what I thought was a pretty foolproof way, I still wasn’t getting any signal. It got to the point where my face was covered in sweat and I was starting to think whatever recording knowledge I once possessed had been stolen from me while I slept, sucked out of my brain through one of those plastic syringes they give you to fill with water so you can keep the inside of your mouth clean after wisdom teeth removal surgery.

Right about then, I noticed the compressor I was using as the last piece in the signal chain wasn’t turned on.

After wiping off my face, I told the SM7B to go to hell in the nicest way I could and swapped it out for my trusty Pearlman TM-1.

I know everyone and their Chia Pet will tell you it’s important to audition different microphones on a singer, especially when you’re dealing with a voice you haven’t recorded before. You never know how a given mic’s frequency response is going to respond to something as varied as the human voice. And that’s sound advice. But I’ve lost count now of how many different singers I’ve stuck in front of the TM-1, and it’s never been the wrong choice. Not even once. It always sounds like the truest representation of that person’s voice I could hope to capture, whether they’re screaming their head off or barely breaking a whisper.

It was the right choice again on Friday. Because I was able to mic up the guitar amp with dynamic mics that are much more directional than those insane Neumann small-diaphragm condenser fellas I would have been using on an acoustic guitar, the only bleed I had to worry about was what the vocal mic picked up from the amp. And while there was no way to avoid it, in a strange way I think it helped, making everything a little bolder and more exciting, capturing some room sound where the SM7B would have been maybe too dry.

There’s good bleed, and there’s bad bleed. My ears told me this wasn’t bad bleed at all. It was bleed you’d be glad to take out for a night on the town.

Jess brought her very cool Danelectro electric guitar with her (it looks like a U1, but I’m not sure). She plugged into my Fender Twin and I invited her to adjust anything on the amp she wanted. She did something to the bass and mids that was subtle, but it made an immediate difference for the better. I think I’m going to leave the EQ just the way she set it until the end of time.

She also dialled in a bit of reverb. The problem I’ve always had with the spring reverb in this amp is the hum it introduces the second you turn it on. The more reverb you want, the louder the hum gets. At a lower volume it wasn’t awful. Still, I thought we might later find ourselves cursing the hum when it called attention to itself during some of the quieter moments in her songs. I turned off the reverb on the amp and stuck the Strymon Flint in the signal path. It just happens to have a spring reverb setting that sounded to us like a dead ringer for the real thing in the Fender Twin, minus the extraneous noise.

With just the TM-1 on her voice, and an SM57 and 421 on the amp, I think we got a good three-dimensional representation of the way things sounded in the room. Recording the guitar and vocals separately might have given me a little more control come mixing time, but I don’t think it would have sounded better. And this should still be pretty straightforward to mix.

Technical stuff aside, it was a great afternoon full of clementines, tea, and good music. Jess is one of those people who fills up a room with positive energy. She makes this sort of thing feel less like a job and more like you’re just hanging out with someone who happens to be playing some music. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun recording someone other than myself.

Hopefully I can take some of those good feelings and carry them over to my own work, which has been feeling a little neglected and unsure of itself lately.

Talking on the phone like an unsure bride.

In the early summer of 2008 I still had a Myspace page. Once in a while I used it as a place to post a song or two from whatever album I was working on at any given time. One day I was floating around to see what I could scrounge up when I came across a music page for this guy named Joshua Jesty.

I had no idea what to expect. Thought I’d hit the little play button just for fun. I listened to one of the songs on his playlist.

“I like this,” I thought. “This is catchy. The kind of catchy where you want to get it stuck in your head. This is good.”

I listened to another song, and then another. The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing. I checked out his website, which was rich with information about all the different music he’d made over the years. His writing was like his songs — smart, funny, and full of life.

I wrote him a long, rambling email telling him how much I dug his songs and sharing a few of mine. I also told him I was his long-lost twin brother who looked nothing like him, and though he’d never been told of my existence, I’d been watching him with pride from a distance for all these years. As you do.

I have a long history of being ignored by most of the artists I try to start a dialogue with, whether they’re local or a thousand miles away. In those pre-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times it was about as one-sided as it ever got. I kept trying to connect with people, and nothing would come back. It felt like I was screaming into a void. So when Josh responded to my goofy email, I almost fell out of my chair and broke my collarbone.

We started firing emails back and forth. We sent CDs to each other in the mail. Nine years later, we’re still sending emails and sharing music. We’ve had a lot of laughs, shouted about our triumphs, wept hot, salty digital tears when life has knocked us on our asses, and though we’ve only met in person once, Josh has become one of my favourite people and one of my most trusted friends. In a way he’s like the wise big brother I didn’t have growing up.

The outlines of our respective musical lives are almost mirror images. We both made a lot of wild and silly music when we were younger, on our way to finding our voices as songwriters. We both fronted bands that sometimes made pretty aggressive music and tested our vocal cords with the kind of screaming we’d probably be a little afraid to attempt now. We both turned to recording on our own at home and playing all the instruments ourselves when those bands broke up, making some of the most ambitious music of our lives when no one was looking.

Even now, we’ve both started bringing other singers and musicians into our solo music to introduce new textures, and we’ll both take on the occasional gig producing someone else when we really like them and their music.

We also both enjoy making videos that incorporate hand puppets.

Josh once told me if we traced our family trees back far enough we’d probably discover we’re related somehow. I believe it.

We have different approaches when it comes to live performance (he’s toured and played a lot of different places; I tend to play live about as often as it rains shrieking badgers from the sky) and distribution (he’s embraced the online tools at his disposal, while I’m too stubborn and set in my ways to let go of my physical-albums-only philosophy). But even twins who look completely different and were born on different days, in different months and years, and on different sides of the Canada/US border are going to have different philosophies now and then.

One other thing we have in common: we’ve both made a whole lot of albums. Visit the Joshua Jesty Bandcamp page and you’ll find a bewildering selection of music that touches on many different sounds and emotional states. All of it is well worth exploring, but the best starting points for my money are 2009’s Girl and 2011’s Portugal — self-described “big” albums that take in everything from power pop, to folk, to ambient interludes, to acoustic guitar-driven salsa, all without ever losing the feeling of being self-contained artistic statements pulsing with deep personal meaning. Girl remains one of my favourite albums by anyone.

Both These Violent Young Lovers albums are great fun. All four of the “Like Rabbits” EPs are full of beautiful songs. And the stripped-to-the-bone Skeleton makes for a harrowing but rewarding listen.

What I’m saying here is you should listen to everything he’s done, pretty much. In an ideal world, the man would be a household name.

The two of us have been talking for years now about making some sort of long-distance collaborative album. Life and other musical commitments keep getting in the way, but I’m pretty confident it’ll happen one of these days. We’ve at least taken care of some of the preliminary world-building, working out the kind of album we want to make and how best to approach it.

If/when that album comes to fruition, if someone writes a review they’ll probably tell you there’s a sort of Lennon-McCartney dynamic at work, with Josh more of the thoughtful craftsman and me more of the anarchist. I’m not sure that’s true, though. We can both get pretty demented when the moon is right. For every “How We Float When We Shit” and “Mary Anne Says Grace” in my catalogue, there’s a “Freaky Sexy Clown Jam” and “Dirty Talk” in Josh’s. And while I think he tends to be more open-hearted in his songwriting and I tend to get pretty cynical in mine, we’re both serious fans of a good old-fashioned BSME (Big Sprawling Musical Explosion).

The first Joshua Jesty song to dig its fingernails into my ribs way back when was “From Invincible to Invisible”. The juxtaposition of sounds that might have been awkward in someone else’s hands — DI’d electric guitar set against a looped disco beat, weird underwater-sounding synth during the instrumental bridge, a lot of chord changes over an unchanging bass line — felt like the only arrangement that ever could have made sense, and there was something quietly devastating about the whole thing. It was like a naked admission of defeat made alone in the dark, with synthesized handclaps.

Late one night when I had a horrible sinus infection and Girl wasn’t finished yet and was calling itself Finally, Joshua Jesty is making a record with a short title, and the title of the record is “Girl”, I spent more time than most people would want to admit syncing up the music video with the rough mix of this song Josh posted on myspace, just so I could hear it in stereo on headphones while I watched. When I finally managed to time it just right, I forgot about being sick for a few minutes and lost myself in the music.

That music video proves you don’t need a big budget, a fancy setting, or a fifty thousand dollar camera to make something great. All you need is any kind of camera that shoots video, some open-minded friends, and your imagination. I keep holding out hope an HD version will sneak out into the world someday, with the mastered album version of the song on the audio track.

Though the final mix tightened things up and got a new vocal track, I’ve always been glad the soul of that rougher version I first fell in love with stuck around.

A few years back, when our projected Jesty Westy album came up again in conversation, Josh floated the idea of covering a few of each other’s songs. I reached for this one right away. In turn, he recorded a surprising, beautifully nuanced take on “Is You My Lover Still?” from IF I HAD A QUARTER.

I’ve wanted to return to my cover and give it a fresh mix for a while now. Today felt like a good day to give it a shot.

At the time I recorded this, I was going through a bit of a weird piano mic’ing period. I couldn’t seem to get things to sound right no matter what I did, when getting a good piano sound had never been a problem for me before.

Turned out the placement of the Neumann KM184s I use as piano mics was off in an almost microscopic way, just enough to throw things out of whack a little. You’ve got your sensitive microphones, and then you’ve got those guys.

It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and set it right. At the same time, I was driving the mic preamp those mics were plugged into more than usual, hitting the transformers a little harder, again without realizing it.

Those two slight changes were responsible for a piano sound that was a little more bottom-heavy and compressed-sounding than usual.

The first thing I did today was strip away almost all of the effects. A few years ago I had a thing for using rhythmic delays all over the place. Here I had some pretty audible delay on most of the guitars and the drums, and it made things muddier than they needed to be. I got rid of the reverb on my voice too. Everything started to sound more intimate and better-defined.

The strangest thing was the piano. I was prepared to re-record it from scratch, but when I was working on making a new mix the existing piano track sounded better than I remembered. Maybe not quite as open as I might have wanted it, but more than good enough to do the job.

I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the excessive delay was pranking my ears all this time.

The spastic-sounding piano-thing that kicks in during the instrumental bits is one of the first recorded appearances of my friend the Casio SK-1. I sampled myself playing a few notes at the piano, sped it up to an insane degree (before slowing it down at the very end), double-tracked it, and for some odd reason it felt appropriate. I wanted to respect the original spirit of the song, but I also wanted to put my own spin on it.

From Invincible to Invisible

When I was finished I noticed some extra tracks that weren’t in use, so I gave them a listen. There were a few takes I tried behind the drums with sticks before deciding on brushes. I also messed around with the flute sound on the SK-1 over the bridge before hitting on the idea of the piano sample, and recorded some clean electric guitar through the whole song that was later replaced with the acoustic guitar that shadows the piano and a bit of backwards electric guitar that comes in later.

I have no memory of recording any of these things. And I don’t forget a whole lot of musical details. So it was a fun little surprise to stumble across these unused elements.

I think the sounds I chose to use in the end were the right ones. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to hear the different direction things might have gone. If I’d forsaken the acoustic guitar for electric and the brushes for sticks, everything would have felt a little dreamier.

Like this:

From Invincible to Invisible (alternate mix fragment)

No regrets. But man, I have to say I kind of like that different slant on it. Maybe I’ll make an alternate mix along those lines so they’ve got something to tack on as a bonus track when the after-we’re-gone reissue starts making the rounds.

I don’t know if this is still my favourite Joshua Jesty song. There are a lot of contenders vying for the top spot. But it’s probably still the one that speaks to me the loudest.

Know which way to go.

I’ve never owned a Tragically Hip or Gord Downie album. I never considered myself a fan. And yet the music Gord made with and without that band with the name we all wish we’d thought of ourselves has been a vivid part of the soundtrack to my life ever since I started navigating the strangeness of puberty.

I’m thinking now maybe that makes me a fan after all.

The first Hip song I was conscious of hearing was “Poets”. Seemed like that song was everywhere the summer I was about to turn fifteen. At first I thought it was a pretty typical rock song with a singer who didn’t feel like he really fit the music. He didn’t sound like a rock singer to me. He sounded like something new I hadn’t heard before.

Then I started paying attention to the lyrics.

Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding,
when the birds can be heard
above the reckoning carts
doing some final accounting.

Who writes words like that to kick off one of the catchiest songs in their catalogue and the leadoff single to their new album? That’s fucking insane. And it’s brilliant.

I have a memory that makes me smile every time it resurfaces, of dancing to that song at the campground in Lambton County and weirding out a girl who was a little younger than me.

“You like this music?” she said, making a face.

I guess I was supposed to be into Limp Bizkit or the Goo Goo Dolls or something. Who knows. I went on dancing and sang at her not to tell me what the poets were doing.

Not long after that, MuchMoreMusic developed a thing for playing the video for “Ahead by a Century” on an almost daily basis. If I timed it just right, my walk home from school would get me inside the house right around the time it started.

I loved that song. There was a hard-won beauty about it I didn’t know how to put into words then. All I knew was I could watch the music video a thousand times and never get tired of the music that drove it. When Gord smiled through his singing, it did something good to my heart.

I kept up with new albums from a bit of a distance, always drawn to the intelligence and surprising turns of Gord’s lyrics, but for some dumb reason never got around to buying a CD. I think I didn’t know where to start, when I should have just started anywhere.

Last year came the revelation that Gord had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He followed up that jarring news by releasing Secret Path, a collaboration with Jeff Lemire that has to go down as some of the most emotionally lacerating, compelling, commendable work of his life. Just weeks ago came an announcement that another new solo album was on the way. And now comes the news that Gord is gone.

I think we knew this day was coming. We hoped the man’s mental acuity and continuing drive to work were signs pointing to a postponement of the inevitable, but cancer is the ultimate asshole. Too often it takes good people away from us long before they should be going anywhere.

The minute I read the news, I scrawled out the words to what’s been my favourite Tragically Hip song for fifteen years, went downstairs, sat at the piano, and recorded it in one take (the harmonies were added a few minutes later and also done in one take). I wanted to get down an emotional response without over-thinking it. Almost like a prayer. With my next-door neighbour having a whole lot of noisy work done on their house, leaving me with only small pockets of quiet here and there, I didn’t have much choice anyway.

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken

I’m not one to record musical tributes. But there’s something in this song that’s always grabbed me.

It sounds simple. A few chords and a single long verse and chorus that come back a second time. Then you listen a little closer and notice the second time the verse comes around, there are subtle little changes that shift its meaning, and the second chorus is twice as long as the first, and then a miniature hook comes back and changes its colours too.

Great songwriters can do things like that without calling attention to the sleight of hand. Whether you knew it or not, Gord Downie was a great one.

Romantic machinery.


One of the most criminally neglected bands to ever come out of canada, the Wooden Stars made four full-length albums of original material and recorded an album with Julie Doiron. They were sometimes compared to the Rheostatics but sounded nothing like them. I’m thinking these two bands were each used as reference points for the other because would-be music journalists needed something to compare them to, and neither band sounded like anyone else. There are elements of math rock and post-rock in some of their songs, with tricky time signatures and unpredictable dynamic shifts, but the music the Wooden Stars made resists easy description or categorization. That’s part of what makes it so exciting to listen to.

In 2013, Montreal musician and writer Malcolm Fraser published Wooden Stars: Innocent Gears, something of a biography of the band. I say “something of” because it’s a short book, and there isn’t a whole lot of deep probing into the personal lives of individual members. I get the feeling this was a deliberate choice the band and author made, to maintain some amount of personal distance and let the music speak for itself.

I’m still a little shocked the book exists at all, given how few people knew the band existed even while they were active as a touring, semi-regular-album-releasing unit. While there’s a part of me that wishes Malcolm found a way to get at a little bit more of what made these people tick as songwriters, there’s a lot of information in there that was new to me, and I think he did a good job of articulating what’s special about the music, and what a difficult thing that is to put into words.

All the albums have their own distinct personalities. The Very Same is the most freewheeling, an explosion of manic creative energy. It’s a little staggering to consider that it was recorded by a group of musicians who were all still teenagers at the time.

The Moon is the most conventionally “pretty” of all their albums, more accessible, and with somewhat more traditional song structures. But it’s not pop music by any means. It’s always felt like a winter album to me. I couldn’t tell you why.

People are Different is the closest they ever came to straight-up rock. As of this writing, it looks like it might be the last Wooden Stars album we’ll get, though the band continues to materialize out of nowhere every once in a while to play the odd Canadian music festival.

I’ve always had a hard time telling the voices of guitarists/songwriters Mike Feuerstack and Julien Biellard apart. Those two guys were made to sing together.

The book has helped with that. The division is most notable on the last two albums, and it’s interesting to hear the way the two influenced each other even as their writing became less collaborative, Julien’s songs growing friendlier to easy melody while Mike’s grew darker and more literate. “The Summer I Drank Myself to Death” remains one of the most gorgeously depressing songs I’ve ever heard. And the way “Outlaws” imagines the end of a relationship as something that’s happening on a film set, the intimacy dented by the presence of people who are only interested in capturing the mechanics of the moment, with nothing invested in the people they’ve made their actors…well, here.

One bit goes:

And we lose soft consonants,
the boom disturbed by every coastal breeze. 
You lean in close:
“Of course I love you.” 
An empty screen.
A blank apparition.
And we can’t even really say goodbye here,
’cause everyone will move in a little closer.

If that ain’t poetry on the page, then there’s no such thing as poetry on the page.

Another thing Malcolm’s book did was give me a deeper appreciation for Julien’s brother Mathieu and what he brought to the band. His bass-playing on The Very Same is jaw-dropping, and he’s responsible for some of the weirdest, most interesting songs on the first two albums. After reading about why he chose to leave before The Moon was recorded and how he’s regretted that decision, and revisiting the albums he was a part of, there’s a new emotional kick to the Mathieu-sung “Country Violins” at the end of Mardi Gras.

When the music fades back up after a false ending for one last syncopated drum pattern and some tentative guitar arpeggios, there’s no bass heard from that point to the final drum hit. It’s like the sound of Mathieu’s absence fully felt, when he hasn’t even left yet, the rest of the band petering out, unsure of where to go without him.


As solid as Josh Latour was in his absence, I’ve come to really miss Mathieu on the last two albums. His unconventional way of playing created a great unpredictable rhythm section dynamic, and once he was gone, Andrew McCormack’s drumming lost just a little bit of its spark. There never seemed to be any real friction between him and Josh like there was with Mathieu, where it sometimes sounded like a fight might break out between their instruments mid-song.

People are Different is my least favourite Wooden Stars album, probably because it’s the slickest and least varied. Having said that, I’m proud to say CJAM played the hell out of it when it came out in 2007. And it’s still a great album. In a perfect world, a song like “Pretty Girl” would have been a hit. An ode to obsession with the word “fuckers” in it and an instrumental bridge section in 10/8 time, on mainstream radio…can you picture it? Kanye West would never have been able to let anyone finish anything again. Those gorgeous sax harmonies at the end would have moved him to tears.

Even if I like some albums more than others, this is a band that’s never made a bad one. The album they made backing Julie Doiron up is beautiful stuff, too — maybe the best thing Julie’s ever done. But I think their 1997 album Mardi Gras may be their very best. The songs strike a perfect balance between chaos and beauty, the lyrics are cryptic, hilarious, heartfelt, disturbing, and sometimes all of those things at once, and there’s some of the best electric guitar interplay you’ll hear anywhere.

I was lucky enough to hear “Cigarette Girl” one late weeknight in 1998 on CBC’s Brave New Waves radio program, when Patti Schmidt was the host. I went out to buy Mardi Gras the next day and was told I had to order it on import. When it came in at HMV, the jewel case was broken. I liked the music so much, I waited fifteen years to replace the case with one that wasn’t falling apart out of some sort of nostalgic purism. Had it been a vinyl record, I would have worn it out ten times over by now.

(If you click through to YouTube and start to think some of the text in this video’s description reads like I’m lifting it for this blog post, it’s because I’m the person who wrote that description and posted the video. Felt like that album deserved at least some representation there.) 

So why didn’t these guys gain a larger audience? I think it was a combination of bad luck (almost every album they released failed to get much of a promotional push because the small record labels they were signed to had a habit of going under as soon as a Wooden Stars record came out), a refusal to compromise their artistic vision, and making most of their music at a time when the internet was nothing like the powerful tool it’s become for independent artists over the last decade.

Early on they were offered a deal by Sub Pop but turned it down. Concessions would have had to be made, and they weren’t prepared to make them. They thought there would be more opportunities that size down the road. There weren’t. Some people would say they should have grabbed it when they had the chance. I say maybe the music they made wouldn’t exist as it does if they had, and that would be a huge loss. It seems a shame that they’re still so unknown, but I wouldn’t trade the music for anything.

Something tells me if you asked any one of them, they’d say the same thing.

It’s doomsday, doomsday.


“Where I grew up in Brooklyn, man, a punk was like a wuss — the guy who ran away from the fight. ‘You’re a punk. You’re a weasel. You’re nothing.’ Now it has this connotation of being the tough guy thing. The revolution. Are you kidding? So I liked the word and used the term ‘punk music mass’ [on a flyer to advertise a live show in the early 1970s], maybe inadvertently trying to turn it into something else. One day I wake up and there’s the word ‘punk’ all over the place. Somebody said that Suicide had to be the ultimate punk band, because even the punks hated us.”

Alan Vega said that.

Before it was even a little bit cool to be a synthesizer-based duo, there was Suicide. There’s no guitar on their self-titled debut album, no bass, no acoustic drums, and it’s some of the truest punk music you’ll ever hear. It still sounds like nothing and no one else.

It’s hard to believe now, given the depth of the influence they’ve had on electronic, industrial, and post-punk music over the last few decades (and even on Bruce Springsteen — listen to “State Trooper” on Nebraska and you’ll hear him channeling Alan Vega something fierce), but for a long time people hated these guys. There’s an EP called 23 Minutes Over Brussels, available as part of the two-disc CD reissue of the debut album, and it might be the best aural evidence of just how reviled they were.

It’s a hissy bootleg cassette recording made the night they were opening for Elvis Costello in 1978. The audience booed. They heckled. They stole the microphone from Alan Vega in the middle of a song. The set ended after a little more than twenty minutes. Elvis came on and played a very short, very angry set of his own to let the crowd know he wasn’t happy with the way they’d treated his opening act. They responded by rioting and breaking Alan Vega’s nose.

Some bands would have been discouraged by an experience like that. Alan and musical other half Martin Rev thrived on the contempt. They used it as fuel. Alan would knock a chunk out of a club wall with a motorcycle chain and hurl abuse right back at a hostile audience. It wasn’t for nothing that they gave their two-man band such a polarizing name.

“Suicide was always about life,” Alan said. “But we couldn’t call it Life. So we called it Suicide, because we wanted to recognize life.”

On that first Suicide album, with little more than a Farfisa organ and a secondhand drum machine made by a bowling-pin-setting company, Martin Rev created rhythms that sounded like the steam-driven heartbeats of demon trains and married them to repetitive, hypnotic melodies that buzzed and throbbed. Alan Vega sang on top of those sounds in a menacing croon, kicking his rockabilly influences down to a hell Gene Vincent would never have gone near, bending his yelps out of shape with dub-like delay effects, turning every performance into a confrontation.

There’s the odd pretty love song on Suicide like “Cheree”, and a fun ’50s throwback in the shape of “Johnny” (hey, that’s me). But even on the more restrained tracks Alan sounds wild, unpredictable, electric. “Frankie Teardrop” is one of the few songs in anyone’s catalogue that terrifies me every time I hear it. Over a punishing ten minutes, Alan tells the story of a factory worker who can’t keep it together after he loses his job and can’t support his wife and young child anymore. There’s no deep psychoanalysis. No poetry. Just the awful, banal facts, until the facts break down and all that’s left is subhuman screaming ripping through a dense sonic nightmare.

Every subsequent Suicide album is a lot more polished, and the use of actual synthesizers and drum machines not made by bowling-pin-setting companies means they can sound a little dated in a way the first album never has and never will. The one exception to the rule is an album’s worth of demos pre-dating the first album, tacked onto the reissue of the second album as extras. There’s something eerie and magnetic in this music, lo-fi and murky as it is.

In what has to be the most bizarre soundtrack decision of all time, one of these demo tracks was used in a 2001 commercial for a dark liqueur that wasn’t Kahlua.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

Alan and Martin made more albums apart than they did together, and the crown jewel of the bunch — at least in my opinion — is Alan’s self-titled first solo album, which somehow manages to capture some of the unsettling, hypnotic quality of Suicide with a very different set of sounds. It’s another two-person affair, but this time it’s Phil Hawk filling in the blanks, playing guitar, bass, and an actual drum kit.

If Suicide is minimal electronic proto-punk without much in the way of conventional electronics, Alan Vega is rockabilly on downers. In a good way.

“This music is long nights and cold sweat,” Henry Rollins wrote in the liner notes for the Infinite Zero CD reissue. “[It’s] a closer look at the enigma that is this shadow poet. You think you’re getting closer to him, but you’re only getting deeper into yourself. You’re on your own.”

I hone in on those two albums, and Suicide in particular, because it’s desert island music for me. I didn’t have regular internet access or a computer at home until I was eighteen, so a lot of the music I got into as a teenager came to me from magazines, books, and rock and roll encyclopedias. I couldn’t audition anything before I bought it. I read about it, and if it sounded interesting, I went out and tried to find it. The more obscure and divisive it was, the more I wanted to hear it.

As great as I think it is that the internet has done so much to make a lot of music easier to access and put more power in the hands of the music-makers, sometimes I miss those days of uncertainty. I had no idea what i was going to hear, and no idea if I was going to like what I heard, until I sat down to listen to a CD for the first time. It was all blind fumbling.

Some things kind of disappointed me. Some things I liked, but I found the idea of the music more compelling than the music itself. Some things I loved. That first Suicide album grabbed me from the moment “Ghost Rider” came roaring out of my headphones, and it hasn’t let go since.

Now the voice that drove that music is gone.

Alan Vega spent most of his seventy eight years making uncompromising art in one format or another. So you can’t say he didn’t live a full life. Still, 2016 needs to lay off of this whole “shoving great artists off this mortal coil” thing already. It’s getting out of hand now.

One less beautiful one.


I always had mixed feelings about Prince. The talent and creativity were impossible to deny. “Little Red Corvette”, “The Beautiful Ones”, “When Doves Cry” — those are flat-out great songs. His songs for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film combined with Danny Elfman’s score to create the perfect backdrop for that dark cinematic vision. I lost count of how many times I watched that flick as a kid. And he had a kind of magnetism few artists are ever able to tap into. When you saw him in a music video or a movie, your eyes were locked on him. He was some sort of alien cross between Sly Stone and Little Richard, and he seemed dangerous. It was the kind of danger you wanted to follow, just to see what he might do.

There was always something that kept me at arm’s length. I don’t know what it was. Maybe the feeling that there was more beneath the surface of what he was doing that didn’t always get brought up to where I could hear it. Now I’m thinking maybe I didn’t dig deep enough. He was much, much more than just the songs we heard on the radio. And I thought he went a little overboard with the policing of his music being streamed or shared in any way on the internet (I’m not sure how your music videos being accessible on YouTube hurts you when you’re filthy stinking rich).

But he was defiantly himself. He always said what was on his mind in his music. He didn’t care if people didn’t like it.

“All people care about nowadays is getting paid,” he said. “So they try to do just what the audience wants them to do. I’d rather give people what they need rather than just what they want.”

When he sang about sex, he really sang about sex. He didn’t mess around or half-ass it. “We can fuck until the dawn, making love ’til cherry’s gone,” makes something like Katy Perry’s, “I kissed a girl and I liked it…hope my boyfriend don’t mind it,” sound as lame and bloodless as it really is.

There’s one little story I’ve always really liked. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1983, Prince said he played the album Dirty Mind for his father.

“You’re swearing on the record,” his father said. “Why do you have to do that?”

“Because I swear,” Prince said.

Two songs did a lot to unmix my feelings.

The first was “Erotic City”. A DJ used to play that one at The Loop on Friday nights, back when that was my regular weekend hangout. Once or twice I danced with a pretty girl while it was playing. The groove on that thing was unreal. It was hypnotic. I wanted it to go on forever.

It was a B-side. Figures.

The second song that changed my mind was this one. I’m going to stream it and not make it available for download, in case the ghost of Prince decides to try and sue me. You never can be too careful. This is shared only as a demonstration of the man’s talent, or maybe I’m reviewing it, fair use, blah blah, etcetera bagel monster.

It’s called “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and it’s another B-side. Which is insane, because it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, from anyone, in any genre. The Alicia Keys cover is nice and all, but it doesn’t even get close.

This is Prince alone, in 1982, playing piano, tapping his foot, and layering his voice into a virtual gospel choir. I wish with every wish I’ve got he decided at some point to make a whole album of stripped-down songs like this. If he’d done that, it would probably be one of my favourite albums of all time.

No such album exists. One Nite Alone… gets close, but it’s impossible to find. At least we’ve got this tune.

Oddly enough, both of those songs show up on the soundtrack to the spike lee film Girl 6. So if you see that CD hanging out in a bargain bin somewhere, I suggest you snap it up.

A little shout-out to 2016: you can stop killing musical icons now. I think you’ve done enough in that department already. Take the rest of the year off, okay?

Ladies and talismans.

Today is International Women’s Day. Here are some albums you should check out by people who are not dudes.

Mary Margaret O’Hara
Miss America (1988)

1 m2oh

Sister to actress Catherine O’Hara (she of SCTV and Home Alone fame), once called a “national treasure” by Michael Stipe, and a regular fixture on Canadian “best cult artists” lists, Mary Margaret O’Hara has only made one authorized full-length album. Her age and date of birth are a mystery.

Most people have never heard of her. Most people are missing out.

An art student in the 1970s, she was signed to Virgin Records on the strength of some demo recordings made in the early 80s. XTC’s Andy Partridge got the call to produce her first album. Depending on who you talk to, he either left or was fired after one day.

Mary went on to produce the album herself, only to have the record label hold it back for four years when they decided what she was doing wasn’t commercial enough. In an interview on CBC Radio One’s q a few years ago, she said she was told by someone at Virgin, “Captain Beefheart is weird, but he’s good. You are weird and insane, and you are the worst thing we’ve ever heard.”

Virgin signed her with the promise of total artistic freedom. After hearing the results, they decided they weren’t interested in what she had to say as an artist. They offered to bring in someone else to write an album for her. They would arrange and record the music. She would only have to swing by the studio to lay down her vocal parts.

How do you even respond to that if you’re the artist?

Mary stuck to her guns and stuck with her own material. But she paid for it.

The songs were mixed with guitarist Michael Brook, some of them years after they were recorded, four of them vetoed by Virgin for being “too weird”, and what was left of the album was finally released as Miss America in 1988 to critical acclaim. In short order, the musicians who abused her and rebelled against her unorthodox methods during the recording sessions started thanking her for what she taught them.

There’s a story that she was slated to perform on Saturday Night Live to promote the album, until one of the producers noticed her arrhythmic dancing when she was rehearsing and cancelled her appearance. Their explanation: handicapped people in the audience might be offended.

Joe Cocker’s spastic arm movements were okay, though.

At least some work was done on a second album. But Mary used her cash advance to pay the band for their work on the first one, felt strange about Virgin suddenly treating her like she had some value to them, and the album was left unfinished. Virgin threatened to sue her.

She released a four-song Christmas EP in 1991 and waited for her contract to run out. She never signed another one.

In the years since, she’s been active as an actress in independent films, a guest on the albums of others, and an occasional contributor to tribute albums for the likes of Kurt Weill and Vic Chesnutt.

2001’s Apartment Hunting soundtrack functions as an unofficial sequel to Miss America. In keeping with the theme of nothing quite going according to plan, it was released without her permission. As far as I can tell, she agreed to act in the film and provide the soundtrack, but not for it to be sold. Still, it’s an essential piece of the M2OH puzzle, as is the song “Dark Dear Heart” on Puerto Angel, the debut album by The Henrys. It’s one of the most gorgeous songs you’ve never heard. She sang it at John Candy’s funeral. I don’t know how she got through it.

She continues to play occasional live shows in Toronto. They’re almost impossible to prepare for, because the dates are often announced at the last minute with little fanfare. That’s probably just the way she wants it. Making music was never about generating attention for her.

Mary hasn’t given many interviews over the years. In her 2009 appearance on q, she makes me think a little of Gena Rowlands’ indescribable performance in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, and this is how: some of the YouTube comments make it clear there are people who assume she’s a little crazy. Those people are idiots.

It’s not that she’s crazy. It’s that she has no filters. She’s honest, unedited, in the moment, and maybe still a little wounded by her experiences in the music industry, as anyone with a heart would be after going through what she has. Everything she wants to say comes out of her at once. Not in neat little soundbites.

In other words, she’s a human being, and when you talk to her, you’re getting all of her, in a way not many people dare to — or even know how to — present themselves. Because on some level, we’re all acting most of the time, hiding something, shoving entire parts of who we are somewhere they won’t make too much noise. She doesn’t do that. She doesn’t know how.

It pisses me off, the way she’s been treated. I bought Miss America when I was still a teenager, expecting and halfway hoping to hear near-unlistenable chaos. That’s what I was led to expect based on what I read about her.

Instead, I was bowled over by how beautiful it was. “To Cry About” and “Help Me Lift You Up” are as deep and unaffected as love songs can hope to get, the first of them written for a boyfriend who thought it was about him when it wasn’t. Then he died (an overdose or an accident, maybe), and it became about him without a word being rewritten. You can feel the truth of that change in the song without it ever being explained.

“Keeping You in Mind” sounds like some great jazz standard that could have been sung by Billie Holiday and was somehow lost for decades. “Year in Song” and “Not Be Alright” are mutant rock songs that sound like no rock music anyone else has ever made. She uses her voice as an instrument, testing it, refracting it, making it bend and growl and short-circuit at will, and each time she opens her mouth she seems to be rethinking what words mean to her, which ones she wants to use, how to use them.

You can point to just about any singer and find someone they sound like on some superficial level, or someone they were influenced by. No one sounds anything like Mary Margaret O’Hara. She invented her own musical and vocal language.

What really baked my brain was learning someone from the record label told her the album’s closing track, “You Will Be Loved Again”, was so horrible it made them sick. I’ll never understand that. What made them want to puke is one of the most spellbinding pieces of music I’ve heard in my life, just Mary’s voice and an upright bass. It’s so pure and beautifully broken and somehow hopeful, it makes me feel like weeping every time I hear it.

The Cowboy Junkies cover version doesn’t come close. It’s not even on the same planet.

Even if she never records or releases another proper album, there’s more fire and beauty and invention on Miss America alone than most people manage in a lifetime of making records.

This song plays over the closing credits to Bruce Spangler’s hard-hitting-but-little-seen film Protection.

Vashti Bunyan
Just Another Diamond Day (1970)

A collection of music out of time, written while travelling to Scotland’s Inner Hebrides via horse-drawn wagon. It sold next to nothing. Discouraged, Vashti gave up music to farm and raise her children. Over time her album became a sought-after cult classic and a strong influence on the “New Weird America”/freak folk movement of the 1990s and 2000s. When she re-emerged more than thirty years later to release her second album, neither her voice nor her songs had aged a day.

The Marble Index (1969)

Nico has always fascinated me. She seemed to take a perverse sort of joy in destroying her own physical beauty and living the most depraved existence she could carve out for herself. And she made some pretty unique music along the way.

Chelsea Girl is the most popular album she made outside of the Velvet Underground. You can put it on in the background when guests are over. It’s pretty and inoffensive.

It’s nice music. But it didn’t begin to reflect who Nico was or who she wanted to be as an artist, and the flowery arrangements added by a producer with his own vision didn’t sit well with her. “The first time I heard the album,” she would later admit, “I cried, and it was all because of the flute.”

The music she made after that is a lot more complex and interesting, and not for dinner parties, unless you have some very strange and interesting friends. The three albums recorded with John Cale as producer/arranger as the 1960s became the 1970s are some sort of pitch black neo-classical European art-folk brilliance that still sounds like nothing else.

Encouraged by Leonard Cohen to write her own songs, Nico bought a portable, hand-operated Indian harmonium, taught herself to play it, and found a way to turn the weakness of English not being her mother tongue into an asset. It was as if approaching it from a slight remove opened the language up to her in ways inaccessible to most native English speakers. Even when she made something like “rock” music with a full band in the 1980s, it was strange and edgy, and a lot of artists who were part of the gothic rock movement claimed her as an influence.

This has always been one of my favourite Nico songs from my favourite Nico album, a three-way dance for voice, harmonium, and viola. The instruments drift in and out of tune with each other, the lyrics read like poetry on the page, and the song sounds centuries old, and brand new.

Laura Nyro
New York Tendaberry (1969)

Like Harry Nilsson, Laura didn’t get the respect she deserved in her lifetime. And like Harry, her songs were bigger hits in the hands of other artists than they were in her own. Too idiosyncratic to become a household name, she blazed her own creative trail, tossing elements of jazz, blues, gospel, Brill-Building style New York pop, show tunes, and soul into a blender, and spitting it all out as something her own.

In some of her songs I hear traces of Tori Amos and Kate Bush. Then I remember neither one of them existed as commercial artists when Laura was doing this.

New York Tendaberry has to be her masterpiece. A loose love letter to her native city, and in many ways her most personal and adventurous work, the album was recorded over a year-long series of intense evening sessions. Laura made the trip to the recording studio most nights by horse-drawn carriage through Central Park.

“Laura was very theatrical,” producer/engineer Roy Halee said in a 2002 interview to coincide with the album’s reissue. “She would come to the studio dressed for the evening in a beautiful gown. and each night, she would have dinner brought in, and we would sit next to the console, eating by candlelight.”

The songs follow their own internal logic. There aren’t many typical verse/chorus/verse structures. Everything is built around Laura’s piano and voice, with Halee and arranger Jimmie Haskell creating arrangements based on her instructions. She couldn’t read or write music notation, so Laura communicated what she wanted in terms of colours.

“She would say, ‘Here I would like some light blue, then go more pink over here,'” Haskell said. “I interpreted light blue as middle-to-high instruments, playing softly. Pink would be those instruments playing louder. If she went up to white, it was the loudest, brassiest sound I could think of.”

Laura often spoke of the album being her “heart and soul”. When it was delivered to Columbia Records in the fall of 1969, friends sent her cards congratulating her as if she’d given birth to a child.

This particular song goes on the list of things that never fail to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The way she howls “my man” at the very end, holding the last note with such force her voice breaks…”intensity” isn’t a strong enough word. And listen to the way the strings come in like a little explosion of sound in one of many semi-bridge sections when she’s singing, “Never gonna make a move and make her.” That’s some great colour.

First Aid Kit
The Lion’s Roar (2012)

I am not a fan of modern mainstream country music. At all. I don’t think you can even call much of it country music anymore. It’s just a different permutation of pop music, with pedal steel guitar (a beautiful sound that deserves better) and a different set of narrow production touches.

These two women, though…Christ Jesus. If this is what modern alt-country (or whatever it wants to be called) can be, sign me the hell up.

First Aid Kit is, at root, Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg. They write their own songs, play their own instruments, and were twenty-one and nineteen years old when this album was released.

Some people were born to sing together. John Lennon and Paul McCartney come to mind. Don and Phil Everly. Ira and Charlie Loudermilk. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

I think these two go on that list. The scary thing is, their best songs are probably still ahead of them.

Stina Nordenstam
Dynamite (1996)

I have my great friend Lucas (also known as The Amazing Flying Raspberry) to thank for introducing me to this Swedish songstress over a decade ago.

The best point of entry into Stina’s world is probably the album that comes before this one, And She Closed Her Eyes. That’s the first I heard of her, and it’s a gorgeous record. But this is the one that hooked me for good. It’s strange, dark, and deep as a well. On some songs she sounds a little like Rickie Lee Jones in hell, the childlike quality of her voice adding an extra dimension to some disquieting material. I love that it’s her making all or most of that noise on electric guitar herself (the album credits are a little confusing and confused, depending on where you read them).

One to play on dismal, rainy days, maybe. Not that it’s raining here today.

Rickie Lee Jones
Pirates (1981)

Speaking of Rickie Lee, if you only ever own one of her albums, make it this one. It’s one of the only things I’ve heard that deserves comparison with Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry, in the way the songs are all built around Rickie’s voice and piano, and how the arrangements and dynamics shift on a dime from one song to the next. It’s also very much Rickie’s own thing, and something of a breakup album, recorded following the dissolution of her relationship with Tom Waits. If you like Pirates, pick up Girl at Her Volcano and Flying Cowboys. And if you like all of that stuff as much as I do, well…marry me?

Two Ton Boa
Two Ton Boa EP (2000)

Two Ton Boa is bassist/multi-instrumentalist Sherry Fraser’s baby. She writes and sings the songs, built around a twin electric bass assault (there’s very little guitar to be heard in her music), and arranges all the parts for the other musicians to play note for note. What you’re hearing on record is almost a direct line to the sounds she hears in her head.

Her music is dark as all hell. There isn’t much humour or light to be found in it. When you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, it can hit just the right spot. When you’re not, it can be a little overwhelming. I don’t think it would work well as background music.

Maybe the best way to describe it is to take what Sherry herself said about the internet, and apply it to her work instead: it’s “beautiful in an ugly way, and huge but dangerous.”

She has a touch of the theatrical about her, both in the way she uses her voice and in the melodies she writes, which are at once gothic and carnivalesque. For someone with a voice capable of such range and beauty, she isn’t afraid to make it sound ugly or menacing when a song calls for it. She doesn’t consider herself a gloomy person, but in an interview to coincide with the release of her 2006 album Parasiticide she explained the music has given her a place for darker thoughts and feelings to go, calling it a “survival tactic”.

I prefer her first EP to the full-length album. The production isn’t quite as rich, but it feels like there’s twice as much going on in half the space. And then there are her lyrics, which could come off as melodrama in someone else’s hands, but the intensity of her delivery gives them some serious weight:

“My will is broken and my tongue has lost her feet.”

“She’s got an avalanche packed in a snowball.”

“Who could tell? You can’t smell poison in a perfumed well.”

“Your gold-digging bird will stoop to swallow more worms than you, as her priceless hole spits out the last of you.”

The Dirt of Luck (1995)

Mary Timony’s made a lot of good music, but I don’t think she’s ever found a better outlet than Helium for her husky, vibrato-less voice and her distinctive, jagged way of playing electric guitar. I used to listen to this stuff a lot back when i went out drinking. One friday night at The Loop I somehow convinced one of the DJs (Rob — a great guy, sadly no longer with us) to play “Medusa” off of this album. That was fun.

Some fans prefer the glossier, more layered sound of Magic City. Me, I’m kind of partial to the Pirate Prude EP and The Dirt of Luck, where Mary’s guitar-playing takes center stage. It makes for a good soundtrack to a train ride, too.

The Noise Made by People (2000)

There’s a definite feeling of kinship with Stereolab in the music of Broadcast, but Trish Keenan’s singing bends it into something unique. There’s an innocence and a purity to her voice that projects a strange power, never more so than when it’s cutting through claustrophobic and dissonant soundscapes. I don’t think she once came anywhere near screaming or shouting in any of the songs she recorded. She didn’t need to.

She passed away in 2011 after contracting the H1N1 flu while on tour. That shit still hurts.

I’ve always thought there was an eerie beauty to this song. If you’re into this sort of thing, the albums The Noise Made by People and Haha Sound come highly recommended, along with the compilations Work and Non Work and The Future Crayon, both of which collect non-album tracks from EPs and singles — many of them the equal of anything on the full-length studio albums.

Jane Siberry
The Walking (1988)

Jane Siberry has made some of the most wonderfully idiosyncratic music you’ll ever find in the pop/rock section of a record store.

“I started out in music,” she once said, “but switched to sciences when I realized how much more interesting it was to study than music. I would leave the classes ecstatic about tiny things.”

I think that quote goes some way toward explaining what’s so unique about her songs. She stopped studying music in university in favour of microbiology. Then she found herself pulled back in the direction of music. But that interest in “tiny things” remained, and the songs she went on to write concerned themselves with the smallest things — which are often really the biggest things in disguise.

The golden period of Siberry for me is the four-album stretch from 1988 to 1995, in which she moved from long, unclassifiable, cinematic songs delivered from multiple points of view (The Walking), to something crawling toward country-influenced soft-rock, more accessible in sound but no less individual in approach (Bound by the Beauty), to the dreamy soundscapes, dance-influenced rhythms, and more spiritual and erotic themes of When I Was a Boy, to another complete stylistic curve ball with Maria, most of which was recorded live and unplugged in the studio with a jazz quintet.

The Walking has become a real favourite over the years. Almost every song on this album is like a little movie. There’s one called “Lena Is a White Table”. It’s about a table. Named Lena. It’s brilliant. “Well, maybe she should go to school,” goes the chorus. “No, no…she’s a table.” The production is very much of its time, but the songs are so unusual, they twist those ’80s touches right out of shape until you don’t even notice they’re there.

Erykah Badu
Baduizm (1997)

In his book Fear of Music, Gary Mullholland describes Erykah Badu’s debut album as “[the] missing link between ’70s street funk, basement jazz, bohemian hip-hop, and the blues reinventions of Portishead”. Without being able to quantify it in those terms, I always felt she was one of the more interesting voices and personalities to come out of the neo-soul movement of the ’90s. Still do. Unlike so many people making music now, she takes her time with a song. It’s a wonderful thing.

My introduction to her was the music video for “Tyrone”. Back in the day, MuchMoreMusic used to play some interesting videos in the wee hours. You never knew what you might see when the rest of the world was asleep. Sometimes it was Roxy Music. Sometimes Tom Waits. One late night in 1998, it was Lady Badu, very pregnant, looking like a goddess in her elegant dress and tignon, destroying a freeloading boyfriend on top of a great jazzy groove.

She had me at, “I’m gettin’ tired of your shit”.

Oumou Sangare
Worotan (1996)

Back in my weekend drinking days, I would have a drink or three at Milk every friday night before heading to The Loop for the rest of the night.

For the longest time I tried to get a show at Milk. Back then, no one in Windsor knew or cared who I was as a musical entity. I was told the guy who ran the place was the “music coordinator” and the person to talk to about getting a show.

The thing is, he didn’t seem to exist. To this day, I’ve never once spoken to him or seen him in the flesh. I know he’s real. He has a Facebook page. But it’s difficult not to think of him as a sort of ghost.

He tried to add me as a Facebook friend once. I ignored the request, because fuck him. He couldn’t be bothered to give me the time of day when all I wanted was to network, connect with people, and get my music heard. I don’t want to be his fake internet friend now that I’m cool enough to acknowledge.

I don’t know how many CDs I went through back then, giving them to whoever was working behind the bar at any given time and asking them to pass the music on to him. But it was a lot. No matter how many times I followed up, I never got an answer from anyone. And the turnover rate in that place was so ridiculous, someone I gave an album to one Friday might not be there the next Friday, and then they might never be seen again.

After a while I gave up on getting a gig. I started giving music to whoever was behind the bar and saying, “Please don’t bother passing this on to your fabled music coordinator. This is for you. Give it a listen if you like. Let me know what you think.”

I just wanted to share music with people, whether I knew them or not. I figured there were worse ways to go about it. It wasn’t like anyone would give me a gig anywhere.

That didn’t work out so well either. But I did get one person to listen to a CD. She had short dark hair and thick black-rim glasses. Her name might have been Nancy. I’m not sure. She was pretty, and friendly, and we struck up a nice little Friday night rapport. I gave her the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP. She listened to it, and she told me she liked it. My heart did a little celebratory dance.

And then I never saw her again. Another one out the revolving door.

One thing I enjoyed about spending time at Milk was never knowing what I might hear. Whoever was working there would throw whatever they were listening to at the time on the sound system. On any given Friday I might hear Al Green, or Blonde Redhead, or Simon & Garfunkel, or Interpol, or scratchy old blues recordings from the 1930s, or The Band.

I heard pieces of one specific album bubble up from the ether two or three times. Some kind of ethnic music with a powerful female voice. I had no idea who or what it was, or what the woman was singing about, but I loved it. I could feel it in my bones.

The blonde-haired girl who played this music lasted longer than most bartenders seemed to. So I had that going for me. One night I heard that familiar-and-unfamiliar music again. I walked up to the bar and asked her what it was. She told me it was this. I wrote down the name of the album and ordered it the next day.

I now know Oumou was born in Mali, West Africa. As a child she sang to help her mother feed the family after being abandoned by her father. Many of her songs feature pointed social criticism, a lot of it to do with the treatment of women in African society. She owns and helped build a hotel in Bamako that doubles as her performing space and a refuge for musicians.

She can also sing like nobody’s business.

Valery Gore
Avalanche to Wandering Bear (2008)

Valery gore kind of makes me think of what might have happened if Feist decided to make the piano her main instrument instead of guitar and let her mind drift to some darker places. There’s a somewhat similar tonal thing going on with their voices, though not to the point that you’d confuse one for the other. They both make music that is tangentially “pop” in nature but tends to slip into more interesting and esoteric crevices when your back is turned. And hey, they’re both Canadian.

I like Feist. But I’d take Valery to have my back in an ice cream bar fight.

Valery describes her music as “jazz- and classically-influenced piano pop”. I think that does a decent enough job of encapsulating her sound, at least in a superficial way. But she sneaks some pretty dark and interesting lyrics in-between the pretty melodies. And every once in a while there’s a song like this that doesn’t sound like any kind of piano pop at all.

Here there’s no piano, her voice supported only by a horn arrangement. The lyrics seem to be a description of a somewhat abstract, unsettling dream. There’s something disconcerting about the image of the dream’s main character “[folding] like a dress”, and the way that phrase serves as the hook/chorus. It’s good stuff.

Memphis Minnie
Queen of the Country Blues (1929 – 1937)

A multiple-disc collection of some of the best blues music you’ll ever hear, at the best possible sound quality, for a price so low it’s a little ridiculous. You should buy it.

Cat Power
Moon Pix (1998)

The last few Cat Power albums haven’t really connected with me on any deep emotional level. The last one that really gut-punched me was You Are Free, and the last one I loved all the way through after I warmed up to it was The Greatest. But Chan Marshall has one of those voices I could listen to all day, even if the songs she’s singing don’t feel like they’re up to snuff. I’d listen to her sing junk mail.

Her earlier work occupies a special place for me. There’s a rawness that feels like it’s missing from her more “mature” songs. There’s also a sense of heaviness.

Everything seems more urgent when you’re young and angry and you feel attacked from all angles. Not so much when you’re a little older and calmer.

This was the first Cat Power album I bought. I heard it at a friend’s house one night fourteen years ago. It didn’t do much for me as background music, but something in that voice made me want to dig deeper. When I sat down and gave the album my undivided attention, it mutated into something different, and I could hear how great it was.

The Greatest works well as background music. Something like Moon Pix doesn’t. You need to give yourself to it, and then it gives itself back to you.

Half the album’s songs were written in a single night, in the aftermath of a vivid hallucinatory nightmare Chan had while staying in her then-boyfriend’s farmhouse in South Carolina by herself. Maybe it makes sense that I’ve reached for it some nights when I haven’t been able to sleep. It’s not music to listen to when you want to cheer yourself up, but every once in a while it’s just right.

The way Chan sings, “Hope all is well with you / I wish the best for you / When no one is around, love will always love you,” in this song cuts like a very deep thing.

Scout Niblett
Kidnapped by Neptune (2005)

Emma Louise Niblett took her stage name from the protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She has an unusual way of playing guitar, incorporating a lot of open fifths where most musicians would play major or minor chords. She speaks in a British accent and sings with a scratchy Southern lilt. She’s either an American pretending to be British, or a Brit whose accent ceases to exist when she sings, or else she’s neither, pretending to be both.

It doesn’t really matter what the deal is there. She makes cool music, and Steve Albini records it in his usual upfront, dynamic way. Emma has a deep interest in astrology, which she relies on to determine when and where she should record new music. Sometimes — like at the end of this song — she taps into a grungy energy that makes me think of Kurt Cobain just a little bit.

I’m still kicking myself for missing her when she played a show right here in Windsor eight or nine years ago.

Bent by Elephants
BBE EP (2009)

I got this EP when it was first released, in what looked like homemade packaging, from Bent by Elephants guitarist Luke Fowlie. I sent him some of my music and a handwritten letter along with payment for the EP. He wrote me a letter back. I fainted. Then I came to and listened to the CD.

There’s a different version of this song (and EP highlight) on the 2010 full-length This Is Water. The production there is a little “better”, but I prefer the rougher magic of this earlier version. That floating little bridge section before everything explodes is so much more effective here, with those violin harmonics and the drums dropping out for a bit.

Wye Oak
Civilian (2011)

Wye Oak are a duo from Baltimore, Maryland. Jenn Wasner sings and plays guitar. Andy Stack plays drums and keyboard at the same time — a cool thing to see live — and if you happen to email him and you’re not a big potato, you’ll be waiting until you die to get response.

I played a show on the same bill as Jenn and Andy once. This was back in 2008, before they became “popular” and before I heard a lick of their music. I left before their set got started. I had sleep issues to deal with, and I was just window dressing at that show anyway, backing someone else up, not playing any of my own stuff. Now I kind of wish I stuck around, sleep be damned.

I like bands that feature women ripping it up on guitar, and Jenn creates guitarscapes with the best of them. She’s also capable of writing lyrics that stop you dead in your tracks. Like so: “I wanted to give you everything, but I still stand in awe of superficial things.” There’s a shoegazey energy to the music, but strip it down and most of the songs are folk tunes at heart. That’s a neat thing. I like how the melodies never get lost no matter how noisy things get.

I still think this is the best Wye Oak album.

Nina Simone
Little Girl Blue, aka Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club (1958)

Nina Simone was a singer, songwriter, arranger, civil rights activist, and one hell of a piano player. This last bit seems to get lost in the shuffle too often. There might not be any better place to hear just how good she was than on the very first album she ever made, recorded live off the floor in the studio, with no overdubs and no fussy arrangements. Just a woman, her piano, her voice, the fire in her belly, and a rhythm section keeping her company.

Linda Perhacs
Parallelograms (1970)

Linda Perhacs has only released one album. But it’s quite the album. Think folk-period Joni Mitchell if Joni dropped acid before heading into the studio. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really sound dated at all, fitting right in with the psych-folk music it predated by decades.

At the time of its release the album sold very little. A poor-sounding vinyl pressing and the record label’s lack of interest in promoting the music didn’t help. Linda put music aside and worked as a dental technician. It took a long time for people to catch up with what she was doing. Shades of Vashti Bunyan there.

This song features someone playing “amplified shower hose”. And if that isn’t one of the best album credits of all time…

Yma Sumac
Voice of the Xtabay (1950)

Yma Sumac was either an Incan Princess descended from the last Incan emperor, or a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus who was living a double (and backwards) life. All I know is, I’ve never heard anything else like her voice. Her vocal range was astonishing, moving from low rumbling tones to theremin-like warbles.

Some people call this stuff “lounge music”. If that’s what it is, it must be the weirdest, most otherworldly lounge music anyone has ever made.

Anniemal (2004)

Some albums are worth buying just for one track. Here’s one.

It’s a pop song that’s just a little off-kilter, with its over-saturated sledgehammer beat, Annie’s odd pronunciation of the word “drumming” (she sings it “drooming” and comes down hard on the d), and an unshakable feeling of melancholy for a song that is, on the surface, about inhibitions sloughing off on the dance floor and a good memory being made.

Annie’s voice has been described as “thin” and reminiscent of Kylie Minogue. While she might not be capable of vocal pyrotechnics, she knows what she’s doing with what she’s got, and I don’t think she’s ever done it any better than right here.

Shannon Wright
Over the Sun (2004)

You want a new guitar hero? You got one. Shannon Wright is intense.

This is another Steve Albini recording, and a two-woman show, with Christina Files seated behind the drums and Shannon doing everything else. There’s no bass. That’s Shannon holding down the low end with her thumb on the guitar. Lots of unique borderline rock songs here, and then a song like “Avalanche” comes along and takes your breath away.

Homogenic (1997)

I’m convinced Björk is made of magic. She does this thing sometimes where she sings like she’s trying to wrap her arms around something much larger and slipperier than she is. It makes me want to hug her. She does that here.

Vespertine is another great, great album. But Homogenic has “Jóga”, so it wins by a hair.

Kate Bush
The Dreaming (1982)

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say without Kate Bush there would probably be no Tori Amos, no Bat for Lashes, no Annie Lennox, no Björk, no PJ Harvey, and no (dogs help us) Lady Gaga. There can’t be too many female artists in the slippery world of “popular music” who’ve wielded the kind of influence and commanded the kind of respect she has while creating art that’s justified every bit of the acclaim she’s received.

Kate was writing songs from the perspectives of an Irish mother mourning a son lost to war, the widow of Harry Houdini, a possessed house, an unborn child experiencing a nuclear holocaust from inside her mother’s womb, and penning an entire song cycle that took place within the mind of a drowning woman, all at the same age our current pop stars are churning out drivel with the emotional and intellectual complexity of a toddler’s runny morning shit.

I first read about Kate when I was fourteen years old. I found her fascinating in theory but had no idea where to dive into her discography. The Dreaming, her first self-produced album, was described as her most difficult, polarizing work. I decided to start there. It’s still probably my favourite album of hers, though most days it’s difficult to break the three-way tie it holds with Never for Ever and Hounds of Love.

In a 1985 interview for French magazine Guitare & Claviers, Kate had this to say about the album:

“If a single theme linked The Dreaming, which is quite varied, it would be human relationships and emotional problems. Every being responds principally to emotions. Some people are very cool, but they are silenced by their emotions, whatever they might be.

To write a song, it’s necessary that I be completely steeped in my environment, in my subject. Sometimes the original idea is maintained, but as it takes form, it possesses me. One of the best examples would be this song that I wrote on Houdini; I knew every one of the things that I wanted to say, and it was necessary that I find new ways that would allow me to say them. The hardest thing is when you have so many things to fit into so short a space of time. You have to be concise, and at the same time not remain vague, or obscure.

The Dreaming was a decisive album for me. I hadn’t recorded in a very long time until I undertook it, and that was the first time that I’d had such liberty. It was intoxicating and frightening at the same time. I could fail at everything and ruin my career [in] one fell swoop. All this energy, my frustrations, my fears, my wish to succeed — all that went into the record.

That’s the principle of music: to liberate all the tensions that exist inside you. I tried to give free rein to all my fantasies. Although all of the songs do not talk about me, they represent all the facets of my personality, [and] all my different attitudes in relation to the world. In growing older, I see more and more clearly that I am crippled in facing the things that really count, and that I can do nothing about it, just as most people can do nothing. Making an album is insignificant in comparison with that, but it’s my only defence.”

“Suspended in Gaffa” was the moment I knew I was all-in. I think it was Kate shrieking, “NOT UNTIL I’M READY FOR YOU-HOO-HOO!” that sealed the deal.

I’ve loved her ever since.

Marie Queenie Lyons
Soul Fever (1970)

Marie Queenie Lyons is a mystery. She was born in Louisiana, raised in Ohio, worked with King Curtis, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown, recorded a few singles and an album, and then she vanished. No one seems to know what happened to her.

One sure thing: she could sing the roof off of a soul song.

Joni Mitchell
The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

Joni had a remarkable run of albums in the 1970s. This one feels like it gets overlooked. It’s a shame, because it may be the most effective distillation of her jazzier sensibilities, outside of Hejira (which has the peerless bass-playing of Jaco Pastorius to recommend it, among other things). The album was kind of savaged in Rolling Stone magazine at the time of its release, only to be recognized in later years as one of Joni’s greatest artistic achievements.

Take that, Rolling Stone. You’re 80% advertisements now anyway. Does anyone even read you anymore?

Emmylou Harris
Roses in the Snow (1980)

You probably know how I feel about Emmylou already. But bluegrass doesn’t get better than this.

Sibylle Baier
Colour Green (recorded 1970-1973; released 2006)

In the early 1970s, Sibylle Baier acted in a Wim Wenders film and recorded some songs she wrote at home, on her own, with just her voice and guitar for accompaniment. Then she abandoned any aspirations of a career in music or film and devoted her life to raising a family.

Her son Robby writes in the liner notes to this album of her music released more than thirty years after it was recorded:

In a particularly dark and moody period of Sibylle’s young life, her friend Claudine dragged her out from under the bed and took her on a road trip to Strasbourg, ending up across the alps in Genoa.

Upon the return from this trip Sibylle felt her spirits renewed and she set out to write the song ‘Remember the Day’, grateful for being alive. It was the first song she ever wrote. My mother’s music is simply amazing in its intimacy and closeness. Recorded in the early ’70s in her home on a reel to reel recording device, the songs on ‘Colour Green’ are intimate portraits of life’s sad and fragile beauty.

Though she never thought to share her songs with anyone outside of friends and family, and their eventual commercial release was almost an accident, I think this puts a lot of current alt-folk/singer-songwriter stuff to shame. It doesn’t sound affected in any way. Sibylle sounds a little like a darker Vashti Bunyan, but different. She’s herself.

This is music as an extension of the artist, with no commercial considerations at all. It’s really pretty, too.

Aimee Mann 
Bachelor No. 2 [or, The Last Remains of the Dodo] (2000)

Who writes catchy songs with big brains? Aimee Mann does! Try to find someone else who’s written a song with the word “caveats” in it. There can’t be too many.

On a random note, I’ve always really liked Aimee’s vibrato. Now there’s a different idea for a pickup line. “Hey, singer — I love your vibrato. Wanna sing a duet?”

Neko Case
Blacklisted (2002)

I bought this album a few months after it came out, my faculties and sex drive dulled by wisdom teeth removal drugs. The guy behind the HMV counter expressed his approval, back when the people who worked at the HMV in this city knew a thing or two about music outside of top forty radio and weren’t just nice-looking robots.

“Have you heard any of it yet?” he asked me, noticing the CD I had in my hand.

“No. I just read about it and thought it sounded interesting.”

“You’ll like it. It’s really good. A lot darker than her earlier stuff.”

He was right. I liked the whole thing. But her spooky cover of “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and the self-penned “Deep Red Bells” have always been twin highlights for me. “Deep Red Bells” in particular has a certain beautiful haunting something about it — even more so now, after I’ve learned it was written for the victims of the Green River Killer in an effort to give them back some of the humanity and dignity that was stripped from them in death.

Neko sings to one of the women:

Where does this mean world cast its cold eye?
Who’s left to suffer long about you?
Does your soul cast about
like an old paper bag,
past empty lots and early graves?
Those like you who lost their way,
murdered on the interstate
while the red bells rang like thunder.

Deep red bells —
Deep as I’ve been done.

Marla Hansen
Wedding Day EP (2007)

Marla Hansen has played viola, occasional violin, and/or provided backup vocals for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Kanye West, Duncan Sheik, My Brightest Diamond, Jens Lekman, The New Pornographers, The National, and others. But the best thing she’s been involved in may be her own music.

It’s a crime she’s only released one six-song EP. I keep holding out hope there will be a full-length album someday, or at least another EP. One of my favourite things about her songs is the way she tends to pluck the viola instead of bowing it, almost treating it like a guitar. Something comforting lives inside that sound.

This song is too beautiful for words.

Dark Dark Dark
Who Needs Who (2012)

Dark Dark Dark are a Minneapolis band whose songs blur the lines between folk, jazz, blues, and indie-pop. This one is made up of just three chords. Sometimes three is the perfect number. Nona Marie Invie has some kind of magic voice, bending upward like something grown out of the earth and craning its neck to see the sun.

The Caravelles
You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry (1963)

Lois Wilkinson and Andrea Simpson were co-workers and friends in London, England. They were encouraged by others around the office who heard them sing to pursue a musical career as a duo. They chose to call themselves the Caravelles after the French jet powered airliner. They almost topped the charts with their first single, “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” (discovered as the flip-side of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s immortal “Sixteen Tons” single), but were hard-pressed to follow up that success.

A few attempts at changing their sound to appeal to a different demographic met with middling results. After a while Lois took off for a solo career. Andrea continued as the Caravelles with various replacement singers. Though she never had another hit, she still plays the occasional live gig.

I first heard this album’s title track on the Wolfman Jack Show, via satellite radio. There’s something a little eerie about it. Maybe it’s those breathy, perfect vocal harmonies, the way they’re bathed in reverb, and the way the happy-sounding music is set against lyrics that are all about heartbreak. It sounds to me like something that belongs in a David Lynch film.

Come on, Dave! Make it happen!

Eva Cassidy
Live at Blues Alley (1996)

I first heard about Eva Cassidy not long after she passed away. I would have been about fourteen at the time. I read a review of a posthumous album. As soon as I found out she just sang cover songs, I lost any interest I might have had in checking her out. At the time, the concept of a song interpreter was lost on me. If someone didn’t write their own material, I couldn’t fathom what artistic merit there might be in what they were doing.

Holy shit was I wrong. When I heard Eva sing for the first time more than ten years later, I almost fell over. She may not have been a songwriter, but she had that rare ability to take any song and make it sound like it belonged to her. Her range was incredible. And that range was what kept her from getting signed to a recording contract.

Rejecting an artist because they refuse to flatten out the diversity of their talent is pretty pathetic if you ask me. But there’s the music industry for you.

Eva self-released Live at Blues Alley in 1996. She almost didn’t put the album out at all. She had a cold when the songs were recorded and wasn’t happy with the way her voice sounded. Friends had to talk her into letting it see the light of day. It was the only album she would release under her own name in her lifetime. She died later that year of melanoma, a virtual unknown outside of her hometown. The fame came later, as is the case all too often when talented people die far too young.

Listen to this woman with a cold singing a Buffy Sainte-Marie song, and tell me if it isn’t one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever heard.

Whore Luck (2007)

To my ears, Picastro frontwoman Liz Hysen has always sounded something like a sad, beautiful ghost. With time her haunting only grows more resonant. She also has a way of writing brutally honest (or brutally honest-seeming) lyrics. The opening lines here are:

I’m left because i’m never leaving,
and I don’t want the things I have.

Choosing a favourite Picastro album is difficult. But I enjoy the way Whore Luck feels like it’s split into two distinct halves, starting out in pretty-but-dark territory and then making a sharp turn into some sort of corrosive, delicious sonic and emotional hell.

The Be Good Tanyas
Chinatown (2003)

I first heard Blue Train at MILK, in its entirety, on one of those long-ago Friday nights. I was convinced it was a Rusty Halos album for a while, because they did “Rain and Snow” live on the regular and Erin Gignac sounded an awful lot like Frazey Ford. Then Chinatown played all the way through as a second course, and I said, “This is The Be Good Tanyas. I need to buy this stuff. God, this is good.”

Is it ever.

PJ Harvey
Uh Huh Her (2004)

This isn’t my favourite PJ Harvey album. I’m not sure what is. Rid of Me, maybe. But I like that Polly Jean produced this one herself and made every sound on her own, drums aside. There’s a gritty, lo-fi quality to the music that appeals to me as well.

In an interview with Tracks magazine, she explained: “I was looking for distressed, debased sounds. So all of the guitars are either tuned so low that it’s hard to detect what notes they’re playing, or they’re baritone guitars, or they’re played through the shittiest amps I could find.”

There’s no guitar at all in “The Slow Drug”. There’s just a synthesized loop whirring in the background, the cheesiest, least realistic pizzicato string sound on any keyboard ever made playing a few simple chords, and her voice. There’s no chorus or “hook”. The chords don’t change. The vocals sound like they were recorded in a nicer-than-usual shoe box, bathed in a thin blanket of hiss. It’s the definition of a “deep album cut”, sitting around the halfway point of the record, easy to overlook, there until it isn’t there anymore and the next song comes in to take its place.

It’s my favourite PJ Harvey song of all time. So there you go.

Cocteau Twins
Heaven or Las Vegas (1990)

I once read a review of a Cocteau Twins album that said something to the effect of, “If you don’t hear music like this on your way to heaven, you’re headed for the wrong place.” I think that’s about right. I always thought Elizabeth Fraser sounded a bit like Kate Bush as an angel, singing beautiful gibberish.

Liz’s lyrics in most of the Cocteau’s songs are either made up of neologisms and old Scots vocabulary, or English that’s so well-disguised by her diction it might as well be a foreign language. I have no idea what she’s saying 90% of the time, and when the odd recognizable phrase pops out (in this song I can make out “everything else” and what sounds like “good news”), it’s a little startling.

It doesn’t matter. You can still feel what she’s singing, even if it’s impossible to sing along.

Regina Spektor
Soviet Kitsch (2004)

I think this is the best Regina Spektor album by some distance, because it sounds the most like her, and it’s full of songs like this one that are beautiful and beautifully quirky.

I remember reading a Pitchfork review of Soviet Kitsch. I think it was the same day Antics, the second Interpol album, was reviewed. Antics was praised for being a near-facsimile of Turn on the Bright Lights, demonstrating no palpable creative forward movement short of a somewhat different sheen to the production. Regina was denigrated for having a personality and indulging her more whimsical impulses.

That criticism made me want to hear the music, so I went out and bought the album. While I did (and still do) like Turn on the Bright Lights, Antics — aside from a few good songs — has always been kind of boring to me. I haven’t been moved to pull it out for a listen in years.

Not so with Soviet Kitsch. It appealed to me, and it continues to appeal to me, for the same reasons that Pitchfork writer didn’t care for it.

Different strokes for different cowpokes, I guess.

Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts
Cowboy Bebop soundtrack (1998)

There are a lot of CDs that make up all the music Yoko Kanno wrote for this brilliant anime series. They’re all worth hunting down. This little piece of music right here is just Yoko on piano and one of her fellow Seatbelts playing tenor sax, and if you’ve seen the show and you want to stir up some of the feelings it gave you but don’t feel up to making a proper visit, I don’t think you could do much better.

Those shots of Faye Valentine sitting at the bar and smoking, looking lost, while Gren makes his saxophone weep — that’s one of the most evocative bar scenes I’ve ever seen. And it’s from what some people would call a “cartoon”.

Bat for Lashes
Fur and Gold (2006)

Bat for Lashes is the stage name of English singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Natasha Khan. I’m a fan of everything she’s done so far, and couldn’t really pick a favourite song or album. Depends on the day and mood, I s’pose. But if you only ever grab one, this is the one it should be. “Tahiti”, “Sad Eyes”, “Bat’s Mouth” — these are songs with a beautiful darkness to them. They weave a spell.

Ruins (2014)

Liz Harris makes some sort of strange and beautiful ambient/drone/noise/lo-fi music that’s difficult to describe. She’s stripped away the effects and layers a little at a time, and on her most recent album it’s just her voice and a piano for the most part. This is stuff that will kick you in the heart and leave a welt there that takes a while to fade. You’re either into it or you’re not. But if you are, it hits a spot not a lot of music can get to.

Liz grew up in a commune in northern California known as “The Group”. “The kids called each other and the parents ‘groupers’,” she said in an interview, “sort of as a defiance. It was us making our own identities inside a pretty controlled environment, and sort of lashing back maybe. When I had to think of a name, I felt annoyed at nothing sounding right. I wanted something that referenced me without referencing ‘me’. I felt like the music was at its barest just a grouping of sounds, and I was just the grouper.”

The Shirelles
Baby It’s You (1962)

Always end with a classic girl group.

There’s not much to say about this one. The title track is a classic. As many times as it’s been covered over the years, I’ve yet to hear a version as good as the original. It was used to bizarre-but-powerful effect in Jane Campion’s 1999 film Holy Smoke — you know, that other movie where Harvey Keitel gets naked and weeps.