unsung and underrated

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.”

Rebuilding a mystery.

Another period of blog neglect. Another lonely tear shed by a forgotten Tonka truck resting at the bottom of a toy chest.

At least I have a good excuse this time: I’ve been busy recording music. While my own album has remained the focus, there’s been the odd pleasant detour. On Thursday Ron’s friend Alison swung by to add some violin to one of his songs.

I like how this video still makes it look like a very inept special effects department took a shot at making Ron look like Evil Microphone Hybrid Man and failed with flying colours.

Before we got together, Ron asked if I had any ideas for songs we might have Alison play on. I picked the song that felt like the last one you’d expect violin to show up in, because these are the things I do.

I’m not sure Alison even heard the song before she played on it, but she gave us some great stuff. The last two takes in particular are full of perfect little countermelodies that add something special to the fabric of the song. Choosing a take or coming up with a composite that grabs the best moments from both is going to be a little tricky. But when you’re working with good material to begin with, you really can’t go wrong.

A few nights before all this, I was watching a bunch of “Steamed Hams” remix videos on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with them, these involve a memorable scene from “22 Short Films About Springfield” — an episode of The Simpsons from a time when the show was still operating at the height of its powers — being warped and/or re-contextualized in a number of ways. Some of the things people have come up with are pretty great.

A few of my favourite variations on the theme:

At some point, this popped up on the sidebar:

…which led me to this:

And that was it for me and “Steamed Hams”.

I don’t know how many times I watched those last two videos that night, but it was a lot. I also don’t know how you make Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther seem like the saddest cartoons in the world. Whoever edited these videos found some untapped melancholy I never knew was there, and they bit down on it hard until they drew blood. As much as I appreciated that element of it, it was the voice I kept coming back to. It was as beautiful as it was unusual.

That voice belongs to someone known only as Shiloh Dynasty. No one knows anything for sure about Shiloh’s gender, location, or age — or if they do, they’re not talking. Even the most cursory biographical details are impossible to come by. The only person to go on record saying they’ve had any contact with Shiloh used the pronoun “she”, so that’s what I’ll stick with until I’m told otherwise.

As far as I can work out, Shiloh posted a slew of videos on Vine and Instagram in 2014 and 2015, doing little to call attention to herself. Most of these were live acoustic guitar/vocal performances. A few were apparent vocal ad-libs over instrumental beats found on the internet. You can find a video on YouTube that features every known surviving Shiloh song fragment stitched together. It makes for hypnotic listening, and inspires more than a few thoughts of, “How on earth do you come up with vocal melodies like this?”

“Fragment” is the key word here. There are no full songs. Most performances are somewhere between six and twenty seconds long. It almost feels like this was done intentionally — to encourage producers to loop and cut up these mini-songs and stretch them out (something a whole host of people did, sharing the results on SoundCloud). It’s possible she was just getting down ideas using the camera in her phone. Whatever the case, there’s more heart, soul, and melodic invention in many of these gesture drawings than there are in most people’s full-length songs.

As Shiloh’s following grew, it seems she was uncomfortable with the rising interest in her music and chose to step back. People were left to speculate. Some minds drifted to dark places, starting rumours that she’d committed suicide.

Last summer, rapper XXXTentation released his debut album, 17. Three of its songs featured Shiloh, albeit in sampled form. Potsu, who produced those songs, had to get in touch with Shiloh at some point to clear those samples. According to people who claim to have spoken to Potsu, he’s said she’s alive and well. She just isn’t interested in having any kind of spotlight shining in her direction.

How someone could manage to remain an absolute mystery in spite of being a featured performer on an album that hit #2 on the Billboard charts and got a ton of publicity…it’s not easy to wrap your head around. But that’s Shiloh: a friendly ghost in the age of information overload. It’s kind of refreshing to know such a thing can still exist.

Try as I might, I can’t listen to her as a hook placed between someone else’s rapped verses. It feels like a perversion. An intrusion. Her voice needs to stand alone. Like this.

What Potsu did here, for the most part, was just make a beat to play off of Shiloh’s song fragment and then punch up the sound of her original lo-fi phone recording with some well-chosen reverb, compression, and EQ. It’s all about supporting what’s already there. As it should be. Sometimes less really is more.

As usual, I’m late to the party here. I didn’t find out about Shiloh until long after she retreated into the shadows. But listening to her and discovering just how little there was to be discovered about her got me thinking about the odd, two-faced relationship I have with mystery as a general thing.

Unsolved crimes and unexplained disappearances have always intrigued me, as morbid as that might sound. There’s often the feeling that if you could uncover just one crucial piece of information, the whole thing would snap into place and everything would be explained, but nothing ever quite adds up. For every rare case like Lori Ruff — whose real identity was finally revealed without offering much in the way of closure — there are insoluble enigmas like the bizarre case of Tamam Shud and the disappearances of Jean Spangler, Louis Le Prince, Ray Gricar, the Sodder children, and the entire crew of the MV Joyita.

I love reading about this stuff and playing armchair detective. At the same time, there’s a part of me that would almost be disappointed if some of these strange cases were ever solved. When the answer to an unanswerable question feels too mundane to do it justice, you can find yourself thinking it was all a lot more compelling when you didn’t know what to think.

This applies to music as well. I enjoy learning about the artists whose work speaks to me, but I’ve always had an attraction to those who are more obscure. The ones who seem somewhat unknowable. Here again the urge to know everything fights against the excitement of not knowing.

Syd Barrett is a good example.

I remember being twelve or thirteen years old, reading all the available information about Syd, and thinking he was the most interesting person I’d ever heard of. Here was a guy who, even as he was losing his grip on reality and was about to be kicked out of the band he was responsible for creating, still had enough of his wits about him to play a brilliant little practical joke on the rest of Pink Floyd.

One day he brought in a new song to show the band. It was called “Have You Got It Yet?” Syd tried teaching it to Roger Waters, but Roger was having a hell of a time trying to work it out.

After a few run-throughs he figured out what the problem was. Every time he played the song, Syd would change it just enough to make whatever memory remained of the previous version useless. He did it over and over again, always altering the music in some subtle but fundamental way. The one part that stayed the same each time was a call-and-response chorus that had Syd singing, “Have you got it yet?” and the rest of the band shouting, “No, no, no!”

No one else was ever going to be able to get it. Syd made sure of that.

I devoured stories like this one, along with details about unreleased songs like “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” — songs I thought would be forever inaccessible to me. Then I got a little older, the internet grew some serious legs, and I got to hear those songs. As much as I enjoyed them, on some level I missed having to imagine for myself what they sounded like, creating half-formed songs for my brain to sing to itself in the absence of the real thing.

Maybe more than a “losing the mystery” thing it was a “losing some of the wide-eyed wonder of youth” thing, and Syd got mixed up in it. I’m not sure. But today you can even hear the mythical unreleased solo session Syd cut in 1974 without having to look very hard. It isn’t the “abortion” some witnesses described it as at the time. It sounds like Syd was having a bit of aimless fun jamming on a few rough guitar ideas, overdubbing his own bass tracks and the odd additional guitar part.

It’s nice to be able to hear it, if only to refute the claims of those who’d have you believe Syd was an acid-fried vegetable incapable of stringing anything coherent together on the guitar by the mid-1970s. There are moments that make you wonder what he might have been able to do if he kept showing up at the studio often enough to refine the sketches and record some vocal tracks. It wasn’t to be. After wandering for a while, the music retreats into itself before fading away, much like Syd was about to do himself.

The last time I got wrapped up in a good musical mystery was when an album called L’Amour hit the streets in 2014. It wasn’t a new album. It had been recorded all the way back in 1983, written and performed by a man named Randall Wulff who called himself Lewis.

Jack Fleischer’s liner notes for the Light in the Attic reissue are a compelling read. He was able to untangle some of Lewis’s story, but every bit of information he managed to unearth only raised more questions. What kind of person worked as a stockbroker in Calgary in the ’80s, lived in an apartment with all-white furniture, left town after writing a bad cheque to a photographer, and made music that sounded like…this? And why would he then go to such great lengths to fall off the face of the earth?

When L’Amour first gained a wider audience after existing for decades as an obscure self-funded private press LP, some listeners made comparisons to Arthur Russell. I can sort of hear it, maybe, a little, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two artists. Arthur sang softly to pull you closer. Lewis sounds more like he’s trying to keep his heart hidden at the same time he’s holding it out for you to see. Most of his lyrics are impossible to decipher. The harder you squint to try and see him, the less sure you are that he’s there at all.

L’Amour is an album out of time. It doesn’t sound much like anything else that was recorded in the 1980s, or in any other decade. You’ve got Lewis playing piano and acoustic guitar and mumbling his lyrics in his strange whisper-croon, and then you’ve got someone named Philip Lees (a mystery himself, and maybe a pseudonym invented to make it look like more than a one-man operation) playing a synthesizer that sounds like it has a malfunctioning pitch wheel. It’s as if one of the background characters in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street stumbled into a recording studio after a little too much cocaine and the microphones captured his dark night of the soul.

“Cool Night in Paris” was the first song I heard. I was transfixed. The bluesy acoustic guitar, the soft, warped synth sound, and that quivering voice created a sound that was a little unsettling, and impossible to forget.

Now that his album wasn’t just haunting the odd thrift shop anymore, people wanted to know more about this dude who made a point of dedicating one of his songs to model Christie Brinkley for no apparent reason. A second Lewis album — Romantic Times — was discovered and reissued in short order. If it didn’t have quite the same gravity as L’Amour, it had some gorgeous songs and richer soundscapes to recommend it. It wasn’t a simple retread. This time there was wailing saxophone! And a drum machine! And analog synths straight out of the Vangelis Blade Runner playbook.

For a while, the best source of Lewis-related intel was an epic thread on the hipinion message board. I tried to join so I could be a part of the fun, but it turns out you can’t just register and get an account there the way you can at any normal message board. You have to try and get the attention of an existing member who has some amount of clout, assuming you can find a way to contact them outside of the site. After that, maybe they’ll put in a good word for you and you’ll be allowed into the club, if you’re lucky. If not, your account will be “pending approval” forever.

That’s some pretty goofy shit right there. And if you know me, you probably know how I feel about “clubs” and “scene cred” and all that stuff. So you’ll be stunned to learn my account was never approved and is lying dormant somewhere inside the vast anus of cyberspace.

Still, there was some good discussion over there. A few posters even dug up some interesting nuggets. They were able to verify that Lewis used Randy Duke as another alias, recording some music in the late 1980s and early 1990s that got a belated release during the height of Lewismania. Most of it is pretty horrible, with some ham-fisted overdubs that do nothing to serve the music. The alien quality that gave the first two albums much of their power is gone. But that voice is still there, if a little older, harsher, and less concerned with melody.

Light in the Attic, acting on a tip they received from someone who knew Lewis, managed to track him down at one of his favourite coffee chops. He refused to reveal anything of substance about his past, turned down a royalty cheque, and seemed amused and a little surprised by the mystique his music had generated thirty years after it was made. He said he was still making music but had no desire to make any money off of it and no interest in discussing his earlier work.

Of course, he was wearing all white.

As a lover of mystery, you couldn’t hope for a much better ending to the Lewis story. Though there’s some amount of resolution, things are still left open-ended. And yet I can’t help wishing they never found the guy at all. Somehow it would be a better story if he remained an unseen subject of conjecture.

Shiloh knows where it’s at. When you have nothing else to go on, you’re forced to generate everything you think you know about an artist from their art alone. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.

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.

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.

Da Doo Ron Ron.

Ron was here earlier today to lay down a few things. It’s always a treat to hear that fella in my headphones.

The last time Ron came over to record, he played the Takamine guitar he’s had forever on all but one of the songs we recorded. I think it’s an EF341SC? I’m not positive, but that’s what it looks like.

I’m pretty sure that was the first time it was ever brought into the studio. It’s always been more of a gigging and songwriting guitar. The thing is a beast. When I caught Ron playing with Kelly Hoppe at Taloola, I was convinced he was hiding a small amp somewhere. No way could a dreadnought — with a cutaway, even — put out that kind of volume without a little help.

I was wrong. There was no amp. Just an axe with a lot of love to give.

With a few mics in front of it, the Takamine almost seems to morph into a different guitar. There’s some nice natural compression happening when Ron digs in a bit. It’s bright, but not in a bad way. It’ll retain a nice amount of punch no matter how dense a mix might get. That’s a valuable quality for a guitar to have.

This time Ron played my old Gibson LG-2. He’s got such a distinctive way of playing guitar, he’s going to sound like himself no matter what, but it’s interesting to hear the different personalities of the two instruments. I think they play well together, even if they haven’t found themselves both being played in the same song.

We’ve got seven and-a-half songs in the can now. Two and-a-half more and I can get to work on figuring out what shirts and shoes they want to wear. I’m looking forward to it. This album is going to have a pretty different feel to it from Tobacco Fields, but the songs are great, and Ron’s great. So if I don’t screw it up, the end result should be…triple-great.

Here are a few pictures I took.

Radio killed the video star.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Well-Thought-Out Escape

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

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

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

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

Standing strong against the odds.

tobacco-fields

Musical compliments don’t come much better than Ron Leary asking you to be a part of one of his albums.

Ron’s new album Tobacco Fields doesn’t get its official release until the end of the month, but those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign have been getting their copies a few weeks early. I just got mine yesterday. There are lots of talented people on this one — my old Folkway friend Rich Burnett on lap steel, John Showman on violin, and our man Kelly Hoppe on harmonica and sax, to name a few. Andy Magoffin recorded it at the House of Miracles. As for me, I played piano on “Tattooed Lady” and wrote the string part for “To Living”.

For the first time ever, I actually got credit for the use of my own acoustic piano in my own recording space. Yes! Vindication! And you can add “writing a string part for someone else’s song and having the dude from new country rehab play it beautifully” to the list of things I never in a million years thought would happen. Seeing “string arrangement by Johnny West” in the lyric booklet is the most surreal album liner note credit of my life.

As someone who still can’t read music at all, to be asked to write that string part, to be able to come up with a two-part arrangement that feels like it really adds something to the song, to find a way to write it down on paper, and then to hear it played note-for-note by a master musician, with the final violin notes standing as the last sound on the album, singing the song and its siblings to sleep…that’s nuts.

I’ve been writing string and horn parts for my own songs for a year or two now and loving it, but something about being commissioned to do it for someone else feels different. Kind of makes it feel like maybe I know what I’m doing with that stuff, sometimes, somehow.

Huge thanks to Ron for involving me. It’s a great album, and one I’m proud to have had the chance to contribute to. I don’t think Ron’s got a bad album or even a bad song in him, but this one feels like it’s got some real joy coursing through its veins — the “defiant spit in the eye of despair” kind. When he sings, “Through music, I come alive,” in the very first song, you believe it.

Here’s the lead single.

Romantic machinery.

wooden-stars-1

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.

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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.

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“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.

The boy and the tree.

Yesterday I thought I’d punch Susumu Yokota’s name into frugal Google to see if there were any new albums I didn’t know about. I found out he died last March. It came as a bit of a shock. I had no idea he wasn’t long for this world.

This guy was one of my favourite living electronic artists. He was always a shadowy presence. Information about his life was tough to unearth. Even now, I’m not sure you can find out what the actual cause of death was beyond “a long battle with illness”. He was only 54.

I do know a bit about the music. If you’re into ambient music and IDM (is that still a thing?), the albums Sakura, Grinning Cat, and Laputa get my highest recommendations. The last of these might be one of the least accessible and most difficult entries to find in a vast discography that touched on many different sounds and aliases, and it isn’t drenched in the same pure beauty something like Sakura is (deservedly held up as a high watermark in his catalogue), but I think it’s some of his best and most compelling work.

While his taste in samples was always fantastic (check out what he does to Joni Mitchell, Harold Budd, and Gary Burton/Chick Corea on Sakura), on Laputa it becomes much more difficult to trace most of his sources. It sounds more like he’s drawing from — and creating — a whole new sonic world. It’s an album you can get lost in. You hear new things each time you listen. It took me years to pick up on a few recurring organic sounds sharing space with all the sounds not so easy to describe — bits of great bluesy Hammond organ and clean electric guitar.

“Laputa” is an imagined place from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a flying rock of an island “where impractical projects [are] pursued and practical projects neglected”. I doubt that association was an accident.

Some of the sound collage ideas he comes up with here don’t make much sense on paper. And yet they work, and in some strange way they get your head.

Take this track. It’s a dense sculpture of a song, shards of melody flitting in and out, most of them coming from string swells and reverb-soaked saxophone runs. The closest thing to percussion, and the sound that pulls everything together so you can hear how all the interlocking parts make sense, is a sampled female voice repeating what sounds like, “The prime minister,” fragmented just past the point of intelligibility by the tremolo circuit of a guitar amplifier.

The song at the top of this post is from Sakura. It’s a great example of the knack Yokota had for creating wordless, often beat-less music full of feeling. These are not ten-minute workouts that lull you into a state of near-hypnosis. They’re vivid little sound dreams that poke you in the heart and then fade away, leaving you equal parts frustrated that they’re gone so soon and grateful you got to experience them at all.