Saturday, December 29, 2012

we, the undersigned

By now you know the rote, I missed more new music in 2012 than I actually heard, including some big obvious titles blah blah blah.  Same old excuses, and they remain as true as ever for me.  And this year I have an additional excuse, the lapsing of my participation in BLIP, where I used to count on cutting edge fellow blipsters to keep me cresting the wave of new music.

Even so I did manage to hear a lot of great new music over the year, thanks in no small part to many trusting musicians and a handful of record labels who kept my album review pile overflowing.  Some of those albums made it onto my Top 10 of 2012 list.  Which is as follows, thusly:

1.    John K Samson - Provincial
The debut solo album from the literary mastermind behind the Weakerthans, Provincial is filled with the sorts of musical gems that we have come to expect from John K Samson - poetic, thoughtful and highly infectious songs that marry intimate details with themes of greater historical or social significance.  The fact that Provincial has at its core the central theme of Manitoba highways makes this album essential listening for anyone from the keystone province.  Truth be told, this album should be in absolutely everybody's music library.  Better yet would be two copies, because the first is bound to get worn out from constant rotation.

2.    First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
The close vocal harmonies of the sisters Söderberg, and the way their achingly beautiful voices embrace such a folksy feel, send chills up my spine every time I hear this album.  It's hard enough to believe that a record of this quality could be made by a 22 and an 18 year old, never mind that this is their third recording.  The Lion's Roar was a strong contender for my album of the year, but in the final tally, the Winnipeg poet won out over the Swedish phenoms. But just barely.   

3.    Great Lake Swimmers - New Wild Everywhere
  I have yet to find a Great Lake Swimmers album that I don't like, thanks in large part to Tony Dekker's haunting voice - at once full and rich, but with a fragile ache that can make the angels weep.  New Wild Everywhere takes Great Lake Swimmers to new territory, with a bolder and more sweeping sound, thanks to the addition of violin and cello.  Still achingly lovely, but with more gusto.  

4.    Jack White - Blunderbuss
After years of resisting the genius (there I said it) of Jack White, I happily admit to being bowled over by Blunderbuss. It's an album that feels like the culmination of all his musical explorations to date.  Awesome shit.

  5.    Beach House - Bloom
Perfect dream pop, always lovely, always note perfect.  Beach House just keep getting better and better and Bloom is a must have in any music lover's collection.   

6.    The Avett Brothers - the Carpenter
Strong alt-country sensibility with solid rock chops, The Carpenter figures prominently on many best of lists, and with good reason.  I think it's the Avett Brothers' best effort to date.  
7.    Fort Atlantic - Fort Atlantic
I first heard Jon Black (aka Fort Atlantic) on a NoiseTrade sampler that included his stunning track Let Your Heart Hold Fast.  I had to hear more.  I ordered his self-titled album and was gobsmacked to discover that every song was equally as solid.  Soaring choruses, building crescendos, mixed with a little electronic experimentation, Fort Atlantic was a smorgasboard of everything I love in music.

8.   Josh Ritter - Bringing in the Darlings
I am cheating a bit by including this one, as it is an EP, but it's so lovely and it is tiding me over until Josh Ritter releases a full-length album in the new year.  And every song includes the word "darling".  Awww.

9.    The Sumner Brothers - I'll Be There Tomorrow
This album came to me out of the blue, offered to me by the Sumner Brothers of Vancouver prior to their recent tour.  Real-life brothers Bob and Brain Sumner tag team on lead vocals, Bob with a compellingly heartbreaking catch in his emotive voice, Brian with an authoritative baritone that hearkens back to the heyday of Johnny Cash. The Sumners serve up a beautifully soulful  brand of alt-country that you need to hear.

10.   Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky
They disbanded and then reunited, but these guys just don't quit.  I Bet on Sky sounds exactly the way it should, and that's good enough to give it placement in my favourites list. 
What were your favourite albums of the year?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

lockdown the freezeup

Our house phone died on Christmas Eve.  That's pretty much the only time all year that we get actual phone calls and even then we didn't even miss it all that much.  The suspicious part of me suspects that it was all a ploy by the Spousal Unit and the OFKAR for me to fulfill the obligations of one of my Christmas gifts - a Best Buy catalogue and an old flip phone from the junk drawer, which I am to trade in for a smart phone.  Apparently it is time for me to enter, kicking and screaming, the 21st century.  Just know that it is not my fault if I suddenly start posting photos of my lunch on Instagram.

I was thoroughly pleased with my gifts - a mounted original oil painting courtesy of the OFKAR, a desk calendar of archaic maps, a much needed reporterly notebook, a collection of stories from the Northwest Territories compiled by none other than our very own John Mutford, and socks, gloriously warm socks. These are especially appreciated during this extended cold snap.  

I also appreciated that the annual mystery parcel was elegantly understated this year - a handmade book in which each page contained the name of a leaping lord of the amphibian variety.  Because frogs are totally dope.

We've spent the past few days of our self-imposed Christmas lock-down eating far too much and burning it all off by playing board games.  For this year's annual Christmas board game I bought Cards Against Humanity, a delightfully subversive party game which a savvy friend introduced me to at Communiqu3 in Seattle.  I expect at least a few more days of board gaming before we finally emerge from hibernation.

This year, through some magical alignment of the stars, Get Your Own Damn Supper Day coincides with Pyjama Day for a happy collision of sloth and stretchy pants. Turkey smells even better the next day, straight out of the microwave.

How has your Christmas been?  I hope you are all enjoying some laid-back family time.  
Pass the Baileys.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

right here in my living room

I am in serious need of some pyjama days.  

The OFKAR made it home on Wednesday night.  Yes, the very same Wednesday that saw Vancouver all but closed down with snow and flooding and ice raining down on vehicles from the brand new Port Mann bridge.  That Wednesday.  I fretted all day.  First that she would make it to the airport unscathed, and then that the airport was going to remain open with no flight cancellations.  Because of course I never buy flight insurance.  

The ensuing three hour delay was a welcome tradeoff, especially since it gave me time to get some presents wrapped and under the tree before the Offspring walked in the door.  I came off looking like a Christmas ninja.

Since then the days have been rather hectic.  With each passing hour the traffic gets more congested and the stores more hectic.  A couple of days ago, the OFKAR and I made a trek to the library, which shares a parking lot with a major mall.  We parked far from the craziness and walked over to the library, which completely threw the traffic cop off his game.  It was insane enough that there was a cop directing mall traffic on December 20, but we then had to stop and tell him where we were heading so he could flail his arms in the right direction.  I don't even want to speculate on the craziness that would have ensued if the library had been located next to the really big mall in town.

Last night's snow made the roads nice and slick so all the last minute scramblers were forced to slow down.  That didn't stop me from seeing a half dozen pretty significant collisions when I headed across town this morning to give the OFKAR a lift home from the sleepover she had with her in-town peeps. This was followed by the season's major grocery shop.  Our normally sleepy little mall was an exercise in stupidity with cars tetrising themselves into every conceivable spot.  

We are now all safely ensconced in our toasty warm home, with ribs in the oven and the tree lights glistening off the presents piled beneath (including the one that the Slightly Retarded Kitty has already tried to unwrap). 

And this big glass of red wine at my elbow says I am not leaving the house in the foreseeable future.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

you can't get there from here

The spousal unit and I had matching looks of horror on our faces when he returned from his annual trip to the mall, while I sorted out the annual microwave repair call.  

Armed with a list that included model numbers, he arrived at the mall moments after it opened, figuring that an early Tuesday morning would be the least painful time to shop.  And it would have been, if the store he was looking for still existed as more than a just name on the you-are-here map at the mall info booth.  His attempts to buy my presents were equally stymied, since HMV now only stocks Ke$sha and Beiber.  Where do you buy CDs anymore? he asked in frustration. I tried to reassure him, you have to go to Seattle.  Sad, but true.

Meanwhile, my calls to book the annual microwave repair were a study in absurdist theatre.  It gets a little complicated, but essentially I knew from last year's annual repair that since the warranty expired a couple of months ago, I would need to go directly through an authorized repair centre.  But of course, there's a proviso - one of the parts (which was replaced last year) is still under warranty.  You would think this would be a good development, however ...

Repair Service: If it is the magnetron, you need to call Sears and get them to fax us a service order, because that's still under warranty. 

Sears:  Why are you phoning us? Your microwave isn't under warranty, so we are no longer responsible.  However, if it is the magnetron (which is still under warranty), then you would have had to call us and have a Sears repair person come out, in order for us to pay for the repair.  However there are no Sears repair people in your area, so we would call the same company that you did.  However since you called them instead of us, we can't pay for it, even if it is the magnetron.

Rather than cancel the service call that we waited a week for, in order to have Sears issue another one for which we will no doubt wait at least another week (last year we waited for a month), and for which we may not be covered under warranty anyway, I think we'll just suck it up and pay for it ourselves.  

The planned warranty invalidation is truly impressive.  It almost makes up for non-quality of over-the-range microwaves these days.

Monday, December 17, 2012

amp up and amplify

We have a winner, folks! 

Deb, who twenty years ago was raging to Pearl Jam and who still has Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams on cassette tape, has managed to get her name drawn out of the big black sorting hat.  Nicely done, Deb!  You are the recipient of XX, the 20th anniversary special edition reissue of Rage Against the Machine's debut album.

Well played, Deb.  Your prize will be winging its way to you shortly, soon to be filling your home with manifest rage, just in time for Christmas.

Thanks to everyone who entered. It was fun (and more than a little illuminating) to find out what you were bopping your heads to twenty years ago.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

$400 tummy ache

We're still not entirely sure what she ate, but I suspect that lessons have now been learned. The timing of the beginning of days of copious vomiting (tmi?) would point toward Christmas tree preservative, which I have certainly now learned to keep covered with a feline-impenetrable barrier.

A trip to the vet for an examination, X-rays, fluids and five days of anti-nausea medication was the Slightly Retarded Kitty's early Christmas present.  It was tough to see her go from a loud, sprightly, perpetually ravenous (and not afraid to tell you about it) kitty to a listless, anorexic, sad little thing.  My nights were spent sleeping only very lightly, waiting in dread for the sounds of middle of the night retching.  Being the obsessive documenter and recovering science nerd that I am, I even kept notes.  

If you've ever nursed a sick pet, you will appreciate the joy that I felt when she took her first tentative nibbles after days of not eating. 

Today we celebrated the SRK being off the anti-nausea meds and resuming her hearty appetite (complete with food flying all over the kitchen) and her general exuberance for life, by taking the cat grass down from its hiding place.  Vigorous chomping ensued, along with much burying of kitty noses deep into the greenery, followed by a major nap.  We appear to be back to regular programming.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

rep the stutter step

I've got an early Christmas present for you.  So wake-up, kiddos!  It's album giveaway time again.

You may recall from my recent review how gobsmacked I was by XX, the 20th anniversary reissue of Rage Against the Machine's seminal debut album. Normally I am a fairly vehement detractor of the whole reissue thing, but I will make an exception for this one.  XX is actually well worth it.  

The special edition I have to give away contains two CDs - a remaster of the self-titled debut Rage Against the Machine album and the original demos for same - and it also comes with a DVD of videos and live clips.  You may just want to give yourself this for Christmas.

All you have to do is tell me what you were listening to twenty years ago.  And if by chance you weren't around or you were listening to womb sounds at the time, just tell me what you wish you were listening to twenty years ago.  The winner will be chosen by random draw.

Let's have a quick turnaround time for this contest, shall we, to ensure that you get get this special edition under your tree before all the shortbread is consumed.  Contest will close Sunday, December 16 at 11:59pm MT.  Unfortunately the contest is only open to Canadian residents, although of course I would love to hear the musical reminiscences of my non-Canadian friends as well.

So come on!  Take the power back and get in on this!

Monday, December 10, 2012

man of the day

Happy Birthday to the Spousal Unit!  

Man of the moment, and, if you believe the fishing tales, man of the century.  But that's something we knew all along, isn't it?

Here's to many more years of knowing how to stand up in a boat!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

manifest Rage

XX  (20th Anniversary Edition)
- Rage Against the Machine

DAMN!  My mind's been blown.

Rage Against the Machine's incendiary debut album may have been released twenty years ago, but it is every bit as powerful today as it was in 1992. The scorching lyrics and explosive hip-hop funk metal with punk leanings are no less revolutionary now than they were when Rage Against the Machine first became the voice of leftist revolution in the American music scene.

The 20th anniversary reissue contains a two CD set - the remastered debut album plus a second disc containing the original demo - as well as a bonus DVD of videos and live clips.  I am not normally a fan of reissues, but for this I make an exception.  The sound on this remastered album is as fresh and startling and in-your-face as the day that this manifesto of sociopolitical outrage first ripped the world a new one.  Rage Against the Machine's explosive power and righteous social anger have mightily stood the test of the decades.  

The tight funky riffs, the aggressively spit-out rap vocals, and all that passion contained in that enraged scream still have the power to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  You really need to listen!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

tick tock

Tonight I work my last shift for the year at my non-writing job.  

The OFKAR arrives home in exactly two weeks.  

In exactly one week, it will be the last repetitive date (12/12/12) I will see in my lifetime.

Fortunately I am equally as fond of consecutive dates.  Looking forward to 11/12/13 and 12/13/14!

I've begun pondering my favourite albums of 2012.  At this point, it's a dead heat for that coveted #1 spot.  

Right now I am listening to Spark and having my mind blown by the concept of brontobytes (1237940039285380274899124224 bytes) and geobytes (1267650600228229401496703205376 bytes). 

Stay tuned for an upcoming album giveaway contest, coming soon to a blog near you.  This one right here, one of the few blogs still somewhat active, apparently.

Friday, November 30, 2012

the words of our mouths

Jack Goes Boating
Sage Theatre
Nov 28 - Dec 8/12

There is a point near the end of Sage Theatre's production of Jack Goes Boating, where I found myself gripped with fear, terrified of the savage violence that I was almost certain was imminent.  I have never before been quite so rattled with anticipation during a play.  The fact that the volatile situation happens off-stage speaks volumes about the power that this production wields in drawing the audience into the world of four damaged, but ultimately hopeful, characters.

Strangely, Jack Goes Boating is actually a comedy.  A romantic comedy, at that. Written by Bob Glaudini, Jack Goes Boating was first produced as a small, but critically acclaimed, New York play, which gained a wider audience and near-cult status when adapted for cinema under the direction of one of its actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  

Jack Goes Boating tells the story of four working class friends who struggle to find meaning in their relationships.  Clyde and Lucy are a long married couple, whose marriage is slowly unraveling.  Jack, Clyde's long-time friend, is a gentle, rather befuddled, ungainly giant with an unnatural fondness for Boney M. Connie, Lucy's new coworker, is an emotionally fragile woman, who talks incessantly when she is nervous.  Clearly she is often nervous.  The awkward couple are set up on a date by their friends, after which they embark on a slow and cautious dance of letting go of fear and inviting trust, while their married friends let go of trust and invite fear.  

The play begins as a series of vignettes - brief flashes of action - which gradually coalesce into increasingly extracted and  meaningful exchanges.  Along the way, Jack, Connie, Clyde and Lucy emerge as delicately nuanced personalities, who ache and bleed and love and betray.

The Sage Theatre production (which is co-produced with Edmonton's Shadow Theatre) uses a sparse stage setting of nine cubes which are tetrised between scenes to transform the stage from a living room to an office to a hospital room to a swimming pool.  The swimming pool, the metaphorical epicentre of the play, functions as a both a physical setting and an emotional one.  It is both the setting of actual swimming lessons, doled out with delightfully militaristic barking, and an internal monologue, delivered with desperate intensity.

Jack Goes Boating may be a romantic comedy, but the lovers are not the sort who resolve their problems to live happily ever after in 90 minutes.  They are flawed and capable of great cruelty, while being simultaneously gentle and painfully hopeful. The two couples you will meet in Sage Theatre's production will remain in your consciousness for a long time.  Almost as long as this song will.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

bring on the sparkly horses

It begins.  The giant fridge calendar is already beginning to groan under the weight of commitments, not all of them strictly social.  But then, I guess they never really are.

Tomorrow I have two events to cover.  The first is an urban planning and design speaker series, followed almost immediately by the sequel to last year's spectacular downtown shopping extravaganza.  I won't have time between the two events to procure sustenance, so I am hoping that The Core puts on the same glorious noshery that they did last year.  My heart lies with the urban planning session, but my stomach is definitely cheering for the shopping thing.

Naturally, the weather is expected to turn nasty during the day tomorrow, so I will certainly not be one of the chic shoppers who you will see swanning about in sparkly cocktail frocks and strappy little heels.  I'll be the one in jeans and Sorels, wiping my nose on my sleeve before elbowing that guy out of the way to get the last shrimp canape.  

How many seasonal command performances are you attending? 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

well-heeled boys

Tap9 - Tap9

I'm well used to people I know releasing albums, but I live in a city of 1.2 million, so it's the sort of thing that you expect to happen here.

It's a bit different when a friend, who lives in Lacombe, Alberta (pop 11,707), records an album with his Central Alberta-based band in a studio in Mameo Beach (pop 113) and holds the release party in Blackfalds (pop 6,767).  Suddenly it becomes a pretty big deal. Perhaps it was just my innate big city snobbery showing, but I was surprised by what I heard.

The self-titled debut album by Tap9 is comprised of thirteen original songs performed in a style that the band describes as modern day classic rock.  Those are words that would strike fear into the heart of many a hipster music critic, but fortunately the men of Tap9 are a pretty classy bunch.  Not a single wife-beater shirt or headband in sight.  And I suspect the Peter Frampton hair made an exit decades ago.

Instead, what you get with Tap9 is five accomplished musicians playing well-produced original music.  With songs that vary from guitar and drum-driven upbeat numbers to sultry saxophone-touched harmony-soaked crooners, this is an album that showcases the versatility of this small town band with the big city sound.

Check them out -

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

revered and the right

If the Mayans were right, we've got exactly one month.  Almost time to stop checking best before dates on milk cartons.  

Assuming you won't be riding shotgun as John Cusack drives through earthquakes and collapsing buildings, what do you hope to be doing when the world ends in a few weeks?  Kenna Burima is doing something cool.  She landed a gigyyc grant to put on a one day music festival on December 21, 2012 - the End Of The World Music Festival.  It's going to be magnifique.

Kenna filled me in on her plans, which I wrote about for my latest BC Musician Magazine article.  Feel free to have a read.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

every day is a reminder of the day that never came

The fruitcakes went into the oven at 4:20.  Somehow that feels significant, and perhaps foretelling.

So begins the Christmas prep season, November being the thin edge of the holiday wedge.  I feel a little badly for November.  Surely I am not the only one who feels that it gets short shrift in the calendar hierarchy?

The OFKAR will be coming home in just over a month and by then I plan to have most of my work responsibilities finished off.  The flurry of Christmas recitals at National Music Centre should be wrapped up by that point, and the events that I cover for East Village at this time of year all seem to centre around shopping and Christmas markets, so hopefully those too will be wrapped up with a bow put on them.  I'm already scheming my board game strategy for the holidays.

See?  I'm just as guilty of being unmindful of November's charms as everybody else.  I did, however, write about the New Pornographers for my November edition of Canadian Bands You Should Know, which I now write for the National Music Centre blog.  So there's that, I guess.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

I'm Leaving You For Me 
- Buffy Lawson

Buffy Lawson is gifted with the powerful voice and the right degree of twang that's needed to make it in mainstream contemporary country music.  No stranger to Nashville, she made her mark through the years with stints varying from back-up singer to staff writer to part of the country duo Bomshel.  As a songwriter, she has penned songs for such heavy hitters as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.  On I'm Leaving You For Me, Lawson draws upon life lessons to produce an album of intensely personal songs, songs of heartache and hope, remorse and regret.

Despite the fact that I am not generally a fan of contemporary mainstream country, I was taken with the power of Lawson's pipes and the open honesty of her songs. The bluesy Bread on the Table, with its sassy do-right-woman attitude, backed by a swinging horn section, is a standout track on the album, as is the darkly seductive Runnin'.  The confessional Much of a Lady, with its crying steel guitar, is deliciously reminiscent of honky-tonk angels of the golden age of country.  Personally, I would love to hear that track sped up just a bit and given the full honky-tonk treatment.

Buffy Lawson's I'm Leaving You For Me will hit all the right notes for fans of mainstream country music, and it has just enough diversity to satisfy those of us who long for the old days of country blues and opry.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

reissue repackage repackage

See that?  I even got paid cash money for that photo.

Needless to say, I'm glad I replaced my battered old camera last year.  I'm still wielding a point-and-shoot these days, but it's a lot easier to take a decent photo when you don't have to squeeze the duct-taped battery door closed every time you try to snap a picture. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

how many lords aleaping?

It's arrived early this year.  Like everything else in the world, the annual mystery parcel appears to have fallen victim to Christmas creep.  Mind you, this year the anonymous twelve days of Christmas mail-out was postmarked in New Zealand, so evidently the gift-giver was determined that it arrive well before those six white boomers race Santa under the blazing sun, which was prudent.  We'll wait until the OFKAR is home for Christmas before opening it, of course, but I expect that we will find ten something-or-others.  Drummers?  Lords?  I can never remember.  
It seems timely at this point to indulge my inner list-maker (and thus refresh my increasingly foggy memory) by putting together a chronology of those mysterious Christmas parcels thus far.  You have been warned.
-  (2011) nein injured dancers
-  (2011) the arrival of nein
-  (2010) eight milk maids and one unibomber
-  (2009) the swan has escaped from the castle
-  (2008) alaying those six geese
-  (2007) those five golden rings only get a #7 mention on the list
-  (2006) four calling birds from Philadelphia photographed on a mantel 

I'll bet that now you are as thankful as I am that there are only twelve days of Christmas, aren't you?

Friday, November 09, 2012

snow on sun on window

 Same window, different day.  

I hate to say I told you so, but I am very glad that I took a few days earlier this week, during a bit of downtime from deadlines, to take the garage-full of empties to the bottle depot, replace the stolen windshield wiper, stock up on groceries, and get flu-shotted.  Essentially all the outdoor stuff was looked after before the heavy snowfall warnings, that we had been been told to expect, took effect.  Heck I even threw the Lawnmower Kids' soccer ball back over the fence.

After two weeks of damp and gloom and lingering snow, it was grand to have a few days of sunshine and dry sidewalks earlier this week.  I was so enamoured of the stripes of sunlight that poured in through the kitchen window one afternoon that I shot a whole roll of film (if I used film, that is) trying to capture the warm nostalgia escaping those ceramic tiles.  Afternoon sun through a kitchen window.

It's been quite a different story the past couple of days.  The Spousal Unit made it home from his business trip yesterday before the highways got really bad, and worked from the home office today.  I was registered for a short course downtown this morning, and got up extra early to monitor the road conditions.  Despite the fact that I probably could have made it unscathed, I am glad that I made the call to stay home.  And I am glad I made that decision early.  A quick no is always better than a long maybe.  

And tomorrow the temperature will drop.  -19C in the afternoon, they say.  Damn it feels good to be a gangsta freelancer.

Monday, November 05, 2012

future obsolesence

Who remembers PalmPilots?  It was only a few years ago that I would attend meetings at which all the neurologists pecked away at their tiny PalmPilot keyboards with a little stylus.  It looked cumbersome and far more trouble than it was worth.  My boss, in the meantime, kept a tiny daily calendar in his breast pocket in which he wrote all his appointments in pencil.  It was simple and sensible, and I have since adopted the practice of keeping in my purse the smallest daily calendar that I can find.  You don't see PalmPilots around anymore.
What about pagers?  Not long ago, everyone who was anyone had a pager dangling from their belt.  At these same meetings where neurologists painstakingly entered appointments on PalmPilots, the entire staff of white-coaters also carried pagers.  At least once per meeting, a mass page would be sent out with the resulting cacophony of beeps causing a mass exodus of white-coats from the meeting room.  You may still see pagers in hospitals, I'm not sure, but really the only other place you will see them anymore is at restaurants, where they hand one to you along with the assurance that your table will be ready in twenty minutes.

For your consideration:  tablet computers are the new PalmPilot/pager.  I don't really see the point in ipads and their ilk, but then again, I don't carry a cell either, so maybe it's just me.

Do you use a tablet? Why or why not?

Saturday, November 03, 2012

ambivalent about Frank

Loving Frank - Nancy Horan

I have long been enamoured of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs, but knew nothing about his personal life.  I knew that he had lived many years in Chicago, where he left behind a plethora of fabulous buildings that I hope to see at next year's Communique, but that's the extent of my knowledge.  So when I spotted a hardcover edition of Loving Frank at a book sale this spring, I grabbed it.

I was somewhat troubled by the fact that Loving Frank is a historical novel, as that is definitely not my first choice in reading material.  I had even more reservations about the scope of the novel - the long-time affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.  Since I have been known to run screaming from the mere sight of a romantic novel, it took some convincing for me to finally crack the cover.

Ultimately I am glad that I did.  That's not to say that I didn't have any issues with this book, because I did.  But I did learn a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright (he was sort of a dick) and about the proto-feminist with whom he defied societal conventions. 

Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright, both married with children, fell into a lengthy affair after Wright was hired to build a new house for the Cheney family in Oak Park, Illinois.  Mamah, an early feminist who gave up an established career to marry Edwin Cheney, found an intellectual equal in Frank.  Eventually they both abandoned their families to live together, travelling the world before finally settling down at Taliesin, the house that Frank built for them in Wisconsin.  Mamah eventually obtained a divorce, despite Edwin's initial objections, but Frank, whose wife refused to acknowledge the affair, remained married.

Their lifestyle was considered scandalous by early twentieth century standards and they were vilified by the press. I had a hard time believing just how much time and effort the press put into following every move the couple made, until I thought about the lengths undertaken by modern day paparazzi.

Loving Frank is somewhat unwieldy and the narrative tends to ramble at times.  Both Mamah and Frank come across as being somewhat self-centered in their determination to live their lives in the manner they have chosen.  Mamah, at least, has the decency to feel guilt at the loss of her relationship with her children; Frank just runs up enormous debts.

Mamah Borthwick Cheney is, for the most part, portrayed sympathetically.   Partway into the book, I searched out her life story and was shocked by what I discovered.  Surprisingly, this knowledge did not lessen the impact that the final part of the book had upon me.  That remained very powerful.  Getting there, though, was a mixed journey.

I would recommend Loving Frank for anyone who is interested in the life of America's most famous architect.  But be prepared to slog through a lot of rambling narrative.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

meatloaf and mashed potato caves

I was back at the BMO Centre at the Stampede Grounds yesterday, following up last week's Vital City Report with yesterday's Centre City Congress.  We city lovers are the new bronc riders, apparently.

It was a different crowd at Centre City, though.  Where the Vital City Report was populated with NGOs and educators, Centre City Congress was filled with dignitaries and captains of industry.  I wound up sharing a table with three Aldermen and the GM of Transportation for the city.  They were quite gracious, despite my obliviousness to most of the in-jokes. I really must brush up on my municipal witticisms.

The Spousal Unit and I met downtown for an early supper.  Seriously early - senior supper early.  We tried a new Vietnamese restaurant in Arts Central.  The coconut shrimp appetizer was lovely - fat, juicy shrimp in a crispy coconut batter with a zesty dipping sauce.  The mains were a bit mixed.  My noodle bowl was a bit bland with the wrong meat, but the SU's salmon was perfect, although they seem to have forgotten the coconut part of the coconut rice.  It was a beautiful room, with dark gleaming woods and orchids and a stainless steel ceiling, and we will likely return.  Probably just for appetizers, though.

After dinner, the Spousal Unit headed home to dole out belly rubs to the SRK, while I headed to work to facilitate Blues Mondays at the NMC.  Sometime during the evening, the fog that had been flirting with the tops of the downtown towers swooped down to ground level and socked everything in its clammy grip.  Imagine my delight, when I finally climbed into the Urban Assault Vehicle near midnight, to discover that some sonofabitch had stolen my windshield wiper.  While I was parked in a well-lit lot that cost me a king's ransom. Next time I'm parking in a back alley beside a dumpster and take my chances.

I'm avoiding driving during the snow for the next couple of days, until I can find time to buy a new wiper blade, which, of course, I will not be able to install myself, since it's no longer possible to fix anything on a vehicle with only a screwdriver.  It almost makes me miss old Russell, whom I used to start by propping open the carburator with a nail file while I revved the engine. I felt like such a G in those days.  Now I will have to go bat my eyelashes at the service station guy just to put on a new wiper blade.  How far we have fallen.

What skills have you lost to technology?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

tuned to the right key

First Spring Grass Fire 
- Rae Spoon

I'm always curious to read books written by musicians.  There's a tendency to believe that reading something penned by someone who makes music that I admire will give me deeper insight into the music itself.  Or at least into the person who made the music.

I've long been a fan of Rae Spoon.  The former Calgarian with the haunting voice continually makes some of my favourite music, be it acoustic cow punk twang or the more recent turn to electronica.  In the few personal encounters I have had with Rae at shows and festivals, I have always been struck by a sense of  enormous presence within a diminutive person, tempered with a slightly awkward shyness and an easy-going, keen sense of humour.

Naturally I was very curious to read Rae Spoon's first book, First Spring Grass Fire.  The slim volume of interconnected stories is a work of fiction, but the tales of growing up queer in a strict Pentacostal family undoubtedly has a lot of overlap with the author's own life story.  The oldest child in a troubled family, the narrator (also called Rae) tells, in a series of brief non-linear chapters, about incidents that shaped their upbringing - the religious fervour, the siblings born and lost, the increasingly combative struggles with a schizophrenic father, the increasingly certain recognition that they were born the wrong gender.

First Spring Grass Fire is written in refreshingly simple language.  There is real power behind those straightforward words, and often I was forced to pause at the end of a sentence, just to let the impact of what was divulged really sink it.  A natural storyteller, Rae Spoon has a way of getting under your skin with just a few simple words.  

There is a lot of humour in First Spring Grass Fire.  As a city not traditionally known for being an easy place to grow up queer, Calgary definitely takes a few well-placed shots.  But much of the humour is self-deprecating as well.  Teenaged angst, after all, is pretty ridiculous when you look back at it from the safety of years passed, even when that angst is muddled with the complexities of gender confusion.  Rae Spoon recognises this, and that is one of the many things that makes First Spring Grass Fire an immensely readable, funny, and moving book.

You should read it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

singing the 21st century blues

The Great Recession 
- William Pilgrim 
& The All Grows Up

The debut album from William Pilgrim & The All Grows Up is a testament to the power of music and to the resiliency of the human spirit.  The Great Recession blends blues, roots, and a touch of gospel with a wide-open rock beat and a finger-snapping swing. Frontman Ish Herring has a bluesy voice that sounds much older, more worldly than his less than 30 years.  And there's a good reason for that.

The genesis of William Pilgrim & The All Grows Up is a story that is at least as compelling as the music itself.  You just know that any band that names itself after a Kurt Vonnegut character has got to have something interesting to say.  

William Pilgrim & The All Grows Up was born in Los Angeles when singer-songwriter/producer PM Romero answered an ad for musical collaboration from a homeless musician, Ish Herring.  As the child of a drug-addicted mother and a broken home, Herring had been shuffled around from foster home to foster home until finally finding himself living on the streets of New Orleans and then LA.  Having always found comfort and meaning in music, and having taught himself guitar, piano and drums, he placed an ad offering vocal services for hire.  That ad led to the collaboration with PM Romero, from which the band was born.

The Great Recession addresses questions that stem from Herring's life, questions of social alienation, disenfranchisement, and free will.  But there's hope in the big swinging vibe, and in the gloriously hopeful touches like the hand-clapping gospel choir that takes things home on songs like Farewell and Beautiful.  This is an impressive debut album, filled with songs that have you bopping your head and singing along, while reaching for your battered old copy of Slaughterhouse Five.