Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Trying To Tell Me Something

The universe is trying to tell me something.

It's been hectic around here.

First there is the general underlay of family life. Little Man, Darling Daughter, and all of their demands, both the delightful and drudgeful.

Then the flow of work. Eminently swimmable, but nevertheless requiring a constant stroke.

Then mother. I'm off this evening again to New York for five days to help her out. And though I'm trying to stay calm, I'm tight and tense about what barbs might be flung my way.

Then Dearest Wife, with whom, thanks to the aforementioned underlay and her own workflow, it has been ages since I've had a proper talk. I mean, a real howyadoin', howmidoin', heart-to-heart, ebb-and-floww conversation.

Then my tendency to squeeze out sleep to squeeze in the fun stuff, such as preparing Contrast Podcast episodes for this week and (as I'll be away) next week.

Then this morning. Scrambling to leave the house. A testy quip from Dearest Wife about priorities, formed of words that I imagined (unfairly? fairly?) might have flowed from Mother's mouth. A quip that prompted a surge of anger that I suppressed. It festered quickly.

Into the car. A totally ill-judged left turn on my part (I thought she was stopping), one that take away the stress and the anger I would never have made. A collision - thankfully no-one hurt, apart from my detached front bumper, the front of my unfortunate crash-mate's CRV, her nerves, my ego. Details exchanged, cars drive away, insurance company informed, premium rises.

Yes, the universe is trying to tell me something.

Slow down. Anger is not an energy (apologies to Mr John Lydon). It is a destructive emotion. Refocus. On yourself. On those around you. Show them all --yes, yourself too-- compassion. Sort it out.

Yes, Universe, I'm listening. And trying to learn.

See you all sometime next week, Dearest Friends.

Buzzcocks - Wake Up Call (buy here or e-here)
The Equators - Learn My Lesson (buy e-here)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Questions, Questions...

Good advice courtesy of dullhunk

What? Is it that time of the week already? Goodness, what was I thinking? Where's my head at? Is this thing on? Is anybody out there?

Yes, the latest episode of Contrast Podcast is out and this week Dearest JC aka The Vinyl Villain has got it asking questions. So if you fancy finding out what musical queries the awesome CP Nation has posed, head on over here or download the 'cast from here. Want to know what's up? Have a look:

(00:00) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Do you love me?
JC aka The Vinyl Villian

(06:57) The Donnas - Do you wanna hit it?
Greer from A Sweet Unrest

(10:36) Cheese on Bread - Where the fuck are they?
Shaun from Cold Citrus

(13:52) The Pointed Sticks - What do you want me to do?
FiL from Pogoagogo

(17:59) The Magicians - Why do I do these foolish things?
ZB from So the wind won’t blow it all away

(21:35) Jody Wildgoose - What can I do?
Marcy from Lost in your inbox

(26:49) The Shirelles - Will you still love me tomorrow?
James from Appetite For Distraction

(30:15) Gashead - Why do you treat me like a tramp?
Michael from The Yank Sizzler

(33:43) The Feelies - What goes on?
Dirk from Sexy Loser

(37:49) Billy Bragg - When will I see you again?
Sir Timmy Saville from The face of today

(41:16) Love of Diagrams - What was I supposed to do?
Bob from Gimme Tinnitus

(44:27) The Dears - Who are you, defenders of the universe?
Linda from Speed of dark

(48:30) Camper Van Beethoven - Where the hell is Bill?
Natalie from Mini-obs

(51:30) Trout Fishing in America - Who are these people?
Anna from Desert Island Jukebox

I had long been waiting for an opportunity to submit a track by the mighty Pointed Sticks, so "What Do You Want Me To Do?" was unquestionably (no, please, no applause) the shoo-in for my contribution. A while back I mentioned the band in a post on Buzzcocks, since both bands shared a similarly bright, frantic, pop-punk sound. The Pointed Sticks formed in Vancouver in 1978 when singer Nick Jones returned from a stint in England, all hopped up and ready to go on account of all that Clash/Pistols stuff that he absorbed while working in a record store. Jones teamed up with his mate Bill Hemy on guitar, enlisted a drummer and bassist, and together named themselves after a Monty Python sketch. No joke.

There followed victory at a local battle of the bands and persistent touring on the West Coast (including a support slot with Buzzcocks), which built up an enthusiastic fanbase. They had both the thrill of being the first Canadian band signed to Stiff Records and the disappointment of the label failing to crystallize their debut album. Eventually it was re-recorded and released by a Vancouver label, but hassles continued to dog the band and eventually they split up in 1981.

It was a brief, white-hot run, but it left lasting scorch marks; some material was re-released in 1995, and in 2005 their debut and sole album, Perfect Youth, was reissued along with a compilation of singles and b-sides. The band somehow became Very Big in Japan and reformed in 2006 for a tour of that country. There followed a well-received re-enactment (they refused to call it a reunion) back in Canada, and the 'Sticks continue to gig - there's even talk of new material.

And y'know, I must declare a personal connection. I had become acquainted with The Pointed Sticks and their legacy in the late 1990s during my visits to Vancouver. Then, one hot summer's day in 2005, shortly after we moved to Vancouver, my kids ended up buying lemonade from guitarist Bill Hemy's kids, though I didn't realise they were Bill Hemy's kids until after the fact. Now my Little Man is in the same kindergarten class as Bill's youngest. And to top it off, Dearest Wife recently ran into Bill's wife, who herself fronted seminal Vancouver punk band The Dishrags, at a medieval studies conference in town. How these weird and wonderful webs are woven...

Oh, I can't resist - here's a short Pointed Sticks track for you. But promise you'll go listen to the podcast, then buy the record, OK? OK.

The Pointed Sticks - Somebody's Mom (buy here or e-here)

Anyway, did I consider any other tracks? Well, only in passing. And they were:

Gracie Fields - Will You Love Me When I'm Mutton? (buy here)
Aww, Our Gracie - the pride of Rochdale. What a warble!! Gorbless'er.

Sultans of Ping FC - Where's Me Jumper? (Gosh, hard to find now! buy here)
Actually, this was a submission on one of the very earliest episodes of the Contrast Podcast. I tell you, these lot were as mad as bag of ferrets. I still do an odd, whippy sort of dance when this vintage 1992 single comes on the gramophone. But I rather think they lost the plot after this moment of brilliance; I saw them support The Ramones in 1995 and was most disappointed by the experience. But they are touring again...

Next week CP goes all broody with the theme of "Babies." Please do contribute!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Revealed! Conspiracies & Mysteries

So it goes something like this: sometime back in the mid-1970s, the benevolent aliens who had been watching over humanity undetected for ages finally felt compelled to intervene. Genghis Khan they could tolerate. The Black Death, though distasteful, was mildly interesting. Stalin had no dress sense and was a boor, but they let him slide past. However, when they saw the cultural havoc being wreaked by the likes of Barry Manilow, Captain & Tennille, and naugahyde, they decided it was time to act.

Using centuries of knowledge gained through the judicious application of anal probing, they synthesized a small child and imbued him with wit, humour, mad technical skillz, and groovy taste in music. This boy was to be their gift to humanity, a saviour. They surreptitiously inserted him into a rather normal English family, and hoped that he would germinate before the world went all Sonny & Cher-shaped. Thankfully, he did.

That child was Tim Young, and his creation, Contrast Podcast, is what saved the world.

Of course you won't find this account anywhere "official" because "They" don't want you to know. But if you download this week's CP episode from here, your eyes will be opened to a whole host of mysteries and conspiracies. Like these:

(00:00) Big Dipper - Faith healer
Thom from Better in the dark

(04:22) Kitchens of Distinction - Cowboys and aliens
Linda from Speed of dark

(10:10) The Higsons - Conspiracy
FiL from Pogoagogo

(13:45) Interference - Psycho Jill
Victoria from Muruch

(16:30) The Wedding Present - Kennedy
JC aka The Vinyl Villian

(22:17) The Foo Fighters - Down in the park
Miss Wired

(26:22) Del Shannon - Silently
ZB from So the wind won’t blow it all away

(30:36) Hüsker Dü - Books about UFOs
Dirk from Sexy Loser

(34:33) Wipers - Mystery
Ross from Just Gimme Indie Rock

(36:37) Zebra - Who’s behind the door?
Natalie from Mini-obs

(43:00) Muse - Exo-politics
Lyle from Mentok the mind-taker

(48:00) Sean Lennon - Mystery Juice
James from Appetite For Distraction

(53:27) Le Tigre - Phanta
Bob from Gimme Tinnitus

(57:03) Chris Whitley - Something shines
Greer from A Sweet Unrest

(01:01:08) Philip Glass - Secret agent & roast beef
Nuno from Undercover songs

(01:07:04) Joni Mitchell - Amelia
Marcy from Lost in your inbox

This week I felt compelled to offer up The Higsons for two reasons, namely a) I felt the need for some groovily parping horns, and b) I really wanted to come clean on the whole bongos/Albania/Moonies thing. But I also considered the following mysterious tracks:

China Crisis - Tragedy & Mystery (buy here)
I never managed to classify these Merseyside marvels of the eighties. If pressed, I'd say they were most overwhelmingly pop, but with large lashings of postpunk sensibility. So poppostpunk, perhaps? This track, though appropriate for the theme, was never my favourite of theirs, as methinks it sails a bit too far into the syrupy seas of mawkish melodrama. But there are plenty more tracks to possibly post at a later date...

? and the Mysterians - 96 Tears (buy here)
Yes, a well-worn standard, but this is truly terrific 60s garage stuff. And don't forget that the Mysterians were one of the first Latino rock groups to make it big. But pity poor Question Mark himself, whose Michigan house burned down in 2007, taking with it his collection ofrock memorabilia, four Yorkshire terriers, and a cockatoo. I bet he shed more than 96 tears over that. Sorry, that last comment was utterly tasteless. So go out there and buy some of the man's albums, willya??

Fabienne Delsol - Mr Mystery (buy here or e-here)
And speaking of garage rock, here's a faaabulous slice of the stuff, dripping with retro girl group vocals. In 1996 the young Mademoiselle Fabienne Delsol crossed the English Channel and hooked up with a couple or rosbifs to form The Bristols. The band released a couple of albums on the stonkingly good Damaged Goods label before splitting up in 2003. Thankfully Fabienne decided to continue on solo.

Orouni - The Perfume Conspiracy (buy here)
I can't recall how this ended up in my collection; indeed, I only rediscovered it when trawling for potential podcast contributions. And so very thrilled I am to remake its acquaintance! It is lovely, lilting, and lifting, tremulous, touching, and twee. In other words, perfect summer fare. Orouni himself is a quirky Parisian musician, but it seems his name has expanded to encompass a shifting collective of the like-minded. I have no idea who is singing on this lovely track, but she melts my heart and pours it into an tiny, art deco perfume bottle. Sigh.

For next week, Contrast Podcast is looking for songs whose titles are questions. Want to contribute? Find out how to over here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Letter To Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg, St Andrew's Wesley Church, Vancouver BC, 5 June 2008

Dear Billy,

I've been wanting to write to you for a while now, but couldn't get past the idea that it would be a bit of a daft, fanboy thing to do. But after seeing you this past Friday at St Andrews Wesley Church in Vancouver, I figured it really was time to put (virtual) pen to (virtual) paper. The only complication is that I also decided to make this a blog post, so goodness knows what sort of a mess it will turn out to be. I've got the dustpan and rubber gloves ready, just in case.

I was a bit taken aback upon seeing the logo on the sleeve of the t-shirt I bought after the show: "Life's Still A Riot 1983 - 2008." Has it REALLY been twenty-five years? I suppose it has, and I suppose it was just under a quarter-century ago that I first heard "A New England" hometaped onto a C90 by a mate. Discovering your music was as significant to me as seeing The Clash at the 1978 London Rock Against Racism gig was to you. You see, I was the "Saturday Boy" and though I knew the meaning of "unrequited," I couldn't articulate its feeling as you did. And in so doing, you helped a hormonal, teenage FiL cope. On the political front, the short, sharp shocks of "To Have And To Have Not," "It Says Here,and "Like Soldiers Do" helped channel my roiling ideological waters. You see, I was actually a rather conservative lad, but your thoughtful lyrics and kerranging gee-tarr helped convince me to tear up my Reaganjugend membership card. I'm happy to report that I'm now a staunch liberal (with a small 'l'), who cries in front of the TV.

I think I've seen you in concert five times now, which ties you with The Ramones for first place in the "Popular Beat Combos FiL Has Seen The Most Times" sweepstakes. So congratulations on that achievement; you must be very proud. The first time I saw you play was November 1986 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. I clearly remember sitting right up against the stage by your feet, much like the youngsters did last Friday (this time I was in the sixth row of pews, on the left, natch). I was thrilled that night when you joshingly rebuked us "fucking New Yorkers" for singing too loudly. That was the first time I experienced your fantastic gift of making everyone in the audience feel like you've come along just to hang out with them. Like the lad lying in the aisle between the pews, the one you nicknamed "Lazarus" and on whose state of life or death you commented throughout the show.

Indeed, I've always admired your ability to connect, and to share your vulnerability. Though let me make it clear that you're not the "tuneless bastard" you claimed to be while quaffing Throat Coat tea in the cold confines of the church. When you finally got through "Price I Pay" after wrestling with the capo, I think the applause was of admiration and not relief, as you suggested. With Billy Bragg, what you see/hear is what you get. He does exactly what it says on the tin. No artificial sweeteners or preservatives. You get the crunchy with the smooth. And it's all delicious.

I was struck by the nifty mix of folks who showed up to the church on Friday: hipsters and hippies, pre-adolescents and pensioners, and loads inbetween. At one point I spied a few rows ahead of me a rather rotund, balding man in his sixties nodding and shaking his head with vigour and abandon while you played. I guess he was pew moshing. Then there were the kooky-kool kids dancing in the aisles to "World Turned Upside Down." They impressed me; I never managed to figure out how to boogie to that particular tune. I must admit to myself that I fall into (the young end of) that group of oldies you mentioned; you know, the ones whose grandkids will put "White Man In Hammersmith Palais" or The Specials on the gramophone, just to see Nan and Grandpa do their funny dancing. As an aside, now I'll never be able to listen to The Specials without snorting with laughter while visualizing you doing that creaky, decrepit skank you did. Cheers for that, mate. No, really.

More than anything, Friday night reminded me that your songs are at their most potent when they are infused with the passion and feeling of you playing them live. Every tune was a stunner, even the ones that on vinyl/CD/mp3 don't move me as much as the others. In particular, "The Space Race Is Over" has never been in my top ten, but on Friday I found it utterly heartwarming. And then there was "I Keep Faith," which I am ashamed to say I didn't even recognize as yours when I first heard it played on CBC Radio some months back. But hearing it performed live with such commitment and fervour was electrifying. As for my favourites (i.e. all the rest), well, I thought I had died and gone to heaven with you and Johnny C(l)ash. I think "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" has become my favourite live song, not least because each time I've seen you perform it it has been tweaked to be bang-up-to-date. Smart bombs in the hands of dumb people scare me too. And I thought singing the late Kirsty MacColl's stanzas during "A New England" was a wonderfully kind tribute

It has been fascinating to watch you, through listening to your music, grow from angry young firebrand into someone exploring the complexities of life, love, politics, and what it means to be human. Each time I have checked in with you over the past twenty-five years, I've found something in your journey that has resonated in mine. I know that becoming a father has been a profound influence on you, as it has on me. When my Dearest Daughter was born, I found myself singing "I Don't Need This Pressure, Ron" to soothe her to sleep. Why that song? Well, because a) I knew all the words, b) "Anarchy In The UK" seemed inappropriate, and c) I was sick and tired of singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bloody Star" over and over. And you know what, it worked like a charm. It did too for my second-born, Little Man. Indeed, both children refer to it now as "The Banging Song" (after the first line, "What was that bang...") and I still sing it when emotions flare and calming is needed.

But in the end what I am most grateful to you for is your inspiration. Every time I have seen you perform live, I have walked out of the venue feeling re-energized, with my cynicism and apathy left stuffed in a wastebin by the exit. And this time was no different. Probably what galvanized me most was the storming "Old Clash Fan Fight Song" and the story of how a skronky rental amp, with it's sole setting of "First Clash Album," led you to the epiphany of that righteous song's creation. Thank you for reminding me that the world is indeed full of possibilities that we can, and indeed need to seize. Thank you for keeping faith, and for helping me to keep mine. Indeed, thank you for everything.

Yours faithfully,


P.S. You were right - it's on You Tube already. See below...

Billy Bragg - Old Clash Fan Fight Song [live @ SxSW 2008] (buy the 7-inch here)

Billy Bragg - I Keep Faith [live @ SxSW 2008] (buy the new album here or here)