THE RECORD GUIDE - Silicon heroes

THE RECORD GUIDE - Silicon heroes
by Jason Anderson
in eye, 20 novembre 1997
Critique

Two cool guys who won't play safe, Jason Beck and John Southworth get their props in eye's seasonal survey of recommended music.

There was an article in the U.S. trade mag Billboard a few months ago that criticized Canadian major-label A&R departments for their inability to develop domestic pop acts, allowing non-rock acts like spacey Toronto trip-hop duo Esthero and loco Montreal collective Bran Van 3000 to be wooed away by U.S. parties.

But A&R types typically sign stuff they think will get on the radio, which ain't exactly run by the most courageous folks, either. There's a symbiotic relationship between the labels and radio that's resulted in an undernourishing diet of goatee'd AOR-oriented alt.rock and mix-format-ready singers, and is it any wonder the pond smells stagnant.

This situation is troubling to anyone who believes pop should be relevant to people who are more intelligent than a gnat, who hates the cowardice of much of the music and the people who make it possible... or who is a total wanker and therefore prone to quoting Jean-Luc Godard's aphorism that "art is the exception, and culture is the rule." Recording artists who take risks and make great pop are to be treasured, championed and greeted with ticker-tape parades. If not, they've got every right to fuck off to the south.

I haven't paired up Jason Beck and John Southworth because their music is similar. Jason's using his band Son to muck about with pop structures, albeit tunefully and in a welcomely laid-back fashion. Southworth strives for a high-energy combo of devilishly clever lyric writing and the values of American pop between Irving Berlin and Burt Bacharach.

The quality they share is bravery; they don't take the safe route that's all too clearly marked in this country's culture. They've travelled outside the parameters of "alternative" music yet their music is often gorgeous -- rarely harsh, alienating or wilfully obscure. They're not preaching to the underground's converted, so to speak, but serving up fresh approaches to pop... music that's not hard to like.

I tried articulating all this to them last weekend over breakfast in a diner at College and Ossington, but the more we talked about it, the more pissy we all felt. They'd rather not have to leave Toronto, but they have to wonder if it's possible to make a go of this here.

When Son signed to Warner two years ago and released Thriller, they were a peppy four-piece dominated by Jason's predilections for Prince and early Costello. After ploughing that schtick into the ground, he sanely left it there, an unlikely move in a business where artists are compelled to serve up the same product until they convince the audience they need it. Out last August, Wolfstein combines an au courant affection for samples, looped beats and record scratches with a laconic humor and surprising tunefulness. Again, I emphasize how easy Son's songs are on the ear, even when Jason revels in the joy of repetition on "Recurring Dream" and "Where To Go" -- it's Stereolab as Steely Dan, minimalism meets CHFI.

Moreover, this "repetitive behavior" aptly mirrors the bad habits of the characters in the songs -- their inability to get out of bad relationships or stay in good ones, their plaintiveness, their morbidity, their boredom. Yet Wolfstein is not dull. In live shows, Jason has emphasized the instability of the tunes, causing some to overlook how much care he put into the record.

John, who, like Jason and me, is 25, is more the showman. He spent '97 gigging across the country and in New York, where in a few days his band will open for a performance of Lou Reed and Robert Wilson's rock opera Time Rocker. (John and his band also play Reverb on Nov. 22.)

Again, the live show, while great fun, doesn't do justice to John's songs as heard on Mars Pennsylvania, his release from '96 that was picked up by A&M this past summer. The songs seem otherworldly, which fits with John's intention to make a record that doesn't sound like it was made in this decade (or the last).

John's an avowed fan of Tin Pan Alley-style writing and wilfully out-of-step with modern music, but that doesn't mean he's Harry Connick Jr. -- a simulacrum crooner. John adds a level of perversity to the melodrama, admits the absurdity in the razzmatazz in a song that's still as affecting as "It's Not the End of the World." He also delights in anachronisms -- railroad boys and Buster Keaton face off against the security guards and stoners in a world that is very familiar but not quite right.

John's obsession with alien landings reminds me that he and Jason share an outsider's perspective, an expression of individuality greater than buying Airwalks instead of Nikes. John's the sweatered young showman who dreams that he fell from the sky and can't get along with our species. Jason's the hairy gearhead who takes it all apart so he can put it back together again and -- for reasons unclear -- suspects he's a werewolf.

We all deserve to have dreams that aren't banal.

PHOTO BY BENTLY QUAST

Oblique strategies

A caveat from the editor: The objective of this year's record guide was to avoid the hyperbole-packed, bullet-sized reviews that usually fill these hideous things, and to try to provide some more context for the recommended music, even if those contexts are unorthodox, arbitrary or nonsensical. So sue us.

I listen to a lot of discs. I prefer "pop" but I maintain a pretty loose definition of such. The only unifying characteristic of the artists mentioned above and below is that their music doesn't annoy me. Most of 'em are progressive-minded in some way, and interested in eccentric strategies, in making the music personal -- which doesn't mean complaining about past lovers but constantly questioning and internalizing methods of making and presenting music. Enjoy.

BABY BIRD Fatherhood (Handsome Boy): Probably the best of the three discs by Mr. Stephen Jones' four-track pop project that Handsome Boy has reissued, and preferable to Ugly Beautiful (Atlantic/Warner), which features heavier-handed rock-band treatments of his songs. Oh, right -- his songs, those Bukowskian odes to insult and injury. Repetitious. Perverse. Fragile. Essential.

BODEGA Bring Yourself Up (Vibra Cobra): While they're unique in the context of the Toronto indie scene, there are echoes of the Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers and solo Syd Barrett in this trio's first CD, as well as the darker side of power pop (Big Star's third album, Let's Active). Bring Yourself Up is made with surprising care -- the songs have a real delicacy, a sense of whimsy that never seems forced, and remain sweet and understated. And it's got a Hayden cameo -- is that a unit-shifting detail yet?

PREFAB SPROUT Andromeda Heights (Sony U.K.): First new work in seven years -- some of Paddy McAloon's songs are bloody awkward, his preoccupation with stars is wearing, the arrangements are too saccharine MOR, but some of it is like music from a (slightly) more innocent time, when it was possible to be simultaneously smart and sentimental.

LOCUST Morning Light (R&S): Mark Van Hoen deftly trounces trip-hop cliches as he seeks out new ways of fitting a pop song into a busy, strange soundscape thick with samples and unconventional instrumentation, as well as the process in reverse.

IMANI COPPOLA Chupacabra (Columbia/ Sony): Definitely not deep, butomigod you would not believe how wicked this is, even though her familial relationship to Godfather III star Sofia is kept deliberately hazy. Yes, she and producer Michael Mangini pretty much lift the whole boho-hip-hop thing straight off Odelay, but when was the last time you heard a hyped-up fem-solo-artist who didn't spend all her time ranting about ex-lovers and was more interested in fully enjoying that crayzee bohemian lifestyle? Lots of barely hidden Beatles homages, too. The album that Parker Posey will never make.

THE BATHERS Kelvingrove Baby (Marina): It was encouraging to see the Tindersticks play to a decent-sized crowd last month, but fuck, they haven't got half the power or depth of the Bathers. Even if a handful of four-star reviews from Brit monthlies can't spur on much commercial interest, Chris Thomson's Glaswegian group -- who play in a style I can only liken to Van Morrison c. Astral Weeks with a better ear for pop and a penchant for Proust -- continue to meet my massive expectations. One day I'll stop going on about them.

RICKIE LEE JONES Ghostyhead (Warner): A '70s beatnik chick releases a brave, beat-heavy, weird 'n' contemporary disc, though no one notices. Makes you wish Patti Smith would quit with the primitivist Noo Yawk rawk bullshit and start singing for Reel 2 Real.

BRAN VAN 3000 Glee (Audiogram/Select): A channel-surfing mentality is in full effect. Highlights don't get much higher than the hit, most of Glee being sloppier than "Drinking in L.A.," but it's always happy and cool. Destitute Montrealers will never again seem so alluring.

BARBARA GOGAN WITH HECTOR ZAZOU Made on Earth (Crammed/Fusion III): For this album by Irish singer Gogan, Eurosuperproducer Zazou -- who last made tributes to the Arctic and Arthur Rimbaud -- drafts an art-starry cast including Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry, two from The Moon Seven Times, Scott Walker collaborator Peter Walsh and New York downtowner types Marc Ribot and Peter Scherer. Superb, very abstracted pop for perpetually disintegrating personalities.

EDWYN COLLINS I'm Not Following You (Setanta/Sony): No great shakes, but then Collins' albums are always hit-and-miss. Post-"A Girl Like You," this deserves a better fate, even though the last thing he wants to seem is commercial.

DAVID BOWIE Earthling (Virgin/ EMI): Not only is he back on form, he's rich enough to give every person in the world a quarter!

-- JASON ANDERSON

(Article original)


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