27 October 2010

a different sort of pumpkin carving contest

many of you may have seen these already, but i couldn't resist posting them. they're a wonderful mixture of being incredibly cute and frankly awe-inspiring (try biting into a pumpkin yourself and see how much fits in YOUR mouth). anyone who has ever been owned by a cat and watched them play with a ball will certainly be struck by the sense that they are watching a world in which they are suddenly like gulliver among the brobdingnagians. this first one actually shocked me not because of the kitty content but because, for the first time ever, it made me have a positive thought about wal-mart.



and there's more! i'm amazed at how lustily the cats dig into these, since raw pumpkin is something even a die-hard vegetarian would find difficult to swallow. (pun intentional, but not very good... that said, as the blandest of the gourds, pumpkin certainly does benefit from a bit of dressing up in order to be palatable.)

the most fascinating thing about this to me is that, for all that animal behaviour experts will insist that this sort of thing is nothing but practice for hunting and killing prey, it seems impossible to deny that, much like human children, these cats are simply engaging in an activity that challenges both their dexterity and their ingenuity. in other words, they're doing it because it's fun.

22 October 2010

thank you

i spend a lot of time here talking about things that trouble me, or that i flat out don't like. so every now and then, it's good to take a moment and doff the cap of appreciation towards someone who truly deserves it.

a couple of months back, i lost my preciouss iphone in the back of a cab. it was my own fault, 100%. i make no excuses. i wasn't as careful as i should have been and i paid the price. searches for the phone turned up nothing. i tried calling it, but i'd left it on vibrate, which i almost always do, so there was little chance it could be heard by anyone close by. this was bad enough, but there followed a more than month-long saga while i tried to get said phone replaced. i didn't plan on losing my phone the week the iphone 4 came out. i didn't even particularly want the new model, because i was perfeectly happy with what i had. i did end up, finally, getting the new model, because rogers simply couldn't find a 3gs that they were willing to sell me. (apple had one that they were willing to sell me, but rogers wouldn't let them.)

but i'm getting diverted into negativity. today, for the first time in a long while, i checked my email on line rather than just loading it onto my computer. i noticed that there was something in the draft folder. figuring that anything i had left there as a draft would have grown virtual cobwebs by now, i opened it to delete it. but it wasn't anything i'd put there. it was a message, typed into the subject line of an unsent email fom the night i lost my phone, that told me the person typing it had my iphone and was going to try to track me down through rogers. there wasn't a way to contact them (i have to say, i'd be iffy about giving someone my contact info when i didn't even know who they were), but the very last words were strangely touching : "don't worry, i will track you down. please be happy."

the day after i lost my phone, i had rogers remotely shut it off, thus severing any possible link between my good samaritan and myself.

of course, i wasn't happy, not for a long time, because i was a month without a device that brings me a lot of convenience. the fact that i literally had to call rogers every day in order to remain at the front of the queue grated on my nerves. the fact that i had to threaten to leave in order to avoid paying full price for a replacement phone was infuriating. and let's not even get into the joys of paying for a cellular phone line when you have no phone. or that wonderful feeling of seeing everyone around you playing with their toys why you feel like the orphan at christmas. and i'd no idea during this whole time that there was someone who'd tried to do a good and totally unexpected thing for me.

it may not have worked out, but that's someone who deserves a thank you and here goes:

hi there person who found my iphone and left a message in my email account while trying to figure out who i was. i appreciate the fact that you tried to contact me. i also appreciate that during the time that you had my live phone, there were no long distance calls made, none of my emails were disturbed and i did not receive a huge bill for downloading hours of music or video. you could have done a lot of selish things, even within the twelve hours before i had the phone shut off, but you chose to use your wits and to try to get a hold of me and you were even polite enough to not start calling my friends in the middle of the night (since that's when i lost it). that makes you a really cool person in my books and i want to say thank you. i also want to say that the world could use more people like you. i hope that you are doing well, wherever you are and whatever you might be doing. thanks.

21 October 2010

Questions of Time

I think everyone faces this at some point or another, at least everyone who has some creative pursuit. Where can I find the time to do what it is that I love? I'm lucky, in that writing doesn't require a lot in terms of "extra" time. I don't need to buy materials (other than needing to replace my computer every so often). It can be done in the comfort of my own home, rather than requiring me to go to a studio or other external location. I am not forced to rely on others, because it is a solitary activity until I choose to share it. And still, I find myself struggling to find time to let the creative juices flow.

Of course, I find little windows of time, little moments here and there, sort of the way that we all find change underneath the sofa cushions. (I wouldn't be writing this now if I hadn't found such a nickel of time in my schedule.) But when we find the change in the sofa, while we might appreciate not not having to scrounge the house for bus fare or laundry money, we don't labour under the illusion that this somehow represents a fortune, the mother load. It's much the same with finding little bits of time. Sure, it's nice to take a mental breather and get those creative juices flowing, but don't kid yourself, you still need to find solid blocks of time where you can sit in front of your computer (or over your page, if you're old school) and work. Because, as with money, getting a little isn't really much more than a tease. It makes you think how much easier things would be if you were able to get more.

I feel guilty even writing this. After all, part of the reason that I don't have time is that I have a great life. I have a healthy relationship and good friends, I have wonderful, loving animal companions, I live in a city that I love and I certainly don't want for any material comforts. Each of these things takes up a certain amount of time- relationships of various sorts, caring for my family of cats, taking time to enjoy the city and working to ensure that I can continue to be able to support myself in the manner to which I have become accustomed. I don't have an argument with that. At different times I've had to do without all these things and it makes me realise that it's important to keep a balance between all of them. But I struggle to find ways to fit writing, possibly the key thing that defines me, into the mix.

Perhaps it's because it's just so easy to put off. That would imply a lack of discipline, something from which I try to overcome. There are lots of things that require my attention aside from what I've already mentioned- things like keeping the house in order, paying bills, cooking/ eating, etc. And of course, there are times when I just want to collapse and scan through the internet for things that are entertaining or sit in front of a screen and absorb something appropriately mindless and fun. Being tired has to be one of the major enemies of creativity. It,s hard to get worked up about a project when your eyelids feel like very powerful magnets, difficult to pry apart.

Another major factor, though, is because of what writing is to me: It's an activity I do by myself that gives me pleasure. It seems like those are always the things that we're supposed to put off, the kind of things that we're supposed to feel just a little bit guilty about. Even doing things that are fun are acceptable as long as they're done with other people. After all, we're supposed to be social animals. We learn that in grade school. But doing things in a sort of self-imposed solitary confinement simply because we like doing it, because we feel passionate about it is at best seen as selfish, at worst as abberant. Logically, I know that this is a load. Taking time for myself to write when I could be vacuuming does not make me a bad person (as long as the vacuuming gets done eventually). Eating something pre-packaged may not be my favourite thing, but it won't kill me (right away) and it might just give me that extra time I seem to be missing.

The problem is that guilt is a very effective programming mechanism. If you internalise the belief that you're being bad by taking that time for yourself, you're never going to feel entirely comfortable doing so. Something will always be nagging at you- the belief that there are things that need to be done that are less enjoyable, but perhaps more obvious than creative work. After all, for most of us, creative work begins and ends in our own domicile. Ultimately, that's the challenge that I need to face. There are all sorts of things that I could be doing. I just need to make sure that writing doesn't get the short shrift because, like everyone else, those things require more time than I'll ever have.

03 October 2010

sounds abound


this has been quite a week for shows. true, the advent of pop montreal generally brings with it at least a couple of things worth checking out (sometimes on the same night, such as last year's faust vs. diamanda galas debacle, thank you so much festival planners), but it's comparatively rare that i'll have three nights in a row where there are bands that draw me out of my little cocoon. in this case, it was a pretty divergent group as well, which is always welcome.

wednesday, 29.09.10:: download and guests @ cafe campus

this was a show i went into with mixed emotions. back in the day (the day in this case falling sometime around 1994), i thought the first download (and chunks of the second) was absolutely brilliant. unfortunately, i believe a lot of that brilliance emanated from the mind of dwayne goettel, who died shortly afterward. the fractured, multi-layered "furnace" is a difficult listen to this day because it confounds listener expectations, but, robbed of a primary contributor and a decade and a half later on in the careers of the artists involved, is there still going to be the same originality, the same loopy aesthetic, that endeared them to me so much?

we arrive late, meaning we miss the first opening acts. i'm told one of them was good and that most of the people i know went and got food during the second act. i didn't know either, so i can't judge. when we arrive, plateau, a cevin key project i know nothing about, has just taken the stage. everyone seems confused, because no one is announcing the bands, no one knows half the bands and most people only know cevin key, but no one seems to know who the gentleman on stage with him is (i still don't, although he seemed to be the dominant force in plateau). there's some time before we're able to to work out that the group on stage is not, in fact, download. when i finally do figure out who it is, i'm relieved, because if it were download, it wouldn't bode well for the night. the music is pure euro-dance, smooth keyboard melodies (occasionally punctuated by promising but underdeveloped little analogue noises) and repetitive four-to-the-floor beats.

eventually, mark spybey joins the group on stage, which marks the transition from plateau into download. it also marks the sonically interesting part of the show. the lengthy plateau set degenerates into the lovely, staccato, noisy sound of download that i was so hoping to hear. the atonal electronics swirl, the rhythms chug and sputter unexpectedly. it's fun watching the latex-encased crowd who'd gotten used to plateau try to continue dancing.

at the end of their set, spybey calls out the follow-up band otto. this is sort of an odd placement, since you'd assume that download, being the headliners, would want to play last and longest, but they end up almost exactly in the middle and playing less time than anyone else. otto are made up a group of guys (this is a decidedly "guy" band) who have money to spend on instruments and costumes, but all the creativity of the average dining plate. their chief role seems to be to make most of the patrons flee the room, to the point where it looks like someone is holding some sort of gothic fetish party in the middle of prince arthur street on a wednesday night.

in fact, the only reason why people are sticking around is to get a look at mark spybey's solo project dead voices on air, who are closing the night. i will admit that i haven't kept up with dvoa music. the stuff that i remember is roughly contemporaneous with the first download releases and, as i remember it, the music was beatless without being what anyone could describe as "ambient". it's always been a sore spot for me that i missed dead voices by two days one of the first times i came to visit montreal, so i see this as a chance to redeem past losses.

some losses, however, are permanent. instead of what i remember, dead voices on air has morphed over time into a very mellow, safe idm-type sound, the kind of thing that would be at home in the background at a trendy restaurant or cocktail lounge, but not the kind of thing i'd regret missing. we stay for a good part of the set, but eventually, the lure of being able to catch the metro home, rather than paying $30 for a cab, is too much. i can now say i've seen dead voices on air, but i still feel like i missed them.

high points: the entire download portion.

low points: otto

overall: C
thursday 30 september, liars & guests @ le national

i hate the rain. i know it's necessary, but it's a pain in the butt when you want to go out, so the fact that this evening sees us caught in a rain storm that has more than a few neighbours building arks in the backyard does not make for an auspicious start. it gets even less auspicious as we enter le national and get to enjoy the aroma of a few hundred people who have just spent too much time in the rain. personally, wearing a sweater with a large wool collar, i smell like a sheep who got separated from her shepherd.

as we're waiting on opening act women to take the stage, it's hard not to notice the prevalence of skinny jeans, ironic mustaches and oversized glasses floating around the room. yes, we are in hipster territory. unfortunately, this is the sort of show that draws this kind of crowd- artsy, angsty, smart indie rock- it's just that liars are a whole lot better than the majority of bands embraced by denizens of williamsburg and their followers worldwide.

just before the lights go down, a young man with soaked skinny pants, flip flops and a nest of birds living in his unkempt hair and beard strolls by. i'm hoping the music will be enough to distract me from making smart-ass comments about the people.

women are an all-male group who are apparently hell-bent on bringing back the early 90s swirl sound. influenced heavily by ride, my bloody valentine and, from an earlier era, wire, they aren't what you'd call objectionable, but there's nothing new, nothing added to the list of artists who've shaped their music. it comes off sounding like a very slick cover band. what surprises me is that a good portion of the crowd actually seems to be there to see them rather than the headlining act. why? who knows. they are probably the band with more buzz at the moment, but it is disheartening when the crowd visibly thins between acts.

and those who left made a terrible mistake. from the minute liars take the stage, they launch into a dynamic, super-tight illustration of what exactly makes them different (and better) from most over-hyped indie artists out there. the band is expanded to a five-piece from their usual three-piece to give extra depth to the live sound, but the focus remains solidly on lead singer angus andrew. standing about eight feet tall, he is a born performer and entertains with a mixture of forced awkward antics and surprising grace. his voice retains all of its studio range, from power that rivals that of the electronic instruments around him to a falsetto fragility that is truly haunting. even after a set of an hour and a half, it feels like they're only getting started.

for an encore, only the band's full-time three members emerge, but the sound suffers not at all. in fact, their final track, broken witch (the only track played from my personal favourite album, they were wrong so we drowned) builds to such a fury, becomes so feverish and inflamed, that it seems to implode rather than end.

high points: the encore set

low points: a sizable chunk of the crowd leaving after the mediocre opening act.

overall: B+

friday, 1 october: swans & guests @ le national

i'll be honest, i not only skipped the opening acts at this show, but i persuaded several others to do so. it's nothing against the opening act, who i don't know, but i'd seen the middle act, baby dee, opening for current 93 a few years ago. at the time, the schtick of having a tiny tim-like balladeer accompanying himself on the piano and harp was interesting for the first track, amusing for a couple more and irritating for the rest of an overly long set. certain things you don't need to repeat. (i found myself wishing that someone had switched zola jesus, opening the same night at another venue for another band, to the swans show. it would have been an appropriate mix, really.)

so we arrive in time for swans and swans only. in the moments before the band takes the stage, i feel my brow furrow. there have been examples where i've seen bands who i've carried in my heart a long time and been very satisfied with the show, even years after what i would identify as their prime. but there have also been experiences where the show was bad enough to make me re-evaluate the parts of the band's music i once loved. i'm nervous that the same thing could happen again. to boot, i'm not a huge fan of michael gira's post-swans material. there are some of the angels of light recordings that i like, but none of them speak to me in quite the same way as swans. unlike many bands, i felt swans left on a real high note, their final album soundtracks for the blind being their strongest since the iconic children of god. sometimes, it can be a mistake to resurrect what's passed.

however, even the very beginning of the swans set, a lengthy introduction by their percussionist that builds slowly until the rest of the band comes out and takes their positions, that this is something pretty special. and from the moment the full band kicks in, it's obvious that this is not going to be some lame imitation of past glory. if nothing else, the sheer force of the sound wall that collapses over the expectant faces of the audience is enough to announce this. it takes a while for the music itself to come into focus, because its force and density are so immediately overwhelming.

the composition is gira at his best, all instruments playing off one another in an intricate arrangement under the direction of the man himself, so that he often seems more like he's conducting an orchestra than fronting a band. his own vocals are as plaintive, as painful and as perfect as ever. time has not robbed him of any of the range or expressiveness of his laconic bass. he is no longer spitting vitriol as he did in the days of cop or holy money, but the impact is no less profound for that.

much like the classic swans, their new material has a weightiness that is an almost physical presence. "turn up the heat," gira jibes a few tracks in, "it should be really hot in here". he's right, too, because taking in the entire show, it seems that everything should be heavy, thick, oppressive and being overheated would only add to the atmosphere. (that said, i'm just as glad that no one turned up the heat.) the set is similar to a meal of a really rare steak: on the one hand refined, elegant, beautiful and on the other bestial and brutish.

it is only fitting that the band's short encore, starting softly, builds quickly to an infernal roar and crashes to an end in away that leaves the audience simply numbed by what they've heard. the applause is plentiful but there is a pervasive sense of exhaustion. as i poll the different people i know there to get their reactions, i am repeatedly greeted by saucer-eyed countenances like those of people who have been mainlining heroin for a few hours. whatever their response, their expression truly speaks for itself.

high points: hearing "beautiful child" and the most perfect ending to any show, ever.

low points: my lows are really quibbles, but i would have liked to hear a few (not a majority, but a few) more of the older tracks that made me love them to begin with. this is especially the case since the newer material is not incredibly varied itself.

overall: A

(photo: swans by dominic f. marceau)
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