Snapshots from the Old Country

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the Craven Hermit has roots in the centre of Canada.  The 204.  The friendly place of a hundred thousand lakes.  The great province of Manitoba.  I always tell people – it’s a great place to be from.  Something of a back-handed compliment maybe, but it’s true.  Manitobans are almost universally good people, as keenly interested in arts and sports and looking out for their friends and neighbours as they are in slogging through another week down at the mill.

The population of the nearest town to our farm, according to various maps, was listed at 52.  The value 52 seemed to be invariant for a long time.  The old joke was “Every time a baby is born, some guy skips town”.  The town, for what it’s worth, was a grain elevator, a Co-Op store, two stop signs, and a hockey rink.  We lived out in the sticks; we literally had to drive towards town to go hunting.  And if you’ve ever been to the Red River Valley, you know that undulating topography isn’t its strong suit.  The place is flatter than warm milk on a plate.  If your dog runs away, you can watch him run for days.  If you’ve seen the movie Fargo and remember William H. Macy’s character cruising the backroads of Minnesota in the dead of winter in his Oldsmobile, then you’ll get the picture.

The Weakerthans are a rock band that is based in the provincial capital of Winnipeg.  Recently, as a diversion from the band’s usual rigamarole, principal songwriter John K. Samson set out to write a series of songs about various places in Manitoba.  According to this interview with The Onion’s AV Club, the goal was to try to capture the spirit of places in music.  Not an easy thing to do.  Writing rock songs about cars and girls and partying – hell, even Poison could pull that off (and they were completely terrible!).  Writing compelling songs about the wind-swept Trans Canada Highway and Reggie Leach and Icelandic immigrants – that’s a tougher challenge.

Samson’s latest project started out as a series of 7″ records, but they morphed into one long-play record called Provincial that was released last Tuesday.  I haven’t had a chance to give it enough listens to formulate a proper review, but at first blush it seems like a very cool collection of songs.  Some are snapshots of life in the city of Winnipeg, but Samson also takes a variety of diversions down roads less travelled.  The tone is a little more laid-back than typical Weakerthans fare (power-pop infused alt-rock with a literary bent).  But in a way, the stripped-down sonics lend themselves to capturing the sparseness of the Manitoba countryside.

The AV Club asked Samson about the recent trend of major labels losing their grip on the music industry, and how independent labels have stepped into the breach to deliver smaller, more esoteric records to the public.  Samson’s quote was very thoughtful:

Since I’ve started recording music, there’s been an incredible democratization of the means of production. People can make records in their houses now, and they sound incredible. That was just not possible 20 years ago, when I recorded the first record I was on. I think the Internet has this potential for a great force of artistic good in the world (…) The means are more readily available to folks than they ever were. It’s an exciting time to be a writer and a musician.

He sounds very optimistic about his lot in life, and with any luck Provincial will be a success that propels him forward.  The music world needs writers that seek to explore the spirit of rural life more than ever.  Most small towns are shrinking, quickly, as kids move away to seek their fortunes (ahem) and parents retire to the bigger cities.  It’s comforting to know that someone as accomplished as John K. Samson still cares enough to capture vignettes of small towns in song.

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Bucket List Bands

Here’s a new challenge.  List ten bands that you have never seen in concert but, given the chance, you would go see in a heartbeat.  A few ground rules:

  • You have never seen the band (or artist) live in concert before, not even as an act opening for someone else.
  • The band (or artist) has to be touring semi-regularly, so defunct bands like R.E.M. don’t count (that’s a different challenge).
  • The band (or artist) has to be alive, so the Jimi Hendrix Experience doesn’t qualify (that’s a different challenge).

I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of great bands over the years, so I don’t have to put legendary acts like R.E.M., Radiohead, Wilco, Muse, Arcade Fire, Pink Floyd, The Police, Rush, Smashing Pumpkins, Neil Young, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen or Eric Clapton on my list.  However, there are still dozens of acts that I would love to see in concert for the first time.

Here’s my ‘bucket list’ of acts I’d like to see at least once in my lifetime, in alphabetical order:

  1. Beck
  2. The Decemberists
  3. Eels
  4. Fleet Foxes
  5. Fountains of Wayne
  6. Peter Gabriel
  7. Guster
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. My Morning Jacket
  10. Secret Machines
  11. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
  12. Spoon
  13. The Stone Roses
  14. Teenage Fanclub
  15. The Zombies

Okay, so I couldn’t whittle it down to ten bands.  I would go see any act on this list if they played anywhere near my hometown.  A few of them I’d even cross the country to check out.  Road trips rock.

I would love to see The National headline their own show, but I saw them open for R.E.M. in Burnaby a few years ago so they aren’t eligible for this challenge.  Still, I wish I’d noticed The National were playing the Orpheum in Vancouver last November a little sooner, because I would have jumped on a plane for sure.  Maybe later we’ll do an Opening Acts You’d Like To See As Headliners challenge.  Today’s challenge is all about bands you’ve never seen.

Surely you have your own bucket list of bands – just click “Reply” to post them!

Skills to Pay the Bills

This story in Time Magazine was both a little unsettling and kind of unintentionally hilarious. Some snarky bloggers have argued about whether “indie rock” really exists anymore. We collectively have a naïve belief that anyone with $2000 and some songs can throw together an EP on compact disc, play a few gigs, work up a local fever, upload a couple of songs to YouTube, go viral, tour the world and – voilà – instant rock star! Or at least make enough scratch to scrape out an existence ‘living the life’.

Well, not so much.

It’s safe to say that aspiring musicians have to REALLY love music, and be willing to put up with insane amounts of shit, because the odds of becoming the next Bono are roughly the same as the chances of being struck by lightning AND winning the lottery on the same day. The vast majority of bands will play a few local gigs, develop no fan base, stagger along for a year or two eating Ron Chow and sleeping on friends’ sofas, and go nowhere other than flat-ass broke.

So if it costs six figures to get any kind of traction in the music business, then just how independent can an “indie” rock band really expect to be? These days, it seems that the price of fame can only be paid from deep pockets. Sure, Two Lights could choose to live in a far cheaper city than NYC, and Brooklyn is already infested with indie rock bands. That said, there’s something to be said for lingering near the media epicentre of the country.  In some lines of work it pays to relocate to certain places.

Two Lights’ cautionary tale is something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone branding your favourite indie artist a ‘sellout’ for cashing a $5000 cheque from Mountain Dew or Volkswagen or the University of Phoenix.

Oscar Nominated Songs

The Academy Award nominations were named today.  In the Best Original Song category, 39 songs were short-listed about a month ago but only two were named today:

“Man or Muppet” from the movie The Muppets
“Real in Rio” from the movie Rio

I’m pulling for “Man or Muppet”, because it was written by the delightful Bret McKenzie.  Bret is best known as being one-half (the runty half) of New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk-parody duo Flight of the Conchords.  Reason enough for me.

But why were only two of the 39 songs chosen for official consideration?  Almost all of the traditional Oscar categories get five nominees.  According to Rolling Stone’s website, due to an obscure Academy rule the sheer number of short-listed songs led to so much vote splitting that only these two songs gained enough widespread support to get on the final nomination list.

In case you’re wondering, here’s the 39-song short-list.  Maybe you saw some of these films this year and remember the music:

“The World I Knew” from African Cats
“Lay Your Head Down” from Albert Nobbs
“Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger
“Collision of Worlds” from Cars 2
“Dakkanaga Dugu Dugu” from DAM999
“DAM999 Theme Song” from DAM999
“Mujhe Chod Ke” from DAM999
“Rainbird” from Dirty Girl
“Keep On Walking” from The First Grader
“Where the River Goes” from Footloose
“Hello Hello” from Gnomeo & Juliet
“Love Builds a Garden” from Gnomeo & Juliet
“Bridge of Light” from Happy Feet Two
“The Mighty Sven” from Happy Feet Two
“Never Be Daunted” from happythankyoumoreplease
“Hell and Back” from Hell and Back Again
“The Living Proof” from The Help
“Coeur Volant” from Hugo
“It’s How We Play” from I Don’t Know How She Does It
“When the Heart Dies” from In the Land of Blood and Honey
“Ja Nao Estar” from José and Pilar
“The Keeper” from Machine Gun Preacher
“Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets
“Man or Muppet” from The Muppets
“Pictures in My Head” from The Muppets
“Summer Song” from The Music Never Stopped
“Imaginary Friends” from Olive
“Sparkling Day” from One Day
“Taking You with Me” from Our Idiot Brother
“The Greatest Song I Ever Heard” from POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
“Hot Wings” from Rio
“Let Me Take You to Rio” from Rio
“Real in Rio” from Rio
“Shelter” from Take Shelter
“Gathering Stories” from We Bought a Zoo
“Pop” from White Irish Drinkers
“Think You Can Wait” from Win Win
“The Backson Song” from Winnie the Pooh
“So Long” from Winnie the Pooh

It’s really too bad that “Think You Can Wait” by the National didn’t make the final cut.  It’s a wonderful song that is reminiscent of the tone and spirit of their High Violet record.

2011 Album Sales

Nielsen SoundScan is an organization that tracks point-of-purchase sales of recorded music, primarily in the USA, Canada, and Mexico.  The big news is that total album sales for 2011 (330.6 million sold) actually outpaced sales for 2010 (326.2 million).  This reverses a trend of declining year-over-year sales for the past decade.  The 1.3% uptick is modest to say the least, but at least the music industry can take some small consolation in seeing sales go in the right direction for a change.

“Total album sales” is defined as the sum of CDs, cassettes, LPs, and digital albums (when downloaded legitimately as a complete album).  What pushed the numbers over the 2010 sales level was probably a cluster of strong-selling records.  For the first time in years, 2011 saw several records that managed to gain traction and just kept selling and selling, week after week.  The best selling albums in North America last year were:

1 – 21  (Adele)  5,824,000
2 – Christmas  (Michael Buble)  2,452,000
3 – Born This Way  (Lady Gaga)  2,101,000
4 – Tha Carter IV  (Lil’ Wayne)  1,917,000
5 – My Kinda Party  (Jason Aldean)  1,576,000
6 – Sigh No More  (Mumford & Sons)  1,420,000
7 – Take Care  (Drake)  1,247,000
8 – Under The Mistletoe  (Justin Bieber)  1,245,000
9 – Watch The Throne  (Jay Z & Kanye West)  1,232,000
10 – Own The Night  (Lady Antebellum)  1,204,000

That sales figure for Adele’s record is kind of crazy.  NOTHING goes quintuple platinum anymore.  Good for her for catching lightning in a bottle.  It’s also nice to see three Canadian acts in the top ten, even if I don’t particularly care for any of those albums. To each his own; I’m just glad whenever someone cares enough to actually buy music these days.

In that total album sales figure, a total of 223.5 million CDs changed hands and 103.1 million digital albums were sold.  Vinyl is still very much a niche product, but look what happened to new vinyl sales:

2010:  2.8 million
2011:  3.9 million

That’s a year-over-year surge of more than 36%!  It’s also the most vinyl sold in one calendar year since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991.  Evidently it wasn’t just me snapping up LPs.  Here’s what’s topped the 2011 charts for album sales on vinyl:

1 – Abbey Road (The Beatles)  41,000
2 – Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)  29,700
3 – Bon Iver (Bon Iver)  27,200
4 – Sigh No More (Mumford & Sons)  26,800
5 – The King Of Limbs (Radiohead)  20,800
6 – 21 (Adele)  16,500
7 – For Emma Forever Ago (Bon Iver)  16,200
8 – The Whole Love (Wilco)  14,900
9 – Brothers (The Black Keys)  14,200
10 – El Camino (The Black Keys)  13,800

That should give a pretty good indication of what sort of buyer is shopping for big, round grooves.  It’s generally not the under-20 crowd – that’s where the individual digital download sales figures spike.  And it’s typically not in country or R&B or some of the other popular genres – vinyl is popular among alt-rock and indie-rock enthusiasts.  Presumably they’re the sort of people that are collectors as well as consumers; listeners that are more willing to invest some time in sitting in front of a turntable for a dedicated listening session.  White college-educated music nerds, basically.

(Full disclosure – your humble correspondent has five of those ten records on LP, and I’m debating whether to pick up some Black Keys next time I’m down at the shop)

It seems that, contrary to some of the doom & gloom prognostications in various media outlets, the music industry is holding its own.  As always, the health of the industry is dependent on finding artists that make records that people are actually willing to love enough to buy.  Pretty simple concept, really, but one that the major labels often seem to have trouble grasping.

We shall see how 2012 plays out.