Walking Far From Home

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
I saw rainclouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
I’ve dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound

– Iron & Wine, Walking Far From Home”, 2011

Now that we’re over 100 posts into this blog, it should be pretty obvious that music is a huge part of my life.  As mentioned very early on, your trusty Craven Hermit is also an admirer of the great outdoors.  In particular, I love to experience nature from ground level, on foot.  My shadow has been cast across virtually every walking trail in my home town, while my iPod has provided an ever-evolving soundtrack.

From time to time, I get the itch to reacquaint myself with nature by doing some proper wilderness hikes.  Each summer I cram my tent, some bedding, some cooking implements, a duffel bag of clothes, a couple of good books and a picnic cooler into the car and head for the mountains. The glorious Canadian Rockies are only a four-and-a-half hour drive away, which makes those glaciated peaks and forested valleys an ideal destination for an extended weekend sojourn.

I just got back from four days at Lake Louise.  The campsites in the Lake Louise tent campground, while a little on the pricey side, are still as amenable as ever.  They provide a nice balance of privacy with convenience, shelter with natural light.  You can even take a hot shower after a long day on the trail, which might be one of life’s greatest simple pleasures.

A typical day in the mountains begins with a hot al fresco breakfast, followed by a hike to the verge of exhaustion, a shower and a change of clothes, a delicious barbeque dinner, and some drinks around the campfire.  Plugging in your iPod, settling into a comfortable chair with a mug of rye & coke (okay, okay, I can hear my friends snickering… make that several mugs of rye & coke), and watching some flickering flames burn down into glowing embers is a perfect way to unwind.  Campfires give you some well-earned downtime to take stock of your life – a chance to reflect on the previous year and make plans for the next.  There’s something very hypnotic, very alluring, and very Zen about watching wood slowly combust before your eyes.

I managed to squeeze four hikes of various lengths and complexities into this past four-day weekend.  Over the next few days, check back here for new posts with photos and reflections on what I observed while walking far from home.

Hold your fire
Keep it burning bright
Hold the flame till the dream ignites
A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission

– Rush, “Mission”, 1987

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Pontificating on Polaris

Then the North Star
is guiding us home in your friend’s car
Will we take a chance or will we restart?
The sky is a map that’s guiding back to my heart

“North Star” by the Rural Alberta Advantage (2011 Polaris Music Prize Nominees)

The Polaris Music Prize is an annual competition that seeks to reward the best in Canadian recorded music.  The organization’s mission statement is to ‘recognize and market albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history’.  In other words, Justin Bieber and Nickelback need not apply.  It is modeled on the UK’s Mercury Music Prize, and nets the winner a cool $30,000.

Each year, a plethora of new albums by Canadian artists are nominated by over two hundred jurors for consideration.  The jurors range from print and online music journalists to radio programmers to musically-orientated TV personalities to (scraping the bottom of the barrel) some lowly bloggers.  The breadth of backgrounds is reflected in the wide stylistic variety of albums that get nominated.  The winners over the past five years include:

  • 2007:  Close to Paradise by Patrick Watson
  • 2008:  Andorra by Caribou
  • 2009:  The Chemistry of Common Life by Fucked Up
  • 2010:  Les Chemins de Verre by Karkwa
  • 2011:  The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

For 2012, a ‘long list’ of 40 candidate albums was published back on June 14th.  Earlier this week, the candidates were pared down to a top-10 ‘short list’ featuring (in alphabetical order):

  • Cadence Weapon – Hope In Dirt City
  • Cold Specks – I Predict A Graceful Expulsion
  • Drake – Take Care
  • Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
  • Feist – Metals
  • Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
  • Grimes – Visions
  • Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
  • Japandroids – Celebration Rock
  • YAMANTAKA / SONIC TITAN – YT//ST

Sadly, several excellent records were left off the short list.  Kathryn Calder (on a diversion from her day job in the New Pornographers) didn’t make the cut with Bright and Vivid.  Septuagenarian legend Leonard Cohen and his Old Ideas were good ideas, but evidently not quite good enough to make the top ten.  I really like New Wild Everywhere by Great Lake Swimmers, but they didn’t make the short list this year.  I was very surprised that Dan Mangan’s excellent Oh Fortune was left off the list, after a winter and spring of fawning praise from all corners of the media.  Scrappy Happiness by Joel Plaskett Emergency is pretty cool but was maybe too new to gain enough momentum.  The Weeknd got a lot of buzz last year with Echoes of Silence (among other releases), but it’s not going to win the Polaris prize.  Likewise for Yukon Blonde’s Tiger Talk, which is a genuine grower of an album.  And one of my favourites, Summer of Lust by Library Voices, didn’t even make the long list.

Admittedly, the short list IS a pretty tidy microcosm of Canadian hip & happening music.  Feist and Drake are the biggest names that mainstream music fans would recognize, but star buzz doesn’t help an artist in this contest.  In fact, the Polaris Prize often carries more than a whiff of indier-than-thou preciousness, where bands are celebrated seemingly for being willfully obscure.  I bought the Patrick Watson record that won the prize back in 2007, largely due to favourable comparisons to Pink Floyd’s Meddle album (and the Craven Hermit LOVES the languid intensity of Meddle).  But for the life of me I can’t see why Close to Paradise was even considered for the Polaris Prize, unless it was the way that its’ ho-hum mediocrity sprung forth from total musical obscurity.

The nomination of Cadence Weapon brings a modern, experimental hip-hop flavour to the proceedings.  Kathleen Edwards continues to release perfectly nice, introspective indie-pop records but, truth be told, they’re just too boring to ever truly grab my attention.  Cold Specks is an interesting proposition – not a lot of cotton-field old-skool soul sisters creating a buzz in Canada.  Japandroids are defiantly waving the beer & nachos indie rock flag, which is totally cool with me.  I personally hope Japandroids win, but the Polaris Prize jury has a track record of picking winners that skew more towards the musical margins.  Even so, Celebration Rock is about the most fun you can have with your pants on.

I’m less comfortable with Fucked Up’s nomination.  I love the idea of an ambitious anarcho-rock-opera, and the music is exciting and engaging, but I simply cannot stand lead ‘singer’ Damien Abraham’s gonzo vocals.  This ass-clown also single-handedly ruined my favourite show on MuchMusic.  Every millisecond Abraham’s preening, self-aggrandizing douchiness polluted the screen during his guest-host stint on “The Wedge” made me want to hurl nasty epithets and blunt objects across the room.

This year’s left field pick is YT//ST by the art collective of Yamantaka and Sonic Titan.  I’m a reasonably well-read indie music fan, but this one’s so far off my radar I had to Google it.  Whereupon I learned from the National Post that YT//ST is an “Asian Diasporic psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multi-disciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of Eastern culture”.  I’m trying to keep an open mind about YT//ST until I actually get a chance to hear it, but based on this description alone I’m steeling myself for some serious Pitchfork-baiting, industrial-strength, avant-garde bullshit.  It’s almost as though the IDEA of this record is more important than the record itself – which is never a good situation.

All of the foregoing maybe leaves Vancouverite (by way of Montreal) Grimes as the favourite by default.  In a country as big as Canada, with so many different regions and musical histories, it’s so difficult to find consensus in the zeitgeist.  Yet somehow, everyone seems to be rallying around Claire Boucher’s quirky electro-indie-dance-pop stylings.  Her squeaky childlike voice is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition (personally, I’d leave it), but the music is undeniably compelling.  Visions by Grimes might just find itself parked at a quasi-stationary spot in the Canadian night sky this year.

The Polaris Music Prize jury has been pared down to an eleven-member Grand Jury for the final round of voting.  We will find out which album gets the prize on September 24th.

Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon

Moose Jaw, saw a few, Moosomin too,
Runnin’ back to Saskatoon
Red Deer, Terrace, and a Medicine Hat
Sing another prairie tune

– The Guess Who, “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon”, 1972

Once upon a time, the Craven Hermit found himself living in the city of Calgary.  Circumstances at work dictated that I relocate for awhile to southern Alberta’s principal city to make a living.  It wasn’t a 100% positive experience, and I eventually returned to the central Albertan hinterland to ply my trade. But long ago I vowed to try to find the silver lining in everything I do, so I made the best of the experience.

While in Cowtown in the summer of 2000, I took the opportunity to see the reunited Guess Who put on a concert at the Saddledome.  Going to a show by yourself is kind of lame, but one of the advantages to buying single tickets to gigs is that sometimes you can score a seat right up at the front.  For the Guess Who gig, I was second row centre.  I was close enough to exchange banter with the band between songs.  “You the MAN, Randy!”, and so on.  It was pretty cool.

I had reasonably low expectations for the show.  You never know what you’re going to get with an ‘oldies’ act.  Sometimes it’s great, but other times it’s a band that is content to coast on former glories, collecting a cheque for delivering a warmed-over slice of musical nostalgia.  Or (god help us) it’s a band that was big in the ‘70s or ‘80s that comes out and plays the entirety of their shitty, tuneless new album instead of something the audience actually came to hear.

But on that sunny evening in July 2000, the reconstituted Guess Who defied my expectations and put on a great show.  I’m sure it was aided and abetted by the inimitable presence of Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman.  Despite their well-publicized falling out in 1970, Cummings and Bachman have continued to make their separate livings in the music business.  Cummings kept the Guess Who moniker going for years before going solo, while Bachman re-established himself as the principal songwriter of Bachman-Turner Overdrive.  Both gentlemen are seasoned professionals, and this came across on stage during the 2000 reunion tour.  Ready access to a cache of great songs didn’t hurt, either.

As I recall, the staging was relatively simple.  No lasers, no confetti cannons, no massive projection screens.  When the band took the stage, they looked more like the 30-year-service-award recipients at a bus driver’s convention than a rock ‘n’ roll outfit.  The focus that night was on the songs, pure & simple, and it suited the blue-collar ethic of the subject matter.  “No Time”, “No Sugar Tonite / New Mother Nature”, “Let It Ride”, “Takin’ Care of Business”, and especially “American Woman” have become staples of the classic rock radio lexicon.  These songs formed the core of the 2000 victory lap across Canada, which in a way was the long-overdue American Woman tour that never really happened. Bachman’s conversion to Mormonism was at odds with the drinking & partying attitude of the rest of the band circa 1970.  Thirty years on, the band had finally reunited to bring their ‘wheatfield soul’ anthems to the common man.

All these memories came flooding back to me as jumped aboard the Heel-Toe Express for my weekly ‘long’ walk around town today.  Over 3.5 hours and 20.5 kilometres, a laundry list of songs came up on my iPod, including the Guess Who’s “Undun” and “Guns, Guns, Guns”.  Meanwhile, I noticed that the Saskatoon bushes in my neighbourhood were finally ripe for the picking.

Our weather was cool and moist in June, followed by hot and humid weather in July.  This has apparently transpired to deliver huge yields of larger than normal Saskatoon berries.  The wild bushes near the wetlands are coming along fine, but the hybridized Saskatoon bushes that were planted around my neighbourhood are practically drooping from their ripening bounty.  The purple berries are nearly the size of blueberries this year.  It behooves me to set out tomorrow morning, before the muggy oppressive heat of the day sets in, and collect a margarine tub of berries.  That would be a nice Monday morning treat for my ass-kicking team of engineers down at the office.

A few other songs in the rotation grabbed my attention today.  I hadn’t heard the title track from Wye Oak’s album Civilian in awhile, but it is still as majestic as ever.  Johnny Cash’s reading of Nick Cave’s murder ballad “The Mercy Seat” may be the best cover song the Man in Black recorded among all his heralded American Recordings with Rick Rubin.

I’m a little late to the party, but last year’s Summer of Lust album by Saskatchewan band Library Voices is really hitting home these days.  This album exists in that glorious Boolean intersection of the New Pornographers’ brisk energy and Jellyfish’s effortless melodicism, with a side order of Katrina & the Waves’ sun-kissed pop.  I certainly enjoyed this album over the past winter, but now that the sun is high in the sky I’ve fallen ass-over-teakettle in love with it.  It contains 10 tracks of pure unadulterated fun, but the stand-out song for me is If Raymond Carver Was Born In The 90s.  You simply cannot go wrong with paired couplets like these, wrapped up in a melody that was seemingly distilled from pure liquid sunshine:

All my friends are buying diamonds for their girls
And bringing children into this world
Signing their names to a home on land they captured
Me? I’m still writing songs I’m scared you’ll hear someday

A pretty insightful thing for someone so young to say.

Epilogue:  Had a big thunderstorm on Sunday, and got busy on Monday.  But I made it back to my secret stash of Saskatoons tonight, and hit the motherlode.  I made it home covered in spiders and mosquitos and maybe a wild rose scrape or two, but not without an overflowing two-pound margarine tub full of purple goodies!