Dark Angel

It’s been stated previously in these pages that Greg Keelor is my favourite Canadian songwriter.  Keelor is one half of the twin-engine power plant that propels roots-rock institution Blue Rodeo.  His scruffy appearance and low-key demeanour are the perfect foil for certified double-platinum lady-killer Jim Cuddy.

Keelor writes songs that cut across many genres – from punk rock to folk, from country-soul to Brill Building pop.  But while he has the chops to write in practically any songwriting style, he is unquestionably a master at capturing late-night desolation and longing in words and music.  The classic example of this is a song called “Dark Angel”, from Blue Rodeo’s 1994 album Five Days in July.

Like the other songs on the record, “Dark Angel” was recorded at Keelor’s farmhouse retreat.  Freed from the omnipresent glow of Toronto’s city lights, you can hear the rural darkness creeping in around the edges of this haunting ballad.  The album version of “Dark Angel” is very stripped down – just Keelor and special guest Sarah McLachlan singing, underpinned by piano.  In concert, Keelor often rearranges the song for solo guitar, as featured in this link.  Regardless of the accompaniment, the vocal melody and relaxed vibe have a way of burrowing into your soul and taking up residence forever.  The lyric also manages to be relatively specific, while still being open-ended enough for the listener to superimpose his or her own meaning.

The first half of the song is ostensibly about a special lady friend that crossed paths with Keelor.  He recalls how everything that she said to him made perfect sense, and how he was hypnotized by her presence.  He sounds like he’s loitering in that state of semi-consciousness between being awake and falling asleep, when abstract thoughts sometimes occur to you with profound clarity.  It’s a lyrical sentiment that is reinforced by the languid pace of the music.

My dark angel, she gave me diamonds for eyes
She walked by – now I’m hypnotized
By this dream that just won’t stop
And I feel like I’ve always been lost in this dream

In the second half of the song, Keelor tips his hand and admits that his muse is sadly just a figment of his imagination.  To me, the lyric is about yearning and loneliness and the restless, universal search for something more.  There is no literal Dark Angel in his past – he simply hopes to walk this earth long enough to finally find her.  He’s melancholic, but he clings to the faint hope that it’s just a matter of time.

My dark angel shine your light on my curse
You are the other that I have to find
Until I do I guess I’ll see you ’round in my mind

The metaphysical dreamscape of isolation is revisited in the final refrain:

‘Cause there is this face that I know that I’ve never seen
Sometimes I feel I’m living in someone else’s dream
Still I thank you for stopping to talk
And I wonder just into whose dream did who walk

My favourite lines in the song are the ones where Keelor briefly shifts from dreaming to drafting a plan of action to finally find his special friend.  I consider myself to be a pragmatist with a quietly romantic streak, so this seems like a wonderful idea:

So Colorado is the place I have to go
I heard a rumour she loves the mountains and the snow

Once upon a time, those very same words were rolling around in my mind as I moved west to pursue my graduate studies.  I was hoping that a change of scenery would help to break me out of my carefully constructed shell.  By choosing to live in a co-ed dormitory, I was also hoping to develop an actual social life, something that was I sorely lacking back in ‘the 204’.

One wintry day about a year later, I thought I met my dark angel in (of all places) our dorm’s laundry room.  I was minding my own business, folding shirts and matching up pairs of socks, when she walked in with a hamper full of clothes.  As a straight, unattached male I’m pretty much guaranteed to notice whenever a pretty woman walks into a room.  But on this particular day, what really got my Spidey senses tingling was her operatic, perfectly pitched voice.  She hummed quietly to no one in particular while she loaded a washing machine then cracked open a book.  I was smitten.

After some initial awkwardness (my specialty), we became friends.  We would chat in the hallway, swap CDs and musical recommendations, things like that.  I lent her some Smashing Pumpkins and Pink Floyd discs, she lent me some Bowie.  I know my league and she wasn’t in it, but I was simply transfixed by that wonderful voice.  It turns out she was also a fantastic person – intelligent and compassionate and pragmatic and good-natured.  No small wonder that she excelled at nursing.

She went home for the summer while I stayed behind in the residence.  In theory I was working on my long-delayed thesis project, but most evenings and weekends I was pounding the hiking and biking trails, trying to make myself look and feel a little more presentable.

When the Lady of the Laundry reappeared in September, we picked up right where we’d left off.  We would head out for groceries or music stores on weekends, and we helped to plan a variety of events in the residence.  We even ended up at the Symphony Under the Sky together, where the local orchestra kicked off their fall season with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in a grassy amphitheatre.  My Spidey sense peaked off the charts when she volunteered to stand up and sing that famous melodic motif from “Ode to Joy” for the concert master a cappella between performances.  It was all I could do to not propose to her on the spot, but trying to be the master of the ‘slow play’ I somehow kept it together.

Not long after, I had finally resolved to dive head-first into the abyss and ask her out.  I spent all week summoning every ounce of courage I had, preparing for the Saturday night party downstairs.  But my vaunted ‘slow play’ was my undoing.  By the time the party got rolling, I couldn’t help but notice that my dark angel had taken up relations with some Australian douchebag.  Some knob with all the charm and charisma of a sack of wet mice.  My waking dream had become a nightmare.  To this day my blood pressure STILL spikes every time I hear that ridiculous Aussie accent.

I stayed friends with my operatic acquaintance for a few years, which was cool.  But after she moved away permanently, I was haunted by the idea of what might have been.  In a way, the experience made me appreciate Greg Keelor’s songs even more.  I often hear the echoes of two ships passing in the night, or tales of star-crossed lovers that were never meant to be, in songs like “Dark Angel”.  And though it sucks when you can’t be with someone that you’re profoundly attracted to, it’s somewhat comforting to know that you’re not alone in your moment of quiet desperation.

This weekend, I’m jetting off to Denver to do some shopping, go on a couple of mountain hikes, and attend a concert at the stunning Red Rocks Amphitheatre.  Stay tuned for photographs and more stories from the road.  By the time you read this, I should be rolling through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  And who knows – maybe Colorado truly is the place I have to go. 

Valentine’s Day for Feist

Congratulations to Leslie Feist for winning this year’s Polaris Music Prize.  The prize committee’s grand jury chose her introspective album Metals as the best example of Canadian music for 2012.  The prize seeks to reward “artistic merit without regard to genre, sales history, or label affiliation”.

More importantly, the nomination process helps to give exposure to dozens of worthy candidates each year.  Many of the nominees, often underground artists without the luxury of serious record-company ad money promoting them, would otherwise receive scant coverage in the national press.  Feist already has mainstream recognition in Canada – affiliations with Broken Social Scene and Apple products will do that.  But short-listed artists like Japandroids, Cadence Weapon, Cold Specks, and Grimes will surely get a ‘Polaris bump’.  If this helps draw a few more people to their live shows or sell a few more records, then so much the better.

Feist’s acceptance speech at Monday night’s gala got off to a rocky start.  When her name was announced, her first instinct was to hide under her table.  After collecting her thoughts, Feist ambled to the stage and it quickly became evident that she hadn’t prepared a proper speech.  She eventually managed to thank the appropriate people and waxed philosophical about the burgeoning Canadian music scene.

This anecdote from Feist about 2008’s Polaris prize winner Dan Snaith (aka Caribou) neatly sums up the true value of the event:

I was sitting in a bar with a friend having a beer, and this song came on in the bar that was beautiful and arresting, and I went over to the DJ and asked him what he was playing, and he said to me, ‘Caribou.’ So I am grateful to the Polaris for creating a conversation about music, and I am grateful to Caribou for making me think about how I hear things.

After the gala, the hopeless romantic rhapsodized that winning feels:

… a bit like getting the right Valentine from the right boy at school. It’s got this sense of secretness to it and it just has a sense of being personal that’s small and quaint and real.

Rumour has it that Feist is considering donating some of her $30,000 prize to her favourite cause, a group preparing a legal challenge against southern Ontario’s monstrous new Melancthon limestone quarry.  Proceeds from her tour merch already go to this cause, so she puts her money where her mouth is.  Meanwhile, on Valentine’s Day, this songstress’ heart is also in the right place.

Over The Hills And Far Away

Led Zeppelin spent a substantial amount of 1970 on the road, playing gig after gig after gig.  Their debut album did well enough in the charts to earn them attention, but it was the singles from Led Zeppelin II and the subsequent promotional tour that really broke America wide open for the band.  Understandably frazzled after a frantic year on the road, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page retreated to the cozy confines of Bron-Yr-Aur cottage to deprogram and write some new songs.  Some of what they wrote ended up on the folk-infused Led Zeppelin III; other songs, like “Over the Hills and Far Away” emerged later on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti.

Bron-Yr-Aur is in the Snowdonia region of north Wales.  While the mountain peaks of Snowdonia don’t reach the dizzy heights of the Rocky Mountains, it is still a beautiful region.  Photos of this stunning little corner of Welsh countryside are a little bit reminiscent of the sub-alpine wildflower meadows in Banff National Park.  I’d love to visit there some day.  In the meantime, I’ll be content to hike over hills to far-away destinations a little closer to home.

The trail to Helen Lake winds through forests and high-country meadows and is known as one of the best day hikes between Lake Louise and Saskatchewan River Crossing.  The trailhead is right across the Icefields Parkway from the popular Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint.  Even though Helen Lake is situated to the north-east of the trailhead, the first 3 km of trail climbs steadily to the south through forests.  Don’t worry if you find yourself asking “when am I going to start walking over TOWARD my destination?”.  The trail eventually wraps around to the north and traverses an alpine meadow high up above Helen Creek.  The reason why the trail takes the indirect route to Helen Lake will become obvious by about Kilometre 4 or 5.

Thankfully, the scenery on the long loop is outstanding.  After no more than half an hour on trail, views open up to the west.  Once above the treetops, the ridge offers an inspiring perspective on Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake.

A few hundred metres further down the trail, you cross through a white-bark pine grove where a prescribed burn was made in the late 1990s.  In a little over a decade, a new generation of pine trees and other vegetation has started to emerge in the sunny meadows amidst the scorched snags.  Fire is a destructive natural process that used to be suppressed by park officials but, paradoxically, ensures the continued health of the forest by periodically hitting the ‘reset’ button.

Once you round the corner to the north, the grade flattens out a bit for the next 3 km.  Look to your left and you’ll see why the original trail breakers looped so far to the south – the steep back side of the ridge that now separates you from the Icefields Parkway is littered with moraines and avalanche slopes.  There is a creek crossing to make at Kilometre 5, but it looks like you should be able to jump from stone to stone and stay dry through most of the summer.  Finally, at the 6k mark and after a climb of around 500 vertical metres from the trailhead, you crest a hill and find yourself on the shores of pretty Helen Lake.

There are several good picnic areas along the south shore of the lake, but expect company.  Not only is the Helen Lake trail popular with day hikers, but a colony of hoary marmots also calls the area home.

Not ready to turn around just yet, I ascended the rocky pass east of Helen Lake and explored the ridge.  The 360-degree views from the ridge are fantastic.  Beneath you to the west is the glacier-carved Helen Creek valley, and the distinctive Matterhorn-like summit of Mount Assiniboine is visible far to the south.  Turn around to the east and you’ll have a breathtaking view of Lake Katherine at the foot of imposing 2,782m Dolomite Peak.

The trail from the ridge down to Lake Katherine is not particularly well-marked.  I followed a series of cairns down what looked like an old equestrian route, but there are probably several unofficial ways to get there.  The reward for temporarily giving back 125m of hard-earned elevation is a carefree walk along the secluded beach of Lake Katherine.  On this particular day, I had the beach all to myself (and wished I’d had the foresight to stash a beer in my backpack).

The trail continues past the lake to Dolomite Pass.  I will admit to being a little underwhelmed by Dolomite Pass – it’s really just a starkly-vegetated low saddle of land that climbs perhaps 30 metres above lake level.  That said, it was neat to see an unexpected glacier lurking in the shadows on the northeastern face of Dolomite Peak.

The route back up the ridge to Helen Lake is a little tedious, but I was entertained by the antics of the local marmots.  I saw three of the critters, wandering from den to den feasting on whatever succulent plants they could find.  The summer season is very short at this elevation (around 2400m above sea level).  Marmots don’t have a lot of time to fatten up before retreating underground to sleep off the snowbound eight-month winter.  Perhaps that’s why they aren’t particularly skittish around humans – they’re just too occupied with cramming in calories to notice any biped interlopers.

Retracing your steps from Dolomite Pass back to the trailhead, plus some time spent exploring the ridge, makes it a 20 km hike with around 700m of total elevation gain.  On my way back, I noticed that a few hardy souls had scrambled up above Helen Lake to 2,993m Cirque Peak.  I will put that on my list of possibilities for next summer.

Most of the hike back to the car was quiet and uneventful, but just before I reached the fire zone something extraordinary happened.  A silvery-beige animal about the size of a dog sprinted across the trail perhaps 40 metres in front of me.  But this was no poochie.  It took a couple of seconds for it to register, but the tufted ear tips and feline gait were a dead giveaway.  I had just seen my first lynx!  Almost twenty years of mountain hikes, and I finally had my first encounter with this beautiful, secretive creature in its natural habitat.

There was no time to dig out my camera – and I was too fascinated to do anything but watch it disappear into the woods.  In this modern world of digital cameras and PVRs, it’s disappointing that we can’t pause & rewind the images in our brain and screen-grab cool photos that way.  Nevertheless, my memories will never forget my close encounter with that mountain kitty-kat.

Getting High on Mount St. Piran

Someday you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannonball
Where were you while we were getting high?

– Oasis, “Champagne Supernova”, 1995

My favourite rock star, no question, is Noel Gallagher.  For about three years in the mid-1990s, he walked around with great songs falling out of his ass.  Around the time that Oasis released (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, even the b-sides tossed off by Gallagher the Elder were often better than anything his Britpop contemporaries could muster.  The songs don’t come quite so easily to him today, but he still has his moments of brilliance.

What makes Noel such a cool cat isn’t just that he’s a great songwriter.  What makes him awesome is that he is completely willing to admit that his lyrics, like the one above, are complete fucking nonsense.  Like Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude”, they’re nothing more than words that sound good together.  But it turns out that if you wrap skillet-seared nonsense inside a warm tortilla of infectious melodies you may just score a hit.

It doesn’t hurt that Noel Gallagher is one of the most sardonically hilarious people on the planet.  He once described his perpetually petulant and angry little brother Liam as “like a man with a fork in a world of soup”.  Some day I’ll dedicate an entire blog entry to some of Noel’s best quips but, in reality, they could fill a book.

Like most Oasis lyrics in the stark light of day, “Champagne Supernova” reads like the ramblings of a fairly unimaginative seventh-grader.  But once you hear the words in an uplifting musical context, your pleasure centres fill with visions of the plasticity of time and space, of release from the drudgery of daily life, of reaching for great heights.  Whatever gets you high is usually cool with me – I’m certainly no prude.  If what you do on your own time doesn’t irritate or endanger the people around you, then have at it.  I personally choose to get my kicks ‘n’ giggles by hiking in the mountains – although a good bottle of merlot and listening to thought-provoking records certainly round out the Top 3.

With a burst of warm September weather in the forecast, your faithful correspondent set off for Banff National Park to do a couple more hikes.  You never quite know what you’re going to get in Lake Louise in early fall – it could be sunny and warm, but a few hours later it could be overcast and snowing.  The locals know to be prepared for anything, and to get outside and frolic while the skies are clear.

After zooming down to the campground and setting up the tent, I set off once again for the Lake Louise parking lot.  I managed to be on trail by shortly after 1 pm, which left me enough daylight hours to do the Mount St. Piran hike and still not have to cook dinner in the dark.  The trail to Mount St. Piran is classified somewhere between a tough hike and an easy scramble.  Over about six kilometres of trail, you gain 900 metres of altitude between the Lake Louise shoreline (1750m) and the Mount St. Piran summit (2650m).  In this photo from the lakeshore, Mount St. Piran is the barren second peak from the right, between the treed summit of Little Beehive and the rocky spires of Mount Niblock.

The first hour of the trail is fairly uneventful, as you steadily climb the well-graded trail to Mirror Lake.  Since this trail doubles as the main access to the Lake Agnes teahouse and the Big and Little Beehives, it can be fairly crowded.  In September, it’s not too overrun by the ‘Adidas and tank-tops’ crowd, but it’s still not a trail that solitude seekers would enjoy.  The shore of pretty little Mirror Lake is a nice place to stop for a snack and drink of water – just keep a wary eye on the local whiskeyjacks or else they might swoop down and commandeer your nuts.

The trail continues up around the right (east) side of Mirror Lake, constantly gaining altitude en route to the Little Beehive.  About a kilometre past Mirror Lake, the Mount St. Piran trail splits off to the left into the woods.  Someone has inexplicably tried to scratch the trail name off the Parks Canada signpost, but the turn-off is still pretty obvious.  If you miss it and end up at the Little Beehive viewpoint, just backtrack around 300 metres and watch for the branch.

From the signpost, the trail climbs through groves of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.  About 500m later, you rise above the treeline and views open up in every direction.  Most of the trail to the summit is a series of well-graded switchbacks through subalpine meadows.  With every step, the views back to Lake Louise and up and down the Bow Valley improve.  It’s only when you reach the eastern false summit of Mount St. Piran, roughly an hour after leaving the Little Beehive trail, that this hike becomes a bit of a scramble.  A series of rock cairns guide the hiker across the rough boulder-strewn path to the summit, but anyone with basic route-finding skills should have no problem finding the way.

Once on top of Mount St. Piran, your effort is rewarded with a unique perspective on the Lake Louise area.  The glaciated face of Mount Victoria is mostly hidden behind Mount Whyte and the Devil’s Thumb.  However, you get to look across horizontally at virtually every other landmark.  The stark face of Mount Niblock stares back at you from the west, while Fairview Mountain and Mount Haddo to the south form a dramatic backdrop for turquoise Lake Louise.  Further to the west stand the glaciated slopes of Mount Lefroy and The Mitre.  Sneak over to the southwestern edge of the summit, and you can stare down at Lake Agnes and the Big Beehive several hundred metres below your feet.  Whichever way you look, the view is dramatic.

Some people choose to descend to the avalanche slope at the west end of Lake Agnes via the col between Mounts St. Piran and Niblock.  I had a look and saw a reasonable route down, but since it was late in the day I returned to Lake Louise by the conventional trail.   I didn’t particularly feel like being stranded in the dark above treeline if I made a wrong turn on the way down.  Perhaps on another day, when there’s a different champagne supernova in the sky, I’ll try the alternative route to the summit of Mount St. Piran

Upcoming Music Releases – September 2012

September looks like a great month for new music, with several well-regarded acts releasing new albums.  Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, the album format isn’t dead just yet.

4-Sep-2012:

Experimental rock outfit Animal Collective releases Centipede Hz, their first album since 2009’s critically acclaimed Merriweather Post PavilionMPP perfected the tricky balancing act of combining unusual sounds and challenging songwriting with bouncy, digestible production techniques.  Early word is that the new album is yet another shift in the group’s fearlessly evolving sound, this time ramping up the sonic density to new levels.

Fresh off an appearance at the London 2012 closing ceremonies, UK rock act Elbow release a b-sides collection.  Dead in the Boot collects various odds ‘n’ sods from the past decade, songs that for whatever reason did not find their way onto one of Elbow’s five excellent studio albums.  Recommended for fans of brooding, quietly anthemic (and that’s not meant to be a contradiction), unquestionably British rock music.

11-Sep-2012:

North Carolina’s Avett Brothers return with new album The Carpenter, the follow-up to 2009’s breakthrough I And Love And You.  Their unique brand of rocked-up, punked-out folk resonates well with satellite radio listeners and music festival attendees, many of whom seem to become instant fans.  Über-producer Rick Rubin is once again on hand to twiddle the knobs and push the sliders, which should give The Carpenter the same kind of uncluttered, widescreen space to sprawl out and engage listeners as its predecessor.

Despite occasional dalliances with other styles, Calexico’s music has usually been grounded in the American southwest.  Tucson-based Calexico have elected to switch things up this time, recording new album Algiers not in northern Africa but in the lovely and musical city of New Orleans.  Expect Calexico’s trademark sounds (warm vocals, acoustic guitars and mariachi horns) to still feature prominently in the mix, just in an entirely new musical context.

One of the best albums of 2009 was the debut recording from tricky-to-Google group The XX.  Its combination of beguiling beats, boy/girl vocals and crystalline sonic textures earned the UK band the Mercury Music Prize.  New album Coexist aims to build on the momentum of the debut, the group’s greatest strength being their ability to infuse the spaces between the notes with just as much beauty as the notes themselves.

18-Sep-2012:

Alt-something (alt-rock? alt-folk? alt-country?) group Band of Horses are back with new album Mirage Rock.  The strong songwriting on their previous album, 2010’s Infinite Arms, opened a lot of doors, securing Band of Horses appearances on national TV and a prime slot at seemingly every major music festival.  This time out, the band elected to work with legendary producer Glyn Johns, best known for being behind the boards for five-star classics like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street by the Stones, and Who’s Next and Quadrophenia by The Who.  At the very least, Mirage Rock should sound fantastic.  If Band of Horses can once again deliver on the songwriting and performing front, this album should appear on many Best of 2012 lists.

The rumours are true.  Ben Folds Five are back together, and their reunion album The Sound of the Life of the Mind is set to drop.  A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1999’s brilliant The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.  Ben Folds’ songwriting has grown in a multitude of new directions over several solo records.  It will be interesting to see what getting back together with drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge does to Ben’s muse.  Will the presence of his old pals spark a return of the angst-ridden smart-ass piano slammer we knew and loved?

Studio album #4 from The Killers is called Battle Born.  The presence of A-list producers like Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, and Brendan O’Brien suggests that the Las Vegas band is once again setting their sights on Joshua Tree epic greatness.   Brandon Flowers’ recent solo projects seem to have given him more confidence and a better ability to exploit his limited vocal range – we shall see how this translates to a full-blown Killers album.

25-Sep-2012:

Rootsy UK folk-rockers Mumford & Sons finally release the follow-up to 2009’s Sigh No MoreBabel seeks to build on the ubiquitous airplay of earlier tracks like “Little Lion Man”.  Early reports suggest that Babel will not reinvent wheels – if you liked the punk-rock banjo stylings and harmony vocals of the debut, you won’t be disappointed by these twelve new songs.