Five Songs for Fall

I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where we experience four distinct seasons.  Summers are comfortable – the sixteen hours of daylight is usually warm without being stifling, so you can still get to sleep at night.  Winters are fine – aside from a few nasty arctic outbreaks, the sub-zero temperatures and occasional snows are completely manageable.  Spring is awful – the pot-holed streets look like downtown Beirut, there’s garbage and dog turds poking out of snowbanks everywhere you look, and the few outdoor surfaces that happen to rise above the slimy meltwater are probably covered with snow mould.  That said, my favourite season has always been fall.

Part of the appeal of fall is that it’s like summer with less potential nuisances.  After the Labour Day long weekend, humidity is unheard of.  All it takes is a few cool nights to freeze off all the mosquitos.  Sure, it can be ten or fifteen degrees cooler than mid-July, but that’s what jackets are for.  The parks are less crowded, while the highways aren’t so jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.

Another thing that makes fall intriguing is that you’re never quite sure how long it’s going to last.  At my 53-degree latitude, fall typically lasts from the first light frost (usually in early September) until the first big snowfall (usually around Hallowe’en).  But lovely double-digit days aren’t unheard of in November… and neither is waking up to 10 cm of snow in the first week of September.  Fall is usually about eight weeks long, but any nice days after mid-October feel like gambling with house money.

Fall is probably the best season for strolling around the neighbourhood.  There’s essentially no need for sunscreen or bug spray.  Dehydration is rarely a problem, so you don’t have to lug a water bottle around with you.  On top of that, the scenery is wonderful.  Every time you set out on a walk, you’ll find that some of the foliage has changed from just a few days before.  There’s something soul-restoring about walking the trails with the muted crunch of fallen leaves underfoot and the unmistakable smell of decomposing leaves in your nostrils.

I set out for a quick spin around the neighbourhood today to test some new trail shoes I picked up in Denver.  I meant to hike briskly for an hour, but ended up clicking off 13.3 km in a little over two hours instead.  I think it was the autumnal songs that kept popping up on my iPod playlist – I was so immersed in the music that time ceased to be all that important.

To celebrate the season, here are five songs that are tailor-made for walkabouts in fall.

The Autumn Defense – “Once Around”

Frankly, pretty much anything by the Autumn Defense would make a great soundtrack for a walk in September or October.  This is the side band that was put together by John Stirratt and Pat Sansone to explore a different 1970s singer-songwriter vibe than their regular gig in the alternative rock band Wilco.  Layers of acoustic guitars and pensive vocals build up to cathartic releases of energy, before dissolving back into a laid-back groove.  You can pretty much feel the late-day sunshine filtering through the amber-hued trees as this song unfurls in your headphones.

Larch Valley, Banff National Park

Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos”

Another mid-tempo number propelled by acoustic guitars and choral vocals.  Perhaps this is the type of song that the adjective “autumnal” was coined for.  “Mykonos” is the high point of the Seattle band’s Sun Giant EP, and sounds like a lost transmission from the early 1970s.  The galloping beat and intertwining layers of voices make you feel like you could zip your fleece jacket up to your chin and keep strolling all the way to Greece.

Wood Bison Trail, Elk Island National Park

The Grapes of Wrath – “All The Things I Wasn’t”

This short little number always transports me back in time to high school.  The Grapes of Wrath were better known as Canadian purveyors of upbeat psychedelic jangle rock, something of a cross between R.E.M. and Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd.  The wistful and acoustic “All The Things I Wasn’t” plays against type, painting a tapestry of golds and reds in an all-too-brief two minutes and eighteen seconds of yearning and regret.

Spruce Grouse Hen – Strathcona Wilderness Centre

Bon Iver – “Holocene”

While the name that Justin Vernon chose for his band cheekily references winter, I always think of fall when I hear “Holocene”.  Maybe it’s partly because the abstract lyric mentions “laying waste to Hallowe’en”.  Like the other songs on this playlist, “Holocene” unfolds in waves of acoustic guitars and wistful vocals.  I think I’m drawn to the melancholy tones of Bon Iver’s music for the same reason that I like the fall; the fear and uncertainty in the music tidily parallels the tenebrific approach of another harsh winter.

City of Edmonton Skyline and the North Saskatchewan River Valley

R.E.M. – “Drive”

I gave up trying to understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics years ago.  From what I’ve read, he often relies on his subconscious to pull words out of the ether.  I suspect that even Stipe can’t pin down what “Drive” is all about.  There’s certainly a sense of middle-aged malaise, of dissatisfaction with the status quo, of not knowing where to go next.  But exactly how all this existential angst is supposed to congeal into coherent thoughts is anyone’s guess.  From a musical perspective, “Drive” is about as stately and autumnal as R.E.M. ever got.  Peter Buck’s looping acoustic guitar motif is overdubbed by searing electric lead lines.   Bill Berry’s sparse drums and Mike Mills’ accordion drop in and out of the arrangement at precisely the right times.  It all creates a melancholy atmosphere as thick as Brunswick stew, and is the perfect soundtrack for wistfully kicking aspen leaves along the trail.

Fern Lake Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park

Advertisements

Peter Gabriel – Live at Red Rocks 2012

Peter Gabriel is probably the last artist you might expect to take a retrospective look back at his career.  As the original singer of Genesis, he was obsessed with pushing the musical and theatrical envelopes further and further, choosing more elaborate stage costumes and more dramatic themes with each tour and album.  After going solo in 1976, he proceeded to explore the darker side of humanity – themes like familial dysfunction and political persecution – through a series of self-titled albums.  He’s not a musician that you would expect to tread water.

So it came as something of a surprise when Gabriel announced he was going to follow a current fad in rock ‘n’ roll circles – perform a popular album in its entirety – as part of his set-list.  With legendary acts like Pink Floyd, The Who and Metallica getting in on the trend, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Gabriel acquiesced.  It is testament to the strength of his So album, now 25 years after its original release, that Peter Gabriel would take a chance artistically and try to put his own personal spin on the concert gimmick.

What makes the ‘Back to Front’ 2012 tour intriguing is that Gabriel has reassembled most of the original touring band from the mid-1980s.  Fans have become accustomed to seeing human thunderstorm Tony Levin holding down the bass notes and David Rhodes supplying the guitars on recent Gabriel tours.  But having the rhythmic master Manu Katché ensconced behind the skins (shaking two trees) and multi-talented David Sancious tickling the ivories again is a real treat.  Cellist Linnea Olsson and pianist Jennie Abrahamson are the new additions for 2012, performing a brief four-song set to open the shows and contributing backing vocals to the main event.

I had never seen Peter Gabriel live in concert, but he has long been on my ‘bucket list’ of artists.  The closest that the ‘Back to Front’ tour was scheduled to come to my hometown was Denver, Colorado.  Although 1000 miles is not exactly ‘close’, there are direct flights every day and the gig was at beautiful Red Rocks Amphitheatre.  Couple that with a weekend show in the height of fall hiking season, and I pulled the trigger on a quick four-day road trip.

Red Rocks is probably the most beautiful concert venue in North America.  It was built in between several huge red rock formations in the Rocky Mountain foothills southwest of Denver, near the town of Morrison.  The show was scheduled to start at 8 pm on Sunday, September 30th, so I showed up early to walk around the park before entering the venue.  There is a nice network of trails to explore:

Even the neighbourhood mule deer were excited about the prospect of a Peter Gabriel concert (their ears are perked up and ready to rock):

About an hour before show time, I made my way up the long south ramp into the venue.  The ramp itself is something of an engineering marvel, contorting around the rocks while maintaining a reasonable grade:

At the terminus of a surprisingly long climb (which feels even longer at 6,400 feet above sea level) and after running the gauntlet of security and beer vendors, you emerge into the lower part of the amphitheatre.  The stunning, illuminated face of Creation Rock looms over you from the north side of the venue:

While the south side of the amphitheatre is flanked by Ship Rock:

Promptly at 8 pm, Mr. Gabriel strolled out to centre stage to greet his audience.  Dressed all in black, he explained that the show would start with a few numbers by Abrahamson and Olsson, then the full band would perform four acoustic numbers as an “appetizer”, followed by the “noisy, electric bit” for our “entrée”, concluding with the So album performed in its entirety as our “dessert”.

The acoustic set began with an untitled new number with an improvised lyric, which Gabriel managed to somehow flub within a couple of bars anyway.  The audience had a good chuckle as Gabriel playfully scolded himself before restarting the song.

The bass groove of “Come Talk To Me” was Tony Levin’s first chance to shine.  Whether playing standard bass, Chapman stick, or bass synth, the man is a groove machine.  Later on he switched to his infamous Funk Fingers, the mini-drumstick finger extensions he invented for thwacking the bass strings with his right hand.

For a supposedly acoustic set, “Shock the Monkey” was still surprisingly electrified and powerful.  The new arrangement also did little to diminish the quiet-loud dynamics of “Family Snapshot”.

Once the band was fully electrified, the party really got rocking.  The bass notes underpinning “Digging in the Dirt” sounded positively subterranean – deep and thick and felt in the diaphragm as much as they were heard in the ears.  For “Secret World”, the rhythm section locked into a solid, almost playful groove.  The way that Manu Katché plays is so fluid and so musical, it brings far more to the song than just a beat.  He’s like a poet that happens to speak using percussion instead of words.

On this night, “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “No Self Control” were played back-to-back.  I thought it was a little odd for two of Gabriel’s noisiest, most melodically unsettling numbers to be played sequentially.  I personally wish we had been treated to the gorgeous ballad “Wallflower” from the same era instead, especially in such beautiful natural surroundings on a clear autumn evening.  But one got the feeling that the band was enjoying the opportunity to let rip on some challenging songs.

“Solsbury Hill” re-energized the crowd, with its oddly engaging meter and playful dance steps.  Gabriel led Levin and Rhodes around the stage as his ‘happy minstrels’, and the audience responded by jumping to their feet to dance along.  “Washing of the Water” seemed like a strange way to wrap up an electric set of songs, but Gabriel hit all the high notes (impressive at 6,400 feet) and pulled it off with great aplomb.  The song represents a period of great turmoil in his personal life; I suspect that Gabriel chooses to keep it in his setlist because of its cathartic, almost baptismal lyrics.

And so it was finally time for So.  Gabriel prefaced the performance by explaining that “In Your Eyes” was always meant to be the last song on the album.  However, one of the limits of the vinyl era was that the last song on each side of the record suffers from limited bass.  I think this is because the linear velocity of the needle in the groove is slowest near the centre of a record.  To get around this limitation, “In Your Eyes” was moved to the start of Side B on vinyl pressings, which carried over into the earlier CD versions.  For the 2012 tour (and for the forthcoming re-releases of So), the song has apparently been relocated to its rightful place at the end of the record.

“Red Rain” kicked off the “dessert set”, with the band bathed in stunning red light.  This was another chance for Levin and Katché in particular to show off their formidable talents.  The funky Stax soul of “Sledgehammer” came across great, with the audience freely joining in at all the appropriate spots.  Gabriel even infused the vocals with all the faux-sexy overt gestures his fans have come to adore over the years.

For “Don’t Give Up”, Jennie Abrahamson did an admirable job of replicating the call & response vocals famously contributed to the album version by Kate Bush.  The timbre of her voice adeptly matches the fragile beauty of Bush’s singing and conveys the reassuring, almost matronly meaning of the lyric.

After the multi-part harmonic a cappella opening, Gabriel performed the rest of “Mercy Street” laying face-up at center stage, staring skyward at the camera in the circular lighting assembly.  He returned to his keyboard rig for the meaty, beaty, big & bouncy intro to “Big Time”.  Of all the numbers on So, “Big Time” is perhaps the one that translates most clumsily to 2012.  The unabashedly synthetic melodies of the song are so strongly associated with the mid-1980s that they almost feel foreign in the present day.  In the 50,000 watt glow of primary-coloured stage lighting, the band did their best to recreate the era of Reagan/Thatcher, legwarmers and MTV for the huddled masses.

“We Do What We’re Told” and “This Is The Picture” haven’t been in Gabriel’s setlist in decades, if indeed they ever were.  It’s not fair to label these the ‘filler’ on the album, since their inclusion was much more about atmospherics and experimentation than the big commercial singles.  “This Is The Picture” is probably the most fully realized example of worldbeat in the Peter Gabriel solo canon.  For this song, all five musicians donned portable instruments (keytars, drum machines, and the like) and got the funk out at centre stage.

And then it was time for the highlight of the night.  I think “In Your Eyes” is the greatest thing that Peter Gabriel ever wrote.  I will admit to being emotionally overwhelmed when I finally got to see it performed live in concert.  There is just something magical about how the melody builds on the rhythm, while the rhythm builds on the melody, layer by layer, that is simply astonishing.  Any time you’re at your lowest point, haunted by the fear that you may never find someone to share your life with, you can always come back to the words and music of “In Your Eyes” for inspiration.

(In your eyes)
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
(In your eyes)
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
(In your eyes)
I see the light and the heat
(In your eyes)
I want to be that complete

Everyone at Red Rocks should have been blessed with someone’s hand to squeeze, and someone’s ear to whisper into, as this song unfolded on stage.

With the dinner courses complete, it was time for the band to dash offstage for the obligatory 2-minute encore break.  They were coaxed back to the stage to do two more numbers.  “The Tower That Ate People”, from his OVO record, was the big production number of the evening.  As the song progressed, the lighting rig descended to the stage and encircled Gabriel.  When the lighting rig began to rise again, it drew out a brilliant white tube that encapsulated the singer.  At the climax of the song, the audience could see the singer flailing against the silken walls of his prison.  Perhaps the tube was a metaphor for how humanity has become enslaved by the machinery of its own creation.  Or perhaps it just looked cool.

The show ended with Peter Gabriel’s musical tribute to South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko.  One by one, the band members left the stage until Manu Katché finally laid down his sticks.  It was a fitting end to a full evening of music that had begun with people filtering into Red Rocks while Paul Simon’s version of “Biko” played over the PA system.

SETLIST:

‘Acoustic’ set:
(Untitled new song) 
“Come Talk to Me”
“Shock the Monkey”
“Family Snapshot”

‘Electric’ set:
“Digging in the Dirt”
“Secret World”
“The Family and the Fishing Net”
“No Self Control”
“Solsbury Hill”
“Washing of the Water”

The ‘So’ set:
“Red Rain”
“Sledgehammer”
“Don’t Give Up”
“That Voice Again”
“Mercy Street”
“Big Time”
“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”
“This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”
“In Your Eyes”

Encore:
“The Tower That Ate People”
“Biko”

Post-Script:  A few nights after the Red Rocks show, the ‘Back to Front’ tour rolled into Los Angeles for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl.  The intro to “In Your Eyes” featured the incomparable Lloyd Dobler (aka John Cusack) walking on stage with a boombox.  File under ‘awesome’.

Post-Post-Script:  Soundboard recordings of all the shows on the ‘Back to Front’ tour are available from TheMusic via www.petergabriel.com.  You can either buy double-CD versions or high-quality WAV files on a collectible USB.

Do Not F&ck With Elmo

A few things in life are worth fighting for.  This is one of them.

Okay – the economy of the USA isn’t so hot right now.  You’re borrowing a trillion dollars a year from China to finance two wars by credit card.  You’re $16 trillion in debt.  You’re addicted to cheap oil.  And any day now, you’re going to find yourselves up to your asses in old people, all of whom will demand first-class health care and subsidized Viagra. But don’t worry – everything’s cool.  We still like you.

But here’s the thing.  Someone that aspires to be your leader said that he can help right your financial ship by slashing funding to Big Bird and Cookie Monster.  Now, that’s just ludicrous.  Do you really want to get on Bert’s evil side?  You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Upcoming Music Releases – October 2012

There are several highly anticipated albums due out in October.  Here is a summary of what’s new & cool.

2-Oct-2012:

The Mountain Goats release new album Transcendental Youth on Merge Records.  It seems like yesterday when they released their commercial breakthrough album Tallahassee, but that was a full decade and seven (yes, seven) albums ago.  John Darnielle and crew are nothing if not prolific.  Early reports are that the new album finds Darnielle waxing poetic about hopelessness, substance abuse, and the darkness on the edge of town.

I’m now two full decades removed from second-year thermodynamics class, but some of the principles have stuck with me.   The second law of thermodynamics postulates that work is irreversible – for instance, heat can never be converted perfectly into useful work.  The leftover energy in a closed system, called entropy, is always positive and tends to accumulate over time.  This is the basic premise that makes perpetual motion machines impossible.  All of this is a strange jumping-off point for rock ‘n’ roll, but thermodynamics informs the new record by Muse.  The 2nd Law concludes with two tracks, named “Unsustainable” and “Isolated System”, which seem destined to push the band’s sonic envelope even further than the “Exogenesis” symphonic suite on 2009’s The Resistance album.  Muse has made a career out of “us against the world” polemics, so one suspects that entropy might be an apt metaphor for the ever-expanding sense of chaos and disorder and unsustainable growth in modern society. Muse artfully blends the power-trio dynamics of Rush with the fearless epic grandiosity of classic Queen.  Based on lead single “Madness”, it seems that Muse has made good on their promise to follow-up the sexy, modern synth sounds first explored on “Undisclosed Desires”.  A special edition of The 2nd Law is due out a week later, featuring CD, DVD, and vinyl versions of the record plus posters, wrapped in deluxe packaging.

9-Oct-2012:

AC Newman is set to release his third solo set of songs, titled Shut Down The Streets.  The New Pornographers front man occasionally steps away from the day job to exercise his power-pop muscles in a different context.  Judging by the album cover (admittedly an approach which may or may not be a good idea), expect the new album to be infused by a retro 1970’s singer-songwriter vibe.  But will an album supposedly informed by Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” go all out and bring the saxophones along for the ride?

The debut record by hotly-tipped UK quartet Alt-J finally gets a North American release on or around October 9th (reports differ).  An Awesome Wave has collected plaudits back home for its artistic bravery, combining elements of Radiohead’s push-pull electronics, Americana’s strong melodies, and a kitchen sink of world music rhythms.  Depending on the listener, this Mercury Prize nominated record could be an engaging amalgam of styles, or it could also quite easily be an unlistenable hodgepodge.  Your mileage may vary.

16-Oct-2012:

Ben Gibbard knows how to keep busy.  When being the front man for northwestern indie popsters Death Cab for Cutie wasn’t enough, Gibbard collaborated with the likes of Jimmy Tamborello (as The Postal Service) and Jay Farrar (on the soundtrack for a documentary about beat poet Jack Kerouac).  Gibbard has finally chosen to go it alone with debut album Former Lives.  While his vocal prowess sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, the man does have a knack for crafting interesting phrases and melodies.

23-Oct-2012:

For those that like their alt-rock to be cross-pollinated by sparkling synthesizers, Shiny Toy Guns are back with their third album release.  Original vocalist Carah Faye Charnow is back in the band after several years away, which has set the hearts of the many fans of debut album We Are Pilots all a-flutter.  Early reports suggest that III will be more electronic than the first two records, eschewing guitars in favour of a slicker synth-pop sound (think Depeche Mode but with a happier West Coast vibe).

The 25th anniversary re-release of hit album So comes as Peter Gabriel’s ‘Back to Front’ tour criss-crosses North America.  This is Gabriel’s most accessible (and, not surprisingly, most commercially successful) album, featuring bold and brassy songs like “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”.  The clever videos to promote these songs were MTV staples (side note for the kids – MTV actually used to show music videos all day long.  It was pretty awesome.  Ask your parents!).  “Red Rain”, “Don’t Give Up”, and “Mercy Street” have stayed in Gabriel’s live canon throughout the years.  Album closer “In Your Eyes” was made famous by its inclusion in the Cameron Crowe film Say Anything, and remains the best thing Peter Gabriel ever released.  So will be re-released in various formats, including a 3-CD set with two discs of live material and a half-speed 180-gram vinyl pressing that is already on my Christmas list.

30-Oct-2012:

Lovable curmudgeon Neil Young has teamed up with his Crazy Horse mates to release a second new album in 2012.  Psychedelic Pill is the first album of all-new material with the full line-up of Young, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Frank Sampedro since 2003’s ambitious Greendale project.  The lead-off track is a song called “Driftin’ Back” which clocks in at a few ticks shy of 28 minutes.  Drugs were taken.

Bonus Content!

The new release schedule for November and December looks like the usual fourth-quarter crap-a-thon of Christmas albums and greatest ‘hits’ collections.  In essence, albums for people that like music but don’t love music.  It may be awhile before the Craven Hermit has any new albums to ‘big up’, so in the meantime here is a pair of very worthy bonus releases that slipped through the cracks in September.

11-Sep-2012:

Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist for Radiohead, has built a healthy cottage industry of composing motion picture soundtracks.  He has teamed up once again with director Paul Thomas Anderson to write the music for new film The Master.  This is the movie that professes to NOT be about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology (yes, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm was NOT about Communism).  Greenwood is a master at writing off-kilter, moody pieces of music that seem claustrophobic and dischordant yet still manage to add tension and context to the moving pictures on screen.  If you liked his spooked, minimalist work in the film There Will Be Blood, you should also enjoy this new project.

25-Sep-2012:

R.E.M.’s fifth record was their last for record company IRS, and its success was perfectly timed.  Document broke the Athens, Georgia band wide open, promoting the college indie stars to the upper echelon of worldwide superstars.  Singles like “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” and anti-love song “The One I Love” still feature prominently on alternative rock radio today.  Deeper cuts, like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Disturbance at the Heron House” showed that their mainstream breakthrough didn’t come at the cost of the band’s collective conscience.  This newly released 25th anniversary edition includes a remastered edition of the original album, plus a cracking & snarling live disc from their 1987 European tour.