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

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Craven Hermit Blows His Wad on Records

Relax, the title of this blog post is a metaphor, and an homage to some of the deliberately unsettling chyrons they use on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Believe me, you DON’T want to know what other titles were under consideration 🙂

Today is Record Store Day 2012.  I moseyed down to my favourite local indie record shop this morning to see what they had on offer.  I originally planned to get there right when they opened (10 am) but some under-publicized road construction sent me on an impromptu detour.

I walked in the doors of Blackbyrd Myoozik at 10:15 am to find the place jam-packed with hipsters, enough to surely test the maximum occupancy limits in our local fire code.  Usually on my Friday afternoon sojourns to the store I’m the only customer.  But on this day, by the time I got there the store was overrun by people with WAY more facial and/or cranial hair than me.  And the ubiquitous music-nerd glasses too.  I would estimate that there were 30 to 40 people in the store by 30 minutes after opening this morning.   Everyone behaved in an orderly fashion, and it did the Craven Hermit’s soul good to see so many people with armfuls of albums waiting in the check-out line, even if the line-up effectively filled the entire store.  The shopkeepers’ choice of spinning the new Spiritualized record as a backdrop to the mayhem likely helped maintain some semblance of decorum.  It could have gotten really ugly if they’d played the new Lou Reed / Metallica album instead.

Not only were there many Record Store Days special promotions available, but they put all the new vinyl on sale 20% off, and all used vinyl was 50% off.  This proved to be a popular move.  Maybe RSD cuts into Blackbyrd’s profit margin a little bit, but they more than made up for it in volume today.  Good for them.

Your faithful correspondent went on a bit of a spending spree today (hence the wad-blowing title of this post).  I’ve accumulated some overtime at work lately, getting the next phase of my latest project set up for my team.  So today was a reward for keeping my nose to the grindstone.  I decided to focus my weekend on what makes me happy, so that meant adding new records to my collection.  I managed to get there early enough to come away with these RSD exclusives:

  • Pete Townshend – Quadrophenia Demos 2 (10″ vinyl)
  • Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (on 180-gram 12″ vinyl)
  • Blitzen Trapper – Hey Joe (7″ on yellow vinyl)

As I mentioned earlier, in-stock vinyl was also on sale today so I picked up a number of titles that I’ve seen on the shelves but just never pulled the trigger on until now.

I was really hoping to find a copy of the Decemberists’ new live record, but they didn’t have it in stock.  I consoled myself with a copy of last year’s most excellent The King Is Dead on 180g.  Peter Buck is about as close to a hero as I have, and his influence is all over this record like stink on a monkey.

I also helped myself to a copy of the Fleet Foxes debut album.  Nice thing about this one is it comes with a copy of the excellent Sun Giant EP.  Two birds, one stone.  Very nice.  Can’t wait to hear “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” the way it was meant to be heard, rotating rotisserie-style at 33-1/3 rpm.

I saw a copy of The Clash’s debut album on 180g and had to have it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the slashing strains of “Career Opportunities” in my tape-recorder brain while having a bad day at work.  That’ll be my go-to record the next time I get wound up (so… Tuesday, at the latest).

I’ve also been looking for a copy of Spoon’s Gimme Fiction album for awhile now.  There is something magical about the carefully crafted sparseness of songs like “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and “My Mathematical Mind” that really gets to me.  Can’t wait to drop the needle on this one.

M. Ward’s new album A Wasteland Companion was in stock, so I helped myself to a copy.  The early reviews sound very promising; I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve had time to give it a proper listen.

One of my favourite bands is UK rock act Muse.  What I love about this band is how fearless they are.  Prog rock is decidedly uncool these days, yet Muse find a way to make interstellar paranoia and balls-to-the-wall compound time signatures sound relevant and topical.  My favourite live gig in 2010 was Muse’s tour in support of The Resistance, so I finally picked it up on LP today.  I’m still not 100% sold on the symphonic ambitions of Side 4, but the brilliance of rock songs like “Resistance” and “Undisclosed Desires” simply can’t be denied.

Yours truly was privileged to be in attendance this week when the Joel Plaskett Emergency blazed through town.  Their new album still isn’t available on vinyl, but I broke down and picked up Plaskett’s best ‘solo’ record Ashtray Rock today.  There is just something unmistakable about Plaskett’s musical talents that really comes through on this record; it captures the essence of being 18 years old and stupid (yet cool) all over again.

At this point, with ten pieces of new vinyl in hand, I remembered that discretion was the better part of valour and headed for the cashier.  The store was so grateful for my (over)consumption that they offered me a very nice complimentary tote bag to transport my new purchases home.

I got home just before lunch, and felt suitably inspired by what had just transpired on Record Store Day to set out across the neighbourhood for a long walk.  I picked up a new pair of cross-trainers in Georgia while on a slurry pump training course last month.  Since the weather has been nice lately and the trails are mainly dry, I decided to break in the new shoes today.  It was like walking on a mattress – my new Air Pegasus trainers have beautiful bounce and traction.

When I returned home 3 hours and 6 minutes later, I was expecting to see that I had traveled 15 to 16 kilometres.  Instead, my trusty app tells me I clicked off exactly 18 km over those three hours, which is a very good pace by my standards (10’20” per km).  It must have been the new shoes.

Today’s walk has inspired me to go downstairs, rip the packaging off of some new top-notch music, and set up shop in front of my turntable.  Tonight has been a long time coming, and while I may have the absence of a couple of people hanging heavy on my mind, I can still take refuge in the age-old thrill of spinning some excellent new recordings for the first time.

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!

#4 – Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Label:  Sub Pop

Released:  2-May-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.fleetfoxes.com

Seattle indie folksters return to the studio with new sounds and renewed confidence.

Fleet Foxes burst onto the music scene in 2008 with an EP that perked up the ears of indie music aficionados (Sun Giant) and a full-length self-titled album that opened many doors for the band.  The glorious ensemble sound of Fleet Foxes is decidedly contrary to most of modern rock music.  The band pinches elements of harmony from the Beach Boys, folky rhythms from Simon & Garfunkel, and baroque song structure from the Zombies, but infuse them with a modern pop sensibility like Band of Horses or their Sub Pop label-mates The Shins.  It sounds at once both familiar and completely unique.

This year saw the release of the long-awaited follow-up record, and Helplessness Blues was certainly worth the wait.  If the previous releases tended to be sun-kissed and bright, then the new record prefers to play in the skewed golden hues of sunrise and sunset.  Fleet Foxes have also returned with a few new instruments to play and new ideas to try.

“Montezuma” sets the new tone early, by looking wistfully to the past while also musing about the concerns of today and tomorrow.  On the lead-off track, and throughout the record, it’s Robin Pecknold’s lead vocal line that primarily carries the melody while the band harmonizes in the background.  This frees up space for other instruments to contribute to the melody.  “Bedouin Dress” and “Sim Sala Bim” introduce new influences to Fleet Foxes’ verdant British wellspring, the former with a North African melody line and the latter with a slow-building acoustic guitar raga.

The band really lets rip with the title track, channeling the best of Paul Simon’s 1960s work into a lament by someone who’s old enough to be self-aware but young enough to not understand his place in the world at large.  It’s a jaw-dropping example of a band that has unlocked the power of the recording studio, and should prove to be a crowd-pleaser for years to come.

Perhaps the bravest song on the record is “The Shrine / An Argument”.  Epic in scope and confident in delivery, the song flows through at least four distinct movements – the first is reflective, the second is defiant, the third is a distended sort of melancholy, and the closing section is a disturbed and twisted skronk that sounds not unlike Radiohead’s soundtrack for a balloon animal convention.  It’s very weird, and who knows how it will be arranged for live concerts, but it’s certainly a brilliant step out from anything the band has released to date.

Over the course of two full-length albums and an EP, Fleet Foxes have managed to carve out a niche for themselves while kick-starting a folk renaissance in indie rock circles.  Helplessness Blues is the sort of instant classic that one imagines will still be enjoyed ten or twenty years from now by music fans, very likely on vinyl while seated next to a glowing fireplace.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HHgedNNQco