Half-Time

The half-time show at the Super Bowl has become a spectacle that often outshines the actual football game. We have grown accustomed to watching an A-list musical act give a slickly produced, twelve-minute performance midway through the NFL championship game. It provides a pop culture counterpoint to the big game and all the million-dollar advertisements.

Michael Jackson kicked off the modern-era of pop superstars at Superbowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in 1993, and the NFL has rarely messed with the formula since then. This year’s half-time extravaganza on February 3rd will feature the bootylicious tandem of Beyoncé and Jay-Z on stage at the Louisiana Superdome. America’s first couple of popular music seem destined to deliver a high-energy mix of live vocals and choreographed dance moves set to pre-recorded, synthetic R&B and urban beats.

But it wasn’t always this way.

For the first twenty-five Super Bowls, the half-time shows consisted largely of that staple of college football – marching bands. The theme of the performances would vary from year to year, depending on the venue. Themes included big band music or Mardi Gras for games in New Orleans, something vaguely Latino for games held in south Florida, and Disney dioramas in southern California. There were also far, FAR too many appearances by the wretched Up With People dancers that are best left consigned to the dustbin of history.

Since Jacko’s creepily spectacular appearance in 1993, a variety of acts have represented the shifting flavours of American popular music. Brief dalliances with new-country and soul eventually ceded the stage to modern R&B. The first decade of the twenty-first century begat a trend towards ‘classic rock’ acts like The Who, Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and the Rolling Stones. Most of these bands used their Super Bowl appearance as a launch point for a world tour.

Sequestered in a curlicued waiting room somewhere between classic rock and R&B was the jaw-dropping performance by Prince at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Urban music fans and meat & potatoes rockers alike were left in awe of the Purple One’s raw musicality.

More recently, the irrepressible Black Eyed Peas got the big gig (apparently they weren’t scheduled to play a bar mitzvah or the grand opening of a new Costco that weekend). Last year, the human-shaped tube of cartilage and rib bones known as Madonna delivered a set that under-delivered on shock value but earned good ratings. The tag team of Beyoncé and Jay-Z will likely prove to be ratings gold in February, providing that Foxxy Cleopatra’s nipples don’t make an ‘accidental’ appearance on worldwide television.

On second thought – a wardrobe malfunction might be EXACTLY what some fraction of the viewing audience is quietly praying for this year.

While entertainment and spectacle is surely a big part of the Super Bowl’s allure, the championship game itself will always matter to the players, coaches, and football fanatics. Half-time is an important ritual in professional football. It gives the players a brief chance to get out of the spotlight, collect their thoughts, talk to their coaches, and make adjustments to whichever tactics don’t seem to be working. Teams will often come out of the tunnel to start the second half with a new game plan, which sometimes leads to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

In the Craven Hermit’s insular world, it’s half-time and the score feels like 28-11 for the other guys. Despite a decent game plan, the first two quarters did not go particularly well. I’m proud of my education and my relationships with my closest friends, and until very recently my career was on track. The most pressing problem is away from work, where the ‘offence’ is making virtually nothing happen. The first half was a litany of receivers dropping passes and running backs charging headlong into brick walls. So much potential, with so little to show for it. While the game is not over yet, some adjustments are needed before things really get out of hand.

In short, it’s time for an extended break to reflect and reconsider.

By the time this post hits the web, I’ll be on a jumbo jet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. I finally pulled the trigger on my dream vacation – a month of hiking and biking and other outdoor pursuits on a rugged island paradise. I’m normally a creature of habit, one that takes a perverse pleasure in the ritual of waking up in the same bed every day, going to work by the same route, attending the same meetings, and partaking in the same after-work activities. But all this order and structure means that every day is guaranteed to be an unfulfilling cavalcade of diminishing career ambitions and hopelessly asymmetric relationships. I simply can’t continue to come home to an empty house when there’s so much opportunity and potential in this world. One more day of the Tyranny of the Mundane and, just like the Ramones, I’ll be begging for sedation.

For the next month, I’m throwing Order out the window and embracing that fickle mistress known as Chaos. The hope is that a physically challenging adventure in a far-off land with total strangers will shock me out of my rut. With any luck, jumping head first into an alien world will grant me a fresh perspective on life and how to live it. At the very least, I will have some new tales to tell.

Life is kicking the Hermit’s ass, and the second half is coming up quickly. It’s time to formulate a bold new plan to get back in the game.

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.

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.

Chavril

Earlier today, someone asked me “Hey, Craven, you’re a snarky indier-than-thou music blogger” (guilty as charged!)  “How come you haven’t weighed in on this whole Chavril thing yet?

Especially considering what I had to say about them just a few days ago.

There’s a few reasons why I’ve resisted the temptation to comment… until now.

  1. The quasi-romantic reason:  I’m actually pretty happy any time two people are able to find each other in this crazy, mixed-up world.  If they feel the spark and can stand each other’s idiosyncrasies without going mental, then good for them.
  2. The sporting reason:  Hating on Avril Lavigne is kind of pointless.  Nobody expects a male thirty-something indie rock fan to like her anyway.  Hating on Nickelback, meanwhile, is our national pastime (and a fun one at that).  Hating on BOTH of them simultaneously?  It’s just too obvious, too easy.  It’s about as sporting as fishing for rainbow trout in a 50-gallon aquarium.  With dynamite.
  3. The pragmatic reason:  By joining forces, there is a chance that Chad and Avril’s twin flavours of terrible will cancel each other out, like standing waves at a stadium rock show.  Your classic “two birds, one stone” situation.  Admittedly, there is also an outside chance that the marrying of their two styles of ‘music’ could lead to some unstoppable, terrifying new Suck hybrid that is dangerously immune to all of humanity’s anti-viral medications.  But at least all of the terrible is now piled up at one convenient location – making it easier for us to carpet bomb with nukes if things get out of hand.
  4. The hygienic reason:  There are very few things in this world that I hate, because hate is such a strong word, but tabloid culture is definitely one of them.  I’ve always found it morally repugnant that our society places so much interest in who some actress is sleeping with, or what kind of narcotic some rock star is injecting into his urethra.  It’s just so shallow and soulless and boring and irrelevant to my life.  By and large, celebrities are ordinary people with extraordinary jobs – they just happen to be more visible than your average machinist or grocery clerk.  It’s true that some of them ham it up and work the system to draw attention to themselves and/or their projects, so they don’t get a free pass either.  Narcissism doesn’t look good on anyone, regardless of how tiny your waist is or how white your teeth are.  But do we really need a couple of dozen infotainment programs on TV to document what Tom Cruise had for breakfast?  Talking about the personal lives of famous people makes my skin crawl.  I kind of feel like taking a shower just for writing this post.
  5. The missed-window-of-opportunity reason:  Frankly, the Twitterverse beat me to it.  A lot of people made snarky comments but @Adam_Newman said it best:

Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback are getting married? I didn’t know Canada allowed SAME SUCKS MARRIAGE

A Symphony of British Music

Some random observations on the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games:

It was previously noted in these pages that the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Games would enjoy the luxury of cherry-picking from amongst the greatest acts the popular music world has ever known.  This was evident during tonight’s ceremony.  In February 2010, Vancouver shut off their Olympic lights to the tortured strains of Simple Plan, Nickelback, and Avril Lavigne.  Canadians have been apologizing to the world for noise pollution ever since.  The British, in contrast, have nothing to apologize for.  Their gifts to the world of music are undeniably great.  The UK charts have been an embarrassment of riches for five decades.

Ray Davies emerged from a London taxi and, from a perch maybe a scant ten kilometres from his original muse, sang his Kinks masterwork “Waterloo Sunset”.  The perpetually stylish Pet Shop Boys vamped their way around Olympic Stadium to the immediately recognizable synthesized strains of “West End Girls”.  Even dancehall-pop group Madness were resurrected for a madcap version of their worldwide hit “Our House”.

For some unfathomable reason, David Bowie was not on hand to sing Olympian favourite “Heroes” – instead, we got Memorex Bowie and recordings like “Fashion”.  Larger-than-life actor Russell Brand filled in for John Lennon on a surreal take on The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”.  Goo goo ga-joob!

There may be no more haunting, glorious sound on the planet than the sound of a Welsh men’s choir.  Something about that sound resonates in the ancestral lobes of my brain.

The Canadian television feed of the ceremony helpfully identified most of the performers, and even managed to show most of the performances, unlike a certain American network (earning the now-ubiquitous label #NBCfail).  But for whatever reason, CTV/TSN left out the name of one important act.  In case you were wondering which fantastic band played while the athletes were entering the stadium – that was Northern England’s own Elbow.  The two songs they performed, “Open Arms” and “One Day Like This”, are big favourites of the Craven Hermit.  If you would like to hear more of this band’s epic melodic genius, check out their 2011 album Build a Rocket Boys! or 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid.

Annie Lennox could sing page 417 of the phone book and still sound amazing.

2009 saw the acrimonious split of Oasis, with Noel and Liam Gallagher pledging to never work together again (at least not until some concert promoter backs up a truck filled with a couple tons of gold bullion).  In the meantime, Noel continues to refuse to participate in all public spectacles on the principle that ‘they are all completely shite’.  On this night, it was left to Liam’s new project Beady Eye to perform “Wonderwall” for the masses.  If you think the symphonic strings on stage and on your television screen were actually part of the live music mix, then perhaps you’d be interested in some ocean-front property we’re selling.  In Saskatchewan.

Fatboy Slim emerged from an inflatable octopus at mid-field (drugs were taken) to ‘play’ “Right Here Right Now” and “The Rockafeller Skank”.  Although any half-way talented twelve-year-old with an iPad and a 99-cent app could have ‘performed’ it just as well.

Jessie J is basically the UK’s answer to Katy Perry except with bigger, err, lungs.  Her manager somehow talked the organizers into putting her into four (yes, FOUR) songs, which was at least 75% more Jessie J than anyone really needed.

Comedy legend Eric Idle appeared mid-ceremony to lead the assembled masses through a rendition of Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”, complete with gorgeous angels, roller-blading nuns, a Bollywood interlude, and a man fired across the stadium from a cannon.  Of course.

More than two decades after his untimely death, Freddie Mercury can still capture the imagination of a crowd of 80,000 punters with the immortal music of Queen.  Footage of Freddie singing at Queen’s 1986 triumphant gig at old Wembley Stadium inspired the audience to raise their voices in unison.  Despite a lack of critical acclaim throughout their career, Queen truly are the UK’s ‘People’s Band’.  Too bad they couldn’t rustle up someone more exciting to sing “We Will Rock You” with Brian May and Roger Taylor than Jessie J.  Hell, if George Michael was so insistent on doing a second song tonight, he could have sung the hell out of this one.

The Craven Hermit is a huge Muse fan, but the song they wrote for the Olympics is pretty much the definition of ‘meh’.  ‘Bombastic’ is not synonymous with ‘great’ or even ‘interesting’.  As their ancestral countryman might have said – Muse’s “Survival” is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Hopefully this isn’t a sign of things to come on the next Muse record, which will be released in early October.

Once again, the ceremony made a point of covering up the crippling unpopularity of IOC chairman Jacques Rogge.  Much like the way that all pro hockey functions are obligated to trot out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the company of a one-legged Nobel laureate orphan with an incurable disease, the Olympic organizers made sure that Rogge was always paired up with popular characters like indefatigable British sporting legend Sebastian Coe.  One imagines that if Rogge ever took to a stage alone, he would either be met with silent indifference or, worse, several dozen bottles of pee hurled at his head.  (Incidentally, bottled-pee-hurling would not be the most ridiculous of Olympic events, and British music festival attendees would take the gold medal in a walk).  But on this night, Coe did his best to inspire the crowd and keep everything civil.  Note to the IOC – if your chairman is so unpopular that you have to pair him up with the human equivalent of a baby kitten for all of his public appearances, maybe it’s time for a new chairman.  Just saying.

One could quibble with the ceremony organizers’ inability to feature Radiohead or Coldplay or Kasabian or Manic Street Preachers or Blur or the Stone Roses or New Order on this night (though New Order and Blur did appear at the Hyde Park after-party).  Even the petrified remains of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were AWOL.  Imagine the goosebumps if Peter Gabriel had come out to do “In Your Eyes”, or even Robbie Williams for “Angels”.  And no offence to gifted up-and-comer Ed Sheeran, but it would have been nice to see either David Gilmour or Roger Waters amble on stage to join Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason for “Wish You Were Here”.  That said, surely there was enough musical talent on hand to reach a British quorum anyway.

As expected, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend closed out the ceremony, charged with reinvigorating the crowd after the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.  Meanwhile The Who’s original combustible drummer Keith Moon did not appear, despite rumours to the contrary, on account of still being quite dead.

And we here at the Craven Hermit blog don’t care what anyone says.  She might have left the group years ago.  She might not be the world’s greatest singer.  She’s not even a red-head anymore.  But Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, can still brighten anyone’s day.  There should be a gold medal awarded for singing from the roof of a moving taxi while wearing 4″ heels.

Last word goes to Bruce Arthur of the National Post, who tweeted this contrast between Vancouver and London:

No inflatable beavers in the Closing Ceremony.  Britain wins.