Anticipation

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For me, one of the most exciting parts of being a record collector (and, more generally, a music fan) is taking a peek at the upcoming release schedule and counting down the days until my favourite bands release their newest works to the world. It’s one of the reasons why I feel sorry for the folks that are content to go with the flow and listen to whatever Top 40 radio or Spotify curates for them. Even though the process is nearly extinct, there’s a little spark of magic to be found in dropping by your local record store on ‘New Release’ day – it used to be Tuesdays, now it’s Fridays – and exchanging your hard-earned cash for some new musical adventures.

It certainly appears that 2017’s new release schedule will not disappoint me. Over the next few months, a bevy of artists that I greatly admire will be unleashing new records and possibly going on tour to promote them. I can hardly wait; I’m vibrating like my five year old niece on Christmas Eve.

The upcoming releases that I’m most looking forward to are as follows:

Prisoner by Ryan Adams (17-Feb-2017)

ryanadams_prisonerI won’t dispute that, at times, Ryan Adams could have benefitted from an editor to bring coherence to his ramshackle albums. Why put out three half-assed records a year, when you could have put out one lean & mean, 10-track compendium and ruled the musical landscape? Alas, Adams has dialled down his self-medications and grown wiser in recent years. Prisoner will be his first album of original material since his 2014 self-titled record, not counting 2015’s well received but oddly unsatisfying track-by-track remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Three years is like three decades by Adams’ standards.  Like all great introspective divorce albums, Prisoner is reportedly fuelled by the breakdown of his marriage to Mandy Moore. Rumours abound that the music is infused with 1980’s touchstones, so presumably Adams is finally conjoining his trademark melancholy with his unabashed Smiths fandom. Song titles like “Do You Still Love Me”, “Doomsday”, “To Be Without You”, and “Breakdown” are a pretty good indication of where his head is at. I pre-ordered this LP online, and I will continue to check my mailbox every night until it arrives.

New Album by Beck (date and title TBD)

beck_dreamsThis record was supposed to come out in the summer of 2016. Singles “Dreams” and “Wow” hit the airwaves, and bounced with an energy that screamed “day-glo festival performance staples”. Yet despite a series of rumoured and subsequently abandoned 2016 release dates, the full album never hit the shelves. We got bits and pieces on various Record Store Days, and nothing but vapours otherwise. It seems like a foregone conclusion that the long-awaited follow-up to Beck’s morose yet achingly beautiful Morning Phase will finally come out in 2017. But I’m trying not to hold my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop from everyone’s favourite funky-guero Scientologist. Beck has always worked in mysterious ways, and he seems to revel in confounding conventional wisdom and his fans’ expectations. But whenever the new album finally drops, expect to see me in the record shop on its day of release to buy it.

Little Fictions by Elbow (3-Feb-2017)

elbow_littlefictionsThe band Elbow makes the kind of music that words like “elegiac” and “majestic” were meant to describe. Their tunes are tailor-made for people who love to revel in wistful British melancholy. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear an Elbow song in, say, a beer commercial, but you could very well expect to hear one in an advert for prudent financial planning. Their last album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, was a minor masterpiece, marrying subtle rhythms and timeless melodies to a widescreen tableau of the struggles and victories of modern life. Fans are expecting more of the same from Little Fictions, despite the departure of Elbow’s long-time drummer, Richard Jupp. Perhaps they will take inspiration from R.E.M. after Bill Berry’s abdication and turn to electronic drum machines as a new source of inspiration. Like the new Ryan Adams record, I am certainly looking forward to having this pre-ordered album finally arrive in my mailbox.

New Album by LCD Soundsystem (date and title TBD)

lcd-soundsystemThe cat came back – they thought he was a goner – the cat came back, he just couldn’t stay away. James Murphy retired his LCD Soundsystem alt-disco project a few years ago with a cathartic performance at Madison Square Garden. Yet, hardly five years on, the band has been reassembled to not only headline various festivals (including this year’s Forecastle festival in Kentucky) but to tour in support of a new album. I’m excited to hear what Murphy and co. have been working on in what one imagines to be a claustrophobic studio stacked to the rafters with analogue synths, vintage drum machines, and sci-fi ephemera. To say the new album has a reputation to live up to somewhat understates the situation. At any rate, I’m eager to learn how LCD Soundsystem picks up on the free-floating existential angst of 2017 and turns it into rousing, rhythmic dance anthems for the homely and disenfranchised.

Risk to Exist by Maximo Park (21-Apr-2017)

maximo_park_risk_existMaximo Park are one of those UK acts that I’ve had a soft spot for ever since the early 2000’s, when I used to get my new-music recommendations from magazines like Q and MOJO. Maximo Park have been making angular, polyrhythmic music since their 2005 debut A Certain Trigger and a clutch of energetic hit singles loudly proclaimed their arrival on the modern rock scene. It’s very difficult to find their albums on this side of the Atlantic, but I had the good fortune to buy 2012’s The National Health on my UK trip last year. God, how I wish those Soho record shops were closer to my home! I recently noticed on a British upcoming releases website that Maximo Park are putting out a new album, called Risk to Exist, in April of this year. Advance word from the band’s publicist suggests the new record is “informed by the dire state of world affairs in 2016 and crumbling political systems”. So, not big Brexit fans, then!  Doubting that it would get a simultaneous release on physical formats outside of the UK, I’ve ordered my copy directly from the band’s merchandising website. And I’m told the LP will be autographed by the band! Not too shabby for 20 quid, including international delivery.

New Album by The National (date and title TBD)

thenationalI try to avoid making blanket declarations like “so-and-so is the best band on the planet”. But I will freely admit that The National have been at or very near the top of my ever-evolving Favourite Bands list since I first heard them back in their Alligator days. There is just something about the way their insular, occasionally miserable, but very inviting and introspective music connects with me – it’s essentially the soundtrack for my endless internal discourses. If I’m ever stranded on a desert isle without a copy of High Violet I will be crushed, even though I’ve long since memorized every musical passage. Last year, lead singer Matt Berninger confirmed that the band has been wrapping up a new album in the studio, presumably for a 2017 release. He describes the sound as “weird, math-y, electronic-y stuff… we’re in the middle of the wilderness, in a rainforest full of really fun noises”. I take that to mean that The National are experimenting with new sounds and textures, but I trust the Dessner Brothers to rein things in enough to make yet another gorgeous desert-island disc for my collection.

Northern Passages by The Sadies (10-Feb-2017)

sadies_northernThe Sadies are something of a Canadian roots-rock institution. Lanky brothers Dallas and Travis Good have been making music with their compadres for over two decades. Sadies records are mainly about atmosphere and texture. Sometimes the music is quiet and thoughtful, other times it’s quick and propulsive, but there is always a palpable sense of multi-dimensional power. Their musicianship is also second-to-none; watching them perform live is like spending the evening at Hot Licks School. I was thrilled to pick up their new album, Northern Passages, at my local record shop yesterday, and even happier to see the glorious Northern Lights adorn the cover. We haven’t had a display quite like that so far this winter, but those green curtains bring back memories of my teenage years, making 3 am trips outside to check on the cows in calving season. Today is Family Day in Alberta, which means that most of us have the day off of work. I’m going to celebrate tonight after playing hockey by coming home, lighting the fireplace down in my man-cave, cracking open a cold malt beverage, and giving my copy of Northern Passages its first spin. Three cheers for Canadiana.

Heartworms by The Shins (10-Mar-2017)

shins_heartwormsIn recent years James Mercer has been splitting his time between the synth-pop duo Broken Bells (with Danger Mouse) and his day job as lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for The Shins. It’s great to see that another Shins record is due for release next month, once again on Mercer’s Aural Apothecary label, suggesting the perfectionist remains in full control of the band’s musical direction. Based on the evidence of first single “Dead Alive”, there hasn’t been a huge shift in musical direction, although perhaps The Shins are growing a little more cross-pollinated by the crystal-clear production and subtle electronic bleeps and bloops of Mercer’s other band. I trust that Heartworms will provide Shins fans with many new earworms to enjoy, either in album form or via their inevitable placement in various Zach Braff movies.

Hot Thoughts by Spoon (17-Mar-2017)

spoon_hot_thoughtsIn my Best of 2016 list, I quietly hoped for a new Divine Fits record in 2017. It doesn’t appear that we will get one, but for a very good reason – singer-guitarist Britt Daniel will be busy launching a new Spoon record instead! Dave Fridmann is apparently back to twiddle the knobs and push the sliders on Hot Thoughts, so I’m not expecting it to sound vastly different to 2014’s excellent They Want My Soul. Spoon records always seem to have an innate ability to push the sparse, rhythmic envelope without devolving into tuneless cacophony. It’s interesting to see that Hot Thoughts will be coming out on Matador Records,  the Austinites original label. Hopefully that doesn’t cause them any distribution headaches, although fans have had to wait weeks or even months to get their hands on vinyl lately from some of the music world’s smaller labels.  Perhaps it would be wise to pre-order this record, just in case they are scarcer than hen’s teeth in the shops.

New Album by The War on Drugs (date and title TBD)

warondrugs

Philadelphia band The War on Drugs turned the indie rock revolution on its head with 2011’s Slave Ambient and 2014’s Lost In The Dream. Both records recast the music of their forefathers (most notably Petty, Dylan, and Springsteen) into the 21st century, giving their songs a uniquely modern, hazy sheen. Lost In The Dream especially pushed the re-invention to new levels, incorporating shimmering keyboards and other thoughtful production touches. And I would be remiss to not to mention the wonderfully engaging songwriting and indelible melodies. The results were a timeless series of songs that flowed into one another, sounding especially great on vinyl (as any Pink Floyd fan can attest). Details of the new record continue to be a closely-guarded secret, but the band’s Instagram account would suggest that they’ve been holed up in the studio, no doubt perfecting something marvellous. If a new record appears in 2017, and lives up to the high standards set by “Touch of Grey”, the War on Drugs’ recent contribution to the excellent Day of the Dead compilation, it could be really special.

As if these epic new releases aren’t enough, here are the upcoming vinyl re-releases that make me giddy with anticipation:

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five (24-Mar-2017)

benfolds_reinholdmessnerThis is the album that made me a fan of Ben Folds and his fearlessly rambunctious cohorts for life. I can still remember the day that I bought this CD, at the St. Vital outlet of HMV in Winnipeg, as though it was yesterday. The lady behind the counter gave me a sexy sideways glance that said “you don’t know it yet, but you are going to love this record”. I had heard lead single “Army” on MuchMusic and thought its horn-driven, smart-ass vibe was really cool. Much to my delight, I was completely blown away by the rest of this album as well. Named in honour of the Swiss mountaineer that inspired drummer Darren Jessee’s fake IDs as a teenager, Reinhold Messner is a masterpiece of piano-driven rock. “Don’t Change Your Plans”, “Mess”, “Magic”, “Army”, “Regrets”, and “Jane” all unlocked compositional doors in my mind that I hadn’t previously realized were even there.  I am so thrilled to see this album getting a proper release on vinyl; I plan to enjoy it at outrageous volume in my man-cave.

Wildflowers by Tom Petty (date TBD)

petty_wildflowersAt the time, it was billed as a Tom Petty solo record.  But Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein, Steve Ferrone, and Benmont Tench all appear on the record, so who’s kidding who? Wildflowers might as well be a Heartbreakers record. And what a record it is – Petty at his most stripped back, emotionally naked, and endlessly tuneful. Songs like “You Wreck Me”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “Crawling Back to You”, and the sublime title track will always have a special place in my heart. And the simply gorgeous “Wake Up Time” was the song I woke up to on the fateful day that my BFF chose to irreparably damage our life-affirming friendship. To this day, it’s still my ringtone whenever I set my alarm on holiday. Perhaps that makes me a masochist, but you could do a lot worse than to start your day with those chiming acoustic guitar chords and strings that just seem to hang on the air like fair-weather clouds. “Well if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl to help him to shoulder the pain in this world”. Indeed, Tom. If the rumours are true, then a two-LP re-release of Wildflowers is in the works for 2017, in accordance with Petty’s original plan for the album. Expect to hear some of those extra tracks in a feature role on this summer’s Heartbreakers tour.

Live at Leeds by The Who (24-Feb-2017?)

who_liveatleedsFor my money, this is the greatest live rock & roll record ever released. Live at Leeds captures The Who at the peak of their performance power, late in their February 1970 tour of England. The original album featured just six frenetic, explosive tracks; it was later augmented by other crowd favourites and a slightly abridged version of the Tommy suite that The Who pummelled their audience with on the same tour. The results are a tour de force of unadorned rock music. Pete Townshend layers his Gibson SG power chords and Roger Daltrey howls in anguish over John Entwistle’s fearless, melodic bass runs and Keith Moon’s incomparable, frantic drums. The vicious ensemble sounds like it’s going to fly apart at any moment, yet a palpable sense of nervous energy miraculously holds the proceedings together. The versions of “Young Man Blues”, “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, and “My Generation” should be required listening for anyone under the age of 30 who’s contemplating starting a band. These hallowed recordings are finally coming back to vinyl in a half-speed mastered 3LP format, and I can hardly wait to pick up my copy. Quick update: February 24th has come and gone, and the release date has been pushed back yet again. I will let you know when I finally hold those magical platters in my expectant hands.

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Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2016

As it turns out, modern technology is not impervious to careless douchebags in big pickup trucks.

I was out of town for Christmas, visiting family back in wintry Winnipeg. In between cacophonous family gatherings and bouts of spoiling my precious little nieces (hereafter known as my precious little ‘disease vectors’, as they sent me home with a lovely dose of rhinovirus), I sneaked away to do some record shopping. Hey, a leopard doesn’t change his spots just because he finds himself in Canada’s coldest provincial capital.

While I was travelling, some careless twit in a Dodge Ram wannabe monster truck apparently crashed into the telecommunications box at the end of my street. From what I can gather nobody was seriously injured in the collision, but Billy Joe and his Gravedigger sure smashed five kinds of shit out of the telecom panel that feeds my neighbourhood. It took all the king’s horses and the local utility’s men almost a week to put the fibre-optic Humpty Dumpty together again. To make a long story slightly longer, the impromptu internet blackout (and some general sloth on my part) is why I couldn’t write and post my Favourite Albums of 2016 list… until now!

Let’s review the usual caveats. This is a list of the ten albums that brought me the most enjoyment this year. They may not be groundbreaking or hugely original. They may not float your boat. They certainly won’t cover every genre of music. You may accuse me of having a shamelessly beige, guitar-driven, Anglocentric view of the musical landscape and I won’t be able to refute it. But I do know what I like, and that’s catchy melodies, interesting rhythms, and that elusive “X” factor that helps new music wrap itself around your DNA. The question I always ask myself when I pick my top ten is “will I still be listening to these records a decade from now”? Chances are, the highlights of these records will remain on my playlists for years.

Without further ado, here are my favourite albums of 2016, sorted alphabetically by artist. If you’ve read my Top 10 lists from previous years, you are unlikely to be shocked when you see who topped my charts this year. What can I say? It was a great year for new releases by well-established artists, less so for breakout artists (with a few notable exceptions).

And, most importantly, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom if you want to salute (or heckle) any of my choices – that’s half the fun!

Ellipsis by Biffy Clyro

biffyclyro_ellipsisScotland’s finest power trio was back with a new album in 2016. Coming on the heels of an ambitiously sprawling double album, the eleven sinewy tracks featured on Ellipsis seem positively efficient. The album oscillates nimbly from percussive rockers like “Wolves of Winter” and “Flammable” to mid-tempo, melodically driven songs like “Rearrange” and “Medicine”. Regardless of whether their multi-layered guitar attack is aimed at your brains or your balls, Biffy Clyro’s huge stadium-ready choruses are destined to entertain. Somewhere, Dave Grohl is head-banging in admiration and approval. Best track to seek out online: “Howl”

American Band by Drive-By Truckers

dbt_americanIt says something profound about a band when they can lose a songwriter of Jason Isbell’s caliber and still deliver album after album of the finest southern-fried rock. On this, DBT’s eleventh album, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to illuminate what it’s like to be alive and conflicted in 2016. These days, you can scarcely switch on a television without being confronted by self-aggrandizing shills, screaming at each other about red states and blue states and other complete bullshit. But if you’re keen to understand what’s really going on south of the Mason-Dixon line, you can glean more from these eleven painfully honest tracks than you’ll learn from a month of watching the bloviating heads on cable news. Best track to seek out online: “Ever South”

Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

frightenedrabbit_panicIt was never going to be easy to follow up 2013’s excellent Pedestrian Verse, but Frightened Rabbit gamely gave it a go. They enlisted Aaron Dessner to produce their new songs, and The National’s guitarist brings a bit of his band’s melancholy sparkle to the Scottish fellows’ proceedings. Long-time fans will be happy to know that Frightened Rabbit’s stock in trade – guitar-driven music – still hopscotches from hope to disillusionment to misery to unbridled fury. And perhaps no other band on the planet can reliably deliver heart-wrenching lines like “blood seems black against the skin of your porcelain back” with such grace and aplomb. Best track to seek out online: “Get Out”

Meet the Humans by Steve Mason

masonsteve_humansMany moons ago, I had the privilege of watching the Beta Band open up for Radiohead in Vancouver and Seattle. I became an instant fan of their quirky, laid-back, dub-inspired rock and infectious melodies. They had an unmistakable groove that I’d seldom heard before (or since). I was deeply disappointed when the Beta Band broke up in 2004 and scattered like chaff to the wind. Vocalist Steve Mason plied his trade as King Biscuit Time and various other pseudonyms for a while, but eventually he stepped into the limelight and started releasing new works under his own moniker. Meet the Humans is Mason’s third, most accessible, and (by my reckoning) best solo release; by focusing on tight & tidy songwriting and re-emphasizing the groove, he nearly matches the highest highs of his Beta Band days. The new record is effortlessly melodic and hypnotically rhythmic, though I’m at a loss to explain why there are so many cartoon dicks and boobs on the cover. You have to see this record on vinyl to fully appreciate all the pastel penises and bodacious bums! Chalk it up to cheeky British humour, I suppose. Best track to seek out online: “Alive”

Blue Wave by Operators

operators_bluewaveFans of Divine Fits and the dearly departed Handsome Furs (myself included) were delighted that Dan Boeckner fully realized the potential of his synth-pop project Operators with a full-length album in 2016. Blue Wave is a hurricane of analog synths, whip-smart danceable rhythms, and hooks galore. Imagine LCD Soundsystem rummaging through New Order’s record collection, and you’ll get the gist of it. “Control” is the latest hyperkinetic ringtone on my mobile phone, “Bring Me The Head” is the ultimate workout for your new hi-fi speakers, and the title track is pretty much a perfect Saturday night “going out” tune. Here’s hoping that another Operators record is already in the works – unless, of course, Divine Fits beats them to it. Best track to seek out online: “Bring Me The Head”

A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

radiohead_moonshapedIn 2016, Radiohead did the unthinkable. They delivered a record that was forthright and unabashedly pretty. Not pretty in a conventional Hollywood starlet sense, of course. More like finally noticing that the shy, introverted girl on the periphery of your life is actually an overflowing fountain of mind-expanding thoughts and quietly sexy gestures. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead turns guitar rock on its head, yet again, by incorporating symphonic elements into the sonic stew. Jonny Greenwood’s mastery of the London Contemporary Orchestra essentially adds a vital new member to the band. And for a band that’s become known for synthetic robot vocals, it’s refreshing to hear Thom Yorke singing in such a human (if a little weary) voice again. It’s as though he’s yearning to be understood, after a decade or more of hiding behind disguises. You can reliably expect Radiohead to reinvent their sound yet again on whichever new music comes next. But whenever you have a quiet Saturday evening to contemplate that crush you have on the introverted girl, there will be A Moon Shaped Pool right there at your fingertips to provide the soundtrack. Best track to seek out online: “Burn the Witch”

Winter Wheat by John K. Samson

samsonjk_winterwheatA stalwart of the Winnipeg indie rock scene, John K. Samson fronted bands like Propagandhi and The Weakerthans to various levels of critical success. Now going it alone under his own name, Samson has solidified his place amongst Canada’s greatest songwriters. In my mind, Cohen –  Lightfoot – Bachman/Cummings – Keelor – Newman – Samson forms quite the lineage. Though if I had to guess, JKS sees himself as part of a much different punk rock continuum. No matter. Winter Wheat is his second full-length album, and it continues to mine Samson’s wryly oblique yet highly literate observations of life on the Canadian prairies. Lines like “The payday lonely pray in parking lots, a one-bar wi-fi kind of town” could come from no other. Meanwhile, acoustic guitars and melancholy folk tales of damaged people are framed by production as wide and as sparse as a Manitoban sunset. Best track to seek out online: “Capital”

Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater

shearwater_jetplaneHo hum – yet another brilliant album by the criminally underrated Shearwater. Jet Plane and Oxbow features the return of some of Jonathan Meiburg’s favourite muses – wildlife, widescreen imagery, and the unbridgeable chasms that sometimes keep people apart. But this time out, several songs are notably infused with the corrosive influence of troubled times; Meiburg (or at least his protagonists) seem to be struggling to suppress their anxieties at every turn. Synths are turned up to eleven, the drums clatter with martial beats, and a palpable dissatisfaction with “the way things are” rises to the fore. Challenging the status quo has rarely sounded so engaging and comforting. Best track to seek out online: “Quiet Americans”

SVIIB by School of Seven Bells

sviibIt’s impossible to listen to this album without reflecting on the tragedy of losing a key band member so young to cancer. In a way, the sadness casts a revisionist shadow over many of the crystalline dream-pop confections on SVIIB, even though they were reportedly written before Benjamin Curtis’s diagnosis. As a casual listener I won’t pretend to know anything about the intra-band relationships, and I sincerely hope that we haven’t heard the end of these very talented artists. That said, it must have been excruciating to sort through Curtis’s last recordings to assemble this album. It’s a fitting tribute that the results are so engaging, with flat-out gorgeous washes of synths, multi-layered vocals, pulsing beats and plenty of modern hooks. Best track to seek out online: “Ablaze”

Schmilco by Wilco

wilco_schmilcoWilco, to my mind, has become the quintessential American rock band. With each new record, you’re never quite sure if you’re going to be treated to alt-country, psychedelic rock, screwball folk music, jazz odyssey, or some strange new hybrid. Inevitably, long-time listeners will find something to love. Schmilco covers enough bases that it’s tough to categorize, but it’s a mostly mid-tempo, autumnal affair built around acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy’s introspective vocals. The overall tone is one of a band that is comfortable in their own skin, yet casting a wary eye at the world around them. God only knows how they’ll react to the forthcoming Trumpocalypse, but their next album may well be the most important one these Chicagoland dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters will ever make. Hopefully Schmilco doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as the dreaded “transitional record, since it’s a lovely sounding album that richly rewards a few extra listens and an open mind. Best track to seek out online: “If I Ever Was A Child”

My Favourite Albums of 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time once again.  Time to look back upon the past year and sort the wheat from the chaff.  Tens of thousands of albums are released every year, across dozens of disparate and rapidly-disintegrating genres.  Some are truly terrible.  Most are mediocre.  But fear not, for a few albums stand out as being exceptional every year.  It was true in 1966, and 1977, and even 1988, and the tradition continues to this day.

I’m not a professional music critic.  I don’t get dozens of free CDs and LPs piled on my desk each week, awaiting my judgment.  But I do watch the ‘tastemaker’ blogs, listen keenly to satellite and internet radio, and even pay attention during films and TV programs to see what sort of new music is circling the zeitgeist.  There is a lot of chaff, but once in awhile I come across a kernel of glorious red spring wheat that makes the search entirely worth the effort. Over the next ten days, I would like to feature the ten new albums that I picked up this year and particularly enjoyed.

A few ground rules before we begin.  Since I’m a bit of a Luddite, we will limit the field to albums (defined here as at least 40 minutes of new music, collected and issued as one entity).  No EPs or singles.  And new music only – re-releases, live albums, and greatest hits collections don’t count.  I happen to think that one of the most asinine things to happen this year was Led Zeppelin’s Grammy nomination for Celebration Day.  How a live performance from 2007, featuring songs written in the 1970s, can be nominated for Best Rock Album in 2014 is beyond me.  It smacks of the way the Grammy nomination committee tried to retroactively celebrate Eric Clapton by backing up the awards truck to his door for 1992’s Unplugged album.  Fine recordings to be sure, but in retrospect it’s sort of silly to shower them with praise.  ‘Best new music’ accolades should be reserved for the best new music.

And sorry to disappoint you if you’re a fan of, say, acid house, experimental trip-hop or modal jazz.  My listening tastes are pretty wide but they aren’t infinite.  When people ask me what kind of music I listen to, I typically respond with some variation on “mainstream indie”.  Artists that anyone with an appreciation for alternative media are probably familiar with (Wilco, The New Pornographers, Radiohead, etc.), but not likely to be playing on Top 40 radio fifteen times a day.  Once in awhile, a semi-obscure artist will break through with an international hit record, as we are likely to see over the next ten days.  But most of my musical tastes are pitched a little further afield.  What intrigues me about music is melody, rhythm, and that special “X” factor – something that makes the music unique and interesting.  Whenever I heard one or two of those elements, my ears start to tingle.  When I hear all three simultaneously, I stand and cheer.

Check back between now and New Year’s Day to see which ten albums caused the Craven Hermit to stand and cheer in 2013.

Day 26 – Tomorrow Starts Today

One great thing about national capital cities is all that collective tax revenue usually funds some wonderful public works.  Wellington is no exception.  My flight didn’t leave until later in the afternoon, so I seized the opportunity to spend several hours across the street from my hotel at one of the country’s best museums.

Te Papa Tongarewa

Te Papa Tongarewa attempts to tell the unified story of New Zealand.  The ‘Awesome Forces’ exhibit on Level 2 offers hands-on explanations of plate tectonics and the geological forces that threaten to rearrange this country on a moment’s notice.  ‘Mountains to Sea’ showcases the diversity of Kiwi flora and fauna, from microscopic organisms to the mighty royal albatross.  After four weeks of listening to bellbirds chirp like futuristic cellphones from above the thick cover of foliage, I finally got to see what these little olive-coloured tweeters look like.  The ‘Blood, Earth, Fire’ exhibit on Level 3 shows how natural life on these isolated Pacific islands changed with the arrival of humans over the past millennium.  Seeing the stories of how a mostly-forested land was progressively cultivated by waves of immigration reminded me of my New World prairie home.  Most of the fourth level celebrates Māori culture and traditions, with its central exhibit a breathtakingly beautiful hand-carved meeting hall called a marae‘Golden Days’ and ‘Slice of Heaven’ paint pictures of 20th century daily life in strikingly different ways.  The uppermost floors feature collections of New Zealand art, from traditional sculpture and paintings to contemporary comments on cultural integration and popular culture.  It’s all quite fascinating.

I could have spent all day at Te Papa, and in a way I wished I’d visited the museum at the beginning of my journey.  Instead, I had three flights to catch and my time in Aotearoa was quickly running out.  I had just enough time to view one last exhibit on my way out the door.  Wellington sits on or near half a dozen active fault lines.  In order to protect the priceless cultural artifacts inside, Te Papa was constructed on mechanically compacted ground and a foundation of 152 rubber and lead base isolators.  Follow a flight of stairs below grade near the main entrance, and you can see where a few of these base isolators were installed.  They are meant to reduce the amplitude of shaking during an earthquake by up to 75%.  It’s always inspiring to see how my engineering cousins around the world have found innovative ways to counteract the relentless forces of nature.

Te Papa Base Isolator

After a quick lunch, I made my way to the airport.  My first trip was a 45-minute hop from Wellington to Auckland.  Calling this a ‘flight’ is a tad disingenuous; I have been on roller coasters that were less harrowing.  Our Boeing 737 literally galloped down the runway into 80 km/h wind gusts, nearly leaping off the tarmac with each gust.  After four big bounces, the pilot finally had us in the air.  We climbed over downtown and Wellington harbour, corkscrewing our way through the roiling surface winds until we emerged above the cloud deck.  It occurred to me that the crazy kids in Queenstown probably would have paid $200 for this vomit-comet thrill ride.  The descent into Auckland wasn’t exactly silken smooth either, but at least some colour had returned to my knuckles.

The short and blustery walk between the domestic and international terminals was a welcome respite.  I had three hours to clear customs and board my next flight, and the duty-free shops beckoned to me.  Amid all the usual tourist ephemera, I found some neat stuff for my friends and family back home.  I bought some very warm and soft possum merino gloves and socks for my brother and his wife, a nice Rimu wooden picture frame for my desk, and a big bag of Whittaker’s milk chocolates with Hokey Pokey honeycomb bits for my faithful team of engineers back at the office.  Five dollars short of my duty-free allowance, I hauled my overstuffed carry-on bag to my gate.

ANZ Boeing 777

Yet another Boeing 777, and yet another 13-hour transoceanic long-haul flight was in order.  I found my window seat in row 55 and was pleasantly surprised that the dreaded ‘middle seat’ of our triptych was once again empty.  With the sun setting over Manukau Harbour, we taxied out to the far end of the airport and prepared for takeoff.  That now-familiar lump returned to my throat as we slowly accelerated along Runway 23L.  Sixty seconds later, our wheels left the ground and I was officially on my way home.

The first part of the flight went great.  There was just enough daylight to make out the coastlines of Northland and the Bay of Islands region, one of the few places that I hadn’t managed to visit.  Moments later, there was nothing left to see except the featureless sea.  Dinner was served at 31,000 feet, somewhere around Tonga.  Dessert was an unexpected surprise – a cup of delicious Hokey Pokey ice cream!  Somewhere I knew that our tour guides Lina and Nat must have been smiling and nodding at my good fortune.

Not yet tired, I settled into my seat and explored the in-flight entertainment system.  I laughed out loud a few times at the hilarious antics of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis during the movie “The Candidate”.  Next up was a sampling of TV specials featuring Lina’s favourite Kiwi comedy legend, the late Billy T. James.  I listened to some new albums – the self-titled release by Aussie band The Temper Trap and Cheeky For A Reason by Scottish outfit The View.  I eventually fired up my iPod’s late night playlist and prepared to drift off to sleep – the very best way to kill time on an airplane.

I was counting sheep by the time we crossed the equator and the International Date Line, somewhere between Samoa and Hawaii.  I gained back the day that I lost on my way to Auckland almost four weeks earlier.  Travelling across the Pacific Ocean does strange things to our perception of time.  As far as clocks on the ground were concerned, our plane was scheduled to land in Vancouver eight hours before leaving Auckland.

I had been asleep for maybe 90 minutes when we encountered some pretty significant turbulence over Hawaii.  The pilots tried to find smoother air at a few different altitudes, but with limited results.  Every time I was ready to go back to sleep, our massive flexi-metallic bird would get knocked around again.  As we pitched and yawed in the darkness, I avoided becoming disorientated by watching Venus and Saturn in the eastern sky.  Varying degrees of turbulence stayed with us for the next few hours.

Unable to sleep, I listened to music and thought about my favourite experiences on my journey.  Walking on volcanoes in Auckland was an early highlight.  The very different mountain bike experiences at Lake Hawea, the Queen Charlotte Track, and especially Rotorua were a blast.  Watching progressive shades of pink illuminate the western face of Aoraki at sunset from the sublime tranquility of Braemar Station was unforgettable, and was matched only by hiking in Sir Edmund Hillary’s alpine footsteps the very next day.  I enjoyed every quiet moment I spent alone on the west coast beaches and at Abel Tasman National Park, staring at the endless sea.  The brisk hike on the Kepler Track, the steep hike on the Routeburn Track, and our last group hike on the Inland Pack Track all created indelible memories.  Kayaking in Milford Sound, and then again in Okarito Lagoon, was much more fun than this hydrophobe ever envisioned.  The heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier was an awesome experience.  And I will never forget the non-stop sense of adventure and camaraderie that I felt during my weekend in Queenstown with my brilliant new friends.

The turbulence abated by the time we skirted the west coast of North America.  Thanks to a 100 km/h tailwind, we made it into Vancouver a little earlier than expected.  Running the gauntlet through Canadian customs and immigration was uneventful, and I found myself with several hours to kill before one more short flight over the Rockies.  Snowstorms on the Canadian prairies turned my 2.5 hour layover into an excruciating 4.5 hour wait.  I passed the time by swapping out my smartphone’s SIM card, exchanging some excited emails and texts with my friends, and having a light lunch.  I had been awake for most of the previous 24 hours, but the clocks on the wall said it was early afternoon.  Meanwhile, my biological clock was confusedly pining for breakfast.  Those ninety fitful minutes of sleep were not helping matters.

It was a struggle to keep my eyes open while the snow-capped mountains of British Columbia slipped in and out of view beneath my third and final flight of the day.  The icy blast of winter as I stepped out of the terminal in Edmonton gave me a much needed adrenaline boost.  My buddy Grant graciously braved the icy highways to pick me up at the airport, so I rewarded him by springing for dinner at a restaurant near my home.  I quite likely talked his ears off with over-excited, road-weary, punch-drunk tales from the southern hemisphere, but he didn’t seem to mind.

I turned the key and entered my humble abode around 8 pm, some 32 hours after waking up in Wellington.  I set down my trusty travel bags at the entrance and found a spot on my sofa, grateful that my 13,000 km travel day was finally over.  Despite some turbulence, I had made all my connections and arrived home safe & sound.  It was, without question, the best trip of my life.

Craven Hermit's Road Gear

Around midnight, I crawled upstairs and fell into my bed with a thump.  And I dreamed of New Zealand.

Song of the Day:  “Tomorrow Starts Today” by Mobile

Day 25 – Caffeinated Consciousness

My last full day in the land known as Aotearoa began on the south island but ended on the north.  One last early-morning bus ride transported this weary traveler from Nelson to Picton.  The road fit the Kiwi archetype – narrow, winding, scenic, and pretty much deserted.  Our inter-city coach transited a few rugged mountain passes before following the Wairau Valley east to Blenheim.  It was one of the few times that I retraced my own path on my month-long adventure.  Passing the same winery that I had toured with my friends just three days earlier brought back a lot of memories.  I sat silently on the coach with my ever-present headphones in my ears, watching the vineyards roll by.  Not long after a quick stop in Blenheim, we disembarked near the Picton ferry terminal.

Interislander Ferry

This Canadian prairie boy had never been on a real ferry before, so I thought it would be a cool way to travel between islands.  The Cook Strait crossing is known as one of the most scenic ferry trips in the world.  A less-publicized fact, which I did not realize when I made my booking months before, is that this particular route is notoriously awful in rough seas.  The winds on the Strait had been so severe on Sunday that Wellington airport had to be closed.  I had visions of spending my afternoon curled over a guard rail, puking up my spleen.  Once my bags were checked in at the terminal, I spent the next two hours walking around town in trepidation.

Picton is a great place for souvenir shopping.  I found some great presents for my friends back home, including a hand-carved wooden knick-knack for my gracious house-sitter, a playing card storage box made from recycled Rimu wood, and another paua-shell Christmas ornament for someone special at the office.  Lunchtime found me back at the same café with the great meat pies from a few days earlier.  This time I opted for a chicken pot pie, and chased it with a substantial dose of Gravol to ward off seasickness.

At 1 pm I was back at the ferry terminal, getting ready to go aboard.  I was still concerned about rough seas, but on this day Lady Luck looked down upon me and smiled.  The open-water winds had abated, and the sailing was predicted to be relatively smooth.  I was pleasantly surprised to see this sign just before crossing the threshold onto MV Kaitaki.

Smooth SailingThe plan was to find a comfortable spot at a table next to a window and watch the Marlborough Sounds drift by.  And sure enough, I found a nice place on the eighth deck to sit and listen to music and catch up on some journal entries.  The first half hour of our sailing went according to plan, but then the Gravol caught up to me.  Dimenhydrinate works wonders for suppressing seasickness, but it’s not without one significant side effect.  It didn’t just make me drowsy – it made me full-on, three-days-without-sleep comatose.  Before long I was well on my way to setting some kind of head-bob world record.  My somewhat comical journal entry consisted mainly of random chicken scratches and a puddle of drool.  This clearly would not do.  I dragged my somnambulant ass over to the restaurant and bought two bottles of Coke Zero to restore my caffeinated consciousness.

As we were leaving the Sounds, I made my way upstairs to the open-air top deck to bid the south island goodbye.  It was one last chance to reflect on the land that had enraptured me for sixteen days, and will surely stay with me for the rest of my life.  With a lump in my throat, I vowed to return to this enchanting isle some day.

Departing the Marlborough Sounds

Three hours after disembarking from Picton, we churned into Wellington harbour.  I gathered my bags from the terminal carousel and set off for my accommodations downtown.  My map indicated that the ferry terminal was only a 4 km hike from my hotel, so I elected to walk.  One of my guide books suggested that the walk is ‘dangerous’ and ‘not recommended’, and I did have a 23 kilogram bag in tow, but it was daylight hours and I wanted to work up an appetite.  I realize now that the danger doesn’t derive from walking among unsavoury characters down by the docks – the real problem is the weather.  I experienced 50 km/h wind gusts from every conceivable direction as I forged my way southwest.  There’s no mystery how this city got the nickname ‘Windy Wellington’.

After checking in, I set off for a quick walking tour of downtown Wellington’s sights.  It immediately felt like I was back in a big city, with traffic and crowds and all manner of multicultural shops and entertainment options.  I saw the theatre where Sir Peter Jackson’s latest epic, The Hobbit, held its world premiere the week before.  I met a cosmopolitan array of people while touring the historical plaques on and around Courtenay Place.  And I am 99% sure that I passed Bret McKenzie of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ fame in the street.  Pretty cool.

The proprietor of a local wine shop recommended some Stoke Bomber Kiwi pale ales and a very nice bottle of Trinity Hill Syrah to celebrate my last night down under.  He also pointed the way down the street to an Italian restaurant that made great takeaway pizzas.  It took almost a month, but I had finally found a New Zealand restaurant that knew how to make a proper Neapolitan style pizza.  My dinner featured authentic Italian deli meats, basil leaves, and detectable amounts of actual mozzarella cheese!  Despite the blustery rain showers outside my hotel room window, it was a memorable last supper on my epic journey.

Song of the Day:  “Caffeinated Consciousness” by TV on the Radio