Stupid Poetic Justice…

I’m thrilled to report that a vinyl compendium of brilliant new songs by the venerable New Pornographers has just arrived in my mailbox. It’s called Whiteout Conditions, and it’s eleven new tracks of pure power-pop glory. 

Unfortunately, it arrived just as central Alberta has been caught in the throes of an actual whiteout. On Easter weekend!


Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to heading downstairs to the trusty man-cave with a beer or three and giving this new, blue musical platter an inaugural spin. 

I see from the liner notes that Neko Case was part of the recordings, and I’ve heard that she’s going to be on the tour, too. Cool! But not the inimitable Dan Bejar, who is sitting this NP record out. Presumably he has a new Destroyer album and tour in the works this year. Bejar’s oddball songs are often the perfect counterpoint to A.C. Newman’s clever, electric pop confections. Most charmingly, I think Bejar comes up with his song titles by randomly flipping through a dictionary and picking the first three words that catch his eye. Look for “Verily Trombone Unicorn” to feature prominently on a future New Pornographers release 🙂

For now, as the snow continues to pile up outside, it’s always great to unwrap new music by Canada’s greatest exporters of intelligent power-pop. To the man-cave I go!


Day 10 – We End Up Together

Anticipation inspired me to jump out of bed at 6:00 am on a Monday morning for the first time in… forever! This was the day that the two-week ‘Rimu’ tour of New Zealand’s south island would begin. A new island, a new group of travellers, and a new set of experiences awaited me.

I wanted to give the resilient shop owners near the Christchurch CBD some business, so I popped into a local café for a very nice French toast breakfast. 3000 calories later, there were a couple of hours to spare for another walkabout near the reconstruction zone. Cathedral Square still seemed to be cordoned off, but I found some viewpoints of the Avon River that reminded me of punting in Cambridge, UK. While there was a bit of construction activity in the red zone, there were many abandoned buildings that looked frozen in time. Tellingly, the marquee on the boarded-up Isaac Theatre Royal still advertised a production of Spamalot. It was disappointing to see so few people and machinery in motion on a workday – a sobering first-hand lesson in what can happen to a city when stricken by a major disaster.

I checked out of my hotel and hiked up Papanui Road with my 70 pounds of luggage to the Rimu tour pickup point. By the time I arrived, there was a large congregation of people and suitcases. I was pleasantly surprised to find the same four travellers that I met on the Kauri tour, but there must have been fifteen or twenty new faces as well. My north island pal Betsy told me that there were two groups of people at the meeting point – Rimu Southbound and Rimu Northbound. In a stroke of good fortune, our north island guide pulled up in a big green bus and started getting us organized. Lina and her new assistant guide Natalie called for ten of us to load our gear into the Rimu Southbound bus. Having a familiar guide made the process a lot less stressful – I immediately knew we were in good hands for the next two weeks. It was like slipping on a nicely broken-in pair of hiking boots.

Our new bus, named ‘Frank’, was larger than the north island van. But by the time ten travellers and two guides got on board with all our gear, it already seemed kind of full. Soon after departure, Lina announced that we were about to pick up six more people at the airport. A quick scan of the bus and some basic mathematics informed me that all but two of the seats would be filled with people. Evidently we would either need to cram our daypacks into the trailer, or a few of the new people were going to get ultra-scenic seating on the roof of the bus!

We collected our last six flight-weary tourists at Christchurch airport, and embarked on our great adventure. Most of the first day was spent travelling west across the Canterbury plains towards the Southern Alps. It turned out that the first hour west of town would be the only halfway straight and flat highway we would see for the next fortnight. Our windows were illuminated by a verdant blur of vegetable fields, cattle and sheep ranches, and deer farms.

The long bus ride gave us ample opportunity to get to know each other. There were people from many walks of life, but the common denominator still seemed to be outdoors enthusiasts from North America. Almost everyone seemed fun and personable, but I was particularly happy to have the company of some people my own age. The first person that caught my attention was an enthusiastic west coast lady named Cathy. Bil and Cameron, a couple from the US southeast, likewise seemed up for adventure (despite being a little groggy from their red-eye flight). Colin and Sally, having travelled all the way from England, were a welcome exception to the North American brigade. I had a sense that this trip was going to be all kinds of fun if I could break out of my introverted shell for a while.

We stopped for a picnic lunch and a short walk at Peel Forest. The first things I noticed on the woodland trail were the ferns – they were different than their north island cousins. We also walked among some truly massive kahikatea and tōtara trees that reminded me (for their size, if not their foliage) of Stanley Park in Vancouver. One of the trees had a circumference of 9 metres and was likely a thousand years old. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

After lunch, we continued west through high-country plains and foothills to Lake Tekapo. On a nearly cloudless afternoon, we gratefully stepped off the bus for a one-hour walk along the lakeshore to town. The azure blue lake was magnificently framed by pink and lavender lupins in the foreground and the snow-capped Southern Alps in the distance. It was our first hint that the Rimu tour was going to take us to some truly spectacular places.

Lake Tekapo Shoreline

Our guides advised us that we were ‘going bush’ for the next two nights, so we should take the opportunity to stock up on supplies (aka: alcohol) while in town. Unlike the north island tour, I wasn’t the only person to walk out of the shop with an armful of libations. Milton and Shellie, a couple from Colorado, went so far as to ask Natalie about the dinner menu for the next two nights in order to buy the appropriate wines. I liked these people immediately!

The drive from Lake Tekapo to the shearer’s quarters at Braemar Station certainly felt like we were fleeing civilization. The hard-top highway gave way to gravel for the last hour of the journey. We crossed several dusty fence lines and ungulate gates, dodging the occasional logging truck or wayward cow. We finally rolled into our destination around dinnertime.

Braemar Station is a 40,000 acre sheep and cattle ranch on the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki. It is about as far out of the way as one can get in New Zealand, which suited this farm boy just fine. The sprawling ranch house, formerly the exclusive domain of traveling sheep shearers, has been modernized with a few creature comforts. The station owners now make the quarters available for hire by select groups between shearing seasons.

With the sun still blazing in the western sky, the scenery immediately stopped us in our tracks. Lake Pukaki was just as blue as Tekapo, but it felt like we had 180 degrees of snowy alpine peaks all to ourselves. It was the only place on earth that I’ve ever known to rival the majestic beauty of the Canadian Rockies. I think everyone completely forgot about our semi-private shared accommodations after seeing the breathtaking vista outside. I wouldn’t have traded my simple bunk by the window for any hotel room in the country.

Lake Pukaki from Braemar Station

Dinner was a lovely Kiwi-style steak barbeque, compete with Pavlova cake for dessert. As the sun set, with the beers and wines flowing freely, I built a campfire outside for us to enjoy. Most people were understandably worn out from all the travel and retired early, but a few eager souls put on jackets and joined me by the fire. Colin and Sally seemed particularly thrilled to get outside and socialize. I also liked these people immediately!

Before long, the fire burned down and the sky lit up with stars. With no city streetlights for hundreds of kilometres, it gets truly dark at Braemar. Colin and Danny and I had a blast watching planets and satellites and shooting stars traverse the Milky Way. I looked up the transit time for the International Space Station in my SkyView app, and we excitedly watched its bright white reflection race across the sky from west to east. It was the perfect ending to the first day of our tour.

Song of the Day: “We End Up Together” by the New Pornographers

The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.

Go Places

And a heart will always stay one day too long
Always hoping for the hot flashes to come
For the glue to dry on our new creation
Come with me, go places

The New Pornographers, “Go Places”, from the 2007 album Challengers.

Your intrepid blogger just returned from a week-long training course in Augusta, Georgia. A significant part of my day job involves the design of tailings and hydrotransport piping systems. In layman’s terms, I write the specifications for systems that pump rocks and sand around. It’s all part of the convoluted web of processes that eventually produce the hydrocarbon feedstocks that fuel your car, shingle your home, and encapsulate your iPod. With a little ingenuity you can turn dirt into a Dyson, soil into a Subaru.

Over the course of the week, I met a variety of cool people from all over the world. Most of them had some sort of engineering background, but they approached slurry transport in ways that were unique to their respective industries. Whether for bitumen production, dredging operations, minerals processing or other technological pursuits, we all came together to hear the experts unravel and demystify the cutting-edge concepts of slurry pump systems. And, yes, we found a bit of time after class to get drunk & tell stories, too.

Not to say that the week was without musical interludes, but they were tougher than usual to come by. Sampling the local FM radio stations can be fun whenever you visit a new town. You never know what sort of local legends you might stumble across, especially in a town that proudly features a James Brown Boulevard. But in Augusta, as in most places, the terrestrial radio waves are completely awful. It didn’t really matter if it was Top 40 or modern rock or classic rock or R&B or ‘90s or ‘80s music – the lowest common denominator reigned supreme. With robots and algorithms programming the corporate airwaves, it’s an endless tide of music guaranteed to neither offend nor entertain. The music was analogous to the United States of Generica flickering past my car windows – Creed, Semisonic, and Ke$ha might as well have been Applebee’s, Best Buy, and Chevron.

My tastefully appointed rental car was adorned with neither satellite radio nor a USB input. The vehicle registration said 2012, but the dashboard stereo was stuck in 2002. After giving up on FM radio, I left it up to my trusty iPod to shuffle us through an eclectic mix of favourites as I cruised the highways and byways.

As I blogged earlier, one of my favourite pastimes is making new associations between travel and music. The pump course wrapped up fairly early on Friday, which left just enough time to make two side-trips before returning to my hinterland home on Saturday night. It was cool to hear Whiskeytown’s “Jacksonville Skyline” come up in the rotation, as though it knew we were just a hop & skip away from north Florida. As I neared the coast, the playlist conjured up Guster’s “On The Ocean” and Death Cab For Cutie’s “Transatlanticism”, which seemed even more appropriate.

Not long after, fate found me moseying down the avenues and riverbanks of old Savannah. It was fun to do some people-watching in the local shops, then I munched on a handful of pralines while container ships navigated their way into port. Even better was hopscotching among the myriad parks and green spaces that dot downtown like so many checkerboard squares. Memorial plaques gave me a crash course on Georgia’s colonial founders and Revolutionary War heroes.

I simply could not visit Georgia without retracing some of the footsteps of my musical idols. On Saturday, I took the scenic route back to Atlanta by diverting to Athens, the birthplace of R.E.M. Good indie record shops are sadly extinct in Augusta and Savannah, but there is at least one shop in Athens that looms large in R.E.M. lore. Wuxtry Records is legendary for being the shop where my guitar hero Peter Buck met and befriended Michael Stipe and Bertis Downs, setting the stage for Georgia’s greatest indie-rock export. I spent the better part of an hour scanning the bins and shelves at Wuxtry for vinyl treasures, walking away with as many as I could cram into my suitcase without getting Canada Customs on my ass. The walls were adorned with a whimsical array of R.E.M., B-52s, Pylon, Widespread Panic and Drive-By Truckers gig posters. I’m told that Wuxtry is still in the same location as the Buck/Stipe era; regardless, the shop was a very cool experience and had that unmistakable High Fidelity vibe in spades. I could totally imagine young Peter and Michael behind the till, chatting about their favourite Patti Smith records.

There wasn’t enough time to look for more of the R.E.M. sights, although I think I briefly spotted the trestle bridge from the back cover of Murmur. I’ve heard that Masters Stipe and Mills still have homes in Athens, but I’m not the sort of person to invade their privacy. Rock stars are people too. When former drummer Bill Berry left the band, he reportedly retired to a farm near town to grow hay and relax. After cruising into town past picturesque farm after farm, I can totally appreciate why.

All things considered, it was a great trip. Both the analytical and artistic sides of my brain got a workout. I even found time for a few literal workouts, donning a t-shirt and shorts for some brisk mid-winter hikes. Temps in the 70s are always nice in March; springtime in Alberta just can’t compare.

Music Challenge Day 26 – A Song You Can Play on an Instrument

I have no formal music training.  I have virtually no informal music training, either.  I’ve picked up a few things here & there from watching my friends and relatives play.  I have a handful of guitar books that I’m slowly working my way through since I feel strongly compelled to play an instrument.  In fact, if someone was to ask me what I would do if I hit the lottery tomorrow and was set for life, I would consider the question for precisely three nanoseconds and then say “Build myself a kick-ass music studio, learn to play every musical instrument known to humankind, and get busy writing songs”.  Drums, keyboards, guitars, marimbas, rainstick, accordion, hurdy-gurdy, whatever.  Perhaps I’ll expand on this little fantasy in a future blog.  Let’s just say I’ve given it a lot of thought.

For now, my musical knowledge is very limited.  After listening to so much music over the years, I think my ears are very well trained to pick up melodies, including the little nuances and irregularities and surprises that make them so much fun.  But put a sheet of music in front of me and it would be like asking a first grader to read Chaucer.  I can sort of read guitar tablature and chord charts, but take it further than the basic cowboy chords (G, C, A, D, and subtle variations thereof) and things go egg-shaped pretty quickly.  I’m trying to learn, though.  I’d like to take an introductory musical theory course at a community college to at least catch up with all those pesky seven-year-old kids that got coerced into taking piano lessons.  Music in all its variations (melody, rhythm, and especially the dynamics of composition) is so fascinating.

Peter Buck from R.E.M. is one of my favourite guitarists because he does so much with so little.  He gave an interview once where he said that he was endlessly amused by the guys who attended R.E.M. shows and watched his hands to unlock his secrets about playing guitar.  “Sorry guys, it’s just G, C, and D!”  So I can play a passable imitiation of quite a few R.E.M. songs, at least enough of the rhythm guitar to make it recognizable.

The trickiest thing I can play on guitar is probably “Unguided”, from the New Pornographers’ album Challengers.  Barre chords are the bane of my existence (I inherited fingers that could accurately be described as crooked cocktail weiners), but with enough practice and a little ‘liquid courage’ I can fake my way through this song.  The verses are D, C# minor, E, and B minor, then D and A to circle back to D.  It’s a cool little sequence with a neat rhythm and forces you to switch in and out of barre chords, at least the way I play it.  I love the way the C# minor chord just kind of hangs there, waiting to fall but defying gravity.

The bridge of “Unguided” has a pretty progression as well, E into F# minor and then C# minor back to D.  It makes you form the E as a barre chord instead of an open chord, which I’m told is an important tool to have in my toolbox.  I like the lyrics and vocal melody a lot, too, especially the alliterative “heatwave humming in the house of cards”.  No idea what the song is really about, but it’s fun to play while sitting around a campfire, watching the first stars of the evening pop out of the cobalt sky.