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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Upcoming Music Releases – October 2012

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

2-Oct-2012:

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

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

9-Oct-2012:

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

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

16-Oct-2012:

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

23-Oct-2012:

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

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

30-Oct-2012:

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

Bonus Content!

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

11-Sep-2012:

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

25-Sep-2012:

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

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.

Road Trip!

Your faithful correspondent has been a little lacking in new posts lately.  Had a busy week at work, then had to get ready for a road trip.  I try to get out of town for a concert at least once a year.  It’s fun to hang out in different places, try new restaurants, and walk some new neighbourhoods.

This weekend I’m in the lovely city of Vancouver, BC.  I’ve caught Wilco on every western Canadian tour for the past decade or so, but this year for The Whole Love they’re not coming to my town (at least not yet).  So, mid-winter seemed like a nice time to head out to the west coast for a change of scenery.  The weather has been great here – yesterday was sunny and about 10 degrees C.  I’m told this is unusual for this time of year – typical weather is drizzly and closer to freezing.  But hey, it’s been a weird winter so we’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Another fun aspect of traveling is looking for new record shops.  In the ‘old days’ I would have gone spelunking for bootleg or hard-to-find CDs.  These days, it’s all about vinyl.  After a quick subway ride and a brief walk, I found a few great shops in Vancouver on Main Street.  The best of the bunch was Red Cat Records.  Lots of selection, knowledgable staff, excellent prices.  Other stores had more used vinyl (some had loads of used vinyl) but I’m mainly a collector of new LPs.

I was really hoping to find the two Jellyfish album re-releases on vinyl, but they were nowhere to be found, even on the Pacific coast.  However, I did find a nice copy of The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow:

Also found a copy of The Postal Service’s Give Up album, complete with a bonus 12″ with the singles and the b-sides that were released by SubPop back in the day:

My most fortuitous find was this R.E.M. live album, recorded in Dublin. Triple LP plus a bonus DVD – nice!  The band is sadly defunct now, but I’m looking forward to collecting their works on black platters over the coming years.  I know I’ve seen some of their I.R.S. era albums out on newly-released 180g vinyl; I’m expecting Warners to do the same with their latter-day stuff:

With six LPs in hand, I figured I’d better leave the store before I had too many treasures to fit in my carry-on luggage 🙂  Special thanks to Red Cat Records for being such a cool shop.  I will certainly be back the next time I’m in Vancity for a gig.  Maybe they’ll still have that Radiohead live double LP from 2001 that I spotted in the racks.

Looking forward to Wilco and White Denim at the Orpheum Theatre tonight, too!  Stay tuned for more on that.

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!