Saturday, May 15, 2010

Song: Three Takes of K'Naan's Wavin' Flag

The first time I heard K'Naan's song "Wavin' Flag" earlier this year it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was initially pulled in by the song's music hook and great chorus.

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back

But, I was ultimately deeply moved by the song's verses.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Trotsky and Robin Hood: Hollywood Does It Better

Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky is the latest misfire in the continuing disaster that is English Canadian cinema. Jay Baruchel plays the film's titular character, a 17-year-old Jewish Montrealer named Leon Bronstein, who is convinced that he is the reincarnation of the late Soviet Jewish Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, who, of course, was born Leon Bronstein, too. Charting out his life’s path, or rather copying the life’s path of Trotsky, Leon is determined to make a difference, whether it’s trying to get the employees at his father’s factory to go on a hunger strike for better working conditions or attempting to unionize the students at his curiously white bread Montreal West public high school. Along the way, he ignites the political passions of a jaded leftist lawyer (Michael Murphy) and pursues a ten years older woman named Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), who has the same name as, you guessed, the older woman Trotsky eventually married. Does this sound silly enough yet? Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Imagination Working: Graham Parker's Imaginary Television

Graham Parker’s emergence on the late 70s music scene was perfect timing, except for the arrival of Elvis Costello. While all the attention went, and deservedly so to Costello, Parker worked twice as hard to find his way into the so-called, New Wave music generation. He formed one of the finest bands anywhere called The Rumour and proceeded to release a series of albums full of angst, humour and social consciousness. One of the best albums of the 70s was Parker's debut Howlin' Wind (1976), helmed by Nick Lowe just prior to his producing Costello’s My Aim Is True. Whether Lowe was trying to get a similar sound for Costello I’ll leave to your ears. To me, he was, but that has more to do with Lowe’s style as opposed to a “Nick Lowe Sound” per se. Nevertheless Graham Parker & The Rumour earned the love and respect of fans looking for rock ‘n roll music with a difference.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Back Pages: Commemorating Gerde's Folk City

Today’s adolescents swoon for Justin Bieber. My genre of choice as a teen was acoustic and dominated by geezers, like the already middle-aged Pete Seeger. Until April 5, 1961. That’s when a new kid in town stole my heart after a friend at New York University brought me to a gathering of the school’s folk music society to hear a fledgling singer from Minnesota.

Musicians we admired in those days generally had a smooth delivery -- or aspired to -- but Bob Dylan’s voice was appealingly rough around the edges. “He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his back porch,” critic Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times a few months later. “All that ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

There Will Be Blood: Ed Sanders' The Family

author Ed Sanders.

There have been a number of books on the Manson murders and how they (along with the violence at the 1969 Altamont rock festival) brought the utopian hopes of the ‘60s to a bloody conclusion. But there are none more chilling, observant, and chock full of insights than Ed Sanders’ The Family. Originally written in 1971, Sanders had been an active participant in the ‘60s counter-culture through his poetry and involvement in the satirical folk band, The Fugs. His book explains with shocking clarity how a psychopathic petty criminal, who had spent many years in San Quentin, could organize a group of middle-class disciples to commit horrific acts of violence. In The Family, Manson is portrayed as the shadow Maharishi Yogi, living out the darker implications of the communal lifestyle being celebrated in the hippie communities. When he justified his crimes by saying that they were inspired by certain songs on The Beatles’ White Album, it wasn’t just the psychotic ravings of a paranoid. The White Album did have its shadow side. There were elements of the music that reflected both the beginnings of the break-up of The Beatles, a band that had nurtured the utopian hopes of the hippies, as well as the violent upheavals happening around the world when the record came out in the fall of 1968.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Beat of the Meter: Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep

Adapting poems to music is a tricky thing. You have the poet’s intentions regarding meaning and rhythm juxtaposed with the composer’s ideas for music to words that didn’t require them in the first place. At least that’s what a poet might think.

Natalie Merchant has released 26 tracks on 2 CDs adapting poems written for children that is absolutely remarkable for its originality by putting, not only musical notes to words, but styles, genres and diverse time signatures to each one. These songs come in the form of traditional folk music ballads ("Calico Pie") to Klezmer music ("The Dancing Bear"). "The Man in the Wilderness" written by Mother Goose is adapted as a Parisian folk tune. It’s a gorgeous example of how imaginative Merchant is as a composer. Sure the natural meter of the poem can suggest a beat for the music, but to take a children’s poem from the nursery to a French cafĂ© requires a particular talent rarely heard in contemporary pop music. The Fairfield Four make a couple of appearances on this album ("The Peppery Man" and "Calico Cat"). "The Blind Men and the Elephant" also has just enough Southern feel to send you to heaven-on-earth. Five years in the making, Merchant’s time was well spent creating an album that is thoughtful, funny and eclectic. The package includes an excellent book with the poems and a short biography of the poets. A single CD version of Leave Your Sleep is available, but I highly recommend investing in this deluxe edition.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mortality Lurking: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Buy For Me the Rain

Back when I was a kid in Pickering, there used to be a drug store up at our shopping plaza that sold deleted 45s. They cost about ten cents each and occassionally I'd grab things that changed the temperature in the room. I found singles that never hit AM radio in Toronto like - believe it or not - Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," The Byrds' "Eight Miles High," and a trippy track called "Tomorrow's Ship" by The Sparrow. Who are The Sparrow, you ask? They were nobody in 1966 -- but, within two years, they became Steppenwolf.

One day in 1967, just before we moved to Oshawa, I found this song called "Buy For Me the Rain" by a group called The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I never heard of it (or them). But I liked the band name (did they come equipped with brooms?) and besides there was nothing else of interest at the drug store that day. When I took it home, I was immediately struck by the simple elegance of the track and the urgency of the singing on it. "Buy For Me the Rain" was like listening to the Kingston Trio with strings (but good strings). This was a love song, but like most traditional folk music, mortality lurked in the grooves. The opening melody, which is established on what sounds like a harpsichord, was doubled by a banjo and it provided a cheerful ambient bed for the urgent pining of the lyrics.