I once read an interview with Mick Jagger in which he heaped scorn on some listeners of rock music for the importance that they accord to song lyrics. The vocalist, Jagger claimed, is just another musician in a band, and his vocals should contribute to the overall sound of a band in just the same way and to just the same degree as the other instruments, no less, but certainly no more. So what if you can’t make out this or that line in a song? The important thing is that the sounds that the undecipherable words produce make musical sense. I was struck by Jagger saying that he would have been just as happy singing “la la las” and “ooh oohs” throughout the entire Stones corpus as he had been singing the (fairly silly) words to “Sympathy for the Devil”.

Truer words have never been spoken. Sure, there are singer/songwriters who appropriately use music as a backdrop against which to highlight their words and their phrasings, but a rock band, aspires by very definition to fuse the singer into the band, to create if not a wall, at least a soup of sound in which the vocals have no more pride of place than the bass or the drums. I know some people who are frustrated at bands that do not provide a listener with a lyric sheet. I have always hated lyric sheets because they take the listener’s focus away from what the singer should be doing, which is making sounds rather than singing words.

I have listened to Exile on Main Street a good 500 times or more since I first heard it in a friend’s basement around 1976 or so, and I still don’t know what Mick is singing about most of the time. Some of my favorite songs on the record are ones in which I have no idea what the song is literally “about”. “Let it Loose”, the longest song on the record, begins with the perfectly decipherable couplet “Who’s that woman on your arm/All dressed up to do you harm?”. After that, well, your guess is as good as mine. (I recently looked up the lyrics, and found, first, that many of my guesses about the song’s lyrics had been miles off, and second, that I liked my guesses a lot more than what the lyrics actually turned out to be). Yet the song has been raising goose bumps for over thirty years now, and I can’t think of many better sung songs in the entire Stones repertoire.

Exile on Main Street is the greatest everything-but-the-kitchen-sink album in rock history. It is excessive, messy, shambolic and imperfect in countless ways. But in its messiness and imperfection lies, for me at least, the source of its endless fascination. There are so many genres – country, blues, roots, gospel, r&b, – jockeying for position often within the confines of a single song, and there are so many layers of sound everywhere on the record that the thing should in all logic have collapsed under the weight of so many apparently conflicting musical voices. Yet every single song works – yes, even “I Just Want to See his Face” – becoming substantially more than the sum of their component parts.

Back to Mick. Compare Mick’s singing here with a lot of what came after. By 1974, when the Stones released what I take to be the first record of their long decline, It’s Only Rock and Roll, Mick’s persona had congealed into the ironic, self-conscious boulevardier he has never really ceased being since, and his vocals are perfectly reflective of that persona. Post-1974 Mick knows that he is the most recognizable member of the most famous band in the world. He has arrived, and he sings like someone who knows he no longer has to try too hard. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some great Mick vocals after 1974. What you no longer hear on any of the Stones albums is Mick swinging for the fences, as he does in just about every song on Exile. Listen to the great boogie woogie “Rip this Joint”, the second song on the album, and you will hear what was to become a stock Stones genre handled by the singer and the band as if their lives depended on it. Mick sings his ass off all the way through Exile, and that the 17 vocal performances (one of the songs, “Happy”, is sung, with winning incompetence, by Keith), he delivers constitute one of the greatest accomplishments by a rock vocalist is perfectly compatible with his being almost completely unintelligible throughout, and with his tremendous vocals not being given more of a place in the mix than was required in order to make the songs work. His greatest vocals often have him straining in the mix against other musical ingredients (listen to the interplay between Mick and the horn section on “Let it Loose”), infusing them with a drama and pathos that he never achieved on any of the wretched Stones albums on which he had the run of the mixing board.

It took me weeks before I could bring myself to listen to the “Remastered” Exile that was recently released by the Stones. Don’t get me wrong: some great records have emerged enhanced from remastering. The Beatles’ Let it Be is the most dramatic recent example of a record rescued from its misbegotten earlier incarnation by a radical rethink. Listening to it you can’t help but appreciate what a great rock and roll band the Beatles might have become had they continued performing as a live band and not fallen in with George Martin, and had that particular record not fallen into the evil clutches of Phil Spector.

But to these ears, Exile is just about perfect as it is. Any modification could only lead to deterioration.

After having listened to both versions back to back a few times over the course of the last couple of months, I can report that I still prefer the swampiness of the original version, but that the remastered version is certainly no catastrophe. The horns and the piano call attention to themselves to too great a degree on the new version. On the other hand, some of Mick Taylor’s thrilling leads jump out and make plain what a loss it was for the Stones to have had to replace Taylor with the genial but plodding Ronnie Wood.

Interestingly, given how much of a role Mick Jagger is said to have had in the remastering process, his vocals do not seem to me to have been foregrounded to too great a degree. Maybe Mick understands that he was never more a singer in a band than during the great sessions that gave rise to Exile.

An admission: I still haven’t listened to the additional material that the Stones have added to the new version of Exile. It is part of the order of the universe that Exile begin with the opening riff to “Rocks Off” and end with “Soul Survivor”’s long fade-out. It is nothing like a concept album (perish the thought!) but it does have, perhaps not a narrative arc, but an emotional one. Something has been learned by the protagonist of Exile between the lascivious, preening, cocksure attitude of “Rocks Off” and the vulnerable yearning of “Shine a Light” and “Soul Survivor”. What that something is is difficult to pin down precisely, but it is certain that violence is done to the listener’s experience of the record when he is not permitted to let the final strains of “Soul Survivor” echo in his imagination.

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One of the most worrying popular music trends in recent years has been what I will heretofore call the “Whole Album Tour” (or WAT, for short). A WAT occurs when a band or artist, usually well past its prime, announces in advance of its tour that rather than doing what rock musicians have done in concerts since time immemorial, namely bop around within their repertoire to play songs old and new in sometimes surprising juxtapositions, they will play an entire album (or at times even a couple of albums) in sequence.

My first exposure to WAT was a the venerable Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto when, after playing a selection of more recent songs, Steve Wynn announced that he and his band would play “Days of Wine and Roses”, the great 1982 album that he recorded with his long-defunct band The Dream Syndicate. Now, I didn’t mind it at the time because, first “Days of Wine and Roses” is a great album, and second, I didn’t realize that what I was witnessing was to become part of a much larger trend.

Since then, we have been deluged with announcements of WATs, from the likes of Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Suzanne Vega, to name only those that come spontaneously to mind.

Last Tuesday, the Buzzcocks were in town, and my heart sank when I realized that, punk though they may be, they too had joined the WAT bandwagon. I was pleased when the set began with “Fast Cars”, the first track on their first album, but I quickly realized that they were soldiering through both of their 1978 albums, “Another Music from a Different Kitchen”, and “Love Bites” without derogating from the albums’ song orders. Only the encore moved away from the track-by-track logic of the evening, running as it did through some of the band’s best-loved singles.

It has taken me a while to figure out why I am so profoundly annoyed by the plethora of WATs out there. But I think that I have now put my finger on why the trend is so profoundly objectionable. There are at least three reasons to just say no to WATs.

First: by engaging in WATs, artists are acknowledging that they are well past their sell-by dates. WATs rarely feature recent albums. Instead, they feature “classic” albums, that is, albums released decades ago. In featuring these albums, artists are suggesting that they haven’t been up to much in recent years, or even in recent decades. Note that that suggestion is, alas, often quite accurate. As much as I adored the Buzzcocks late ‘70s albums and singles, the work that they have done in the ‘90s and ‘00s has been, well, workmanlike. But that just begs the question: why should punters be spending their hard-earned money to hear bands whose best years often lie decades in the past?

I will answer that question in a second, but first, I must introduce a clarification. For a tour to qualify as a WAT in the fully objectionable sense, it is not enough that bands simply perform whole albums. WATs can be redeemed if one of three conditions is met. First, a WAT can feature an album that is rightly thought of by the artists as constituting a thematic or musical unity, such that performing only parts of it would be denying it its integrity. Years ago, Lou Reed performed the album New York in its entirety because he saw it, quite rightly, as telling a story that really needed to be attended to from beginning to end. More recently, The Decemberists insisted for similar reasons on performing The Hazards of Love in its entirety during their recent tour (which brought them to Osheaga in August last year). That concert wasn’t really any good, but the reason for that was that the album is bloated, self-important and stodgy, not because it was a WAT in the problematic sense under discussion here.

Second, an album may have been unjustly ignored, perhaps because it was ahead of its time. In touring it in its entirety, artists may simply be calling attention to an historic injustice. And third, a WAT can involve such a radical rethinking of an album that it turns it into something new. As an illustration of both these exceptions, I invoke Lou Reed’s recent performances of the album Berlin at Saint-Mark’s Place in New York. That album had caused many fans and reviewers to scratch their heads when it was released in 1973, as it represented quite a departure from the radio-friendly glam-rock of Transformer. The 2007 version, performed with a 30 piece band and a 12 voice choir, was a revelation even for fans of the album who felt that it had been unjustly maligned at the time of its release.

These exceptions notwithstanding, why would people pay good money to hear a band whose prime was decades ago perform an album that they could just as easily have listened to in the comfort of their homes? The answer to that question brings us to the second reason to oppose the WAT trend: nostalgia. I have always considered nostalgia to be a disease of the soul, and its impact on popular music has been particularly toxic. Musical nostalgics usually believe, falsely, that popular music reached its apex at exactly the moment at which they stopped paying attention to it. The audience for WATs are people who are wont to claim that “music went downhill after band X released album Y”, and who are ready to put their money where their mouth is in order to hear X perform Y as if time had indeed stood still. Since musical nostalgics are usually people in my age cohort with more disposable income than their kids, they constitute a market to which the music industry is all too happy to cater. But nostalgia is always a mistake. Its various manifestations, among which WATs loom ever larger, should not be countenanced.

Third, the WAT stands in tension with something that I have always taken to be central to the concert-going experience, which has to do with the element of surprise. It’s always fun to see what song an artist with a deep repertoire will choose to resurrect. Half the fun of attending a Dylan concert these days is to wait on the long-buried chestnut that Bob will decide to perform alongside his most recent material and the de rigueur hits. The unpredictable juxtaposition of old and new, of songs drawn from different epochs of an artist’s career will also allow listeners to hear all of those songs in new ways, to hear continuities and discontinuities. Attending a concert is an interactive process, one that requires some actual engagement on the part of the audience, who has to learn how to listen to old songs in new ways, and to new songs in old ways (as it were). WATs spoon-feed their audiences by providing them with note-for-note renditions of albums they already know by heart, performed in strict sequence in order to eliminate any possible surprise or aesthetic innovation. In other words, WATs make concertgoers lazy.

For all these reasons, and probably a few others, whole-album tours should be looked upon with suspicion. And I for one resolve not to knowingly attend any. Even if Kansas regroups to perform Leftoverture.

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I only saw the Ramones live once, at the late and unlamented Plateau Auditorium. It was the day of my 17th birthday, and my girlfriend had scored some tickets, even though I sensed that an evening spent listening to punk rock was not her first choice for a birthday celebration. (She only made it through about 3 songs of the Ramones’ set, as I remember). We had good seats, quite close to the stage. Lucien Francoeur, formerly the leader of the local kind-of-punk band Aut’ Chose, got things started with an aggressive set, bordering on the hostile. The mood was dark and angry, just right for an evening of punk rock.

The Ramones began their set abruptly to a blast of white light. Dee Dee’s legendary “1-2-3-4” launched them in, if I remember correctly, to “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, which, like many of the early Ramones, was basically a Beach Boys song set to buzzsaw. The songs sped by with hardly any transition, and it was all over in 45 minutes or so. (The band played more than 20 songs in that short time – asked why they wrote such short songs, Johnny once retorted, deadpan, that their songs weren’t short, the band just played them fast, which raises interesting metaphysical questions when you think about it). The anger and aggression that the opener had attempted to instill on the proceedings had been replaced by sweetness and, well, a kind of poppy innocence. The Ramones were a high-shool band on amphetamines rather than a dangerous band of social malcontents trying to overthrow the System. By the short set’s end, scowls were replaced by smiles, and we all poured out onto Calixa-Lavallée street bopping like idiots to the echos of “Cretin Hop and “Glad to see you Go”. To this day, I don’t think I have ever heard 45 minutes of purer, more unadulterated pop.

To me, Joey Ramone (né Jeffry Hyman, nice Jewish boy from Queens) always seemed like the ultimate rock and roll innocent. While guitarist Johnny (with his well-documented penchant for Nazi memorabilia) and Dee Dee (with his man-sized drug habit) wore the moniker of “punk” quite easily, Joey was more like a cartoon character, or rather, like a character from one of those ’60 and ‘70s TV shows featuring bands like the Monkees or the Archies. As I perceived the Ramones, it was Dee Dee who wanted to sniff some glue and beat on the brat. Joey wanted to hang out on Rockaway beach with Sheena and the Surfin’ Bird.

It was the tension between the punkishness of Johnny’s furious downstroke strumming and Joey’s pop sensibilities that made the Ramones truly distinctive, at least over the course of their classic first four albums, released in a flurry between between 1977 and 1979. Their songs were loud and fast, but they were also ridiculously catchy. I always suspected that the “punk” label prevented them from achieving the mainstream acceptance that their songs so obviously screamed out for. If the Sex Pistols were punk, the American radio programmers were having none of it, at least not back then. Today, the punk label has been made safe and saleable by bands such as Blink 281 and the All-American Rejects who have cashed in by retreading old Ramones riffs. But the Ramones were probably victims of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious’ antics. In a parallel universe in which politicized, angry English punks had never existed, the Ramones would have been top 40 regulars. I first heard “I Wanna be Sedated” and “I Wanna be Your Boyfriend” (to name the first two Ramones ditties that come to mind) over thirty years ago, and they have been an integral part of my personal mental soundtrack ever since.

After finishing Mickey Leigh’s touching memoir, I Slept with Joey Ramone, I felt that my image of Joey was still basically right. Severe psychological problems that were never properly addressed, including (at least) obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders prevented Joey from ever really growing up. And though his warped psyche was capable of generating some pretty awful behavior, the dominant tone of this “family memoir” is one of love, acceptance and forgiveness.

Mickey Leigh, you should know, was born Mitchell Hyman, younger brother of the aforementioned Jeffry. Like a lot of middle-class American kids, Jeff and Mitch listened to a lot of music, picked up instruments, and dreamed of making it big, or at least, of making it.

Lightning struck for Jeff when he began playing drums with two neighborhood kids, a guitarist with a nasty streak and some troubling right-wing views by the name of John Cummings, and an army brat named Doug Colvin, who played bass. Colvin was supposed to be the singer of the band, but realized he couldn’t sing and play bass at the same time. Joey reluctantly carried his 6’ 5” frame from behind the drum kit and tried his hand at singing. While early reports were that he quite literally couldn’t figure out what to do with his body, he quickly developed his legendary stance, slightly hunched over his mic, wearing dark glasses, and moving from stage center only when the time came in the Ramones set to bring out the Gabba Gabba Hey flag at the end of “Pinheads”.

The Ramones became the stuff of legend, though they never got rich. Mitchell, who was probably more musically talented than any of the Ramones, never really got anywhere, though he formed bands, some of which seemed at various points like they might be about to take off. He partnered with legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, and released a truly oddball album featuring Bangs’ bizarre vocals on songs such as “I’m in Love With My Walls”. Other bands such as the Rattlers and STOP made promising debuts, garnered some critical acclaim, and promptly fell apart.

I Slept with Joey Ramone is therefore, among many other things, about the operation of the fickle finger of fate. Mitchell is reduced to roadying on an almost volunteer basis for the Ramones in their early days, only to be summarily dismissed when the band’s needs started exceeding his abilities. He does some uncredited vocal parts on some of the Ramones’ most famous songs, such as “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and even pitches in with some songwriting assists. Despite Joey’s promises, these all go unrecognized and unremunerated. Joey, it seems, was dispositionally unable to stand up to the authoritarian Johnny, who seemed hell-bent on keeping Mitch out of the picture. He makes ends meet by doing some low-level dope slinging in Manhattan. His arrest and shakedown by the authorities in “War on Drugs” America makes for some of the most arresting reading in the book.

The book obviously also provides us with a privileged look into the dynamics of a band that became increasingly dysfunctional over time. Joey and Johnny stopped speaking after Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend (a fact that makes sense of the lyrics to a decent mid-period Ramones song – “The KKK took my Baby Away”). Drummers came and went, and the band increasingly found it difficult to figure out what it was about. Albums became, with few exceptions, more and more desultory. Basically, the band never really figured out how to grow up. It didn’t have the smarts to engineer a Green Day-style Dookie-to-American Idiot reinvention, so it kept on cranking out albums out of grim necessity, under successive producers (including the legendary and sociopathic Phil Spector) who though that they could breathe new life into the band. The band finally called it quits in 1996, a good 10 years too late.

But the book is above all other things about brotherhood. Mickey Leigh/Mitchell Hyman paints a psychologically complex portrait of his brother, and writes very movingly about the complex of emotions that runs through their relationship. Leigh paints with a rich palette, and the picture that emerges rings true. Even when they are behaving appallingly toward one another, they are always deeply connected by their past, by their shared love of music, and by the love that is never completely erased by the fights and enmities. Leigh writes most movingly about Joey’s final days, when the layers of jealousy, rivalry and pettiness were stripped to reveal a pure and unsullied brotherly love.

You can count the really great rock memoirs on the fingers of a very small number of hands. Dylan’s “Chronicles” is so weird and idiosyncratic that I am not sure that it counts as a rock memoir at all. Dean Wareham’s “Black Postcards” from a couple of years back was great, and I am really looking forward to reading the Patti Smith memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Place I Slept with Joey Ramone at the top of the list.

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Have you seen Crazy Heart yet? You really should. The story is nothing special: worn-out country legend Bad Blake ekes out a living by performing his classic songs in bowling alleys and bars. He is also slowly committing suicide by drinking himself into oblivion, but he is jolted back to life by the ministrations of a young (-ish) woman who can see beyond the bleary eyes and pot belly to the tender, loving (if irresponsible) soul within, an erstwhile apprentice who has become a huge star in his own right, and who wants to repay his debt to Bad by featuring him on his tour and recording his new songs, and by a long-time friend, who alternates between enabling Bad’s alcoholism and supporting his decision finally to enter rehab. The movie was originally supposed to be a biopic about Merle Haggard, the –ur-outlaw country singer, until legal issues intervened.

There are basically two kinds of movies: character-driven and plot-driven (just as there are hook- and groove-based songs). Studios are wary of movies that revolve around characters. Moviegoers want to see things happen, it is thought, rather than spending time with interesting characters going about their lives. Filmmakers are thus often led to shoving square pegs into round holes, lazily plotting movies that really would have done just fine had the characters been allowed to drift through them from scene to scene. This problem plagues Crazy Heart somewhat (the screenwriter is clearly so uninterested in telling a linear story that he resorts to the hoariest devices to satisfy what he takes our narrative expectations to be), but the writing of individual scenes and the acting are so good that you hardly notice.

It has by now become a movie critic’s cliché to say that Jeff Bridges is the most underrated actor in film today. But it is interesting to reflect on why that is. Bridges is just about the most unshowy and generous actor there is. Whereas actors like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino suck the oxygen out of every scene they are in with their “look-at-me!” technique and scene-chewing, leaving precious little for their co-stars to do than just provide scenery, Bridges is like a great playmaker in hockey. He finds ways of creating spaces for his fellow actors to shine in. He clearly revels in their presence, and he sets them up in ways that tend to make his own performances disappear, and theirs emerge. He is the anti-Meryl.

Maggie Gylenhaal, who plays Bad’s love interest, makes the most of Bridges’ largesse. Their scenes together are tender, funny, sexy and ultimately heartbreaking, and a lot of the reason for that has to do with the acting chances that Bridges allows her to take. There isn’t a false note to be heard anywhere. Colin Farrell (as the protégée who has gone on to stardom), and Robert Duvall have small roles that are similarly blessed. There is a scene in a bar between Bridges and Duvall that is alone worth the price of admission. Duvall’s line readings in the film are odd and quirky yet strangely moving, in large measure because of the way that Bridges receives them. If acting Oscars do not come Bridges’ and Gylenhaal’s way, it will be a scandal.

The extra added surprise about the movie is that the music is actually pretty good. That surprise is actually no surprise when one realizes that much of it was written and produced by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett is Americana’s Zelig. Most people have never heard of him, yet he has been everywhere. Remember the music in Brother, where are thou? That was him. Did you like the oddball pairing of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in Raising Sand? That project was his doing as well. There are a bunch of great albums sitting in your collection right now that he produced. No wonder the music in Crazy Heart actually sounds like the real deal.

The music scenes are also several cuts above what one usually gets from Hollywood movies, which often seem to have been made by people who have never attended a live concert in their lives. A scene in which Bad spars with the soundman at a large gig at which he will be opening for the big star that Colin Farrell’s character has become rings particularly true. If you’ve ever been to an arena concert, you know that the opening act’s mix often seems deliberately sabotaged. Soundmen are hired by the headliner to make the headliner sound good, and that often means making the opener sound bad in comparison. Bad, who has been around the block, will have none of it, and Bridges makes the most of the scene in which he finally makes the guy at the mixing board relent. The subsequent scene, in which the Farrell character sneaks on stage in order to transform a Bad song into a duet is also a marvel. Bridges and Farrell (who both do their own very competent singing in the movie) encapsulate the complex range of emotions involved in a relationship between a washed-up mentor and a student who has left his teacher in the dust but who suspects he doesn’t fully deserve his success through the glances they exchange and the phrasings they adopt while singing one of Bad’s classic songs.

Country music has been the inspiration for a few good movies over the years. Coalminer’s Daughter, in which Sissy Spacek channeled Loretta Lynn, and Tender Mercies, where Robert Duvall plays a down and out country singer who is brought back to life through the ministrations of a young (-ish) woman (hey, wait a minute…) come to mind. Add Crazy Heart to the list.

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It was, if memory serves, the Fall of 1981. I was a second-year undergraduate at McGill. I was listening to lots and lots of punk, a bit of reggae and dub, and smatterings of old-school bands like the Stones (not the Beatles, I hasten to add!). I had by that point abjured my youthful forays into prog rock. I could not imagine ever willingly listening to anything that might even remotely be characterized as folk.

I’d been trying for weeks to attract the attention of a young woman in my aesthetics class. When she suggested we attend a concert by the McGarrigle sisters together, the above-mentioned musical principle went out the window. Of course, I’d love to, I said, madly bluffing because, truth be told, I had never heard of the McGarrigles at that point.

I can’t for the life of me remember where the concert was held. Could it have been the Yellow Door? Somewhere on campus? Nor can I remember the name of the young woman I attended the concert with. (It was to be our one and only date).

I do remember settling into my seat with a smug, superior attitude, thinking that an hour or so of light, pleasant but boring music would be a small price to pay in order to win over the object of my romantic intentions.

Things began inauspiciously. The sisters walked on stage with a few musicians, launched into a song, and promptly stopped, deciding that the tuning had not been done properly. Much chattering and joking ensued. A few minutes later, they began in earnest.

It was for me the musical equivalent of a sucker-punch. When Anna’s voice began weaving with Kate’s, I felt myself drawn in, fascinated by the symbiosis. Both singers had decent voices, but together they were able to do amazing things. They seemed to know one another so well. There was complete trust between them, trust that allowed each of them to go out on limbs vocally, knowing that the other would know how to follow. It was thrilling. I snuck out the next day to purchase their beautiful first record, which included songs such as “Heart Like A Wheel”, “Mendocino”, and “Complainte pour Sainte Catherine”. I was reassured that my punk bona fides would not be completely undercut when I found out that the influential British music mag Melody Maker had named it record of the year back in 1975.

I never saw the sisters in concert again. Not until last Fall, that is, when Emmylou Harris called them out to do a few numbers with her at her Théatre Saint-Denis gig, mid-set and then again for the encore. Kate looked frail, but when she and Anna began to sing, their harmonies were as pure and magical as they had been close to 30 years previous. Emmylou, no slouch herself in the vocal department, was visibly moved by the McGarrigles’ performance. They made everything else that evening sound earthbound and predictable.

I heard somewhere that Anna had said that she couldn’t imagine going on singing after her sister’s death. I hope she does, because her voice is beautiful in its own right, and to think that the world will no longer hear a rendition of “Heart like a Wheel” sung by its composer is just too sad for words. But I understood immediately why she thought that she might not be able to. Anna and Kate sang together for something like half a century. Listening to them sounded very much like listening to a single being. The sound they produced was much, much more than the sum of its considerable parts. They could through their harmonies express yearning and joy more thoroughly than either one could ever hope to on her own.

If I had to give someone a sense of what Montreal sounds and feels like, I would (among other things) play them some Kate and Anna. For the obvious linguistic reasons, of course but for reasons more ineffable as well. Something about the McGarrigles embodies our city at its best, the way we would all want it to be always. Strolling through our city on an early Spring day, “Complainte pour Sainte-Catherine” will find its way into my head, and I’ll feel happy.

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Anyone who claims that there isn’t as much good music now as there was “back in the day” just isn’t paying attention. We live in an era of impossible musical riches. The internet, and in particular websites such as emusic and Itunes, have to a large degree freed artists and smaller labels from the pressures and costs of physical distribution. They have also served as a kind of grand equalizer, which has brought music that may have gone unnoticed to the fore, and also pushed a lot of big label dross into the background. If you devote even a tiny bit if attention to what is going on out there musically, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of music being produced, and by the plethora of genres and sub-genres. The editors of the (very useful) website Metacritic estimated in preparing their end-of-the decade “best of” that about 20 000 albums get produced each year across the range of idioms that comprise contemporary popular music.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me that that amounts to something like 60 albums a day. Now, I listen to a lot of music. I have earphones in my ears pretty much wherever I go. I have headphones on in my office a lot of the time, and I listen to music in the evenings as I prepare lectures of catch up on email. Even so, I probably haven’t listened to more than (parts of) 250 or 300 albums this year.

So to say that the list that follows represents a “best of” would be a huge overstatement. Rather, it represents a necessarily idiosyncratic trajectory of one pair of ears through about 1% of 2009’s musical output.

I wouldn’t even want to claim that it represents any kind of an objective assessment on my part. If I had written this list tomorrow, it probably would have contained different items. 2009 has been a great year for music. My initial shortlist for this top 10 list contained more than forty items. Still, I love these ten albums, and I am happy to be part of a culture sufficiently varied and complex to have produced them.

Finally, I am a music blogger, not a critic. That means that I can choose for my top 10 albums music that I really liked, rather than music that I simply admired. There was a lot of very admirable music out there last year, full of technical innovation, musical virtuosity, weird tempos and key changes, and the like. A lot of it will end of on critics’ top 10 lists. But I have to say that many of the bands that have become critics’ pets leave me cold. So you will not be hearing in the lines below of Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, or even Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. As estimable as they may be, the albums listed below are ones that I find myself going back to.

The Antlers, Hospice (Frenchkiss)
If I had to go out on a limb and pick my favorite album of the year, it would probably be The Antlers’ Hospice. The band from Brooklyn has produced that rarest of things in these days of Itunes single-song downloads and Ipod shuffle mode: a real concept album. The concept is a bleak one, centering as it does on a relationship with a cancer-stricken loved one. But the execution is sensitive to the many different waves of emotion one goes through in dealing with the disease, from despair to hope to elation at the slightest sign of encouraging news. The music borrows from a range of idioms that together constitute that nebulous category of “alternative” rock – shoegaze, ambient, and pretty straightahead rock. But like all great music it assimilates its influences and produces something entirely novel out of them. Peter Silberman is about as compelling a voice as has emerged in recent years in the alt-rock world.

Girls, Album (True Panther)
The band Girls produced an album simply entitled Album which I would also have to place at or near the very top of the pile. Girls’ frontman Christopher Owens has had, to say the least, an interesting life. Raised within a millenarian cult by a mother who was often forced into prostitution to raise money for the group, he ultimately escaped and found himself on the streets of Texas cities, only to find himself taken under the wing of a Texas millionaire.
Band lore would have it that Owens was shielded from hearing popular music for all of the years that he lived with the cult. It is odd, then, that the album should sound so replete with all sorts of musical references, from the obvious influence of the Beach Boys to more subterranean references to everyone from Elvis Costello to Roy Orbison.

Various Artists, Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout! Factory)
Have you ever heard of Mark Mulcahy? Neither had I, until I came across a compilation album released in 2009 entitled Ciao My Shining Star. Mulcahy fronted two Boston-based bands, Miracle Legion and Polaris. He has subsequently put out a number of critically well-received albums, the latest being In Pursuit of Your Happiness, released in 2005.
His wife died suddenly in 2008, leaving him as the sole caregiver for the couple’s two young children. Rock royalty came to the rescue, and Ciao My Shining Star was born. The album, recorded to raise money for Mulcahy’s childcare needs, brings together Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Frank Black, Dinosaur Jr., Juliana Hatfield, The National, Mercury Rev, and the late Vic Chesnutt, to name but a few. Tribute albums are invariably mixed affairs, but this one is almost uniformly excellent. The album goes through a great many stylistic changes over the course of its 21 songs – from the spare electronica of Thom Yorke’s chilling take on “All for the Best” to David Berkeley’s lovely, folky, “Love’s the only Thing that Shuts me Up”, to Dinosaur Jr.’s guitar-drenched “The Backyard”. But they are held together by the excellence of the songs, and by the consistency and integrity of Mulcahy’s vision. And none of the artists phone in their performances – they are all on their A game.
Mulcahy’s songs are intensely and deeply personal, and deal with the types of topics songwriters have been dealing with for centuries, but they do so in an honest and unfeigned way. There isn’t a cliché anywhere in Mulcahy’s lyrics. Many of them resonate in a way that only great art does.
After hearing this CD, I hunted down an early Mulcahy album entitled “Fathering”, released in 1999. As great as the performances contained in Ciao are, they do not prepare you for Mulcahy himself. He is a unique vocalist as well as a great songwriter. Nick Hornby once identified that album’s opening track, “Hey Self-Defeater”, as one of his favorite songs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulcahy was one of the models he had in mind in coming up with the character of Tyler Crowe in his recent novel Juliet, Naked. He is a singer/songwriter largely ignored by the public but capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in those few listeners who have been touched by his work. Get Ciao My Shining Star, one of the great albums released in 2009, and use that as an entryway into Mulcahy’s woefully underrated body of work.

Vic Chesnutt, At the Cut (Constellation)
Everything I have just said about Mulcahy might also be said about the late, great Vic Chesnutt. Chesnutt died on Christmas Day 2009, but not before releasing one of my favorite albums of the year, At the Cut. I blogged about Chesnutt last week, and won’t repeat everything I said about him then. Suffice it to say that Chesnutt’s collaboration with Guy Picciotto and Montreal-based musicians from Silver Mt. Zion stands at the pinnacle of a distinguished but tragically abridged career.

The Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock (Teamlove)
To these ears, The Felice Brothers are the musical heirs of Dylan and the Band circa The Basement Tapes. Their music might best be classified as Americana – not country, not folk, not rock, not blues, though somehow indebted to all those genres. Their 2009 album, Yonder is the Clock, is their strongest to date. The songs sometimes seem thrown together and improvised, as Basement Tapes did, but just as in the case of that classic album, they are possessed of darker undercurrents. Felice Brothers were until not that long ago plying their trade in the subways of New York City, and though those days are now behind them, one can still hear the intensity born of desperation in such songs as “All When We Were Young”, though rollicking songs like “Penn Station” ensure that Yonder is the Clock is anything but a bummer.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart combine the pop sensibilities of indy bands like Belle and Sebastian along with Ramones-y buzz guitars. Their eponymous 2009 album is 35 minutes of loud, jangly pop pleasure. Somehow, the band’s peculiar name fits the music perfectly.

Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend (Acony Records)
Nothing is more surprising to me than my late-in-life embracing of country music. For most of my life, the genre was associated with bad TV shows featuring Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash (to say nothing of our own Tommy Hunter) and really bad clothes worn on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry by the likes of Tammy Wynette. But alt-country as purveyed by the likes of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, and the neo-traditionalism of Gillian Welch and others, have brought me around.
This year, few albums have provoked more unalloyed pleasure than Dave Rawlings Machine’s A Friend of a Friend. Rawlings is Gillian Welch’s longtime sideman, and he is partly responsible for the gorgeous harmonies on her records. Rawlings’ record is equally gorgeous. Welch’s fingerprints and voice are all over it (she co-wrote 5 of the album’s 9 songs). And the album’s opening song, “Ruby”, channels Gram Parsons so accurately it will raise goose bumps.

King Khan and BBQ Show, Invisible Girl (In the Red)
Montreal has acquired the reputation as being the global epicenter of brainy rock à la Arcade Fire and even brainier post-rock à la Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion. While they have put our fair city (back) on the musical map, they should not be allowed to overshadow the contribution that Montrealers have made to the simple but very real pleasures of old-school party music such as rockabilly and garage rock. This year has seen a bumper crop of albums made by artists with deep connections to our city that celebrate rock’s simpler pleasures. Bloodshot Bill, who achieved local fame by being invited, uninvited and reinvited to a Saint-Jean Baptiste celebration, released Get High Tonight, and King Khan and Mark Sultan have resurrected the King Khan and BBQ Show to release the excellent Invisible Girl. This is music for rock purists who believe that rock music started going wrong when rock musicians began thinking of themselves as artistes.
Rumour has it that Mark Sultan and Bloodshot Bill will be collaborating on an album in 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised if it found itself in my top 12 months from now.

Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man (ATO Records)
This album by the former Soul Coughing frontman came out in October and has since then gone almost completely unnoticed, as far as I can tell. It has only been a year and a half since Doughty released Golden Delicious, an album widely reviled by Doughty’s fans because of its excessive sheen. Perhaps fans weren’t expecting something new from Doughty so soon.
Whatever the disappointment that the last album might have caused, it should be entirely offset by this superb album. The arrangements are spare and intimate – basically just Doughty, his off-kilter musings and his percussive acoustic guitar playing, and a couple of side player contributing tasteful touches here and there. The songs are all rib-stickers, reminiscent of the very best of Soul Coughing.

Manic Street Preachers, Journal for Plague Lovers (Columbia)
The Manics are an institution in the UK, though they no longer have much of a following on this side of the Atlantic. They have been around for over twenty years now, and have produced some abrasive masterpieces, in particular The Holy Bible, released in 1994.
In 1995, band member Richey Edwards disappeared without leaving a trace, having last been seen in a Bayswater Hotel. Shortly before his disappearance, he had given a folder full of lyrics and poems to a fellow bandmember. They have been the stuff of legend and rumour for years. The band has finally decided to make use of them on this record. It is therefore not surprising that Journal for Plague Lovers is the band’s most richly realized album since Holy Bible.

10 More:
Condo Fucks, Fuckbook (Matador)
MeShell Ndegeocello, Devil’s Halo (Mercer Street)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM (Because/Elektra)
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Dark Night of the Soul (self-released)
Speech Debelle, Speech Therapy (Big Dada)
Reigning Sound, Love and Curses (In the Red)
Pissed Jeans, King of Jeans (Sub Pop)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Beware (Drag City)
Jamie T., Kings and Queens (Virgin)
Sonic Youth, The Eternal (Matador)

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The day after Christmas brought the unutterably sad news that Vic Chesnutt had died. He was 45. His death was an apparent suicide.

Vic Chesnutt was born in Florida and raised in Georgia. When he was 18, he was in a serious automobile accident that left him paraplegic. Confined to a wheelchair, Chesnutt taught himself to play guitar in a manner that ended up turning his limited dexterity into a strength. With a pick strapped to his thumb, he developed a distinctive style which made up in expressiveness what it lacked in technical proficiency. He was discovered in an Athens’ Georgia bar by REM’s Michael Stipe, who produced his two first records in the early ‘90s. Chesnutt was amazingly prolific to the last. He released three records last year: one, “Dark Developments”, with the Athens’ band Elf Power, another, “At the Cut” with his Montreal-based musical accomplices (more about that later), and a third, “Skitter on Take-Off”, a stripped down set featuring Vic accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with some barely-there accompaniment by Jonathan Richman and his drummer. By my count, his solo albums and collaborations number almost twenty.

Chesnutt was a songwriter of fearsome ability. His songs are at times funny, and often scarily personal and naked. Chesnutt follows none of the rules. A recent favorite of mine, “Worst Friend”, drawn from the “Skitter” album, is an almost 8 minute listing of facts about the friends of the song’s addressee. One rubbed his penis on TV’s actual Wheel of Fortune, another claims to have taken a dump in the White House. The song goes on and on, each verse finishing with Chesnutt’s reiterated judgment that he is in fact, in fact, his friend’s worst friend. If you think this is an unpromising premise for a song, you would probably be joined in that judgment by 99.9% of songwriters and listeners. But Chesnutt turns it into something uncanny and moving. I’m not sure how he does it.

In part, the songs work because of the strength of Chesnutt’s vocals. Another song on “Skitter”, “Sewing Machine”, is a sad song about the singer’s mother and grandmother. Each chorus ends with Chesnutt singing the title words in a soft falsetto that brings tears to your eyes, so powerfully does it express the singer’s vulnerability before the force of childhood memory.

Chesnutt’s albums were recorded with a great many backing bands. Lambchop performed on one of his best records, “The Salesman and Bernadette”. The band that performed on Ghetto Bells included the great Bill Frisell on guitar. And he recorded two albums with the jam rock band Widespread Panic under the name brute.

In my view, however, Chesnutt found the ideal musical setting for his songs when he teamed up with members of Montreal’s own Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. The two albums he recorded with them, “North Star Deserter” and this year’s “At the Cut” are arguably his best records, both because of the quality of the songs, but also because of the what the band contributed to them. Now, I have to confess that I have never been a huge fan of Godspeed and post-Godspeed bands such as Silver Mt. Zion. I find that the music aims for a kind of drama that is actually unearned. To these ears, their music builds to big and noisy climaxes that are just big and noisy rather than actually building in a musically interesting way. Now, there is no denying the musicians’ chops. But I have always been unmoved by their vision.

Combined with Chesnutt’s songs, however, their music comes into its own. The songs make sense in the context of the dramatic settings that these wonderful Montreal musicians provide them with, and they provide the music with a focus that was in always lacking from both Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion’s studio offerings and live performances.

I saw Chesnutt perform live in Montreal with these musicians twice in the last couple of years. Watching him perform is a tense, disquieting experience, but an exhilarating one as well. Part of the unease comes from watching a man struggle for his art against painful physical limitations. Chesnutt would contort himself in his chair while he was singing, perhaps as a way to fill his lungs with enough air to hit the big, loud notes that contributed much to the drama of the songs. He looked spent at the end of some songs, and his musicians would look to him with solicitude and concern, as one would a boxer who had taken a few too many rounds of punishment. I remember thinking at the end of his performance at the Ukrainian Federation in late October that perhaps he had had enough. Listening to the lyrics on “At the Cut” with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Chesnutt was in the process of making an angry peace with mortality.

But the performances were triumphant nonetheless. The arrangements from the two records he recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio came vividly to life. Despite the obvious pain he was going through, Chesnutt would look up at the band with wry satisfaction at the end of each song. Here was an artists satisfied in the conviction that he had finally found the right palette of colours for his art.

There are musicians that one listens to because of their cleverness, others because of their musical chops, and others still because of their sheer entertainment value. But there are musicians who make music because they have to, because in making music they are figuring out how to live, and in the process telling us something important about the way in which we should lead our lives. Chesnutt was one of those, as was Chris Whitley, who passed away four years ago, also at the age of 45. It is hard to imagine living in a world in which his voice has been silenced forever.

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You’ve probably heard Betty Bonifassi without knowing it. Did you see the loopy French animated cycling movie Les triplettes de Belleville? That was Bonifassi singing the equally loopy theme song, “Belleville Rendez-Vous”.

Bonifassi also did a memorable turn on DJ Champion’s first album, on a track called “No Heaven”. You would have been forgiven for thinking that Champion had unearthed some aged blues singer from the American deep south for that stand-out song. But the pipes belonged to Bonifassi, a French-born singer from France’s deep south town of Nice, who has in recent years called Montreal home.

You would have also been forgiven for not connecting the vocals on “Belleville Rendez-Vous” to those on “No Heaven”. “Belleville” is a jaunty, faux-‘30s romp, while the latter track is grimy and lusty. But the voice on both songs belongs to Bonifassi, an infinitely expressive and versatile singer who seems until recently to have been satisfied with providing the vocal element to other artists’ visions.

Until last year, that is, when she teamed up with composer/drummer/producer Jean-Phi Goncalves to record the eponymous debut album Beast, one of my favorite albums of 2008. Beast provides Bonifassi with an ideal showcase for her rich, growly voice. The dark and somewhat threatening sonic settings devised by Goncalves serve Bonifassi perfectly, and allow her to jump to the foreground. The songs were written by Goncalves and Bonifassi, but the English lyrics are all hers. Imagine a somewhat funkier Portishead, and you will have a fair idea of what Beast is up to.

As much as I loved the album, I thought of it as very much a studio creation. It was hard to imagine the layered textures of sound translating particularly well to the stage. Beast dispelled this impression when they performed at Montreal’s late summer music festival Osheaga. They played in a context that could not have been less congenial to their music: an outdoor stage in broad daylight for music that is both nocturnal and somewhat claustrophobia-inducing. Yet they were among the festival’s stand-outs. Bonifassi, it turns out, is a formidable bête de scène, and she managed to turn the Osheaga stage to her dark purposes.

The truth be told, I only caught the last 15 minutes or so of their set. Osheaga is two days worth of delicious dilemma and inevitable frustration for the music lover: four stages, with music playing on two or three simultaneously at all times. Doubting that Bonifassi and Goncalves could carry off their music particularly well in an outdoor festival setting, I opted for a well-meaning but boring local band on one of the smaller stages, and only made it back to hear the back end of Beast’s set. By that point, the audience had been completely won over, and Bonifassi filled the space triumphantly with her huge but perfectly controlled voice.

Beast recently returned to the Montreal stage for a set of dates at Club Soda, a small club more obviously suited than Ile Notre-Dame to their cinematic sound. I caught them on a cold Tuesday night last week, after lining up outside for half an hour thanks to Club Soda’s inept mandatory coat-check policy, which meant that the small crowd (the venue’s capacity is 850) was only allowed in in dribs and drabs.

The band, augmented for touring purposes by a bass player and guitarist, were met by an exultant sold-out crowd who seemed to know every song by heart. They delivered the goods for the most part, and seemed to send the audience home happy.

To these ears, however, they sounded less fresh than they had at Osheaga. Part of the problem lies with the material. They have been touring this repertoire for more than a year now, and do not seem to have been doing much new writing since the album came out. (There was only one new song, as far as I could make out). There weren’t any real surprises, and the stage effects seemed stale and gimmicky in the absence of any real musical advance. (Grainy black and white video that have become a de rigueur ingredient of the “alt” aesthetic, and what was up with those outfits the members of the choir were wearing?).

There were some great moments: “Mr. Hurricane” is a powerful song that Bonifassi milked for all the drama it was worth, and there was no denying the kinetic drive of “Satan”, which the band played (predictably) as an encore. But the “wow” factor that accompanied both the album and earlier performances has faded. Will Beast have a second act? I hope so, because they may now be running the risk of overstretching the first one.

Opening for them were a local band that I had never heard of, Random Recipe. (Where do they come up with these band names?) I was happy to have made it to Club Soda in time to hear them. Their music, a combination of folk, hip hop and rock, is derivative, to be sure (for the most part of Coco Rosie) but it is catchy and was delivered on the night with energy and enthusiasm. They announced toward the end of their set that an album would hopefully be coming in 2010. They did enough over the course of their 40 minute set to leave me hoping that they would.

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My job as an academic philosopher often takes me to Paris. When I’m there, I always stay in the underrated 14th arrondissement. It lies just south and south-east of that hateful carbuncle on the Paris skyline, the Tour Montparnasse. The “quatorzième” is a fifteen minute walk (or a 5 minute Vélib ride) from the Jardins du Luxembourg, and from most of the Left Bank academic institutions with which I have to transact. But it is a world unto itself, pleasingly distant from the tourist hotspots, but full of great restaurants, cafés and cultural institutions.

I stay in a lovely little hotel on the quiet rue Boulard, just off the Montparnasse cemetery, where I can pay my respects to Serge Gainsbourg and Jean Seberg, among other deceased French luminaries. A stone’s throw away is the pedestrian strip of Rue Daguerre, a foody heaven full of great cheese shops, “traiteurs”, fishmongers, bakeries and butchers, and just beyond that, one of my favorite restaurants in the world, the tiny Au vin des rues. It looks like any of the myriad hole-in-the-wall “menus du jours” restos that dot the Parisian landscape. I must have walked right by it a hundred times at least until an in-the-know Parisian friend pointed it out to me. I now eat there every time I am in town. It’s simple, terroir cuisine, done with the best ingredients. On a recent visit I feasted on a home-made fish terrine, a wonderful andouillette, an organic red that had caught the owner’s fancy, and a Saint Marcelin cheese so fresh and runny it practically had to be tasered to remain on my plate.

On Thursday evenings, this small family-run resto is taken over by accordionists and singers who lead patrons in an evening of traditional French songs. I rarely know any of the songs, but the other guests obviously do, and they sing along lustily. I am delighted just to let the joyful sounds wash over me. Last week, I walked in close to midnight just to have a glass of wine and to take part in this lovely neighborhood institution. If it sounds stereotypical, it isn’t: it is the type upon which the stereotype is based. If you are in Paris you could do worse then spending an evening with the locals, who will look kindly upon you even if you are only there to sit, listen, eat and drink.

About a kilometer from my hotel, just off rue Pernety, sits one of my favorite places on the planet. L’Entrepôt is an all-purpose cultural emporium, a huge complex housing an excellent cinema showcasing great movies from around the world, many of which never make it to our boring cineplexes (on this trip I saw Jacques Audiard’s amazing, over-the-top, Un prophète, which won Cannes’ Grand Prix this year and which in my humble opinion should have edged out Michael Haneke’s admittedly brilliant but forbiddingly austere Weisse Band for the Palme d’Or), a gallery, a restaurant with a very pleasant courtyard café, and a concert space featuring a pleasingly eclectic list of gigs. After taking in the Audiard flick, I had a bite, and then stayed around to catch a French band I had never heard of, Aribo, which sounded like a cross between George Brassens and The Clash. They were wonderful, and I rushed over to the merchandise stand to buy their first record, Rock de Bois.

The great thing about L’Entrepôt is that it really is a neighborhood institution. Tourists don’t tend to wander into this part of town, and it is nowhere near what anyone would consider “central” Paris. It is premised upon the proposition that if you provide your clientele with consistently imaginative and varied programming, they will come. I was there on a rainy Thursday night, and the place was crowded with people taking in one or the other of the many events on offer. It also shows up the relative timidity of the cultural entrepreneurs of our fair city. Can you imagine anyone having the imagination and courage to undertake anything of this magnitude in a Montreal neighborhood like, say, NDG? Say in the old Cinema V/Empress theatre which has stood almost entirely empty now for close to 20 years?

My final night in Paris presented me with a trilemma. Over in the Parc de la Villette area, The Melvins, those estimable punk stalwarts from Washington state, were taking over Glazart, a concert space with which I was unfamiliar. To my amazement, The Sonics, who first got together well over 40 years ago and recorded seminal garage rock records that have been rediscovered by garage rock revivalists such as King Khan and Reigning Sound had regrouped and were across the road at the unremarkable but serviceable Trabendo. In the end, I opted to head to the Alhambra, just off Place de la République, for Nits, the legendary Dutch band that has been around since the mid-70s, and that has recently released its (by my count) 19th album of original material, the excellent Strawberry Wood. (You could never accuse the band of not wearing its Beatles-esque influences on its sleeve).

Nits (they insist on not being called The Nits – don’t ask me why) make pop music for grown-ups. That is, they are relentlessly melodic and listener-friendly, but the melodies are often complex, and the lyrics, by group founder and leader Henk Hofstede, explore the kinds of issues that most pop bands steer clear of – aging, politics, and the like. In their current mood (they have undergone a good many stylistic changes over the years), their songs are keyboard-based, make sparing use of electric guitar, and are kept metronomically precise by their great drummer Rob Kloet.

In concert, Nits are friendly, musically accomplished, and just a tad boring. Though they often revisit the arrangements of their earlier songs to fit whatever stylistic mood they happen to be in at the time, their live performances sound as if they could have been lifted straight from a recording. Three quarters of the way through their generous 2 hour set, I found myself longing for some of the unpredictability and roughness-around-the-edges that was undoubtedly occurring across town at Parc de la Villette.

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Over the course of the past few years, Bob Dylan has been busy answering the musical question: “What would American popular music sound like if Elvis Presley had never left Sun Records?”. In his wonderfully eccentric radio show on the XM satellite network, Dylan has turned himself into the slightly cranky conservator of a tradition of popular music that has been unsullied by the rank commercialism that arguably got started when Elvis signed with RCA. It spans country, blues, and even Tin Pan Alley, the only common denominator being that you’ve probably not heard any of it until Dylan put in on the air.
Dylan’s own records over the last ten years or so can best be described as imagining how that tradition might have evolved had it not morphed into the dominant musical idiom on the planet. Imagine that American pop music had just been allowed to go its own winding way in the gin-joints and music halls of rural America, and you get a sense of what Dylan has been up to. The records have been well-received, they have sold remarkably well, but they have been singularities: not quite rock and roll, not quite blues, not quite country, not quite anything you can put your finger on, but all driven by Dylan’s peculiarly conservative vision.
Now along comes Christmas in the Heart, which is Dylan’s contribution to that most transparently commercial of musical genres — the Christmas album. When I heard that Dylan was going to be releasing a Christmas album, I have to admit that my heart sank. Hadn’t we Dylanophiles suffered enough in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Dylan decided that he was born again, and released songs with uplifting titles such as “God Gave Names to All the Animals” and “Property of Jesus”?
As I pondered what a Dylan Christmas album might sound like, I hypothesized that perhaps Dylan would dig deep into the treasure trove of lost Americana for Christmas songs that no one had ever heard of. Perhaps Blind Willie McTell had a cache of plaintive yuletide blues numbers that Dylan would reintroduce to the world. Surely the man who has taught us never to expect anything but the unexpected would not be lending his voice to the same ditties that begin to pollute the malls and grocery stores of North America three nanoseconds after Halloween. Please, God, not “The Little Drummer Boy”!
The good news is that I can’t imagine the muzak programmers of any mall that I have ever been in choosing to air Dylan’s battered, craggy voice to entice shoppers into Pottery Barn or the Gap. But when the track listing was finally made public in advance of the album’s October release date, the bad news was clear for all to see. They were all here: “Silver Bells”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and yes, “The Little Drummer Boy”.
It took me a couple of weeks to screw up the courage to listen to the record in its entirety. Bob has been on a roll of late, but those of us who have followed his career over the decades know that self-parody in the form of another “Self-Portrait”, “Saved”, or “Empire Burlesque” might very well lie just around the corner.
Having marshaled all of my inner resources and finally confronted the thing, I am happy to report that “Christmas in the Heart” is …. not awful! Dylan has summoned some members of his crack backing band, as well as David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and they have rooted the songs deeply in the American popular idiom that he has championed of late. The jazz and r&b guitarist Phil Upchurch, who to my knowledge has never worked with Dylan before, adds some understated jazzy fills to the proceedings. And the strangely effective, at times somewhat eerie back-up vocals sound like something that would have come over the radio in the ’30s.
About Dylan’s voice, I will pass over quickly in the spirit of yuletide generosity. Suffice it to say that no one need ever be embarrassed again at lending their gruff tuneless voice to family singalongs.
About two thirds of the way through the record, it hit me. What Dylan is doing in this record is perfectly of a piece with the process of reclamation that he has been undertaking on his radio show, and on underrated early-90s albums of folk covers “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong”. Many of the songs collected here are in fact American classics, written by the likes of Gene Autry, Sammy Cahn, and Buck Ram (who wrote many of the Platters’ great hits, like “Only You”). They have been rendered almost impossible to listen to by generations of mall-ready arrangements that have drenched them in strings and saccharine and disembodied, character-less vocals. Dylan plays the songs straight and true, and provides us with a glimpse of what the canon of Christmas songs might have sounded like in the popular culture of the alternate universe Dylan has inhabited over the last 20 years or so.
Nowhere is this more obvious and poignant than in the version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” included here. It was originally written for Judy Garland, who sang it in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”. It is a profoundly sad song, in which a girl tries to cheer her 5 year-old sister up after they have learned that their father would be leaving the family home for a job in New York. It includes the bittersweet line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra asked its author Hugh Martin to “jolly” it up for a version he was planning to record, and it has been handed down to us in its expurgated form. Myself, the very mention of the song conjures up Anne Murray.
Dylan reinstates the original line and sings it sad, and in Dylan’s version you can hear the song again as it may once have sounded, before it got taken up into the shopping mall canon.
Does this mean that “Christmas in the Heart” will be taking its place alongside my Dylan faves, albums like Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks and Desire? It does not. Like I said, the album is not awful — but it is far from great. It does, however, make sense in the context of the odd but oddly wonderful musical project that Dylan has embarked on these last few years.

The Torontonians are coming! No, I don’t mean the Big Bad Leafs. Two of Toronto’s best bands, Do Make Say Think and Apostles of Hustle will be playing withing 48 hours of one another at two of our best venues, Sala Rossa and Il Motore. Check this space for some post-concert impressions next week.

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