April 29, 2009

Hear Again: 101.

During the promotion of Depeche Mode's first official live album much was made of the coincidental fact that the heavens opened up, and rain poured down on an enraptured Californian audience during the performance of Blasphemous Rumours - the agnostic anthem Smash Hits' Neil Tennant (later a famous Pet Shop Boy) dubbed "a routine slab of gloom in which God is given a severe ticking off" in a 1984 review.  Though hardly evidence of an indubitable connection with higher powers, it's an interesting and suggestive example of the serendipity that accompanied Depeche Mode on their rise from Essex pub residences to sold-out arenas across the globe in little under eight years.

Indeed, upon release twenty years ago, 101 was accompanied by as much fanfare as astonishment.  A double LP set in a special envelope sleeve, designed by Peter Saville Associates, featuring photography by Anton Corbijn; an accompanying feature-film by documentary director D. A. Pennebaker, which opened up in cinemas prior to being released on video; and expanded version of the album on double cassette and double compact discs.  It's a set as much intended as a greatest hits package, as evidence of Depeche Mode's arrival on the stage of arena performances - an exclusive club which hadn't yet granted entry to synth pop bands, let alone one which had performed for the first time eight years prior to an audience of seven of their friends and ten teddy bears in one of their mum's sitting room.

Named after the 101st performance of their Concert for the Masses, the album could literally serve a North American audience as a crash course in this quintessentially European band's history.  But it was primarily tonal evidence aimed at their perennial detractors at home, who'd never forgiven the upstarts from Basildon New Town their roots as teen favourite purveyors of light-weight, electronic pop, and refused to take a second look at the solemn merchants of socially conscious alternative rock Depeche Mode had become.  Which never prevented millions of continental and Scandinavian youths from pledging firm allegiance, yet left the band outside looking in among their British peers; especially as the howls of derision grew louder once the band announced its ambitious intention to end their latest tour in the 104,594 capacity Pasadena Rose Bowl.

This documentary package made it perfectly clear that however different North American youth may've been from their European counterparts, they - and Californian youth in particular - were as unwavering in their devotion to a band whose music resonated with them like no other, regardless of what middle-aged rock critics thought of it.  Ultimately, 60,453 people paid to pile into the Pasadena football stadium to partake in the moment Depeche Mode ceased being merely another ambitious European alternative act, and turned into transatlantic superstars.  Something even many of their long-time European supporters had trouble coming to terms with - perhaps because the obverse implied that a cherished underground brook (and the hipness implied in following it) had finally swollen its banks and gone mainstream.

The album is intrinsically connected with numbers; one of the accompanying film's most memorable scenes is the counting of the evening's earnings.  Mounds of money are poured out to be counted,  the result of merchandise sales among the nearly 86,000 in attendance.  It's a scene in which the band themselves come closest to embodying the credo of their 1983 hit Everything Counts: "The grabbing hands / grab all they can / everything counts in large amounts."  Anton Corbijn's artwork captures this budding dichotomy in a manner typical for his ambivalent relationship with the band.  He'd first photographed Depeche Mode in 1981, and hadn't cherished the experience much.  Yet by the late 1980s, Corbijn's photographs - with their pseudo-candid poses, exaggerated contrast, grainy texture, features sinking into shadows - had come to define the band's look.

Until 101, their sleeves had featured Martyn Atkins' social realism inspired designs and Brian Griffin's photography to capture the mood of the music.  Yet Griffin's iconic images - for example, the covers of A Broken Frame, or Construction Time Again - had never included the band itself, and though much of Depeche Mode's appeal outside Britain lay in their comparative anonymity, it left them relying on the much more commercial trappings of 1980s rock photography when a picture of the band members was required.  Corbijn ended that long succession of disjointed portraits, starting by providing the band's videos with a unifying style.  His 101 sleeve is the band's first to feature the individual members, albeit indirectly.  They're represented by merchandise, as faces on posters, t-shirts; the band name and album title provided on a sticker that could double as a price tag.

Musically, the emphasis lies on their latest album at that point, Music for the Masses, released in September 1987 - a stripped down affair with modernist leanings.  But the set also includes tracks from their three previous albums, not only the most well-known titles but also more obscure tracks - like the faux rocker Pleasure, Little Treasure, previously confined to the back of a single.  The show-stopping Everything Counts, the final chorus of which is performed by the audience itself long after the music stops demonstrating the rapport Depeche Mode had achieved with their fans, is preceded by Just Can't Get Enough, the very early hit neither fans nor critics seem willing to let the band forget - though for completely different reasons.

One aspect that naturally comes into question is what point performing electronic music is; to most people it's just pushing buttons on stage.  Which frankly could be said of playing the tuba or saxophone too.  It may also seem a lot less loaded question today, when gadgets capable of producing music aren't only ubiquitous but also incredibly user-friendly.  This wasn't always the case, and certainly not in the 1980s.  Music machines were anything but friendly; they were temperamental and sensitive beasts, prone to act up as soon as the humidity of the venue changed, the temperature dropped, or the prices at the cash bar went up.

Coaxing music from them involved not only large amounts of patience but also significant musical skill - something that will no doubt once again become evident in an era saturated by amateur stabs at electronic music stardom.  The degree of skill was no less than that required by musicians performing on "conventional" instruments - an excellent example of which can be seen in the 101 film as Alan Wilder demonstrates exactly what he did on stage by playing practically all parts of Black Celebration on his keyboard.

Besides questions of sheer musical quality, there's the issue of performance itself.  Generations of rock critics reared on the luddite notions of late 1960s "counter-cultural revolutionaries" would cling for dear life to the notion that there's something much more "honest" about an unwashed troubadour strumming his guitar than anything produced by a sampler.  Yet the process of recording and producing music is entirely electronic - especially since the advent of compact discs, which by the mid 1980s had rendered practically all music a stream of digital data.  And there's really no such thing as a ""true" live recording - unless one refers to the unbalanced, uncompressed, low quality bootlegs produced to profit from the most obsessive fans.

Every "live" album ever produced has undergone some kind of studio process, quite often adding and refining bits and pieces that didn't quite work out in reality, rendering the question of whether an album of electronic music performances is "authentic" or not utterly meaningless.  As it happens, Depeche Mode's Pasadena performance doesn't represent the best of the tour, having been hampered by monitoring problems - wrinkles which no doubt were ironed out by Alan Wilder and budding producer Alan Moulder at London's Swanyard Studios.

However, the most important aspect remains context.  The audience for which this music was performed were the children of the self-styled "counter-cultural revolutionaries;" the ones left to deal with the addictions, divorces, social and economical upheaval left in the wake of their parents' persistent drive for "self-fulfillment."  The world they inhabited had long ago moved beyond utopian visions of peace, harmony, and flowers in everyone's hair.  More wars were waged than ever, the chasm between haves and have nots was wider than ever, more people hungry and unemployed than ever, the threat of nuclear warfare hung constantly in the air, while the once idealistic boomers were taking up residence in the towers of power.

To their kids, maturing in a grim place with a bleak future, increasingly surrounded by machines, electronics establishing themselves in every facet of existence, machine augmented music meshing the detritus of pop culture with the rock cliches of past decades provided the perfect soundtrack to the Cold War nightlife.  It captured the mood of their environment more "honestly" than any barefoot guitar strumming idealist ever could.  Their answer wasn't blowing in the wind, it was saved straight to disk.

April 28, 2009

Ernie Barnes, 1938-2009.

The American painter and former professional (American) football player Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. has passed away.  His energetic, ebullient artworks - known from sleeve adaptations for albums by Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others - often combined artistry with athleticism, as can be seen here

April 22, 2009

Itty Bitty Kitty Ditties.

Tim Hodapp has a background in education, religion, marketing, and communication strategy. All fields that seek to charm and sway. Yet for his authourial debut he's chosen a subject so safe it requires little swaying to move product: the domestic cat. That small, predatory, carnivorous species of crepuscular mammals have already beguiled humans for the past nine millennia, with an estimated 600 million currently allowed to prowl homes worldwide. A bid for a readership doesn't get safer than that.

Aspiring towards the spirit of Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), and by extension T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939, a 1982 edition of which Gorey illustrated), Itty Bitty Kitty Ditties guide their reader through a complete (modern English) alphabet of short verse pertaining to the laziness, obesity, narcissism, vandalism, prevarication, scatological humour, black humour, nightlife, and the general laidback stance of the domesticated feline life.

While it could easily be mistaken for an educational collection of nursery rhymes, it should likely be read in the company of an adult; the language is easy enough for the youngest readers to grasp, but some allusions may require further explanation. Parents who take exception to their wards being exposed to any of the aforementioned activities should best stay the hell away from this book altogether.

Hubert the cat

harbored a hatred for hounds

and haunted them daily

with unholy sounds.

Hodapp's verses are further generously illustrated with whimsical ink drawings by Alex Boies, whose blotchy impressions of moggy mayhem almost appear to have inspired the book. After all, Boies - who's previously illustrated Deborah M. Newton Chocolate's Imani in the Belly (1994), a children's version of a Swahili folk tale - is the sole keeper of a cat among the book's creative trio. Writer Hodapp owns a dog, as does graphic artist Jo Davison - in addition to a parakeet. Hardly avowed felinophiles, then.

Apart from the witty verses there's also a somewhat useful guide to hairballs, tail signals, and - betraying the creators background in commercial work - an accompanying
website, which apart form the book itself has assorted t-shirts and tea towels on offer. No doubt handy for dealing with what the cat might've dragged in. Potential commercial interests aside, one would have to possess a pretty hard heart - or be an avowed felinophobe - to not be charmed and swayed by these itty bitty kitty ditties.

April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard, 1930-2009.

British authour James Graham Ballard has passed away.  Best known for dystopian novels like The Drowned World (1962), the controversial The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973), and the autobiographical Empire of the Sun (1984), Ballard wrote his first SF-story, Passport to Eternity, in 1953 while stationed at RCAF Station Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan, where he'd first encountered science fiction.

April 14, 2009

Amazon's gone bad.

Less than a week before Canada Book Week starts, and little over a week until World Book and Copyright Day, America's largest online retailer of books have demonstrated through - what they themselves have termed - "ham-fisted" actions how our freedom to read what we chose continues to be impacted by the arrival of supermassive book retailers. Amazon.com found itself accused of censorship and homophobia after the company removed titles tagged as 'adult' from its online charts, stripping over 57.000 books of their sales rankings - effectively removing them from the company's main product search.

What particularly raised ire was the seemingly arbitrary application of the 'adult' tag to titles with gay themes. Although several children's books as well as titles on sexual health, biographies, and classics were also suddenly at odds with Amazon's "consideration of [their] entire customer base," straight smut was allowed to remain. A tome of Playboy centerfolds (tagged as 'photography') was okay, Heather has Two Mommies and Stephen Fry's autobiography weren't.

Given that little over half of Amazon's revenue is generated in the US, it's perhaps not surprising that the story didn't receive much attention outside the anglosphere. But the company's product searches were affected on all six of the additional, separate websites Amazon operates globally, and the issue itself appears to date back to at least February - ironically the month Freedom to Read Week was celebrated here in Canada. The debate that's followed, mainly online, has unfortunately largely reduced the problem to a gay rights issue.

Amazon's not a a library or public service; they're a business with a right to stock whatever they want. But it's a right that becomes problematic when a bookseller dominates the market like Amazon does. Any titles they, and the other three or four major players, decide not to stock become harder to find, and - by extension - to publish. Supermassive booksellers can also exert pressure on publishers (as Amazon has done in the past) to offer greater discounts, and interfere with publishers direct sales, thereby undercutting the profitability - and ultimately, the existence - of small publishers in particular. It's censorship by proxy.

Herein lies the much larger problem, one mostly ignored by the righteous cries of indignation rapidly raised in response to Amazon's "technical issue." Ultimately, Amazon's business allegedly involves selling stuff, not points of view. So who oversees the tagging, the adding of keywords or categories by customers? Is tagging useful and necessary, or merely an opportunity for certain customers to 'report' titles they deem 'offensive'? That type of tagging is a typical American pastime, one Amazon founder and chairman Jeffrey Bezos and his fellow bozos surely are familiar with.

Like most conservative societies, America's obsessed with labeling everything it considers foreign and frightening. Why else provide boxes for indicating race on official forms, such as driver's license applications? The people most frequently 'offended' by literature that doesn't fit their particularly narrow-minded and parochial outlook have demonstrated quite well in the past that they're capable of speaking for themselves. There's no need for online retailers to back them up, or provide them with tools that help propagate their hateful, self-righteous views. It's certainly not the business of private corporations or their individual customers to determine what others should be able to read.

This debacle is partially the result of online retailers' fierce competition to create a purposefully 'user-driven' online-shopping experience, providing exhaustive amounts of information about every piece of goods - including reviews and comments from other customers. Which, as in Amazon's case, opens the online catalogue to practically anyone who may or may not have something useful to add about a specific item, and who - more often than not - have an axe to grind. As 'pioneering' as Amazon's customer reviews may have appeared once, they've certainly caused the company trouble before (specifically over author's anonymously giving themselves glowing reviews in order to boost sales.)

In other words, this isn't "a glitch," as Amazon stated in a lame, late effort to stem the tide of online fury, but a consequence of how the system is set up. Add a myriad of tags in order to make sure that whatever the customer searches for, Amazon will have something to sell, and "mistakes" like these are bound to arise. After all, Amazon is a rather typical American corporation, started not for the love of books, but as an attempt to cash in on the commercialisation of the Internet. Amazon is all about making money - a fact starkly illustrated by the company's campaigns of intimidation and layoffs to avoid unionisation of its labour force.

However, as commercially driven, flawed, and cynical as Amazon's tag structure is, it can offer search options for those genuinely interested in a specific category to rival the indexes of most national and public libraries. After a fashion, it lives up to Mr Bezos stated aim "to make every book available – the good, the bad, and the ugly...to let truth loose." Hopefully, Amazon will take this opportunity to steer clear of that typically American ambition of providing a moral compass for the masses, evaluate what information it displays online, and stick to what it does best: providing the widest possible selection, and selling what sells.

In the meantime, here's a handy tip for all you budding reactionary crusaders out there: the chance of encountering something that offends your sensibilities online are a lot smaller if you don't search for it in the first place.

April 10, 2009

Dave Arneson, 1947-2009.

The American game designer David Arneson has passed away.  Though devising many of the role-playing devices now considered archetypes, Arneson is probably best remembered for co-creating Dungeons & Dragons.

April 6, 2009

Begone Dull Care.

Having established themselves as one of Canada's leading electronic pop acts, the Junior Boys decidedly lean back and relax on their third album. They seem less interested in pushing the boundries of their sound than in exploring its width, as if curious about how many permutations, how much variation the limits they've imposed on themselves will allow. The period they've chosen being the first half of the eighties, when analogue machines were gradually being replaced by digital variants, with a sharper, less dynamic, more precise, and - to most listeners - colder sound.

In fact, many of the tracks are rhythmically rooted in late seventies electronic pop, while sonically summoning the early eighties. For instance,
Hazel, the album's lead single, brings both Depeche Mode's Everything Counts and Kraftwerk's Trans-Europa Express to mind in this manner, while Parallel Lines, the album's opener, rolls in on a Giorgio Moroder-esque bass line that could've been a slower version of alphaVille's The Elevator. But then the strings kick in and suddenly the listener's enveloped in the Junior Boys' distinct romantic atmosphere, where their ability to seamlessly complement the electronic sounds with conventional and acoustic accents - to a point where the machines and the traditional instruments become virtually indistinguishable - continues to impress.

What's truly groundbreaking about
Begone Dull Care is that it may well be the very first Canadian electronic pop album - if not the first Canadian pop album ever - to be issued with artwork in both official languages. Curiously enough, it was released on the same day as the Pet Shop Boys Yes - another album with artwork based on a colour chart. But where the British stars concocted an album about rapidly aging hipsters worrying about remaining hip, referencing a trendy German artist in order to appear en vogue, the Junior Boys found inspiration closer to home: an award winning abstract animated film by Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren.

Its title perhaps inspired by an old Yorkshire ditty, dating back to at least the days of James II of England (and possibly an older, French chanson), the film's considered a
direct film masterpiece, featuring music by the the Oscar Peterson Trio. Created sixty years ago, it's a far from trendy reference point - which, ironically, lends this Junior Boys album the very timelessness self-appointed hipsters try so hard to capture. However, musically this album's closer to an exercise in familiarity than nostalgia.

The uneven sequence propelling
The Animator echoes that of the previous album's Like a Child, while the jittery R&B considered somewhat of a Junior Boys signature occasionally threatens to entirely obliterate the languid, laidback groove (as in Bits & Pieces.) More contemporary references crop up in Sneak A Picture, which strives to occupy the same dancefloor spot Wolfgang Flür's Cover Girl tries to steal from his previous band's classic Das Model. There are also tentative steps in new directions, most obviously in Dull to Pause, where a folksy motif embellished with pedal steel action provide an unexpected touch of country.

But despite that track's assertions to the contrary, it makes the album's lyrical theme of savouring a splendid moment explicit: "I was pacing around / and just recording it down / I had nothing to say / I'm done for another day / 'cause I don' want to share you / So don't say goodnight / No, don't say goodnight."
Begone Dull Care isn't so much a call to throw caution to the wind, as an incantation to banish the drearily ordinary in order to make an exceptional moment last. A relaxed, slow affair, taking its time as though afraid of ending to soon, every track extended as far as possible. An album for people who've fallen in love, and don't want to get up.

April 2, 2009

Helen Levitt, 1913-2009.

American photographer Helen Levitt has passed away.  Reclusive and discreet, she's best known for her candid images of New York City tenements, examples of which can be seen here.


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