Wednesday, July 30, 2014 Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bahamas, “Lost in the Light”

My friend Martine came with me to Pitchfork’s festival this year. A few of you probably met her there; she has long, wavy red hair and great outfits, and every time I introduced her, I said something like, “We went to high school together! Up in Canada, of course.” Martine has always been a lot cooler than I am, though I suppose I don’t set the bar very high. When we were much younger, she already had a good handle on who she was and what she liked; she had better ways of finding music, she liked to watch movies that would never come within hundreds of miles of our shabby hometown theater, she could draw and paint. She could smoke those little flavoured cigarillos, the ones that come in cherry and honey, with a thoughtfulness — and even a sort of glamour — that felt shipped in from a different decade. (I tried to emulate her one summer, and smoked one after a bad date while the NBA Finals played in the background. I coughed for two days straight. It was a reminder of my limits.) I used to be jealous of her because she made growing up look very easy. Today, I just feel lucky to have her in my life. Being with her makes you feel like you’re part of something, or like you’re in on a little secret. I think you have to hold onto friends like that with all your might. 

At the end of June, Justin and I rented a car and drove up to visit Martine in Ottawa. She kept us busy, and one late afternoon we fell into a half-nap in her bedroom, slipping in and out of consciousness as the sun filtered through her curtains and onto our faces. I woke up at some point and this song was barely audible, warm and weathered, slowly rising, just out of reach like a dream you’re trying to keep alive. I’ve listened to it every few days since, and I think about Martine every time: my dear friend, laptop full of little treasures like this one, one or two steps ahead of me until one of us kicks the bucket. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The last few weeks have been pretty busy with “real” work, writing, and travel, so here are some quick and dirty links to reviews that have been published during that time:

  • I reviewed Slow Club’s excellent new album Complete Surrender for Pitchfork.
  • I reviewed Woman’s Hour’s promising debut Conversations for Pitchfork.
  • I reviewed Jenny Lewis’ strong return to the spotlight The Voyager for Myspace.

I also had a lovely time in Chicago for Pitchfork’s music festival. It was great to see plenty of friends who come up often (or did, once) in this dashboard or my Twitter feed. I love going to P4kfest because it’s the rare chance I have to put on my music critic drag; when I went back to work on Tuesday, all I could think about was the time I spent living my second life in a different country. I can’t wait to go back next year. 

I hope you’re having a nice week, and thanks for reading. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014 Monday, July 7, 2014 Sunday, July 6, 2014

Victoria Duffield, “More Than Friends”

This is a very minor Canadian hit right now, and I think some of you will really like it; a genre we can call post-Kiss (that’s Carly Slay Jepsen’s, natch) may only live in our hearts, but this is a great example of said genre if I’ve ever heard one. I would write more but I’m behind on a few reviews. Enjoy.

(This is also notable for its hyper-ridiculous video; I hope Duffield’s getting some of that Google gouda for all the Glass usage, she’s really earned it.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sam Smith, “How Will I Know”

Getting the purely musical commentary out of the way first: this is a good cover, even beautiful in parts — his navigation of those tender little descending chorus in the pre-chorus @ 2:30ish is sublime — but probably not worthy of the insane hubbub that it’s generated over the last few days. (It cracked Facebook’s inane “trending topics” section for me, which has to mean something.) There’s an instant familiarity at work because the chords that open the song up sound almost exactly like the ones that crack open “Stay With Me,” the song that’s truly broken Smith here in North America. He’s graceful and mealy-mouthed as ever; when I watch him sing I can just imagine notes rising out of his stomach, bubbling up through his throat and fluttering out of the corner of his mouth. But ultimately I resent this take on this song for robbing the original of its joy. Whitney chose to revel in the uncertainty, thumbed her nose at it, chose hope and sought counsel. Smith is never farther than an inch away from utter heartbreak. I get it, I really do, because I was there once too, but as a listener it’s frustrating. You want him to let the light in, if only for a minute or two. 

(An aside, about his physical presence: when the camera takes a moment to capture the whole room you see Smith standing incredibly still, those notes pouring out. He looks statuesque in the most basic sense of the word. A result of his intense and well-documented training, an expression of his extreme control, I don’t know, I find it fascinating. There is so little movement.) 

I’m really torn up about the pronouns thing, I’ll be honest. Smith is resolute in choosing “you” over “he” and “him” when he’s singing about love, which is always, and it’s a choice that says so much about him as a person and a performer: ambitious, unabashedly seeking commercial success, “intensely private,” whatever. I respect him for it, because he’s absolutely right when he says that a straight performer wouldn’t get hounded about the subjects of their songs like this, and I think it’s admirable that he’s trying to write and sing love songs that possess both power and universality. And this sort of anguished hand-wringing over the absence of a simple “he” is probably something he’s been dreading long before coming out to the Fader! But I think his decision is impractical, and working against the widespread appeal he’s fighting so hard to cultivate.

Sam Smith’s biggest problem right now is that he occasionally seems like a machine custom-built to conquer the pop charts: golden voice, classic style, relatively versatile with respect to genre, polished to a fault. In this context, something as simple as neutralizing the pronouns on a Whitney Houston cover can seem like oppressive quality control from an automaton and his team. The whole thing reminds me of the old Michael Jordan adage about sponsorship and politics: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Straight people buy records, too. But is a man singing about his love and lust for another man really going to make them stop? In trying to render his music applicable to any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation, Smith is draining it of the heart and character that rings through many great love songs. (Even the rare Smith songs that doesn’t grapple directly with love are possessed of an ineffable queerness: look at the smash “La La La,” a thinly veiled indictment of hate speech if I’ve ever heard one.)

Smith’s straightwashing stings a bit more for me because I’m intimately familiar with the romantic struggle documented throughout In the Lonely Hour. Smith has talked about the unrequited love that inspired much of the album, but that’s not all I hear: it’s also an unyielding document of a young gay romantic running headfirst into the unfamiliar paradigms that govern sex and dating for gay men. “Stay With Me” is more than just a needy chronicle of an one-night stand that didn’t pan out: it’s the sound of someone who was trained from birth to view monogamous heterosexual relationships as an ideal, violently crashing into something a little more blurred and learning to deal with it. It’s a journey that’s capped off by bonus track “Restart,” where Smith finally figures out how to quickly step in and out of failed flings and broken promises; he finally finds the “restart” button, and it’s one of the best tracks on the album, frothy pop-soul that feels practically weightless compared to the goopy balladry of the album proper. 

I embarked on that same journey, with most of it taking place over the last two or three years; much of it has been chronicled on this Tumblr, in sometimes raw and embarrassing fashion, and more of it has been deleted at 2:00 a.m. or later after getting 1 note’s worth of comfort. That’s why it’s frustrating for me to watch Smith scrub himself clean, diluting his experience and his message and his music: I’ve been there, and I know the feeling, and I’m really rooting for him. His choice could be the difference between creating art that’s successful and art that’s truly resonant.

Saturday, June 21, 2014
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wrote a piece for TIME about Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith; here’s a picture of said piece, taken within the comfy confines of the Toronto bus terminal. I like being in print!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wrote a piece for TIME about Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith; here’s a picture of said piece, taken within the comfy confines of the Toronto bus terminal. I like being in print!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Colbie Caillat, “Fallin’ for You” 

This is one of my favourite songs ever. It comes into my life every year or two, like a comet: I’ll hear a verse or even just the guitar melody, shopping in a drug store or walking through a mall or beside someone’s open car window, and then I’m obsessed with it for a week before putting it in my back pocket until next year. I never have any trouble finding something new to love about this song. There’s the sound: the guitars cast in that late summer afternoon light, Caillat’s broad, warm voice, a melody that’s somehow always falling the way you do when you’re just on the edge of falling asleep. There are the words: this is a very simple song, but one that grasps on a basic level that love is defined by fear. Right now I just keep thinking about how approachable this song is, how easy it is to pretend it just came into your life organically, a pure thought you had or a string of notes rattling around your brain. Caillat is not an especially distinctive or powerful singer, but that works in her favour here. In the hands of Whitney Houston or Sam Smith, love songs are feats of strength: they give voice to feelings in a way almost all of us could never accomplish, blowing them up to their greatest possible size. “Fallin’ for You” is not like that. He could be singing it to you as you wake up in the morning, legs folded and clad in old boxers, brushing your hair and grinning. She could be on the other side of the campfire running through the chords, hair smelling like smoke. You could catch him half-humming the melody in the shower when you’ve never heard him sing before. It’s not hard to fold this song into your plain little life, and I love it for that. 

(I’ve included a Walmart Soundcheck (!) live performance because the official video isn’t available on YouTube, and I feel like that somehow says more than I ever could.)