Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Year of Great Songs: Dave’s “not-exactly” Top Ten List for 2008

The past year in music saw releases from a wide variety of artists in all genres. From newcomers like MGMT and Vampire Weekend to veterans such as Alejandro Escovedo and Beck, there were plenty of new songs bouncing about between my ears. 2008 was indeed a year of great songs.
However, 2008 presents me with one slight problem. My annual Top Ten list is for albums, not just songs. I like to recognize artists for compiling an entire record (is that word still relevant?) of songs that works as a whole from start to finish. Listening to an album is all about appreciating the artistry of a musician or group of musicians, experiencing the ebb and flow of emotions that they have captured for your senses and enjoyment. Repeated listens become like a visit with an old friend.
For me, this was a rare occurrence in 2008. I found myself all too regularly hitting the “skip” button to avoid certain songs, or even more commonly I’d listen to my favorite two or three tracks and skip the rest of the album. Great songs, but a great album? Not so much…
This year’s list has been adjusted accordingly. I’ve divided it between “great albums” and albums with “great songs”. And as if that wasn’t enough, I’ve thrown in an extra category “just because”. Enjoy!

Great Albums – the Top 2:

The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow
The boys from Manchester have most certainly hit their stride. Guy Garvey’s smoky vocals are once again at the forefront of the band’s self described “prog without the solos” style. Hands down my album of the year. The critics apparently agree as The Seldom Seen Kid is this year’s recipient of the Mercury Prize – the annual award for the best in British music.

The Golden Hour by Firewater
Returning from an extended trek through Thailand, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia (which he chronicled on his blog Postcards from the Other Side of the World), lead singer and mastermind behind Firewater Tod A has used recorded music from his travels as the backbone of the very world wary “Golden Hour”. The combination of a Joe Strummer-like lyrical style with such influences as Klezmer and Indian wedding music results in perhaps the most satisfying “socially conscious” record since the early Clash.

Great Albums – the rest:

Microcastle by Deerhunter
Deerhunter have abandoned their uneven experimental noise from the early 2000’s for a fuller, more accessible sound on Microcastle. The release has been criticized by their hardcore fans for being too pop oriented. I say lighten up hipster snobs and enjoy this blissfully melodic breakout release!

Jean Lee & the Yellow Dog by Ed Kuepper & the Kowalski Collective
The grandfather of Australian rock has been silent for a few years. But finally, there's this ambitious loose concept album, based on the only hanging of a woman in Australian history, in 1951 of prostitute/alleged murdered Jean Lee. Long, varied, constantly and effectively surprising and involving, it's just plain fabulous.

Rook by Shearwater
Wow! How much emotionally charged songwriting can you fit into a 38 minute record? The answer lies in Shearwater’s expansive “Rook”.

Real Animal by Alejandro Escovedo
Ok, perhaps not a perfect album, but Real Animal stands as testament to one of music’s most underrated performers. From his early days with punk pioneers Rank and File (when he lived alongside Sid and Nancy in NYC) through to a recent battle with Hep-C, Alejandro has written an extensive catalogue of music straddling a wide variety of genres. This album pays homage to his past, and looks forward to a brighter future as the world seems to have finally caught on.

Great Albums – honorable mentions:

Mission Control by The Whigs
Guitar based indie-rock, for those who like it served straight up.

Attack and Release by The Black Keys
Nothing new here from the Keys, just another satisfying blues romp. What’s wrong with that?

Albums with Great Songs:

Consolers of the Lonely by The Raconteurs
To be honest, this should be in the great album category because it really is pretty strong throughout. Jack White has taken over the band, and Consolers is full of his characteristic riffs and screeches. It also casts a nod to some of Jack’s influences (most notably Led Zep) and boasts some musical diversions not seen on the band’s first effort. However, there are a couple of songs that I can only describe as absolute stinkers, and am never able to get through. Thus, the skip button comes into play every time. Sorry Jack.

The Very Sexuals
Delicious Bowie-like harmonies abound on this rookie release from Holland’s Very Sexuals. It’s too bad they only keep it up for the first three songs. Still, the album can be downloaded for free from their MySpace page, and for those three songs it’s well worth the effort.

Oracular Spectacular by MGMT
In 2008 these new darlings of the indie circuit have gone from playing half empty bars to sold-out arenas, all on the strength of Oracular Spectacular. It’s well worth the hype, containing perhaps the single of the year (a toss-up between “Time To Pretend” and “Kids” – you decide which is better).

Vampire Weekend
They’ve spent the year battling it out with MGMT for the most hyped band of 2008. I still love “(Who Gives a Fuck About an) Oxford Comma” (how brilliant is that?), but found the rest of the album lost my interest after only a couple of listens.

Feel Good Ghosts by Cloud Cult
In a year without a release from the Flaming Lips, at least we have Cut Copy. (What’s that? There was a Flaming Lips release? Who knew?) Like The Lips, Cut Copy is all over the map, with sometimes theatrical extravaganzas, other times simple ditties. Hear both on “When Water Comes to Life” from Feel Good Ghosts. I’m listening to it now, and have stopped typing so I can lead the orchestra.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep by Sparks
Included here solely on account of the Queen-like harmonies and laugh-out-loud funny lyrics of “Lighten up Morrisey” and “Photoshop (Me Out of Your Life)”.

Modern Guilt by Beck
Not up to his usual standards, yet Modern Guilt still produced two of the best songs from 2008 – “Gamma Ray” and “Profanity Prayers”.

Album Title of the Year:
When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold by Atmosphere

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Civilized Wilderness – Sea Kayaking in Sechelt Inlet

To some, embarking on a three day kayak trip into unpopulated areas of British Columbia’s west coast would be considered a rugged backcountry experience. To others, it’s simply another excuse to eat and drink exorbitantly, while providing just enough physical exertion to be categorized as an outdoor activity. I’m most certainly in the second group, as demonstrated by our kayak excursion this past weekend.

Now don’t get me wrong, the BC coastline is home to many wild animals and the chances of encountering a bear are pretty good. The closest shower and electrical outlet are many miles away, and (thankfully) there is no mobile phone coverage. You don’t have to go far to be pretty remote.

However, traveling by kayak provides one distinct advantage over more traditional back country options such as hiking, and that advantage is storage. So, despite the remoteness and somewhat rudimentary means of getting there, the kayaker can bring along a reasonable array of creature comforts. For me, those comforts revolve around food.

Before you write me off as a complete sloth or nut bar, tell me how this sounds? After a day of paddling in clear water surrounded by mountains and forests, you return to camp for a cocktail and appetizer. Then, as the sun sets you recline against a log on the beach and enjoy a glass of wine while brilliant colors dance across the sky. As darkness approaches, it’s time to light a fire and prepare a gourmet feast. You eventually retire to your tent with a belly full of fine wine, and slip into a deep sleep to the soothing sound of waves lapping against the shore.

Not so crazy after all, huh? I call it “Civilized Wilderness”, and even though I’m bound to hear loud protests from the extreme sports crowd, I’m convinced there is no better way to experience nature.

On our weekend we paddled with dolphins, saw countless jellyfish and multi-colored starfish, and stared in awe at some stunning scenery. We also swam in the surprisingly warm ocean at a number of uninhabited beaches. Meanwhile, we enjoyed cool late afternoon Gin and Tonics, lightly seared sushi grade ahi tuna, melt in your mouth tenderloin, a variety of spicy Indian curries, assorted grilled vegetables and even brownies with steamed milk and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Not to be overlooked were beautiful bottles of wine to accompany every course.

Good friends, great food and stunning scenery! Indeed, what more could one want?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Iqaluit Bound: A Photographic Venture Into Canada's Arctic

The bumper sticker said it all. I certainly wasn't in painfully PC Vancouver anymore. I had embarked on a journey into a world so different from my own it's hard to believe it's still in the same country. Mind you, this is Canada after all, and you can travel a long, long way without crossing an international border. It took me longer to fly to Iqaluit way up in Canada's northeast than it would have taken for me to fly to Bali. That's far.

What follows are a few snapshots from my trip accompanied by some impressions from this ice-covered wonderland.

The first thing that hits you as you step off the airplane is the cold. My flight was greeted by temperatures dipping below -20 Celsius, and winds gusting over 50 km/hr. The conditions were such that the plane was forced to stop on the tarmac about a two minute walk from the terminal. Seasoned northern travellers are prepared for such occurrences by keeping their winter clothes on board as carry-on. I walked to the terminal in my light sweater and t-shirt, shivering and cursing the entire way. By the time I got inside, my right eye had frozen completely shut. My guess is that the locals were mocking me by loudly discussing how wonderful it was that spring had finally arrived. I kept my mouth shut and attempted to defrost my face.

The sun does shine in the Arctic (quite often, in fact), and when it does the stark beauty of the place is stunning. Shown here is Iqaluit from the neighbouring village of Apex, looking across Frobisher Bay. Mind you, without the clouds the temperature drops. It was -34 one deceptively sunny morning.

The ocean freezes in the northern winters, and the combination of tides and wind results in an incredible mish-mash of broken ice, with striking, twisted shards forming beautiful modern sculptures.

Nature isn't the only artist in the north. The Inuit people are famous for fine soapstone sculptures. This carving of a traditional hunter was perched atop a traditional weaved basket, and fetched a whopping $3,000 at an auction I attended.

Other indigenous art includes fashion, utilizing local furs such as seal, caribou and polar bear. These would probably not be practical in rainy Vancouver, as persons wearing such fashion would immediately be shot by someone who lives between Commercial and Victoria Drives.

Still, Lord knows how I love to shop, so I picked up two of these outfits...

The north also presents some startling contrasts, and with that some difficult social issues. On the left is the first Hudson's Bay trading post in the region, established on Frobisher Bay in 1620. It's quite remarkable that western explorers came to these harsh environs that long ago. But what's even more awe inspiring is that the Inuit people had called this rather uninhabitable land home for many previous generations.
The resulting meeting of cultures has not been a smooth one. Today, Iqaluit is the land of snowmobile cadavers, like the one shown on the right. The town boasts two snowmobile dealerships, and no snowmobile service centers. The locals have no need to service them. The government buys the Inuit new ones every two years so the machines are basically driven until they stop, then abandoned.
Amazing what a government will do to try and make up for the sins of the past.

And so Iqaluit evokes a wide variety of emotions along with its barren landscape and occasional discarded tire...

...or boat left to the mercy of the ice.

The conditions are pretty harsh for any living creature, including the dogs and crows...

...although I certainly wouldn't want to be a local polar bear!

Even so, there's still time to play some outdoor recreational sports, like hockey and basketball.

Where does it all lead? Hopefully not here!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Kopite Scorned

Sports fans are an unruly lot. Poke your head into a sports bar during pretty well any sporting event and you’re likely to witness all sorts of rowdy behavior. From yelling at the plethora of TV screens and constant “high fiving” (a predominantly North American trait), to swilling and spilling beer, the sports bar crowd is a unique, primarily male microcosm of our society. And, it is just such a mob that I found myself firmly planted amongst for hockey viewing yesterday evening.

It all started harmlessly enough. A couple of buddies and I met up after work at a downtown Vancouver sports bar to down a few pints and take in a Vancouver Canucks telecast. There were several hockey games on the various screens, and plenty of people on hand to cheer on all the different teams. In typical Canadian fashion, there was some polite competitive jawing going on between fans sporting an assortment of jerseys, but it was all in good fun.

However, as the evening progressed I couldn’t help but notice an increasing number of another sort of jersey. Unlike the pullover style hockey sweater, these jerseys had collars, and all of them were red. That’s when it dawned on me: red means The Reds, as in the Liverpool Football Club. It’s mid-February, and the second round of the UEFA Champions League is just getting underway. The bar was most certainly filling up for an international football match, which on a world scale far outweighs the significance of a hockey game.

Still, I was puzzled because the matches are played at night in Europe, which means the live broadcast in Vancouver should be at mid day. One member of our table turned out to be a fellow from Liverpool (I suppose I should have known by his flipped-up collar and, well, accent…), and he explained that he had been in the same bar earlier that day to watch Liverpool take on arch rival AC Milan. He was now back in the bar to watch the rebroadcast of the same game. He also pointed out a few “blokes” who had watched it with him, but had remained in the bar since that time. They also planned to watch it all over again, provided that they could keep their heads up off the bar. Such is the dedication of the average football fan.

As such, football fans, especially the English, are a whole breed apart from hockey fans. You’ve probably heard the term “English football hooligan”. It is more or less interchangeable with the term “English football fan”, and refers to an unbridled passion for a specific club (and the English national team) as well as a general state of drunken disorderliness. English fans are notorious for violence at matches both home and abroad, and as a result have actually been barred en masse from attending World Cup games involving their beloved English squad. Liverpool fans, who refer to themselves as “Kopites”, are some of the least reputable, as displayed in the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus F.C. where they essentially killed 39 Italian supporters.

Which brings me back to the sports bar last night, and the growing presence of red clad Kopites. Our pal from Liverpool felt quite at home, especially since he already had 5 pints or so under his belt and posses the prerequisite accent. Meanwhile, my buddy Gary and I were starting to feel strangely outnumbered by Liverpool football “fans” in our hometown establishment. So when we looked up from yet another deep hockey oriented discussion to see our pal chatting with a rather large, crooked nosed skinhead in a red jersey, we wanted to do our best to fit in. Since he was sitting right next to the guy, Gary put on his best face, stuck out his hand for a shake and exclaimed “Hey buddy, nice win today!”

Just like that, our lives were in grave danger. Well, not necessarily mine, but most certainly Gary’s. I had some lesser sort of guilt by association, but Gary had committed a mortal sin.

Almost immediately, this massive Kopite dropped Gary’s hand and slowly backed away. His face grew redder and the veins in his skull began pulsating to the extent that I was sure they would soon explode. He glared unflinchingly at Gary as his mouth began to froth a little around the corners.

“Why you f*ckin’…!” he began before his voice trailed off.
Finally, after much hyper-ventilating, he thrust his chin forward and shrieked, “I’m going to kill you!
He then turned on his heels and charged off to a nearby table where he started gesticulating wildly to a group of red jerseys, occasionally turning back towards our table and pointing at Gary while nodding menacingly.

Unbeknownst to us, the fellow had just been telling our pal from Liverpool that he had gone to great lengths to get through the entire day without learning who had won the match. He was just about to sit down and watch it with his mates who had all accomplished the same feat.

But fate was not on his side. Gary was. And his perfectly orchestrated plans had been dashed right before his now glazed eyes.

An idle death threat, you ask? Something not to be taken seriously, perhaps? Well, maybe you should pose that question to certain Italian families? I for one wasn’t sticking around to find out. A woman scorned has nothing on a Kopite burned, and I was headed for home before this one unleashed his fury.

Oh, and if you’re curious, I did receive a text from Gary this morning, so I’m assuming he survived the ordeal. In the end, if I know Gary, he probably had them all charmed in no time, and has been invited to join in with them for the airing of the next match. Just like a Liverpool fan, Gary never seems to walk alone.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Confessions of a Sports Junkie

Sport - a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in
Junkie - a person who derives inordinate pleasure from or who is dependent on something

Thus defined, a sports junkie would be an individual who is mad about playing sports. In terms of physical and mental health, this generally wouldn’t be considered such a bad thing.

In our society, however, the term has morphed into a description of an individual who is mad about watching sports, primarily on TV. A sports junkie is therefore some sort of extreme sports fan, as in fanatic.

Fanatic - marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion

One could certainly draw into question both the physical and mental health of just such a specimen. (For those interested in carrying out any scientific study, I would recommend doing so on February 3, when essentially the entire male population of Sports Junkies will be glued to their televisions and couches, gawking in awe at the Mecca of all Sports Junkie events – The Super Bowl. The much rarer female Sports Junkie may also be present, although sitings of the female are scarce indeed.)

I’ve never really thought of myself as a Sports Junkie, although a number of my close friends, especially my sister, would beg to differ. My thinking has been that I actually have other hobbies and activities that keep me occupied, so my entire life is not spent in front of the tube watching sports. In my mind, that makes me a casual sport watching enthusiast.

That said I’ve been known to watch 3 NFL football games in a row on a Sunday. Regardless of the fact that this is done as part of an exclusive “Haute Cuisine NFL” club, where we consume high end food and drink and discuss politics and philosophy while cheering on the Seattle Seahawks, some would say this makes me an addict, and thus a Sports Junkie. My sister finds the behavior appalling and in need of an intervention. I find it charming, amusing and quite, well, normal.

Nonetheless, an event occurred last night that I’m afraid leaves no doubt in the great Dave-as-Sports Junkie debate. For last night was the Men’s Semi-Final at the Australian Open. (That’s a tennis tournament for those of you not in the know, one of the four major annual tournaments). It promised to be a memorable match, with Roger Federer, the world’s number 1 player, taking on his most likely eventual successor at that lofty designation, Novak Djokovic.

Federer has been number 1 for as long as anyone can remember, but Djokovic has been closing in on him; beating him in some minor tournaments, and challenging him at several majors. Last night’s match promised to be something special, and I was determined to watch it – live.

There was just one small complication. The Australian Open is held in, where else, Australia (Melbourne, to be exact). I live in Vancouver, Canada, where the live feed started at 12:30 in the wee hours of the morning. If I were a sane person, a “non-fanatic” as it were, I would have set the VCR and watched the match at some reasonable hour over the upcoming weekend.

But a true aficionado of sport is not satisfied with day-old product. No, a true fan needs to see the match as it happens, with no chance of finding out who won prior to watching the events unfold. It’s almost as if the knowledge that the combatants are actually engaged in competition as you watch means that you’re a part of it. Sure, you’re half way across the world as you jump and scream during set point, or gnaw your nails to the bone during a third set tie breaker, but that’s the excitement of watching sports on TV when it’s live. Doing the same to a taped version of the same event would just be silly. Right?

So last night as I went to bed around 11, I set the alarm for 1 AM and promptly fell asleep. It was rather difficult to shake off the cobwebs when the alarm pulled me out of a deep sleep, but I managed to find the match on TV and propped myself up to watch history unfold.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the five set marathon match I expected, but rather was a three set dismantling of the world’s number 1 by his younger opponent. There was some great tennis, but in the end, it was no contest. Djokovic had prevailed in less than three hours and the clock had yet to strike 4 AM. This was in its own way good news, because it meant that I could squeeze in another three hours of shut eye before my alarm would go off a second time, signifying it was time to get up and head to work. My late night sports watching plan didn’t seem so crazy after all.

There was just one small unforeseen problem. After the match I couldn’t sleep. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I was wide awake. Consequently, instead of merrily snoring away for the few hours I had left to do so, I all but finished reading Billy Bathgate, channel surfed and essentially watched the clock slowly march on towards dawn...

Thus, I am here before you to admit that, in certain cases and according to some people’s interpretation of the definition, I am indeed a Sports Junkie. I must be. The dark, puffy circles under my sunken eyes are a telltale sign, as is the incessant shaking of my hands and the odd head twitch I seem to have developed. My co-workers have been whispering about me all morning over at the water cooler. And, as with many other addictions, it has led to harder stuff. I’m currently on my third double espresso of the day. Sports Junkie, meet Coffee Junkie!