Wednesday, June 24, 2020

How’s the COVID going, eh?

I am going to look back on this blog in ten years and wonder, “Why wasn’t I writing more about COVID and what it was like? It was quite a big deal.” I often look back at old blogs, thinking I’ll find my viewpoint or commentary on something important that happened in the past, but usually I don’t find anything. So this is a note directed to Future Kris. I don’t usually worry too much about Future Kris, in fact I can be downright mean to him sometimes. Like when there’s something important I need to do, but it doesn’t have to be done for several months, I will say, “Stuff that. I really don’t feel like doing it now – Future Kris will take care of it.” And he does. And hardly complains. But he can’t really, can he? Because Future Kris always turns into Present Kris, and then Present Kris wonders what the hell Past Kris was thinking when he procrastinated for so long. So Past Kris takes the blame, but Present Kris always has to clean up the shit, unless he manages to sluff it off to Future Kris again. It’s a vicious, but rather predictable cycle.

My last day of work in the office was March 16 which was over three months ago. Since then our world has completely changed – far more than during any of the previous Black Swans, such as the 911 attacks or the Great Recession. I have been working from home every day since then, as has Ana, and the kids have been learning remotely. We only go into shops when absolutely necessary and always wear masks. We don't have friends over. We haven't been able to hug our nieces or Ana's folks. When we watch tv, it seems unnatural seeing scenes with big crowds, or people at dinner parties, or bunches of kids hanging out together. We haven't been into a bar or restaurant. And we've explored every inch of ground for miles around during our lunchtime and evening walks. Nearly all of our time is spent at home.

And yet, we adjusted quickly and I must say that we have done well as a family and quite enjoyed the time together, minus the odd battle over personal space, computer access, cooking duties and that sort of thing. Stella has been laser-focused on her school work and has probably put in twice as much effort as she would have normally, to the point of it actually becoming a problem at times. But we are very proud of her dedication and unstoppable work ethic. Magnus has done the amount of school work required to get the grades he wants, and has devoted the rest of his time to developing new hobbies, in particular wood-working and knife-making. We have been so impressed with what he has done, and if it weren’t for the pandemic, he never would have developed these skills.

What are the long term consequences of this pandemic? I don’t know. I’d like to hope that we have a new appreciation for the simple things, and don’t feel the need to be constantly on the go, or out buying stuff, or otherwise racking up unnecessary miles. I hope we have rediscovered what it is like to live in a free country like Canada, where we can go where we want, see who we want, and do whatever we want at all times, because we’ve lived without these luxuries for the past three months. Set against the backdrop of COVID has been the Black Lives Matter movement and the worldwide protests against the systemic racism which exists everywhere, which has made us more aware of this serious issue and compelled us to analyze our own behaviors. Seeing how the pandemic has unfairly brought the majority of the damage to non-white, economically disadvantaged people, but also how most governments have stepped in to financially support their citizens has certainly brought some lessons too. Lastly, the environment. We’ve given the Earth a little break. Not much, but a little. I hope that people took notice of what it is like to live with less air pollution, less planes overhead, less traffic, and have reconnected with nature through the long walks that nearly everybody I know has been taking.

To me, this time has been a gift, and one that we may never see again in our lifetimes. Or maybe we will experience it regularly, nobody knows. But I for one am hoping that things never go back to “normal”, because this pandemic has shown us there are better ways to do things and that societies can change quickly and efficiently when it becomes necessary. And change is necessary. I hope we remember that as we begin the slow process of re-opening society.

Stella came up with this strange game the other day as we were all out for hike on one of the nature trails near home. She said, “I’ll name an animal and you guys have to say what it represents in the world.” She named off a few animals and we answered – the cardinal represented freedom, the bee represented how we’re doing things that would have seemed impossible before, and so on. Then she mentioned chipmunks. This year there have been chipmunks everywhere – dozens of them running around everywhere you look. Ana’s research told us it was because of the mild winters and the resulting abundance of acorns that chipmunks thrive on. So Stella says, “What do chipmunks represent?”

Magnus says, “Abandoned plans.”

He was spot on. Our own family’s abandoned plans include a four week trip to Malaysia, Borneo, and Bali which we have been planning for over a year. And because of the popularity of Borneo and Bali at this time of year, we were forced to book nearly all of our hotels and flights in advance, something we never do on these trips as we prefer spontaneity and to book as we go. So Ana’s been battling with the airlines and hotels to get refunds and the battle continues, but if anybody can do it, she can.

We weren’t going to let our four weeks of vacation go to waste, so we decided to instead put the sailboat in the water this year and do a trip up to Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron. We’ve spend the past few weekends working on the boat, getting it all ready for the trip, and Magnus and I just put her in the water today. This will be the longest sailing trip we’ve ever done so we are both giddy with anticipation but also a little apprehensive over the required long sailing days and nights we will need to do. I’ve recruited my brother Marty and cousin-in-law Adam to help me sail her from Port Dover to Sarnia as the first leg of the journey, then the family and I will leave the following weekend for the full trip. Our favourite traveling companions, the Henriques, will be meeting up with us along the way, and we are looking forward to many exciting days on the water. If you are not a boater you probably don’t know that the word “exciting” is actually a code word for “boat disaster”, because you know one or both boats are going to break down, but you just don’t know what the exact breakdown will be, how much the repairs will cost, or how badly it will screw up the trip. That’s the exciting part!

This trip will give us a chance to forget about Covid-19 for a little while, ignore the media-revved stupidity and chaos coming from our neighbours from the south, take a break from work, and spend some quality time together as a family. HA! As if we haven’t been doing enough of that lately, but now we’re going to jam all that family love into 150 square feet of claustrophobic boat space with kids who are physically twice the size as they were the last time we did this. We are always up for a challenge.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Cake’s “Prolonging the Magic”

After nearly two weeks of prodding, poking, and analyzing my musical genetic code I have realized that at this point in my life (over halfway through) there are 13 essential albums that sum up what I like in music. If I really thought about I could probably find a few more, for example I do like classical guitar, symphonies, funk, retro swing, bluegrass, and some pop, but I could probably live quite happily without these if I had to.

My final album is Cake’s “Prolonging the Magic” (but it could have been any Cake release) and this album and choice represents all the bands I love that don’t fit cleanly into a category. Every time I start writing these journals I think of another band I like, and I was usually able to fit them into one of the earlier sets, but I ended up with this list of bands that just didn’t fit anywhere. And that is why they are so special. The best music is the kind that cuts across boundaries, and surprises us, and challenges us, and isn’t always easily understood. I could say the same thing about the best people that I know.

Cake is a band from Sacramento, California led by a guy named John McCrea who looks like any regular blue collar hoser you would see filling up their blue Chevy with gas at Costco. He’s not a great singer, nor is he a great guitar player, but he creates magic with both and writes some of the craftiest, cutting, most vivid and sometimes impenetrable lyrics of any musician out there. Cake has never really broken through into the mainstream, and I think they like it that way because they command a small army of cultish devoted fans. I’ve only seen them play once, at the Ottawa Bluesfest with my brother Marty. The singer was playing a guitar that he might have picked up at a garage sale on the way to the show for twenty bucks. But it was all he needed to make his point. The band is completed by a solid drummer, an amazing bass player and a trumpeter that completes the Cake sound.

I discovered Frank Zappa only after he had been dead for twenty years. I listened to a radio series called “Alpha Beta Zappa” on the listener-supported CKUA station out of Edmonton (best station in the world). I became a fan instantly and worked my way through his bizarre, scatological, sex-charged, profane, and anti-establishment catalogue, wincing with every new obscene discovery.  Despite the strangeness of it all, I learned that Zappa hired only the best musicians to perform with him and you can hear it in the music.

Listen to a Doors album. It sounds experimental and exciting, despite being recorded over 50 years ago. Not everything they wrote was fantastic, but much of it was so out there and so ahead of its time that it is timeless. No other band has been able to successfully pick up where the Doors left off.

The Mars Volta is (was, is?) an experimental, progressive, psychedelic rock band whose main members Omar and Cedric have produced such a massive quantity of music that it’s hard to comprehend. Their music is challenging and sometimes hard to understand, and it sounds like it came from another dimension.

The first time I became aware of Gogol Bordello was the soundtrack from the movie “Everything is Illuminated” which featured the singer of the band Eugene Hutz as an obnoxious but sweet Ukrainian tour guide who successfully butchers the English language. This New York City based gypsy-punk band is a collection of ragamuffin immigrants from all over the world that tours constantly and cause mayhem wherever they go through their passionate high octane live shows and revolutionary music that is thick with accordion, violin, guitar, and fire buckets. They tell the story of living as an outsider, trying to make it in the world, but struggling to stay authentic. Don’t all of us feel like that sometimes? I am infatuated with this band.

Lastly, Beck. Here is one outsider that has broken through to the mainstream, but still somehow feels like he is not really in the club. His sound changes from album to album, sometimes folky, sometimes electronic, sometimes country, sometimes rock, but always experimental. He sounds like he is persistently searching for something he never quite finds and leaves it up to us try and figure it out.

Music is one of the most important parts of my life. Just like the soundtrack to a movie can make all the difference, the soundtrack to one’s life flavours everything we do. I attach myself to people who are also infatuated with music, such as my brother-in-law Mark who has turned me onto so many amazing bands and is a damn encyclopedia of musical history.

One day Magnus stopped me in my tracks with something he said. He told me, “Dad, I realized something about friendship. Good friends will tell you about cool things, introduce you to new people, and take you to new places. But great friends introduce you to new music.”

How true.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Bob Marley’s “Legend”

Reggae music is the sound of summer. My happy place is being on my sailboat on Lake Erie, anchored out for lunch with friends or family aboard, a cold beer in my hand, and Bob Marley playing on the stereo. Life is never better than during those moments and I treasure them every time they happen.

Reggae music was originally the sound of Jamaica, but the overwhelming popularity of reggae has spread far and wide over the years and you can hear reggae in pretty much any country on earth. Bob Marley and the Wailers were the biggest reason for this, and this global proliferation of Jamaican culture didn’t stop at reggae – it also included Rastafarianism, dreadlocks, and the love of the ganja weed. Additionally, there are massively popular offshoots of the reggae genre, such as dub, hip hop, dancehall, and reggaeton.

I really do not remember the first time I heard Bob Marley, but I do remember the last time – this week. And it’s always “this week”. There is no more popular go-to band in the Olson household than Bob Marley. When I think back to some of the most memorable times in my life, many of them were enjoyed to sounds of his music. I even started a reggae band last year with a bunch of friends and we jammed mainly Bob Marley tunes, buuuut we got too good too fast and the power and beauty of the music frightened us so much that we thought continuing on would lead to fame and fortune and jeopardize our regular lives, so we put that band in hiatus. Once we are ready as a group for this inevitable worldwide domination, we will be back.

To be honest, I have not dug deeply into the reggae genre, beyond other top shelf reggae artists such as Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear. But with the advent of these amazing online streaming services, I usually just pull up one of the hundreds of reggae playlists, crank it up, and don’t have a clue who I am listening to most of the time. But it’s all good.

Bob Marley’s music has led me to plenty of other artists that may not be strictly reggae, but certainly are cut from the same cloth. A British artist named Finlay Quaye released an album in 1997 called “Maverick A Strike” and this could very well be my favourite album of all time across all genres. It’s that good. Jack Johnston’s lazy, playful, mellowed-out tunes are no stranger to our playlists. For something a little bit harder, I love Sean Paul’s reggaeton vibes and one of my favourite albums ever is “Emigrante” from Cuban band Orishas, which is kinda reggae but entirely amazing.

Now excuse me while I crack a cold one, light up a spleef, and cue some Bob!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Corb Lund's "Five Dollar Bill"

I’ve never much liked country music. At all really. And it wasn’t for lack of exposure – as a kid there was plenty of country music around. My folks played an album by Alabama a lot, plus one by the Charlie Daniels Band with that crazy fiddle tune "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". And of course Kenny Rogers. And there might have been a bit of Willie Nelson now and again. But they weren’t big country music fans. As a kid I spent a lot of time in my parents’ home town of Foam Lake (population 1,123), where you’d think country music must run through their veins. But I heard a lot more Kiss, AC/DC, and April Wine than country back then, coming from the open truck windows of the vehicles cruising up and down Main Street.

But then one day in 2002 my brother Curt whipped out this cd and said I just had to listen to it. He said it was country, and the guys’s name was Corb Lund. I eyed him suspiciously, because I knew he liked country even less than me. Then I heard the opening lyrics, “I wrote my new song on a five dollar bill…” and heard the tale of an Albertan bootlegger running whisky across the border to the US, where he stole five bucks from a good ole boy who later stole it back. At first I wasn’t sure. Then something clicked. And I had found the first country album I liked, and would later come to love.

I’m still not entirely sure what I like about Corb Lund’s music. The lyrics are fantastic, rich with detail, clever, and each song tells a story. A real story, or at least that’s how it feels. Plus the music is good, with some fine guitar work and ripping stand-up bass. It could be his voice too. He sounds like a kid I went to Sunday school with back in Foam Lake. Actually he reminds me of everybody I went to Sunday school with in Foam Lake. Genuine. A bit guarded. Resilient. The capacity for craziness.

Where did my explorations of the country genre go from here? Not very far. I like some Johnny Cash stuff, but especially that album where he did a bunch of covers, including “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden which was a masterpiece. And Sturgill Simpson, who started out as a country guy but it was all a ploy because deep down he’s no country guy at all – he’s a progressive rock, musical explorer and made the best album of 2019 – “Sound & Fury”, which followed the best album of 2016 – “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”.

What I’ve learned from Corb Lund is that you may not like a genre of music, but if you wait awhile the genre might change to better suit your tastes. Or what’s more likely, is that you might change to better suit the genre.

In any case, you know when you hear good music, genre be damned.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Jarabe De Palo’s “La Flaca”

Ana and I met in The Bahamas in 1998 and after a wild and exciting 6 month courtship she decided to leave her apartment, quit her job, give away her cat, and say goodbye to Canada to come and join me on my next contract job - in El Salvador.

Neither of us had ever traveled in Central America, nor spoke a word of Spanish beyond “La cerveza mas fina” which is imprinted on every Corona beer bottle. I had never paid any attention whatsoever to Latino music as I really hadn’t been exposed to much of it and it simply didn’t interest me. Well, it doesn’t take long living in a Latin American country to realize that music is an integral piece of the social fabric and encapsulates so much of what it means to be Hispanic.

Since we were living a Marriot hotel room in San Salvador we spent a lot of time out and about in cafes, bars and restaurants and were soon saturated with Latino music. At first it all sounded the same, but as I heard more and more of it I started to recognize some of the songs. One song in particular caught my attention and I kept hearing it everywhere so finally asked a server in a restaurant what song it was. She told me, “La Flaca” then also said the name of the band but I couldn’t make out what she was saying, never mind try to write it down. So I asked my Spanish teacher Hugo about the song and he immediately started singing it and then we used it as a project to translate the lyrics into English. The song, by Jarabe De Palo is about a man who would give anything for a single kiss from a skinny woman he sees in the bar who dances and drinks all night long and never gets fat. I would soon realize that every Latino song is about love or dancing or usually both.

We lived in the Caribbean and Central America for several years and learned to love Latino music of all types – salso, merengue, bachata, Latin pop, Latin rock, reggaeton. Some of artists we discovered during this time were Elvis Crespo, Shakira (her first albums were amazing), Mana, Gipsy Kings, Daddy Yankee, Paulina Rubio, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Molotov, and so many more. The time spent in the Caribbean also exposed me to soca music and I since then I have been a closet soca fan – especially the music of Square One. And although he really doesn’t fit into this category, Jimmy Buffett has been a constant presence in my playlists for years. Nothing captures the magic of the Caribbean and the pull of the ocean quite like the ballads of Jimmy Buffett.

Our winter trips to Cuba give us an annual January dose of Latino magic and there’s nothing better than hearing that ping-ping-ping of the bachata as you enjoy that first all-inclusive drink while your pasty white skin sizzles from the powerful sun. Latin music is like an infection that never goes away once you catch it, but is a fine infection indeed.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Portishead’s “Dummy”

Trip Hop – “a fusion of hip and hop and electronica until neither one is recognizable.”
Trip Hop – “dance music for the head, rather than the feet.”
Trip Hop – “the Bristol sound”

It was 2002 when Ana and I set out on a round-the-world backpacking trip, and one of our early stops was South Africa where we spent six weeks exploring the country. One of many beautiful towns we visited was St Lucia, located on the eastern coast and the sort of place where you can see a hippo or crocodile saunter across the road and not be too surprised. We were staying at Bib’s International Backpackers – a beautifully stereotypical budget hostel where you felt like a member of the family as soon as you walked through the door. Now this was in the days before smart phones, when travelers used to actually talk to each other, and I remember one evening we were relaxing and chatting with others in the common gathering area of the hostel after a particularly long day of touring a local game park. I remember sitting in a big comfy chair, with a cold Castle beer, surveying my enviable surroundings, and listening to the creeped out sounds of Portishead oozing in through the speakers. Despite being past their commercial peak, during those months it seemed like every hostel we visited was playing Portishead on constant repeat. There is something about that music that strikes a chord with backpackers, and it certainly struck a chord with me. It is hypnotic, engrossing, gritty, and irresistible. The genre was called trip hop, but besides Massive Attack and Tricky, I didn’t dive too deeply into other trip hop bands. Portishead was enough for me. I think I bought my first Portishead album in the UK in 1996 and was somewhat of a fan before that trip, but music discovered (or re-discovered) and consumed during life changing trips tends to impact one’s soul more than normal.

It is hard to draw a straight line between Portishead and anybody else, but I’m going to going out on a limb and name a few bands that I tend to gravitate to before or after listening to Portishead. Morcheeba is another British group and was introduced to me by my buddy James Hooley, turning me into a huge fan. Bjork has done some amazing albums, but my favourite one by far is “Dancer in the Dark” – a soundtrack from the movie of the same name and one of the most impactful, sad, and tortured albums I own. On it she does a stunning duet with Thom York from Radiohead, a band I’ve been listening to since “The Bends” but went full scale Radiohead freak after the “OK Computer” and “Kid A” albums. I went through a phase in the 90’s with my buddy Evan when practically all we listed to was Enya, and despite her rarely putting out anything new, I still listen to her music all the time. The unmistakable Lhasa de Sela, rest her soul, takes me on a spiritual journey every time I listen to “La Llorona” or “The Living Road”.

This may be a stretch, but there are three bands I’ve been addicted to for years that somehow seem to fit into this category – Gorillaz, Beck, and Queens of the Stone Age. Gorillaz for their innovative hip hop vibe and surprises bursting forth on every album. Queens for the dense wall of instrumentation and somber themes, and Beck for his profound catalogue of mysterious sounds and visionary lyrics. These bands express the most vital elements of trip hop but are decidedly not in that genre.

Lastly, I love so many bands that fit nowhere else but in this category of music, such as A Tribe Called Red, Tame Impala, War on Drugs, Beast, The Knife, Vacationer, Roosevelt and especially Toronto based Austra. These are all my go-to music for the post-party late-night listening sessions, which don’t happen very often these days, but when they do, that’s what’s on the playlist…mixed in with some Portishead.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Dance Mix UK

I left Canada in 1995 as a 23 year old prairie boy ready to take on the world. After a whirlwind backpacking trip through Europe I landed in London, England and shacked up with my buddies Stillman and Colin from university. It was a time of great change in my life. Goodbye rye & coke, hello pints of warm beer. Goodbye jeans and t-shirt, hello business suit. Good riddance frigid winters, hello rain and lukewarm gloom year round. Goodbye peanut butter, hello Marmite. But mostly, I had to part ways with rock and metal and start experiencing new music. I realized quite quickly that living in a big city meant you went clubbing, and when you went clubbing, there was dance music. Of course I just called it “dance music” as a negative term because I had previously through dance music was for losers. But when you find yourself in the Ministry of Sound nightclub wearing classy club clothes, with the bass driving your heartbeat, mood-altering substances coursing through your body, surrounded by beautiful people, and dancing like nobody is watching, your opinion of electronic music evolves rapidly indeed.

I started to listening to electronic music regularly and discovered a world of exciting sounds and beats I never knew existed. Trance, techno, dubstep, house, drum and bass, downtempo, chill –it was all new and very exciting to me. But I happened to be in the UK right during the resurgence of Brit Pop, when British bands were sounding more British again, and carving out new sounds, rivalries, and fans across the Atlantic and further. Oasis was everywhere, with Wonderwall blasting out of nearly every bar you passed by. I also listened to Blur, Pulp, Ocean Colour Scene, Placebo, Chemical Brothers, Stone Roses, The Prodigy, Travis, The Verve, and Supergrass.

This led to a much better appreciation for "danceable" music and I found bands such as Chromeo, Daft Punk, and David Guetta whose music is perfect for those situations when you just gotta get on the dance floor.

It was an exciting time in my life and I’d probably never experienced as much new music as I did during those 18 months in London. And much of it stuck with me.