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, the Toronto based Austra is 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.

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.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”

The Master of Puppets, he’s pulling your strings.

While I was deep into the 80’s hair bands, I slowly began discovering metal music. My brother Marty was way ahead of me as he had been introduced to Slayer and Metallica by his buddy Todd Tarasoff years before that. I didn’t care for it at first, but like all music, it starts to grow on you the more you listen to it. It was so much more powerful than the glam metal, and it seemed like these bands had more to say, and played faster, harder, and with more precision. I think my brother loaned me his “Master of Puppets” cassette, so I cut my teeth on that one and then consumed all the rest greedily.

After savouring Metallica’s discography, I moved onto Anthrax, Megadeth, Sepultura, Pantera and explored the thrash and groove metal genres. Then the grunge metal scene was born and after hearing Alice in Chain’s “Facelift”, I was obsessed. My buddy Evan Wappel was the first guy who bought that album and it blew our minds. It was slower than the metal music I was used to, but just as heavy, and the lyrics were darker, grimmer, and in some cases decidedly disturbing. I didn’t like all of the grunge bands and stuck mainly with Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and the other Chris Cornell offshoots.

The death of the grunge era birthed a new genre of music called nu metal and I dove into bands such as Slipknot, Korn, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine, Soulfly, and especially System of a Down. Our kids were barely walking when System of a Down came out and I’d take them downstairs and teach them all the classic metal moves – devil horns, neck rotations, the “windmill” guitar strum, the scissor kick, and mosh pit elbowing, usually to System of a Down cranked to 9 and I’d just scream over the music whenever the eff-shots came up in the lyrics. The kids loved it, although I’ve failed miserably at turning either of them into metalheads.

Along the way many progressive metal acts surfaced and I love bands like Baroness, Animals as Leaders, and Opeth, but truly worship Tool and Mastodon. In fact the Tool album “Undertow” was nearly the choice for this post…it’s so hard picking just one.

As I get older, my metal interests seem to be going in one direction – heavier. My morning playlists usually contain songs by Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth, Gorguts, Behemoth, Death, Slipknot, and always Gojira – my current favourite metal band.

I met a right cool dude named Chris T at a party our friends Dave and Silvia were having a few years ago and we started talking music and I learned he was the guitarist/vocalist in a metal band called “With Authority”. I was intrigued and we talked about his band and the metal scene in Toronto. I then asked him what metal bands he liked and he started naming off bands and genres I’d never heard of, so I grabbed my phone and started hastily taking notes. I then asked, “What other sorts of music do you listen to?”

“Just metal,” he replied.

“Just metal?”

“Just metal.”

“So you don’t listen to any classic rock, no progressive rock, nothing like Rush or any experimental stuff, or even any pop or electronica?”
He looked at me and said, “Just metal.”

Now there’s a guy dedicated to the genre!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Rush’s “Chronicles” and Primus’s “Sailing the Seas of Cheese”

You may be thinking, “Hey, why did he include two albums here?” I will answer this as well as I can. You see there is no need to differentiate Rush and Primus because they are the same band. You heard me right. But you may not understand, so allow me to elaborate.

The reason they are the same band is because once you discover Rush or Primus there is nowhere else to go. The journey ends at Primus and Rush. You never hear somebody say, “Yeah, I discovered Rush, but that just led me to (insert random band name here)”. Once you discover Rush, you don’t need to go anywhere else. You have everything you could ever possibly need. You may have thought of your musical journey as an infinite line that just kept expanding forever into the future, but the line stops at Rush. There is nothing else to move onto. Except maybe Primus.

I don’t even remember when I heard my first Rush song, but I do know the first cassette I bought was the double set “Chronicles” which was sort of a greatest hits package released in 1990. From there I moved on to a bunch of the early stuff then worked my way through the entire catalogue. And I don’t use that term “worked” lightly, because it is work. You don’t really get Rush the first time you hear them. It takes time and if you don’t devote enough of it to the band, then you will probably never get them. There have been times in my life where I have gone for months listening to nothing other than Rush, then I will put them down for a while, but it’s never long before I return for another fix. Sadly, the drummer Neal Peart died of brain cancer this year so Rush as a band no longer exists, saddening millions of fanatical, cultish fans all around the world. There is simply no other band that has put out so much challenging and original work for so long and kept it up right until the end, which was never going to be anything other than the death of one of the members.

I do remember hearing my first Primus song. It was during university and in the home of Jon Bath, who lived there with fellow North Battlefordians Evan Wappel and Ryan Tondevold. This place was such a dump that it would have taken 50 grand worth of renovations to upgrade it to a shithole. There was all sorts of weirdness going on in that house all the time, but I never heard anything weirder than when Jon put on “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” by this band called Primus and freaked us all out by making us listen to the whole thing. I started having clown nightmares shortly after that. But I grew to love the band dearly. And the bass player/singer Les Claypool has done things with the bass guitar hitherto unknown on Earth and probably throughout the rest of the universe. And who does he claim as his main inspiration? You guessed it – Rush’s bass player/singer Geddy Lee. See, they are the same band.

I will finish with a story. My first big backing trip was in Europe when I was 23. I was exploring Rome when I found out Primus was playing the next night in Vienna. So I jumped on the train and spent 15 or 20 hours traveling to Austria. I miraculously found the small club, but the show had already started. And worse, the concert was sold out and there were no tickets left. The best I could do was to gather with the rest of the unfortunate fans in the back alley of the venue with our ears pressed up against a set of locked doors listening to the sweet mayhem going on inside. One of the dudes couldn’t take it anymore and pushed everyone out of the way then ran at the doors and drop kicked them, breaking the lock, and we all watched in amazement as they swung open, spilling out hot human vapours and clouds of marijuana smoke. We pushed in as fast as we could and before I knew it I was riding the wave of bliss in the mosh pit getting pulverized. The place was so packed that some people had climbed the walls and were hanging off of lights and balconies. Les Claypool was up there with a giant fan blowing on him and he was ripping on the bass in a frenzy of madness and delight. I had never been happier in my life and it was the best rock show I’ve ever seen.

The music of Rush and Primus has taught me to never be afraid of challenging music. Within the challenge lies great rewards.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Extreme’s “Extreme”

Did you realize that you used to pay $56 for a cd back in the 80’s? Adjusting for inflation, this was the average cost of a single album cd when they were exploding in popularity. But the way I like to think about it is this - with a minimum wage of around $4 in 1984, a young person would have to work for approximately 5 to 6 hours to afford to buy one cd. Now, in 2020 with a minimum wage of $14 per hour, a young person can work just one hour and afford a month’s worth (that’s 730 hours) of unlimited listening to practically any album ever recorded, using a service like Spotify or Apple Music. Type in any song or artist and it magically pops up. That is so mind-bendingly incredible that it is hard to fathom, never mind explain this concept to a young person now. Buying a cd back in the day was a major decision because you could only afford to buy one or two per month, so you took the utmost care in what you chose because buying a dud could result in months of remorse and double shifts at the convenience store. In Europe, the prices were even worse – this weekend I came across an old receipt from when we lived in the Netherlands, and in 2002 I paid 22 euro for a Starsailor cd – that’s something like $35 in Canadian funds!

The first cd I ever bought was Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” and I remember paying $25 bucks for it from Sam the Record Man in Saskatoon. My mom and dad had spent a fortune on a ghetto blaster with a cd player, but when I put that cd on and the opening guitar rang out, those long hours I had to work to afford it was were all worthwhile as the sound was so much better than cassette tapes (into which I had invested a small fortune).

When it comes to hair metal, I could easily list out dozens of influential albums I loved, but the one I am choosing to represent them all is Extreme’s self-titled debut. Their image wasn’t stupid like many of them (Stryper anybody?), the singing was solid and not off-putting, they didn’t wear makeup, the guitar playing was nutso, and they weren’t overly popular yet. During that time in my life I was spending most of my time with my buddies Darren Bessette, Martin Lepage, and Jemal Kobussen driving around in our crappy, yet awesome, first cars, blasting the music as loud as the stereo would go. I had also met a crazy dude from Denmark – Martin Olsen - who had been banished by his family for various misdeeds and sent to live with his uncle in Saskatoon. A damning punishment indeed – especially when his first month was February. He started hanging around with us and LOVED Extreme, just like we did. 

Remember, it wasn’t called “hair metal” or “glam metal” back then – I think we just called it hard rock. Many (most) of those albums haven’t aged that well (Tora Tora, Bulletboys, Poison, Cinderella, Ratt, Warrant, Bang Tango, Tesla, Britny Fox, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns, and Lord Tracy are a few that come to mind) but some of them have, including Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, Skid Row, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, and Aerosmith.

I have never lost my love of glam metal, but my tastes certainly have moved onto much heavier and more extreme rock genres. But without that early exposure to glam metal, I’d probably still be listening to Wang Chung and Tears for Fears.

Lastly, just this past week I made a startling confession to my family. I have this strange thing where there’s almost always a song playing in my head, over and over again. And there’s one song that’s stuck in there about 90% of the time. That song is Smoke Signals by Extreme. Specifically, it’s the guitar riff at the beginning of the song. Thankfully it’s a masterful intro, so I don’t mind it, but this is why Extreme is never far from my mind.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Does anybody remember the sex scene in the movie, “An American Werewolf in London”? I think it was probably the first movie sex scene I saw as a kid, but I was so young I probably didn’t even know what was going on. But I do remember loving the song that was playing in the background while they were rubbing up against each other in the steamy shower, although it took me years to figure out what song it was. You see, this was in the days before the internet, so you couldn’t just go to Google and type “song playing during sex scene in werewolf movie” and BANG, the answer magically appears. I didn’t realize at the time that you could wait until the ending credits to see the song names, so many years went by before I figured it out. It was “Moondance” by Van Morrison.

While there is no doubt that “Moondance” is a magnificent album, I feel that the greatest song ever written and performed in the history of mankind is on this album. “Into the Mystic” is a magical song and one that takes me on a spiritual journey every time I hear it. It’s a song about religion. It’s a song about sailing. It’s a song about enduring love. It’s a song about longing, but also hope. It is a song about death. The bass line is gorgeous, the piano is sparse but perfectly placed, the vocals are heartfelt and true, and there are maracas and horns, and guitar fingerpicking throughout, with simple guitar strumming layered in. The drums are understated and perfect, including the beautiful rhythm on the symbol at the start of the song that makes you feel like you are embarking on a long, difficult journey, but are ready for it. The mixing is incredible and there are sounds coming at you from all directions, at just the right time. The song builds, and grows thicker, and by the end instead of wanting for more, you feel fulfilled. If you are down, it lifts you up and carries you forward. If you are feeling good, it makes you feel better. When I listen to this song all my pain and worries drift away and I’m left with a sense of stillness. This is the song I want to be played at my funeral.

And Van Morrison did all this in three minutes and twenty-six seconds.

This discovery led me to purchase several Van Morrison albums (including the indescribable “Astral Weeks”), but also music from “Them”, his original band, whose monster hit songs like “Gloria”, “Brown Eyed Girl”, and “Here Comes The Night” really brought Van Morrison to prominence.  But the greatest impact the bluesy/soul/gospel/folk music of Van Morrison had on me was leading me into the world of jazz where I discovered the music of the jazz masters like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane. I’ve never become a hip cat, daddy-o, jazz buff that can list off the best jazz percussionists or saxophone players by memory, but I do love the genre, and if you’ve ever joined us for dinner at our home, you are well acquainted with Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” album whether you knew it or not, as that is my go-to standard for dinner party music!