Musical Updates

A few music updates:


12 Albums

It’s easy to romanticize the medium of our youth. I’m too young to miss vinyl; for me vinyl means Nana Mouskouri’s Christmas album. No one really misses cassettes; except maybe for mix tapes, which we mostly loved because of how much work we put into them. CDs are also hard to lament. They were never very portable; it seemed to take 10 years to develop a portable CD player that didn’t skip. Mostly, though, they were digital. There is really no difference between CD audio and a similarly configured audio file on any other digital medium.

When technology advances, we often realize that we miss the things that were flaws in the previous generation of devices. We miss the warm crackle of vinyl. We miss the sense of accomplishment from hours spent painstakingly crafting the perfect mix tape.

Now that we are awash in the glut of availability of digital music, I’ve come to realize that I’m missing one of those flaws. When I could only afford to buy one CD, I was stuck with it. I would listen to it until I knew every word and every chord.

Now that I have so much music at my disposal, even when I do find music I enjoy, it’s often enjoyed on “Random” or while I work, where my attention is spread far too thin. As a result, I seldom get to the level of familiarity with an album that I did ten years ago. I might get there with a single song, but seldom an entire album.

I do not assume that listening to the same album until it’s burned into your head is inherently better than a more cursory listen to a broader selection. However, familiarity is one of the fundamental elements that makes music something more than just sound. Our brains are good at spotting patterns, and we like completing patterns. Great artists use familiarity as one of their instruments to hack the brain into thinking notes, chords, and rhythms are playful, unexpected, or satisfying.

The deeper you know a piece of music, the greater the opportunity to enjoy it. Each note means something different when you know its coming.

So, I’m trying to artificially re-create a limitation that caused me to get to know a limited number of albums deeply. The limitations used to be accessibility and (mostly) cost. This year, I’m creating my own limitation. Each month, I’m choosing one album to focus on. It won’t be the only thing I listen to, but it will be the first thing I go to each time I start up some music. I’ll also listen to the entire album, in order, each time I’m looking to listen to a long stretch of music.

I’m curious to see if there is any more joy to be squeezed out of music by concentrating on a small set of albums this way.

Last year, without any such regime, I did end up enjoying a few albums this at this level: Fantasies by Metric, Far by Regina Spektor, Welcome to the Night Sky by Wintersleep, Three by Joel Plaskett, Into Your Lungs by Hey Rosetta!, Read Less Minds by Mardeen, and a few others.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan

The albums I’ll choose for each month won’t be the best albums of the year (many I might not have heard at all before I choose them, as was the case when buying albums 10 years ago). For January, I have chosen the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan.

It’s a good way to start the experiment. It’s a good album, but not something I would count among my all time favourites. If it had been one of a dozen albums I was listening to, I would never have gotten as much enjoyment out of this album as I have in the past few weeks.

I have eleven more albums to go this year. I will certainly include the upcoming release from Wintersleep. Suggestions for other albums are welcome.


“Ska music is like a romantic comedy…”

Quoth George Stroumboulopoulos on The Strombo Show:

“Ska music is like a romantic comedy, unless it’s genius, it’s terrible.”

He goes on to say that “[a]verage, middle-of-the-road Ska is some of the worst music you’re ever going to hear in your life.”

The Strombo Show is George Snuffalupagus’ new 4-hour radio show on CBC Radio 2. A recent playlist included enough music from my own life (Radiohead, Catherine Wheel, the Doughboys, etc.) and classics (Neil Young, The Clash, the Ramones, etc.), to keep me listening to music I haven’t heard before (Sea Wolf, MIA, etc.).

Unfortunately, the show isn’t podcasted by the CBC due to music licensing issues. At least for now, though, Episode 5 (referenced here) is available online.


Acts of Volition Radio: Session 34

Acts of Volition Radio: Session 34

A mid-summer session of Acts of Volition Radio full of eleven great songs from Polaris Music Prize winners, nominees, and others.

Eleven great songs -. Recorded Sunday, July 26, 2009 by Steven Garrity. Run time: 61min.
  1. Joel Plaskett – Run, Run, Run
  2. Joel Plaskett – Heartless, Heartless, Heartless
  3. Regina Spector – Laughing With
  4. Metric – Help I’m Alive
  5. Dinosaur Jr. – Over It
  6. U2 – Moment of Surrender
  7. Elbow – Running to Stand Still
  8. The Watchmen – Incarnate
  9. Great Lake Swimmers – Pulling on a Line
  10. Ben Folds Presents The University of Chicago Voices in Your Head – Magic
  11. Wintersleep – Miasmal Smoke & The Yellow Bellied Freaks


The talented Brad, of Brad Sucks, has released a cover of Heart and Soul by Huey Lewis and the News. In addition to being a fan of Brad’s music, I have a special weakness for Huey Lewis and the News. Their 1986 album Fore! was the first cassette I ever bought.

Soon after I bought it, I dropped the cassette case on our cottage porch and and it cracked. I was heart-broken. I switched the case with my parents’ Peter, Paul, & Mary cassette and they were none-the-wiser. It haunts me to this day.


Remixing and Reissuing Reconsidered: Pearl Jam Ten

I’m usually not one for re-released remastered remixed re-issues, despite the allure of alliteration, but the Pearl Jam Ten re-issue is an exception. The original producer, Brendan O’Brien, remixed and remastered the tracks and the result is remarkable (correction: Rick Parashar was the original producer of Ten. Thanks to those who pointed this out.). It sounds like it was recorded yesterday, instead of on the muddy banks of 1990s grunge.

To be clear, these are not remixes as in “m4tr1x RaVe Ed1ti0n”, they are remixed in the true sense of the world. O’Brien mixed down the album as he would if he were to record the album today, with all of the skill, taste, and equipment developed since the original release.

The remixes confirm what I’ve always thought about Pearl Jam. The label of “grunge” described a new variation of modern (at the time) rock music. Nirvana was grunge, Soundgarden was grunge. Pearl Jam was always just plain old Rock ’n Roll®.


Acts of Volition Radio: Session 33

Acts of Volition Radio: Session 33

Six months later, a new session of Acts of Volition Radio with eight great songs.

Six months and either songs. Recorded Sunday, Feb 15, 2008 by Steven Garrity. Run time: 42min.
  1. Frightened Rabbit – The Modern Leper
  2. Gordie Sampson – Davie Jones
  3. Holy Fuck – Lovely Allen
  4. Mardeen – It’s a Lot to be Loved
  5. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
  6. Kings of Leon – Closer
  7. Eddie Vedder – Rise
  8. Hey Rosetta! – Psalm

For more, see the previous Acts of Volition Radio sessions or subscribe to the Acts of Volition Radio podcast feed.


The Myth of Chinese Democracy

I’ve been anticipating Chuck Klosterman’s review the new Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy, at least as much as the album itself. Klosterman addresses the album, the event, and the anticipation with an appropriate balance of ridicule and reverence:

Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I’ve been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I’ve thought about this record more than I’ve thought about China, and maybe as much as I’ve thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can’t psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.

Read the full review.