Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Thursday 22 December 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour Season 2 Preserved for the Benefit of Future Generations

Call it my holiday gift to you - I've just finished uploading and embedding all of the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, to the site. Now you can enjoy the world's greatest radio programme over and over again.

Just click the label "radio hour" to sort the posts, and you're off to the races. You'd be doing yourself a favour if you just listened to them all at once, but I'd call episodes 1, 4, 5, 6 and 10 my personal favourites. Since the second season built on the strengths of the first, I haven't uploaded the earlier episodes yet. Given the nigh-insatiable appetite the public has shown for my work so far, however, I may get around to it one of these days.

The new season picks up January 9th. The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at Thanks to everyone who listened over the fall, and happy holidays!

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Film Review: Winter's Bone

You probably don't need me to tell you, since the film was nominated for four Oscars, but I saw Winter's Bone a couple nights ago and thought I'd chip in a recommendation. It's far gritter than most Oscar films, with nary a trace of gloss or glamour, as you'd hope and expect for a film about poverty and meth labs in the rural Ozarks.

Director Debra Granik earned that authenticity by shooting in real locations in Missouri and casting locals in several parts rather than big-name actors. I have a soft spot Southern Gothic and Appalachian stories, and the Ozarks seem to fit the same niche. Although I've never been there, it seemed to me the film's depiction of rural squalor was sensitive rather than exploitative. It never feels cliched even when the banjos come out, which is saying something.

That's an even higher compliment given the film is a full-blown thriller. The plot follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Laurence), a put-upon seventeen year old carrying for her sick mother and two siblings as she searches for her missing father. It seems her father put the house up for bond before he disappeared, and it's looking doubtful he'll make his court date. One of the things I liked about the movie was the way it put a fresh spin on tried-and-true genre conventions. All the film noir, hardboiled tropes are there - the heroine gets drawn into the "case" through a series of interviews with increasingly menacing figures, all of whom warn her off the trail before they offer a single clue. In some ways the movie reminded me of Brick, which recast film noir in a high school. Winter's Bone is less stylized, and I appreciated the look at poverty and gender politics it took along the way. Full credit to Jennifer Laurence and Chris Hawkes for acting the hell out of their roles, too.

There's nothing remotely seasonal about this post, but if you're feeling a bit over-seasoned, this movie'll cut through the Christmas cheese like a hillbilly's flailing chainsaw. In fact, I liked it so much I think I'll look up Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the book on which the movie is based. Seems he's coined a whole new genre, "country noir," to describe his work. For those of you who've neither read nor seen Winter's Bone yet, here's a trailer to pique your interest:

Monday 12 December 2011

Chris Hedges' "Empire of Illusion"

Reading comes to me in waves; in the downtime I listen to music, watch movies, and do my best to pretend I'm still literate by recommending books I read years ago. Occasionally, though, I'll pick up a humdinger that sets me off on a white-hot reading streak. I finally got around to picking up Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, something I've been meaning to do since it came out in 2009. The book's subtitle is "The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle," and I feel doubly guilty for waiting this long since it's such an urgent, insistent read.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of nine books of political commentary. Empire of Illusion, as the title suggests, looks at the way in which popular culture encodes selfish and violent values with the intent to distract and deceive the public. Worse yet, it looks at how the deception and the reflection of the public comes to dovetail. The message might be familiar, but Hedges has a knack for illuminating just the right moments to show how depraved "ordinary" entertainment can be, or how low the debate has stooped. He examines the World Wrestling Federation's distillation of cultural values and the porn industry's emphasis on violence, building to a wholesale critique of North American politics. Lofty as it sounds, Hedges has the chops to execute that goal intelligently. Although he repeats himself occasionally, Hedges has a rare gift as a polemicist and makes you feel the subject deeply.

As potent as the writing is, Hedges is not a manipulator. Instead he champions intellectual inquiry with the kind of vigour that makes it seem worth defending. He takes a chapter to analyze the problems of contemporary academia and observes that the traditional outposts of intellectual exploration have become cloistered, compartmentalized, and compromised. If I'd had his critique during my undergrad, I might've been a lot less lonely. As I've mentioned here on the blog before, I have a particular interest in understanding mediocrity, and in interpreting what if anything is below the surface of the banal. Chris Hedges makes me think maybe I've put that goal too mildly, but at least he's given me some new angles to interpret. If you want to practice, you can warm up by watching Kevin O'Leary belittle Hedges' defense of the Occupy movement as "pretty nothing burger" and accuse Hedges of being "a leftwing nutbar" on the ostensibly civil CBC (or you can dismiss it as a distraction, as Hedges would probably prefer you do).

Sometimes after reading a particularly good book, I feel like I've been jarred awake out of the long, meandering nap I call my life. Unfortunately, being awake means I get an inkling of how sick our society really is. If you're feeling sluggish yourself, by all means read Empire of Illusion. If you're wary of downers, then you might be even more desperately in need of this book. Punishing as it can be, I like the way it ends. Too many political or environmental books spend nine chapters prophesying doom, before titling the tenth "Hope" and briefly sketching a few unexplored avenues for optimism. If Hedges' ending isn't exactly cheery, he concludes on a moral and philosophical note that is uplifting without engaging in self-deception. If I hadn't been reading it in a crowded cafeteria, I might've cried. Instead I looked out over the of blaring tv screens and the crowd of young people, and realized I didn't have a clue what to expect.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 11: A Bang & Jangle Christmas

Ho ho ho, the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour fall season is over. I hope last night's episode filled your heart with holiday sparkles. I tried to cut down on the Christmas cheese with a couple winter-themed tracks and a couple Hanukkah numbers. I also think Portsmouth Sinfonia nailed it, and I almost made a joke about Santa stuffing my stocking with their albums, and then I wondered what the hell these holiday specials are doing to me. Here's the playlist:

Leadbelly - Christmas Is Coming
Spike Jones - Winter
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan - Baby, It's Cold Outside
James Brown - Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto
Eartha Kitt - Santa Baby
Yogi Yorgesson - I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas
Lou Monte - Dominick the Donkey
Portsmouth Sinfonia - Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies
The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
Robert Earl Keen - Merry Christmas from the Family
Woody Guthrie - Hanukkah Dance
The Klezmatics - Spin Dreydl Spin
C. W. Stoneking - On a Christmas Day
Dr. John - Le Divin Enfant
Jimi Hendrix - Auld Lang Syne
Secret Bonus Track

Never heard Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah songs? Dying to know what the Secret Bonus Track is all about? Remember now you can stream the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour straight off this site.

The season resumes January 9, thanks for listening!

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Season 2, Episode 11

Thursday 1 December 2011

Film Review: Take Shelter

Mental Health Awareness Month isn't until May, but it seems I'm getting a headstart with two posts on the subject in a row. Last week I made the case for The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky as the Saddest Book in the World, and over the weekend I finally caught Jeff Nichol's Take Shelter, a film with a similar bent I'd been hankering to see for months.

Nijinsky's book is non-fiction, of course, but Take Shelter handles its subject with enough sensitivity to deserve the comparison. It concerns a man named Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), whose apocalyptic visions drive him both to build a tornado shelter in his backyard and question his family history of schizophrenia. Part of the reason I'm so fascinated by stories like this one is because I have known people suffering from mental illness, and I have tried to write my own fiction on the subject. Let me tell you, it's not so easy. What Take Shelter does right is show exactly how Curtis is trying to be sane. Rather than becoming too engrossed in his delusions, the narrative, the tension, and the empathy are all based on how he is trying to respond to his plight. We feel more invested in his personal dignity, his sense of duty to his family, and his fear, and we can separate these things from the symptoms of his illness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols deserves a lot of credit for keeping such careful control of potent material.

That said, it works as a movie too. This is one of those films where your teeth and back hurt by the end of it and you're still sorry it's over. The tension runs higher than any horror movie I've seen, but has more to do with dread and unease than spectacle. Part of it has to do with some disturbing contemporary resonances, though the writing is strong enough to work them in without compromising the narrative. In Curtis' visions, it rains motor oil; at one point he calls his psychiatrist while standing at the gas pump. Notice in the scene where he pulls over to watch lightning on the horizon, there is a Real Estate sign in the lower righthand corner. Even the soundtrack seems to echo Curtis' life - he has a deaf daughter, and the soundtrack is mainly made up of high, ringing tones muting the dialogue and effects.

Curtis is played by Michael Shannon, and this movie makes it official, he's my favourite actor. He's already played crazy people to the hilt in at least three other movies (his turn in Revolutionary Road got him an Oscar nomination), but he continues to find new inspiration in each role. His role in Bug, based on the play by Tracy Letts and filmed as a two-hander with Ashley Judd, first turned me onto him. But Bug is more of a claustrophobic mindfuck than a study of mental illness. I'm a huge fan of Werner Herzog, but I have to say Michael Shannon's role in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is about the only good thing in the movie. Michael Shannon rises above the wooden dialogue and clunky scenes, a feat that even Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, and Udo Kier couldn't match (it's as if Herzog knew it and gave him all the plum lines - Shannon tells his pet flamingos "I know you're my eagles in drag"). If you want to see Shannon in some saner roles, I recommend his noirish turn in The Missing Person, or his performance in the lead role in Shotgun Stories, also by Jeff Nichols.

But enough about Michael Shannon - time to praise Jessica Chastain. She makes Curtis' wife Samantha more than a foil or voice of reason and gives her life of her own. Watching her move from furious to confused to genuinely worried in the course of one scene is heartbreaking. The filmmakers know it, too; the narrative is mostly framed around Curtis, but after he leaves the room in the aforementioned scene, notice how the camera lingers on Samantha just a few frames longer than necessary. It's a sly bit of editing that seals the emotional impact.

In researching for my own fiction, I've read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies in this vein. Even so, I can't think of another one that so effectively balances drama, sensitivity, and artful execution. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, so don't come complaining to me if you come out of the theatre anxious and bewildered. Sometimes, though, that's well worthwhile. 

Take Shelter Trailer: 

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 10: Home Cookin'

Louis Jordan
Last night's show was all about tasty licks and cheesy puns. Vamping off the Home Cookin' theme, I served up a fourteen-course meal of food-inspired songs. Here's the menu:

Beans and Cornbread - Louis Jordan
I've Never Seen a Straight Banana - the Happiness Boys
Come on-a My House - Rosemary Clooney
Everybody Eats When They Come to My House - Cab Calloway
A Chicken Ain't Nothing but a Bird - Nellie Lutcher
Eat that Chicken - Charles Mingus
If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd Have Baked a Cake - Eileen Barton
Alligator Meat - Joe Swift
Chitlin Cookin' Time in Cheatham County - Pokey LaFarge
Sukiyaki - Kyu Sakamoto
Call Any Vegetable - Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Fish in the Jailhouse - Tom Waits
Beef Jerky - Cibo Matto
A Real Nice Clambake - Carousel

Not the freshest tracks, because like I said on the show, singing about food is fast becoming a lost art. But come to think of it, I don't have to say "like I said on the show" anymore, because the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour will now be available for streaming! I was under the impression that copyright laws forbade me from posting the show after the initial broadcast, but now I have it on good authority, I was wrong. I'll update the old posts, but it's a time-consuming process so it'll be awhile.

That said, don't stop listening on Monday nights! There's only one show left this season before we break until January. Based on the phenomenal success of the Halloween special, brace yourself for a sleighful of weird Christmas tunes...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Thursday 24 November 2011

The Saddest Book in the World

Is non-fiction, naturally. The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky is one of the first that springs to mind when I think of books that moved me, despite the fact that it is nonsensical, mundane, and repetitive by turns. Because it is a diary, it's very clearly alive, and documents the thoughts and feelings of the most famous dancer in the world as his sanity erodes.

Vaslav Nijinsky earned his title largely through the ballets he staged from the 1912 to 1916, such as The Rite of Spring and L'après-midi d'un faune, which were crucial to the development of modern dance. Both in his choreography (he treated ballet audiences to their first simulated masturbation onstage) and his expressive dancing, Nijinsky was way ahead of the curve and one of the most controversial, challenging artists of his time. His career ended prematurely when he began to suffer from schizophrenia, and after leaving a snapshot of the breakdown in his diary he would spend the rest of his life moving from asylum to asylum.

The book opens with a bland observation that veers abruptly into the ominous: "I have had a good lunch, for I ate two soft-boiled eggs and fried potatoes and beans. I like beans, only they are dry. I do not like dry beans, because there is no life in them. Switzerland is sick because it is full of mountains." The whole diary is written in terse, declarative prose. Despite the dark overtones, the saddest book in the world also happens to be quite funny, when the quick-change nature of Nijinsky's thought catches you by surprise. It's a powerful personal style any author would be jealous of, though the editor suggests it is a byproduct of Nijinsky's attempt to keep his thought process from derailing. I have heard mental health experts say it is helpful to think of how behaviour is adaptive rather than maladaptive according to the inner logic of the one experiencing it, and the suggestion certainly makes for a compelling reading Nijinsky's prose.

For instance, it's sometimes easy to read between the lines and imagine what an impartial observer might see, based on Nijinsky's grandiose descriptions. Here's one example of a walk in the woods: "I ran home, glad these trials were over, but God commanded me to direct my attention to a man who was coming towards me. God commanded me to turn back, saying that the man had killed another man. I ran back. When I got back, I felt blood and hid myself behind a hillock. I crouched down so that the man would not see me. I pretended I had fallen in the snow and was unable to get up. I lay there for a long time." As Nijinksy continues to describe the scene, it seems likely he's waiting out a bout of anxiety as he spies on an old man out collecting firewood.

As odd as the diary can be, helpful footnotes by editor Joan Acocella provide the biographical context sometimes necessary to make sense of it. In some places, there is more sense to the diary than at first there appears to be, such as when Nijinsky mentions his artistic theories, the bitterness he feels towards his contemporaries, or briefly seems to realize that his daughter is afraid of him. The fact that his diary represents his very last effort to maintain makes it all the more heartbreaking. You can tell he is failing in his efforts when the text devolves into nonsense "poems" made of scattered syllables - in a letter addressed to Jean Cocteau he writes, "Tchigi, rigi, rigi, tchigi. Migi, tigi, tigi, tigi."

I can't find the citation to make it official, but I read somewhere that it's rare to find a firsthand account of a breakdown in progress. Written by the person experiencing it, it's much more common to find retrospective analyses (Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son, has a good one called Eden Express). There's also no shortage of commentary by third parties. The only thing remotely like the Diary is Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by D. P. Schreber, and the academic tone of that book is very different from the raw intensity of Nijinsky's.

If you plan on looking up the Diary, just make sure you get a recent edition, rather than the version edited by Nijinsky's wife Romola. Her edits play up the messianic qualities of the writing and drop the ramblings, framing Nijinksy as a prophet. Whether she was trying build a cult following or preserve her husband's reputation I'm not sure, but the cuts do everyone a disservice. If you really get into Nijinsky, I'm sure it makes for an interesting followup, but go for the straight goods first. If you're interested in reading about mental illness from an empathic rather than clinical perspective, or even just looking for a challenging read, you cannot do better than the unexpurgated Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. It contains the kind of insight you cannot get anywhere else.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 9: Sad

Berzilla Wallin
Whew! The emotional rollercoaster of the last three episodes rolled gently to a stop last night when I looked at Sad Songs. Of course, I stayed weeping in the car for a few more numbers, praying it would start again, but the ride was over. At least that's how it felt, and here's why:

My Melancholy Baby - Gene Austin
When Can I Change My Clothes? - Bukka White
As Time Draws Near - Tommy Jarrell
Berzilla Wallin - A Conversation with Death
Hard Times Come Again No More - Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor w/James Taylor
Justin Townes Earle - Mama's Eyes (Live @ the Collect)
Jolie Holland - Damn Shame
Gonzales - Gogol
Iron & Wine - Upward Over the Mountain
Joanna Newsom - Sadie
Tom Waits - Take It with Me

Next week, we'll return to a more emotional balanced musical diet. Of course, I wasn't able to get to everything on my list, not to mention the great suggestions people gave me. Maybe if we ask the carny nicely, he'll fire up the 'coaster once more before the season ends?

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 9

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 8: Happy

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
We put Anger behind us, and this week Happy came due. The latter was more fun to put together, and if you caught the show last night I hope you dug it too. I tried to do a little compare and contrast, so Big Mama Thornton appeared again this week, and the show kicked off with a more uplifting take on a religious tune:

Rev. Gary Davis - Oh Glory, How Happy I Am
Big Mama Thornton - My Man Called Me
Petunia - Big Wide River of Love
Hasil Adkins - I'm Happy
Kanui & Lula - Tomi Tomi
Moondog - Westward Ho!
Harry Belafonte - Jump in the Line
Stevie Wonder - We Can Work It Out
The Go! Team - Get It Together
Four Tet - Smile Around the Face
Taraf de Haidouks - Briu
Mike Essoudry's Mash Potato Mashers - The Getaway
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - I'll Fly Away
Os Mutantes - Bat Macumba

A few predictable choices snuck in, but I was in a great mood by the end of it. I hate to tell you, but to complete the trilogy we've gotta do sadness. I promise to err on the side of sweet melancholy, though...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 8

Thursday 10 November 2011

Movie Review: Blood Tea and Red String

The greatest video store I have ever known, Peterborough's Have You Seen, went out of business this month. I have no reason to live and I can't stop crying, but I cling to the memory of my last rental there. Christiane Cegavske's Blood Tea and Red String will always remind me of better times, before a gaping wound opened in Peterborough's cultural side.

If you don't like stop motion, stay the hell away. If you have a taste for it, Blood Tea and Red String is impossible to dislike. Christiane Cegavske would probably be glad to hear that, because it took her thirteen years from to go from idea to execution. For a move in production that long, it's remarkably cohesive - all the ideas I had thirteen years ago seem pretty stupid to me now. The end product looks like Jan Svankmajer animating a long-lost Alejandro Jodorowsky script. It even has the same kind of grainy, washed out colour that is Svankmajer's stamp. It doesn't have any animated meat, but it does have a cake filled with bugs. The Jodorowsky link comes through in waves of inscrutable symbolism and psychedelic mythology. That said, Cegavske definitely has her own thing going, a certain crafty, earthy, entirely handmade feeling that makes the proceedings feel a whole lot older than most releases from 2006. It also reminded me heavily of the stop-motion version of the Wind in the Willows, the difference being that the weirdness here seems intentional.

It has a plot. It has to do with a bunch of bat-eared crows with brown fur getting their idol back from a posse of white mice who stole it. Along the way they eat psychotropic passion fruit and face a spider with a human head (come to think of it, that's exactly the kind of stuff I was thinking about thirteen years ago). I'm not sure I understood a whole lot else, but I know I liked it. For a film as homemade and rustic looking as this one, I thought the angles and editing were sharp and creative and kept things ticking. I seem to be moving away from words, because like the Jim Woodring comics I wrote about a few months ago, this fairy tale is entirely wordless. It's got one helluva soundtrack to make up for it, though. Mark Growden's music, with its meandering, pastoral wooden flute melodies, sometimes verges on cheesy sixties folk but matches the scene perfectly and lends extra mystery. The music during the tea party dance made me excited and sick to my stomach, exactly what I look for in a soundtrack.

Cegavske says on her website that Blood Tea and Red String is part of a planned trilogy, and the next installment is almost ready to begin shooting. She's posted a tantalizing image or two already - if I have to wait until I'm in my forties to see I'm going to be disappointed. In the meantime, I heartily recommend the first film. I don't know where you're gonna find it... but enough lamenting, here's the trailer:

(P.S.I don't want to spoil the movie, but if you want to see that wonderful sickmaking scene with the dancing mice, it's available online here.)

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 7: Angry

Angsty Weirdo Robert Graettinger
Last night's look at expressions of anger through music was probably more nerdy than cathartic, since I disallowed overtly aggressive genres. We did manage to cover a fair bit of ground, though, across a spectrum of the political and personal. Below you'll find righteous anger, wrath, cynicism, spite, and vengeance, most of it tuneful. Some tracks, like Randy Newman's "Short People," just pissed people off when they first heard it. If you're trying to keep an even keel, tune in next week and I'll follow up with Happy, Sad, any other emotional state you suggest, provided I can scrape up an hour's worth of music to match. Here's yesterday's playlist:

Rev. Sister Mary Nelson - Judgment
Harry McClintock - Hallelujah, I'm a Bum
Blind Willie McTell - Your Southern Can Is Mine
Leadbelly - Bourgeois Blues
Big Mama Thornton - I Smell a Rat
Nina Simone - Pirate Jenny
Wild Man Fischer - The Wild Man Fischer Story
Randy Newman - Short People
Robert Graettinger/Stan Kenton - Everything Happens to Me
Charles Mingus - Solo Dancer
Tom Waits - Hell Broke Luce

Did I miss anything? I'm certain I did. Let me know and maybe we can do a year end round-up...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 7

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 6: Halloween!

Screamin' Jay Hawkins
I didn't get any trick or treaters at my house last night, so this was my big Halloween hurrah. Here it is, boys and ghouls:

Frankie Stein and his Ghouls - Lullaby of Ghost Land
Joe Meek (The Moontrekkers) - Night of the Vampire
Vincent Price - Hand of Glory
Tom Lehrer - I Hold Your Hand in Mine
Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put a Spell on You
The Destroyers - The Glass Coffin Burial of Professor Zurinak
Firewater - Before the Fall
Cat Power - Werewolf
Vincent Price - Protection from the Hand of Glory
Timber Timbre - Swamp Magic
Judson Fountain - Garbage Can from Thailand
Stephen Terrell - I Lost My Baby to a Satan Cult
Tom Waits - Don't Go into that Barn
Me - Bang & Jangle Halloween Special
Secret Chiefs 3 - Welcome to the Theatron Animatronique

I had a hoot doing that one. Hope you liked the track by Judson Fountain, the Ed Wood of radio drama. If you liked that particular piece of crap, boy is there a lot more of it. Hope you had a spooktacular Halloween, let's do it again next year and I'll shower you with puns all over again...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 6

Halloween Special: Theme Recording

I got so jazzed about doing a Halloween episode of the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, I had to record my own entry. I debuted it last night on the show, and now it's available here so you'll be ready the next time Halloween rolls around.

It's a bit muddy, and only half of that is intentional. As I said on the show, I was aiming for campy, but I landed on brutal. I had a good time concocting it from things you can find around the house (broken music boxes, bowls of dead leaves), and my neck still hurts from screaming. That's legitimate anguish you hear, ladies and gents.

Speaking of muddy recording, you may have noticed I proposed a slew of projects in early September, and have been quiet ever since. That's because holiday specials excepted, I don't want to record anything until I know I can make it better than what's come before. That means upgrading my space, equipment, and know-how (a large shipment of hideous pumpkin-coloured acoustic foam arrived yesterday, for instance). Once I've pasted that up and I'm over the learning curve on the new software, my recordings should be sounding pristine in time for the holly jolly Christmas special.

But that's beside the point. Here is my ultra-spooky Halloween special, which incorporates the sound of being buried alive, werewolves, and changing your guitar strings into a horrifying span of three and half minutes. Listen to it now... if you dare!

Bang & Jangle Halloween Special

Monday 31 October 2011

Halloween Special: Name That Skull

What kind of skull is it?
I don't mean to seem morbid, but I uh, have this skull. It used to be joined at the neck to some kind of animal, but I don't know what kind. I figured, tonight being Halloween, now's the time to ask.

I found this skull when I went out to pick banjo in the ruins of an old cabin (really) and accidentally sat on it. It is a sturdy skull and didn't break, even though it was lying in the ground sideways, which is why it has that cool half-dirty, half-clean yin and yang thing. I put it in my pocket and took it home, but no one I've shown it to yet can tell me definitively what kind of skull it is.

That's what I'd like to know.
Hunters, veterinarians, cryptozoologists, can you tell? I tried to photograph it from several angles, but I have lots more photos I can send if you need. I'm sorry I couldn't find the jaw, but you can see that it used to have some fairly wicked teeth. I'm guessing maybe fisher or fox, but something tells me jackalope.  I thought maybe chupacabras (a little one) but they don't usually come this far north.

It's kind of creepy to have it on my desk not knowing what it is. Rebecca wants nothing to do with it, and I would like to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Any help you can provide in this matter is much appreciated.

Happy Halloween,


Tuesday 25 October 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 5: The Old and the New

Last night I took a look at how old music influences the new. A pretty broad topic, but one that I'm particularly fascinated in as a fan of old-time music. It was less a playlist of complementary tunes than an opportunity to compare and contrast, and here are some striking samples of divergent evolution:

Martin Denny - Chinese Lullaby
Four Tet - And They All Look Broken Hearted
Hank Williams - Jambalaya
Hank Williams III - Gutter Stomp
Bill Monroe - I Live in the Past
Petunia - I Live in the Past
Hoyt Ming and his Pep Steppers - Indian War Whoop
Holy Modal Rounders - Indian War Whoop
Frank Fairfield - Cumberland Gap
Sheesham and Lotus - Givin' It Away
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats - Rocket 88
Tom Waits - Get Lost
Dengue Fever - Tiger Phone Card

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 5

I also mentioned a Sheesham and Lotus concert at the Thomasburg Hall on October 28 (110 Clare Street, Thomasburg). Thomasburg is on Highway #37 in Central Ontario, about 27 kilometres north of Belleville. If you're coming  from Peterborough and would like tickets, contact me at If you are in the Thomasburg area or elsewhere, call 613-478-1019 or write to Tickets are $15 a pop. Do reserve your tickets if you're thinking of coming, since the last show at the hall, featuring Goto Izumi, sold out.

One more thing: the Sheesham and Lotus song I played last night came from this video. If you're sitting on the fence about whether or not to come to the show, this should be all the push you need:

Sheesham and Lotus Trio - ' Givin It Away ' - Live in an Orchard on Wolfe Island from Lenny Epstein on Vimeo.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Bad as Me: Seventeen Albums and Still a Mad Genius

I listened to Tom Waits' new album Bas as Me last night, and now all I want to do is do it again. I mentioned here that it was coming a few weeks ago, and I'd been on tenterhooks since. Now I can relax and let it blow my mind over and over again.

It seems unfair to Waits to continually mention his age when he sounds fresher at sixty-one than most musicians in their twenties. However, when so many of his contemporaries have their best albums behind them, Tom Waits has become especially important to me for proving that artistic growth can continue indefinitely. In fact, on tracks like "Kiss Me," "Last Leaf," and "New Year's Eve," Waits' approach as an older man is what makes the album relevant alongside earlier ones. The lyric "Kiss me like a stranger once again" makes you wonder what his wife thinks when she hears it (although I'm sure she's fine with it, Kathleen Brennan has co-author credit), and revisits the jazzy material from the first part of his career, which I'm usually less partial to, from a new perspective. "Last Leaf" is a duet with Keith Richards that seems to speak directly about the same effect I'm talking about: “The autumn took the rest, but they won’t take me.”

 The thing that makes Tom Waits albums so exciting is that they are all sonically and thematically well-differentiated from each other - you won't mistake Rain Dogs for Frank's Wild Years or Alice for Real Gone. Bad as Me continues the tradition, with the most striking new element of this new album being a more personal feel. Although I don't know the man, several tracks seem more directly informed by personal experiences and feelings. I don't insist on confessional material - I'd much rather hear a piece of well-tuned theatre than a sloppy diary reading - but several of the new tunes do cut to the quick and show that Waits is still pushing his songwriting.

Musically speaking, Tom Waits albums are the gold standard for production values as far as I'm concerned. They sound to me like a bricolage of grungy low-fi sounds used for texture, alongside meticulously recorded rich sounds to round out the space. The rhythms are repetitive and insistent, but skewed in such a way to create unusual juxtapositions. Brokedown performances seem brilliantly conceived and intentional, as if the players are telepathically linked. The style is highly evolved but doesn't seem like an exercise in technique. The song "Get Lost" impressed me by suggesting fifties rock while sounding more primitive, raw, and weird than any such music that ever actually existed. The most potent new sounds are on the track "Hell Broke Luce," imbued as they are with intense rage. It's the only Waits song I can name that uses profanity, which may seem minor except that it breaks a certain genre standard set in so many other songs and impresses the listener with its immediacy. The song also contains gritty, realistic references to meth, and forgoes stylized criminal names like Dudlow Joe in favour of simple ones like Jeff for the same effect. It's scary, you'll be impressed.

The album is officially released on October 25, but you can preview it on until Friday. By all means drop what you're doing and preview it, but if just can't find the time, schedule it in next week. If you need more Waits, check out this interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q, posted below. I've already revealed too much, so I'm going to quit and go hear Bad as Me again...

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 4: Masters of their Instrument

Wu Man with pipa
Like I said on the show, some musicians stand out for their genre-defining playing or their godlike mastery of multiple styles. Last night we took a look at virtuosos across more than a dozen instruments:

Clara Rockmore (theremin) - Summertime
Augustus Pablo (melodica) - East of the River Nile
Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (surf guitar) - Hava Nagila
Bill Monroe and Doc Watson (mandolin, flatpicking guitar) - Watson's Blues
Del Wood (ragtime piano) - Down Yonder
Kronos Quartet and Wu Man (pipa) - Royal Wedding
The Chieftains (bodhrán) - The Morning Dew
Yma Sumac (voice) - Tumpa (Earthquake)
Kodo (taiko) - Lion
Evelyn Glennie (percussion) - Clog Dance
Thelonious Monk (jazz piano) - Epistrophy
Kongar ol-Ondar and Paul Pena (throat singing) - Eki A'ttar (Good Horses)
Les Claypool (bass) - Cosmic Highway

Last night was a chance to play more classical, world, and jazz material than we've had yet on the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour. Kodo was so intense I literally started sweating (look at the picture below and you'll see why). I'm also going to be listening down deep into Evelyn Glennie's back catalog soon. Just as soon as I finish with the new Tom Waits record, that is. So much to listen to...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 4

Kodo in action

Monday 17 October 2011

Teaser: Belinda Bedekovic, Keytar Wizard

Tonight on the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, I'll be looking at Masters of their Instrument. Since no one needs to hear twenty guitar virtuosos in a row, I dug a little deeper and found this gem by Zagreb's Belinda Bedekovic. Believe me, I'm not exaggerating when I use the word wizard. Although it is a little strange that she has mounted her keytar on a stand, essentially making it a synthesizer on an angle, Belinda's mastery of her instrument is undeniable. I enjoyed reading her biography so much, I thought I'd share an excerpt:

Belinda Bedekovic, from Zagreb in Croatia, began to take up music at the age of three and a half years after her mother Ivkica purchased first keyboard, red ''Bambi'' on which Belinda played her first note ''e''. And so Belinda, under pedagogical leadership of her father Teodor, professional musician, started to overcome note by note with a good grace, curiosity and child's interest, taking her keyboard as a new amazing and brilliant toy. That's how it started. First appearance on TV Belinda had at the age of 5. Her performance was accompanied by admiration of music experts because five years old child with impeccable musical ear professionally done recording session at first attempt. Stunned cameramen and director asserted: ''Even a famous and trained musicians can’t make it at first attempt!''.

The biography chronicles Belinda's growth from childhood to the present (you can read the full thing here). Recently, "she has been working on her project 'TORNADO ON THE REMOTE KEYBOARD'," and boasts that "performances are regularly accompanied by enthusiastic applause, sometimes even leading to euphoria."

Later on it mentions a collaboration with Sacha Baron Cohen during his Borat phase, which begs the question how self-aware Belinda's act is. But as often as the keytar is the butt of cheap jokes, Belinda's performance wins the day with impressive chops and Croatian flavour:


Tuesday 11 October 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 3: Autumn Songs

This week on the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour I played a melancholy mixture of songs about autumn, in honour of Thanksgiving. It went something like this:

Dock Boggs - Turkey in the Straw
A Hawk and a Hacksaw - A Hack and a Handsaw
Tom Waits - November
Leon Redbone - Shine on Harvest Moon
The Scarring Party - Everything I Touched Caught Fire
George Winston - Autumn (Sea)
Luke Doucet - New Orleans
Hawksley Workman - Stop Joking Around
The Pogues - Haunting
Timber Timbre - Lay Down in the Tall Grass
Louis Armstrong - Autumn Leaves
Willie Nelson - September Song
Django Reinhardt - September Song
Chet Baker and Bill Evans - September Song

That's three versions of Kurt Weill's September Song, if you're counting. It seems like themes are just falling into my lap this month - I've already started working on an ultra-spooky extra special Halloween edition of the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 3

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 2: What's in a Name?

What's in a name? Funky funky music, it turns out. Last night on the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, I choose tunes on the basis of their intriguing titles. In order of appearance:

Bessie Smith - Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer
Hoosier Hot Shots - I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones
Nugrape Twins - I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape
Raymond Scott - Yesterday's Ice Cubes
Larry "Wild Man" Fischer - Monkeys vs. Donkeys
Roky Erickson & the Aliens - It's a Cold Night for Alligators
Ween - Hey There Fancypants
Joe Meek - Love Dance of the Saroos
Kaada - Broken Horse Restaurant
Tin Hat Trio - Same Shirt, Different Day
Frank Pahl & Klimperei - Cat's Tongues with Cream
The Books - An Owl with Knees

Honorable mention goes to When Fishsticks Turn to Mermaids, My Pink Half of the Drainpipe, God's Away on Business, What Did the Buzzard Say to the Crow, and I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Maybe next time...

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 2

Friday 30 September 2011

Places to Go Before You Die: Happy Face Museum, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Sometime in the seventies, God gave Debbie Power a mission to promote happiness on earth. The smiley face icon was to be her medium and inspiration, and she has pursued that goal unswervingly ever since.

I know because I have seen it. Most roadside attractions are overpriced kitsch-holes, and some I only think I’ve been to because I saw it in a movie. But I have been to the Happy Face Museum in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia twice, and it left an impression I will never be able to stop talking about.

The tour begins inauspiciously on a residential street before an ordinary-looking home.  The ground floor is occupied by Debbie’s dog grooming business, though yellow-painted rocks in the backyard foreshadow what’s to come. The tour begins in earnest when Debbie shows you up the stairs. Every step is decorated with an unedited-but-earnest quotation, such as “Kindness is the oil that takes the frickson out of life.” The walls are plastered with cartoons grinning at you as you climb.

The first step into the museum is almost overwhelming. Artifacts are spread out wall to wall and four layers deep. The palette is mainly yellow but the entire spectrum makes an appearance. The effect is somewhat like stepping inside a cluttered brain – every pop culture phenomenon you’ve ever forgotten is still being venerated in Debbie’s attic. Apart from the usual smileys, you can find Smurf memorabilia, Batman action figures, Cookie Monster pez dispensers, Care Bear dolls and Obama soda pop. The effect is not just visual, since “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “What a Wonderful World” play on an endless loop while Debbie dispenses bubblegum.
The effect is not just nostalgic, either. As much as the premise sounds ripe for ridicule to the cynically minded, there is a powerful atmosphere to the place. And it is not claustrophobic, but has the intended effect of feeling warm, friendly and kind. The credit’s not due as much to the geegaws on the walls as to Debbie herself, who conducts the same tour she must have given thousands of times with an unusually authentic enthusiasm. When she turns on a robot dog, it may surprise you how funny you find it. She has achieved happiness, and she can even confer it on a jaded visitor who thought he was done with Care Bears.

This being the case, Debbie also has a giant smiley face costume she wears in parades when she’s doing outreach work. Guests have donated so many toys and widgets that she has started receiving doubles and often has no place to put new acquisitions. However, there are binders of photographs of smiley face sightings from around Nova Scotia and beyond, my favourite being a freezer full of smiley face potatoes at Wal-Mart. The first time I visited, Debbie even gave us burnt out lightbulbs with smiley faces on the front and biblical quotations on the back as souvenirs.

Anytime anyone tells me they are headed out east, I instantly regurgitate this story. I hope that by putting it in writing I can save time and stop hassling my friends. My only fear in making it public is that someone will visit the Museum in the wrong spirit, and it will be my fault. I know I make it sound strange, but a cursory look around this website will tell you that strangeness is my bread and butter, and I am sincerely grateful to Debbie Power for taking the time to show me her work and for instilling in me a very unlikely sense of wonder. I think the appeal is taking what sounds like a plastic premise and turning it into something organic and real. I’ll stop short of posting the address and phone number, but I urge you if you’re feeling sociable and curious to look up the Happy Face Museum the next time you visit Halifax. Call ahead, and consider making a donation towards the upkeep. If you do go, you’ll be the first to actually take my recommendation, so let me know and set my heart at ease.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

See? Elephant Orchestra Really and Truly Exists

In case I didn't stress this enough on the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour last night, I would like to make it clear that the Thai Elephant Orchestra is made up of actual elephants. Trained ones, of course. It just doesn't get more wonderful than that, even if the end result isn't exactly danceable. The orchestra is based in Lampang, Thailand, and has released three albums to date, expanding from six elephants on the first to fourteen on the third. If you won't believe your ears, maybe you'll believe your eyes after you see this video...

Thai Elephant Orchestra on YouTube

Bang & Jangle Radio Hour, Season 2, Episode 1: Fun with Percussion

Ken Butler
I can breathe easy now that the Bang & Jangle Radio Hour is actually an hour long, and the new format really did help me stretch out and dig in. The first episode of the season got started with a bang, clack, tap and a chuck on last night's show, "Fun with Percussion":
Reaves White County Ramblers - Ten Cent Piece
Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band - I'm Satisfied with My Gal
Spike Jones - William Tell Overture
The Monks - I Can't Get Over You
That 1 Guy - Packs a Wallop
Tom Waits - Russian Dance
Islaja - Palaa Aurinkoon
Canoofle - Weeds and Wildflowers
Ken Butler - Stuck Behind a Truck
Trees Community - Parable of the Mustard Seed
Thai Elephant Orchestra - Temple Music
Phil Harris - The Thing

Everything from fiddlesticks to the Aquaggaswack (a rack of tuned potlids) to improvising elephants in one short hour. Tune in next week for more musical delights, classic and obscure!

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour airs Mondays 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio, 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at

Listen to this episode:

Season 2, Episode 1

Monday 26 September 2011

For God's Sake, Canada

Hope you like it bland
I have a scholarly fascination with mediocrity; I think it's neglected as a subject of study though there's a lot to be gleaned. I remember precisely when I cottoned to mediocrity as a matter of urgent importance. I was working as an English teacher, mainly for bankers and management types. At that time I was investing most of my artistic energies in writing fiction, and the adage "write what you know" provoked a crisis in which I feared my daily experience was of no interest and no use to anyone, myself included. I attempted to solve the problem by writing the piece "Banker" (which you can read in the "Short Fiction" section), a short story about a man who tries to teach a corpse to play violin, and a pulp novel about a muckraking journalist, a door to door salesman, a gypsy fortuneteller, a small town girl in the big city, a dusty old professor, a washed-up boxer, a morphine addict and a conceited poet who must band together to fight crime.

My life got more interesting when I moved to Mexico, so I let my studies lapse. I always kept my eye out for those pristine examples of mediocrity that seem to peer straight into the bland heart of man, though, and it all came flooding back when I watched the first episode of the Cover Me Canada competition on CBC.

A few disclaimers. I don't usually publish negative reviews here, because of the queasy balance between criticism and self-promotion. I'm also aware I'm not the target demographic for a show like Cover Me Canada, which seems aimed mainly at teenyboppers and fans of Canadian institutions like Anne Murray and Shania Twain. All the same, there are still a few factors that make me want to write about it: its interest to other scholars of mediocrity, the fact that I find the idea and its execution politically offensive, and its role in a larger trend of neutered, watered-down programming on the CBC.

I was irritated enough to watch the show by noisy ads outlining the selection process. The participants were given the choice of auditioning either "Sundown" by Gordon Lightfoot, "Black Velvet" as performed by Alannah Miles, "Life is Highway" by Tom Cochrane, or "Run to You" by Brian Adams. Apart from compromising the sanity of the judging panel, there is something offensive about asking young performers, some of whom don't seem to have hit twenty, to limit their range of expression to four stale radio staples a generation or more removed from their demographic. Classic Canadian material though it may be, it's almost as if a panel of balding, beancounting producers in their mid-thirties sat down, wrote their favourite songs on a notepad, and presented it as the will of the Canadian people.

The first episode has aired, and virtually every moment is cringe-worthy. Despite billing itself as the "biggest, loudest, most entertaining, star-studded musical competition show on television," host Nicole Appleton's accent drifts weirdly from British to Canadian, and she stumbles over a word or two in every scene, most tellingly on the word "Canada." We know David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears, is answering her questions when she interviews him because his lips are moving, but we can't hear him because she forgets to hand him the mic. The judging panel consists of singer Deborah Cox, Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block fame, and A&R man Ron Fair. Each judge sits in front of a delicious cup of McCafe, and offers exactly the kind of insightful feedback you'd expect from a McDonald's shill, such as "I like your white guitar" and "Penetrate the screen." All three are pointlessly polite, until Fair is personally attacking to the final contestant as if he'd forgotten his mandate til then.

The musical performances themselves deserve credit for being less appalling than everything else. There are some decent voices, which is kind of the point - the singers get all the attention, while band members are instructed to "give her space." Knight tells one contestant, "Man, you are incredible... and the band is tight." All eight competitors interpret classic Canadian material like Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" and Shania Twain's "Up." What's insulting is seeing young people who may or may not be old enough to vote ostensibly groomed to replace the giants of industry they are covering, while having whatever creativity they possess stripped from them and enduring public humiliation. They are fed a lot of lines about moments, lifetimes, and destiny, but it would only be fair to warn them that their destiny involves frequent appearances at the Holiday Inn in Brampton.

It's not clear what role they play in the actual arrangements of the covers, since some of the singers appear to be half the age of their backup band. It's interesting seeing Hawksley Workman, whose first album For Him and the Girls is a perfect pop record I still enjoy listening to, appear as a superstar producer. He very publicly shed his artistic persona in favour of fifteen minutes' fame as a sleazy sex idol. I've wondered whether he ever listens to For Him and the Girls and realizes he has sold his soul. Cover Me Canada is his reward; when he says "Cory is the mad scientist, and Greg is just soft character" in reference to a banal rock band he is producing, I can almost see Satan grinning.

When I ask people if they're as outraged as I am, they sensibly say "I don't watch that crap." I feel a responsibility to bear witness: I smell a sinister plot to enervate the CBC to the point of death. Put less dramatically, the plan is to shift the focus towards entertainment in order to boost flagging viewership, but most of that entertainment seems overheated and desperate to please. Cover Me Canada in particular rubs processed Canadian identity in your face, with the end result of making you feel like a second-rate American. We owe the current state of the CBC to the work of Richard Stursberg, former vice-president of English Services at CBC. According to a November article in The Walrus, "His legacy at CBC is not likely to be undone soon: Every one of the network’s programming directors has been replaced. Its prime-time TV lineup has been overhauled, as has everything about its news specialty channel, including the name... the entire philosophical foundation of CBC English-language TV programming has been rearranged." The situation is complicated, of course, and I recommend checking out the entire article, which I'll link at the bottom of this piece.

I'm not presenting the banality of the mainstream as a revelation. I'm saying that Cover Me Canada has attained those rare heights of mediocrity where badly timed and poorly written material seems to convey as much information as the artfully executed. As an added bonus, if you watch the show online, you'll be treated to the the same VIA Rail ad featuring a waspish woman praising trains four times. May I suggest an episode of Charlie Brooker's How TV Ruined Your Life, another excellent recommendation from my friend CT Staples, as an antidote (notice it's a BBC program).

[P.S. The second episode has been released since I wrote this, and it is sadly more polished, making it essentially valueless to everybody. I recommend the first episode for maximum insight into shittiness.]

A link to the Walrus article:

Watch Cover Me Canada if you dare:

When you're tired of watching garbage, check out How TV Ruined Your Life:

Monday 19 September 2011

The Bang & Jangle Radio Hour is Back!

Now with hour-long format, finally doing the name justice! The first episode of the new season airs September 26, 9:00-10:00 p.m. on Trent Radio 92.7 in Peterborough, or online at I'll be continuing my exploration of abstract musical themes - expect Songs with Great Titles, Bizarre Percussion, Songs About the Circus, and more.

I had a great time doing the summer season, and this fall it get deeper, weirder and longer. Do tune in...

Friday 16 September 2011

Brace Yourself for Site Renovations

The future is snazzy
I know this is not nearly as exciting as a new hit single or bug blood piece, but just so you don't think I've been idle, I direct your attention to the Music page, where you'll find I've installed a nifty new player instead of the clunky old interface. There's nothing new to listen to there, but I have added a few of my favourites from Two-Headed Hippopotamus on a Bootjack (my online instrumental album) to the playlist in case you don't feel like going all the way to Bandcamp. If you haven't got time to listen to the opus in its entirety, now you can check out some highlights.

It's looking good on my computer, but I'm no techie so if the player is not loading for you please let me know so I can bumble my way towards a solution.

There are also a few new pics on the Photos page, but I understand there are only so many times you need to see me pulling faces in front of a microphone. I'll be back with a meatier post soon...

Thursday 15 September 2011

Shanty Boat Fantasy Becomes Reality

This is the kind of place I visit every night in my dreams, but I wasn't sure it really existed until now. The Moron Brothers of Kentucky have built themselves the ideal porch for some banjo picking, and fulfilled my simpleminded fantasy of freedom in the bargain. I've been in some nice cabins, I've been in some nice boats, but never a perfect marriage of the two. In my mind's eye, I was here when I recorded "Goodtimes in the Swamp" for Two-Headed Hippopotamus on a Bootjack. Thanks to my dad, who was absolutely right when he said he thought I'd get a kick out of this:

Friday 9 September 2011

Painting with Bug Blood, Week VIII: Self-Portrait

Back in great number
The bugs are back! After a mysterious absence, they suddenly reappeared in great number on my backyard fence. I can only assume they are returning to winter in my office wall, but are catching a little sun beforehand. I scraped a fat cluster into a yogurt container and was back in business.

Some background: it's been awhile since bug shortages imposed a hiatus on the Painting with Bug Blood series, so not all readers may be familiar. Last March, I tried to turn an infestation of box elder bugs, also known as the maple bug, to my advantage. I did so by crushing them up with mortar and pestle and teaching myself to paint with their blood. I stormed through Chinese calligraphy, twee folk art, landscape, still life, abstract art and more, before concluding that my efforts had forced the maple bug into extinction.

Handsome weasel hair brushes
I was wrong. But the wait has not been in vain - in the intervening time my Japanese connections furnished me with the finest Kumano weasel hair brushes. So famous are these brushes there is a brush festival in Kumano every year, where painters thank their brushes for a lifetime of service before burning them and releasing their spirits into the sky. I can barely wait to do that, but I'm going to have to paint a hell of a lot of bug blood before that time comes.

A few famous self portraits
Good thing I could paint with bug blood and the hair of Japanese weasels all day. One subject all serious artists need to touch on at some point is the self-portrait. Heck, you can see a bunch of famous examples at right at right. I had this feeling that mine would turn out as good or better. With the materials in hand, all I needed was the right reference photo.

I tried taking a casual candid shot, but it lacked a strong thematic element and emotional centre. I played dress up all morning, but the results never seemed to come out as I'd imagined them. You can see a few of my attempts below:

All by myself and without a tripod, I was unable to strike the right note. I turned to my archives to see if I could find anything I liked. I landed on one from a trip to Chiapas that captured the depths of soul I needed. Night has fallen; I'm sitting under an umbrella with my arms crossed. My expression is reflective - pensive? I have only a few days left in Mexico, where I've been living and working, before I must return to boring old Canada. The conflict is internal - I stare into the darkness and find no answer. You can see it all in the photo:

The model

I knew I'd have trouble capturing the photo's delicate chiaroscuro effect in bug blood, but I hoped to capture something of my essence anyway. I was immediately taken with the results - it's true what they say about choosing a subject you're passionate about. And no joke, the Kumano brushes gave me an unprecedented level of control over the notoriously runny bug blood. I'm less impressed with my attempt to capture the dark jungle around me, but I got the important parts right. I'll be back with more bug blood images as long as the supply lasts, but here's the latest: