Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Thursday 28 February 2013

New Moondog Album Released!

Actually it came out in 1994, but it's new to me so I stand by the headline. I just got a copy of Sax Pax for a Sax and I have already contacted the federal government to see about making it mandatory listening for every citizen. That goal is achieved, we will use diplomacy or military might  to enforce similar standards globally.

There are some artists who bind themselves strongly to a time and place. An album might remind me of rainy days in Halifax, or the people I listened to it with. When that time is past, I may listen to once every few years for nostalgia's sake. Moondog I expect to enjoy as long as I have partial hearing in at least one ear.

There are two Moondog albums I view as peak musical experiences - Moondog (1956) and Moondog (1969). None of the other albums will do you any harm either, but these two are perfect. I reach for them whenever I feel grumpy I can't find any new music I like. The best I can say about Sax Pax for a Sax is it sounds like the 1969 album. There's even a retake of the "Bird's Lament" composition on Sax Pax, but more of that sound is very welcome. The idea of nine saxophones playing at once doesn't appeal to me intuitively, but the arrangements are incredibly warm, and enriched by percussion, piano, vocals, even the 'Dog himself on bongos.

If you like Moondog's music, you'll like his story too. A blind inventor who lived for decades on the streets of New York City, dressed as a viking? Sign me UP! I better stop before I start repeating myself - you have to understand I'm listening to the album as I write and getting pretty worked up. I'll leave you with the track I've been whistling for days, "Paris." Yes, it's a little bit cheesy, but it's also so heartwarming that if you don't like it, I can say without ever having met you that you are dead inside. Enjoy:

Thursday 7 February 2013

Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

I came late to the George Saunder party, but it turns out he's kind of a big deal. Terms like "blazingly original" and "masterful" regularly get applied to his work, and not just in the back cover hyperbole - he's been blurbed by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Thomas Pynchon. If their word isn't quite convincing, well, I'm here to clinch it. His latest collection of short stories Tenth of December came out in January, and it's great.

I'd read a couple of Saunders' stories in anthologies, and thought they were very funny. Coming to Tenth of December I was more aware of his reputation, a knowledge that tainted my first impression: it didn't sound the way great writing was supposed to. I expect "great" writers to sound quasi-Biblical, or at least pistol-whip me with their erudition. Saunders uses words like "uh," "dude," and "holy crap." I don't know why I expect writers to be stuck in the mid-20th century or earlier, but I do. I'm getting better with Saunders' help.

The readability of his work disguises its more challenging elements. Stories flip in and out of rambling interior monologues without warning, and still manage to seem smooth and streamlined. It makes them go down easier than they should, because each one has moral heft. They tend to begin with a protagonist who seems ripe for ridicule - because they're airheaded, inarticulate, or obviously deluded - and over the course of the story transmute that feeling into one of compassion and understanding.

Nearly all the stories use that same arc, but it's a good one. Thinking about it, I was struck by how much of the art I like is dark and unredemptive. There's plenty of darkness in Tenth of December, but the final impression is of optimism and inherent goodness. Even better, it feels earned. That's not an easy act to pull off without sinking into cheese.

Besides deceptively clean prose and subtle morality, the stories also have plots. In "Victory Lap," a boy witnessing a crime out the window must rise above his sheltered upbringing. In "Escape from the Spiderhead," a convict volunteers to be a pharmaceutical guinea pig in exchange for a reduced sentence. "Home" follows a war vet returning to his deadbeat family. "The Semplica Girl Diaries" is so weird I won't spoil it.

I finished Tenth of December quickly, and I was sad when it was over. Reputations and preconceptions aside, that's the highest compliment you can pay a book.

Friday 1 February 2013

Free at Last... and a Photo Essay

Last night I escaped from the basement where I have been imprisoned, without Internet access, for the past three months. I am not the man I used to be, but I remain confident solid food and sunlight will do me a world of good.

Every night, when heavy footfalls on the staircase would signal a fresh round of terror, my thoughts would flash briefly to the poor, faithful readers who were checking nightly in vain. To them I have no defense but to say that I too know what it is like to pass three months without hope, dignity, or human company. Every time I licked the damp bricks of the cellar wall, or dug for grubs with the shinbone of a deceased cellmate, I thought of you.

Really what happened is I took a couple months off, then went to Japan and Thailand. It was fun, and I took lots of pictures. Here's a few you might enjoy, though anyone who's perused the photos from my last expedition will remember that I am fond of sticking my camera down strange cracks and crevasses, and seldom photograph anything so interesting as a human being or an identifiable landmark. I'll try and provide helpful commentary to make up for that lack:

Funny story - this is the first person we met when we got off the plane, so I mistakenly assumed all people in Japan had rabbit heads. Not the case, but this lady was a terrific ambassador nonetheless. She spoke good English, welcomed us to her country, and offered me a foot massage.

Japan is a fascinating mix of the modern and traditional. At this establishment, a live bobcat acts as a theft deterrent system.

This photo appears unremarkable until you notice the squid man lurking in the background, selecting his next victim.

Our friend Yuko Tanaka poses with a Kappa, a Japanese fairy. These creatures cycle up and down the streets of Tokyo every day at twilight.

Notice the metal cylinder full of magical chopsticks in front of me, and the millions of tiny drawers. You shake the cylinder, a stick falls out, and you take your fortune from a drawer based on the sigil on the stick. Here I am moments from receiving the most horrific fortune I ever got in my life. It insinuated my house was going to burn down and I had a year left to live, among other calamities. I paid good money for it, too. Yuko promptly rushed over to the booth on the other side of the square and bought me a good luck charm to compensate. I think that's how they getcha.

Yuko taught us to play Monopoly - Tokyo Edition. It is much harder than our version.

Goddamn, these people love fish.

Speaking of fish, get a load of the eye on this one. This photo was taken at the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest in the world. Nothing beats it for sheer volume of aquatic monstrosities. Squid floating in buckets of their own ink, sea snails, mermaids, and row upon endless row of unnameables. You can even buy bags of fish sperm, which I can only describe as looking like ghost brains.

Late one night we checked out the ramen museum in Shin-Yokohama. The museum recreates a dozen famous noodle shops from around the country, so you can try many regional styles in one place. It has the kind of rundown, roadside attraction feel that gets me every time.

Kyoto. I am most willing to take photos of people when their back is to the camera.

This photo was taken along the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto. Turns out the Path of Philosophy is lined with a lot of stray cats.

This colour is called vermillion. I knew vermillion was supposed to be a colour but I never knew what it looked like.

Love to meet the hermit who lives in this rainbow hut high in the mountains.

The floating torii (temple gate) in Miyajima. Touted as one of the most-photographed landmarks in the country, experts have called my snapshot the best yet.

 Kyoto is crammed with gorgeous, dark temples, but strangely enough my favourite was Daisho-in temple in Miyajima. These stone guys in toques had a lot to do with it. I also loved the tunnel that passes beneath the temple. You feel your way along a long lightless corridor, occasionally encountering a softly-glowing picture of the Buddha. Stumbling in complete darkness puts you in the moment.


The lighter side of Daisho-in.

I am willing to bend my no-people rule if the picture is humiliating enough. Seen here are my wife Rebecca and my sister-in-law Emmie Tsumura. I'm not going to tell you what they were doing.

My brother and sister in-law refer to the spider's nest that is Hiroshima's drinking quarters as The Deep. I made it out alive and brought you this.

On a stopover in Shanghai, My four traveling companions and I came upon a seemingly-abandoned amusement park. There was one old lady at the wicket, so we paid for a ride on the swings. Our shouts of joy brought at least dozen people out of the bushes, who watched us with zombielike, unsmiling intensity. We stopped laughing and finished the ride in silence. I'm prone to exaggeration but I'm not making that up.

In Shanghai, we happened upon the musical instrument district. Emmie and I scooped a couple of these things and had us a jam.

Ko Chang, Thailand. I swear I didn't steal this from the Board of Tourism.

Ko Chang is a beautiful island, but there's an unfortunately high quotient of stumblin' drunk tourists on the west side. We escaped to the quieter east side and had our little Heart of Darkness moment in the mangroves.

My favourite photo of the journey. If you can't tell, the middle of the road is completely gone, crapped out, washed away. We heroically rode across the rickety planks on the lefthand side and gained the lookout on the other side. That was when a mysterious Dutchman emerged from nowhere, his motorcycle injuries bound in dirty grey camouflage handkerchiefs. "What a ride!" we said. "Zot vas ze easy part," he said. "From here it gets difficult. But ze rewards are many. In three kilometers, you will find a beach like durum semolina." Then he jumped on his hog and squealed off. He was right, but I was too busy concentrating on the treacherous roads, and luxuriating on the pasta-esque beach, to snap any photos.