Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

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:


Friday 2 September 2011

New Tom Album Coming!

I probably wouldn't be interested in making music if it weren't for Tom Waits. I got a copy of Bone Machine when I was a teenager, but I was too young and tender to get past an opening track like "Earth Died Screaming." I dug it out again when my tastes had matured into something weirder and darker, and I spent that summer studying his entire oeuvre, a time I still remember as a high water mark for focused listening. It seemed to me he had amalgamated all the things I liked - music, theatre, literature - into one convenient package.

It's been awhile since I listened to Tom Waits that intently, but it's been awhile since his last proper album. His latest, Bad as Me, is set to be released on October 25th. When that day comes, I will be ensconced in my armchair, the room hazy with too many candles, a snifter of something fine in my hand while I bliss out to the sound of my hero's return.

That's the plan, anyway. My expectations are high since the last album of new material, Real Gone, came out seven years ago and was as brilliant or better than anything else in his work. Apart from the amazing songs, I love the whole atmosphere of the album. The production sounds simultaneously trashy, rich, and deep, a feat that strikes me each time I hear it. Since then there's been a triple album of B-sides, Orphans, and a live album, Glitter and Doom.

Even though Glitter and Doom made me vow to see Waits live by hook or by crook next time he tours, it was the first album of his since Swordfishtrombones that didn't leave me stunned. To add to the suspense, the single track that has been released from the new album was a fairly generic sample of the Waits sound. Let us pray that we can blame digital audio for the failing, or that it makes sense in context or with repeated listens.

I'm hopeful for Bad as Me because Waits is the only one amongst his peers (he's been around since the seventies, and a genius since the eighties), whose music hasn't become sterile and irrelevant as he ages. I chalk that up to the diversity of his influences, since burning out or fading away is more of a rock and roll phenomenon. Attempting to imitate Waits can be extremely poisonous, so I push my music in its own direction. Still, Tom Waits is the cornerstone in my musical development, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with in October...