This is my second autumn in New York and therefore my third one living in the Northeast. Sure, some would consider Toronto the Northeast, but by American standards, it might be more Midwest, considering how close it is to Detroit and Chicago. In any case, there’s definitely a beautiful, Northeast autumn vibe that some bands and artists capture really well. Here’s a little regional, seasonal playlist.
Directed by Chad Garcia, The Russian Woodpecker is a documentary following Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich as he investigates a possible conspiracy involving the Soviet Duga radar system and the Chernobyl disaster. As Alexandrovich’s investigation continues, Russian authorities apparently get wind of the project and pressure the film crew to back off the subject. All this takes place during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
Alexandrovich was four years old when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. Along with other children in Kiev at the time, he was evacuated from the city and sent to live in an orphanage in another city. Even though the relocation was temporary, it had a strong, traumatic impact on the young artist. From then on, he developed a strange fascination with the Chernobyl disaster.
When his friend’s father, a former Soviet air force pilot, told Alexandrovich about a luminous pyramid he saw while flying over Chernobyl, Alexandrovich decided to look into the matter. He discovered this was the Duga radar system.
Could it be that the Duga – a grand, 7 billion rubble failure of a radar system that for years emitted a low-frequency, woodpecker-like sound across the arctic circle – was located right on the Chernobyl site by coincidence? Alexandrovich doesn’t think so. Tracking down and interviewing those who worked on the Duga and at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Alexandrovich uncovers a possible (but convincing) conspiracy of a Soviet bureaucrat who covered his ass at the cost of the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Whether the conspiracy is true or not, The Russian Woodpecker is a stirring, beautifully-crafted work with an engrossing personal subject. As entertaining as the best cold war thrillers, the film also sheds light on the intricate relationship between Ukraine and Russia. It further confirms that we should sleep a little less soundly, as Putin brashly pushes Russia beyond its borders in what many, including Alexandrovich, liken to a return from the dead of the Soviet Union.
Steven Lambke is best known as a member of the Constantines, but he’s been releasing quiet, folksy solo music for years under the pseudonym Baby Eagle. On October 30th, he’ll release Days of Heaven, his first album under his own name, via his own excellent You’ve Changed Records (which Lambke runs with Attack in Black‘s Daniel Romano).
Appropriate for an album with such an epic name (seemingly inspired by Terrence Malick‘s much lauded film of the same name), Days of Heaven is an intimate but weighty affair. Like Lambke’s adopted home of Sackville, it seems destined to be a hidden treasure, never encountered by most of the world, but cherished immensely by a chosen few for its understated beauty.
Collapsing Opposites is the idiosyncratic pop project of Vancouver’s Ryan McCormick. Recently, he released a new album called Dreamland on my friend Soren little Brothers‘ label Ur Audiovisual. It’s apparently inspired by some heavy life events he went through last year, including the birth of his first child and the death of his brother. I haven’t heard the whole thing, but I liked the song below, “cops get local music 2097″. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get to hear the whole album…
In the early aughts, Montreal was all about the apocalypse sound.
Between 2001-2006, the albums best embodying the fear, angst, anger and societal disconnect sweeping North America following 9/11 came from French Canada’s largest city: Montreal, Quebec. Even New York’s own revived music scene found itself bested by the likes of Montreal bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, The Dears and The Stills – all of whom released stark, beautiful, despairing albums reflecting the fever of the times. But the album that best captured the era’s feeling of subdued hysteria was Wolf Parade’s 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary.
Although based in Montreal, all Wolf Parade’s members were originally from British Columbia, and their scruffy looks and raucous energy had more in common with BC bands like Ladyhawk and Japandroids than anything from la belle province. Also unlike their popular peers in Arcade Fire or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade were not a collective, nor did their music feature the kind of orchestral sounds then in vogue. Dan Boeckner’s dirty guitars and Spencer Krug’s spacey analog synths defined their aesthetic. Combined with Arlen Thompson’s mammoth drums and Hadji Bakara’s anxious electronics, Wolf Parade’s sound on Apologies conjured up sonic images of a ‘used future’ resembling the one in Terminator movies: desolate, dystopian, and technologically terrifying.
“I’m not in love with the modern world.”
The album’s second track, “Modern World”, is Boeckner’s ironic reply to the Modern Lovers’ song “Modern World”. It is also serves as the album’s mission statement. Far from being in love with the modern world and the USA and driving with the radio on, Wolf Parade’s members were not impressed. On the contrary, Apologies is a litany of Wolf Parade’s issues with the times. In “Shine A Light”, Boeckner bewails the constant treadmill of low-level employment, with its “endless hours in the office tour/on a bus on a bus back home to you/that’s fine I’m barely alive.” In “We Built Another World”, he voices his disgust with the superficiality of youth culture where “everyone’s disguised just a little bit.” Krug, in “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”, borrows an image from Hindu mythology to lament Western affluenza. In “Dinner Bells”, he imagines an impending environmental apocalypse where “there’ll be no more winter/And there’ll be no more spring.” In “I’ll Believe In Anything”, he voices a generation’s desperation for existential meaning.
Anxiety about the end of nature in an increasingly technology-dominated world is another one of the album’s consistent complaints. In a Pitchfork interview from 2005, Boeckner acknowledged the theme, saying,
“There’s this sort of alienating feeling, for me sometimes at least, where I feel like there’s all this technology that is now completely embedded in the environment that we live in– I don’t understand it or I’ve just got to the point that I completely ignore it and that kinda freaks me out. And also, I get this feeling of decay from growing up in a small town and moving to successively larger cities. Sometimes I feel like these cities are built on snarled machines that seem tenuous and not as solid as a huge den of trees outside your house.”
Although it is never addressed explicitly, Boeckner and Krug make subtle references to it in lyrics like “It’s gotta last to build up your eyes/And a lifetime of red skies,” (“Modern World”) and “Said you hate the sound/Of the buses on the ground/Said you hate the way they scrape their breaks all over town/Said pretend it’s whales keeping their voices down/These were the grounds for divorce I know” (“Grounds For Divorce”). Adam Bizanski’s haunting stop-motion music video for “Modern World” also references it, depicting the band being replaced by spindly, efficient machines.
Although Boeckner and Krug’s writing styles have always been distinguishable, their shared sense of crushing despair on Apologies – “Fancy Claps” is basically the musical equivalent of sitting in a dark corner in the fetal position – provided the album with thematic consistency. In subsequent work, however, Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting paths diverged enormously.
With Krug’s Sunset Rubdown and Moonface projects, as well as Swan Lake – his indie supergroup with Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) – Krug would dive headfirst into the fantastical elements of his work hinted at on Apologies. Starting with Sunset Rubdown’s 2006 album Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Krug as the dreamer with fantastical visions of sacred animals, mythical beasts and places where lovers have wings, would henceforth be the definitive one. The political Krug, who so poignantly depicted the neo-conservative, religion-tinged insanity of the Bush era in “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe In Anything”, would for the most part disappear.
Boeckner, on the other hand, became perhaps the closest thing to a protest singer in aughts indie-rock (after Efrim Menuck). Starting in 2007, Boeckner’s band Handsome Furs (with then-wife Alexei Perry) toured many of the places most bands avoid in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The duo’s time in the former USSR inspired the soviet vibe of 2009’s Face Control, the back cover of which features a picture of Putin. Their song “Serve the People” was inspired by the Burmese government’s efforts to block rock bands from playing for the general public. The duo also starred in their own CNN.com vlog series called Indie Asia and blogged about their travels on their website.
Boeckner and Handsome Furs became increasingly political until their breakup in 2012, but the end of the Bush era and the beginning of Obama’s “hope and change” administration saw North American indie rock generally lose interest in writing about political issues. Gone were the days of Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio releasing free anti-Bush digital downloads. Even in Canada, where the current right-wing, Bush-wannabe Prime Minister Stephen Harper ascended to power in 2006, indie rock – at least outside of Quebec – became just as apolitical. Musicians in the United States and Canada voiced support for the Occupy movement, Pussy Riot, and other progressive matters, but few prominent North American indie rock bands and artists explicitly dealt with contemporary issues in their musical work.
Post-ApologiesWolf Parade were, for the most part, no exception to this trend. The songwriting of 2008’s At Mount Zoomer and 2010’s Expo 86 gave the impression that whereas Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs were once considered Wolf Parade side projects, Wolf Parade had become the supergroup side-project of Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs members. Both were still great albums, but the thematic unity of Apologies’ politics was nearly gone, with songs like “Call It A Ritual” (about wars in the Middle East) and “Yulia” (Boeckner returning to his soviet fascination) providing the rare exceptions.
In 2011, Wolf Parade announced it was going on indefinite hiatus.
Listening to Apologies in September 2015 is a strange experience, like opening a time capsule from the first couple years of the Bush administration and post-9/11 world. All the worst memories from the period come rushing back. The World Trade Center attacks. Anthrax in the mail. The Patriot Act. The declaration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the problems of 2015, North America is in many ways a more hopeful place (at least for progressive and liberal types) than it was during the Bush years. Americans elected the first African-American president. Gay marriage is legal in the United States and Canada. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be winding down. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan indicates that at least one political party in the US is finally getting serious about confronting climate change. And although Canadian Prime Minister Harper has tarnished Canada’s environmental reputation and passed his own Patriot Act in the form of Bill C-51, at the time of writing, Canada’s progressive New Democratic Party are leading the federal election polls [update: a recent Star poll found the Conservatives to be in the lead – let’s all hope it’s wrong and if you’re a Canadian reading this, please go out and vote if you haven’t already.]
So could an album as crushing and apocalyptic as Apologies be made in 2015? Maybe not. There’s a wounded passivity to Apologies; a feeling of being beaten down too many times. The album is peppered with lyrics about laying in bed, sleeping and wanting to run away. One can find similar sentiments on other albums from the period, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral (see: “In The Backseat”) and Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief (see: “Sit Down Stand Up”). But there’s a feeling of active hope or at least resilient anger in more recent political music. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band’s most recent album is called Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything. When Arcade Fire sing “Can we just work it out?” on Reflektor’s “Afterlife”, they sound like they believe we actually can work it out. Is the apocalypse sound dead? Or is it just waiting until after election season to make a return?