Said the Guests: Carl Wilson
by Mark Streeter
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


The Web has blessed and cursed us with critics. Any kid with a keyboard can go online, start a website with some dumb phonograph-related name, and then squawk about music, literature or their double-crossing best friends. Consequently, there's a whole lot of squawking going on. But something the Net has also done is to bring the world's best professional critics, the ones you used to nod in agreement with as you read the Sunday Style section, and made them close enough to touch.

Foremost among these, for me, is Mr Carl Wilson. When I lived in Canada, Carl's work as a critic at the Globe & Mail was some of the most resonant writing I could find in the major press. (It probably still is: I just can't pick up the paper!) He wrote (and writes) about the sorts of sounds I care about, and with a passion that feels familiar. Free jazz and Canadian indie; "lit rock" and Jandek. Yes, Carl taught my parents (both literally and literarily) about the New Pornographers.

And more marvellous still is Zoilus, Carl's online home, where he gives his insights away for free. He blogs about live gigs and new records; conferences and scene crises; Ornette Coleman, Final Fantasy and grime. There's so much wit in his writing, such friendliness, that you forget his arguments' precision and their elegance. Carl Wilson's writing reminds me of a corn-field, of a tall ship. (There are crates of vinyl in the hold.)

All this to say that I was tremendously flattered when Carl agreed to join us today and post some music that he loves. I was more flattered still when I saw the quality of what he had written. These are songs that'll warm your fingers, but they're words that will light your whole way home. It's enough to make me want to live in Toronto.

Please make him welcome. - Sean


The elders gathered us around the hearth last night. The patriarchs were combing their beards with scalloped seashells, the matriarchs programming dusty dot-matrix printers to sing reveilles to the sun. They praised our metric system, our swift response when the fire struck the arcade (with unicorns coming to rescue victims from as far away as Tangiers), and the expertise with which our new pornographers have wielded their hidden cameras. But then they had to heave a sigh: "For all that you have achieved, still we are disappointed: Why is it," they asked, "that when the men with headphone eyes and camera ears gossip about you, they do not hail the name of Eric Chenaux, surely one of the most fandangolous spelunkers ever to hoist our ropes?"

Eric Chenaux plays with guitars. After childhood in Switzerland, the teen began luring awestruck listeners as a member of art-punk band Phleg Camp in the late 1980s, followed by duo Life Like Weeds, and some time in King Cobb Steelie. A growing infatuation with free improvisation (in the Derek Bailey vein) lured him out of the rock and into the woods, and among those vines and mushrooms, he began to build a colony of twigs, edible grasses and decomposing warning signs. Former Crash Vegas vocalist Michelle McAdorey had made the same exodus. And for a while, that was that. There was promise in More Remote than the Puma, his solo guitar disc, but the first landmark is his collaboration on McAdorey's 1999 album Whirl. "Mona" is the opening track and the only Chenaux solo composition. I can't help imagining it an epistle to McAdorey, disguised by being sung by its addressee. And sung extraordinarily. "I'm much too young to be feeling so old ... I want to feel simple" - reminiscent of Dylan's "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," it declares a break with a style of self to pursue a less transparent truth, a more singular climate. The music teems -- with Martin Arnold on melodica, McAdorey on rhythm, Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor on drums and Chenaux's swarming lead ("my friends are such sloppy lovers...") -- but the song lags, cussedly, would lop its own head off before it would surrender to the current. I've been down there before, it says, and it's not the quest I seek. Look back over your shoulder, while I slip into your arms.

Love Don't Change, the follow-up to Whirl, arrived in 2004, a year or two too late and, for me, a little too loose. I had been intoxicated by these songs live many times and hoped an album of concise, distilled versions could introduce new listeners to the duo. And then by the time this disc reached us, that duo was no more, lending a twist of rue to the album title. Another crossover fantasy withered. But no matter, because that yearning we heard in "Mona" for a soft place to fall had in many ways been answered - listen to the langorous authority of this song...

Chenaux had become part of the community of Toronto musicians who would form the Rat-drifting series, and later record label. particularly Chenaux, Martin Arnold, Ryan Driver, and Doug Tielli, who form the core of six or seven ongoing ensembles. There are other, more intermittent participants; intermittency being part of the blueprint. "Rat-drifting" is a term for weaving your way through residential neighbourhoods to avoid the congested main roads, but it's also a modest northerly variation on the flaneur and boulevardier's creative drift. It's the route of the disobedient ones who are not fixing for a fight: "So that way's jammed with cliche and suspect intentions? No bother, we prefer the detour. There's joy in being barred from the temple." The group evolved its own idiom, almost its own subgenre, each player with a characteristic voice but all remarkably in accord. Ornette Coleman might call it harmolodic. Chenaux might call it an amazing background.

His strings chime with all those thoughts at once. I adore the way he teases out a melody, never beginning a phrase so much as joining one already in progress. The sound quivers and multiplies such that I picture his strings fraying and sprouting into more strings, weeds, nests, marshes, frogs' tongues, cancelled coins, nickel pipes, drainage systems, catacombs, coral reefs.... I could pick Chenaux's guitar out of a lineup within a few woozy notes, because it's no longer confined to the orthodox pluck, squawk and scrape of Bailey-influenced guitar improv; instead it has absorbed Bailey's open field of possibility into a love of song. And the songs are strong enough to take it. Consider this one, about how much more beautiful love is for being so easily lost, about how near wonder sits to waste. Doesn't it sound like a song you've always known, an amazing background to your own life? Chenaux's demure vocals (with whispery support from McAdorey), his ever-hypnotic spinning-pendant guitar and the long running time may delay the realization, but like the album's title piece, it has the punch of a classic.

On any given night, Eric Chenaux is likely to be playing somewhere in Toronto - at the Australian folk-club-turned-improv-nexus the Tranzac Club in the Annex (as at this weekend's 416 Improv Festival); in the Arraymusic Space in a Liberty Village loft; or anywhere a musical friend has called for a dose of Doc Guitar's medicine, often administered with a wah-wah pedal or a slide. There are groups such as the Reveries, who play jazz standards (and most recently the songs of Sade!) through cellphone speakers held in their mouths, for a drizzling, drooling, silly-serious effect; there's his guitar-banjo duo with Martin Arnold, using old-time music as a launch pad for serious psychonautic-rock journeys; and the Tristanos, an avant-string consort. The closest thing the Rat-drifting scene has to a "supergroup," however, is Drumheller, with Rob Clutton (bass), Nick Fraser (drums), Doug Tielli (trombone), and Brodie West (alto sax - currently absent in Amsterdam), who apply the waywardness of the aesthetic to the hoary form of the composers-workshop jazz combo. Both elements are evident in this Chenaux-penned piece, which sounds a bit like "Ain't Misbehavin'" except that, as you can hear, it's misbehaving all the way.

I can sometimes be caught carping that unlike the rock kids, the younger experimental musicians in Toronto don't assert their ideas and presence as boldly as they could, both in their public presentation and in their sound. But Chenaux's work, and Drumheller as a group too, pose a potent counterargument: We live in a culture of flash and sass, of stockpiled information-bombs and kamikaze crossfire - if you will, of pop and noise. If the question is what art can do to seduce you out of these habits, to break these stalemates - to help save the village without first destroying it - then what use is more of the same? Drift through the neighbourhood and rattle the mailboxes. Lace up your clown shoes and hydroplane across the puddles. Make the difficult thing easy. Hide the noise under your tongue.

[Do buy Whirl, Love Don't Change, and Drumheller at Scratch Records.]

[Carl Wilson writes at Zoilus and and is an editor & critic for the Globe & Mail newspaper. His writing has appeared in Saturday Night, The Nation, This Magazine and other publications, and has been republished in the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology. He lives in Toronto.]

(Previous artist guest-blogs, in and out of the Said the Guests series: Hello Saferide, Edward Droste (Grizzly Bear), Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Devin Davis, Michael Nau (Page France), artist Tim Moore, Brian Michael Roff, Howard Bilerman (producer: Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, etc.), Damon Krukowski (Damon & Naomi). There are many more to come.)

Posted by Mark Streeter at November 16, 2005 3:05 AM

I really like this said the guests feature, they've been universally excellent so far (this one, and Will Sheff's particularly). So I thought I'd add this to let you know.

As for the music, I liked Mona's soft undulating a great deal. But the stand out, for me, was Amazing Backgrounds with it's pleasantly lopsided hello and lingering goodbye.

Posted by kieran at November 16, 2005 8:29 AM

Oh, but he's good.

Posted by tuwa at November 16, 2005 11:55 AM

all new to me - good.

Posted by zebra colored rainbows at November 16, 2005 3:13 PM

Thanks Carl, for this wonderfully poetric offering to a beautiful musician. Toronto readers will be pleased to note that Drumheller is playing this Friday (Nov. 18) and M. Chenaux and Martin Arnold are playing together Saturday, November 26. Both shows at the Tranzac, Brunswick south of Bloor, around 10:00pm.

Posted by adr at November 16, 2005 6:13 PM

Mona sounds a lot like The Concretes, and there are worse things to sound like.

Great post Carl. Thanks very much.

Posted by Michael Williams at November 16, 2005 7:11 PM

Wow, quite a spectacular. I liked "strings, weeds, nests, marshes, frogs' tongues, cancelled coins, nickel pipes, drainage systems, catacombs, coral reefs." Very Duino Elegies.

Not to get off point, but, what is Michelle McAdorey up to now? It's good to hear newish stuff by her, though I was always ambivalent about her in Crash Vegas.

Posted by rodii at November 16, 2005 10:50 PM

"mona" is one of my favourite songs! after following these under-acknowledged musicians for years, it is so so nice to see them finally get some of the attention they deserve. (and very eloquently written, too)

Posted by Anonymous at November 16, 2005 11:25 PM

Ha. I had just walked in from having dinner with Mr. Absent in Amsterdam himself (in Amsterdam)when I read this last night...thanks for the nice guitar stuff.

Posted by MEM at November 17, 2005 12:46 PM

If I was fortunate to have written an intro to a Carl Wilson post, it couldn't have been more topically similar. He is a national treasure. It's unfortunate that Carl's Scene cum Overtones is no longer being published, but Zoilus relieves my normally vacuous reading habits.

On brother Eric a former life I had the pleasure of booking one of Phleg Camp's early gigs. I think they opened for Jesus Lizard, I know they opened for Ann Arbor's Big Chief. B.C. was impressed, so they invited the lads to play with the August rockers at St. Andrews in Detroit a few short weeks later.

It's also worth noting that Phleg Camp bassist Sean Dean is now the man holding the bottom for the Sadies, while prodigious P. Camp drummer Gavin Brown was recently noted for his work with, eeek, Billy Talent and Three Days Grace with a Jack Richardson award (Ggggarth's Dad and one-time producer of Alice Cooper and the Guess Who to name a couple).

I hope some historians will find this in this arcane info on the T.O. scene notable, one that predates Broken Social Scene by at least a decade (props to ma'man Canning).

Sorry it has nothing to do with Ornette Coleman, or speelunking...for that matter. LUV from Victoria, B.C.

Posted by Phil at November 17, 2005 1:27 PM

helo my name is ibrahim and i am one of your biggest fans
i read almost all of your books
you came to my school ones almadina charter school and made a speach it was great
i want your email addres so i can email u some thiings okay

peace out

Posted by ibrahim at December 12, 2005 7:26 PM


Posted by be at December 12, 2005 7:28 PM

wow, as someone who has been a phelg camp fan for so long, (Eric you wouldn't know it but you taught me how to play guitar!), it was really great to see this. More often than not I get blank looks when I mention Eric or phleg camp's name so reading this definately made me smile.
kind regards

Posted by painty kan at February 19, 2006 12:41 AM

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