Nina Nastasia + Joel Phelps

David Antrobus
Nina Nastasia + Joel Phelps

Nina Nastasia + Joel Phelps

City: Vancouver, British Columbia
Venue: The Royal
Date: 2003-07-21

Nina Nastasia
Joel Phelps
Photo credit: Gerard Cosloy
The first truly sweltering hot summer night in Vancouver. Granville Street. Crowds milling under gaudy lights, cop cars crawling, johns cruising the high track hookers a block away. Pawn shops, one-slice pizza joints, all the wannabe lurid yet oddly sedate sexuality so peculiar to this Pacific coastal city. The Royal is an oasis, a dark safe womb draped in Union Jacks, band posters and beer towels, and featuring pink felt pool tables and an impressively long hardwood bar. From numerous discretely placed speakers, Jay Farrar emotes wearily. Tall tables and high-backed stools. Half lit faces, each with a sheen of sweat. Even the odd trucker hat. When Joel Phelps walks onto the tiny stage almost apologetically, along with drummer William Herzog, looking like graduate students from UBC's physics department, polite applause from approximately fifty people drifts around the shadowy places, shying from the few spotlights. When there are only fifty people, each handclap suddenly matters (even if only to stir the air). Phelps plays a short, intense set of nine plaintive songs, the only real variation being the swapping of acoustic for electric guitar throughout (and, for Herzog, the equivalent trading of brushes for sticks). Once his voice has settled, and everyone's finally (reluctantly) accepted that the buzzing amp isn't going away, the sultry heat in the air makes the lack of overt swing a blessing tonight, and the small crowd sits rapt, if not worshipful, as gentle, melancholy, alt-country-folk songs parade by with little obvious differentiation. There are highlights, nonetheless: opener "One Got Caught" is heartfelt and electric with subtle brushed drums; "From Up Here" is stirring, now that Phelps has landed those upper register plaints; and the penultimate "Mother I'm Missing" is beseechingly gorgeous. This is really the perfect opening act for Nina Nastasia's oddball troupe of acoustic discrepancies. By the time they take the stage, the crowd must have doubled, an occurrence spooky in and of itself, for its stealth. Nastasia's brand of mutant folk attempts to replace the solid air, just as encompassing and strangely humid, the poised Americana of slightly toxic swamplands. A voice simultaneously strong and fragile as spider silk weaves within and behind and above and beyond an ensemble featuring acoustic guitar (Nina's), cello (Stephen Day), upright (and occasionally electric) bass (Dave Richards), violin/viola (Dylan Willemsa), accordion, and drums (Jim White of Dirty Three). In songs plucked equitably from all three of her albums (I'm assuming the selections I didn't recognize were either covers or were from her currently unavailable acclaimed 1999 debut Dogs, of which -- fans, take heart -- a late fall reissue date is planned), Nastasia covers a fair amount of ground within her skewed parameters. Playing with the tension between intimacy and distance, she alternates between chilly banter (N.N: "Did somebody say something?" Audience member: "How're ya doing?" N.N: [with exquisitely reserved politeness] "I'm OK, how are you?") and self-contained courtesy (to one request for a song, a simple "No, I'm sorry"). But everything melts in heat like that, and even shyness will bat its eyes; after complaining that they'd just made the trip from Minneapolis in two days, she adds: "thankfully, we have an X-Box and lots of pot." A more incongruous game console reference, even, than Liz Phair's recent effort, perhaps? More endearing, anyway. Nastasia stands front and centre throughout, with a powder blue shirt and pleated skirt willfully removed from the now. She is right there but perhaps not entirely there. Here but not now. A phantom, reaching Minnesota earlier via a raft along the Mississippi/Missouri. The music stalks quietly between the sweltering silences, occasionally swelling in orchestral dissonance, bowed violas, cellos and upright bass surging like clouds of killer bees on impossibly steaming southern evenings. Nastasia's voice is, if anything, even stronger live than it is on disc; Run to Ruin's "Superstar" has a reedier Suzanne Vega feel on the record, yet here it is stunning, heartbreaking, each instrument awaiting its precise moment to join the desperate slow march toward a shaky, unconvincing self-acceptance ("Look at me. I am a superstar"), creating a reluctant, mesmerizing dread. As the fiddle is last to break in, Dylan Willemsa awaits that moment with eyes closed, body still as the oppressive air. Quiet dramas, not least in Jim White's deft genre-straddling stick work, are enacted everywhere. That spacious creepiness which haunts The Blackened Air in particular, finds a welcome temporary habitat here in this dim hothouse. The more gothic (and I mean southern gothic, not "goth") elements of such songs as "In the Graveyard" thrive and grow, the violin at the end meandering like kudzu vines, gorgeously, oppressively. There may be spaces, but they will be filled. But in this context, pretty much all of the offerings from this year's Run to Ruin are strong. "You Her and Me" is stunning, a disturbed ménage à trois narrative that features Nastasia's full throated wail of frustrated meanness, before collapsing back into its exhausted mule lurch. All this, plus Dave Richards playing slide on his electric bass. In an alt-universe, "I Say That I Will Go" is the anti-"Kashmir", its Middle Eastern tones a lulling narcotic, its opiate words as close to poetry popular music can get without slipping over into pretension, and always the shards of a shattered (shattering?) story glint behind them. Whether backed by her freakish troubadours, or solo-with-guitar as on the fairly straight-arrow pretty "You Might...", she has the audience entranced -- all except that standard gaggle of bar-hugging scenesters who persist in chatting obliviously through even these sparest of pin-drop numbers (partway through, boyfriend/manager/Great Protector Kennan Gudjonsson actually crosses the room to ask them to be quiet, which is both funny and sweet). Another song from Dogs, "All Your Life", is the twelfth and final shimmering mirage, a picked acoustic heat haze up until the chorus, when a pastoral, near-orchestral swell blooms to fill the room. Seemingly as far from dance music as you can get, the rhythmic elements are more subtle but no less intricate. Not that anyone wants to dance tonight. And of course, it's not the end. The band goes through the merest of motions leaving the stage and quickly returns. It's clear they relish playing this twisted stillborn country music. And she's even taking requests now. Including a single song second encore, they unspool (the word "unleash" is somehow too aggressive, even though implied violence is a feature of this music) five more tracks, two of them audience requests (so much for that earlier coyness) -- "Oh My Stars" and "Ugly Face" from The Blackened Air (my own blurted requests, so much for journalistic objectivity). The latter in particular is a highlight among seventeen highlights; plucked violin mimicking a lonely banjo, a harrowing waltz ("Ugly face / Don't even make it again / . . . I want to strike you"), a puzzled threat. So, seventeen hints; ways to prickle the nape of your neck, to make the sweat trickle faster -- elemental, creepy and freakish, and kind of perfect on this night so moist that the very posters on the wall, flags on the poles, will need to be wrung out. Just as the sound rang out, long after.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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