Between the Augusts of 1997 and 2006, the main thing I did was write record reviews. I wrote 'em for free and I wrote 'em for pay, and I wrote 'em still when I had nothing to say*. It was, at first, good training for writing. I mean, it was writing, but it was also a bunch of other things. Mainly, it was me teaching myself to write. I've had no instruction in composition since high school, and what mentorship I've had has been indirect. For a long time it felt like I had to rediscover fire with each piece I did, and I wasted a lot time at the top of a hill with twigs in my hands, screaming for the lightning to come.
Eventually, I got pretty good. As a writer. I'm not so foolish that I don't recognize the progress I've made, and I'm not so smug and condescending that I'll pretend otherwise. But I don't think I was ever that good as a reviewer. I don't know that a reviewer who glommed on to Richard Meltzer so early in their career ever really had a chance. I was only just starting to make a little coin from the hustle when Meltzer told me, "I think a lot of work has to be done in ignoring the immensity of it and writing about any little particle of it. It's a big monster, rock. And it exists for certain pre-ordained reasons that were not part of the package once. Part of what it's there for is to make people stupid. To make people cease to resist. It's crowd control."
mp3: "Goodbye Pork Pie Cravat" by Richard Meltzer (last known sighting)
So I pretty much started off wrong. I mean, aside from Meltzer, I barely read any music writing before I started doing it. I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn't really care, just as long as I was doing. Along the way, though, I did start reading other rock-write, and along with the Hemingway, Brautigan, Kerouac, Thompson (both Jim and Hunter S.), Richler, Tosches, and Doestoevsky I was reading back when I was still soft and malleable, it creeped into my own writing and I eventually started to recognize my stuff as actual rock-write, or at least wrock-rite. And then I started doing interviews and profiles and the odd feature (like when I was Santa!), but record reviews were always my bread and free CDs were my butter.
I pretty quickly got to the point where I was getting about 10x more CDs every week than I could ever hope to review, never mind listen to. Most of the time I selected which CD would get the honour of 150 of my words by no less arbitrary means than do I have a good joke I could hang around the album?
I had a lot of good jokes, and probably would've been better off writing record reviews disguised as comedy routines than vice versa, but no one was offering me 10-to-25 cents/word for comedy routines four-to-eight times a month. Do the math, in Regina, in the early 2000s, you could almost pay your rent on that. You couldn't eat or turn on the lights, but you could pay your rent. Wait a minute, I just did the math, you couldn't pay your rent on record reviews, but you could probably pay one bill. Like maybe your phone bill, if you didn't have any friends.
Anyway, good times. I wrote for dailies, weeklies, bi-weeklies, monthlies, bi-monthlies, and I even did one assignment for a quarterly, though I never got paid for it, even though the peice ran (minus my byline, which is why I missed it for over a year, which kinda makes it my fault for not getting paid--well no, it's still Mr. Campbell's fault, and I'd still like the money). And for all the money I wasn't making from my writing (or a variety of dayjobs), I always had a giant box of CDs to sell at the end of the month.
But I also had an ever-growing number of boxes full of CDs that I hadn't yet reviewed for whatever reason, but still loved and intended to review someday.
SOMEDAY = TODAY!
Joel RL Phelps The Downer Trio
Phelps used to be in Silkworm, who may have opened for Shellac in Regina in 1999. But at the time Customs came out, I kept getting Silkworm and Spoon mixed up, so don't count on it. Phelps left the band, moved to the Kootenays or somewhere, and started the Downer Trio. Which is exactly what it sounds like, ie, not a band for your wedding. I mentioned Shellac earlier and now I'm gonna call back to that, because they are/were(?) also a trio that specialized in downers with monstrous percussion. So if you like that, you'll like this. But if you prefer the brutally exposed emotional honesty of the Mountain Goats, you will also like Customs. Phelps treads both the power-rocker and the troubadour (seriously, there's some non-hyphenated folk troubadour stuff on this alb) paths, usually at the same time, and usually with a sense of macho grace that thoroughly distinguishes him from either of the bands I just compared him to.
Customs, like the rest of Phelps's Downer Trio stuff, is currently out of print, which is a fucking shame. Phelps seems to have disappeared from the music bizz altogether in the last four years, which, y'know, good for him/bad for us.
mp3: "From Up Here" by Joel RL Phelps Downer Trio - This is the first cut, and it starts off so tough and crunchy, but then a steel drum comes in doesn't change the tone or tenor, but gives it something unexpected, something perfect.
mp3: "Kelly Grand Forks" by Joel RL Phelps Downer Trio - My parents lived in Grand Forks, BC before I was born. Then, after I was born, I lived not all that far from Grand Forks, ND, though I never went there. This song also features amazing percussion, but I like it even more for the cutting lyrics like "you can freeze your faith and loyalty because that's what winter's for".
*You too can write a country & western hit!