Saturday, July 30, 2011

Slurpees and Murder Record Club: Just Go to a Pavilion for a Dream That You Can Share

I wrote this Uptown column, about how awesome hidden talents are (spoiler alert: they're pretty awesome), and I mention it to start this post because I'm dedicated to shameless plugs but also because this is the time of year when you are most likely to find out that people you know around town are secretly really good at things.

That's right: it's Folklorama time! Kicking off with a free Saturday show and then running until the middle of the month, Winnipeg's annual multiculturalism festival -- or, as one of my former professors proclaimed it (and indelibly branded it in my mind), "ethnic zoo" -- will be filling community clubs, curling rinks and high school gymnasiums all across town.

Two weeks of good times! Squabbling amongst your travel group over which pavilion to drive to, buying a wacky imported soda pop because the MLCC never allows any beer more exotic than Corona into the festival, eating whatever the spiciest and/or scariest food is on the menu, and clapping along as strangers do exotic and potentially injurious dances for your entertainment. That, my friends, is an evening well spent, and I look forward to this year's extravaganzas (now with less E. Coli!) with glee.

Are you all ready to get into the Folklorama spirit? You'd better be! Because tonight's installment of the Slurpees and Murder Record Club is a sampling of years past -- way, way past -- with something for everyone and a finale that you won't want to listen to. Er--did I say "listen to"? I meant "miss". A finale you won't want to miss.

I bring you:

Llama Records - Celebration! (1988)
[behold its television commercial | the official Folklorama website does not actually acknowledge the existence of this item | it ain't on eBay or Amazon, and it certainly isn't on iTunes, but it is possible to track down a copy on cassette or on vinyl ]

Released on the one-shot Llama Records imprint (the "Folklorama Llama" being the festival's mascot) to commemorate the festival's 1988 season, "Celebrate!" is a compilation album of performers assumedly featured at the pavilions of that year.

Pretty swank packaging job for this album, right? It's a neat design concept, with equally attractive execution; the only real flaw is the imbalanced printing on the admittedly drab label of the physical record, but otherwise it's a finely crafted package inside and out.

I had a heck of a time getting the track times right when I was digitizing the album, though; eventually I figured out that the listed track times themselves were inaccurate, a conclusion I was led to by one particular tipoff:

Now, I'm no fancy-pants mathemagician or anything, but I happened to notice -- anything seem a little odd to you about that Total at the bottom there?

Like I said, though, a comparatively minor quibble. This album must be good, after all; what I didn't show you above, on the cover's external plastic, is that this very album was in fact--

--a Juno Award Nominee! Wowee zowee!

I mean, okay, it's just the Junos, and okay, even taking into account that it's just the Junos, it still didn't actually win a Juno. But it almost won! It stood for consideration as a nominee at the Juno Awards of 1989, making a strong showing in the category of... oh. Of, uh... of Best Album Graphics.

Huh. Well, no harm done; it's an honour just to be nominated, and I'm sure whatever it lost to was very wonderfully des--

--oh, wow, ick. That's actually kind of insulting, losing to that. Somebody at Llama Records really should have put more work into that label. Good lesson about diligence for all you kids out there!

Now, let's get into the music proper on this album. Ritmo Latino, representing the entirety of Latin America -- now that must have been one smushed-together pavilion, back in the day -- turns in a perfectly acceptable opening piece, albeit one with a synthesizer track that absolutely screams "THIS ALBUM IS FROM THE NINETEEN-EIGHTIES". Fair warning, I suppose. Still pretty good! Still pretty good.

The Irish Stew Band's "Fine Girl You Are" is the first of two Irish Pavilion tracks, meaning either Folklorama was insanely small back in those days or the Irish Pavilion was just that damn big. Or maybe one of the bands is Northern Irish? Man, I don't know. The Ukrainians get two tracks on the album, too, but knowing Winnipeg the chances are much higher that their pavilion was just that damn big. Anyway, this is an old Irish folk standard, not actually titled "Fine Girl You Are", but that's the line in the song they enjoy blurting out the most so they must have just figured they'd roll with it.

The French-Canadian representation on the album is Rendez-Vous' shortened cover of Robert Paquette's "Bleu et Blanc", and a very strong candidate for any given listener's choice of favourite track on the album. It lacks the funky bass punches of the original, but also drops the weird slippery overdubs on the chorus vocals, so... we'll call that a push. A shame this version is as short as it is, but it's pretty, isn't it? It's very pretty, and I enjoy it very much.

"Locusts and Wild Honey" is the name of the next band, and "Faspa" is the name of the song; I know that seems backwards, but it is what it is. The track is only a minute and change, so it blows by before you even really properly realize it's playing, and furthermore when you do listen closely to it it bears a passing -- not uncanny, but passing -- melodic similarity to "The Last Saskatchewan Pirate". So near the end of this song, almost subconsciously, your brain will add in "when you see the Jolly Roger on Regina's mighty shores", and then your brain will add a low, faint, resigned "dammit" after doing it. There are only so many possible combinations of notes, you know, it happens sometimes.

The fifth song on side one is the first of the two aforementioned Ukrainian tracks, the Todaschuk Sisters' "Chervona Ruta". Not everyone will dig this one, especially with the production quality being what it is, but I definitely dig it; the warbly guitar, slightly off-tune piano and bouncy bassline of the recording make me imagine it as the long-lost intro or ending to a time-worn VHS transfer of some random-ass old anime, maybe not the original intro song of the show, but that inevitable off-label second-run revamp from whatever producers were translating it into Spanish or Italian or German or Tagalog or whatever language it was going to be aired in. You know what I'm talking about? No? No, it's cool, you can take my word for it.

The Sisters have a page on the Folklorama site, which means they may be involved in the Ukrainian Pavilion this year; both also maintain solo careers as jazz singers, and it seems they run a Ukrainian Boutique on Selkirk Avenue as well. So that's neat! These are the kinds of things I learn when I hear and enjoy songs that could have been anime openings but weren't.

Last on side one is the... "Israeli-Jewish" Pavilion's Chai Folk Ensemble, performing "Alevai". I tell you the title "Alevai" now so you won't initially mistake the lyrics for "all a b'ye, all a b'ye, all a b'ye, all a b'ye" and envision a rural Newfoundland bar mitzvah, like I did on first listen. Perfectly serviceable Klezmer, this; very energetic, and proficiently performed.

Side two leads off with -- and of all the band names on this album, this one is by far my favourite to say aloud -- Blarney Band, the second of the two Irish acts, performing an old Irish folk song entitled "Mountain Dew". Now, I don't want to surprise or alarm you unduly, but I do feel that this bears mentioning, and as shocking as the following revelation may be I must ask that you be prepared to believe and accept it: the Irish band is performing a song about drinking. I know! Drinking! The Irish! I was just as surprised as you are, I can assure you.

(An unrelated aside: the best way to pronounce "Irish" is by adding an, additional, invisible short 'O' at the beginning. OIRISH. Try it at home, it's fun! PL'ASE WELCOME, ALL THE WAY FROM OIRELAND, BLARRRRR-NEY BAND.)

Anyway, it sounds exactly like you'd expect it to sound, as does the track following it. The Caribbean Pavilion's combined representatives, the Cari-Cana Singers and the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra, perform a choral and steel drum piece titled "Queen Anne 'O". It will sound to you like every other steel drum piece that you have ever heard in your life. Unless you happen to be some sort of a steel drum connoisseur, I mean, but really now.

And while we're on a roll with getting exactly what we expect from songs -- our next stop is the Scottish Pavilion and "Jimmy Findlater" by the Winnipeg Heather-Belle Ladies' Pipe Band. Do you like bagpipes? Well, this sounds like bagpipes. So there you are. It is almost but not quite Rowdy Roddy Piper's entrance music, and it plays for three minutes, and then obviously you set the file to repeat indefinitely because you enjoyed it s--no? Well, we'll move on, then.

What follows is probably the peppiest Eastern European choir song that I've ever heard, "Yak Za Dalnum", performed by the Hoosli Ukrainian Folk Ensemble. It clocks in at a bit under two minutes, but they're a fun couple of minutes, with the Ensemble squeezing in a few wild dynamics shifts and an array of really catchy "hey-hey-HEYYYY"s in what little time they have on the album. I don't know the song, or the language, or really anything that would help me during the song, but I can sure as hell nail those hey-hey-hey parts every time they come up. And that's fun! Sing along with those and then mumble phonetically through everything else in the song, that's a pretty good approach to participation.

Croatian Folklore Ensemble "Croatian Dawn" -- that's the full name, it isn't just "Croatian Dawn", they wrote it out very specifically like this so you'll say the whole thing -- Croatian Folklore Ensemble "Croatian Dawn", helpfully followed by "(Croatian)" in the album packaging in case you got confused, pops in at this point and plays a cheery little ditty that lasts just long enough for you to look at the song information and realize that it isn't actually as Greek as it sounds. This is probably why their name is so adamant, actually, now that I think about it.

And then! And then... and then.

Okay, look. I am well aware that a whole album is a lot to download, and when I put up a whole album at once the casual reader can be leery about spending precious time and bandwidth on something that he or she may not be interested in. However, I've seen the download stats for this post, so I am also well aware that a lot of you folks really enjoy purposefully listening to crap.

You wouldn't believe me for a second if I were describing this to you unheard, so even if you don't have the inclination to download an entire album, I've put this final track on the record up as a standalone download so that you too can delve into the waking nightmare of:

Folklorama Youth Choir - Pavilions Filled With Dreams
(192kbps, 4.29MB)

This is the recording of a full choir of one hundred and twenty young people, recruited from all corners of our shared mosaic, coming together in the spirit of multicultural harmony and being summarily rammed through a twisted funhouse mirror of Lawrence Welk-ian white-people champagne music by the gnarled and calloused hands of the project's demented promotional overlords.

The first thirteen seconds sound like the introductory title music of a major entertainment awards show; the next nine seconds sound like background production music for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The two concepts merge horribly into a shambling bombast abomination underneath the children's preliminary warbles, the opening soundtrack of a 1970s cop show jumps in from out of nowhere at the thirty-two second mark, and then... and then.

The banjo.

As though sprung from the blackened depths of its prison within The Most Unwanted Music, the demented stagger of a banjo begins relentlessly mocking these poor children from beneath its impenetrable shield of unexplained horn-section hits and focus-group harp flourishes. Perhaps trying to reestablish its former dominance against the increasingly chaotic cacophony, the massive awards-show orchestra from the start of the song begins clawing and scraping its way back towards some semblance of prominence at the somehow-only-1:35 halfway point.

The banjo, unabated, grows louder in defiance; no force of man or god will mask it now.

Everything begins to swirl, literally swirl, in a hateful maelstrom of dissonant disorientation as we reach the minute-fifty-three mark. A gratuitous mass chord-change haphazardly emerges during an attempted return to the top of the arrangement, perhaps happening by accident, or perhaps reverting to some chord that the song was supposed to begin with in the first place.

Nothing in this description has touched upon the lyrics yet.

"When the whole wide world around you
needs the touch of a helping hand,
there's a way that you can spread your love throughout the land!!
Just go to a Pavilion,
for a dream that you can share --
it's the greatest gift for people everywhere!!

This goes on for three minutes.

But it would be too easy -- too lenient -- a conclusion if the song were simply allowed to fade out under the strain of its own weight. A kettle drum and the menacing swoop of the string sections spiral the bloated and ballooning composition ever higher into the night sky, the seal-brown seepage of its noxious pollution sludging through the strained sinews of its grotesque casing, until the entire glorious and repulsive disaster finally explodes through the air like a septic tank rigged with dynamite and fireworks.

Filled... with...

And that is the conclusion of "Celebration!", the promotional and souvenir album from the Folklorama festival of 1988. I hope you have enjoyed it!

It's a shame that they only pursued the idea once; in our modern age of digital delivery, Folklorama could very easily compile an album's worth of recordings from the various pavilion performers and offer the whole thing up on iTunes to bring in a tidy bit of extra revenue. Just... just as long as they don't try to write any of the material themselves, I think it would work out quite well.

Happy Folklorama season, Winnipeg!

1 comment:

Sean said...

Thank you for providing such a detailed review that I need not bother listening to the actual record.

As always, your services are greatly appreciated.