Sunday, August 26, 2012

Corb Lund's "Cabin Fever"- You Can Keep Your Cure

Corb Lund first came to my attention through his brilliant cavalry-themed album from 2007, Horse Soldier!  Horse Soldier!  After hearing the title track on CKUA and stumbling across the video for "I Wanna Be in the Cavalry", I picked up the album and was immediately glad I did.  Lund's whip-smart songwriting and diverse musical influences suited my eclecticity right down to the ground, and trades the smug schmaltz of mainstream country music for an incisive wit and self-awareness that treads the irony line without ever fully crossing it.

Thanks to a prod from Island Mike, I followed through on Lund's next album, Losin' Lately Gambler, and found that even without the strong theme, there was a lot to like about this Edmonton singer-songwriter and his band, the Hurtin' Albertans.  Despite moving to a larger label in hopes of greater international airplay, the savyy lyricism, rural pathos and sly humor had all survived inteact.

Cabin Fever, Lund's latest work, comes from a slightly different place than its predecessors; the artist had been building a cabin out of town with his uncle and long-time girlfriend for quite some time, but by the time it was finished, the girlfriend had moved on and his uncle had passed on.  The solitary times mandated by personal circumstance and inclement weather informs pretty much every track of this album, giving it a much darker undertone than his previous releases, and it forages even further afield in terms of musical styles and influences.  I can say without fear of contradiction that Cabin Fever is the best cowpunkabilly folk album I've ever listened to, and his band has never sounded better.  The album was recorded live to tape, with no overdubs, and has an energy to it that more methodically constructed albums can't hope to match.  The deluxe edition comes with a second, acoustic disc, called the "Cabin Side", which really showcases the musicianship at work on this record.

Because he tends to sing about rusticated themes like country living, livestock, and gunfighters, there are many who will quickly pigeonhole (and likely dismiss) Corb Lund as a country& western artist, which is inaccurate and unfortunate in equal measure.  A song title like "(You Ain't a Cowboy) If You Ain't Been Bucked Off"can certainly reinforce this, and make it easy to overlook both the decade he spent in Edmonton punk/metal/whatever band The Smalls, or his time at Grant MacEwan College studying jazz guitar.  If you can resist the urge to categorize, you find a singer-songwriter who is uniquely equipped to share brutally honest insights and personal revelations in a multiplicity of ways.

The lead-off track, "Gettin' Down On the Mountain" backs up its peak-oil survivalist outlook with heavy bass and guitar that have a blues-metal vibe to them.  "Bible On the Dash" (performed as a duet with his Texas counterpart, Hayes Carll), evokes nothing so much as the lovable scofflaw spirit of Arlo Guthrie.  "Mein Deutsches Motorrad" and "The Gothest Girl I Can" have a fast-paced rockabilly twang that not only suit the subject matter (i.e. fast bikes and faster gals) so well, it reminded me how overdue I am to listen to some Duane Eddy.

Certainly there is some uncut country on here for those that like to get their two-step on, such as "Drink It Like You Mean It", but most of the ventures into this arena have their own twist.  "Cows Around", a sarcastic examination of the joys of cattle ownership, is a great example of western-swing while "September", a bittersweet goodbye between a rancher and the girl leaving him for the big city, reminds me a bit of Chris Isaak, both in terms of the echoing guitar and the crooning yodels in the chorus.  The balance between a man who accepts the inevitable but isn't happy about it is captured perfectly in lyrics like:

Stay with me through SeptemberYeah I know there ain't much to doAnd I guess I did my share of starving in the city, I was young once tooI can picture how you're livingIn a tiny fourth floor flatWell there's times that a thousand acres in the Rocky Mountains can't compete with that

The Edmonton Journal review from a couple weeks back talks about this album as Lund getting in touch with his inner Nick Cave, and make no mistake, there are some tracks that venture into the macabre, like "Dig Gravedigger Dig" (with some absolutely blistering harmonica action courtesy of talented multi-instrumentalist Grant Siemens), and my favourite title, "Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner".  The most haunting song to me though, is the penultimate track, "One Left in the Chamber", with its cryptic yet palpable tale of regrets punctuated by the ominous "..and the one left in the chamber oughta do."  It's the kind of somber poetry that if you saw a friend post it on Facebook, I hope you would give him a call and make sure everything is okay.

When I try to sum up Corb Lund for people who haven't heard him, or those who might say, "Oh, I don't listen to country", I don't bother trying to explain the futility of labeling artists who are talented enough to explore genres as effortlessly as he does, or that he is a self-described 'dissident' country artist, or that the awards circuit calls him a "Roots Artist" (a category he has won from 2004 at the Canadian Country Music Awards).

Instead, I try to explain that the best artists are those that can express emotional content in an honest and compelling fashion.  Growing up among ranchers in Taber gave him those insights, and his musical experiences to date, Smalls and all, give him the tools to articulate it.  These themes are always found, never manufactured, and his honesty is his greatest artistic trait, because it allows him to take these timeless, city-free themes, as tired and overused as they may be, and gets us to look at them in a new way.

Corb Lund is to music what Joss Whedon's firefly was to television, and anyone who appreciates a good song or a good story owes it to themselves to give Cabin Fever a listen to.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Birthday Presence

This past Friday would have been my Dad's 80th birthday, had he not passed away three months prior to the day.  Dad's two surviving siblings and a lot of other Manitoba relations could not make it to his memorial service on such short notice, so many of them arranged to come down for an observance of his birthday instead.

My Aunt Ena and Uncle Wendell are the last two of 7 siblings, 6 of which I knew: Harold, Gary, Dennis and my father, Maurice, the eldest.  A younger sister, Agnes, died when she was a child, from surgical complications.  

Our family went back to Manitoba from Alberta every other year or so, sometimes more, up until I was a teenager; we would often stay with Harold and Anna, and our older cousins Paula, Parker and Pamela.  Wendell would often be around, up visiting from the army base in Shiloh while he was in the military, or down from Thompson once he mustered out.  Gary and Janice lived in Flin Flon for a while, but would sometimes come south to MacGregor when the other brothers were around.  We saw more of them and my cousin Tom once they moved out to Logan Lake in B.C.  I only met Denny a couple of times, but he seemed nice, funny and smart, like all the Fitzpatrick boys (and girl!).  Gramma Irene would usually be on hand for these summer visits as well.

Many times we would also visit Dad's Uncle Frank who lived on the old family property in Piney, a very small town near the Minnesota border, and we continued to go and stay there after he passed, in an old farmhouse with an artesian well and an outhouse to luxuriously sort out all your ablutionary needs.  The first time a chamberpot got mentioned in Language Arts class, it became readily apparent that I was the only kid who had ever actually used one.

Hot dusty days in Piney seemed pretty boring when I was a kid, but the veneer of time and nostalgic patina have me looking back on them as an enchanted time.  Bathing in a galvanized metal washtub, using well water heated up on the stove; watching Dad and Wendell and their cousin Keith pulling wild horseradish roots up from the hard-packed ground, their considerable muscles straining like they were in a tug-of-war with the earth itself.  Nights of cribbage, accompanied by rye, beer and raucous laughter.

I never had a favourite uncle, really.  Harold had kids my age and was rough and playful. Wendell was the youngest and a brilliant storyteller and impressionist (still is).  Gary had a dry deadpan delivery that he could time the fuses on so they would be delivered the moment that everyone had just caught their breath from laughing at something someone else had just said.  Hydro man, soldier, miner; they were a pretty manly bunch, and they might be crude from time to time, but never loutish.

How do you drift away from times like that, from connections like those?  In my teenage years, it became easier to opt out from family gatherings, because of work or other events, coming face to face with Ena and Wendell and Janice and especially Parker again, I found myself wondering if fear played a role.

Being a bookish and introverted youth meant I didn't have a lot in common with my cousins, especially Parker, who was a model outdoorsman by the time he was 12: hunting with gun and bow, trapping, skinning.  I loved hanging around with him despite how awkward it sometimes made me feel, but when I was ten, we received a terrible phone call in Leduc telling us Harold had been killed the night before by a train.  

I don't know what was worse, the horrifying knowledge that my cousins (Paula, the oldest, was 16 I think) were going to grow up without the further guidance and support of a strong and loving father, or the fear that the same thing could happen to Tara and I.  That sadness, that fear, that stilted awkwardness; I found myself wondering if these had played a factor in my opting out of some of the summer visits.  I think I only returned to MacGregor on one occasion after Harold died.  Whatever the reason, I wish I had chosen otherwise now, that I had worked harder to maintain and strengthen those family connections, even when they were two provinces removed.

This regret was heightened even more when I embraced them at Dad's party last Friday.  Wendell and his partner Lona made it down from Thompson, where they run the bus depot.  Janice and  Terry came in from Chase, and it was good connecting with them.  Ena and Anna flew in from Winnipeg after meeting up with Parker and his wife Belinda, who first had to come all the way down from Churchill, where he still works for the hydro, like his dad, since he was 18 years old. The two of them also own and run the Tundra Inn and a local cable company, so the next time I feel busy or overworked, I am going to go to their website and pour myself a tall cool glass of shut-the-hell-up.

It was a good gathering, with an appropriate mixture of tears and laughter that I think the man of honor would have appreciated.  Parker and I talked about how much losing a dad hurts, regardless of what age he is taken.  Wendell recounted how, when was 5 or 6 years old and deathly sick, vomiting every hour, Gramma warned him not to get out of bed when Maurice came home from the Air Force.

"But I heard him come in, and I couldn't stay in bed. I got as far as the top of the stairs, and got sick.  And I heard Mum say, 'Well, you'd better go on up.'"  He called my father his hero, and broke my heart in the best possible way.

Ena talked about all the favourable treatment Dad got by virtue of being first-born, saying, "She may have had seven kids, but only one baby."

Tara and Audrey and I soaked in tales from the farm, from MacGregor, from the Piney Hotel; of illicit border crossings and questionable dealings, of people encountered, good, bad and indifferent.  Memories of Dad and his brothers and their friends.  I thought about taking pictures, but was always afraid that the transition from participant to observer would break the moment, like a finger popping a soap bubble.  Besides, Ena has that angle covered like a tarp.

We sang Happy Birthday, and toasted Dad with Irish whiskey around Tara's firepit.  Amidst all the tears and laughter and beer and cake and balloons, some of those connections got remade.  I was reminded of how special my family is, how special all families are.  Of how important love is, and how crucial it is to talk about it, before it is too late.

It is looking very likely now that a great number of the family will descend on poor Parker and Belinda next summer in Churchill, very likely to see Beluga whales in Hudson's Bay, possibly to see a polar bear.  The 17 hour drive to Thompson and 16 hour train ride to Churchill will be a pilgrimage, but not to wildlife, and not to   the edge of the nation, but to my extended family, and see if those connections can be made even stronger; a presence to be celebrated.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Forest Strangers

I'm still working out the intricacies of our new Cybershot, but the timer pic I shot on the beach at Slave Lake turned into an underlit silhouette.  Thankfully another beachwalker saw our struggles and graciously offered to take a picture of us sitting on a large piece of driftwood.

The strangest thing about camping, for me at least, is that if it doesn't rain, you almost feel like you wasted your money on the tent.  On our second night, a hot day at the beach swiftly transformed into threatening looking clouds and a severe thunderstorm warning, so rather than racing back to camp, we dashed into town, grabbed a couple of pizzas, and after returning to our campsite, ate them in the station wagon while watching X-Men: First Class on my iPad while it rested on the dash.  We had to turn it off periodically when the tiny speaker was overwhelmed by hailstones pelting the roof and windshield, but made it about halfway through the film before the storm let up and we could make a break for the tent.

The next day was bit cooler, so we arranged to hike from Mt. Marten (don't mock, at 400m, it counts) down to Lily Lake.  It's about a 200m elevation change, but since there are uphill portions both coming and going to this tiny lake, I don't know if that figure is net or what. I certainly felt like more.  Shortly after starting out, Fenya spotted a flying squirrel, which made me intensely jealous.

From the summit, which doesn't have a lot of top cover due to past fires, you descend into what is practically a rain forest, which makes sense, given how much moisture gets dropped on the mountain.  Moist air blown off the lake quickly cools as it crests and then swiftly precipitates.  Thick grass, lush trees, raspberry bushes growing right up against the narrow trail, and a plethora of creeks which sometimes made the footing treacherous permeated the hike.  The previous night's storm didn't help either, and had loosened some roots and broken some branches off as well.  We passed a number of gents from a helitack team toting chainsaws back up from the lake, where they had just finished clearing the trail of deadfall that morning.  "You've got a clear path now," they assured us.

It was a demanding but beautiful trail, and while we hoped to spot some wildlife, the only ground animal we came across was this somewhat large toad that the girls named Herbert.  We took care to treat him gently and returned him to the soft and mossy forest floor, but he was the noisiest amphibian I had ever come across, making a series of squeaking noises like a pet's chew toy, so we made sure to keep Nitti at a distance.

After spotting this mess in the middle of the trail, I exclaimed, "I can't believe people don't pick up after their pets!" Audrey sidled up to me a ways down the trail and murmured sotto voce, "You know that had to be bear shit, right?"

"Of course I do," I hissed back,  "I've eaten pancakes with less blueberries in them than that scat stack."

"No reason to panic Glory," she said.

"Absolutely," I agreed, partially wishing for maybe just a bit of ignorance and a family marching towards us with a blueberry eating dog.

After 2.5 km and a few bridge crossings, we encountered this stump with its hopeful message.  We had no real idea how long the trail actually was (2-4 hours round trip, according to the sign at the top), so we were a little disappointed that we had over a half kilometer to go.  Eventually though, we got to Lily Lake, helpfully decorated with a sign advising us not to set it ablaze.  Perhaps there was trouble in the 80s with action movie heroes that necessitated this, but with no matches and less desire, we were no threat.

It's a grand little lake, warm and stocked with trout we occasionally saw breaking the surface to snack on insects.  I couldn't imagine hauling a rod and tackle box down the trail, let alone the thought of hauling a fish carcass back through the bear country jamboree.  I like zip-loc bags as much as the next fellow, but I'm not sure how far I would trust them with my earthly safety.

On the return trip (which, make no mistake, was a bit of a chore for the token middle-aged fat bloke in the group), Fenya and I startled a pair of grouse that were resting right beside the trail.  I was past the first one when it broke cover with a furious THUMP-THUMP-THUMP, and was turning around when the second one took off, so I got to see Fenya's priceless expression.  According to her, mine was pretty good too.

Eventually we made it back to the car and tore into the cooler, having foolishly neglected to bring food and drink along with us.  The beef jerky and juice boxes gave us the energy boost we needed to return to camp and prepare supper.  We had purchased a portable propane barbecue the week before and were marinating some sesame ginger pork chops since we'd left.  

As a parent, one of the things I appreciate most about camping is that everyone gets to help out.  Fenya volunteered to heat the beans on the camp stove while I grilled, and Glory got the water for clean up and drinks.  We travel a little heavy, but it all stows away pretty neatly at the end, again with a little help.  The barbecue is a little ungainly, but definitely worth bringing.

Honestly, I would love to get a small tent trailer once we have a vehicle equipped to haul one, in order to make set-up and take down a little faster, to say nothing of the Olympian Tetris shenanigans we need to go through in order to fit everything into the wagon.  Still, I'm grateful for any opportunity to do a little outdoor living, and to see a little more of the province I've lived in most of my life and still have so much to learn about.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Alberta's Inland Sea

A couple of weeks ago it suddenly dawned upon us: my week off from work was just around the corner, a and we had made no plans for it.

Well, that isn't precisely true. We had always intended to use the long weekend as an opportunity to do some much needed work around the yard and house, in preparation of some long overdue landscaping were hoping to sort out before the snow flies. Then news of a residence life reunion at our alma mater took care of the second weekend, but this still left 3-4 days in the middle unaccounted for.

My go-to in this sort of situation has always been, "hey, Jasper is only 3 hours away, we can always camp there for a few days", but Audrey is pretty much Jaspered out at this point, so we needed to look elsewhere. For a Tuesday to Friday excursion, we required somewhere close, a treed campsite with power, and a few things to do or see in the vicinity.

Having lived in Alberta almost all our lives, it surprised me that neither Audrey or I had ever been to Slave Lake, but the Alberta Parks website showed it as meeting all our needs,so we booked a campsite and drove out on Tuesday. It is about a 3.5 hour drive to the Marten River campground in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, 28 km north of the town ravaged by wildfires a year ago. It's a nice enough drive, especially for someone used to the flat dullness Highway 2 from Edmonton to Calgary.
The lake itself is quite the sight, measuring more than a hundred kilometers across. Wednesday afternoon we took advantage of the 28 degree heat and hit Devonshire Beach for a couple of hours. It turns out there was a smaller but comparably sandy beach right in our campground, but Devonshire wasn't too crowded. A severe thunderstorm blew in right after we left the beach, so we grabbed two pizzas in town, drove back to camp and ate them in the car while watching X-Men: First Class on the iPad while we waited for the worst of it to blow over, hailstones and all.

We took a tremendous hike Thursday afternoon to Lily Lake, which is probably the remotest area I have ever walked to, but those pictures are still on the camera and will have to wait. Parks staff also had a wildlife display set up in the campground that day.

We did make a point of walking down to the beach last night to watch the sunset though.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Happy Camper

Earlier this year, Fenya had asked about attending a teen leadership camp.  We all agreed it was a good idea, but with potential plans for a trip in Q4 afoot, and a little less income in the house through the summer months (although no June layoff notice for first time in a few years, so, yay!), I suggested she might have to give it a miss this year.

Then a surprise note came home from her sewing classes: the instructor wanted her help with the summer sewing camps, was willing to pay more than minimum wage for her, and sent the note home to make sure it was okay with us before offering her the position, which I am going to say is so old school it should arrive in a big yellow bus with gothic arch windows.  Fenya then asked if she could go to the camp if she fronted the bill herself, with her own money, and the only two acceptable answers to that are 1) yes, and 2) I'm proud of you, honey.

When I told The Lads about this, one of them did some quick finger math and stated, "Your teenage daughter is making the same wage I was earning, like, three jobs ago!", which put a daunting perspective on the whole affair.  Cue up the chorus of "Sunrise, Sunset", you know?

Then, shortly before leaving, we discovered that this was not a general leadership camp she would be attending, but rather a sort of tryout program for individuals who wanted to be camp counselors that very summer.  "Well," said Fenya, "I guess that won't apply to me, since it looks like you have to be 15 to be a leader there anyways, according to the website."

"That's a rough break," I commiserated.  "You'd even be left out next summer due to unfortunate birthday placement."  Truth be told, it didn't really bother her.  An opportunity to go to camp was her primary motivation, and the leadership elements were largely icing on the away-from-home cake.

It was about a two-hour drive to camp, and we talked about leadership a lot on the way out, as Fenya said she really think of herself as a a leader.

"A lot of really good leaders don't," I told her.  "Some leaders grab the flag, run up where everyone can see them and yell 'Follow me!', but a lot of them find a group of people who want something, and help them to get it.  That's the kind of leader I like to be, and it wouldn't surprise me to find out you are wired in a similar fashion."

We talked about my experiences in student leadership, and church leadership, and even in leadership training with my former employers.  We discussed characteristics of good leaders and bad, and of values like honesty, courage and humility.  All too soon, we arrived at the lakeside camp, and I helped her stow her gear in her cabin, gave her a hug and told her I loved her and was proud of her.  She wrinkled her nose a little at the latter, and I explained that when I was 13, I was still a year or two away from my first paying job, and was nowhere near ready to attend any kind of leadership training, let alone at a sleepaway camp.

A week later, I went to pick her up and discovered that she had not only had the time of her life, but had been asked to come back as a leader-in-training.  Only 8 of the 17 attendees had been requested to return, so this was a pretty high compliment.  We arranged for Fenya to come back for the only two weeks of the summer when she was not either camping with us or helping with sewing classes, resulting in the busiest summer she has ever seen, and a higher than anticipated number of highway miles being placed on the old Taurus wagon.

On Friday, Audrey picked her up, and was told in no uncertain terms that the camp leadership group wants Fenya back next season as well.  And why not?  She is hard-working, compassionate, funny, and easy-going, but is not afraid to enforce (or even create) rules when needed.  She spent three weeks out of the city, listening to thunderstorms and coyotes at night instead of firetruck sirens and over-revved motorcycles.  She worked with young girls who thought she was the bees' knees instead of impatient customers at some coffeeshop or fast food outlet.  She learned a lot about people, and even more about herself.  Oh, and about two dozen new camp songs, which her younger sister was only too eager to learn.

I couldn't be happier, or more proud, and with this kind of foundation, I simply cannot wait to see where her life takes her from here.

Although a part of me wishes that future was maybe just a little further away...

"Sunrise, Sunset/ Sunrise, Sunset/ swiftly flow the years..."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Klingon Fleet Trials: Task Force Karn'j

Life stepped in and prevented the three of us budding admirals from getting together to paint our fleets tonight as we had planned, but I took advantage of a quiet evening to get my Klingon squadron finished off and photographed.

They aren't going to win any prizes, but that is largely because I don't plan on entering them into any contests.  These are first and foremost playing pieces, but as painted models, you want them to reflect well on you in addition to making the tabletop look more interesting.
In many ways, photographing model starships is even more challenging than shooting figurines like the ones from my Valhallan army for Warhammer 40,000.  It's hard to find a good background, lighting them is tricky, and the flat surfaces love to reflect light and wash out colour.

Add to this the fact that I am working with a new camera, and I'm still not very familiar with the menus or how to get the macro-focus setting to stay on.  Still, the basic idea comes across pretty well, and battlecruiser IKV Vengeance pictured above still comes across as ominous as it did in the '60s.  I had to paint the Klingon Deep Space Fleet trefoils by hand, so they are pretty sloppy, but still add a little something.
The Klingon range doesn't have a whole lot of variety; it is mostly variations on the theme of the classic battlecruiser from the original series, the D7.  Since this is one of my favourite spacecraft designs ever, this isn't too much of a problem, but could pose difficulties in telling the ships apart while in the heat of battle.  The dreadnought above (Sword of Kahless) has an additional nacelle beneath the command boom, and is also significantly larger, so it will be easy to pick out.
Likewise the tiny frigate (Argoth) shown in the centre of the formation above is unlikely to be mistaken for a cruiser.  The only real differences between the heavy cruiser (Ravenous), battlecruiser and heavy battlecruiser (Fiery Crown) is the amount of plating on the 'wings'.  At least there isn't a precedent for painting the names on the ships themselves, unlike the Federation!  My eyes are bad enough as it is.
When playing around with the camera's settings, I discovered that taking a picture with no flash and using the 'Night Scene' autosetting gave the squadron a lurid green hue that was positively unsettling...and a little cool.  I hope I remember that the next time I'm photographing a model of a monster or ghost, or anything radioactive.

Now to learn the rules and prepare for the imminent conflagration; here's to a willing foe and sea room!