JAIMIE VERNON – A GREAT LONG GAME

Merch table_Hamilton_Dave Rave_2002

This past week over 16 million people watched former Olympic medalist Bruce Jenner ‘come out’ (air quote theirs, not mine) on national television to answer questions about his gender transitioning from male to female – an issue that has been the subject of salacious tabloid fodder ever since Jenner’s public profile was reignited as the husband of Kardashian matriarch Chris Jenner.

Bruce Jenner

The money question from interviewer Diane Sawyer was whether Bruce was now a lesbian after he professed he would continue to be attracted to women after he finishes transitioning. The other inferred question is whether this means Chris Jenner automatically gets re-labeled a lesbian if she stays with the female Bruce. These are heady times of complicated identity assignments. For better or worse the interview has opened the discussion to a wider global audience and one that found 50% of the viewers dialing in were male.

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Whether it was out of circus-like curiosity or a genuine desire to grab hold of something/anything useful from Bruce Jenner’s personal example, the fact remains that there are lot of questions being asked behind the scenes by people who want answers to who and what they are in the grand scheme of things. Not everyone wants to chop their penises off and live life in a reconstructed body. But the fact remains that some people do. We now have those options available to us. But it’s early days in medical science.John Varley

My favourite author and sci-fi writer John Varley has dealt with the concept of gender reassignment as the default theme to some of his books. In the far future nano technology would allow us to physically change gender as easily as getting fitted for a new wardrobe. Not just reassignment but DESIGNER reassignment. Want to wear a woman’s body for a day? Which one? Marilyn Monroe? Elinore Roosevelt? Angelina Jolie? Rosa Parks? The permutations are staggering.

Personally, I like my gender. It works simpatico with my wife’s gender. Boring, old, vanilla gender roles and hetero sex. I’m okay with that. But as we all know, nature isn’t black and white. I expect my hair to continue to fall out as my Man and babytestosterone is siphoned off by my latent estrogen reserve – while my wife suffers the reverse as menopause fast approaches. We are born with the chemical signature of both genders. Something that, in the case of men, allows us to both lay waste to the planet in fits of brute rage and to nurture our young and protect our loved ones. Occasionally, it also gives us the ability to cook quiche, style hair and design home interiors.

LaundryWhat the feminine side has given me is an appreciation for women and not just for how they look in lingerie and yoga pants. That’s window dressing and a prehistoric pheromone response which I do admit being a slave to. Below that is the empathy response; The desire to know how women think beyond why they’re angry at us for putting colours in the washing machine with the whites. It’s in understanding how they perceive the world – with or without men in it. There is me. And there is NOT me. It’s the identifying hallmark of a self-aware being to be able to make the distinction.

Reptilian brainI know a lot about being a man by default. Knowing anything about a woman has been my lifetime case study. Admittedly, it’s been case studies of hetero women – as per the wiring of my immature reptilian brain. But in the advancement of LBGT rights, specifically in the cosmopolitan city of Toronto where I live, I have not only been long time friends with gay men, women and transgendered individuals but Facebook has expanded friendships to a new world of these views and lifestyles I was only aware of on the most peripheral level.

Either by circumstance or merely per my outside perspective I see a world of both excitement and eternal heartbreak through their eyes: both high successes Drama Queenand/or high drama. But we all have that, don’t we? Magnified under the microscope of social media we live out our lives in real time for everyone to witness, judge and, occasionally be a participant in because we carry one identical trait – being human.

My life as both a musician and musical scribe has earned me a modicum of trust from musicians to review their music with a respectful ear. It’s a job I do not take lightly. I’ve seen reviews destroy an otherwise good album and deflate the confidence of the artist (see my Tom Hooper blog from last week). I was guilty of artistic assassination myself during my early reviewer days. Fortunately, I’ve seen the dilemma from both the performer and consumer viewpoint and I’ve matured as a writer.

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And to that end the LGBT community has come to me with their works – which get reviewed not through the prism of their sexuality, but as musicians who happen to embrace a lifestyle other than my own. To date I’ve avoided mentioning the artist’s non-musical personal lives as I would with someone whose religion or race is different than mine. Doing so has eliminated a lot of bias – perceived or otherwise. But I’m currently in the mind set to open the door a little. By carving off and discarding the sexuality of the artists I review might very well be glossing over the very thing that makes an album what it is: a confessional of their deepest secrets and passions. By being clinically academic I’ve ignored the very essence of these albums by omission – its very soul. After all, could Frankie Goes To Hollywood have created a masterpiece like ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome‘ as a band of straight men? I highly doubt it.

I believe that the new Kris + Dee album entitled ‘A Great Long Game‘ is a product of not just two human beings who are simpatico musically but two KRIS-DEE-a-great-long-game_CDbaby-550x550lesbians in a same-sex marriage who are celebrating 10 years as such. That’s a long term commitment to love even hetero couples are hard pressed to sustain; Musicians who are married even more so. Kris Abbott (acoustic & electric guitars, vocals, piano and synth) and Dee McNeil (vocals, bass, drums, percussion and acoustic guitar) have to paddle the boat in the same direction as three distinct entities. That’s a whole load of id and ego to juggle. That it works on this CD is the greatest prize for the listener. We’re taken through the peaks and valleys of their life wrapped within the folds of a comfy blanket. There’s no high drama just dramatic effect and consequence.

The duo has two previous releases of what’s been called Super Folk to their name – ‘Still Here Inside’ (2011) and ‘Bloom’ (2013) – so those investing in their music for this album should be aware that it starts with a world already in progress.

“Beach” gives us a quick recap off the top mentioning in a lilting matter-of-fact melody that the house they wanted to buy on a beach wasn’t meant to be. But the dream remained because the beach wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, they settled into house nearby, took the day off when there was a clear blue sky, grabbed some folding chairs, some Mason jars of wine and headed to the beach anyway. Getting there was the adventure, and not the goal.

The first single, “Cold Chisel‘, peels the onion back a little more and shines a light on human vulnerability. The constant desire to please the one you love and the fallback position of wanting to be all things to them – a pillow to protect them or, as the title suggests, the cold chisel when they need strength.

The duo continues to open doors and windows, literally, while describing the analogous comparison between crippling Canadian winters and the lows we encounter in our personal cocoons in the soulful “Recording Breaking Lows”. The anticipation of the Spring and tearing open shutters and sashes to let in fresh air and to rejuvenate the soul as the song takes wing on the back of a soaring slide guitar break.

Kris Dee promo

“Escape” is an exotic, moody piece about conformity. About being existentially trapped in roles – specifically as a worker drone caught in the toiling grind of a day job where everyone works toward the goal of getting out of their own living hells despite the necessity of needing it to survive. To achieve true peace one must embrace a certain amount of internal war. Escaping means uncertainty and fear. Staying could crush the soul. This could be applied to so many aspects of life, no?

BloomFear and uncertainty in another form arrives on “Trembling Aspen”, a beautiful harmonic acoustic duet with Kris + Dee wearing their vulnerabilities on their sleeve. They use the imagery of a tree that wishes to shed its bark and reveal its knotted flesh and the messages of loved ones inscribed on it but their stories remain unread because no one has bothered to notice the tree at all. Instead, its wisdom and secrets remain as if it were a sullen, silent oak. It’s a very relatable human condition.

Kris guitarThe album turns on its own introspection and breaks out from under self-doubt with a poignant and powerful ballad about taking control back from doubters and haters on “Chosen Few”. It’s a song of liberation. With only voice and piano the message penetrates and resonates. There’s no anger here. It’s a bare fisted microphone drop on bullies and power hungry control freaks; A classy, musical version of the middle finger (if there could be such a thing).

The album immediately does a 180 degree turn and brings us back to the opening theme of “Beach” to say, okay, that was a little too much information. You’ve seen us naked, metaphorically, but we want to emphasize that life need not be a Rubick’s Cube. Sometimes it’s about setting a course without the baggage. It’s really a “Simple Life”…and there are simple plans. It comes across in terms of a simple pop song. A rolling lyric sets the tone. A melodic hook Dee guitarimplants the earworm.

They’ve clearly weathered many storms, these lovers, these musicians. Over time it can wear the spirit down. We no longer burn as brightly as before but Kris + Dee have saved a little fire in reserve. A “Pilot Light”, as the song suggests, is waiting to re-ignite. It weighs in like an adult version of The Little Engine That Could without bashing you over the head with its message. The song, like the subject matter, burns like a tiny flame and consumes you all at once.

 

Kris Dee silhouette

The final song lifts us up and re-affirms that Kris + Dee have been on a long trip but they welcome the changes that come with an open road and associated “Mackerel Sky”. The rolling pop leaves the listener re-assured that these two will be back again to peel another onion for us. Being lesbians has informed their experience but it’s not their manifesto and they have no axe to grind. In other words, we don’t need to be in their shoes to understand their story. To empathize, to absorb their life experiences. After all, don’t we all want a day off and a clear blue sky?

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THIS WEEK’S VIRAL FIND:

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL OLDIE:

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 37 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 19 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon

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