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Mail Order Tielli: Infinite Joy from a Subscriber's Perspective

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Issue: 9 Section: Arts

October 20, 2003

Mail Order Tielli: Infinite Joy from a Subscriber's Perspective

by John Haney

It was a chance I was happily willing to take. Apparently, so the story goes, Martin Tielli's close friends and acquaintances assured him that one cannot simply unload four albums of music on the listening public in one skull-cracking whump. Thus, it was decided to bleed out this music one record at a time. To help finance the project up front, subscriptions were sold; each subscriber would receive four albums over the course of one year. The project would be named Tielli 2003: a fitting tag for what looked to be an epic undertaking. Having waited three months past the estimated time of arrival and having received many e-mails of assurance from Six Shooter Records, I was very smug to discover a signed, numbered, editioned disc in my mailbox.

Tielli is best known for his perfect vocal and guitar caterwauling, and for song-writing with the Toronto rock group the Rheostatics. Two years ago, his eponymous first solo album -- commonly referred to as We didn't even suspect that he was the poppy salesman, or simply The Poppy Album -- was released and met with considered critical regard. Tielli has also made work with his other band, Nick Buzz. On this most recent outing, Tielli brought in the skills of, among others, Nick Buzz band mate Jon Goldsmith, who both produces and plays.

The track "Beauty On" opens the album with a throttled piano, foot stomping, and playful vocal acrobatics declaring "I hate you all/you smell like borrowed ideas". Apart from overt nods to some of Tielli's musical heroes, this album smells nothing of borrowed ideas. From start to finish, it must be one of the most peculiar, playful, cerebral, and highly individualistic records recently made.

The album plays like a journey. It is certainly not a concept album (perhaps a misleading and overused term to begin with), though there is something under the surface that does bring the word 'concept' to mind. This does not have to do with subject matter, though there are recurring themes, the most obvious of which is water. Half of the songs on the album use repeating water imagery: ocean, sea, rain, water, pools, shore, river, ice, Atlantic, waves, surf, meniscus--what a delight it is to hear the word 'meniscus' inconspicuously inserted into a song! Nor is there a particular musical theme. The path of the album is an emotional one. The first half plays with the logical up-and-down tempo and mood of a perfect mix tape, and has a somewhat jovial tone. After a decidedly funky interpretation of Smog's "Cold Blooded Old Times", the album takes on an intensely sombre feel. This section begins with "Winnipeg" and, with the cacophonous skronking of saxophones, comes whirling to a close with the end of the juggernaut "Ship of Fire". This song may have been written and performed with Neil Young smashing his guitar in the darker corners of Tielli's brain (certain images and guitar lines are almost certainly homage).

Operation Infinite Joy is meaty. It is not light fare. It cannot be played as background music, because it demands listening. There is not a random or accidental note to be found, but rather an intensity which suggests deliberation at every point of the writing, playing, and recording process. The music draws attention to itself in such a way as to be an exercise in hearing. It is a sprawling effort, accreting sound over sound in a choreography of instruments, thoughts, and voices that could only have been divined during all-nighters behind studio walls. However, the record is impressive not only for its sounds, but for the spaces and echoes between the sounds; a resonance is made from quiet and silence.

In a photocopied note accompanying the record, handwritten by Tielli to the subscriber, he states, "I apologize for the delay on this first offering but I figured that every bit better it could be--it would be." The selection and ordering of tracks was, apparently, a painstaking process. To the last minute, Tielli was creating reams of original artwork (he is also a strong visual artist) to accompany the music. The disc is presented beautifully in a blue and grey tin. When one creative mind declares authority over so many aspects of a production, disasters can abound. However, OIJ is strange and beautiful in its sound, its look, its intention. There is always a possibility that something so supremely individual will fall short in genuine quality, which this record does not. Tielli has obviously taken the necessary time to ensure that all aspects of this project are aesthetic. OIJ sets a high standard for what comes next--Arnold Schoenberg Berlin Cabaret, a four song, sixteen minute interpretation of some of Schoenberg's work with the said cabaret. More importantly, however, it sets a high standard for everything else that comes next.

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The non-subscription version of Operation Infinite Joy is currently available in record stores. It comes in a regular cd jewel case and without the two bonus tracks which have been tacked on to the end of the subscription version.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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