Winnipeg music reviews

Bad Gardening Advice's 2019 Schmolaris Prize

Merin's Coral Island

On September 7th, 2019, Sun Kil Moon played the Garrick. He crooned to a keyboard for a half-full room; he said he was jealous of Nick Cave, and told us he watched a kid getting arrested outside of the Merchant Kitchen; and he sung about corn. There was no encore, but he stood in front of us for nearly two and half hours. I could never do what Mark Kozelek does. I left and went to the Cavern. I arrived right before Merin started to play and saw George Gray drinking St. James near the stage; he held the bottle by its neck and stood behind a woman in a DINGO 8 MY BABY Blue Bombers jersey. I asked George if he watched the tennis match, but I didn’t hear his answer.

Perhaps it was during the momentary and unexpected pause when lead singer and guitarist, Cole, broke an E-string during the opening song that George leaned over and quietly asked me if I knew what the name Merin meant. I looked at him for a second, and my eyes wandered around the room as if I'd find the answer on one of the hundreds of band stickers littering the heating ducts that traced the Cavern’s ceiling like a hot and hollow metal spinal cord. I don't know, I replied. Maybe it's like Merlin, but without the l. Although this letter-dropping style of autonymism isn't a new thing (for example, Devo was once Devon), he wasn't convinced, and neither was I for that matter. I decided I should investigate further, so I googled '"Merin" -band'. Was it a town in the Czech Republic? A village in Aleppo? Was it a real estate platform in the Netherlands? Was it a Canadian forest management company? Was it a design company? Does it mean governor? Is it Spanish for Mirim Lake, located along the Uruguay-Brazilian border? Was the band influenced by Indian singer Merin Gregory? Were they really into residential development? I felt like I was on the wrong track. None of these explanations seemed to suggest the jovial, light-hearted-yet-melancholy songs that have been my summer's soundtrack. None seemed to justify their easy expressivity, their looseness, their sad fun. 

All that changed when I saw on that Merin is a Bangladeshi brand name of the antiemetic galactagogue, Domperidone, more commonly known in Canada as Motilium; it’s often prescribed to chemotherapy patients suffering from gastrointestinal issues. How could I not have seen this before!? Here was the obvious answer! The discomfort of the world, represented by something as simple as eating, and the brief relief a medicine brings. Merin helps by imagining (and giving you) a coral island; that paradise where you can live as you always wanted to live: you can eat without pain, you can live without pain, where you are free from suffering; it becomes a sunny respite to what, in the back of your mind, is a terrible, heartless, and cold existence, where the pain of swallowing, where the pain of being alive is nearly unbearable, where the cancer and chemo conspire, and every time you take a shit it feels like your asshole is on fire. Merin helps with that. 

Do you feel your life is worthless and your mind twists in existential anxiety so fast it makes you vomit? Merin helps with that. Do you want to provide for your loved ones and despair that your efforts are fruitless, that your desire for life has gone dry? Merin helps with that. It is a simple salve, and yet it works. I’m listening to Coral Island’s six songs as I write this, and I can see why the jury members – who have willingly locked themselves away from the world during their three-week stay at South Beach Casino & Resort while deciding the Schmolaris winner – have chosen Merin’s Coral Island for Bad Gardening Advice’s 2019 Schmolaris Prize. It combines the optimism of surviving another day with the pessimism of tomorrow’s potential demise. And so I’d like to take some time to further explore Coral Island. Like a Crusoed sailor, we will enter his Island of Despair; what cannibals are hiding in its thick and tropical vegetation? And I’d like to begin this exploration with David Berman, our honourary Friday.

On August 7th, 2019, David Berman – of The Silver Jews – hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He had just released his first album in nearly a decade – this time as Purple Mountains – and was preparing his North American tour. And the day before his first performance, he ended his life. He was a beautiful lyricist, would obsess for months on single lines of poetry, he released poetry (several poems (The Charm of 5:30 and Now II) from Actual Air appeared in The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets), and he considered himself a poet above all else (in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, in the write-up for 2001’s Bright Flight, Berman is quoted as saying “People treat the Silver Jews like a piece of shit… I am a poet!”). Consider these lines from American Water: 

Moments can be monuments to you
If your life is interesting and true


I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose
Lit up like the blood of a centerfold


I love your amethyst eyes and your Protestant thighs


My ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors


Why can't monsters get along with other monsters?


Life finds a limit at the edge of our bodies
A stranger begins wherever I see 'em


Every single game was a blowout
And the NASCAR blurred into porn


Grass grows in the icebox
The year ends in the next room
It is autumn and my camouflage is dying

It’s easy to see why Berman was so highly respected as a musician. He was acerbic, wry, and always very direct. In New York’s antifolk scene in the mid 2000s, it became a joke that every band would include a Silver Jews cover somewhere in their set. I think Herman Dune desperately wanted to be David Berman. But there is only one David Berman. Or there was only one David Berman. And I think this is what makes people gravitate to his songs and lyrics; they make you want to write a song David Berman would write. Deeply personal and moving songs. And I think this is why on Song About American Water, Merin begins by mimicking the opening line to that album: “David Berman said that he was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” and contrasts that with its opposite: “You were as good as dead when you were hospitalized for lack of early detection.” David Berman’s American Water was a comfort in the face of unspeakable tragedy. And Merin’s Song About American Water dwells on that tragedy. In it, Cole sings about his mother, about feeling lost without her, and about wanting to see her again yet realizing that in order to do that he would have to die himself. Few would expose themselves like this; but poets would! It’s what David Berman would have done. And in the wake of his death, Song About American Water becomes even more poignant than it already was: sometimes even the comfort of American Water isn’t enough.

There’s a melancholy fog that permeates Coral Island. Like Berman’s soi dissant monsters, it undercuts the optimism that the music suggests. On the song Coral Island, even Merin’s desires are tainted with pessimistic observations of life’s eventual end. While imagining an idyllic existence – on a coral island, with its hot sand and ever-shining sun – Cole can’t help but notice that the reef that rings the island is dying. [I’ve addressed the probable cause of the coral bleaching elsewhere, so there’s no need to return to this subject here.] But what if there were a planet he could live on instead, somewhere better than the dying coral island? Again, Cole imagines an idyllic existence farming mangos with his cat Neko while they both watch aliens swim in their planetary backyard. You can almost hear his shoulders slump as he realizes he would eat mangoes, get older, fatter, and, subsequently, sadder. [Side note: before modern yellow dyes were widely available, Indian Yellow was produced by feeding cows mangos; the pigment was made by collecting and concentrating euxanthic acid from bovine urine – a similar process would likely occur for Merin if they only consumed mangoes: Fromerin Yellow, it would be called.] No matter how good the situation, there will always be something to pick apart. If one can’t imagine Shangri-La, how would one recognize it even if one found it? Are we all so imperfect? Why would someone allow for such imperfection to happen? Why couldn’t God have made a perfect world? Why would he make us knowing we would fall and fuck our knees? Why would he be so cruel? How could God be perfect if he willingly created imperfect creatures knowing their inherent failures? Why inflict us so and then punish us for that infliction? The nihilist in me says the easy answer is that there is no god, or if there is, and he allows pain – or worse, causes pain – then he is not worth anyone’s worship or thanks; and, further, we should rebel against the dictator father in the sky, or as Christopher Hitchens described it: against a celestial North Korea; which is exactly what David Berman did to his actual father.

But this tendency to see evil in a vase of flowers also has its reverse in Very Careful, a song where Cole falls and fucks his knee. What is obviously painful becomes funny to other people. He will find paradise’s flaws, yet is blind to the sparks of light that everyone else around him can see. “I guess it’s funny,” he says. But a fucked knee could become infected, the antibiotics might not work, and then his leg would be lost to the butcher’s cleaver; the light of the space debris just makes his mortality easier to see. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. On Neko in the Morning, Cole reflects on the affection his cat gives him and about the escapism of science fiction. Every day is different. Some days you drink too much and fall. Some days you dream of falling. Some days you fall for no reason. Some days are full of shame. Some days you wallow in self-pity. Some days you eat. Some days you starve. Some days you want to drift away in the ever-crashing waves of the ocean, or walk into a forest, and not return. Some days you want to be alone. Some days you want to maroon yourself on a deserted island. And if I were to do that, I’d make sure to bring a stereo, plenty of batteries, and Merin’s Coral Island.

-Steve Schmolaris
September 16th, 2019


- George Gray, Reeve

“I realized over the summer that I liked this so much because it was very like the music that really got me in the early 90s. But in writing this I realized that this bad [sic] reminds me of Pixies – even though they don’t really sound like them? Something that was reinforced seeing them live – where everything was just as great as on the record, but louder!! They’re great live.”

- Cindy Einerson

“That girl on guitar is fucking aces at harmony.” 

- Gregor K---------

“The drums and the bass are so determined. At times reminds me of the Pixies – especially at the beginning of Neko in the Morning. The drums will make you feel good, and is often the case on this EP, the bass is there to remind you that you’re feeling good about feeling bad.”

- Jim Einerson

“This is great!!”

- Drake

Schmolaris Prize 2019

Bad Gardening Advice is pleased to announce the short list for the 42nd Schmolaris Prize. Founded by Steve Schmolaris in 1977, the prize is awarded annually to Manitoban musicians based solely on unverified assumptions about monetary success. This year's jury members include a randomly selected elected official, two Golden Boy cos-players, an organic arugula farmer from Pointe du Bois, and Drake.

Your 2019 Schmolaris Prize Short Listers are:

-Paige Drobot's Zero Thought

-Trampoline's Happy Crimes

-Warming's Warming

-JayWood's Time

-The Famous Sandhogs's Paris Green

-Merin's Coral Island

-Christine Fellows's Roses on the Vine

-Softswitch's Happiness

-Leaf Rapids's Citizen Alien

-Yes We Mystic's Ten Seated Figures

-Drake's Scorpion

The winner will be announced 9:00 PM CST on Monday, September 16th via SnapChat.

A big thank you to Ham Banana Rolls for sponsoring and catering this year's gala event!


Meet Your 2019 Schmolaris Jury Panel

Randomly selected elected official

Reeve of the R.M. of Dufferin, George Gray remembers those long, sweltering combine rides on his grandfather's homestead near Carmen: the red radio wedged into the front at arms length away, Don Williams crooning in the cab about how it must be love, Porter Wagoner ruining it with his death songs. "Before you know it, the day's done," said George. "The sun's half past gone on the horizon, and while I'm driving back home across the field I usually crank Werewolf of London. AAWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! I don't get to do that as much now that I'm Reeve. Voters only want vampires! Haha!"

Golden boy cos-players

Cindy and Jim Einerson met each other at Dr. Albo's Hermetic Code tour in 2008. They bonded over Frank's lurid descriptions of Thutmose III and his golden messenger god, Hermes. "And it just hit both of us there," said Cindy. "Staring at the sun god, I felt as if I were Sun Ra, bathing in a cosmic brilliance. It was really a turn on." "We played both volumes of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra at our wedding," added Jim. "The cos-play stuff only started after the honeymoon in Athens."

organic arugula farmer from pointe du bois

Reporter said I could write my own. My name is Gregor K-------. I am not an arugula farmer from Pointe du Bois; one, I hate salad, and, two, I have never been to Pointe du Bois in my life. The farthest I've been that way is Lac du Bonnet. But that's beside the point. The point is I'm dead. I was a sculptor for crissakes! An arugula farmer? I'm a dead hack sculptor! I sculpped myself to death! I'm not supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be dead. This is a fraud. This man is a fake. He's a liar. Don't believe anything this man says. He's a goddamn sociopath, that's what he is. Don't get caught up in what he says. Don't be like me.


Could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

About Steve Schmolaris

The Schmolarises are well-known for their philanthropy, and Steve is no different. Like his father, Richard Schmolaris, Steve has long been a patron and appreciator of the arts. Without their generous tax-deductible donations, Winnipeg would be without the Centennial Concert Hall, Pantages Playhouse Theatre, and fire and paramedic services. "Our family's Winnipeg roots go back hundreds of years. My great, great, great grandfather, Patrick Schmolaris, was one of the first to settle the red river colony. That's how East Schmelkirk got its name; that's where the homestead was set up, and everything else kind of grew around it. But music is my real passion, that's why I started the Schmolaris Prize all those years ago. Styx's The Grand Illusion had just been released and I couldn't get Come Sail Away out of my head. And I was like, I have to try to get Styx to play East Schmelkirk! It just reminded me so much of what my ancestors must have gone through, you know? They had to sail across the ocean, too; and I just wanted to do something to honour that, right? It didn't happen, and so I used the money I put aside to make the Schmolaris Prize instead. I thought, well, even if I can't get Styx to play East Schmelkirk, I can at least do something good for Manitoban musicians; because, you know, we're all just trying to search for tomorrow on every shore. You just got to carry on, you just got to sail away sometimes."

(Image: Steve Schmolaris at the inaugural Schmolaris Prize in 1977.)