Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Album: V/A / Score: The Covers

Artist: V/A

Title: Score: The Covers

A sort of stand-alone cousin to Merge's giant 20th anniversary box set/subscription series, this disc contains specially commissioned versions of tracks from Merge albums by non-Merge bands. A lovely idea, a wealth of potential source material, and they asked some cool bands to throw down.

The good news is that it pretty much works. Milage varies, of course, depending on your opinion going in of the song and/or covering band. Some marriages are inspired: the disc opens with a ripping take of The 3Ds' "Sleep All Summer" by Quasi (better known as Janet Weiss' other band) that's going to have me digging around to figure out where I stashed all those 3Ds MP3's. Some don't work — Bright Eyes kinda bargle up The Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo", though this might just be a reflection of my general antipathy towards Bright Eyes.

Probably more destined to be pulled out for the few tracks that pulled me in that repeat album listening, this is still a reliably solid collection.

Track Picks: 1 - "Beautiful Things" (Quasi — 3Ds cover), 4 - "Sleep All Summer" (St. Vincent and the National — Crooked Fingers cover), 13 - "Drug Life" (The Mountain Goats — East River Pipe cover)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Album: Franco / Francophonic

Artist: Franco

Title: Francophonic

Although Xgau isn't a very reliable guide to rock'n'roll these days, he is still pretty dependable on African music. So, despite the fact that his 2008 Dean's list contains at least three outright stinkers in his top ten, I did take take a chance on his number one entry, this two-disc career overview of Congolese music hero Franco. For whatever reason, I was not at all familiar with his work, so this was an excellent introduction.

Selecting from music recorded over a three-decade span, it induces a slight feeling of vertigo to get swept up into such a deep pool, feeling the sorcerer invent whole new musical dialects. Starting with a rhumba-fied sort of Latin sound, the music expands outward in all directions, but never losing touch the rhythm. There's also some amazing guitar playing throughout (I'm currently totally knocked over by 1973's "Minuit eleki Lezi").

I picked this up at Soundscapes for a very reasonable price — highly recommended.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gig: Julie Doiron / $100 / Rick White

Julie Doiron / $100 / Rick White

The Horseshoe. Thursday, March 26, 2009

A totally lovely gig that could hardly have been improved upon — save possibly had it started and ended a half-hour earlier. Set-times were posted for nine, ten and eleven, and the 'Shoe is generally pretty good with gigs sticking to the schedule, but Rick White didn't take the stage til about 9:45, pushing everything else back. This did, at least, mean there was an appreciable crowd on hand when he started, and he was given much closer attention by the crowd than when I've seen him doing his solo thing before. Playing seated with electric guitar, he did a short set of his psychedelicized tunes, starting off a bit droopy, but gaining momentum as he went on. Perhaps just because it was the most recognizable to me, it started to click with a version of "Why Be So Curious", a song that he wrote for The Sadies. The next couple songs continued in a more lively manner, and the set ended on a high note with Julie coming out to provide vocals to a take of Neil Young's "Look Out For My Love".

$100 were pretty much set up and ready to go, so at least it was a fairly quick turnover. This being the third time I've seen them already in 2009, I'm mostly reduced to looking for marginal things to differentiate the show. The biggest of those last night was some pretty awful house sound — the bass and drums were chest-poundingly loud in the mix, leaving the first three songs or so an undifferentiated mush. Once the soundman eased off, the bass was still a bit loud, but it was much more tolerable. Pronouncing themselves happy to be home after returning from SxSW, the band was kind enough to mix up their setlist, making the performance not seem like a rerun from their CMW set. Once the mix was improved and the band settled in, the band turned out to be fairly cookin', especially on a sterling version of "Tirade of a Shitty Mom".1

And then, the main event. The place was pretty full as Julie Doiron came on. And in one of those all-too-rare instances where the crowd actually showed up to listen to the person on stage, the audience was utterly rapt. Leading off with an a capella number, there was almost unimaginable silence in the room — the only other sound to be heard was the dishwasher at the bar. This sort of became a mutually reinforcing spell, as the crowd realized that Julie (happy throughout, though visably fighting a cold) was quite into the moment and kept working to prolong it, coming up on the spot with the idea for more songs to play solo before bringing the band out.

I was actually worried that the previously thumpingly loud bass sound was going to crush the delicate vibe as she was joined on stage by Rick White (bass) and Fred Squire (drums), but it was reined in enough not to be a distraction. The band launched into a ramshackle ramble through Julie's new I Can Wonder What You Did with Your Day, following it track-by-track for a half-dozen numbers. Although these were the same musicians that had recorded the disc together last summer, it was clear that Fred & Julie hadn't played with Rick much since, leading to some curious interactions, as Julie had a separately-forged musical chemistry with each of them, but not as much with them both together.2 This led to some moments of on-stage band conferring, with discussions about how to start songs, what key they were in, and so on. "It's like practice!" Julie observed. "But not the boring kind, where everyone knows the songs. And you get to watch!"

While this could lead to a sloppy and unsatisfying show, it suited the material at hand pretty well. Doiron's music floats on an uncalculating, plainspoken sincerity, and this tentative, figure-it-out-as-we-go-along circle of friends served as the perfect backdrop.3 The setlist was similarly casual — besides a general goal of playing as much of the new album as possible, everything else seemed determined by whim or requests from the audience.4 Even Rick got into game, calling out for "Girl Problem", and, after a brief consult on how the guitar part worked, Julie launched into "Why I Didn't Like August 93" from his '96 Elevator to Hell album.5 After almost eighty minutes, the set ended, though Julie was coaxed out to do a solo encore. Though welcome, the spell was broken a bit by this point, between the rumble of bar-room conversation and the stream of people departing.

All told, this was an excellent show, perhaps the year's best so far. In a characteristically unassuming way, Julie Doiron has moved herself into the top-tier of Canadian musicians. Her last album brought acclaim in the form a Polaris nomination and some attendant notice from that; I hope that this one will make her known to even more people.

1 I'm not sure what manner of distortion the pedal steel was being played through on this one, but it sounded not unlike a Bigmuff, creating a bracing effect.

2 And the fact that this band contained both a current and former romantic partner probably also creates an interesting dynamic to observe – for those interested in that kind of thing.

3 Although this may not be a unanimous opinion. At one point, when Julie came giggling back to the microphone after conferring with her bandmates over how one of the songs had been played on the album, a woman beside me asked her friend: "Is this the first gig she's ever done?"

4 At one point, someone in the crowd called out for "Shady Lane" and was immediately rewarded with a playful rush through that Pavement song.

5 I should pause to note that even when figuring things out on the fly, Julie's guitar work was top-notch throughout. She even seemed taken aback by her own skills at the end of "The Wrong City", exclaiming, with surprise, "We were jamming! I've never done that before!"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Album: Charles Spearin / The Happiness Project

Artist: Charles Spearin

Title: The Happiness Project

There's quite a lot going on here. While, at the most basic level, the music on this wouldn't surprise anyone with a passing knowledge of DMST (or even the more ambient side of BSS), it's the method that intrigues. Spearin sat down and talked to his neighbours about happiness, and used the sounds of their words as the basis of his music.

While I could try and make some informed observations about mimesis, I will leave that to those wiser than myself and merely observe that to me, the image created by this album is of a cartoon with a person speaking, their animated speech balloon suddenly popping as their voice turns into music.

The thing that interests me most, though, is that this album is rather radical, in a subtle kind of way. How often does the music I listen to choose to concentrate on dourness rather than happiness? How striking is it that it is unusual to think about people sitting around and talking about what makes them happy?

And perhaps, most surprising of all was how, after listening to this, I suddenly did hear music in the voices of people talking around me. Sometimes we need a reminder.

Track pick: 3 - "Vittoria"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Album: V/A / 'I Found a Rose in the Devil's Garden' - Jazz Cylinders 1917-1922

Artist: V/A

Title: 'I Found a Rose in the Devil's Garden' - Jazz Cylinders 1917-1922

A cool curiosity offered up by the internet, this is a compilation of early hot music sides, sometimes referred to as the 'jass'.1 These recordings are from Edison's wax cylinders, old enough that they even predate 78 rpm records.

I'm not enough of a historian to fully appreciate the intricacies of precisely where these recordings fall in the grand story of the form, but it's telling that several of these sides ("The 'jass' one-step" [1917], "Jazbo jazz" [1918], "Jazz de luxe" [1918], and "Jazzin' around" [1918], to name a few) are early enough in the game that the genre name served as a sort of novelty title.2 Musically, these are closest to dixieland (although some, such as Earl Fuller, in non-African-American New York interpretations), filled with ensemble playing and syncopation, but not much in the way of the soloing that would mark the next stage of jazz' development.

But I'm almost certainly in way over my head with all that. Just appreciated musically, there is some pretty fun stuff here. Some of it comes across as a little staid, but a good portion of it cooks nicely, such as the aforementioned "Jazz de luxe". A couple cuts by the Louisiana Five are also pretty tasty. Running to 33 cuts over two-and-a-quarter hours, this can get a bit much to take in large doses, but I find that applied to almost any set of old sides, when every song was as packed as possible to engage you for three or four minutes. The sonic quality varies a bit, of course — there's surface noise in all of these recordings, and a few have some warp and wobble to them, but considering how "lo-fi" the recordings are, these are very good.

This set was compiled losslessly by an enterprising Dime user from the archives of the cylinder digitization project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has made them available online with this sort of free sharing in mind.3 Praise is due to those involved for making an effort to put music like this in circulation.

Track picks: 6 - "Clarinet squawk" (Louisiana Five), 17 - "Jazz de luxe" (Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band)

1 Or 'jazz', to use the modern vernacular.

2 A noble tradition later carried on by such songs as "Rock Around the Clock", "Rapper's Delight", etc., etc.

3 A browse around through the archives is well worth the time — there's some fascinating stuff there, and all available to sample as MP3's.

Gig: Oh No Forest Fires / Still Life Still / Arietta

Oh No Forest Fires / Still Life Still / Arietta

Lee's Palace. Friday, March 21, 2009.

In the indie rock game, you pays your money and you takes your chances. On a Friday night with no big plans after seeing a movie, $7 seemed like a fair investment in some unknown qualities. On the whole, none of the three bands I saw blew my mind, but it was still a decent evening.

If nothing else, it was a stirring sign of community spirit, and really encouraging to see a large, young crowd out for four local bands on a Friday night. All the bands, as well, seemed to be a mutually supportive bunch — I guess it wasn't just a comment on the lack of gender balance on the stage that the event was dubbed "BroFest". I think my favourite part of the night was when some of the bandmembers brought out their handcrafted, paint-splattered BroFest banner up to mount on the stage, which turned out to be done on the back of a CMW banner from last week. That's some top-notch DIY creative re-purposing.

First up were Arietta, a complete unknown quantity to me. I guess I would file them under that broad (and vaguely pejorative) term "modern rock" — they sounded like their music could be slipped right into the playlist of The Edge or some such.1 Which is to say they were probably objectively "good", but didn't interest me at all. The frontman looked like he had misread one of those lists of don'ts: two-handed microphone gripping, leg up on the monitor for emotive bending over, etc. But at least he was a good enough vocalist to justify his presence in the band. In their defence, the band did look like they were making some efforts at mixing up their sound a bit, but some textures like melodica were totally lost in the mix. They sound like they could do well for themselves, and had (for a band going on at 9:30) a reasonable crowd of folks down on the dancefloor. And ultimately, if you can make nineteen-year-old girls wiggle, that's probably a better predictor of success than my taste. If I were a mersh A&R man, I'd snap these dudes straight up.2

Next up were Still Life Still, probably the band on the bill I was most curious about. Having the phrase "recent Arts & Crafts signees" slapped next to your name probably creates a certain set of expectations. A five-piece unit playing a sort of smeary version of that dance-ified post-punk thing, they come across as having a not-yet-settled sound, a few competing ideas not totally integrated into one concept. At first they evoked a sort of Born Ruffians/D'Urbervilles kind of vibe, and I found the first part of the set the least interesting. As things progressed, that was undercut by a sort of Modest Mouse feel, and that made things go down a little better. A woozy, slowed-down number in the middle was the best of the bunch, and I could begin to see what Kevin Drew might have seen in this lot. Once the easy dance beats gave way to the hazier stuff with ragged, collective vox, it began to make more sense to me. With an EP and an album forthcoming from A&C, I can only imagine there'll be plenty more chances to see them in the next few months, so I reserve the right not to make up my mind yet.3

They were followed by Oh No Forest Fires, another crew that I had heard some good things about. They played a sort of guitar rock skewed by rapid-bursting spazzy asides exploding out from broken powerpop dreams. Their best weapon was charismatic frontman Rajiv Thavanathan, who can apparently find his way around a melody but seems to have some inner compulsion to step on it like a wayward spider.4 The set ended with a raucous cover of "Footloose", with the stage crowded by members of all the night's bands plus some from Great Bloomers. The band was fun, energetic and full of good vibes. I dug them, and I appreciated the music, but I wouldn't declare myself a convert.

After seeing Dinosaur Bones last week, I knew I wanted to see them again, but after the end of ONFF's set past midnight I could feel myself fading — not in an ideal state to try and appreciate their subtleties. So I headed out. A la prochaine, Dino Bones.

1 Caveat: I really have no idea what commercial radio sounds like in this decade, so this is largely a supposition on my part. In my imagination, this is what bands on the radio sound like.

2All the lads of Arietta, save the singer, were all wearing white t-shirts on stage, leaving me wondering if this was an attempt at a unified look or if when they all met up backstage before the gig they were all, like, "Bro! You wore a white t-shirt today? I wore a white t-shirt today!"

3 Tangential note: the bass player had a five string, which I normally associate with limpid funk-lite. Are there any examples of quality rock bands with a five-string bass? Could this be the first?

4 A couple songs led by the bassist/keyb player Matt Del Buono were less successful, and didn't totally fit in with the rest of the set.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Album: Matt & Kim / Grand

Artist: Matt & Kim

Title: Grand

Sold as upbeat boy/girl pop, I found this not exactly what I was expecting. Kim is clearly underdeployed — not until "Lessons Learned", the sixth track, do we hear her, and just some la-la-la's at that. More variety than Matt's mildly bleating vox would be an improvement. And I have no love for the canned production sound, a few tracks (such as "Cool Ol' Fashion Nightmare") reminding me of The Russian Futurists.

That said, the album isn't a write-off – there is certainly some catchy songwriting throughout (current fave: "Don't Slow Down", whose synths make it a bit of an idiot cousin to "Just Can't Get Enough") but all-in-all, a bit of a shrug of the shoulders.

Afterthought: It's not impossible that the tunes themselves are just growing on me a bit, but after listening to their recent Morning Becomes Eclectic session, I really do think there is some quality in the production of this album that irked me, as I found the radio session to be much more agreeable.

Track pick: 6 - "Don't Slow Down"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gig: CMW (Saturday)

CMW: Jon-Rae Fletcher / Young Galaxy / Les Handclaps / The Hoa-Hoa's / The Beekeepers / The Disraelis

Lee's Palace / The Horseshoe / Rancho Relaxo / The Silver Dollar. Saturday, March 14, 2009.

My normal approach to these sorts of things usually involves pre-planning/ arriving early/ staying put. But with nothing seriously top-to-bottom compelling me, I decided, for a change, to wing it and use my wristband to its full advantage, with just a copy of eye to give me some idea where I was heading.

9 P.M.: Jon-Rae Fletcher @ Lee's Palace

His in-store performance rekindling my interest, decided I'd better not miss his full band set. So got into Lee's a few minutes before nine.1 There were a respectable number of people inside for that early in the night, and it certainly looked like there were a few number of people who came early to get seats and were settled in for the evening. The band actually came on before the top of the hour and launched right into a set again dominated by Oh, Maria. Jon-Rae was backed by a three-piece unit, travelling, I guess, without the keyb and trombone that added a bit of extra texture to the recording. The backing was generally decent — although the guit player missed a couple notes, he had the right vibe. Playing to a room mostly there for other bands, there was reasonable applause for the numbers, plus a small cadre whooping out and shouting requests clearly there to hear Jon-Rae. Honouring that bunch, the band left for a few solo numbers from the back catalogue, including "Fire" again, and a partial take on "Just One More" where the spirit was willing, but memory of the lyrics was weak. It was a fine performance, and my hope now is that Jon-Rae can reconcile with some more of his old songs and mix up his setlist a bit.2

The place had filled in even more during the set, and as I made my way out, I was taken aback by the length of the line stretching down the sidewalk outside the club. Was everyone out to see Elliott Brood and Cuff the Duke, or was it going to be like this everywhere?

10:10 P.M.: Young Galaxy @ The Horseshoe

As it turned out, I had no problem getting into the 'Shoe, which was well-filled, but not packed. Just had time to grab a drink and head towards the stage as Young Galaxy came on. I had liked their album okey, but I had been truly sold on them in these same digs in the fall of '07, where in a smeary wall of guitars and smoke-machine haze, they totally blew headliners Besnard Lakes off the stage. I was hoping for some of that same live spark, as well as some new material, which is exactly what I got. The band, in fact, played only a couple songs from the debut album, giving the bulk of the set over new stuff. It was all good, and some of it (especially a trio of songs led by Catherine McCandless' vox) were a cut above that. One in particular (possibly called "Burning Heart") was jaw-droppingly excellent, a sort of shoegazing slow-dance number. Plus, some style points for frontman Stephan Ramsay, who thoughtfully despoited his guitar on the overhead pipes before leaving the stage. The new stuff seemed pretty warmly received and it certainly whetted my appetite for their forthcoming album, going a long way towards ensuring that I'll be seeing them again when they hit town for a full show.3

11 P.M.: Les Handclaps @ Rancho Relaxo

I knew I was aiming to make the Silver Dollar my ultimate destination for the night, but the blurb for the eleven o'clock band wasn't compelling, so I decided to take a random detour to check out Rancho Relaxo. As I walked up the stairs and into the room I noted that the floor was covered with shiny confetti, and I was briefly worried that Peachcake, who had been first on the bill there that night, had somehow imploded, leaving only a residue of sparkling glitter.4 As I flashed my wristband, my mind was struggling with two things: a) is that, in fact, "Pump Up the Jam"? and b) hey, is that Mitsou?

The answers were "yes", and "not quite". I had walked into a room of people dancing to a Technotronic cover. This was Les Handclaps, who turned out to be a sort of electro-rappin' yé-yé combo, backing tracks augmented by dudes on keyb and guit, and fronted by Lorraine Muller, who indeed looked not unlike Mitsou's older sister clad in fetish gear. Their music, mostly en français, was a sexy dancin' good time, and the mostly-younger crowd were really into it. Of all the random acts I could have wandered into, this was a pretty good result, the sort of thing I might not go out of my way for in my usual manner of things, but greatly energizing fun to take in.

12:30 A.M.: The Hoa Hoa's @ Silver Dollar

Thusly pumped up, I headed 'round the corner and into the Silver Dollar in time to catch a song and a half by Picturesound, enough to make me feel sure I'd been right to give them a miss. Nothing particularly wrong with them (though the singer seemed a little weak), but their Madchester-styled choons seemed like a rehash I wasn't looking for.

A bit of a wait, then, but fortunately the club was much less packed than it'd been twenty-four hour previously5, and I was able to find a seat and relax until The Hoa Hoa's6 came on, which turned out to be quite a treat. They managed to press the exact buttons to excite me, playing songs that sounded like Nuggets singles played at 33 1/3, with the chorus cut out and the instrumental break occupying the bulk of the real estate. Which is to say the focus wasn't so much on the songs (which featured the vox pretty low in the mix, as one more sonic element rather than a featured attraction) but on the rhythmic interplay — though not in a "jamming" kind of way: more like the musical equivalent of watching someone working out a logic puzzle, resolving how the psych leanings bump up against something more austere and exacting. Very exciting, and I am on the lookout now for their disc and another chance to see if they sound like that all the time.

1:30 A.M.: The Beekeepers

Apparently fulfilling some sort of quota, The Beekeepers occupied the same "cute collective" slot occupied by The Ghost is Dancing the night before, to not much better results. Again the constant shuffling around between instruments, again the props.7 And songs that weren't particularly interesting, all dressed up and overarranged. Not for me.

2:30 A.M.: The Disraelis

Waiting through The Beekeepers turned out to be worth it, though. A trio sharing a drummer with The Hoa Hoa's, The Disraelis had a more stripped-down and shoegazing sound, with the guitar textures playing up against briskly-played bass. Not quite as mesmerizing, but I did like their sound quite a bit. Well worth seeing, and a good way to end to the night and the festival.8

1 Though I still like seeing a show at Lee's, the rigmarole at the door, staffed by oft-surly bouncers, is getting off-putting. To get in, everyone had to queue up, show I.D. and get a bag check — none of which happened anywhere else I went for CMW.

2 Even an Annie Lennox cover would be appreciated.

3 Random note: as I was leaving, Jeff Cohen (with whom I am apparently becoming weirdly fascinated) was working the front door, monitoring capacity. He paused in counting patrons off to quickly remark, "Hey, Anti-Flag! Cool shirt!" to the guy in front of me.

4 It's also possible that they travel by teleportation, and this was some sort of by-product of their departure.

5 Though still well-populated by loud, drunk, spastically-dancing types. Dag.

6 Pronounced "wah wahs".

7 In this case: a bubble-blowing machine, and a mannequin torso mounted on a turntable. Whimsical! (Or, possibly, evoking some sort of cultural commentary that I'm missing out on.)

8 I heard later from K., who I nodded at on the way out (chatting up a conference-badge-wearing fellow) that the subsequent band's performance involved a mosh pit. I feel fine for having missed that.

In-store: Jon-Rae Fletcher / Hollerado @ Criminal Records

Jon-Rae Fletcher / Hollerado

Criminal Records. Saturday, March 14, 2009.

After the Trash Palace gig ended, had time to stretch my legs with the walk up to Queen Street, caffeinate myself, and wander leisurely over to Criminal Records. Any worries I had about having to fight through the crowds were dissolved by the rather meager turnout to see Jon-Rae Fletcher's solo set, which was about a dozen people, bandmembers included. Sporting a new, pomade-enabled quiff1, Jon-Rae treated us to a half-dozen songs, leading off with the excellent "Fire" (from '07's Knows What You Need) but otherwise sticking with songs from the new Oh, Maria disc. It was a highly pleasing intimate performance, and a good reminder of the strength of his compositions, making me realize that I'd be a fool to skip his evening set in favour of something else.

With no pressing engagements, I figured I'd check out the evening's other in-store, despite never having heard of the band. With a half-hour to kill, I walked over to Pages for a quick browse, and when I got back at just after seven, Hollerado was already playing. To my surprise, there was a respectable crowd in front of the band, bopping merrily away. The band's key demographic appeared to be about sixteen years old, which is perhaps why they were not on my radar. They played spiky, catchy rock-pop — nothing groundbreaking, but at least managing to avoid some of the contemporary mersh clichés and remaining upbeat throughout. They were fully proficient but managed to be fairly self-deprecating, and despite being a known quantity (they clearly had a "hit" that the kids were anticipating and cheering for) they didn't put themselves above their fans, inviting people up to whistle a hook on one song and sing background vox on another. Nothing I'd go out of my way for, but it was pleasant, and the kids are alright2 and could do worse than listen to this kind of stuff, I guess.

1 Could a Brylcreem endorsement be in the offing?

2 Except possibly the one young lad dressed in a Sgt Pepper marching band jacket. A red one, no less, making him George, which is questionable in the "cool" department. Or possibly the epitome of cool these days, I suppose. What do I know?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gig: No Shame matinée @ Trash Palace


No Shame & The MuseBox present Rural Alberta Advantage / Dinosaur Bones / Great Bloomers / Peachcake

Trash Palace. Saturday, March 14, 2009.

A blurb describing Peachcake as "Kids on TV for kids" was enough to get A. (fighting a cold) out to join me for this matinée. We headed down, knowing vaguely where we were going, and knew we'd found the gig when we saw a small crowd scuffling in an alley. Headed inside and took in the digs. I'd been to a flick at the Trash Palace before they'd moved to this spot, and this looked like a good fit for "the 11th best place to watch a film in Toronto". Given that this was an all-ages afternoon show/unofficial CMW event, there was a pretty good mix of types in the crowd: hung-over concert-goers, spectacularly cool teenagers1, parents, kids.


With no stage and the bands just occupying the floor at one end of the room, it was a fairly basic set up, almost more like a practice space, albeit one with a movie screen behind the band adding some visual flair to the proceedings.2 An ideal venue, really, for Peachcake, who were absolutely dedicated to blurring the lines between performer and audience. They were also right in that fuzzy zone between "band" and "art project" with a guitarist and keytarist supplementing a laptop with backing tracks, but putting the focus squarely on frontman Stefan Pruett, busting out like a Furry with a breakdancing jones, who wanted nothing more than spread the gospel of Awesomeness and make people move. Thus a great deal of dancing and leaping about, including an ill-advised monkey bar routine on the distinctively not-load-bearing overhead water pipes3. Liberal use was made of a pile of props, including a rainbow umbrella and a giant sheet made into a tent for everyone to dance under. Great fun for those willing to get into the participatory spirit of it and dance away, and totally amusing for the rest of us stick-in-the-muds. Musically, I don't know if they were all that great — I hardly remember the music — but they were entertaining as hell. Or as A. said, with his typical understatement afterwards: "You know what the problem with that was? It was just like every other show I've been to."


Things got more conventionally rock'n'roll after that, with Great Bloomers taking the floor, changing the vibe from queer exuberance to heartland earnest. Great Bloomers' style is probably closest to 80's roots-rock: a bit of country road dust, but without explicit twang.4 They were counterpointed by an old Slayer concert video playing on the screen behind them ("I got this from my uncle when I was in grade seven," said singer Lowell Sostomi), leading to some amusing banter between songs. The band was engaging, but not especially so — I have no gripes with them but their music didn't particularly hook me in.


Dinosaur Bones, somewhat to my surprise, did grab me more. What I might have merely dismissed as melodic modern rock (descended from British club bands playing as if they were British stadium bands) had some sort of slowly swirling undertow that I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the fact the band could have made the songs anthemic, but went down a more interesting and textured path. I'm not quite sure, but I enjoyed them and would see them again to try and nail it down more.


Last up was the one known quantity in the show to me: The Rural Alberta Advantage. For a band that I dismissed sneeringly on first hearing them ("like Hayden with a distortion pedal," I'd sniffed) and had left halfway through their set the second time I saw them, it's rather surprising that something clicked when I gave them one more shot, taking them in last fall opening a gig for Ohbijou and The Acorn. That time, I liked them enough to leave the show with a copy of their Hometowns disc, and listening to the slightly more subtle touch on the album really sealed the deal. So although I'd seen them before, this was my first time going in expecting to, like, feel it. And indeed I did. The combination of melancholy lyrics, subtly propulsive rhythms and lovely movie-star calibre cheekbones mesmerised me for their half-hour.5 Wrapping up their setlist with a couple minutes left on the clock, the band stepped out in front of the microphones and closed with a hushed version of an (unreleased?) song called "Goodbye" that brought a tear to these crusty old eyes. Garnering tonnes of accolades, this band seems on the way up, so who knows if I'll see them in such close quarters again?


Overall, a really good show, and fantastic value for money. It's always nice to get out of the clubs to see a gig, so kudos are due to everyone who put this together. There should be more shows like this.

1 While on the one hand, I realize how awesome it is that there are shows like this to get the young generation up to speed, culturally speaking, at an early age, there's also the cranky part of me that feels it's completely unfair that the kids get to discover the good stuff without having to suffer through listening to Genesis and Toto and Men at Work first, like we had to back in my day.

2 Another excellent addition was a giant digital countdown timer behind the band, showing that the claim of "strict 30 minute sets" was no idle boast.

3 This led to some intervention from proprietor Stacey Case, who, overall, was very cool with the fact that a crowd of people were basically hanging out in his workspace. To me, what Mr. Case is doing at the Trash Palace is the absolute essence of "support for the arts", a genuine labour of love that will hopefully not go unrewarded.

4 Revealing cover song: The Band's "Look Out Cleveland".

5 Plus, given the nature video that was playing on the screen behind them, from now on whenever I see a closeup of a praying mantis eating the head of another bug, I'll always think of the RAA.

Gig: CMW (Friday)

CMW: Hooded Fang / Teenanger / Japandroids / The Mark Inside / The D'Urbervilles / The Ghost is Dancing

Gladstone Hotel Ballroom / The Silver Dollar. Friday, March 13, 2009.

Walked into the Gladstone Ballroom just as Hooded Fang were getting underway. Didn't see anything else especially eye-grabbing as an option, so I thought I'd check them out despite having seen them last month. Got a fairly similar set, but that at least showed consistency of their talent, and that it was no fluke the first time around. Once again they made me smile. Good bouncy pop.

Teenanger looked like a diverse bunch of miscreants (nerd/slimebag/reprobate/sexy chick) that had ended up in a band together. They were basically mining from a rich vein of Stooge-y rock. Just starting to build up a good head of steam a couple of songs in, all momentum was sapped from the set when a broken string (and no backup guit) brought things to a complete halt for a few minutes. A contingency plan for this sort of eventuality is definitely indicated for the future. Once things got going again, they were pretty good, although for one reason or another the guitar was pretty quiet for the rest of the set. Whether the room's sound system was just underpowered for this kind of thing, or perhaps the guitarist didn't crank things fully up after replacing the string, it made the band feel a bit less biting than it should have — music like this demands a loud, mean, snarling guitar sound. Even though the songs didn't stick with me, I enjoyed their set, and I dig what they do.

I had read some interesting things about Japandroids and they were probably the main reason I'd come down to the Gladstone. A two-piece (guit/drums) from Vancouver, with both members shouting along.1 An obvious point of comparison would be No Age, but these guys are coming from a different place, more straight-up garage2. When they started, I was a little doubtful: with their off-the-cuff shouty hooks, the first thing that came to mind was Armada.3 But as the set went on, they won me over as I realized these guys had found a sweet spot between sounding rough and sounding tight. The lads were also in a spot between swagger and modesty, making casual overtures to the women in the room while seeming humbled to be out on the road, playing for strangers. By set's end, I was a convert, and the deal was sealed on the last song when Brian lurched behind the drum kit, and then, while attempting to step out, tripped backwards over the monitor, and ended up sprawled out, still playing. As the song ended, he shouted, "we're going up the CN Tower, and you guys should come with us!"4

In the warm glow of that, it was time to switch venues and by luck there was a streetcar pulling up as I got to the stop. Made my way east and north to The Silver Dollar and had good timing again, as The Mark Inside were just finishing their setting up. It'd been ages and ages since I'd been to the Silver Dollar, and I'd forgotten how claustrophobic it gets when the place is full, as it happened to be. Looking for room, I forged through the narrow peninsula in front of the stage and did find a bit more breathing space on the other side, though regardless of where I was standing, there seemed to be a loud drunk shouting at someone just inches away from me. As the band started, I tried to remember where I'd read something positive about them, but was drawing a complete blank.5 With no preconceptions, I can say they were a very good band who were not totally my style. Good solid rock, very proficient. If I had to guess, I'd wager that a blues-rock band lurks in their background... and that a Tragically Hip-esque band lurks in their future, though without the mytho-poetic baggage. Very well-received by the crowd.

Next up was The D'Urbervilles, who were the band I'd come to see. Singer John O'Regan (tall, laser-beam glare) still projects a youthful image, arriving on stage wearing a backpack and being handed a slurpee soonafter, giving a bit of image of a high school-aged Ian Curtis. But despite their youthful appearance, this is a band that has fast matured. I last saw them almost exactly a year ago, at their album release gig, and their musical growth since then was palpable, as was their confidence. In short, they gave the sense that they have become who they are. Their set was powerful and spooky focused. This was one where I genuinely wish the band had been able to stay on for longer. The D'Urbervilles really come across like a band in their moment, so hopefully there are bigger stages in their future.

Anything might have seemed like a comedown after that, but The Ghost is Dancing felt more like a plummet. Another sprawling cute-rock collective, replete with props (their presence was announced with their name spelled out on a Lite-Brite) and instrument changes aplenty, there just wasn't anything I could get into here. The band was six members deep, which seemed like at least two too many, as it left the songs feeling over-arranged and all mashed together instead of layered. Not for me. I was feeling beat by then, and getting no lift from this music, decided it was time to make my way home.

1 In a fiendishly nerdy coincidence the drummer is named David Prowse. Although I imagine he must have taken some grief over this, it seems likely that anyone who'd make fun of someone about this would be the sort of person easily beaten up anyways.

2 Although if I were trying to be cool, I'm sure I could find some west coast punk band to place them in some sort of rock lineage. Maybe just a touch of early NoMeansNo?

3 Obviously sans Herman Menderchuck.

4 I note they already have another local show lined up, May 9 at the El Mo. I recommend it.

5 It was only after a week or so later, that I put it together in my head that I'd read their new album was recorded with Arctic Monkeys producer Jim Abbis, and that they opened a string of UK dates for The Hold Steady. Interestingly, one wonders if this would have shaped my appreciation of the band had I remembered this going in.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gig: CMW (Thursday)

Canada Music Week feat. The Lovely Feathers / $100 / Women / Gentlemen Reg / Chad VanGaalen

The Horseshoe. Thursday, March 12, 2009.

Arrived a little bit past eight, and ducked downstairs. By luck, the coatcheck was open, so I was able to unload coat and bag. Getting my shit together, in the basement alcove area down by the bathrooms I was digging around for my earplugs, and noticed this woman standing in front of one of the CMW posters, sharpie in hand. She started vigourously crossing out the name of Burton Cummings1. "Am I falling in love?" I asked myself as she scrawled something above his markered-out name. I leaned in to observe that she had written "RANDY BACHMAN" and I was thinking to myself that was a sort of weird but cool bit of commentary when she noticed me scrutinizing her handiwork. And explained that it was because Burton Cummings had gotten sick and canceled out or some such thing. She wasn't a street critic at all! Just some kind of cute apologist/functionary for the military/industrial/Burton Cummings complex.

Anyways, back upstairs and ran into K., who'd also picked this as her CMW destination for the night. She was fretting over the poor job the doorperson did on her wristband, leaving it annoyingly loose and on the wrong arm.

Annoyed wristband fixation ensued, but further discussion was forestalled by The Lovely Feathers starting up, about whom I don't have much kind to say. Sort of a mildly proggy Tokyo Police Club is probably enough description. Toss in some overwrought, silly lyrical concepts (the angst of walking on the beach, the death of the pope) to boot. I mostly rolled my eyes and soldiered through it.

By the time $100 were setting up, the room had largely filled up, and they proceeded to play a focused set to an appreciative crowd. Hard to gauge whether the change was in my mood or in the performance, but I thought the band was appreciably more swinging (as in 'tight but loose') than when I saw them a month ago. I was especially struck by "My Father's House", with the interplay between steel guit and el-p sounding like a vintage Gordon Lightfoot track. Simone's vox sounded a little rough, especially near the start of the set, and constrained to the lower end of her range, but was also working on a beehive hairdo. Good stuff.

Next up: Women, who I had heard good things about but was generally unfamiliar with. They played slightly psychedelicized post-punk. Clinic came to mind, but perhaps more boiled down to the essential ingredients of Metal Box and Syd Barrett. I liked their sound, but wasn't particularly taken by most of their songs — the best parts came when the compositions melted down into an abrasive haze of echoplexed distortion. Perhaps realizing they lack a dynamic frontman, the vox were handled in a sort of "bullpen by committee" approach, and my enjoyment of their tunes was inversely proportional to the amount of singing going on. I would rate them as a band with potential, but not all the way there yet.

As the crowd cycled around between sets, we took the opportunity to move up and get central for the night's main attraction, and it was fairly dense by this point. So much so that when Jeff Cohen took the stage to make introduction, he announced that the club was at capacity. Which is a just reward for Gentleman Reg, doing a set drawn mostly from the recent Jet Black. He was backed with guit, keyb, no bass, and Dana Snell of The Bicycles sitting in on drums. A very proficient lot, though I thought at first the guitarist was making too-liberal use of some sort of staticky echo effect until he went over and thwacked his malfuncioning amp a couple times. Liz Powell (of Land of Talk) hopped up for some quiet backing vocals, and the set included a nice live arrangement of "We're in a Thunderstorm", replacing the album's disco-fied backdrop with a hi-hat riding DOR feel. Looking forward to a longer set from this band — hopefully there'll be some more local shows coming up.2

Moved back a piece after that — it was getting a little tight up front and the place was boiling. That, plus the wall of Very Tall Dudes that formed in front of us, plus general fatigue setting into my creaky bones kinda broke the spell of concentration, and not long after Chad VanGaalen3 took the stage, I was feeling done in. Based on my past experience, VanG is generically agreeable when rockin' out and kinda dull otherwise, and what I was hearing (and largely not seeing) wasn't changing that opinion. We lasted about halfway through and could hear the streetcar homeward beckoning, so we grabbed jacket and booked it out of there. I was feeling stiff and weary, but a worthy night.

Random note: graffiti spotted in the bathroom at the 'Shoe: "Beneath the concrete, the creak!" Is there a clever pun here I'm not getting, or is this upcoming generation of situationists not getting any learning on their homophones?

Random note #2: pseudo-celeb in attendance: the infamous Flyerman. Haven't seen him around for quite awhile, though I didn't miss him. K. reported him drunk and belligerent at the bar between sets.

1 Who is not too popular where I come from.

2 Looking ahead to summer, we can only hope the big stage at Pride finds a spot for Reg.

3 Rock t-shirt: Eric's Trip.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gig: AC Newman

AC Newman

Lee's Palace. Wednesday, March 11, 2009.


Making plans with R. beforehand,  we decided, on the available evidence, to take a pass on ukulele guy and meet for a pre-gig cup of tea instead. Walked across the street and got in at just the right time - not having to wait around too long, but still finding a good spot. A good-sized crowd, but the place wasn't packed.

Taking a break from his usual supergroup, Newman has created what is essentially another one. The band came on seven deep, and included Jon Wurster (Superchunk) on drums, Shane Nelkin (The Awkward Stage) on guit/keyb and Miranda Brown (Crooked Fingers) on bass. Plus a siren-y redhead (Tara Szczygielski) on violin to fulfil the siren-y redhead quota. And topped off with the backing vox of Nicole Atkins - why wasn't she opening?

The band played a short-ish but focused set (on stage at 10:30, and I was on the subway platform afterwards at 11:45) which was just the right length to showcase the tunes without overstaying their welcome. The bulk came from Get Guilty, with a handful from '04's The Slow Wonder tossed in ("Drink to Me, Babe, Then" was given a particularly effective treatment). Overall, the band was tight and had a very good energy, bringing nuances to the songs and improving on several over their recorded versions. Some of Newman's more interesting work - on Get Guilty as well as the N.P.'s Challengers disc - has come with taking the foot off the accellerator a bit, and the highlight of the set came with "The Changeling" and "Submarines of Stockholm" back to back, filled with the shine of A.M. Gold -- like E.L.O. fronted by Terry Jacks.

Carl was, as always, a witty banterer on stage, pausing to mockingly take Sloan to task ("those guys have had it in for me since 1995!") for scheduling a gig in town on the same night as him, as well as riffing on comments from the crowd. The band, sadly, went unintroduced, perhaps so as not to distract the credit from Newman in his "solo" mode. But it was good enough that there's plenty of credit to spread around.

All told, a good show and home at a semi-decent hour.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Album: V/A / Dark Was the Night

Artist: V/A

Title: Dark Was the Night

Being of an age that No Alternative was a big deal to me when it came out, I felt a twinge of anticipation for its successor, despite feeling the particular sort of ambivalence that one generally reserves for compilations. At worst a dumping ground for not-quite-b-sides (or, worse, for remixes, uninteresting covers or superfluous live versions), a comp'll sometimes click and provide both nuggets by well-loved bands and signposts towards things to explore.

This one falls somewhere in the middle. Listening on my walk without the tracklist handy, I found, on examination after the fact that the stuff I liked most was largely the bands I could identify right away, and as for signposts, there were a lot more warning me away than beckoning on.

The first disc is especially underwhelming, frontloaded with a bunch of this season's sensitive crooners — Bon Iver, for example, not winning me over any more here. Only a couple songs towards the middle really stick, with a decent entry by The National and a solid Antony track covering Dylan covering Trad. Arr. A bit of increased regard towards the back end is negated by the set's nadir, "You Are the Blood" (a Castanets cover, apparently), a dreadfully indulgent ten-minute effort by Sufjan Stevens that supplements a couple minutes of song with a lot of would-be avant plunking around that gets turgid five minutes in and invites despondent thoughts by its end.

The second disc is an improvement, with more material that at least invites re-listening. Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio) surprises with a Troggs cover that sounds more like a Magnetic Fields cover, and there is a genuine hot streak in the middle, with a warm hug from Yo La Tengo (making an onscurity by Snapper their own), followed by some folksy goodness from Stuart Murdoch (of Belle and Sebastian fame) and then a wonderfully woozy bit of ambiance from Riceboy Sleeps, which turns out to be a side project of Sigur Rós vocalist Jónsi Birgisson, and sounds not at all unlike his band doing an instrumental Amiina cover.

So a bit of a muddle then, which might simply indicate how out of touch I am with the zeitgeist. But some worthy stuff here.

Track picks: On disc two: 6 - "With a Girl Like You" (Dave Sitek), 9 - "Gentle Hour" (Yo La Tengo), 10 - "Another Saturday" (Stuart Murdoch), 11 - "Happiness" (Riceboy Sleeps)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Album: AC Newman / Get Guilty

Artist: AC Newman

Title: Get Guilty

Carl Newman's previous solo album (2004's The Slow Wonder) had some stripped down, mildly wiry rockers, and though it did sound at times like a collection of New Pornographers' demos, there were also some other ideas being worked out, mostly about how weird the hooks could be while remaining catchy. ("The Battle for Straight Time", for example, sounded like it was working around a GBV riff played backwards). This one, by comparison, is more fully flushed out, making it sound rather more like a collection of New Pornographers b-sides, right down to the liberal application of Neko-esque backing vox. This is not entirely grounds for complaint, as nothing here is less than catchy. But there are less gems here, and I kept waiting for the Bejar or Case-led songs to switch things up a bit. Not something I'm going to listen to closely and at great length right now, but this feels like the sort of album I'll hear again in the background a few years from now and think to myself, "that sounds rather good." And pull it down off the shelf and enjoy.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gig: Jon Langford & His Sadies

Jon Langford & His Sadies / Jon Langford & The Burlington Welsh Male Choir / The Sadies

The Horseshoe. Friday, February 27, 2009.

After a very pleasant Friday night visit to the ROM (the newly-reopened minerals exhibit is well done, and worth a look) headed down to the 'Shoe and wound my way in through the crowd of choirists.

There was a whiff of familiarity to the night, as it felt very much a sequel to the Waco Brothers show of December '07, so this time I wasn't confused by the fact that half of the pre-show crowd appeared to be grey-haired gentlemen in pressed white shirts and ties. Grabbed a rum and coke and found a chunk of wall to lean against. Had good timing, as it wasn't too long before the throng began to assemble on stage, as the proceedings were overseen by Jeff Cohen in fanboy-emcee mode.1

On the previous visit, Jon Langford had done his tunes with the choir backed by the Waco Brothers' rhythm section. No slight to them (especially the inestimable Steve Goulding), but there was an upgrade tonight with The Sadies (all but invisible behind the mob) serving as the backing band. And "choir" here is to be taken literally – this is a full-bore, professional-quality ensemble, twenty-plus deep in number – not a "choir" in the indie-rock sense (which usually implies a handful of people crowded around a microphone, shouting in unison). All the same, although one can tell they are well-rehearsed and serious about their craft, they still feel like a bunch of lads at the local, joshing with each other and prepared to have a fun time. So it's a slightly unusual sort of thing to see at the 'Shoe.

As before, the set was drawn primarily from the excellent Skull Orchard alb, a logical jumping-off point as many of the songs celebrate Langford's memories of Wales. It might have been the pleasant buzz from the drink (which'd been quickly joined by a second, both settling in on an empty stomach) but this set was quite excellent, a step up even from their previous outing on the same stage. The peak came with "Tom Jones Levitation", a call for the singer to come home to claim his rightful place as the President of an independent Wales, followed up by a raucous cover of "Delilah". The choir largely maintained the energy with a couple songs on their own, as the Sadies departed the stage, and Langford moved to the side, still singing along in Welsh.

Then a break and a slight shifting of the crowd, as some of the friends and families of the choir members slipped away. Even still, it was generally an older crowd – very few under 25's in attendance. And not packed, but a nice crowd as The Sadies came on. Although the show's listing had said "Langford + Sadies 2 sets" it turned out, in fact, to be a straight-up Sadies set in between Langford's appearances. This is not a complaint.

It's hard to overstate how damn good The Sadies are. Seeing them semi-regularly, it's a little easy to take them for granted, but their expert proficiency is always striking. They played a full set (though that makes it compact compared to some of the marathons they have played on that same stage) that basically covered many of the "hits" and highlights of the catalogue, all enthusiastically received.

Seeing as it was a bloody cold night out, I had been hopeful of getting out of there in time to catch the subway; given that The Sadies returned to the stage with Langford for the headlining set at 12:45, I started to think was unlikely. In fact, the crowd had thinned out a bit since the end of The Sadies' set, and some more trickled away as the hour grew later. Their loss, as this was surely something worth staying for. Anchored, again, around one album, this set drew heavily from '03's collaborative The Mayors of the Moon, although as the night went on, a few covers began to creep in. Most excitingly, there were a pair of Mekons tunes, a cracking version of "Memphis, Egypt" plus a knockout take on "Where Were You?". Nearly as good was Dolly Parton's "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You". Langford and The Sadies were totally simpatico and filled with energy throughout. Honky-tonk rock'n'roll power.

All together, a rather excellent night, despite the fact that someone spilled beer on my jacket sleeve, and I ended up with a frigid 20-minute wait for the Dufferin night bus to get home. A small price to pay.

1 It's nice to think that some of what happens at the 'Shoe happens from a labour of love, not just plunking bands on stage as a means to separate patrons from their dough. Back at that Waco Brothers' gig, part of the Horseshoe's 60th birthday celebrations, Cohen and his coterie were at the front of the crowd, ripping it up throughout the night as pitcher after pitcher of tequila-based cocktails were ferried to them.