Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Festival: CMW 2011 (Friday)

CMW 2011* (Friday) (feat. Tennis System / Amanita Bloom / The Wilderness / Powers / Elephant Stone)

Friday, March 11, 2011.

This is an expansion of my initial notes from the festival, which can be found here.

9:00 P.M.: Tennis System @ Comfort Zone

For my first night of CMW, I had just settled in at Lee's. On Friday, I was a little more mobile, but mostly sticking along the Spadina/College axis. Or, to start, right at the heart of it in the Silver Dollar's seedy underbelly space known as Comfort Zone. Suffering the unbuzzed-visiting-band's fate, there was barely a handful of people in the room as I came in a few minutes past the hour with The Tennis System already on stage. And those that were on hand were mostly hanging back and seated in the room's shadowy corners, leaving the space in front of the stage very empty as I moved in to check 'em out. Regardless, the L.A.-via-Washington D.C. quartet were playing with bracing volume.

Making their first foreign excursion, Tennis System make what could broadly be termed 90's style alt-guitar rock — informed by shoegaze-type sounds, but more often in a secondhand sort of way — as if, say, filtered through early Smashing Pumpkins. Their vibe was also cut with a blue collar undercarriage that was less art-rock than shoegaze-y bands often deliver: even if the vox were low and textural, the arrangements were mostly reined in and the overall tone wasn't smear-y. They did, though, have a propensity for opacity, evidenced by song titles like "Esoteric" and "Arcane".

That gave a fruitful tension to their sound that paid off in some of the different faucets they brought to the stage: the set's penultimate number was the expansive seven-plus minutes of "The Web", with a big, shoegaze-style instrumental ending which then segued into "What Not to Do", something closer to a garage rock number, to finish up.

Not groundbreaking stuff, but I enjoyed this. More than most of the bands I would see on the night, I would say they're a band worth hearing again — they'd certainly fit right into a psych-garage bill upstairs at The Silver Dollar.1

Listen to a track from this set here.

9:30 P.M.: Amanita Bloom @ El Mocambo

On the other side of College, the El Mo was running its sets on the half-hour, so I managed to hit my next band with pretty much no dead time. This Montréal-based four-piece came recommended to me by the good folks at Optical Sounds, but it seems like the word on them hadn't really reached down the length of the 401 yet as they also had a pretty sparse crowd to play to. But given the band's spacious arrangements and after-hours vibe, this felt more proper with some elbow room than a packed/wired-up crowd would have been.

The band announced themselves with opener "Often in the Springtime", with singer/guitarist Étienne Morin's slightly quavery croon at the centre of things. Backed with a bass/drums/keyb lineup, the band members chatted in french amongst themselves, but Morin sang and bantered en anglais. (Dominic Leclerc, whose sound sometimes veered toward The Doors, had a franco-positive "E" at the end of the "ROLAND" on his keyboard.)

The band stretched out on a few of the songs, like "Hi Honey", which had enough reverb-y twang to lend it some atmosphere, but not so much to peg it solidly as retro. Similarly, there's a certain toughness underneath, but the music isn't in-your-face intense — ultimately, the best invocation here might be noir-ish. Another flavour was the blues-y slide in "Rattle Fish" — in local terms, there was a bit of a sonic common ground here with, say, The Mark Inside.

The set included six songs off their full-length Furniture Music album, and closed with a new one called "The Pharmacist's Pharmacist", which included more saturated psychedelic keyboards and a bit of a raveup to close things out. Definitely a solid set, and I dug it okay, but the band's reserved edge kept them from really getting under my skin at the time. Listening back now, I think I'm starting to appreciate how solid this stuff is.

Listen to a track from this set here.

11:00 P.M.: The Wilderness @ Comfort Zone

By the time I returned to Comfort Zone, where there were a few more people on hand, I just managed to catching the end of the blisteringness of HotKid. That would mark a pivot point in the night's lineup from capital-R Rock to something more akin to one of Alt Altman's electro-friendly Silent Shout events — and indeed I spotted him in the crowd taking this in. There were certainly hints of that in The Wilderness, who came across as a sorta less-grim Joy Division, courtesy of vocalist Lee Piazza's baritone. With a drum at hand for extra percussion, Piazza was in striking red pants and also shoeless — after completing his preparations before the set, he walked barefoot over the soundboard, and I cringed a little internally, hoping he was up to date with his tetanus shots. Though perhaps I was buying into the Comfort Zone's mythos a little too much.

And although there was a downerish vibe from Piazza's vox, that was countered by the decidedly non-mopey bounce in the music, with both guitarist Nate Lyons-Fisher and drummer Chris Mason augmenting their work with synth sleekness while Jami Lefebvre added an e-bow glide to "Systems". The potential for this to veer into mere gloomfunk was also countered when, during "Simon Templar", Piazza tossed out a bag of balloons for the crowd to blow up and bat around.

The songs that the band was playing here would subsequently emerge on their .272 album,2 and to be honest, it didn't leave too much of a mark on me. There was nothing specifically unlikable here, though Piazza hewed a little too close to banter-y unctuousness on one hand and Matt Beringer-isms on the other for me to totally get into it.

Midnight: Powers @ Comfort Zone

With nothing else planned for this timeslot, I stuck in CZ to catch this group. The only thing I knew about them is that they are a reformulation of The Ghost is Dancing, a band that hadn't done much for me in their day ("another sprawling cute-rock collective" was my take). So it's to their credit that the now-four piece is at least not at all like what they used to be.

The room's blacklighting was supplemented by some more that the band brought — they kept things in the dark pretty much otherwise. The sound was electro-fied and processed, with the drummer augmented with a laptop as well as two keyboard players and a vocalist playing a DI'ed guitar. The set's first song didn't have much forward thrust, and just kinda laid there — though it introduced the notion that the band was willing to harness texture as much as anything else.

There was more of a pulse after that, and I got the notion that the band is interested in playing with some big dynamics of tension and release. That would be their biggest stock-in-trade, though there were hints of a more straight-ahead pop sensibility as well, such as the New Order vibe of "Sleeping Patterns". That one made me feel more in sync with the dancers up against the stage. The song had a great groove, although the vocal delivery was a little underwhelming. In fact, the vocals switched back and forth a little bit, but neither vocalist was coming across particularly strongly, though surely some of that can be laid on CZ's sound system.

All things considered, I didn't like any of live takes of these songs as much as the recorded versions that have now emerged. But let's leave that as implying there's room for improvement, and the backhand complement that I think this band is more likely to win some grudging approval from me than its predecessor.

1:00 A.M.: Elephant Stone @ Rancho Relaxo

I closed out the night by ducking around the corner to Rancho, which was a glasses-fogging sweltering sauna as I entered. For a few minutes after I came up the stairs I thought I might simply keel over from the sultry heat. Perhaps it's best then that I had a few minutes to adjust while the band was mired in a prolonged setup, and didn't get things going til about a quarter past the hour. That would leave them being extremely time-conscious for the whole of their set, cutting things back by a couple songs.

But they didn't rush through the stuff that they did play, starting with a couple minutes of sitar drone that slowly ramped up into the funky psychedelic instrumental "The Straight Line". This was genuinely groovy stuff — there should have been a lava lamp at the front of the stage to watch.

The Montréal group is a five piece under the command of Rishi Dhir, who was, at the outset, seated on a raised platform with his sitar. After seven simmering minutes, he switched to bass and the songs became a bit more standard-issue psychedelicized pop, bringing especially to mind an 80's Creation Records-type revisiting of 60's pop styles — it should be noted that their Stone Roses-invoking band name doesn't come by accident. Still, there were plenty nods to the 60's originators of the style as well: while soundchecking, keyboardist Bobby Fraser was noodling with a mellotron setting over the opening of Strawberry Fields, and later, while Dhir switched instruments, he kept the drone up with a harmonium-esque sound.

Because of that long setup ("we have a lot of gear," Dhir noted slightly sheepishly), they only played three songs after the long instrumental opener. The rest of the set was agreeable, but didn't quite engage me as much as "The Straight Line". My biggest wish would be for the sitar-led drive in that jam to be be better integrated with the popsongs. Maybe in a full set that happens more naturally, and closer "Don't You Know" did hint at it, employing a prerecorded sitar loop at the start before Dhir switched back to the live one for the song's lengthy instrumental close. Definitely worthy of further exploration.

Listen to a track from this set here.

* A note on nomenclature: for years both the industry showcase and music festival components were known as Canadian Music Week. But as of 2009, this was deemed to be too simple and straightforward, and the music portion was "rebranded" as Canadian Music Fest, under the aegis of the larger Canadian Music Week. I see no reason to put up with this and will simply refer to everything as CMW — although there was a part of me that also considered using the slightly cumbersome "Canadian Music Fest presented by Canadian Music Week" throughout.

1 The band has a couple albums' worth of agreeable material to check out on their bandcamp.

2 The album is available as a free download at their bandcamp. I note that Rance Mulliniks had a career .272 average, but I presume the recording's title comes from something less obscure.

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