Friday, June 22, 2012

Currente calamo: NXNE 2012 (Saturday)

NXNE 2012 (Wednesday, June 13, 2012)

While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so there'll be a fuller accounting of the night by and by that'll include even more details and recordings.

8 p.m.: Warm Myth @ The Garrison

After a busy day of rock'n'roll that included a boat cruise and some in-store action, I headed over to The Garrison. Rumour had it that there was some sort of show going on at Yonge-Dundas Square, but that's not my scene. As the hour rolled around, I was content to be in what looked like an audience of three rather than a thousands-strong sardine can crush. And as the band held off, trying to get some technical glitches worked out, some friends and supporters trickled in so that there was at least a respectable handful around to see the live debut of Warm Myth.

Casey Mecija has played some solo shows in the past, but they were mostly a chance to workshop stripped-down versions of tunes bound for the next Ohbijou release. For this project, however, Mecija is working as much with sonics, crafting a different kind of music than what we've heard in the past. Her collaborator here is drummer Kieran Adams, most recently seen playing alongside Bonjay. In fact, his high-velocity work there came straight to mind at the start of this set, as his "In The Air Tonight"-style thumpitude was a bit at odds with Mecija's woozy synth track. That mismatch can be put down to the fact that the pair were very clearly still learning how this material works in a live setting (as well as the normal sonic gremlins in a set's first song as the tech gets everything in balance).

By second number "Working" (one of tunes featured on the band's soundcloud), that was reined in and there was a much more satisfying balance between the two players — all the more so as Mecija shuffled across the stage in the midst of a big, shred-y guitar part. Warm Myth is assuredly atmospheric, but that doesn't mean it's sedate.

The process isn't smooth and instinctive yet, and one song had to get a re-start (a "character-building moment," as Mecija called it), but there are some very interesting seeds here. Instead of some of more stereotypical hallmarks of the "electronic side-project", it sounds as if Mecija's sonic sculpting is aimed towards shaping new kinds of songs, and the quick set here really implies this'll be worth keeping an eye on.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9 p.m.: Sean Nicholas Savage @ The Garrison

When I realized how long it had been since I'd seen Sean Nicholas Savage perform, I figured I'd better stick to see what he was up to. Given how quick Savage's artistic drive has propelled him from style to style, I figured there might be something else going on besides the solo disco crooner I'd encountered in the past. And indeed, he was now accompanied by a bassist (with amazing pants) who also handled the laptop, MPC and so forth controlling the backing tracks. That left Savage, who took the stage in a long red dress and a leer, to play guitar and sing.

His current set is less of an upfront dance party than I recall, trading that in for a more measured — almost limpid — style. It brought to mind some of the soulful British indie soul-pop bands of the '80's — a gentle sort of sound that encourages swaying more than boogieing. For whatever reason, this was coming out particularly quiet in the Garrison's PA, and even the slight bit of chatter in the room was getting competitive with the music. But still, glad I updated myself on Savage's present live set up. His release schedule has slowed down from last year's torrid pace, but it's evident that he's still got ideas to spare — and a wild-eyed stage presence, regardless of what genre he's working in.

11 p.m.: Shellshag @ El Mocambo

Given the complete unreliability of pretty much every surface transit route on this crazy night, I decided a nice walk would be in order and ended up simply hiking over to College and Spadina. Stepped in to a nearly-empty El Mo with enough time to catch the last couple songs from Our Brother The Native, part of Eric Warner's We Are Busybodies showcase. Their bearded, textured rock was pleasing enough but didn't make me sad that I hadn't arrived sooner.

In any event, I was on hand for another helping of Shellshag, who had completely charmed and beguiled me the previous afternoon. To some extent, I was hoping that lightning would strike twice, but I was also curious to watch the band with a bit more detachment, and see what I could figure out about the craft behind their casual-looking approach. Of course, as soon as their "pyramid of sound" on the stage lit up, I was all smiles once again and most attempts at analysis went straight out the window.

Shellshag's songs, though wrapped in an off-kilter Mo Tucker thump and roaring guitar, are often sweetly romantic at their core — "face to face / kiss me", Shell sang in the first one, and indeed they were standing face to face across their customized microphone setup.1 At first, I was one of the only ones standing up front and playing attention to the band, but it only took a few minutes for a few more people to start moving up — and after another song a couple beside me started dancing.

So it was interesting to see which of the spontaneous-looking gestures are, in fact, rehearsed rituals, but in the end, it didn't matter too much. There's simply some alchemical element in the pair's raw sound that just works for me — and as I made my way through the length of the now-filling room at the end, I was rather pleased to hear more than one conversation breaking out about how awesome the band were.

The band was partially in town to celebrate the release of a new 7" on We Are Busy Bodies, so hopefully that relationship indicates that they'll make it back this way sooner rather than later.

Midnite: Prince Innocence @ The Silver Dollar Room

After that, I headed across the street from one venue that was suddenly getting full (with people streaming in to see the Limblifter reunion) to another. There was a lineup sprawling out along the sidewalk in front of the Dollar — a sign that Prince Innocence has some considerable draw already. The crowd that faced them as they took the stage indicated that the lineup wasn't just for the night's headliners, either. Looking around me, I was amused to note that this was not a typical Silver Dollar crowd of grimy rock'n'roll lovers — they were a lot of club-going types who looked like they were slumming it here. There were people chasing buzz.

This project sees Josh McIntyre put aside Little Girls' reverb-laced postpunk in favour of a dancefloor-friendly minimal synth sound. With him staying put behind the gear, Talvi Faustmann is the face and voice of the band.

In one sense, I could comprehend it if some were cynical about this new project: after all, they were doing fashion spreads before hardly anyone had heard a lick of their music. On the other hand, McIntyre seems to know a thing or two about riding the mercurial waves of hype, and seems to be someone who is willing to deal with le fast-thinking of the modern world as a means to get his art out there, but backs that up with substantive work to justify the glare.

The downside of this sort of hype-driven bubble of attention is that is encourages the sort of short-term thinking that does the artists a disservice. To be honest, to me this felt like a work-in-progress for a project still finding its voice and looking for its strengths. Certainly as a live unit, this is not all the way there yet. Even limited to keyboard and laptop (and some live percussion flourishes), McIntyre looks pretty in control of things on stage; as a live vocalist, Faustmann is less solid. Whether it was big-crowd jitters or lousy festival monitors, she couldn't quite nail her parts for the first couple songs. Some of this will work itself out with more shows, and I suspect that future material might position itself a bit more sympathetically in her range. (In the early going, one point of comparison that came to mind is Austra, and it served as an indirect reminder of Katie Stelmanis' advanced technical abilities in the use of her voice.)

The best sign was that Faustmann's strongest vocal performance came on the pair's newest song, one that had been written earlier in the week. And as I said: I'm not particularly rushing to judgment here — I want to wait and see how Faustmann is doing six months or a year from now. By that time, she might also have a bit more of a grip on her stage persona as well — she gave good ice queen during the songs, but then dropped it and let the spell break in between.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 a.m.: Bleached @ The Silver Dollar Room

There was a bit of a crowd turnover after that, and it actually felt a bit less packed as L.A.'s Bleached took the stage to close out their three-night headlining stand. As always, this was a perceptive choice from booker Dan Burke, grabbing a band that's definitely on the way up. Even with only a couple singles to their name, the band managed to attract some attention — some of it for Jennifer and Jessica Clavin's past work in Mika Miko, but probably just as much for their of-the-moment girl group gone Gun Club sound.

Live, the sisters (both play guitar and sing, though Jennifer is more of the frontwoman and Jessica the lead guitarist) are backed by a no-fuss rhythm section to power their sugar-sweet buzzsaw bursts. It's simple — and not inexact — to want to situate the band in a continuum with, say, Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls, especially the rawer, earlier incarnations of both. At this juncture, Bleached hews closer to punk than either — it's no accident that their setlist included Ramones and Misfits covers. Although that also drew attention to their as-yet limited storehouse of material, as even with those, the band played for barely twenty-five minutes. But what they did play was excellent, and definitely enough to make me into a fan.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 a.m.: Automelodi @ The Silver Dollar Room

I knew nothing going in about Montréal's Automelodi, and was mostly sticking around waiting for the next set, but they turned out to be a very engaging surprise. There was a stage full of keyboards (and a vertical rack of hexagonal drumpads) for songwriter/producer/vocalist Arnaud Lazlaud to work with — he moved pretty fluidly around the stage, sometimes hunched over a synthesizer, sometimes shaking a tambourine and flipping it against the drumpad. He was backed by Simon Yupiktake on synths and guitar to combine for an icy, uncluttered musical approach. There was a continental 80's minimal wave here, though I know less about that stuff than the poppier material it inspired, and there was traces of that in the mix as well.

I think the band's success can be seen in a couple ways here — first and foremost, it made me want to dance, something that definitely doesn't happen with all "dance" music. And second, it was having the same effect on an interesting coalition surrounding me on the dancefloor, with goths and punks getting equally down. The songs' structures encouraged that, with the best moments coming during the long instrumental passages. Lazlaud had some presence as a vocalist, but some of the more portentous, nearly-spoken interludes were less compelling. This is the sort of material that falls outside of my musical sweet spot, so it was nice to feel a little swept up in it — and now I'll keep an eye out for this band.

2 a.m.: Kontravoid @ The Silver Dollar Doom

I was sticking around for the last set to check out the mysterious Kontravoid, who had been given a high recommendation by a couple sources. My energy waning by this point, I wasn't quite sure if I was going to make it, especially as gear adjustments kept the set from starting anywhere near on time. It was nearly twenty past when the lights went out and Cam Findlay began to play. Only a strobe light running in sync to the beat cut into the darkness, revealing quick slices of Findlay behind his stack of analogue keyboards and electronics.

If you were to guess his career based on the glimpses of moustache and leather gloves, "'80's hit man" might come to mind, and there was indeed a sense of menace behind the tunes. Musically, I could sense an affinity with the likes of Crystal Castles and Trust, both bands with which Findlay has played as a drummer. But his own stuff has more of a menacing minimal throb, making it feel like the aggressive, macho top to Trust's wan, conflicted bottom.

Sonically absorbing stuff. Even if there's not much of a stage show, the punch of the music made it feel like a vital live experience. Giving me enough of an energy boost to make it through the evening, I'm looking forward to hearing more of this.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 As if they're all part of one grand narrative, the songs are also quite often self-referential, with ad-libbed lines tossed in to embellish the story of Shellshag. "Do you remember when we played Sneaky Dee's?" asked Shell in one song — and I did, smiling to myself.

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