Monday, December 10, 2012

NXNE 2011: Wednesday

NXNE — North by Northeast Festival, Toronto, 2011.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Featuring: Loom, Megan Bonnell, O Voids, Red Mass, Parlovr

N.B.: I had written some contemporaneous notes about the festival here. These are mostly a by-product of a few additional observations as I have now had time to properly go through my recordings.

8:00 p.m.: Loom @ Rivoli

Brooke Manning's folk/drone project took on a different cast than when I had seen last her playing in February. On that occasion, she had a couple musicians sharing the stage with her, including Maya Postepski's icy, ambient keyboard work. Now playing on her own, the music was even more spare, the songs something closer to folk (albeit of a somewhat nonlinear, drone-y style) than to the vaguely Broadcast-y feel of the previous versions.

That said, this was still very good stuff. It helps that there's some crackerjack songs here. Plus, Manning took the stage with far more confidence than on that previous occasion, even daring to smile and look confidently relaxed. At one point, she took a picture of the audience with a disposable camera, instructing everyone to close their eyes and think of something they loved. Manning seemed to be following her own advice while playing, eyes closed and fingers spinning out her slow, fragile dreams.

Leading off with the Arthur Russell-quoting "Grown", there were a few spots where she stumbled a bit without a net to catch her, but even a couple lyrical stumbles couldn't derail the gorgeousness of "It Is Love". Whether by design or not, Manning got a little louder as the set went on, perhaps to act as a bulwark against the room's background noise building up as things went along. She ended with the more full-blooded "Around Again" and a game run through Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner". "I am thinking of your voice" is the sort of line that could be from one of her own songs, and she managed to get a good way through before losing the lyrical thread, quickly tossing it to the crowd to sing along on the do-do-doo-doo refrain before seguing down into a minor key to close with one of her own songs.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9 p.m.: Megan Bonnell @ Rivoli

Choosing to stick around for this was more of a "well, I'm here" sort of decision. And while I can sometimes be swayed by purveyors of piano pop, it's more often the case that I find it hard for anything to really stand out from a crowded field. For this set, Bonnell — on a full-sized electric piano — was joined by a drummer, as well as a cellist on several songs. The latter certainly enriched the sound, but sadly there were some persistent sound problems with unwanted buzzings and harsh overtones from the strings. Even Bonnell's vocals were sometimes creaking in the mix. That'd certainly be no fault of her own, as she gave every indication of being a good singer, gifted with a powerful voice that she used with admirable restraint.

Singing the geographically-inclined songs from the then-new Maps EP (alongside some, like "Moonshiner" from her earlier release) her smoky timber occasionally recalled Chan Marshall, although she employed her voice is a different manner. Unfortunately, though she was capable of exploring the range between the jaunty "The Wind" and the more dirgeful "Lake Superior", the songs didn't do much for me, so I spent more time thinking about how she might fit into her genre than I was being pulled into the music.

And meanwhile, the crowd was getting increasing inattentive, making this a poor setting to try and absorb something like title track "Maps" (which sounds nice in its recorded incarnation). In fact, after that song, one guy up front (not me!) would turn around to chastise the rest of the crowd, shouting at them to show some respect for the musicians. Ultimately, it was a nice enough set, but I wasn't made into a fan.

10 p.m.: O Voids @ The Horseshoe

From there, it was just the shortest of walks, past the front bar of The Riv (packed with people eyeballing the Stanley Cup final) over to the 'Shoe (where the front bar was similarly jammed). It was quieter in the back as The O Voids got ready to play. This showcase was presented by M for Montréal, and I dropped by in time for some aggressive volume that was in sharp contrast to what I had seen so far in the night. A different crowd, too: it didn't take long after I entered the venue for a guy to sidle up beside me to ask if there was any good weed in town.

There's not a lot of info on this triothough I've seen it noted that they share some members with Les Georges Leningrad. And though their online presence is pretty minimal, it seems like they're still a going concern. At any rate, they had a convincing blurb and a likeable track on offer in their festival listing, so I gave it a go. And as could be expected, loud guitars and bellowed vocals weren't a bad way to get my attention.

With a lean guit/bass/drums lineup, the band could be considered a power trio — at least in the sense that, say, Mission of Burma are a power trio. There were also some occasional hints of the more pummelling sort of post-punk as well, like Keith Levine-era Public Image Limited, which they list as an influence.

Given that subtlety doesn't seem to be their bag, it probably mattered a bit less that they had a bit of trouble getting everything balanced in the mix — in the end, the band settled for the solution of just turning the guitar up. That actually did clear up some initially-murky sound, but also made it ear-splittingly loud in the room. Musically, I mostly enjoyed what was on offer here, even with the vox buried way down somewhere. (Though one might guess that the lyrics were perhaps not the most fussed over anyways — "Far Out" seemed to mostly involve that phrase getting shouted over and over.)

The music occasionally veered toward something catchy in the manner of, say, early Superchunk, but lots of little post hardcore ruffles around the edges kept this off the easy track. Meanwhile, after the set, the weed guy (clearly not remembering me from a half-hour previous) re-accosted me, this time to ask if I knew where to get any "joints".

Listen to a track from this set here.

11 p.m.: Red Mass @ The Horseshoe

I'd been aware of Roy Vucino's rock-onslaught machine for quite awhile, just having missed seeing them at a couple previous festivals. Vucino (aka Choyce, formerly of CPC Gangbangs) started the band as an open-ended concept, sort of the evil version of all those feel-good indie-pop "collectives" that had flourished a few years ago. Previous gigs came with reports of double-digit figures on stage — their promo pic still sports an even dozen — but for this road excursion, they were playing as a comparatively-manageable five piece. But that's still enough people to raise a helluva racket.

The set started with some bait-and-switch, with some live violin being played against a manipulated tape-recorded one, but that was soon set aside as the group settled into the aggressive hard rock groove of "Killer on the Loose", sort of like a bad-trip version of the MC5. And then, about halfway through the set, "Weird Mess" hit like a sonic reducer, and suddenly the band was rather excellent.

Sadly, it was just at that moment that the band was really nailing it when Vucino broke a guitar string. The rest of the band played on while he hurriedly changed it, creating an unplanned lengthy instrumental excursion. But that triggered something, and starting with a snarling "Saturn", the rest of the set was similarly intense, including a guest turn from Siânteuse (of The Sphinxs) on backing vox. A half-hour in, it felt like the band was just getting warmed up, so we only got about three songs of the really good stuff before their time was done. Definitely noted as something warranting further investigation.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnight: Parlovr @ The Horseshoe

The night's "special guest" headliner was an open secret, it seemed, and I decided to stick around to see how things had progressed for this trio. It was actually back at NXNE two years before that we'd last crossed paths. Things certainly seem to have gone well for the band, who are now garnering a pretty large and enthusiastic following. And they've definitely managed to thicken their two-guitars-no-bass sound a bit. Vocally, it appears there hasn't been much of a change from when I first saw 'em and was a bit weary of "slightly howl-y adenoidal vox".

Banging out a series of quick songs, the set featured tracks from the Hell/Heaven/Big/Love EP, and the band was working out several of the songs that would emerge a year later on their Kook Soul album. The trio played with manic energy and their wired-up deportment is definitely their strongest suit. Clearly having fun on stage, Alex Cooper was passing a beer along to the audience and sing-speaking "I'm making frie-nnnn-ds!" — and perhaps milking the moment a bit too much on closer "General Hell (True Love Fades)".

But the songs just didn't do much for me. That put me firmly in the minority, as there were a lot of people who were really into it. During "Pen To The Paper" — perhaps their most meticulously-crafted song — I noticed the couple in front of me singing it to each other in a manner suggesting it was "their song". Clearly this hits in just the right spot for a lot of people, and if I don't get that, I can at least admit it's energetic as hell and fun to bounce along to.

Listen to a track from this set here.

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