Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Recording: Mountains

Artist: Mountains

Song: End of Part 1 (an excerpt)

Live at The Music Gallery, April 28, 2009.

Mountains - excerpt

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: "Doc" Dunn

Artist: Matthew "Doc" Dunn

Song: Music Gallery Performance (excerpt)

Live at The Music Gallery, April 28, 2009.

Matthew "Doc" Dunn - Music Gallery Performance (excerpt)

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Gig: Mountains / Matthew "Doc" Dunn / Ayal Senior's Spacechurch

Mountains / Matthew "Doc" Dunn / Ayal Senior's Spacechurch

The Music Gallery. Tuesday, April 28, 2009.

I like pretty much everything about the Music Gallery1: the calming, stately setting inside St. George the Martyr church, the well-constructed bills, attentive audiences. I generally go to shows there that are at the "pop" end of their spectrum, but I always appreciate the thought and work that they put into what they do, and the sense that the shows they put on are going to push my boundaries a little. So I had this show as a "maybe" in my calendar based on the blurb they'd sent out, and feeling in the right mood at the end of the work day, decided to hit it. An auspicious choice.

Ayal Senior’s Spacechurch turned out to be a solo project, with our Mr. Senior sitting down on the stage, his gear spread out around him, as if playing for himself in his basement. As the day's fading light trickled in through the windows, he began to play — his first, longer piece on keybs and electronics, arpeggiated bursts looped and treated and layered onto each other. It sounded fine, and was generally interesting, though at some points it sounded like we were inside the head of someone with constantly shifting and emerging ideas, and sometimes they lurched from one to another without a smooth transition. A second piece on guitar was less successful, sounding a bit more like naive pedal knob twiddling. But the twenty-minute performance was a good table-setter.

Matthew "Doc" Dunn had a set of similar length that left me wanting more. Taking a moment to put on a straw hat before beginning, Dunn played pedal steel and was accompanied by John Adjemian (formerly of Jon-Rae & The River) with his trusty analog synth on his lap, as well as James Anderson with a table full of gear and tape loops. Dunn's licks were stretched and mutated like so much aural taffy into elongated ambient strands. The trio played well off each other, and the whole of the performance felt organic, each musical idea melting gracefully into the next. Although the pedal steel can create a wide variety of sounds, it is probably always going to recall country music to some extent, so that may explain why the best tag I could but on these sweeping, majestic sounds would be "Cosmic American Music". If Gram Parsons fell into a monolith somewhere out by Jupiter, this is almost certainly what he'd be hearing.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

Coming into the show, I didn't know much about Mountains — just a couple descriptors ("ambient" "Thrill Jockey") that were enough to make me curious. The duo, each with a MacBook, set up on the stage and each employed a variety of instruments: guitar, melodica, harmonium, shakers, voice, and on and on. Starting with a long build with both musicians gently tapping their guitar strings, Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp slowly layered and developed their sound. I'm unsure to what extent the performance was "improvised", but each seemed to have a well-prepared plan as to what elements were to be added in. The result was forty minutes of slow, textured builds, broken, more or less, into three movements. "Enoesque" is a fairly obvious label, but it captures the sound and the feeling of leashed indeterminacy that Mountains brought to the table. Not a particularly striking performance at a visual level, but excellent to just lean back and soak in the slowly-developing sounds. The last segment utilized wordless vocals looped into an etherial choir — an old trick, but excellent when as well deployed as it was here.

I definitely left this show feeling better than I did when I arrived, and departed with Mountains' latest disc — as well as a tour-only CD — feeling at peace with the world.

Listen to a selection from this set here.

1 Exception: I don't love the churchy pews. Is the christian god so dull (or mean) that his followers have to sit so uncomfortably while they worship?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Album: Julie Doiron / I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day

Artist: Julie Doiron

Album: I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day

Coming back to this alb a spell past the excellent gig where I saw Julie performing these songs, it simply brings some measure of joy to relisten to these compelling, homespun songs. Employing a similar sound to her previous album (the Polaris-shortlisted Woke Myself Up), this one is given more to exploring happiness. The acoustic tracks at the album's start and end ("Life of Dreams" and "Glad to Be Alive") set the tone for the more rock-oriented songs they bookend.

As a songwriter, Julie is most noteworthy for her plainspokenness. Even when she builds "Tailor" around a series of metaphors ("If I were your paper, you could read me like a book/ If I was your pen, you could hold me in your hand") they're still the things close by, tangible in this world. But most songs don't even get that abstract, preferring an unambiguous immediacy: I am here, I feel like this.

Credit producer (and player) Rick White for the unaffected immediacy of the sound, which matches this mood quite precisely. With its vibe and sound, the whole thing is pretty wonderful, really, possibly culminating in the Eric's Trip-like rumble-and-clatter of "Consolation Prize". The album takes a pleasant left turn with the woozy synth-driven "Je le savais" and comes back for more with "When Brakes Get Wet" and "Borrowed Minivans".

It's considered, in some quarters, to be Higher Art to write about misery as opposed to happiness, so it is to be hoped that this album isn't considered to be a lesser follow-up just because it maintains a sunny disposition. For my money, this is fantastic stuff.

Track picks: 2 - "Spill Yer Lungs", 7 - "Consolation Prize", 9 - "When Brakes Get Wet"

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Recording: Art Bergmann

Artist: Art Bergmann (featuring Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers)

Song: Sin City (Gram Parsons cover)

Live at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 25, 2009.

Art Bergmann (feat. Tony Dekker) - Sin City

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Great Lake Swimmers / Art Bergmann

Great Lake Swimmers / Art Bergmann

Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Saturday, April 25, 2009.

A lovely warm day that turned menacingly grey as I was getting ready to go out, but still met with R. for cake before grabbing the Bathurst streetcar and heading to the end of the line to find the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Despite knowing more or less where we were going, still ended up ambling the long way around before finding our way in — certainly the wayfinding on site leaves something to be desired.1

It's probably an unfair assumption on my part, but I always tend to assume anything at the CNE is a bit Miss Havisham-y, so it was pleasantly surprising to see that the recently refurbished Queen Liz was actually fairly nice digs. Decent sightlines to the stage,2 comfy seats, good sound. In terms of size and typical sort of show, this venue is probably most directly comparable to the Danforth Music Hall, and I would say the Queen Liz is probably the better of the two.3

When Art Bergmann was announced as the opener for the show, I was a little excited. Here is, after all, a genuine Canadian punk-rock hero and something of an institution. In our eat-our-own (or politely ignore-own-own) cultural tradition, though, his absence has not made people's hearts grow fonder. I was a bit worried at the possibility of it being some sort of a trainwreck, a recent news story not stinting on the grim toll rock'n'roll has taken on him, stating that he can't sing and play guitar at the same time. ("It's fucking horrible, because I just love playing guitar, I love kind of rocking out, and I can't now. My hands stiffen up, and I just can't play. So I'm just going to be singing – in a wheelchair or something.") Billed as "a special acoustic performance", this didn't sound promising.

Perhaps for the best, then, that Bergmann came out backed by a well-rehearsed four-piece band. Rumours of his decline seemed somewhat exaggerated, as, while he wasn't tearing it up, he played his guit parts competently. Bergmann is certainly looking a bit older and frailer — put him in a sweater and he could pass as an endearingly distracted, slightly dotty classics professor.

It was pretty clear that, except for some dedicated fans up front, a lot of people had no idea who he was, and the suburban louts behind me simply thought he was some random old jakey. Although it seemed, between songs, that he was a bit befuddled, and at a few points like things could fall apart, the band was very solid and lifted him up. If anything, the band was a little too-smooth, and the sound a bit rooted in 1987, with that 80's keyb sound and boxy drums. Fortunately, Bergmann's gloriously wrecked voice gave things some chaotic edge. Not everything worked: A couple ballad-y songs didn't fare so well, and "Our Little Secret" is a little heavy-handed, but it was nice chance to remember that the man wrote some good songs, and we got good renditions of "Buried Alive", "Remember Her Name" (with its "She feels like / Marianne Faithfull" hook)4, and "Hospital Song". The set ended with Tony Dekker coming out to contribute backing vox to a take on Gram Parson's "Sin City", a fitting end to the proceedings.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Between sets, ran into K., who'd been a bit late, having guessed wrong on whether the 8PM on the ticket meant "doors" or "show"5. She joined us as the stage was changed over for GLS. The place was full but not totally sold out, as there were easily a couple hundred empty seats in the back. But still, a good-sized crowd for a local band made good.

GLS is a band I've seen a fair number of times, and in a lot of different settings — in libraries and churches, on lake shores and record stores — so any performance I see has a lot of context to be weighed against, and a lot to live up to. On this occasion, the band was five deep behind Tony (six, including the part-time cello), graced by Bob Egan's presence on mandolin and pedal steel, and Julie Fader's sympathetic keybs and backing vox. The band was quite spread out on the wide stage, which might explain why there were a few moments where they seemed a bit out of sync. Overall it seemed like they were trying to make their sound fit the big room, when, with their talent they could have chosen to shrink the room down to fit the songs.6 The drums, in particular, were sometimes a little heavy-handed.

Still, there were no shortage of highlights, including "Various Stages", "Moving Pictures Silent Films", "There Is A Light" and an entirely lovely "Song for the Angels". From the new album "Everything Is Moving So Fast", "Pulling on a Line" and "Still" were given especially pleasing treatments. Basia Bulat came out to add her voice to the main set closing "I Am Part Of A Large Family". The band now has such a deep catalogue that some stone classics can no longer break the setlist, despite playing seventy minutes plus encore.

Walking back through the light rain to the streetcar loop, we agreed that this wasn't the best GLS show we'd seen, but given the fondly-remembered shows we were comparing it to, still a good one overall.

1 And in one of those contemporary things that we take for granted until they don't work, the Google Map for the CNE is less than entirely useful, not showing the large football pitch beside the place we were going.

2 My only complaint is that whoever put the seats in didn't offset the rows, so each seat was directly behind the one in front of it. We were sitting dead centre, and I had a great view of the stage — until a guy sat down in front of me. And being dead centre, my view of the edges of the stage was fine, but my glimpses of Tony Dekker would be fleeting.

3 In terms of ease of getting to the venue, it's no worse than, say Kool Haus — a bit of a walk from the streetcar loop, albeit with the likelihood of a bit of a crammed ride back home after the show.

4 Admittedly, this one has a lot of 80's sound for a song released in 1991 and played in 2009, but it still works.

5 In this day and age, venues and/or promoters have no excuse for not posting clear door and set times online for everyone to find. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the good work that Lee's and the 'Shoe do on their sites, but this just seems like a reasonable thing to expect.

6 Perhaps this is why the quiet mid-set pairing of "Concrete Heart" and "Merge, A Vessel, A Harbour" (the latter solo, the former accompanied only by cello) were so rewarding.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Recording: Chain & The Gang

Artist: Chain & The Gang

Song: Detroit Music

Live at the Whippersnapper Gallery, April 24, 2009.

Chain & The Gang - Detroit Music

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Chain & The Gang / The Hive Dwellers / Tropics

Chain & The Gang / The Hive Dwellers / Tropics

The Whippersnapper Gallery. Friday, April 24, 2009.

Sometimes it's nice to go to a show that you don't know as much about, and don't have so much invested in, just to let the music win you over (or not) on it's own merits. This gig caught my eye for its double billing of a pair of true indie heroes: Calvin Johnson (whose past work in Beat Happening has meant a lot to me) and Ian Svenonius (whose work I knew passingly from Nation of Ulysses and a little bit from The Make-Up). So it seemed like an interesting notion to see them looking forward with new bands.

Had been by the Whippersnapper Gallery many times, and almost went in at least once to see Art, but this was actually the first time I headed up those stairs. The space turned out to be long and narrow, bulbing out some at the end where the stage was set up. It was perfectly fine for close up, but might be a bit of a bad arrangement for anyone stuck in the back trying to catch the proceedings. Not a massive PA, either, but it was enough. A nice venue for a DIY sort of show. A bit of visual flair was added by an animated loop, projected behind the stage all night, mostly of a man falling through space, done in a pencil-and-paper look that brought to mind the video for A-Ha's "Take On Me".1

First up was Tropics, aka Slim Twig's "other" project. With the local alt-media declaring Slim Twig a love-him-or-hate-him genius/charlatan, I actually find myself stuck in the mushy middle. Having seen the duo (Slim Twig, guit & yowling; Simone TB on drums) opening for Love is All in December, I had a notion of what was forthcoming. And while I don't find their guitar-skinning yelpabilly totally up my alley, it's entertaining enough in thirty-minute bursts. Slim, with the help of some looping and delay pedals, manages to put out a goodly amount of noise, grounded by the solid underpinning of the Simone's drums.

For my money, Calvin Johnson is a big deal, so it was interesting to observe the crowd's somewhat muted response to his set. I'm admittedly not such a fan to be able to say if this was all-new material or if some has been carried over from other projects — although it looks as if, as of yet, nothing has been released under the Hive Dwellers name. The music had garage rock feel, thanks to Brian Weber's keyb work, and a bouncy undertow (that brought to mind Calvin's Dub Narcotic project) from Brett Lyman's excellent, fluid bass. This gave Calvin a groove to dance to as he brought to mind a dashboard-top hula doll, feet in place and hips in motion. The music got a few people dancing, and the songs were reasonably good, but The Hive Dwellers sound is more subtle than the in-your-face action of the bands before and after, so it felt like some people weren't all that interested. Their loss — it was a solid, enjoyable set.

The cool trick about Chain & The Gang is that they are almost exactly the same band as The Hive Dwellers. Brian Weber, playing mostly keyb behind Calvin played mostly guit behind Ian, Fred Thomas and Brett Lyman traded off on bass and drums, and Sarah Pedal stepped in for extra vox. Ian Svenonius took the stage in a white suit and teased-up hair, looking not unlike a beardless Reveen. Introduced by Justin from Lullabye Arkestra2, Ian launched into a set of tough rhythm'n'blues soaked rock. This was obviously what the crowd was there to see, and were immediately into it, bouncing along, and calling out to the stage. Svenonius proved to be a charismatic frontman, knowing when to tease people along and when to burst out. Soon, he has lifted into the crowd, microphone still in hand, and carried along as far as his cord would go. The set was great fun throughout, and reached a crescendo at the end with "Detroit Music" and "Deathbed Confession". After forty-five minutes the crowd wanted more, but despite a lengthy call for an encore, the night was through.

Listen to a track from this set here.

I stopped on the way out to pick up the Chain & The Gang CD, and when I thanked Calvin (working the merch table) for his set, he shook my hand. A solid night.

1 Is this still a big deal, or am I dating myself with this reference?

2 Who was right at the front of the crowd for the whole set, and appeared to be having a great time, soon lending his shoulders to facilitate Ian's incursions into the audience.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Album: Mapfumo Reissues

Two recent reissues on the Water label give us easier access to two key early albums from Zimbabwe's masterful Thomas Mapfumo. A hero of his nation's liberation struggle, Mapfumo is also a musical innovator of the highest order as the inventor of Chimurenga ("struggle music"), which fuses the tools and energy of rock and roll with folk elements. Most strikingly, chimurenga transposes the cyclical rhythmic lines of the mbira (thumb piano) to the electric guitar. Mapfumo sung in the Shona language — itself a political act — and wrote songs relating to Zimbabwe's civil war and subsequent independence.1

Artist: Thomas Mapfumo and the Acid Band

Album: Hokoyo (1978)

Musical dispatches from the civil war, Hokoyo still manages to sound jubilant. The title track (translating to "Watch Out!") sounds like a groovy party with its chanted chorus and saxophone-aided groove. From there, the sound settles into the chimurenga template, with the brightly-plucked guitars coming to the forefront. This is very good stuff, although not quite as accomplished as the music that would follow it. Highly danceable, and dangerous to boot — Mapfumo was thrown in jail once the authorities figured out what the songs were about.

Although the fidelity of this re-issue is mostly excellent, this disc has a couple relatively minor sonic flaws: "Mhandu Musango", for example, has some static-y interference at the start that almost sounds like surface noise on a vinyl disc. Whether these are flaws in the master tapes or a flaw in the remastering for this disc is unclear. Ultimately, it doesn't particularly mar the enjoyment of this album.

Track picks: 1 - "Hokoyo", 3 - "Hwa-Hwa"

Artist: Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited

Album: Gwindingwi Rine Shumba (1980)

A masterpiece from start to finish. Not only is this album full of the joyful optimism brought about by independence2, the music is strongly inspired throughout. There is simply no language gap in the presence of these guitars. Most songs feature duelling leads, the rhythms playing off each other in constantly evolving patterns. These songs are hugely captivating: Mapfumo's arresting vocals ranging from moans to shrieks to yodels, the simmering rhythms, and always always always those guitars.

There are some songs here familiar to me from the compilation Shumba: Vital Hits of Zimbabwe (itself an excellent entry point into Mapfumo's work3) but there are also some superb album cuts here, including the sublime "Tinodanana", which reminds us that Mapfumo's woodshedding days came in classic R&B cover bands. This disc has none of the minor sonic flaws present on Hokoyo. Put simply: this is essential stuff, and ranks amongst the great rock'n'roll albums of all time.

Track picks: 1 - "Shumba", 3 - "Mhondoro", 4 - "Tinodanana"

It is great to see these reissues in the stores, and hopefully their presence means that Mapfumo is getting his rightful cut. The packaging does leave something to be desired: each disc comes with an essay that does a good job of situating this music, but there is scanty information otherwise: no full personnel listings4, and no translation of lyrics or even song titles, a useful aid present in other Mapfumo releases I've seen. These minor quibbles aside, these albums are highly recommended.

1 Making him, arguably, the author of the greatest rock'n'roll songs about agrarian reform, amongst other topics.

2 Replete with several shout-outs to Robert Mugabe, a reminder of that moment before he slid from liberation hero to repressive dictator. Mapfumo held the post-independence government to account, and for his trouble, was exiled from Zimbabwe. He now lives in Oregon.

3 Also recommended is the Chimurenga Singles comp., composed of early Blacks Unlimited Sides recorded during the Civil War.

4 The liner notes do, at least, take care to give the names of the guitarists: Jonah Sithole and Leonard "Pickett" Chiyangwa, who should be far, far more famous than they are, ranked with any of the great guitar tandems you could name with two artists telepathically playing off each other: Verlane and Lloyd, Reed and Morrison, Richards and Jones, etc. etc.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Album: Yeah Yeah Yeahs / It's Blitz!

Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Title: It's Blitz!

I suppose one way to look at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is as a malleable theoretical apparatus used as the delivery vehicle for Karen O.'s starpower. Another way would be to see most of their career moves as reactions to one outsized hit. And they are, of course, a rather good band that's a little bit creatively restless. With all this in mind, the shift in sound on album number three seems perfectly fitting. More synths, less guit is the basic template here, and it generally works very well. YYY work well with some manner of pulsating throb behind them, and these particular keyb-driven beats do the job just fine. The added advantage is that they also work well for the slowed-down songs — in fact, they are rather good in that regard.

The album starts quite strongly and ends well, but dips palpably in between. "Dull Life", a rare track here that sounds like a holdover from Show Your Bones launches this middle section1. Not that it ever gets anywhere less than engaging, but there's a gap between the great and the pretty good stuff here.

Appended to the album are four acoustic versions, substituting strings for synths, that don't really add much to the proceedings. At a cynical level, these tracks feel like an indication that YYY are ready to entertain all offers for Starbucks compilations or appearances in episode-ending dramatic montages on network TV. They probably would have been better served if left severed from the album proper.

In the end though, this is good stuff, and does seem to indicate that YYY are trying to big up their sound and their audience without losing what makes them special. Good luck to 'em.

Track picks: 1 - "Zero", 4 - "Skeletons"

1 Although if there wasn't a track like this in the middle, I'd almost certainly be writing a sentence like, "After the first four tracks, the sound becomes a bit monochromatic, with no tensions to play against". There's no winning when you're dealing with a crank, really.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Gig: Nomeansno / Potty Umbrella / The Bon

Nomeansno / Potty Umbrella / The Bon

Lee's Palace. Saturday, April 18, 2009.

I must confess that I felt a bit of worry heading in to this one, wondering to myself if this was a concert that I should have gone to fifteen years ago to fully appreciate it. But it all turned out okay. Quiet as I slipped into Lee's, many of the early arrivals falling into the demographic that I was expecting at this show: the leather jacket-wearing, middle-aged balding punk type. I was genuinely curious to see who else was going to show up.

First up, a late addition to the bill, a local crew called The Bon.1 So far as I can make out, this is a new-ish band, but it was immediately apparent that the members were all vets. Bringing a sort of meat-and-potatoes rock with a Nuggets-y edge, The Bon were solid entertainers, and a pleasure to listen to. Not paradigm-shifting music by any means, but their songs had a good beat and you could dance to them. Pedal-powered guitarists Peter Gleeson and Craig Daniels had a variety of crafty tricks up their sleeves and there were a handful of plus tracks on offer.2 This may sound like faint praise, but I mean it as a genuine complement when I say this sounds like a band with few good 7" singles in them.

The crowd had been steadily building up during The Bon, and the place was fairly full by the time Potty Umbrella took the stage, though more in that full in the back, empty on the floor kind of way. The only biographical fact that I had going in was that they were from Poland, but that really isn't determinative of anything.3 The band came on with two keyb players at either end of the stage flanking guit/bass/drums and launched into a funky opener — jazzy in the way that Live-Evil is jazzy. That would be one touchstone for the bulk of the mainly-instrumental set. Another that came to mind was T.O.'s own Holy Fuck. The band was solid and, in a genre that is subject to musical wanking, generally did a good job of avoiding the treacherous shoals of proggy muso displays of virtuosity and jammy let-it-all-hang-out bloat, mostly through staying in the groove. Only a closing cover of "Higher Ground" felt like easy pandering, but the crowd ate it up — and generally seemed to dig the band's vibe.4

After Potty Mouth's departure, the floor quickly filled in. Looking around, it seemed to be a more diverse crowd than expected, though still skewing older and laddish. NMN shirts abounded, and the devotion of the crowd was established early on, when a roar greeted Rob and John each time they crossed the stage to prep some bit of gear. So the roar that greeted them as they strapped on their instruments was hardly a surprise, but still seemed to impress the band.

Eschewing the usual stick-the-drummer-in-the-back stage arrangement, John's kit was set up stage left, Rob centre and "new guy" guitarist Tom Holliston stage right. They launched into their set with a new one, cheekily entitled "Old", and then unleashed the crowd's excitement with a lashing take of "Oh No! Bruno!" that uncorked a moshing frenzy.5 The setlist was skewed a bit towards 06's All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt, but there was something from nearly every album reaching all the way back to Sex Mad. It would be hard to get everything you'd want to see in one setlist (I felt for the guy in front of me who was shouting for "Teresa, Give Me That Knife") but there was plenty gems brought out: "Self Pity", "The Day Everything Became Nothing", "Rags and Bones", "All Lies", "Everyday I Start To Ooze", "Madness and Death", "Humans". It was also a chance to see some live energy pumped into tracks from the last couple albums, and that generally gave them an animating edge: "Hello/Goodbye", from One, for example, is a track I had never been particularly convinced by that sounded a lot better on stage. There were also three new songs, all told, one (called "Jubilation"?) which sounded pretty fiercely good.

It was a treat to see how these guys do their stuff, and pretty amazing to see the energy that they still bring to it. So all my fears that I was no longer the version of me that would appreciate the show were pretty solidly wiped away. Highly satisfying, and a pretty great gig. I left wondering if the nomination papers for the Order of Canada are online — turns out they are.6

1 If you are going to google this band for more info, do remember to add "-jovi" to your search box if you want to save yourself a dose of The Fear. I don't normally pass along Myspace links but have done so here to save you the horror.

2 Best of the lot was probably one called "Russian Roulette".

3 But may provide an excuse for their name.

4 Although the appreciation was not universal. A couple dudes standing by me were clearly not into it, and after a couple songs one of them (call him Megadeth Jacket) leaned over to his buddy (call him GG Allin T-Shirt) and said, with a pleading expression: "Can we go out and smoke? Anything's better than this!"

5 People still mosh, as it turns out. It was nice to see, watching from a safe distance, that this was a community-minded sort of mosh pit where people were taking care of each other. A few songs along, one dude was crowd surfing, and I later saw him coming back from the bar with a pitcher of water to pass around to the folks in the pit. Positive vibes, yo.

6 In case that doesn't work, I also voted for them for Zunior's Canadian Independent Music Hall of Fame.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

In-store: Sunparlour Players / Lullabye Arkestra

Sunparlour Players / Lullabye Arkestra

Sonic Boom. Saturday, April 18, 2009.

Out celebrating Record Store Day in the traditional manner — a trip to Soundscapes, "celebrating" with a discount on everything in the store. Picked up a couple catalog items that I'd had my eye on. Nice to see the store doing good business, and to see celebrities walking among us — I nodded at Casey from Ohbijou coming 'round one of the racks, and managed to say, "I wish I were at your show tonight"1, to which she replied "me too," and suggested that the make-up date should be in June.

Headed up to Sonic Boom afterwards, who were going all out for the day, holding an afternoon-long series of performances in their basement space.2 I'd originally been planning to get there earlier on, to check out Green Go, who I've heard good things about, and Gentleman Reg, who's always worth heading out for, but with the timing of the day, that didn't work out. Given the time I got there at, I was expecting to be in line to see Slim Twig, which left me felling somewhat ambiguous, his stuff having left me unconvinced after a couple exposures. In what was a good turn for me, they were running a bit behind their estimated schedule, and instead caught the two acts preceding him.

Came downstairs just as the Sunparlour Players were getting ready to play. I'd only seen them once before, in an outdoor performance at a Bloor Street festival a couple summers ago, and had found them pleasantly enjoyable. The summary that had stuck in my head was "a bit like Elliott Brood without the distortion pedals". Which is probably as right and as wrong as any other offhand reductionist analysis. They come from a similarly rootsy place as EB, but vocalist Andrew Penner brings a different, more soulful vibe to the proceedings, and it's no accident that their first album was entitled Hymns For The Happy, as there's a bit of that old-time gospel feel to it. At a couple times during their set, a half-dozen songs or so, I felt that their tunes were a little "safe" — suitable for CBC listeners deciding what wine to have with dinner. But when they amped it up a notch, it was fairly satisfactory. The set ended with Penner switching from guitar to bass and sleazing things up a bit for a tune with a greasy, punkish feel. So they have some edge to them. With a new album coming up, hopefully they will get their due attention.

That set done, I wandered upstairs a bit to flip through some CD's, and came back down once Lullabye Arkestra were ready to go. Also not a totally unknown quality to me, I'd seen them in December as performing at Jason Collett's basement review at the Dakota Tavern. On that night, their sound ran a little bit counter to the vibe I was expecting, so I don't think I was totally able to appreciate them.

The Lullabies are a duo that make a roar pretty much out of proportion to their numbers, their main weapon being the threatening bass and big voice of Katia Taylor. Making an unholy racket, LA have pretty much stripped hardcore down to its most essential elements. Bracing stuff, but bracing like sticking your head out the car window during a blizzard. Getting fully into the spirit of Record Store day, the pair proceeded to attack some tunes from their favourite records, starting with a tribute to Slayer, careening into Gershwin's "Summertime", and on into Motörhead's "Killed By Death", before switching over to a couple originals.

I can't say that I unabashedly love what they do but I was energized by their performance. They're an exciting live combo, and it's obvious that they've put in a lot of hard work to execute their aesthetic just so. I couldn't say I'd want to sit back in my easy chair and listen to their long-player, but I do wish them well, and I wouldn't flee if I were exposed to them again.

Their set complete, I probably could have stuck around for Slim Twig and still not have missed anything at my gig, but I was ready for a drink and just headed across the street to settle in at Lee's.

1 Although after the fact, I was mildly worried that I actually said, "I wish I was at your show tonight," and feared that my subjunctive tense had abandoned me in all the excitement, as I listened for all my English teachers rolling in their graves.

2 Full respect is due to the people at Sonic Boom for the work they've done making their store into a destination. Refurbishing the basement as additional retail space and a spot for in-stores was a wonderful idea, and I always think of it as a fine place to go sample a band, like hanging out in a giant basement rec room.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gig: Neko Case / Crooked Fingers

Neko Case / Crooked Fingers

Trinity-St. Paul's Church. Friday, April 17, 2009.

Thought I'd beat the crowd and get there early, but there was already a decent line stretching down the block by the time I strolled over to Spadina and Walmer. So instead of trying to cram myself in somewhere on the main floor, which was quickly filling up, I headed upstairs and found myself a righteous front-row spot, perpendicular to the lip of the stage on the stage right side. A good spot to look right down at the stage full of delicious gear. And then lean back and take in the pretty surroundings — the evening's light filtering in through the obscured skylights in the ceiling, and the pleasantly geometrical stained glass windows, which recall a more rigourous version of a Lawren Harris abstraction, based in some kind of heretical theosophy.1

But I digress. Though fairly mixed, it was largely an older and fairly genteel crowd on hand. The place was nearly two-thirds full by the time Crooked Fingers took the stage, and the crowd was quite receptive.2 Having seen them last fall opening for Okkervil River, it was interesting to see the band shift their sound a bit to fit venue and set the mood for the headliner. Whereas before Okkervil the band rocked it up a bit more, here there was a more meditative vibe, set right from the outset with a gentle version of "Broken Man", with Eric Bachmann's fingerpicking floating above Tim Husmann's ambient electronics. This time around the band was playing as a trio, with Husmann3 doubling on keybs and drums and Miranda Brown4 on bass. Perhaps even moreso than last time, I found the set so good I was left wondering how I had drifted away from following Bachmann and his work.

After a break5, Neko and band took the stage. Behind them, a large screen for projected videos was embraced by a giant owl with glowing eyes. The five-piece band, quarterbacked by guitarist Paul Rigby and his impressive rack of effects, is pretty simpatico with Neko, and by this point everything seems to work at a pretty intuitive level. Which is not to say that the music is subsumed by roteness, as Neko always manages to add an edge of unrehearsed randomness to every performance.6 Added to that is the interplay between Neko and Kelly Hogan, the pair always coming off a bit like sit-com-ized versions of your would-be best friends, still down-to-earth, yet with quicker zany comebacks and a little more mysteriously sexy than people usually are in real life.

As for the performance, the setlist was rooted in songs from Middle Cyclone, though from the opening "Maybe Sparrow" there were plenty of selections from the earlier albums. Neko's vox grew in strength as the night went on, and aside from a slightly flat "I'm an Animal", which felt a little dirge-y, the new tunes breathed nicely. Special mention should be made of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me", which got a very nice reading in the encore, backed only by Rigby's acoustic guit and Hogan's vox. Otherwise, it's hard to pick out too many highlights, as the show was a delight throughout.

Neko is mainstream now, apparently, if that #3 Billboard debut means anything, so I wonder how long it'll be before I get a chance to get that close again.

1 To my surprise, doing some digging around, it's been 3 ½ years since I was last in these digs, seeing Richard Thompson.

2 One sign that this was an older crowd was the fact that, somewhat to my amazement, I didn't see anyone busily texting away during the opening act.

3 Rock t-shirt: Wye Oak.

4 Most recently seen in these parts in Carl Newman's backing band.

5 During which the crowd headed down to the merch table to buy copies of Neko's Canadian Amp EP, based on the several copies I saw people clutching on my way out.

6 On this night, the goofy wild card was the fact that Neko's pants weren't sitting quite right, leading to a series of adjustments and no small amount of on-stage ribbing.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Trying to overcome my sadness at the postponement of the much-anticipated Ohbijou gig, I found myself looking over the alternatives for that night. Somewhat to my surprise, I felt a strong attraction to the Nomeansno gig. Perhaps it's because they were once a band that meant a lot to me, one of the first rock bands I claimed as my own as I moved from a hip-hop consuming high-school student to a listens-to-everything undergrad. Although I've followed them less closely for a decade, pretty much everything they did up til, say, '95 or so is pretty much fused into my musical DNA. Which creates an interesting sort of anticipation: will it still be the same? Should I let the past stay the past, or do I owe them for having been something to me?

To prepare myself for the gig, I decided to try and tackle the whole discography.1 This involved digging out a few cassettes2 and meant setting aside the new Yeah Yeah Yeah's alb for a few days, but I was curious to see how it would all resonate with me now. Just as a side-note, the early discography is a bit tangled, with each of the first three albums including preceding EP's appended to them, which makes a historical relistening a bit more work.3

So anyways, to the utterly uninitiated, the basic facts: Nomeansno are a rock band, originating in Victoria, B.C. in 1979, from their outset in punk but not of it. Based around the brotherly duo of Rob Wright (bass and vox) and John Wright (drums, keyb, vox), Nomeansno's music rages widely and erratically through genres, always held together by virtuoso musicianship ‐ broad enough that if this were written by a different person, descriptions like "metal" and "prog" could be validly tossed around. Lyrically, their key themes connect the dots between a near-Cronenbergian concern with "the flesh"; fear and exultation of sexual urges; power relationships; fascism; the existential train trip from womb to tomb; and emotional and physical apocalypses. But for all that, the lyrics are often shot through with mordant humour.

Mama (1982)

Originally a pretty obscure release (500 copies on vinyl in its first run), this mostly came to light as a re-issue in the 90's, and immediately served as a sort of Rosetta Stone to the band's work. Stripped-down basement-y recordings of the band's first phase, the interesting thing that these early recordings reveal is that NMN actually started as a new wave band, and would only later mutate into punks. Contains the 1981 Betrayal, Fear, Anger, Hatred EP, with a spiky full band sound (including sax solo!), the band really become a proto-version of themselves with Mama proper, which is mostly stripped down to the bass/drums rhythm section. Though recorded cleanly and without the menace they'd grow into, one can hear the nimble musicianship is in place. Even more striking is that right from the outset one can witness the clarity of vision that NMN project — even from the get-go, all of those familiar themes are in effect. While more interesting than just being an historical artifact, this is still something kinda different from the band's later albums, making it more of a graduate seminar than an introductory course for new listeners.

Box set picks: "Try Not to Stutter" from Betrayal, Fear, Anger, Hatred EP, "No Sex" from Mama.

Sex Mad/You Kill Me (1986)

CD includes the '85 You Kill Me EP, and it is here that NMN take a huge leap forward into their fully distinctive, mature sound. Suddenly the drums are booming, and the bass is full of of evil vigour. Andy Kerr's guitar is added to the mix, and he finds a way to complement a strong rhythm section that has no interest in confining itself to being merely beat-keepers. What this primarily means is that drums, bass and guit are more equal co-leaders, inhabiting the musical possibilities opened up by early PiL. NMN's brilliance, however, was to attach that sonic template to the aggressiveness of west coast hardcore. The fruits of this fusion can be heard on You Kill Me's opening "Body Bag" and moreso throughout the generally excellent Sex Mad LP. Lyrically, this fusion of post-punk and hardcore can be gleaned from "Dad", a dark song about an abusive father that amps up the dread, only to undercut itself with an ending punchline: "I'm seriously thinking of leaving home!"

Box set picks: "Body Bag" (from You Kill Me); "Sex Mad", "Dad", "Dead Bob" (from Sex Mad)

The Day Everything Became Isolated and Destroyed (1988)

Again compiling en EP and album, the shorter The Day Everything Became Nothing leads off and sees NMN consolidating their sound, to generally excellent effect. On Small Parts, there is some adjustment arising from the band slowing down and stretching out a bit. The band's high confidence allows them to mix up their dynamics even more, so many songs feel like mini-suites, with hairpin tempo changes aplenty. A bit less essential, but still filled with good stuff.4

Box set picks: "The Day Everything Became Nothing", "Brother Rat/What Slayde Says" (from The Day Everything Became Nothing); "Dark Ages", "Victory", "Teresa, Give Me That Knife" (from Small Parts Isolated And Destroyed)

Wrong (1989)

Widely considered to be the band's best, this album is pretty generally excellent. From the powerful opening one-two punch of "It's Catching Up" and "The Tower", the songs veer from the horrors of the apocalypse to the horrors of dealing with the guy at the next desk (portrayed with zen-like simplicity in "Brainless Wonder", with the complete shouted lyrics: "I want lunch!/When's my break?/I Want lunch!/Feed me now!"). The band is compact and powerful, lean and mean. And swaggering a bit, but every inch is earned. A classic, and probably the best entry point to the band's discography.

Box Set Picks: "It's Catching Up", "The Tower", "Two Lips, Two Lungs and One Tongue", "Rags and Bones", "Oh No! Bruno!"

0 + 2 = 1 (1991)

This was where I came in. A review in the U of W radio station's magazine made me wonder who was this band that was considered so important, and why they were worthy of such scrutiny. (The review opened with "Have Nomeansno sold out?", presumably wondering if the jangly acoustic guitar opening the album was some sort of mainstream move.) Whatever the review said, it was convincing enough to make me seek out a copy. And probably helps explain why this one is probably still my favourite. Extending the trajectory plotted by Wrong, this does indeed file down the rough edges ever-so-slightly, allowing a little bit of the band's original new wave sensibility to shine back through. It still rocks forcefully enough, it just eases back on the stop-start hardcore a titch. Another great opening pair, with the opener "Now" (complete with those jangling guitars) daring to posit some optimism (perhaps a more radical move than the relative poppiness of the music), before lurching back into the darkness on "The Fall." The band's blackly absurd sense of humour also gets its best airing to date on the skewed "Everyday I Start to Ooze". Superb throughout.

Box Set Picks: "Now", "The Fall", "The Valley Of The Blind", "Ghosts"

Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? (1993)

Largely recorded as a duo following the departure of guitarist Andy Kerr, this might be considered NMN's ballad album.5 Overall, there's a bit of hole where's Kerr's vox and guit fit in, and the band's response is to slow down a bit and rely mostly on Rob's vocals throughout. It also leads to a few other different touches: "The Land of the Living" has as much piano as guit. Overall, this album feels less vital than its predecessors, and it takes a few songs for it to really start engaging. It ends with the maliciously goofy "Cats, Sex, and Nazis" (that's why they call him Mr. Happy, it turns out) which comes off like an outsized sequal to the previous album's "Everyday I Start to Ooze". An interesting transitional effort, but not in the top tier.

Box Set Picks: "I Need You", "Lullaby", "Cats, Sex, and Nazis"

The Worldhood of the World (As Such) (1995)

For a band casually lumped under "punk", a lot of their music really falls outside of the usual genre parameters. Which makes it interesting to listen to NMN's most typically "punk" sounding album. Joined on guitar by Tom Holliston, their partner in Ramones-meets-Slap Shot side project The Hanson Brothers, he seems to bring some of that project's urgent immediacy to the NMN table (check out "Tuck It Away" for a bracing sample of this). This album also has the band's most carefully-crafted vocal arrangements to date, as evidenced from opener "Joy", which is a pleasure to listen to after the slightly vocally monochromatic Mr. Happy. There are still surprises and diversions at hand — a raggae break here, a jazzy jaunt there, and they serve nicely for contrast. But overall, the main pleasure here is hearing NMN at a breakneck pace, brushing by bands with members half their ages.

Box Set Picks: "Joy", "Humans", "Angel or Devil", "Tuck It Away"

Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie (1998)

Going into this exercise, this was my least listened to of all the albums. I suppose there isn't a whole lot wrong with this album — I'm sure that out there somewhere there is someone who was turned on to NMN by this and reveres it in the way I do 0 + 2, but for me, it feels a little redundant. Showing a rare bit of middle-aged paunch, there are a few songs here that could stand to be trimmed down by a couple minutes, and there is a faint air of re-tread hanging over the proceedings. That it took this far into their career for the band to issue an album that arouses these sentiments is something of a tribute, mind.

Box Set Picks: "Going Nowhere", "One Fine Day"

One (2000)

An interesting case — while this occupies similar terrain to its predecessor, this is a far better album. Maybe just because it sounds a bit more menacing, or perhaps some of the tendency to drift has been reined in. There's still a couple lesser cuts here, but they're overshadowed by the good stuff. And while it's often a bad sign when the best track on an album is a cover, that doesn't apply so much here as the cover in question — a take on Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" — that is both reverent and rather transformative.6 There's also a second cover, a slow, cough syrup-chugging Killdozer-like take on The Ramones' "Beat on the Brat" that also works pretty well. These well-thought-out covers really complement the rest of the tracks and the result, overall, is good stuff.

Box Set Picks: "Our Town", "Bitches Brew"

All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt (2006)

Starting with a shout of "wake up!" this launches itself with a fervid hardcore urgency. Which is largely maintained throughout — putting it at the opposite pole of One's more measured paces. But, like that album, there's still a little filler here, but, really, respectably little bloat for a band this long in the tooth. There's a bit more unity of purpose here, with many of the songs addressing suburban ennui and/or fear of mortality. There is even a bit of musical novelty — "Mondo Nihilissimo 2000" sounds unlike anything else the band has ever done, and the album ends with a triad of songs at right-angles to most of their other work, including a sea shanty, a gold ol' rock'n'roller, and a music hall/campfire singalong. The first of these, "'Til I Die", borrows some old folk changes and sounds like a second cousin to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and maybe an uncle to "Silver and Gold" — its refrain of "I'm going to walk down this road 'til I die" ambiguously both a reflection on life's tame monotony and a dogged determination to not give up 'til the bitter end.

Box Set Picks: "Mr. In Between", "'Til I Die", "Slugs Are Burning"

1 N.B. For time purposes, I only tackled the studio albums. The band released a particularly fine live album (1990's Live & Cuddly) which was topped by the even-more-intense bootleg Live in Warsaw, a recording of a show on May 25, 1990 now available (with many other shows) in live music trading circles. There is also the 1994 odds-and-sods collection Mr. Right & Mr. Wrong which fills in some gaps.

2 A well-stocked merch table at the gig could be a genuine hazard to me.

3 On the other hand, now that we have the internet, what was once a veil of confusion regarding who was in the band and when they came and went is much easier, and throws all kinds of light onto some subtle changes of sound that I would never have been able to put together at the time I was devotedly listening to this stuff.

4 Sadly, the CD is not particularly well-mastered, and sounds tinny overall. The bass is less rich and the whole things feels less powerful. With an infinite amount of time, I'd try and dig my cassette copy out of storage to see if it sounded any better.

5 Which is relative, of course — "Madness and Death" rides a funky hi-hat vibe that would be popular in Williamsburg about a decade later.

6 Rob's lyrics help to make the song feel right at home as a NMN track, while some Joe Zawinul-styled el-p keep it well grounded to the original. Smartly, no-one makes an attempt to fill in Miles' licks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Album: Jon-Rae Fletcher / Oh, Maria

Artist: Jon-Rae Fletcher

Album: Oh, Maria

Speaking about his hands, this may well be Jon-Rae's first album where his reach doesn't exceed his grasp. But that might indicate that the former has receded more than the latter has expanded.

To put that another way: in the past, the definitive versions of his songs always seemed to come on stage, but here the recorded versions seem to be the equal of the live presentations I've seen — but this time round, the songs might not be as good. A casual song cycle of love and murder, Oh, Maria has the feel of an author shifting from autobiography to genre fiction.1 Or, at least, we can hope that the doomed love story is more allegorical, an oblique way of reflecting on whatever darkness Jon-Rae has gone through.

Regardless, we do have some well-written tunes here, dealing with love and darkness.2 Putting The River behind him3, it's a bit spare musically, but special notice must be made of Denver Rawson's trombone, which adds just enough to keep things from sounding too lean.

This disc is a welcome return for Fletcher, but I'm left with the impression that he isn't reaching as far as he could as a songwriter. Hopefully this'll be received warmly enough to encourage him to keep soldering on.

1 I'm aware here of the sort of tension in thinking that every "I" in a song up to this point has been an 'authentic' first-person report. But there remains a felt closeness in a song like "Fire", where it does feel like the product of an actual experience.

2 Of the latter, "Downtown" takes its place in the noble subgenre of oblivion-seeking songs like Danny Whitten's "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown"

3This shift has caused me some slight consternation when it came to filing this disc. Hitherto, his discs had been alphabetized under "J", for "Jon-Rae and The River", but this one clearly should go under "F". Does one break up the set, or file them all together?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Album: Neko Case / Middle Cyclone

Artist: Neko Case

Album: Middle Cyclone

Until proven otherwise, a new release from Neko Case is a Major Event. For her last two albums, I started out sure she wouldn't be able to top her previous work, only to grow to realize just by how much she had. The real question is: how long can she keep getting better?

At a formal level, there are clear and obvious signs of growth. Though there are some songs that would fit comfortably on Blacklisted or Fox Confessor, it's clear that that Neko won't be limited or pigeonholed into replicating her previous sound. So this time, we get a bit less twang, and for the first time, it even seems like a bit of the New Pornographers are rubbing off on her, especially on the poppy harmonies of "I'm an Animal", a song about acknowledging our instincts and lusts, to the response: "you’re an animal too". In fact, in this album, Nature is seeping out all over the place, fecund and uncontainable. To the Byrds-y twang of "People Got a Lotta Nerve", Neko dresses down folks that would expect something other than instinct and animal nature from the Others.

There's a lot of of heady stuff in these lyrics, layers that seep out with further investigation. With her superb talent for collecting collaborators, her words are set in richly-jeweled fabrics. So, is this her best album? I'm not willing to commit to an answer yet, but it's damn good.

Track Picks: 3 - "People Got a Lotta Nerve", 9 - "Magpie to the Morning", 10 - "I'm an Animal"

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Gig: Willie Nelson / Ray Price / Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters

Willie Nelson / Ray Price / Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters

Massey Hall. Wednesday, April 8, 2009.

It isn't often that I stoop to dealing with the Babylon System or pitch out the big bucks for a gig, but sometimes you gotta. Despite his general vigour and lots of touring, you have to ask yourself: "how many more chances will I have to see Willie Nelson?" So, paying the premium price (like what I'd pay for four or five regular gigs) is a bit more justifiable for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. All the moreso when the announced opener was Ray Price — who knows if he'll pass this way again?

So I made my way down to the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street. With a few minutes to kill and figuring I wanted to walk a bit before settling into those seats, I walked around the block and came in walking up Victoria, past the stage door (with LP-clutching fans waiting around) and the tour buses. A guy was making a rider delivery to one of them as was walking by, carrying a armload of bottled water and soft drinks. The bus door opened as I walked by and a strong whiff of ganja floated out onto the street. I headed in and after ducking downstairs to look at the merch table ($40 t-shirts, $30 CDs) began the trek up to the gallery — that is to say, the second balcony.1 Even when I bought my ticket, I knew I'd be paying a lot for an uncomfortable experience, but I'd forgotten just how little legroom there is up there. Clearly not built for modern-day bodies. But that's what I get for cheaping out for my expensive gig.

First up was a late addition to the bill, Billy Bob Thornton and band. Although worried about the odds of this falling into the crappy celebrity vanity project vortex, I was mostly content to reserve judgment. It turns out that instead of Bad Santa levels of grumpiness2, Thornton's band was merely blandly competent, sort of like BR5-49 without the edge. For all of the talk of having a British Invasion edge, I found it to be pretty straightforward country rock — nothing to get excited about, but pleasant and reasonably well-executed. The band had a slightly swollen seven members on stage all told, leading me to wonder: who really needs two rhythm guitarists? They played for half an hour, largely keeping the set moving along, stopping only for one lengthy bit of banter from Billy Bob. As his gesture to the fans, he had a small stack of drumsticks on the edge of the drum riser, and he'd occasionally flip one out into the crowd.3

After a break — during which the leather-jacket-wearing boomers (or at least those able to tackle the stairs) headed down for a beer — came Ray Price. Who was, simply put, stupendous. At 83, Price is still in great voice, and there wasn't a false note in his forty-five minute set. No more the shuffling honky-tonker who was brought to the Opry by Hank Williams4, Mr. Price brought a smoother countrypolitan sound, complete with a four-fiddle string section. The band was excellent, including masterful pedal steel and magnificently minimalist drum work. I think it was the restrained backing and economical arrangements that allowed the music to avoid the taint of schmaltz. The setlist hit all the high notes one would expect, including the sublime "Crazy Arms", "Heartaches By the Number", and, of course, "Release Me", which was a hit for Price before it made its way to Engelbert Humperdinck. "City Lights" was also a highlight, and the set ended with Hank Williams' "Mansion on the Hill". The crowd was respectfully reverent5, treating the entertainer to a standing ovation, and Price seemed to appreciate the crowd's response, taking care to mention that despite his age, he has no intention of retiring. A true delight.

I enjoyed that enough that I was left wondering if Willie could top it, and the answer was "almost". Willie Nelson, at this point, could really rest on his laurels and take the easy route on stage, so perhaps the most delightful part was the sense that he wasn't just coming to deliver the hits in a staid way, but that he was still pushing himself creatively.6

Backed by a relatively small band7, it's striking that Willie was the only guitar player on the stage (playing that guitar of course). At a point where he could probably let someone else handle the leads and just provide his voice, he was willing to let the songs stand or fall on his unique rhythms. The advantage of this cozy configuration was that Willie was free to tinker with the cadences of his songs, and proceeded, on a fair few numbers to compress the vocal parts of the line to leave more room for the punctuating guitar runs. Those hands were in fine form, and kept up a busy pace throughout. At this stage of his career, the setlist was punctuated by a few instrumentals to rest his voice, but he pretty much never stopped playing.8

Starting with "Whiskey River", the set ran just over an hour but was non-stop, and so many classics came and went it's hard to pick out highlights. It was truly a blur. I do recall an especially sweet "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground", but overall there was such a consistent plenitude it's difficult to pick out moments. Towards the end, there were two non-canon new-ish songs, including the self-mythologizing "Superman":

Too many pain pills too much pot
Tryin to be something that I'm not
Superman Superman
Tryin to do more than I can
I ain't Superman.

If this was my once-in-a-lifetime shot, then it was a pretty good one, and truly felt like value for money. Willie Nelson is such an institution that it feels like he's going to be around forever, but I'm glad I didn't take that for granted.

1 Given the number of shell-shocked, exhausted boomers and elders I saw emerging from the stairway to take their seats, one wonders, given demographics and the usual sort of Massey Hall crowd, how the venue is going to be able to sell those seats in five or ten years' time without an elevator.

2 Although apparently this side made an appearance in the promotional lead-up to the gig.

3 It made me wonder: why toss out single drumsticks? Why not be cool about it and flip out pairs? Then you could at least be making a cool DIY point, like, "here's a pair of drumsticks, now go start a band!" Although as I mused on this, a Rick James-esque voice in my head replied: "Drumsticks? Why don't you toss out guitars, you rich movie-star motherfucker!"

4 Re-read and cast your mind over that for a moment — I saw a guy on stage who was a roommate with Hank Williams, and who inherited his band after Hank's death. It staggers the mind to think that history and legend are still that close to us!

5 In fact, the crowd overall was pretty good. Even during Willie's set, I was surprised that there weren't the usual types howling out requests. There was one dude behind me shouting "Hallelujah!" during "I'll Fly Away", but it kinda fit.

6 Musically, at least. In terms of repertoire, the set was mostly straight-up country hits delivery. While I would have loved to hear some tracks from his excellent Cindy Walker tribute, at least we didn't get much essaying of Willie's adult contempo side.

7 Playing in front of a giant Texas flag, the band behind Willie included piano, bass, harmonica, percussionist, and a drummer equipped, in the old Opry-style, with only a single snare drum.

8 It's also striking to me, in retrospect, that over the length of the set he played the bejesus out of that thing, but never once had to stop and tune. Contrasted to some musicians who seem to need to tinker at length between every song, this is quite a feat. This lack of dead space was probably one reason that the set felt so crammed-to-bursting with songs.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Album: Condo Fucks / Fuckbook

Artist: Condo Fucks

Album: Fuckbook

Always up for a diversion, Yo La Tengo pseudonymously deliver their second covers album. A fitting counterpoint to 1990's Fakebook — which reaffirmed, in the midst of a noisier stretch of albums, that they could bring the quiet, this one does just the opposite, ripping out a lazy man's dozen tracks with one-take sloppy aplomb. This outta the garage approach might come as a mild surprise to those who follow the band only through their albums, but this is, of course, a side that YLT have always cultivated in their live shows (where their repertoire of covers is pretty monumental1) and on their WFMU all-request telethon appearances.

Given their encyclopedic knowledge of rock'n'roll obscurities, the picks here don't veer towards the obvious, but they're all good, catchy rockers. YLT usually do right when they follow their muse down different paths, and it works here.2

Track picks: 7 - "The Kid with the Replaceable Head" (Richard Hell & The Voidoids Cover), 9 - "So Easy Baby" (Zantees cover)

1 It would be a fun project to come up with a live companion piece to this. Ripping concert takes of "I Can't Seem to Make You Mine" and "Jesse's Girl" come to mind, just as a beginning.

2 Perhaps given that this is shouty rockers, it doesn't surprise too much that this album is a little light on tunes with Gerorgia on vox, which is understandable but still a bit sad.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

Album: Great Lake Swimmers / Lost Channels

Artist: Great Lake Swimmers

Title: Lost Channels

The fourth album under the GLS name goes the furthest in the steady progression from bandonym to band, with a fuller, more rocking sound. This doesn't mean that the arrangements overwhelm Tony Dekker's words so much as the fact that this no longer merely feels like the work of a singer/songwriter being fleshed out by the instruments around him. This also helps close the gap between album and performance, one spot where past GLS efforts have always felt a little frustrating. Dekker's voice is still best appreciated in a rewarding acoustic setting, but this is getting closer to the mark.

Meanwhile, we are rewarded here with some more top-shelf songs from one our premiere balladeers. "Still", whose title might call up images of inertness instead pulls from Tony's bag of metaphors to invoke a yearning sense of potentiality. Closer "Unison Falling Into Harmony" is simply one of Dekker's loveliest songs, a river waltz with wind and gravity and the forces behind the aching desire to break through the unknowability and beauty of another.1

Also noteworthy is "Concrete Heart"2 which uses Toronto's brutalist architecture as landmarks of love won and lost:

This is the place where I felt
like the world's tallest self-supporting tower
at least for a little while, anyway

The lyric slides a bit in the second verse, to something that should be deserving of a grant or Cultural Award for a perfect summation of the Torontonian and Canadian mindset:

This is the place where I felt
like the world's tallest self-supporting tower
(or maybe number two)
at least for a little while, anyway

A very lovely album that felt warm and yielding from the outset while still hinting that there remain depths yet to discover — a most welcome and sought-after companion.

Track Picks: 4 - "Concrete Heart", 9 - "Still", 12 - "Unison Falling Into Harmony"

1 This song's deployment in public spaces may lead to dangerous outbreaks of hand-holding.

2 A song I shall probably always carry an irrationally fond affection for from having been lucky enough to witness its debut.