Monday, April 12, 2010

Gig: Language-Arts

No Shame presents Language-Arts / The Pinecones / Allie Hughes

The Garrison. Friday, March 5, 2010.

Walking up to Dundas from my earlier gig, arrived at The Garrison pretty much just in time to catch the start of this Friday night No Shame showcase. First up on the evening was Allie Hughes. As the band finished setting up, I was pretty sure that this was going to be worth watching, as the Randy Lee rule was in effect.1 Besides his violin, the band featured keybs, bass, guit and drums — a group capable of playing the carefully-arranged material, lending a sort of mellow mafia-like sophistication to the proceedings. Apparently this was only the unit's fourth gig together, but they were well-rehearsed. As for the leader, I came in knowing nothing about her but it was quickly apparent: here's someone who could really sing. Like, advanced technical proficiency. Stylistically, imagine, maybe, if Kate Bush had emerged from Laurel Canyon in the 70's with Broadway aspirations.2 It's not quite unprecedented to present theatrical-styled tunes in an indie rock context, but it is a bit unusual — not to mention, I think, mildly brave. There's no doubt some folks would write off music like this for being mawkish or precious3 but in Hughes' hands, it was generally pulled off with aplomb. There were some top-shelf songs here, too, which certainly helped — as did her upbeat stage presence, keeping things nicely grounded.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Providing the rock'n'roll edge to the bill were The Pinecones, a retro-minded four-piece with flare for things Beatles-y.4 Leading off with "Sage", the title track of their recently-released album, the songs succeeded by nosing up against the familiar tropes of British invasion pop without quite getting too familiar — evidenced by how the band's own "Tea Tonight" slid into a cover of The Kinks' "The Village Green Preservation Society".

A broken guitar string led to some impromptu setlist shuffling as a friend in the audience pitched in to replace it while Brent Randall slid over to the keys. The band — now Toronto-based but formed in Halifax — had previously been known as Brent Randall & His Pinecones, but the contraction acknowledges an evolved democratic approach, with the band now sporting songs and vocals more spread around. They're certainly emerging at the right moment, as there seems to be an increased appetite for bands working in this tradition. The knock against 'em might be that they aren't at this point inventing anything new. But nuts to that — it's good fun to hear 'em live, and that counts for a lot. Plus, they give the impression of being serious students who could yet leap into something of a more innovative approach to new wine in old bottles.

Listen to the a couple songs from their set here.

The out-and-out rockin' of that set was the exception on the night, but it made for an effective contrast to Language-Arts. With their bookish name, it's no surprise that the band looked as if they might have met at band camp or Reach For The Top practice — in fact, I was initially worried that roving gangs of jocks might be out on the prowl for them. Their most distinctive feature is Kristen Cudmore's insistently chirpy vox, delivered in a bright-eyed sing-speak.5 She was backed by an equally eclectic instrumental palette: her own nylon-stringed, classically-played guitar6 plus keyb, double bass and co-founder Gregor Phillips' jazz-inflected drums — all of which came together in a unique sort of avant-MOR sound. While the band is technically a duo of Cudmore and Phillips — both from Nova Scotia, but based in Vancouver — they are boosted to a quartet for touring purposes. In their live configuration, the arrangements were robust and the band was clearly comfortable in treating the music as more than mere decoration to the words.

Perhaps the most immediately appealing of the batch was the "Where Were You in the Wild?", the title track of their recent album, but the other songs in the set were generally cut from the same cloth. "Benson" and "Coughdrop", to name a couple, had a nice groove going. The band got a good response from the fairly robust crowd, and Cudmore seemed genuinely pleased — if not slightly taken aback — by the positive vibes.7 The band played eight titles in just under forty minutes and it was good stuff, fun to listen to and certainly no cookie-cutter pop.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 The Randy Lee Rule: "Any band with Randy Lee on violin is worth paying attention to."

2 Or, to give a more current point of orientation, Hughes closed with a cover of Regina Spektor's "Us".

3 And that's a finger pointed, somewhat, at myself, as I know I've been disdainful at the sort of broad emotionality associated with show tunes. But ultimately, it's arguably just a different kind of "faking it" than rock and roll delivery — which, ultimately, isn't really any "realer" anyways.

4 The band were pretty self-aware in that regard, and not above poking a bit of fun at themselves, introducing some of the songs in a cod-Liverpudlian accent.

5 The quick shorthand here would be to describe Cudmore's vox and delivery as "quirky" — and so googling provides quite a few hits. But though that certainly popped into my mind in quick order, a bit of reflection on it gives me pause, as there's a certain negative undertone to the word, especially in the manner it's applied to women to imply they are weird or somehow flawed by virtue of exhibiting intelligence. (Some of us, of course, feel the opposite way about that matter.) So let's set that descriptor aside for now.

6 Played with one of those around-the-neck classical straps like a saxophone player might use. Willie Nelson plays with a strap like this, so it's arguably pretty cool.

7 Full credit, of course, to Lauren Schreiber for getting the crowd out. Though she tends to play down the diverse skills she shows in putting shows like this together, her efforts deserve our ongoing thanks and praise.

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