Sunday, May 30, 2010

Recording: RatTail

Artist: RatTail

Song: George Mounsey

Recorded at Wavelength P.S. Kensington, May 30, 2010.

RatTail - George Mounsey

Review to follow. An imperfect recording — you can hear some wind noise against my mics here and there — but consider this an argument in favour of RatTail's 7" release gig, June 11th at The Garrison.

Recording: The Diableros

Artist: The Diableros

Song: Tropical Pets

Recorded at Pitter Patter/P.S. Kensington, May 30, 2010.

The Diableros - Tropical Pets

Review to follow. Not my best recording, out amongst the elements, but The Diableros were at least as cooking as the sun — and believe me, it was hot out.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Recording: Fucked Up

Artist: Fucked Up

Song: Year of the Ox

Recorded at Toronto Reference Library, May 28, 2010.

Fucked Up - Year of the Ox

Review to come. My notes for this set can now be found here. Suffice to say, um... epic? I am unreservedly proud to see my tax dollars at work in this manner.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gig: Baaba Maal

Baaba Maal

Koerner Hall. Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

Out to the lovely new-ish Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music for a big-ticket show with an international star. Baaba Maal, "The Nightingale of Senegal" has been a major star since the late '80's, known for his pure voice and musical adventurism that documents the encounters of his own traditional music with new sounds from around the world. I was, admittedly, not a huge follower, but I was aware that a show like this is a bit of a special event. A good crowd on hand, quite mixed in every way you could imagine, though skewing older and slightly more affluent.

No opener for this one, and the show started with Maal alone, sitting in the centre of the stage, just his guitar and that sweet voice rising to the room's undulating rafters. Midway through he was joined by his mentor, griot Mansour Seck, who would add his voice throughout the evening. At song's end he laid it out: "The concert today is going to be very simple at the beginning... God knows what's going to happen at the end."

After a second song that slowly unfolded with a couple more musicians taking the stage it was twenty minutes in, and the full band emerged. And now the contemplative early mood was supplanted by the rhythm, with bouncy bass and percussion lending a groove. The full band would run to eight behind the leader, including keyb, percussion and ngoni. I don't have a strong enough grounding in the discography to know all the songs, but they were uniformly good stuff. I did pick out the title track from his recent release Television, which was recorded in collaboration with Brazilian Girls, creating a subtly club-friendly sound on the album. Here, though, the song fit organically into the set.

The members of the band were all musically beyond reproach and mostly tended to their instruments with unshowy professionalism. The exception was Massamba Diop, playing the talking drum. He was a gleeful ham, and the most overtly theatrical of the players, adding a lively spark that picked up as the show went on.

The sound in the refined concert hall was surprisingly loud — I was glad to have had my earplugs with me. One would guess that the house techs have a bit less experience with rock-style amplification, and the sound was fine enough — possibly a bit muddled in the low-end when the music was at its loudest, but generally clear throughout, and without any hitches from dealing with a large ensemble.

I did find that as the show went on, the disjunction between the recital-worthy surroundings and the music's groove imperative became more pronounced. On the upper balcony where I was sitting, some people with seats in the long rows perpendicular to the stage stood up pretty early on to dance, but it took folks on the floor a bit longer to overcome the propriety of the venue. During one extended instrumental passage more than an hour in, a guy clambered up onto the stage to praise the singer by sticking a banknote to his forehead, and as he hopped off afterward security seemed unsure if they should bounce the guy or not. Whether or not they were briefed to expect this kind of looseness at an African music show would soon be moot, however.

In the groovy heart of the show the band played three songs in a row that each stretched to the ten-twelve minute mark, one of which was an extended samba jam. And then the finale after that was a fifteen-minute monster — and by this time, bowing to the inevitable, Maal called the crowd up to their feet. Soon enough there was a sizable crowd pressed up against the stage, as a couple children were brought up to dance. And then, the crowd was on the stage, a couple dozen people jumping up to dance along. Quite a spectacle.

And then back out for one more, "International" (also from the new album, and revealing some of its western dancefloor underpinnings, though here tripled in length and with extra percussion) to close out the night. The "venue effect" left me with some ambiguous feelings — if I'd been on my feet for the whole two-hours-plus, I'd have surely felt exhausted, but the bulk of the show was the sort of music that makes more sense when you are up and moving, even if only a little bit. But it was certainly a worthy experience and the crowd went home looking pretty happy with what they saw.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Recording: Japandroids

Artist: Japandroids

Song: Art Czars

Recorded at The Horseshoe, April 3, 2010.

Japandroids - Art Czars

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Love is All

Artist: Love is All

Song: False Pretense

Recorded at The Horseshoe, April 3, 2010.

Love is All - False Pretense

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: The Two Koreas

Artist: The Two Koreas

Song: Cloth Coat Revolution

Recorded at The Horseshoe, April 3, 2010.

The Two Koreas - Cloth Coat Revolution

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Japandroids

Japandroids (Love is All / The Two Koreas)

The Horseshoe Tavern. Saturday, April 3, 2010.

"Good evening, we are The Two Koreas. We were put on this earth to entertain people who show up to concerts too early." Regardless of what you might think of them musically, The Two Koreas have their ways of entertaining a crowd — not in the least with vocalist Stuart Berman's always-entertaining banter, perhaps putting something he's studied in his rockcrit dayjob into practice. Because they show up with semi-regularity as a steadily-dependable opening act, it's a little easy to take the crew for granted, but within the little patch of rock'n'roll that they tend to, they do a good job, finding new applications for repetition, be it Fall-like chants or Krautrock beats.

This time round, the band played a whole bunch of new material, some of which saw them stretching out in different ways, whether in a "power ballad" (labelled "Geezer" on their setlist) or in "Karl Johans Gate (Suicide)", a sort of uptempo monotone slowburner stretching out about seven minutes. "Midnight Brown", however, kicks like a classic Two Koreas groover, so no radical re-inventions are expected on their forthcoming new one. There was also some older material, like "Retarded Architect (In Two Parts)" (from 05's debut Main Plates & Classic Pies and the singalong catchy "Cloth Coat Revolution" (from '07's Altruists). The room was filling in as they played and the band got a pretty good response from the crowd.

Listen to a track from this set here.

And it was an interesting crowd on hand. Although they undoubtedly have some overlapping appeal (and share a record label), it was clear that there were separate groups of the most ardent enthusiasts for each of the visiting bands. As they took the stage, Love is All, from Gothenburg, Sweden, had a fair number of supporters right up front. I know that they were the factor that had edged me over into buying a ticket for this show. I'd dug them quite a lot the last time I'd seen 'em, back in late 2008, and I think I'd have been pleased if they were headlining their own show. But even if they were the support act, it seemed prudent to catch them when they were in town — who knows when/if they'll be back in North America?1

The band led off with "Bigger Bolder", the first track from new album Two Thousand and Ten Injuries, before looking back for a couple tracks, including "Talk Talk Talk Talk" (from their debut Nine Times That Same Song) with James Ausfahrt's skronky sax and "Wishing Well" with its Clean-biting keyboard hook, a standout from 2008's A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night. I've found the new album's production to be somewhat punchless when compared to their live energy, and songs like "False Pretense" and "Early Warnings" were played with an immediacy that the new album is lacking.

The band's main weapon is vocalist/keyb player Josephine Olausson, whose occasional yips and yelps never subtract from the songs' underlying catchiness, always balancing X-Ray Spex-styled punk and pop precision. Playing an efficient ten songs in just over half an hour, I could have certainly done with more, a sentiment that was echoed by some of the Love is All partisans up front.

Listen to a track from this set here.

But as the set ended, there was already a different crowd circulating up towards the stage. And though I attempted to hold my position, it didn't take more than a song or so into Japandroids' set for me to realize I needed to move. It seems like the band's fanbase isn't your watch-contemplatively-and-nod types, so the previous wall of polite Scandinavian pop-art-punk admirers were pushed back by a more laddish workin'-for-the-weekend bunch.

It's trite to say that the band fed off the energy of the crowd, but here was a case where it really seemed like precisely that as the devoted throng was moshing and stage diving from the get-go, shouting and singing along. No wonder, then that the pair looked well-pleased to be in their "second home" city, absorbing the energy from their last night in Canada before heading back to less-won-over crowds Stateside.

Starting with "The Boys Are Leaving Town", the duo proceeded to power through the entirety of Post-Nothing — even the rarely-played "Wet Hair" got an airing, "for only the second time in Canada". They threw in a couple of their EP tracks and finished with covers of Big Black's "Racer X" and Mclusky's "To Hell With Good Intentions" for a pretty hefty seventy-five minute set.

I suppose I'd back off some of my earlier claims that Japandroids are the new Loverboy, but there is a populist rawk-out simplicity underpinning their songs, no matter how much enthusiastic garage-scuzz they coat them with. With a surfeit of new material, the band is bigging up their songs, a few of which now come with increasingly extended instrumental intros — don't think of it as noodling so much as the jagged burst of gasping required for band and crowd alike to regain their breath after each jam. This on top of a general sonic expansion, such as with "Heart Sweats", now part of a ten minute-plus epic with the song bleeding seamlessly into "Darkness on the Edge of Gastown".

For "Rockers East Vancouver", with drummer David Prowse taking lead vocals, Brian King said, "I'm going to dance around and rock out, I hope you guys do too." The crowd needed no such invitation. For anyone looking for a sweaty, participatory time, Japandroids is money well spent, no doubt. For those taking a more considered view of things, though, a little bit less so. The band's success has given them some ride-the-moment tenacity — they've sunk their teeth in and aren't going to stop the momentum, touring relentlessly for the past year with no end yet in sight. The downside is that there isn't really any new material from the band — so in one sense this wasn't all that different a show than I saw when they were here the last time around. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, but it didn't feel like an entirely new experience. Those who haven't caught Japandroids yet should undoubtedly catch 'em the time time or two they pass through town, though I'm willing to wait for the next phase to start before I check 'em out again.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Perhaps somewhat ironically, when I saw 'em that time, it was mostly because I'd bought a ticket to see their opening band — in that case Crystal Stilts.

Recording: The Weakerthans

Artist: The Weakerthans

Song: Reconstruction Site

Recorded at The Horseshoe, May 25, 2010.

The Weakerthans - Reconstruction Site

My notes for this set can be found here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Recording: Serena-Maneesh

Artist: Serena-Maneesh

Songs: Reprobate! + Melody For Jaana

Recorded at the Drake Underground, April 2, 2010.

Serena-Maneesh - Reprobate!

Serena-Maneesh - Melody For Jaana

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Depreciation Guild

Artist: Depreciation Guild

Song: Sky Ghosts

Recorded at the Drake Underground, April 2, 2010.

Depreciation Guild - Sky Ghosts

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Serena-Maneesh

Serena-Maneesh (Depreciation Guild)

The Drake Underground. Friday, April 2, 2010.

Definitely a sign that something was awry when, with about forty-eight hours' notice, it came out that this gig was being moved from the relatively roomy Great Hall to the much cozier confines downstairs at The Drake. Mildly eyebrow raising. Here was a show by a band that made a fairly big splash a few years ago with their first album, and they're being downsized to a c. 200 person capacity room? What went wrong? Do people really have such short attention spans? The fact that the local promoter had been acquired and merged into a new, larger out-of-town operation? Maybe just that it was the Easter long weekend and people were doing family stuff and not going to shows. I suppose I didn't mind the shift to more intimate quarters, but I noted from the Drake's listings that the late-night dance party was still scheduled, so I was hoping that the show would stick to its new, earlier time.

In fact, the doors opened a chunk past the newly-listed eight o'clock, and when I sauntered in, it was to a pretty much empty room. "Where is everyone?" I wondered to myself. "Don't they know this show has a curfew?"

It wasn't, in fact, until 9:30, in what was still a very empty room that Depreciation Guild hit the stage. Taking a spot in the centre of the dancefloor as they began, I looked around sheepishly, feeling exposed, as there was no one within about ten feet of me — just a handful of people seated on the couches up front and a few more back by the bar. About a dozen people in sight, including staff and members of Serena-Maneesh.

All around, a tough night for the Brooklyn trio — one of those gigs where the band must be wondering if it's worth all the effort for this. Unhelped from pretty much any quarter, it even seemed like they were playing under about the least-flattering stage lighting you could imagine — bright, almost like house lights. Soundwise, they were thrown to the wolves as well, with an unsympathetic mix. There just wasn't nearly as much volume or, well, drive as I was expecting.1 Definitely that shoegazey vibe in there, but without a powerful roar from the sound system, they came across as more merely new-wavey and a little anemic.2

With two guitars, drums, and laptop I was also feeling my standard-issue rockist grumblings about technological determinism and so on — with the drummer wearing a click track and playing along with rhythm tracks from the laptop, he actually seemed mildly superfluous. There was a missing "live" feeling here, and it sometimes felt more like the band were accompanists for the backing tracks.3

The just narrative arc of the whole thing, if this were following Hollywood rules, would be that they pulled it all out despite the adversity and played a triumphant gig. But, in real-life style it was more... okay. Decent tunes, good ideas and so forth, but a little undistinguished. And then, it all kind of ended with a limp thud when they finished a song just shy of the half-hour mark and the soundman came to the front to tell them they were done. The band clearly had more in their setlist and seemed a bit frustrated with things — but they didn't carp, just giving a quick thanks before quickly unplugging.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The place had filled in somewhat, but was still at maybe half of capacity for the headliners. With a guitar tech on hand and enough boxes of merch to serve a Phoenix-sized crowd, Oslo's Serena-Meneesh weren't rolling like they were normally playing venues of this size. Although, by and large, the band themselves looked like they were above such droll concerns, none more than singer/guitarist Emil Nikolaisen, sporting an apocalypse chic look with pants held together with electric tape and a ragged poncho. Not playing like a band in a rush, the instrumental thrum of opener "Ayisha Abyss" unfolded with precision over seven minutes before careening into the howling guitars of "Reprobate!" — which was, by contrast, catchy and concise. For all of their propensity to create more of a moreness, the band can also generate a catchy single — well, within the parameters of noisy shoegaze — when called for.

But indeed there was no time to waste, and the band moved quickly from song to song. No chit-chat, save for Nikolaisen commenting, "Canadians and Norwegians seem to have a little in common — we dance inside." Clearly a comment on the lack of overt movement on the crowd's part. Mind you, with the notable exception of Nikolaisen himself, the band weren't a bunch of dynamic movers. The new bassist — who comported herself admirably — spent most of the set with back to the crowd, watching the drummer, and everyone else was generally rooted in place.

Keybs/electronics player Aadne Meisfjord had a laptop and drum pads amongst his gear and some of the songs started with programmed beats but there was never the sense (in contrast to Depreciation Guild) that the laptop was dictating what the band was playing. Musically, the band was eminently under control, which contributed a bit of a tension to their music. For all the volume and noise (and, compared to the openers, S-M got a nice, loud chest-shaking sound in the room) there's never a sense that a song could fall apart. Which could imply that the band is showing too much restraint and not pushing against the limits of the song. I went back and forth a bit on whether that sense of control hindered or improved the songs.

But the band exploded those limits with their last two songs, including the awesome slowed-down haze of "Melody for Jaana", where that musical restraint felt like the pressure that turns coal into diamonds. That fed into set-closer "Blow Yr Brains in the Mourning Rain", where they came the closest to hinting at out-of-control chaos, with Nikolaisen pulling off his shirt and stepping down into the crowd to finish the song, at one point throwing his body dramatically down to the floor.

Sadly, that was it. A few minutes past eleven, the all-important dance party must start, so we were limited to eight songs in forty-five minutes. Again, the easy trope to trot out would be to say something to the effect that the band squeezed ninety minutes of intensity into a forty-five minute set. But I wouldn't quite go so far. It was solid, professional stuff and I did enjoy it — but not a brain-melting experience. Even if I didn't mind getting home at a decent hour for a change, the show sure could have gone on longer. I suppose we go to shows hoping for a sort of rock'n'roll transcendence, to be lifted up out of, y'know, the muck and mire or the everyday. So when a show feels haphazard and compromised by banal realities, it feels a bit too much like, say, the rest of one's life.

Check out some music from this set here.

1 I'd seen the band before, so I had a notion of what to expect.

2 However, it's important not to pin that on the band. Spotting me leaning against the wall and jotting down notes in between sets — and clearly mistaking me for someone more important than I am — S-M guitarist Øystein Sandsdalen took a moment to come over to me and explain that they had been doing some extra practice with their new bass player, and as such, Depreciation Guild did not get a chance to sound check. So that, and the enforced quick turnover time, explains a lot about why they didn't sound quite like I would think they wanted.

3 Interestingly, though, the Nintendo beats that were once a major talking point of the band's sound are now more limited to little in-between song segues, useful to pass the time while tuning. Though even then, once they were ready to play, the band sort of had to stand there waiting for the laptop to finish.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Recording: Shearwater

Artist: Shearwater

Song: Black Eyes

Recorded at Lee's Palace, April 1, 2010.

Shearwater - Black Eyes

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Wye Oak

Artist: Wye Oak

Song: That I Do

Recorded at Lee's Palace, April 1, 2010.

Wye Oak - That I Do

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Hospital Ships

Artist: Hospital Ships

Song: I Want It to Get Out

Recorded at Lee's Palace, April 1, 2010.

Hospital Ships - I Want It to Get Out

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Shearwater

Shearwater (Wye Oak / Hospital Ships)

Lee's Palace. Thursday, April 1, 2010.

Following some excellent pre-gig time killing1 arrived with perfect timing, just as the night's first band was taking the stage. This was Hospital Ships from Lawrence, Kansas, a half-dozen strong on this night, but apparently in general a highly malleable cast behind frontman Jordan Geiger. The set was a "public practice", in that this version of the band looked to be assembled especially for this tour, drawing on a cast of musicians whom would be back on stage later in the night as part of Shearwater. This would prove to be an agreeable circumstance that gave the songs a filled-out (if somewhat lackadaisical) sound, plenty of mellow tempos and gently downbeat lyrics. A late-night burnt-out vibe, like at the end of a party when someone puts Tonight's The Night on the turntable. To my ears, generally agreeable stuff.

Geiger was also an agreeable banterer, giving his impressions of Toronto and discussing the perils of checking people's reactions on Twitter ("A guy from last night said: 'Last night, in reverse order, Shearwater played a solid set, Wye Oak was a pleasant surprise and Hospital Ships was total shit'. Hope we're not total shit tonight.") Besides selections from their recently-issued album Oh, Ramona, the band also played their very own Fight Song ("We! Are! Hospital Ships!") and closed with Jonathan Meiburg coming on stage to add some backing vocals to a cover of the Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac's "Save Me A Place". A befitting table-setter for the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

On some quick examinations, I'd liked what I'd heard from Wye Oak, a co-ed duo from Baltimore2, and their presence as openers was definitely a selling point for this show for me. Alongside Jenn Wasner on guit/lead vox, drummer Andy Stack doubled up on keyboards, not only creating interstitial segues while Wasner tuned between songs, but also doing a credible job of playing keyb with his left hand while drumming. With albums released in '08 and '09 under their belt, the pair were already exhibiting new material, including "My Neighbor" from a forthcoming EP.

An interesting balancing act musically — they weren't particularly hook-y, in the sense there wasn't anything here that I'd walk away humming. But they do have a nice line in slightly hazy rock with arrangements hinting at folk and lyrics dabbling in various shades of bleakness. Though chipper on stage, the musical mood was downcast throughout. But consistently enjoyable, peaking midway through with "That I Do" and "I Hope You Die". Once again the set ended with Jonathan Meiburg joining the band for a cover — in this case The Kinks' "Strangers". A worthy forty minutes. It didn't knock my socks off, but more than a "pleasant surprise".

Listen to a track from this set here.

Through Wye Oak's set the venue had been eerily empty, but things picked up quickly and there was a respectable — though by no means packed-in — crowd by the time headliners Shearwater took the stage. Thankfully, for a late-arriving, skip-the-opener crowd, the audience about as quiet as could be hoped for at Lee's, creating an an excellent environment to listen to the Austin combo play. With a reshuffling of the faces seen during Hospital Ships' set, they led off with "Black Eyes", the most immediate and arresting track from newly-released album The Golden Archipelago. Sticking with the new material, the band essayed another three from the new album ("Castaways" was especially affecting) before looking back to 2006's Palo Santo with "White Waves". Then another run of new material, including "Hidden Lakes", which sort of just slogged along as a semi-formless keyb-led ditty until given some animation with Kimberly Burke and Thor Harris' dual-action glockenspiel.3

In a burst of persona-fitting banter, Meiburg — a noted ornithologist — told a tale of stepping outside the club before the show and seeing a red-tailed hawk capture a pigeon for his dinner. Catching the excitement of the story, the band eased in behind him with an impromptu accompaniment. "This is in your city," he concluded, as if handing the audience a gift of something that perhaps no-one else in the room might have had the presence to observe. Paying tribute, Meiburg then dedicated "Rooks" (the title track of the band's '08 album, and possibly his finest composition) to the hawk. That led into a driving version of "Century Eyes" with catchy trumpet stabs.

"How dark can we get it in here?" Meiburg asked, shifting gears into the meditative "I Was A Cloud" which was filled with glorious sonic details, all nicely audible in the hushed — and now gloomy — room. The hour-long set was followed by a two-song encore, Meiburg playing "Nobody" solo before the band re-emerged to finish things with "The Snow Leopard".

With Meiburg's keening, earnest vocals and anthemic mojo, it's tempting to think of his songs as something like a more ambitious indie-rock "Kyrie" for the new generation. Which I put out there semi-facetiously — there's something more than that going on in the band's arrangements and songs than cheap theatrics. But his songwriting is certainly theatrical, and in a live setting it all worked rather well. A superior night, overall.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Dropped in to check out the Gravity Wave Spin Cycle event, an April Fools' Day DIY ramble with stripped-down performances in laundromats and other such places. I caught up with the group as folks were settling in on the front steps of Central Tech for performances by Brent Randall and Paul Linklater of The Pinecones followed by Sarah Greene. It was a rather charming time — nice tunes, and amusing to watch the reactions of people going by as they encountered the show. And to boot, it was just the shortest of walks up to Lee's from there as it ended.

2 I must confess that for a couple years I always got Wye Oak mixed up with another duo from Baltimore, until the latter distinguished themselves recently by getting rather big.

3 Of the talented musicians at hand, Thor Harris deserves a special shout-out. Looking like he'd wandered in from a different band, he switched to several instruments when not on drums, adding some energy to the proceedings. Plus his drum kit included an unusual extra cymbal, about five feet high and facing the audience with a masking tape star, for the moments when the beats needed to "go to eleven", as it were.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Recording: The Wave Pictures

Artist: The Wave Pictures

Songs: Kiss Me + Sleepy Eye

Recorded at The Drake Underground, March 25, 2010.

The Wave Pictures - Kiss Me

The Wave Pictures - Sleepy Eye

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Maylee Todd & Pegwee Power

Artist: Maylee Todd & Pegwee Power

Song: Aerobics in Space

Recorded at The Drake Underground, March 25, 2010.

Maylee Todd & Pegwee Power - Aerobics in Space

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: White Suede

Artist: White Suede

Song: Cold Kids

Recorded at The Drake Underground, March 25, 2010.

White Suede - Cold Kids

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: The Wave Pictures

No Shame presents The Wave Pictures / Maylee Todd and Pegwee Power / White Suede

The Drake Underground. Thursday, March 25, 2010.

Out for a No Shame night at The Drake. The joint is too expensive to have a drink, but it is a decent enough room otherwise to get up close to a band. And a nice combination on the night of someone I'd been meaning to see and a couple bands I hadn't heard of — a chance to hear something new.

First up in a quiet-ish room was the soulful sounds of White Suede, apparently playing their first gig. Looks like these revivalists are off to a good start, playing a well-rehearsed set of Motown-inspired soul/rock. There were also some thoughtful arrangements here, and the seven-piece played with a lean and uncluttered groove. Kritty Urinowski's vox — and some rehearsed dances moves, to boot — added a sassy counterpart to Daniel Bedard's slightly more deadpan presence. Reporting that they are working on an album, we got a half-dozen respectable originals (including the winning "Cold Kids" and "Colourblind") and the band finished off with a tribute to their roots with the tastefully-selected Holland–Dozier–Holland cover "(Come Round Here) I'm The One You Need".

There was a slight whiff of The Commitments here — I kept expecting the band to make a nervous comment about waiting for Wilson Pickett to drop in. But if there's nothing envelope-pushing about their sound, it was well-executed, nicely groovy and fit like an old pair of jeans.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The middle act was the big drawing card for me on this night, for though I've seen Maylee Todd on stage a few times before — belting out jams at a Henri Fabergé show, channelling Betty Davis at the Rock Lottery or getting a sluggish indie rock crowd moving at one of her "Sweatshop Hop" interactive exercise classes — I had not seen her doing a set dedicated to her own material. So, a chance to see her with her four-man backing band Pegwee Power, working through a range of styles, her songs swinging whiplash fast from quick to slow and salty to sweet, in a rockin' disco-funky-jazzy stew. Her set included both the jazzy sci-fi excursion "Summer Sounds" (with nice synth sounds from Andrew Scott) as well as a balladic harp and accordion duet (with stand-up bassist Chris Kettlewell pulling double duty). It's possible that her expansive, pan-genre vision might throw some people off, but Todd has such immense stage presence and star power to burn that it seems like she can carry off any song with brio. Even if she she stumbles over a line, laughing at herself all the while, it's in the service of letting the songs breathe with a loosey-goosey spirit.

Alongside the swinging "Hooked" (as catchy as its name suggests), the quieter stuff (including "Protection Plan 101", which saw Todd strapping on her harp) fell in seamlessly. And it still fit in when, not long after, she went big on the set's centrepiece "Aerobics in Space", working up to a joyful shout and imprecating her bandmates, including drummer Jay Anderson, who played the song like he was auditioning for a spot on an Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation. The band closed with a pretty fabulous cover of Patrice Rushen's "Haven't You Heard". That name didn't ring any bells for me, but looking her up, the description of a prodigiously talented jazz musician with a string of R&B hits sounds like someone Todd could emulate. Her album Choose Your Own Adventure is coming out next month on the local Do Right! label, and should certainly gain some attention from a broader audience.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The headliners on the night were London's The Wave Pictures. I came in with no foreknowledge whatsoever of the trio. As they started playing, my first impression was of a peppy rock band, basic drums/bass/guit, with vocalist David Tattersall pulling out rocking solos on each of the first couple numbers. Very enjoyable stuff. With their combination of rock hooks and observational lyrics, the first sort of comparison that came up in my mind was of a mildly poppier Arctic Monkeys with a Violent Femmes undercarriage (thanks to Franic Rozycki's bass work) and heart-on-sleeve lyrics.

Which is interesting when compared to my after-the-fact impression when I sat down to listen to their Instant Coffee Baby and If You Leave it Alone albums (recently issued on this side of the pond as a double disc package), and found their recorded incarnation to be much more folk-forward. One song is a co-write with Herman Dune, and that's actually a pretty accurate sort of sign-post of their recorded sound. Though that foundation of their sound seems rather obvious in retrospect, on the scene and taking them in for the first time, that wasn't what I drew from it at all — I was enjoying some literate, frills-free rock'n'roll.

The band were equipped with some real top-notch songs, like "Leave the Scene Behind" and "Friday Night in Loughborough" (complete with catchy "la-la-la-la-la" chorus"). And switching things up, charmingly bashful drummer Jonny Helm came around from behind the kit to sing "Sleepy Eye", one arm held coyly behind his back as he sang in an unaffected voice. Not long after, Tattersall stepped down onto the floor to sing "I Thought Of You Again" sans amplification. Around the room — even in the back — everybody quieted down and leaned in to listen. Such a simple trick, but magical when it works.

I was pretty charmed by the band. And they seemed to be having a good time, both in Canada generally ("It's nice to be in Canada," Tattersall joked, "because we all worship the same Queen.") and in this bar particularly, impressed by the turnout at was, truth be told, a semi-full room.1

They closed with the doubleheader of "Kiss Me"2 and "Now You Are Pregnant" — "those two in sequence make biological sense," commented Tattersall — ending on a charming high note. This was one of those delayed reaction kind of sets, where you realize after the fact how enjoyable it was. Not that I wasn't chuffed with it at the time, but it grew on me even more in retrospect. The band already had a few fans in town — there were a couple people requesting songs — and now I'm among their number, so hopefully they'll make it back this way.

Check out a couple songs from this set here.

1 "It's really nice you guys came — you have really idea how many shows in a row we just did where there was nobody," Tattersall commented, attesting to the uphill climb there is for a talented but underexposed band trying to "break through" a bit in America.

2 Wherein the detail-minded might note that Tattersall substituted a lyric about loving Thriller for the album version's reference to Pet Sounds.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Recording: Rick White

Artist: Rick White + $100

Song: Sorry We Missed You

Recorded at the Blue Fog Revue, Lee's Palace, May 14, 2010.

Rick White + $100 - Sorry We Missed You

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: $100

Artist: $100

Song: Hell's a Place

Recorded at the Blue Fog Revue, Lee's Palace, May 14, 2010.

$100 - Hell's a Place

My notes for this set can be found here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Recording: The Weakerthans

Artist: The Weakerthans

Song: Plea from a Cat Named Virtute

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records, March 24, 2010.

The Weakerthans - Plea from a Cat Named Virtute

My notes for this set can be found here.

In-store: The Weakerthans

The Weakerthans

Sonic Boom Records. Wednesday, March 24, 2010.

There are some bands you like because it seems as if you know exactly what their songs are about.

The Weakerthans formed after I left Winnipeg, and though I'd passingly heard of them when their first album came out1, I didn't hear them until they released 2000's Left and Leaving, an album which quite knocked me down at the time. It wasn't just the Winnipeg-y I’ve been there element of it, both in the specific place-ness ("a spectre's haunting Albert Street") and how it caught the mood of life in Winnipeg. But there was also John K. Sampson’s moping-but-not-defeated persona — and the small vindication in the way that the songs hinted that every little heartache and personal moment of isolation are countered by something out there — and just maybe we might be able to band together and rise above it.

Anyways, as is often the case, time and entropy tend to dull ardour's edge, and in the last few years, The Weakerthans have meant less to me than they used to. Partially because I'm now further away in space and time from that place where the songs drew me in. But there's also the fact that the band seem to have reached a bit of a stasis point — with songs as good as Samson writes, they've never really felt the need to reinvent themselves musically, and it must be said that the last couple times I've seen 'em live, they were a little... staid.

So I wasn't overwhelmed with excitement on hearing that the band's first release in ages was going to be a live set, Live at The Walker Theatre2. Certainly not excited enough that I was interested in plunking down for a relatively expensive sit-down show at the Queen Liz theatre. But word of an in-store shoe in Sonic Boom's basement to celebrate the album's release did ignite my interest.

There was an extra-early start time for this one, with the band heading over afterwards for Greg Smith's art show opening.3 Leading off with "Everything Must Go" certainly transported me back a decade, and for the next half-hour all of my doubts about the band were generally vanquished. It helps that the band's selections4 skewed a bit towards older material — including "None of the Above" (from '97's Fallow) which they claimed afterwards not to have played for several years. But even "Tournament Of Hearts" (from '07's slightly lacklustre Reunion Tour) was brought off with boppy panache, its energy continuing into "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute".

Playing a half-dozen songs, there were at least that many other ones that mean a lot to me that I'd've liked to have heard as well. But the short set meant there was no sag to it anywhere, and it was a solid reminder of what I liked — like — about The Weakerthans. After, as Samson — always a humble anti-rock-star type — stepped down from the stage for photos with some fans, I made my way out rather satisfied.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Thanks to K., who took the top photo.

1 I was never into Propagandhi, so the first thing that stuck with me about the band was the original rhythm section's connection to Winnipeg punk-poppers Red Fisher.

2 The album is actually called something else, but I don't now, and probably never will, recognize this nefarious bit of renaming — and here I thought I had no more passionate feelings in me over things related to Winnipeg.

3 Smith's exhibition also ties in to the new album, as his paintings were used for the cover art.

4 Playing without a setlist, the songs were chosen by inter-band discussion between songs.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Recording: The Clientele

Artist: The Clientele

Song: Never Anyone But You

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, March 19, 2010.

The Clientele - Never Anyone But You

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Field Music

Artist: Field Music

Song: Rockist Part 4 (School of Language cover)

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, March 19, 2010.

Field Music - Rockist Part 4

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: The Clientele

The Clientele (Field Music)

The Horseshoe Tavern. Friday, March 19, 2010.

I'd first encountered The Clientele at V-Fest 2007, where I made an effort to go check them out on the second stage mostly because I'd read somewhere that they were on Merge Records. And despite what was a semi-successful set — it's ill-advised to show up to a festival gig without a backup guitar — there was something in their songs that quickly had me hooked. I grabbed their then-current album God Save the Clientele the next time I was at Soundscapes, filled in the back catalogue a bit, and snapped up last year's Bonfires on the Heath when it came out, looking forward to a return visit from the London crew.

So, out to the 'Shoe on a Friday night, meeting J., who'd showed up early enough to grab a table in the seating area and hang out a bit before Field Music1 hit the stage, efficiently and on time, just like one of their songs. I was passingly familiar with the four-piece from Sunderland2, now reunited after co-frontmen brothers David and Peter Brewis took some time away from the band with side projects. Switching off, with one on drums while the other brother generally played guit or keybs and sang, we got an efficient twelve songs in forty-five minutes. Their music kept bringing Todd Rundgren to mind. XTC — no strangers to the Rundgrenesque themselves — are a more oft-cited point of comparison, but that works too.

The band mostly pulled from their recent double album Measure, often seguing from song to song. In fact, toward the end of the set, a series of songs from the new album ("See You Later", "Something Familiar", "Share The Words") were played in a sort of mini-suite. They also reached back to their 2005 debut for "If Only The Moon Were Up", and David's selections included a pair from his School of Language side project.3

Sophisticated yet catchy pop — this is the sort of thing that should totally appeal to me. But for some reason it mostly didn't. I mean, I liked it okay — it was fine throughout, and there were some decent songs ("Them That Do Nothing" stood out a bit) and no real clunkers. It's possible that it's a titch too mannered for me. I dunno... some things click and some things don't.

Listen to a track from this set here.

After a reasonably quick turnover, The Clientele made their unassuming entrance, starting with "Since K Got Over Me", the lead-off track from 2005's Strange Geometry. Right from the start, all the elements of the band's sound were in place, especially Alasdair MacLean's ringing guitar and expressive but dryly-delivered vox4 — the perfect package for his evocative, literate lyrics. With an unfussy rhythm section not afraid to leave space in the songs, most of the sonic textures came from multi-instrument Mel Draisey.

There's generally an woodsy-England's-green sensibility in MacLean's lyrics, evoked, say, in "We Could Walk Together"'s sights ("through carnivals of shop windows where elm trees sigh"; "the moon high above the motorway.") that isn't entirely so innocent underneath it all ("why don't we stick together / with our eyes so full of evening and amphetamine"). That kind of mix comes up often as the band moved back and forth through their catalogue. There was some chatter in the room (more audible on quieter songs like "Bonfires on the Heath") but it wasn't enough to interfere much with the perfectly lovely music, including the daydream believer cadences of "Here Comes The Phantom", featuring Draisy on violin.

Sometimes it's hard to remember for all their swirly 'sweater-and-a-cup-of-tea' mannered-ness how much of a rock band The Clientele can be, such as with "Never Anyone But You"'s Sterling Morrison-esque tugboat rhythm suggesting a gentler version of the VU's "What Goes On".5 That one was pretty fantastic, but now that the band was in their groove, there were further stunners, including "I Hope I Know You" and "Lamplight", the latter pulled from 03's The Violet Hour, which featured an extended coda — and some crafty guitar work — stretching the song past the nine-minute mark. That was good enough to have been the show-stopping set-ender, making the next songs ("Harvest Time", "Bookshop Casanova") a bit anticlimactic. On the other hand "Saturday" (from 2000's singles collection Suburban Light) was quite lovely — I'll have to get my hands on a copy of that one.

An hour-long set, followed by a three-song encore, reaching back again to their earliest days for "Reflections After Jane" and ending with a cover of Television Personalities' "Picture of Dorian Gray". On the whole, really an excellent set and a reminder of just how good The Clientele are. I always tend to think of their primary mood as "autumnal", but they perfectly dazzled on a March night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 For a while, I kept getting Field Music mixed up with Swedish techno artist The Field. Which, names notwithstanding, makes a kind of sense as both fell into that broad category of well-praised music that I gave a spin but that didn't really stick with me.

2 As often happens with visiting British bands, there was one Shouting Englishman who thought he was bosom buddies with the group, sharing a running joke about Norwich F.C. with the room, the relevance of which was quite lost on me.

3 Strangely, I might have enjoyed those the most out of anything in the whole set.

4 Referencing another essential element of their sound, MacLean asked, at the first song's end, "how are the vocals out there? Do they have enough reverb on them?"

5 That one raised enough heat for MacLean to afterwards issue a request for more towels on stage, lest the band look like "sweaty English monsters". Considering them a song later after they'd been delivered, MacLean asked, "You call them towels in this country, right? Not ta-wulls". This would lead to what may have been the most towel-related banter I'd ever heard at a gig.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gig: Mariinsky Orchestra

Mariinsky Orchestra

Roy Thompson Hall. Tuesday, March 16, 2010.

Another one of those chances to see how the other half lives. Not the sort of thing that I'd usually be seen at, but when Roy Thompson Hall sent out an offer of twenty dollar tickets for a bunch of shows, I gave the list a quick once over, not thinking there'd be anything for me. But my eye was caught by one thing. I did some quick checking, and indeed I had seen The Mariinsky Orchestra1 (out of St. Petersburg, Russia) not too long before on the big screen, in Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark. That minor synchronicity made it seem like a cool idea to grab a ticket.

It actually turned out to be good value for money. Looking it up, I was paying less than half of normal face value for what turned out to be a good enough seat for the likes of me. It was in the back row of the upper ring at Roy Thompson Hall, yes, but in a section that was around to the side enough to be directly perpendicular to the stage, giving a very nice view of the orchestra and conductor.

The conductor was Valery Gergiev, who is, as it turns out, about as big a name as it gets in this game. To watch him conducting was quite a delight, for there was far less restraint in his gestures than one might have expected for a guy carrying such a highbrow rep. Tall and lanky, he employed body language that brought to mind John Cleese with his long-limbed exciteability. When the tempo of the music built up to its height, he was actually nearly hopping, and a couple times I wondered to myself that if any member of the orchestra should make a mistake while he was in such a state whether or not he'd dash off the stage and return with the branch of a tree to give them a damn good thrashing.

This, of course, made for some fine additional entertainment to go along with the music. The first piece, Hector Berlioz' Les Troyens felt pretty cerebral, more of a clearing of the throat and a look-what-we-can-do gesture. Selections from Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette — a "symphonie dramatique", which includes, in its full form, choral sections not reproduced here — had a more jaunty feel and perhaps, unsurprisingly, a more pronounced narrative arc.

As is pretty much always the case on hearing classical music, I was captivated by the the impressive range of dynamics at play, with the orchestra going from quietness to booming intensity in a way that is lost with your amplified/electrified types of music. The Berlioz was interesting stuff, but somewhat reserved — perhaps too much for the crowd. "Well," one guy said, as he was making his way for the exit as the intermission began, "I've never been so ready for Tchaikovsky."

And then a chance to wander around a bit during the break, soak in the surroundings and consider the crowd. At least I wasn't the most dressed-down individual on the premises — I passed a dude wearing a Ramones t-shirt and leather jacket, cigarette package stuffed in his pocket. But on the whole, the crowd mostly conformed to what you'd think: older, more affulent looking types. Not for nothing was one of the evening's sponsors a provider of "personal banking services", which left me thinking the personal service they'd extend to me would be to have the security guard escort me back to the street. But I digress.

There was certainly a different feel to the second part of the programme. The switch from Berlioz to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor felt like going from Masterpiece Theatre to General Hospital — which is to say this was a lot more populist and easy-to-grasp in its unabashed and unrestrained emotionality. Plus there was a more tangible musical throughline in the jaunty thematic motif that recurred throughout. If the cynic were to think that this was like the sweet cake following the its-good-for-you vegetables of the first half, it should be noted that the orchestra threw themselves into this with gusto, Gergiev most of all. Conducting without a score — which boggles the mind when you consider this was a forty-five minute piece — his gesticulations were even more intense than previously.

There were parts that were just this side of overbearing sentimentality — including the second movement french horn solo that is said to have been pilfered by John Denver for "Annie's Song". But in a sure sign of expert emotional manipulation, the goopiest parts of the music were perhaps the most affecting. The ending had just the right amount of bombast — though I think it's considered to be rather too over the top for true sophisticates. At any rate, the crowd offered up an enormous standing ovation, three minutes long, with numerous curtain calls for Gergiev.

Returning for an encore, the orchestra played the "Polonaise" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin,2 which the orchestra played with house-on-fire quickness. A jaunty ending to the night.

Very enjoyable overall, and I left pondering whether this seemed like an extra-cool time because it was relatively unusual for me. Were music like this more within my means, I would probably go to more of it. But on the other hand, it's not bad to have some things that you like but whose presence marks a special occasion.

1 Known in the Soviet times as the Kirov, and also known for their very famous ballet company.

2 To be clear, I had no notion at all what the piece was — it fell into that wide category of classical pieces that I know I've heard somewhere but could never identify. But I did ask around.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hot Docs 2010: Wrap-up

Just a quick wrap-up to cap off Hot Docs. Trying not to over-exert myself, I saw forty-three titles at thirty-four screenings, if my counting is correct. On the whole, the quality was pretty good — though it might indicate that I know how to pick the ones I'm interested in. I'd say overall I was knocked-over by fewer docs this year, but I was bored stiff less, too. Welcome to life's mushy middle.1

Anyways, just because I like counting things, I made a chart of where I saw the movies:

Only made it to The Royal once, mostly because it's a bit further away from the other clustered venues. I made a conscious effort to avoid Innis as much as possible — I find the seats murder on the tuchus.2 The ROM theatre isn't much better, especially on days with multiple screenings to go to. The Bader remains a pleasant experience, though it's showing its age a bit, and appears like some of the upkeep has been deferred a bit.

On the whole, the festival was well-run. In terms of set-up and organization, everything worked pretty much the same as it has for the past few years. The Premium Pass was a good deal once again, and I had no problems getting into any of my screenings. The numbers should be pretty good, too — I was only at one screening that I would label "lightly attended". Generally, theatres were full. I didn't do any counting, but my impression is that there were fewer filmmakers on hand this year.

I've already given a write-up on everything I've seen, so for summary, perhaps just a quick list of this year's best, in order of preference:

Best of the Fest, 2010

  • Marwencol

  • The Peddler

  • La Belle Visite

  • Gasland

  • 12th & Delaware

  • Steam of Life

  • Freetime Machos

  • Regretters

  • Osadné

  • The Fabulous Fiff and Fam

  • And Everything Is Going Fine

  • If you get a chance to catch any of these films, they should be worth your time.

    1 It makes me mildly curious if that indicates that I have reached a point with documentaries that I've been at with music for awhile now — not so much "the thrill is gone" as the highs are less high and the lows are less low than they used to be.

    2 Plus it was uncomfortably hot during the first screening I saw there.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010

    Hot Docs 2010: May 9 (Sunday)

    Reviews of screenings from the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

    American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein (Dir: David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier)

    Sometimes you can say something wrong, but sell it with charming words. Sometimes you can say something right, and make it seem wrong with the way you say it. Somewhere in the middle of all this is Norman Finkelstein, American academic. By his own admission not easy to get along with, Finkelstein refuses to sugarcoat or mediate his views, and the way he uncompromisingly delivers them bothers people as much as what he is saying. And given that his areas of focus include a critique of Zionism and strong support for the Palestinian people, there are plenty who don't like what he has to say.

    Ridgen and Rossier follow Finkelstein on his travels, as well as sit down with him for lengthy conversations. We also hear from his supporters (including Noam Chomsky) as well as his opponents (including Alan Dershowitz, with whom he started a nasty tussle over academic standards). The latter incident seems to be one where Finkelstein exhibits a poor ability to pick his battles. Or, perhaps, here is a man who will knock at any pillars of injustice that he sees, without fear that the the ceiling may collapse upon him. Ultimately as much a psychological portrait as reportage of his positions, we are left with a complicated view of an uncompromising man. Interesting stuff.

    Land (Dir: Julian Pinder)

    There's a long history of los gringos coming to Nicaragua, and their past record is bad enough that when the developers arrive on the coast to start building luxury resorts and retirement residences for those from el norte, they were viewed with suspicion by the locals. In this doc, we watch from a variety of perspectives along the would-be "Nicaraguan Riviera". Besides the developers, we hear from another wave of Americans, who had come here to get off the grid and away from the frontier that they now see encroaching on them. Plus, there are the locals, some of whom think that the developer that is also building a school is on the right track — until they are told that it's not a school for the local children, but one for them to be taught to be waiters and chambermaids. All of this is set against a backdrop of the national elections, where former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is making a comeback, and everyone holds their breath, wondering whose side he is now on in protecting land rights.

    An interesting story, generally well told, with close access to all involved — the developers especially are given enough rope to hang themselves rhetorically. But the narrative is a little fragmented, and the soundtrack, while nicely done with an elegant string quartet, is occasionally overbearing. And you know that overly literal approach where someone says something like, "a hard rain's gonna fall", and the filmmaker makes a jumpcut to a rainstorm? There's a bit too much of that. But on the whole, a good job.

    Paired with the eight minute short Basin (Dir: David Geiss), a sort of "our home on native land" rumination on Alberta's notorious oil sands. Juxtaposing images of pristine wilderness with aerial moonscape shots of the oil sand developments, the movie strikes a there's-something-wrong-here chord. But it doesn't really linger long enough to make that much more of a point beyond that.

    Recording: Broken Social Scene

    Artist: Broken Social Scene

    Song: Texico Bitches

    Recorded at Soundscapes, May 9, 2010.

    Broken Social Scene - Texico Bitches

    My notes for this set can now be found here.

    Recording: Broken Social Scene

    Artist: Broken Social Scene

    Song: Superconnected

    Recorded at Soundscapes, May 9, 2010.

    Broken Social Scene - Superconnected

    Review to follow, though let's give a special shout-out to all the good folks at Soundscapes who were spotted hoisting around the risers that the band used for the stage.

    Update: My notes for this set can now be found here.

    Hot Docs 2010: May 8 (Saturday)

    Reviews of screenings from the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

    Gaea Girls (Dir: Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams)

    Another journey to Japan with Kim Longonotto, and while this subculture is less at the fringes, it's still a very long way to the bright lights of the arena from the Gaea Girls' training camp, located in an old warehouse out in farm country. Following a group of potential recruits to a womens' wrestling league, we witness some hard physical training and no-holds-barred sparring. It's mentally tough, too, under the supervision of wrestling star/trainer Nagayo, who has a tough love approach. Just watching the determination and defeat in the recruits' faces, Longinotto's camera captures a rich emotional rollercoaster. She also proves herself to be a worthy wrestling cinematographer, capturing the physicality of the bouts. A different kind of story than the others featured in this retrospective, but still captured with the same grace and sympathy.

    Grace, Milly, Lucy… Child Soldiers (Dir: Raymonde Provencher)

    The Lord's Resistance Army, a notorious rebel group fighting in northern Uganda and Sudan fills its ranks by capturing children — both boys and girls. Girls are not only sent into combat but also given as "wives" to older soldiers. When they are finally able to free themselves and return home, ex-child solders are often rejected by their communities. In this film, we follow a number of women, former child soldiers for the LRA, who are now trying to re-create normal lives. Soft-spoken and articulate, they tell us about what they went through as child soldiers and how they are doing now. We follow them as they unite to raise awareness and gain acceptance, whether in their own communities or in front of the UN. A well-paced seventy-one minutes, there is a sense of uplift here in the positivity that these women are generating that mostly overcomes the sense of horror at their past lives.

    Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Dir: Alex Gibney)

    From the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side comes this glossy, high-calibre production. Clearly courting a mainstream/non-doc audience, this movie features a glib, quick-cut style and booming, occasionally jarring, soundtrack (the music clearances alone must have cost more than the entire budgets of some of the docs at this festival). But the populist style is in the service of an incredible story, tracking the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff, American super-lobbyist and Republican hero. Abramoff, currently in jail for fraud, engineered bold new ways of selling access to politicians and laissez-faire fundraising methods while making a tidy profit for himself. The film does a generally good job of tracking the many tendrils in play here, with interviews from some of the key players, including disgraced former representative Bob Ney. Political junkies may know many of these details already, but the film does a nice job bringing it all to life, and reminding us that Abramoff isn't a "bad apple" in the system — he was part of the system.

    Thieves by Law (Dir: Alexander Gentelev)

    Speaking of the thin line between criminality and government, Gentelev takes us on an exploration of the "vory v zakone", the head men in the Russian criminal underground. Finding three who would tell their stories on camera, we get a through-the-looking-glass history of modern Russia, where what is and isn't part of "organized crime" is pretty hazy. Leonid 'Mackintosh' Bilunov, now living in the south of France, presents as a wealthy businessman and philanthropist while cold-blooded killer Vitaly 'Bondar' Dyemochka wants to make movies fictionalizing his experiences. Both look like they stepped out of central casting as Russian mafia. So too with Alimzhan 'Taivanchik' Tokhtahltounov, who tells us he likes to help solve little problems for people — including, possibly, trying to fix an Olympic medal result (which he doesn't really want to talk about). Through conversations with these guys and their associates we get a feel for their characters and milieux, both past and present. The narration is sometimes a little too light and breezy, but the film mostly does its job of exposing us to this world.