Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Recording: The Balconies

Artist: The Balconies

Song: Tiger

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records (CMW), March 10, 2011.

The Balconies - Tiger

My notes for this set can be found here.

In-store: The Balconies

The Balconies

Sonic Boom Records. Thursday, March 10, 2011.

As a lead-in to the night's CMW-ing, dropped in to the basement at Sonic Boom. The store did an admirable job in putting together their own parallel mini-festival, with three full days of in-store concerts — a cozy environment to hang out and run into friends and familiar faces.

On this Thursday evening, I managed to catch the end of The Paint Movement — it's been awhile, and I need to catch a full set from 'em at some point — but was there for The Balconies. Since the '09 release of their debut album, they've been building up new material, and they were showcasing it here, leading off with one of their new ones before bringing out the older "Battle Royale". Besides that, there'd only be one more song from the album.

For whatever reason, I think every time I see the band I'm mildly shocked that they're as rock as they are — perhaps in my head I always remember their poppy side that's a bit more prominent on the album. It's also interesting to note that sibling Jacquie Neville — always a dynamic focus on stage — seems to be emerging as a frontwoman for the band even more, singing lead on the first three songs here before brother Stephen took a turn — although, of course, in most of them there's a certain amount of back-and forth. Still, this is a shift that plays to their greatest strengths.

The new songs included "Kill Count" and "Tiger", both sides of what would subsequently end up on a 7".1 With nine songs in thirty-five minutes, this was nearly a full set from the band, and they weren't stinting on the effort, having to pause to catch their breath after a few songs. "We've been hibernating for the winter," Jacquie said, noting they'd been doing more behind-the-scenes work on new material than playing around town. Interestingly, after all the new material, the older "Serious Bedtime" came out less sharp in comparison, the harmonies falling a little flat — although when a band is playing in a record shop, you can never be sure if they can all hear each other as well as they'd like. Still, the newer stuff was delivered with a sharp focus, so that augers well as the band gears things up for their second album.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 This single has now been expanded to an EP that includes three beefed-up re-recordings of songs from the debut. And underlying the increased role of Jacquie Neville mentioned above, it must be noted that she is indeed the "lead vocalist" on all five songs of the Kill Count EP.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Recording: Kathryn Calder

Artist: Kathryn Calder

Song: Who Are You?

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, November 29, 2011.

Kathryn Calder - Who Are You?

Full review to follow. Kathryn Calder was, as her new album implies, Bright and Vivid in a quick set full of new songs.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Recording: Mantler

Artist: Mantler

Song: Crying at the Movies

Recorded at TIFF Lightbox, March 9, 2011.

Mantler - Crying at the Movies

My notes for this set can be found here.

Event: Mantler's Visual Music

Mantler's Visual Music

TIFF Lightbox. Wednesday, March 9, 2011.

Although this was also the first night of Canadian Music Week, I decided to take it easy, and just head out though the rainy slush to this special event at TIFF's new Temple of Cinema. A free screening, in co-presentation with The Music Gallery, this was a programme of shorts curated by Chris Cummings. Known as Mantler when he performs on stage, when not singing his sad songs Cummings has had a long affiliation with TIFF, as well as an academic background in film. So it's no surprise that his selection of music-related cinema was quite a distance away from the typical music video.

In fact, the films hewed much closer to the avant-garde, with many showing audacious experimentation with both content and form — several, in fact, were pioneering in their use of direct animation.1 Starting with a pair of works by Oskar Fischinger, the programme led off with the self-descriptive Motion Painting No. 1 (1947, 11 min.), with hand-painted animation set to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto2, and the quicker, explosive Allegretto (1936-1943, 3 min.), which was quite sublime.

That was followed by a trio of films by Len Lye, starting with the bold, punchy Trade Tattoo (1937, 5 min.). Apparently commissioned by the British Post Office, even with the zingy references to Industry! and the Power of Correspondence ("THE RHYTHM OF TRADE IS MAINTAINED BY THE MAILS"), this visually audacious Technicolor riot was probably not what they were expecting. Even now, we don't have a good vocabulary for this sort of nonlinear boldness — we tend to quickly slip to lazy drug jokes and trippy, psychedelic references.

Rhythm (1957, 1 min.), which is an editing exercise in exactly that, juxtaposing the flow of industrial work to tribal beats.

And Free Radicals (1958-79, 4 min.) pushed that further into abstraction, employing designs — suggestive of both lightning and dancing figures — scratched directly into the film stock and cut to Maori drumming.

The experimental works of the NFB's Norman McLaren are well-known in his home country, although I wasn't familiar with either of these selections. Synchromy (1971, 7 min.) was visual cinema in the purest sense, moving the film's soundtrack into the visual area, so you are literally seeing what you are hearing. It sounds like it had prefigured 8-bit chiptunes music by more than thirty years.

Synchromy's frenzy is in direct opposition to the beautiful simplicity of Lines Horizontal (1961, 6 min.). Although there's probably a math paper to be written here on its use of standing wave patterns, the best thing is to just blank out a little and flow with this, like a kid watching hydro wires rise and dip from the back seat of a car:

After that minimalist exercise, Larry Jordan's Gymnopedies (1965, 6 min.) felt like a rococo edifice, the headlong rush back into complexity feeling almost florid after Lines Horizontal's rigourous minimalism. Employing cutout animation with a Victorian surrealistic bent, this felt like Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam rushing headlong towards Fantastic Planet. But under the calming influence of Satie's forever-and-always gorgeous piece, it found its own meditative rhythm.

A departure from most of the rest of the programme — and its longest piece — Warren Sonbert's Friendly Witness (1989, 22 min.) had a different sort of formal audacity. This exercise in montage mixed together home movie clips cut (in the first half) to rock'n'roll songs, the combination creating a sort of set of personal references akin to Chris Marker. The quicker flurry of selections preceding it might have lowered my attention span, but not as much of this stuck with me.3

The screening portion ended with one last blast of trippiness. Cecil Stokes' When the Organ Played ‘Oh Promise Me’ (c.1940s, 3 min.) was apparently made as a tool in the treatment of the insane in an era when Bing Crosby was considered calming, if not therapeutic, featuring a brain-melting visual field created "using crystallized chemicals and polarized light" set to Der Bingle's soothing tones.

And in addition to all of this was a short performance after from Cummings, playing a brief solo set with wurlitzer and Rhythm Ace. Although he was obviously inspired by the films he presented, Cummings' music is certainly less abstract, and he had no lack of thematically-appropriate material, leading off with "Author".

"That's sort of my love letter to the theatre," Cummings observed afterwards. " Now, I'll do my love letter to the cinema. [beat] It's called 'Crying at The Movies'". And that was followed by the new "Husbands", based on the Cassavetes film of the same name — both song and film closely observed and vaguely melancholic.4

Listen to a track from this set here.

In a brief Q & A afterward, Cummings talked about his relationship to movie music ("a bit of a lost art") and about having done some film music as a cinema student. Asked about how these experimental films might have influenced his music, he talked about his desire to overcome the plainest sort of narrative: "I'm always trying to find a less linear way of writing a song".

That made for a nice wrap to the evening. Well done all around, it was a thoughtfully-selected programme from Cummings. And as cool as it is that many of these are available on the youtubes, it was really excellent to see these on the big screen, in fine prints tracked down by TIFF. In our over-stuffed information-world, curation matters more than ever.

1 That is to say, they were created without the use of a camera — not to be confused with "direct cinema" in the documentary film sense.

2 I can't find an embeddable video for either of the Fischinger works, but here are links for Motion Painting No. 1 and Allegretto. I'm not quite sure what's on offer with all the manga ads on this site — and apparently, my adblocker is way less effective for Japanese ads. Who knew?

3 I also couldn't find this one online at all, so I couldn't refresh my memory.

4 In Mantler-related news, 2000's debut album Doin' It All is getting a digital reissue, and to celebrate, Mantler + band will be playing the whole thing at a special show next Friday (December 2, 2011) at Holy Oak Café. A one-of-a-kind show that would be well-worth your time.

Recording: Bassekou Koyate & Ngoni Ba

Artist: Bassekou Koyate & Ngoni Ba

Song: Saro

Recorded at The Great Hall, November 27, 2011.

Bassekou Koyate & Ngoni Ba - Saro

Full review to follow. As expected, a jaw-dropping display of virtuoso musicality from Kouyate and his band. On the last night of a long North American tour, the band still had enough in the tank to delight the crowd.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Recording: Heartbeat Hotel

Artist: Heartbeat Hotel

Song: Fresh Fruit

Recorded at The Silver Dollar, November 26, 2011.

Heartbeat Hotel - Fresh Fruit

Full review to follow. Heartbeat Hotel launched their Intae Woe EP by playing gracious hosts to their friends, with fine sets from Carnival Moon, Foxes in Fiction and Ostrich Tuning.

Recording: Memoryhouse

Artist: Memoryhouse

Song: Modern, Normal

Recorded at Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture (DAPS All-Ages VIII), November 26, 2011.

Memoryhouse - Modern, Normal

Full review to follow. Another excellent afternoon down in the Kapisanan Centre, with good music, a nice crowd and a warm atmosphere. Plus, I learned about the true meaning of parols.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Recording: Elfin Saddle

Artist: Elfin Saddle

Song: Running Sheep

Recorded at The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge), March 5, 2011.

Elfin Saddle - Running Sheep

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Picastro

Artist: Picastro

Song: Neva

Recorded at The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge), March 5, 2011.

Picastro - Neva

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Khôra

Artist: Khôra

Song: unknown [excerpt]*

Recorded at The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge), March 5, 2011.

Khôra - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Gig: Elfin Saddle

Elfin Saddle (Picastro / Khôra)

The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge). Saturday, March 5, 2011.

On a cold and rather snowy night, I headed out after the symphony to catch the late show in the Tranzac's front room. If I wasn't going to go home and pull on my jammies, the snug Southern Cross wasn't a bad second option. And weather notwithstanding, this drew a pretty good crowd, that would, at its peak, include a fair number of people stuck standing at the back.

The show was opened with the solo work of Matthew Ramolo, who records as Khôra, easing unannounced into his set. Soon, the crowd was shushing the talkers as Ramolo created quietly-still washes of e-bow, taking about four minutes to build up in volume before he started to add a second layer on top. Meanwhile, this time out, Ramolo was accompanied by visual projections crafted by associate Joe Dodaro — at first orange, smushy fire-like images spilling over an the edges of a blanket affixed to the room's west wall.

By the time the soundscape had transformed into blurby analog synth blobs, the images changed to blurry letters on a page. At first I wasn't sure how Ramolo was staying roughly in sync with a screen he wasn't looking at, but it is worth remembering that he's playing compositions, after all, not just random noodling.

And then, as the music changed again, the visuals moved back to blurry colours for about a dozen minutes. The set to this point had transformed from one piece to another with constant segues, but there was finally a cold stop before the next piece, with gentle guitar picking with less ambient wash backing it up. Toward the end of that, the screen gave out, and the projections were being cast onto the curtains — and through the window, now beaming into the Annex night.

The last piece was something I recognized from when I saw him before, building to a swirling skirl with ebow and a screwdriver used as a slide — and the projections ended as he was on the comedown. Strong stuff, and still entrancing on seeing him for a second time.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

That was followed by a too-rare chance to catch longstanding locals Picastro, whose music is rather beautiful, in the way that watching a slow-motion video of a car crash is beautiful. The songs are anchored by the voice and guitar of Liz Hysen1, who started things off with the lovely languidness of "Split Head". The song's hook is a nimble little slide move that always gets caught in my head, set against the gentle atonality of Nick Storring's cello line. That was followed with "Neva", also from '09's Become Secret, the band's most-recent full-length.

After that came a series of the as-yet-unreleased songs that the band have been playing live for a little while, all of which fit well with the older material. The band's malleable lineup — Hysen is the sole constant member — has held steady for a while now, and both Storring and drummer Brandon Valdivia bring along the skills they employ as members of the city's improvised-music community in animating the off-kilter songs.

Which isn't to say, by any means, that this is all "uneasy listening". "Car Sleep" (from 2007's Whore Luck) shows off the fact that Hysen could create something like popsongs if she wanted to turn her mind to it. But there's a lot of rewards for getting pulled into the band's deeper explorations — like here, as the set closed with "The Stiff", where Valdivia turned from his drumkit to the piano to add some chord clusters, piling another disquieting layer onto the song.2

Listen to a track from this set here.

With the snowy weather outside and the late start (about quarter to one), the crowd thinned out a bit as Elfin Saddle got set up. I didn't know anything about the Montréal combo, save for the fact that they're on Constellation Records, but they proved to be a good match for Picastro, with a droning, slightly atonal approach to songwriting.

Initially a duo of Emi Honda and Jordan McKenzie, who also collaborate as visual artists, here they were joined throughout by Nathan Gage on double bass. At the outset, Honda sang, backed by her own accordion and McKenzie on drums. After a couple songs, she would take over the kit (which was customized to look like a percussive hookah, or perhaps something a marching band in a Dr. Seuss book would employ) and McKenzie would pick up his guitar.

Each had their own style of slightly off-kilter vocals, Honda a sing-songy breeze and McKenzie a sort of decentred olde folk approach — I could imagine breaking into a warbling version of "Jerusalem", like Nick Drake on 'shrooms. The band is certainly situated in their own soundworld (or, perhaps, their own Wurld, as their collaborative audio-visual release is called) and the unearthly quality of the worlds/wurlds they create definitely carries over to their music. They showed a definite talent for arrangements, with songs effortlessly seguing from one to the next, and there were some flourishes that I liked, such as the tinkling music box and double-bowed cymbals, but overall it didn't strongly engage me and as the hour grew late the lure of catching the subway home was enough for me to cut out as they headed toward the last part of their set.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Hysen will also usually play violin as well in concert, but it wasn't brought out this time 'round.

2 The band has an online presence as low-key as its music, still mostly relying on myspace, but according to the grapevine, Picastro will be giving a local launch to Fool, Redeemer (their "semi-collaborative" split album with Nadja) at January's edition of the "Feast in the East" Concert Series, January 7, 2012.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Festival: TSO's New Creations Festival (Saturday)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festival: "Electronica Meets Orchestra"

Roy Thompson Hall. Saturday, March 5, 2011

This is an an expansion of my earlier notes which appeared here.

Once again, the festival's programming at Roy Thompson extended beyond the main concert, and I arrived early enough to hear some of the pre-show lobby performance by the Gryphon Trio, which sounded a bit like a mildly abrasive 'moderne' sort of chamber music — a stately-but-drunken mix of Bartók and "Rock of Ages".

That was curiously enjoyable, but I also had another tangential musical adventure in mind, so I took care to settle into my seat with enough time to listen to the orchestra warming up. I've always loved that random drift, the soundquilt of overlapping melodic fragments, from even before I knew anything about "ambient" or abstract music of any kind. It's actually one of my favourite things about going to the symphony.1

The programme proper began with Gary Kulesha's Torque, which was simpatico with the later City Noir — and also paralleled the previous show's Short Ride in a Fast Machine with the brisk invocation of a sleek car ride. But Kulesha's piece, though designed as something sort and punchy to begin shows with a burst of energy, employed more of a atmospheric cinematic vocabulary than Short Ride.

And then on to the main event — Mason Bates' Liquid Interface. This night's title ("Electronica Meets Orchestra") was an interesting demonstration of the pace at which "popular" forms filter up into the high culture, and enough to make me wonder if, by the time they reach this level, things might have already moved on at ground level. Although it's not particularly my realm, "electronica", as a word or concept, has a bit of a turn-of-the-century whiff to it, coming off (in the accelerated world of pop forms) as a bit of a quaint attempt to create a marketable umbrella term for what is really a diverse rage of subgenres.

It also offers the promise of one of my least-favourite live tropes — the image of the lone figure behind a laptop, possibly pressing keys to control the music in vague and unfathomable ways — or just updating their twitter for all the audience might know. So, watching Bates take his spot in the orchestra, "playing" his laptop and drumpad, I was curious to see how everything here was going to meld.

As the title implies, Liquid Interface was a sonic exploration of various states of water, from icebergs sliding into the sea to the gentle patter of falling droplets to the overwhelming power of a gale. Bates' contributions were mostly percussive, and surrounded by the lushness of the orchestra, the beats sounded somewhat tinny and boxy. It's also interesting to ponder on whether the metronomic regularity that the programmed beats enforced on the orchestra2 let the ensemble "breathe" a little less than they might have otherwise.

The various movements went in a few interesting directions and Bates also provided a lot of scene-setting sound effects, from the drip-drop rain patterns to the white noise of wind. There was one jazzy section that made this feel more akin to the night's next piece than I was expecting — but also a bit like a "pops" piece as well. On the whole, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed — I wouldn't say either half of the style collision did much to elevate the other.

Then again, the reason I was chuffed for this show came from the next selection, John Adams' City Noir. It was introduced by Adams as a sort of theoretical film noir soundtrack, unrestrained by film music's need to give way to dialogue — "you just get going, and you have to stop," he said of his frustrations with music cues.

The piece also functions as a tribute to Los Angeles, playing itself in its seedy, after-hours, dark-side-of-Hollywood guise. As such, the music did a good job of building up a tense texture of implied threats of violence alongside hints of glamour. Because of that pre-existing cinematic language, it was very vivid, and musically, there were homages to bebop and Ellington brushing shoulders against rushing car-chase tempos and moments of stillness like a foggy night in a desperate harbourtown.

By that measure, this was great fun to listen to, and a smashing success, right up to the bombasto ending. I don't know if this was pushing the envelope forward, technically speaking, like Adams' Harmonielehre (performed at the festival's previous show), but it was interesting as hell.

The night concluded with an after-show lobby party, featuring Mason Bates switching personas to spin some discs as DJ Masonic — another lively touch even if it's not my sort of thing. And anyway, wrapping up early-ish meant that I could rush off to another show to complete my evening.

1 I ask this in all seriousness: has anyone ever released an album just of orchestras warming up? If you had a bunch of source material and the sensibility to edit it, you could make something deliciously woozy.

2 It's worth noting that John Adams conducted not only his own work, but Liquid Interface as well, wearing a click track in his ear for the latter. I have no particular insight, but it would be interesting to hear whether that drove any change is his approach and how he guided the orchestra.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

LMA: Cigarettes @ Horseshoe Tavern

In collaboration with Brad Casey, I have uploaded the entire Cigarettes set from February 21, 2011 at The 'Shoe to the Live Music Archive. You can stream the whole thing, or download it in the format of your choice, including lossless FLAC files.

Cigarettes, Live at The Horseshoe Tavern 2011-02-21

My notes for this set can be found here. Don't forget to check out the band's Will to War and Wreck It album.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gig: Pemi Paull

Pemi Paull

The Music Gallery. Thursday, March 3, 2011.

Decided to head out to the Music Gallery for a different sort of show than the sort of thing I usually attend. Maybe I was in the right "classical" mindset due to the stuff I'd been thinking about all week at the New Creations Festival, but I was in a mood to put my MG membership to good use — it meant this show was only five bucks for me to get into and explore something off the beaten path.1

Or very off the beaten path, as the case may be. When I showed up, I looked to be the first and only patron on hand. I was feeling slightly awkward until someone else showed up, and then a slow trickle of people a few minutes later. As the house opened, there was a crowd just shy of twenty.

It felt weird to see absolutely no gear in front of the stage at all — just a music stand. This would be most definitely "unplugged", with Pemi Paull's viola amplified only the by reverberations from the church ceiling. Paull, from Montreal, emerged and engagingly chatted a bit about the pieces he was going to play. Memorably, he talked about the descending four-note bass riff as one things that draws the history of music together, a connective thread drawing together his first selection, H.I. Biber's "Passacaglia" (from the 17th century, and one of the first-ever compositions for solo violin) to, say, "Hit the Road Jack".

Paull then played a piece by Michael Finnissy, whose work is part of a school known as "the new complexity".2 No surprise then that this required a lot of focus from Paull, and as he got into it, the only sound besides his music was the whoosh of his breath and an occasional creak from the spot of the floor he was standing on. On completing the piece, he looked quizzically at his music stand, as if he was unsure he was done — a little punchy, like a boxer after an intense round.

Slightly less taxing, the rest of the first set was dominated by "Garrowby Hill", a new work in four movements by Canadian Michael Oesterle, with a definite vibe of a bleak rural night. There were some "fiddle"-y elements in the first movements that had echoes of Celtic reels before it headed further down a darkened backroad.

Then a much-needed intermission, given how much Paull was putting into it. It was amusing to watch him play in an "action stance", leaning into a semi-crouch when he was really getting into the music. Before the second set's closing partita, he joked to the crowd, "Now I'm warmed up" for the dexterous, challenging finale. By the end, loose hairs from his bow were lashing around. Wonderful stuff to listen to, and a more-than-worth-it change of pace.

Genre notwithstanding, it's quite pleasing to see that Paull operates much like any other "indie" musician, with a full online presence — not just a website, but a well-written tumblr, twitter account and a lot of videos on his youtube channel — all of which is rather helpful in the never-easy quest to pull in people from outside the narrow "classical music" community.3

1 Seriously! Five bucks! You can't beat that. If you're not already, you should really consider becoming a Music Galley member today. And in a similar vein, I note that the first programme in this season's "Emergents" programme (coming up Friday, November 25, 2011) is similarly $5 at the door for members.

2 I'm sure, like me, that you just added that to your list of potential future band names.

3 Paull is a busily-working musician in Montréal, but it should be noted he'll be back in town in a couple months, playing a couple shows — including an interesting-looking chamber music trio gig at Gallery 345 on Saturday, February 4, 2012.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Recording: Canaille

Artist: Canaille

Song: Safer Than We Know

Recorded at The Tranzac, November 19, 2011.

Canaille - Safer Than We Know

Full review to follow. A worthy celebration of the fab, funky Practical Men at The Tranzac. You can check out the whole album here — and then go and get yourself a copy!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Recording: Inhabitants

Artist: Inhabitants

Song: Untitled #1*

Recorded at The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge), November 18, 2011.

Inhabitants - Untitled #1

Review to follow.

* This new composition doesn't have a formal title yet, but J.P. Carter semi-jokingly gave it this temporary tag.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Festival: TSO's New Creations Festival (Wednesday)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festival: "Short Ride in a Fast Machine"

Roy Thompson Hall. Wednesday, March 2, 2011.

This is an an expansion of my earlier notes which appeared here.

Spring, with all its symbolism of regeneration, is an apt time for the TSO's annual festival of "new music" — meaning, basically, "classical" music made by people who aren't dead yet and/or are trying to push forward the horizons of the European art-music tradition. Because of its highbrow associations, there's a tendency to think this music has to be approached with some more elaborate conceptual framework — that you have to be learned to "get" it, and that the same instincts that tell you whether or not you dig any other kind of music are suddenly invalid. Well, poo on that — I might not have a lot of aesthetic sophistication, but that's not going to stop me from liking/not liking this stuff.

For the TSO, this is also one of their occasions to try and bring in a different crowd than the older/affluent types who show for the classical repertory. The nights of the festival were each curated as mini-events with a bit more zazz than pomp,1 so I felt a bit less alienated than I usually do at these sorts of things. K., who kept bringing up The Soup Dragons' "I'm Free" every time the festival's name was mentioned helped to keep me relaxed as well.2

For this night, as a sort of adjunct to The Shaman, the lobby pre-concert show was by the Lightning Bolt pow-wow group. Growing up in the country on the prairies, I've seen a few pow-wows in my time, but this was certainly the by far the swankiest digs I've ever heard the drums in. As the group's voices filled Roy Thompson Hall's north lobby, I looked out the window, over the cold and windswept expanse of King Street and the illuminated PATH stacked below, where a few stray office workers were belatedly making their way to the subway. Meanwhile, my mind turned to memories of scrubby fields, the scent of woodsmoke wafting past, with fires where you could cook bannock on a stick. We live in many worlds all at once.

Then we headed into the hall for the show proper. The first concert of the series opened and closed with works by John Adams, leading off with the eponymous Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which is five minutes of straight-up symphonic go! compressed to popsong length. Backed by a constantly clattering woodblock, this is probably the closest thing you're going to get at the symphony to a "more cowbell" moment, and in its surging gusto, the piece probably owes as much to Carl Stalling as to any "serious" composer. All of which makes it top-notch in my book.

In breaking down the formality of the classical concert, composer Vincent Ho came out on stage to introduce The Shaman and to chat about it a bit. Discussing the idea of the shaman as intermediary to the spirit world, he told the audience that the best approach to the piece is to "treat it as if it's a mystical journey and Evelyn is your guide."

"Evelyn" would be Dame Evelyn Glennie, who is said to be the world's only full-time symphonic percussionist3, for whom this piece was composed. The first striking thing about The Shaman was seeing Glennie's percussion tools on stage — the Brobdingnagian kettle-drums and marimbas engendered a sort of joy just to behold, not to mention a childlike desire to want to leap down onto the stage and have a go.

So, like Short Ride, this had an obvious percussive kick to it — although it started in that quieter, mystical terrain with the music connoting a distant wind and a voice of a howling spirit. For the first few minutes with Glennie leading the charge, it felt like an electroacoustic improvisation. Once the strings kicked in the composer's hand was more strongly felt.

Glennie dashed between her three percussion workstations as the music built itself up. The orchestration during the more roiling segments was sometimes a bit of a mixed bag, with a bit of a "throw in the kitchen sink" sort of feel. Although the busier sections were entertaining just by virtue of Glennie's physicality, I think my favourite part here was the excellent quiet movement (the section entitled "Fantasia – Nostalgia", presumably) where the vibes resonated against the stillness, their sounds hanging in the air — lingering, lingering.

That worked for me more than the unabashed ornamental over-the-topness, but it was hard not to get roused up a bit by the finish. The whole piece went just over thirty minutes, and I found it, outside the one brilliant stretch to be engaging in fits and starts, but the audience liked it and a fair number of people stood to applaud.

After the intermission, the night concluded with John Adams' Harmonielehre — a word that will presumably vex me each time I try to spell it. This half of the night started with an on-stage conversation with Adams. He talked about this early piece (from 1985) being important to him because of how it proved to himself he had a voice as a composer. The compositional novelty is in its "bizarre marriage" of minimalism and motoric gestures with Germanic Romantic music.4 He also mentioned the dream-origins of the piece, which set it up well.

After a blasting fanfare, it started with a jarring minimalist riff before finding some Glass-ian repetition. It rolled along like it could have been called "Minimalism!" for almost five minutes before a metronomic marimba urged itself forward. Then came the opposite side of the coin, with the lush romantic theme on the strings — and the rest of the piece was basically those two forces rubbing up against each other in different ways. I found the first movement, going not-quite twenty minutes, to be be both mentally exciting and emotionally elevating.

It was interesting to see the two styles slide against each other in different ways — sometimes one dominating the other, but at a few points feeling more like a mashup of two separate compositions playing simultaneously. I was wearing down a bit by the end of it, but it was rather lovely. And the ending was rousing as hell, creating jagged wakefulness after reverie, and not just for me — as the last notes faded, just on the cusp of the crowd's applause, someone burst forth with a hearty, unsymphonic "yeah!"

1 There were also a lot more affordable tickets on offer than usual, which is always a bit of a sticking point for getting out to the symphony.

2 K. was also fixated on why, out of all the instruments in the symphony, anyone would choose to play the bassoon. I had no strong counter-argument.

3 This is a unique status made all the more interesting by the fact that Glennie is profoundly deaf. Her "Hearing Essay" unpacks some of the misconceptions around the spectrum of deafness ("something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me") and its relationship to her musical abilities.

4 Harmonielehre was also the title of a book on harmonic theory written by Arnold Schoenberg, and hence a nod from Adams to his composition's rootedness in that romantic tradition.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Recording: Dum Dum Girls

Artist: Dum Dum Girls

Songs: Take Care of My Baby + Lavender Haze

Recorded at El Mocambo, February 26, 2011.

Dum Dum Girls - Take Care of My Baby

Dum Dum Girls - Lavender Haze

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Minks

Artist: Minks

Song: Drunk Punks

Recorded at El Mocambo, February 26, 2011.

Minks - Drunk Punks

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Dirty Beaches

Artist: Dirty Beaches

Song: Sweet 17

Recorded at El Mocambo, February 26, 2011.

Dirty Beaches - Sweet 17

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Dum Dum Girls

Dum Dum Girls (Minks / Dirty Beaches)

El Mocambo. Saturday, February 26, 2011.

Out to the El Mo for a Saturday night. It'd fill up later, but was still pretty loosely packed as things were stirring to get going. I'd not done any research into the openers, so I knew nothing about Dirty Beaches at the time. The rest of the crowd seemed to be in the same boat, as there was no palpable burst of excitement as a lone figure took that stage. That would turn out to be Montréal's Alex Hungtai, purveyor of heavily reverbed vocals over top of minimal loop-based tracks, stripped-down two-bar rock'n'roll signifiers.

"One hundred hours! One hundred hours! ONE HUNDRED HOURS!" he shouted, kicking in the loop for "Speedway King", establishing from the get-go that although he was always straight-facedly in character, this stuff was goofy and fun and a little over the top. He was clutching a guitar, and at first I thought it was merely a prop for effect, but he did add a noisy solo over "Sweet 17". His vox whirled up from a croon to a shout, and my initial impression — given that rockabilly/Suicide edge and use of loops — what that I'd met some other city's answer to our own Slim Twig, who has spent some time working a similar patch of ground.

Hungtai was mostly playing tracks from his Badlands album (at this show still being sold at the merch table as a CD-R), but there was some other material, including "Lone Runner", recently released as a 7". He also dedicated a cover of Johnny Cash's "The Folk Singer" to recently-passed Trish Keenan of Broadcast, and tellingly, Hungtai introduced it as "The Singer", in the manner of Nick Cave's re-titling.

Hungtai has a certain magnetism on stage, and from the general indifference at the the outset, he managed to attract a respectable crowd moving up to check him out. There were still a lot of people chatting indifferently away, partially drowning out one of his stronger songs, the quieter "Lord Knows Best", with a piano line that manages to express sadness in a jaunty way. The set — seven songs in twenty-five minutes — closed with the "Be My Baby"-evoking "True Blue" (not a Madonna cover). And wrapping up with a sort of geste juste, after chatting with some friends in the crowd while breaking down his gear, he pulled out a comb and slicked back his hair before leaving the stage.

Live, the spectacle and presence help to cover up the songs' most glaring weakness, which is the sheer repetitive nature of the loops. Listening to all of them in the row, I was ready to kill for a bridge or some other melodic variation. There's something to be said for rigourous minimalism, sure, but there's also a limit to it — this is a problem that's more keenly felt in his recorded work. Still, he's got a swagger and persona and a gift for boiling things down, so it'll be interesting to see how he chooses to expand on this promising template.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Brooklyn six-piece MINKS (who apparently like to rock the all caps look) might appear, to the jaded eye, to be a product of Brooklyn rock band central casting, the stage filled with a dude in a toque, a dude in a fedora, a dude in a hoodie and a woman playing keyboards way off to the side. "Welcome to Canada," said Sean Kilfoyle in a slightly-confused reversal for a band making their first appearance in Toronto.

Fresh off the release of their debut, self-titled full-length on Captured Tracks, the band featured occasional unison vocals, slightly-woozy keybs and a glide-y sensibility, but weren't so noisy that you would call them shoegazers. At a few points (like during "Ophelia") I was getting the tang of an AM-happy co-ed Still Life Still. I got the impression that the band was still trying to work out a sweet spot between hazy drift and pop smarts, and at this point they seemed more capable at getting across a mood than embedding hooks. But given a propensity for short songs — there were three in a row that were about two minutes apiece — nothing overstayed its welcome. The problem, however, was that nothing really lingered in my mind after, either. There's no doubt that the band was generically pleasing, but they are perhaps a bit too generic at this point.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Headliners Dum Dum Girls, on the other hand, have already learned a lot about the power of a visual presentation. But despite their striking appearance — I don't know if there's any way to write about this band without using the word "gams" — and despite having a couple guys to set up their equipment and remaining unseen until they took the stage, the dramatic "reveal" was somewhat spoiled by the fact they still needed to stand in place and tune for a minute before launching into a striking, moody version of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire".

Singer/guitarist Kristen Gundred (moving increasingly away from insisting on stage name Dee Dee Dum Dum as the band's profile increases) then took it up a notch with "He Gets Me High", title track of the band's then-just-about-to-be-released EP, with a buzzsaw wah-wah guitar line, and first of a series of songs showing off the band's rawer side. That included the fabulous "Catholicked" (from their debut EP, and one of the band's best songs), cheekily paying tribute to Patti Smith by ripping off her "Jesus died for somebody's sins / but not mine" line, and then rolled along with "I Will Be" and "Bhang Bhang, I'm a Burnout" before taking the foot off the accelerator for the smouldering "Take Care of My Baby". The latter would be one of the pivotal songs on the EP, a slower, more intense composition where Gundred could show off her vibrato — giving people a chance to fall over each other by making Chrissie Hynde comparisons.

"Take Care of My Baby" was so spectacular that it made "Jail La La" — hitherto something like the band's calling card single — sound more like mere juvenilia. Although it is indeed a kicking little bit of work, and live, it came off significantly faster than its recorded version, propelled by drummer Sandy Vu.

There were a couple peeks ahead to what would become second album Only in Dreams with "In My Head" and "Teardrops on My Pillow", and there was also the still-unreleased "Lavender Haze". The main set closed with an extra-Pretender-y version of "Rest of Our Lives" before the band returned to tackle the only remaining unplayed track from the EP: their go-for-gusto cover of The Smiths' "There is a Light That Never Goes Out".

Although the band is eminently watchable, they were pretty static on stage1 — or, perhaps more exactly, carefully modulated. There was a sense of rigourous professionalism here, and it seemed like even the very rock'n'roll act of taking a swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels was performed with an exact sense of the semiotics encoded within it. And as for Gundred's lyrics (filled with signifiers like "baby", "dream" and "bed"), it's not yet clear whether she's deliberately using a limited vocabulary for a particular effect or that she just doesn't have much to say. Still, all the signs of a band on the cusp here, with several glimpses of the step forward that Only in Dreams would later announce. There was no doubt even then that their next show in town would be in a larger venue.

This came out sounding great, so a few selections from this set: check out an older song here, or a couple He Gets Me High-era songs here.

1 The abstract lightshow being projected on the screen behind Gundred also helped add a sense of motion on the stage.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reel Asian 2011: Sunday

Reviews of screenings from the The 2011 Reel Asian International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Surrogate Valentine (U.S.A., 2011, 75 mins. Dir: Dave Boyle)

Goh Nakamura might have once been a wild man of rock'n'roll. But now, whimsical ringtones notwithstanding, he operates with the sober deliberateness of a lifer trying to get by as a working musician. In this film Nakamura plays a fictionalized version of himself, and every long slog on the highway and every stranger's floor he sleeps on ring with weary verisimilitude. Gigs and the occasional music lesson aren't quite enough to put together a stake for some studio time with a big-shot producer, so Goh reluctantly signs on as a "technical advisor" for a friend's movie. His job is to teach some rudimentary guitar to Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops), a television actor with dubious thespian skills who wants to absorb Nakamura's persona with full-bore Method immersion.

As Goh increasingly realizes that his friend's script is a thinly-veiled version of his own life, he becomes increasingly conflicted, especially as to whether he should help Danny to "get him right" in his portrayal. And all this takes place against the backdrop of Goh's reunion with Rachel (Lynn Chen), an old flame who is also portrayed in the script.

The scenes between Goh and Rachel crackle with the easy chemistry of old friends, and Goh's desire to push things along is palpable. The parts with Danny are more of a mixed bag — played as brash and largely oblivious, a little bit of the character goes a long way, even when we see later in the film that he's trying to do right by Goh. Still, this is a low-slung charmer of a film, and Goh is easy to root for. If things with Rachel don't work out, we're left hoping that at least this might provide him with grist for a knockout song — and like Goh, we can dare to hope that just maybe something more might come of it.

Shot by Boyle in budget-conscious black-and-white, the film looks good and doesn't overstay its welcome with its trimmed-down running time. And Nakamura's music — sounding like Elliott Smith by way of Elvis Costello's folksy side — adds as much as his charming personality. Well worth seeing.

Pearls of the Far East (Canada/Vietnam, 2011, 103 mins. Dir: Cuong Ngo)

If a director's greatest task is to arouse an emotional response in the audience, this film (receiving its world premiere) succeeded like wildfire — inasmuch as I really hated it. This is, of course, an entirely subjective reaction, based on the film's approach and tone rather than the ample technical merit it contains.

A compendium of seven stories by author Minh Ngoc Nguyen, each of these episodes deals with a different form of unrequited love. "Episodes" is an apt term here, as each of these vignettes come close to the heady melodrama of a soap-opera, every gesture heightened and fake-y. Anyone looking for a light touch should move along, as there's not much subtlety on offer here. That starts with the cloying score (which overpowers like someone wearing too much perfume) and continues with the broader-than-broad acting — there's no characters here, just archetypes. And in case you weren't sure why a character is staring wistfully into the middle distance, fear not — a flashback to something that happened on-screen just seconds ago will remind you.

There's no doubt that the film captures the natural beauty of Vietnam. But even that is taken too far, with every immaculately-groomed scene feeling sterile and airless — by the end, I was positively aching to see an empty pop can roll across the foreground or an oil stain on a road. Similarly, it seems that the cast were mostly chosen for pin-up appeal, with several of the male actors looking like Harlequin covers brought to life — most unintentionally hilarious was the always-shirtless Kris Duangphung, projecting like a more-broody, extra-dim Keanu Reeves.

All of which meant that the movie totally failed to connect with me. Others' mileage may vary — it was well received by the crowd at this screening, and I could hear small laughs of joyful recognition at some of the specifically-Vietnamese cultural cues on the screen. But unless the weirdly-chaste fantasy world of romance novels appeals to you, I'd suggest avoiding this one.

Just a reminder: With the main portion of the "downtown" festival successfully wrapped up, ReelAsian is taking its films to where its audience is, with a weekend of screenings at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. More information here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reel Asian 2011: Saturday

Reviews of screenings from the The 2011 Reel Asian International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

The Journals of Musan (South Korea, 2010, 127 min. Dir: Park Jungbum)

My undisputed favourite among the films I saw at this year's festival, The Journals of Musan was also pretty bleak, and a bit of a tough slog. The film follows Jeong Seung-chul (portrayed by director Park), a defector from North Korea trying to establish a life in Seoul. Seung-chul is withdrawn and extremely reserved, but it's easy to understand how the daily grind could turn him that way.

It doesn't make it any easier to reach out, however, as we see in his fumbling attempts to connect with Sook-young, a fellow parishioner in his Church. Living at — or below — the economic margins, Seung-chul is employed in the illegal postering industry, which turns out to be more competitive and cut-throat then you could have guessed. Even when he adopts a dog (shades, perhaps, of De Sica's Umberto D.), there's a pervasive sense that things just aren't going to end well, especially when his friend Kyung-chul's hustling starts to catch up to him.

Stone-faced and impassive, Park still manages to convey a surprising amount of emotional expression, while his camera portrays a city that ranges from generic grey to shabby and crumbling (Seung-chul lives near a bulldozed village that seems fated to soon be replaced by more highrises, which already stretch as far as the eye can see). Park also exhibits a sharp eye for composition, with a lot of shots taking advantage of two or three layers of background action. The net effect is to give us a sense of how big this city is, and how small Seung-chul must feel within it.

There are some small flaws. Given its measured pace, there are a few scenes that drag, and although the movie had a convincingly open-ended conclusion, the narrative could as well have wrapped up several scenes earlier. Still, a remarkably-accomplished debut, and a deserving winner of the festival's Best First Feature Film Award.

Bleak Night (South Korea, 2010, 116 min. Dir: Yoon Sung-Hyun)

Musan would actually be more bleak than Bleak Night, which also came from South Korea but felt like it was set in a different world. But even in a more affluent strata where material needs are taken care of, there's much sadness. Ki-tae, a high-school student, has died and his father — too often absent from his son's life — is trying to find out about the events that lead up to it. This sets up a complicated flashback structure where the father seeks out his son's best friends, and through their stories and memories, we learn about the layers of their relationships. Why did Dong-yoon drop out? Why did Hee-june transfer to a different school shortly before Ki-tae's death? As the father tries to make these connections, the younger characters also seek each other out and share their memories.

Although the flashback structure was well executed — there were some points, especially later in the film, where scenes slid fluidly between past and present, adding an eerie sense of dislocation — it pushed up against being too elusive. By the time I had sorted out the basics of who-was-who and how they were connected, a third of the film had gone by. And if the intent at the outset was to use the flashbacks as a sort of unfolding to a deeper truth, it doesn't quite get there, especially in terms of the father's quest — as the film progresses, he recedes to the periphery. And as we start to learn toward the end that Ki-tae was not as popular and virtuous as we might have thought, there's no indication that the father is actually learning about any of this, leaving his catharsis incomplete.

And though the film was a little too slow-going at points, it's worth seeing overall. It certainly doesn't spoonfeed the narrative to the viewer, so careful observation is rewarded. And the young actors, who invest their characters with realistic personalities, are convincing in conveying in intense pressure-cooker of the Korean school system, which has mostly been portrayed in the more stylized confines of horror films like Whispering Corridors and its ilk.

Monday, November 14, 2011

LMA: Eamon McGrath @ Bloor Ossington Folk Festival

In collaboration with Eamon McGrath, I have uploaded his set from Bloor Ossington Folk Festival to the Live Music Archive. You can stream the whole thing, or download it in the format of your choice, including lossless FLAC files.

Eamon McGrath, Live at The Theatre of Human Health (Bloor Ossington Folk Festival) 2011-10-15

Thanks to Eamon McGrath, and to everyone who helped put the Festival together.

P.S. Any artists with whom I've shared recordings previously — if this looks like a cool idea to you, please get in touch with me and we can get something of yours up on the Archive!

Recording: Brandon Valdivia

Artist: Brandon Valdivia

Song: Everything As Money?

Recorded at The Tranzac, November 13, 2011.

Brandon Valdivia - Everything As Money?

Full review to follow. An interesting vibe to the second night of Sandro Perri's Impossible Spaces release weekend, with a trio of opening acts that brought a definite Tranzac-y vibe to the room, including bassoon-y awesomeness from Jeff Burke, Amy Bowles' (Pony Da Look) new hobbit-rocking Hollow Earth, plus a rare solo set from Brandon Valdivia, with flutes and loops and percussion backing his protest lyrics.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Recording: Sandro Perri

Artist: Sandro Perri

Song: Changes

Recorded at The Tranzac, November 12, 2011.

Sandro Perri - Changes

Full review to follow. Rather excellent performance to celebrate the release of Sandro Perri's avant-mellow Impossible Spaces album, with an ensemble that renders the songs even more supple and liquid than they are on the album. The goodness continues with another performance tomorrow night (Nov. 13, 2011) — not to be missed.