Wednesday, February 29, 2012

LMA/Recording: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Song: Albanian

Recorded at Lee's Palace, April 24, 2011.

Godspeed You Black Emperor - Albanian

I've uploaded this entire concert to the Live Music Archive, where you can stream the whole thing or download it in the format of your choice, including lossless FLAC files:

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Live at Lee's Palace 2011-04-24

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Total Life

Artist: Total Life

Song: [excerpt from a dronescape]*

Recorded at Lee's Palace, April 24, 2011.

Total Life - [excerpt]

My notes for this set can be found here.

* I don't know if this set was an improvisation or a performance of an existing composition, so I don't know if it has a title. Please leave a comment if you know either way!

Gig: Godpeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Total Life)

Lee's Palace. Sunday, April 24, 2011 (evening show).

I wouldn't say that I was a particularly ardent fan of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (even when they were known as the less-confoundingly punctuated Godspeed You Black Emperor!) during their original run. But like many, I was eventually convinced by their quote-unquote cinematic post-rock style, a hugely-influential brand of crescendo-climbing instrumentalism, highly evocative stuff despite (owing to?) its lack of reliance on lyrics to carry the emotional heft. For such a cryptically anti-mersh band, a lengthy "hiatus" was a canny marketing move, and there was no shortage of pent-up demand to see them upon their return. The band clearly could have played one of the city's larger, barn-like structures, but instead elected to play a mini-stand of shows at the relatively cozier Lee's.

No surprise that for a band whose popularity had only increased during their absence, there was a pretty mixed crowd with back-in-the-day-ers mixing freely with those who would have been in elementary school the last time the band passed through town. And similarly, there was a broad mix of punks, noise-heads and representatives of a whole Constellation of sub-sub-genres on hand.

The support act for this show was Total Life, a side-project for Growing's Kevin Doria. I didn't know anything about his main gig, so I had no particular expectations as a lone figure stepped on stage behind a table of electronics. After he plugged in some stuff and switched things on a short blast of white noise got the crowd's attention, but the sound steadied out after that.

The day's afternoon show featured an opening slot by The Sadies. That would have been rather fun on its own merits, of course, but I had seen them just a week previous — and, anyways, Total Life's near-undifferentiated drone felt like more of an apt set-up for the main action. Near-undifferentiated drone is the key thing here — those who were aggravated by noise (or didn't bring earplugs) would likely have found this to seem like just one irritating, unceasing blare. But there was variation here with overtones slowly rising and falling against the humming electronic background — like a train passing in super-slow motion in some sort of alternate universe where noise gets converted to a thick liquid that weighs you down and the doppler effect is suspended. A couple guys behind me started howling, like this was causing some sort of werewolf-like transformation to them.

After about eight minutes of churning build, Doria started to add some pirping notes in counterpoint — once you're into the headspace of this stuff, you can start to appreciate the impact of fine-grained differences in the sound. And I don't know if the people around me were into it like that or were merely silenced by the overwhelming volume, but there was a surprising level of attentiveness during what would be, in most contexts, considered distinctly uneasy listening.

More than twenty minutes in, a low pulsing thrum created a sense of propulsion — at least in the sense that a glacier has a sense of propulsion — ending with an accelerating figure to give the whole thing a feeling of lift. All told, a rather satisfying half-hour dronescape. Looking around, it was obviously alienating some people, but I rather enjoyed this. A bit of a strange thing to stand and watch, this is the sort of thing I'd like to be sitting down for — a hammock would be even better.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

Between sets, there was some top-notch jazz on the PA (MJQ, I think) and then it faded out. For several minutes, there was only the sound of chatter in the room, until, very quietly, something started emerging in the background. In fact, it I weren't waiting for the "Hope Drone" I wouldn't have noticed it for a couple more minutes, when the bank of old-school film projectors behind the sound booth kicked into action and the lone word "HOPE" appeared on the screen behind the stage. Projectionist Karl Lemieux is listed as a member of the band alongside those on stage, and that seems very fitting, as his overlapping montages from those pronouncedly analogue projectors did as much to create emotional states as the musicians he accompanied.

That appearance of "HOPE" focused the crowd. As the chatter settled down, one guy shouted, "I've been waiting my whole life for this!", and people broke out into applause. The crowd waited as the drone slowly picked up, a weird interzone between show and non-show with the prerecorded music (heavy on amp hum and bowed cymbals) playing to the empty stage. That lasted for more than ten minutes, building in volume, before the band's eight members took the stage one by one, not rushing as they settled into their (mostly-seated) positions, tuning their instruments and puttering around in preparation.

And then as a slow theme from Sophie Trudeau's violin emerged, the band finally eased into "Moya".1 With an introduction the length of most other band's songs, it was no surprise that the band hadn't switched over to some new economy of form — the slow unfurling of the music is definitely one of their trademarks. And so, a concert that would be longer than most would only have seven songs. That restrained maximalism would be delivered by a lineup that included two drummers, a pair of bassists and usually three guitarists.

An Eastern European-styled violin solo announced "Albanian", an unreleased song that the band was playing live before their hiatus in 2003. It worked its way into something could have once been a folksong, the drums building up to a rollicking whirling dervish rhythm, leaving the bent guitar notes and busts of feedback-drenched wah to imprint the band's identity onto it. A recorded voice giving a nostalgic recounting of Coney Island ("They don't sleep anymore on the beach") was the segue into "Monheim", arousing the loneliness of nearly-lost memories — and meanwhile the medieval images on the screen melted into the words "THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY".

During "World Police and Friendly Fire", someone in the front row went down in a heap, causing a brief stir as the crowd around her helped her back to her feet. The guitarist up front — I believe it was Mike Moya — offered his water to her just before the images on the screen morphed into apocalyptic flames.

The big, loud crescendos tend to be the easiest parts to talk about, but I often enjoy the quiet interludes even more, like the detuned swirliness leading into "The Cowboy" as the screen showed trains travelling through landscapes. And the opening of "Gathering Storm" came with perhaps the most optimistic imagery — plants in a field, a home, a kitty — lending a palpable feeling of ascendance, even when the footage proceeded to reveal that the house was old and collapsing in on itself and the music began to evoke its title more strongly.

Closer "The Sad Mafioso" had a different sort of apocalyptic energy, and it was here that the band's abstract political stance was more foregrounded. A stock ticker printing the message "ANALYSIS FOCUSING ON PROFITABILITY" was intercut with a sign reading "The end is nigh" before switching to footage of a garbage dump. Only towards the song's end did it hint at a response, with footage of people protesting — a collective response, a call for united voices from a voiceless band.2 And then the set ended with the reverse of the opening, with members filing off one by one through the haze of a drone. It was over two hours, and a little exhausting — but at the end the screen didn't need to say "HOPE".

At the time of the show I posted a song here, which is now joined by another here. The latter also contains a link to the Live Music Archive, where you can stream or download this entire set.

1 The band referred to the song on the setlist by its alternate title "Gorecki" — it's "an adaptation of his third symphony," by guitarist Mike Moya, wikipedia tells me.

2 The band's non-hierarchical, release-no-manifestos approach made their reappearance a striking pre-echo of the Occupy movement that would emerge later in the year. There's probably an excellent essay to be written on this topic, if it hasn't been done already. Please send links if it has.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Recording: RatTail

Artist: RatTail

Song: Soon Enough

Recorded at Cameron House (back room), April 23, 2011.

RatTail - Soon Enough

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Planet Creature

Artist: Planet Creature

Song: To The Derby

Recorded at Cameron House (back room), April 23, 2011.

Planet Creature - To The Derby

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Flowers of Hell

Flowers of Hell (RatTail / Planet Creature)

The Cameron House (backroom). Saturday, April 23, 2011.

For one reason or another, I'd never actually penetrated the Cameron's back room before. it's not really on my usual rotation of hangouts, I guess, so perhaps it's no surprise that it was a lineup outside the venue's usual folksy sweet spot that got me down there. It's actually not a bad space, feeling nicely intimate and with a tiered seating area giving a nice view over people standing in front of the stage. And fake foliage overhead, making the room feel like a humble cousin to the Winter Garden. For added boozy convenience, a bartender was setting up a station with cheap beers in an ice bucket and cheap Jäger shots.

A spare crowd on hand, heavy on various members of the Optical Sounds extended family, gathered 'round as Planet Creature started the night. That it was a little too early for the Saturday night rowdies meant the band didn't have to play over much interfering noise. The mix gave less guitar and more of Kristina Koski's keybs than usual, which gave a different cast to the songs — "Dustbabies" had an interesting icy edge to it. With an onstage vibe akin to friends hanging out, the band also gave off a sense of unconcerned efficiency — not hastening from song to song, just proceeding through the set with professional comfort. It all really came together for a fine closing hat trick with some of the band's newer material, including "To The Derby" and "My Baby".

Listen to a track from this set here.

After a quick turnover, Jasmyn ("don't call me honey, don't call me sweetie") Burke downed a shot of Jäger and stepped onto the stage to lead her trio RatTail into action. Burke is unafraid to use her voice as a rather elastic instrument, sputtering, moaning, and making shrieking little hiccups. It's the most untethered element of the band's sound, which also featured her uncluttered rhythm guitar countered by Tim Fagan's rangy, fuzzy bass, both pushed along with increasing velocities by Jesse Matthews' drums. There was also an engaging mix of sloppy and sincere that feels like, well, real life.

Fagan would be the designated troublemaker for the set, vamping away and enticing Burke into coming up with improvised vocals. And, as usual, Burke paused between several songs to drawl out, "Hi, we're RatTail!" — making it sound as much like a mantra as a declarative statement.

Though all of that might make it sound like the band was merely goofing around, that would miss the fact that this was obviously a fertile creative stretch for the band. They were playing a lot of new material, busily adding more of the songs that would eventually make it onto their album — I think this was the first time I heard "Soon Enough", "Sicko" and "I Swim". And all of that relaxed goofiness ultimately meant that the band was playing with a relaxed warmth and energy.1

Listen to a track from this set here.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the goofing-around scale, nothing connotes serious music more than a rock band tuning up to E, orchestra-style. Though given the large cast that Flowers of Hell brought, it might be useful to make sure everyone's on the same page. The ever-changing lineup was, this time out, ten-members wide — although a couple of those came and went for specific songs.

Still, with double bass, flute and trumpet there was a lot of room for flourishes here, and plenty opportunities for frontman Greg Jarvis to experiment with arrangements and textures. The set would contain mostly covers, as this was apparently a chance to work out the live kinks on some material destined for a covers album.

To that end, Jarvis had some guest vocalists on hand, including Ostrich Tuning's Ami Spears singing lead on "Walk on the Wild Side", recast as a slowed down, violin-led blues dirge. But that seemed lively compared to the awesome drone of "Muchomůrky Bílé" (written by Egon Bondy and Mejla Hlavsaa of the Plastic People of the Universe), which came off a bit like a super-downcast "Pale Blue Eyes". I believe its title is rendered in English as "Destroying Angel", though Jarvis delivered the vocal in the original Czech.

From their own songbook, the band tackled "Sympathy for Vengeance" and an four-minute excerpt from "O", the "synesthesia symphony" which comprised the whole of their last album. Both of those integrated the composed, symphonic elements to the rockband chassis that propelled them along. Those were nestled amongst covers — some more familiar (Dylan, Van Morrison, and, rather intriguingly, Klaatu), and others less so, like Paradise Motel's "Daniel".2

After closing with the Velvets' "Run Run Run", Jarvis admitted they had one more, and the set finished with an extended, Patti Smith-ified "Gloria" with some good violin sawing — just a couple steps away, sorta, from being an Easter gift.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 The band's self-titled full-length is now available, and having perfected these songs and this sound, there's some indications that the band is already shedding this skin and becoming something else entirely.

2 Two of the members of this Australian group used to be in the London incarnation of Flowers of Hell.

Recording: Julie Doiron

Artist: Julie Doiron

Song: Heartbeats*

Recorded at The Garrison (Crosswires #1), February 26, 2012.

Julie Doiron - Heartbeats

Full review to follow. "The heart must be strong / the heart beats on." I realize that I just posted something from Julie with this power-packed lineup, but on seeing them again, they had even more of a will-to-rock. Also: Julie debuted this brand-new song. This was also the first instalment of Doc Pickles' new Crosswires series, which'll be happening every Sunday at The Garrison from now on.

* Thanks to a commenter for passing along the title to this one.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Recording: Scud Mountain Boys

Artist: Scud Mountain Boys

Song: Lift Me Up

Recorded at Lee's Palace, February 25, 2012.

Scud Mountain Boys - Lift Me Up

Full review to follow. Given how many of the songs were about pathos and entropy, adding sixteen years or so into the mix didn't harm things at all. The musicians were clustered around a small table at centre stage, with a lamp and some emptying beer bottles. Take away the microphones, and it could have been a Neil Simon play about a bunch of guys who used to be in a band together meeting up after Ray's funeral and sitting 'round the kitchen table trying to remember some old songs and what it was they were fighting over when they broke up.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Recording: Phèdre

Artist: Phèdre

Song: Love Ablaze

Recorded at The Great Hall (Daps Revue Vol. 1), February 24, 2012.

Phèdre - Love Ablaze

Full review to follow. No one was really sure what to expect from the live debut of sudden hot commodity Phèdre, but the crew smartly played up the theatricality in presenting a show that was quite the gold-painted spectacle. Just as the video for "In Decay" played off the music's languid decadence, the live version was a sexy pageant that left the floor coated with glitter and feathers. You never really know what's going to catch on, so if this little side-project is something that gets some well-deserved attention for these folks, I hope it takes them all around the world.

Recording: Doldrums

Artist: Doldrums

Song: Anomaly

Recorded at The Great Hall (Daps Revue Vol. 1), February 24, 2012.

Doldrums - Anomaly

Full review to follow. I've been following Airick Woodhead's Doldrums project for awhile now, but at some point the in the past months since I've last seen him, the music has become as widescreen as the projections he had behind him tonight. Give some credit to the pair of drummers on stage, enforcing some dancefloor regularity on his excursions, perhaps, but suddenly this sounds like a whole lot more than just a casual weird-pop project.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Recording: Afrafranto

Artist: Afrafranto

Song: unknown*

Recorded at 918 Bathurst ("Save Afrofest Concert"), April 22, 2011.

Afrafranto - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

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

Recording: Resolutionaries Marimba Band

Artist: Resolutionaries Marimba Band

Song: Taurayi Zvenyo

Recorded at 918 Bathurst ("Save Afrofest Concert"), April 22, 2011.

Resolutionaries Marimba Band - Taurayi Zvenyo

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Ruth Mathiang + Waleed Abdulhamid

Artist: Ruth Mathiang + Waleed Abdulhamid

Song: Bimaya

Recorded at 918 Bathurst ("Save Afrofest Concert"), April 22, 2011.

Ruth Mathiang + Waleed Abdulhamid - Bimaya

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: "Support Afrofest" Concert

"Support Afrofest" Concert (feat. Ruth Mathiang + Waleed Abdulhamid / Donné Roberts / Fojeba / Resolutionaries Marimba Band / Afrafranto)

918 Bathurst. Friday April 22, 2011.

It had been an unsettled few weeks for Music Africa, the organization that runs Afrofest. When the news came through that the city was going to revoke its permission for the use of Queen's Park, it hit many as a shock. And, frankly, as a high-handed and patently unfair gesture, given that putting together an event as large as Afrofest takes months of dedicated planning, which was already well underway. While there is doubtless some merit to worries about the long-term effects on the ever-growing festival on the park and its gorgeous trees, pulling the rug on such short notice was highly disrespectful to a top-tier cultural event that had been held at the park for two decades. Fortunately, the community rallied around the organizers and that put a lot of pressure on City Hall. This concert was part of that effort, not a fund-raiser so much as a consciousness-raiser, and an effort to broaden the organization's membership base to help keep it resilient against future crises.

And so, on a cool and windy Good Friday I was headed down to the beautiful hall at 918 Bathurst and received my membership card as I made my way in. Unsurprisingly, it was a well-organized show, with some food booths in the back and the room set up with some dancing space in front of a few rows of chairs. The night began with Music Africa president Michael Stohr announcing that Afrofest would be held in Queen's Park in 2011.

That was a positive note setting the table for Ruth Mathiang and Waleed Abdulhamid, playing together this night as an acoustic duo. Abdulhamid — a busy collaborator as well as a bandleader in his own right — was on a stool with his guitar, providing the instrumentation and backing vocals while Mathiang filled the room with her voice and bright presence. "Hopefully you won't be sitting down too long," she said to the crowd, leading with the simmering "Mama Africa",1 the music dropping out mid-song to get the crowd clapping and singing along.

The pair offered an intriguing mix of vocal textures, with Mathiang's smooth tones next to Abdulhamid's rougher voice like a smooth cheek rubbing against a whiskered one. There were also some contrasts in the subject matter, with a solemn ballad about the costs of war in Darfur on women and children followed by a celebratory wedding song from the same region. Relative to the sparse instrumentation, there was a lot of groove going on, and I was excited at extrapolating how that would get ramped up even more with a full band.2

Listen to a track from this set here.

Donné Roberts brought a slightly stripped-down band from the last time I'd seen him, now playing without First Nations musician Marc Nadjiwan. But the cross-cultural "Afro Pow-Wow" trappings were still apparent, both in the opening instrumental and in Roberts' chanting in "Malembo". That was layered on top of some nicely irresistible Malagasy grooves, with Roberts' powerful guitar work supplemented by bass/drums/percussion and sax.3 By the time the band was playing "Wenge Yongo", the dancefloor was filling up nicely.

As I'd experienced before, there were a few points that didn't have enough grit for my palate — sax player Rich Howse (a.k.a. Isax Injah) can sometimes get a little "smooth" for my tastes, but he balanced that out with some interesting touches, such as little lurches that sounded like turntable scratches and some echo-y dub squeals during "Ariengue".

A set like this was a good chance for the band to stretch out, with just five long songs in fifty minutes. That reached its zenith with "Sadebake" going past a quarter-hour, ending the set with an extended fiery groove.4

Listen to a track from this set here.

As things turned over, there was a quick acoustic mini-set from Fojeba. After that super dance party, it was a bit harder for a lone guy with a guitar to hold people's attention, but did manage to get some people clapping along. Besides his hard-hitting funky zouk sound, Fojeba is also a topical songwriter, and a couple weeks before the election, he made clear his preferences with a song about Jack Layton.5

Already being familiar with the Resolutionaries Marimba Band, I was looking forward to another chance to see their dance-friendly and decidedly catchy grooves. Powered by Chaka Chikodzi — plus some of the younger players he has mentored — rotating between three large marimbas, the music takes traditional Zimbabwean rhythms and kicks them up to dancin' speed with a funky rhythm section.

Once again, I was struck by the strong melodic sense here. Even though this grooves a-plenty, the marimbas really have a "voice", making each song something memorable you could hum along to. The crowd was a little slow to warm up to it, but once the irrepressible "Manhanga" started, they were clapping along and dancing.

Chikodzi is also wise enough to mix things up: before the marimbas kicked in for "Shauriyako" the rhythm section backed a hip-hop freestyle (though I didn't catch the rapper's name), and the slower rhythm of "Kurima" gave everyone a chance to catch their breath. Once they get rolling, the band really gives the impression that they could simmer along for hours with this stuff. This might be the hottest band out of Peterborough right now.6

Listen to a track from this set here.

From what I've seen of Theo Yaw Boakye, he's not one to turn down an invitation to help out a good cause. So even if it looked like a couple members of Afrafranto were unavailable, with the help of some fill-ins Boakye had no problem putting together an entertaining set.

Most notable was the absence of guitar hero Pa Joe, so though there was a capable replacement, it was no surprise that the guitar was accented less for this show. The slack in sound was made up by a pair of keyboardists as well as a trumpet player. The presence of the latter also implied a shift in tone from the more barebones palmwine that the band has previously specialized in to more of a classic highlife sound.

With this sort of lineup, it's no surprise that it took a couple songs for the band to warm up. But once they were firing on all cylinders the set sounded closer to the non-stop groove that the band is known for — not quite the effortless segueing from tune to tune that they can do at their best, but there were a few tidy and seamless transitions here.

And though this was still danceable, it was mostly a simmering and mellow mid-tempo set of slinky rhythms, well-suited for the later part of the night. You could almost close your eyes and imagine you were in a Ghanaian nightclub where things were winding down after a sweaty night of partying. While thoroughly enjoyable, this might not have been the band at its most powerful. But it was still quite intriguing to see them working at some different ideas — some of which would subsequently be incorporated into their regular bag of tricks.

Listen to a track from this set here.

A night like this was a powerful reminder of how important Afrofest — and Music Africa behind the scenes — is at uniting the various local African music communities. It was a triumph that the community rallied to ensure that festival went ahead last summer. As of yet, there's no word on the specifics on Afrofest 2012 — the website confirms that planning is underway, but venue and dates are still unconfirmed.7

1 If that wasn't an overt enough tribute to the legendary Miriam Makeba, Mathiang also covered her songs "Hapo Zamani" and "Malaika" during the set.

2 And, indeed, that would turn out to be the case, as I'd later hear.

3 Roberts' bassist is David Woodhead, who would also be notable to many readers of this blog as the father of local indie mainstays Airick and Daniel Woodhead.

4 With his new album Internation just out, Roberts will be playing the Lula Lounge on March 20, 2012.

5 Fojeba will be playing the Main Hall at The Tranzac tonight (February 24, 2012). With his full band (including, last I saw 'em, some of the same folks in Roberts' band) and horns and everything, it's a funky and fun time.

6 And in a piece of well-timed news, the band has just released an album (called, quite accurately, Marimba Explosion), which is available on their bandcamp. It sounds like an energetic representation of their live set.

7 And in the meantime, the last of Music Africa's Black History Month celebrations will be at the Gladstone Hotel's Melody Bar tonight (February 24, 2012), with a "Young Stars Night" promising some Afro jazz and Hiplife styles. Free, 9 p.m.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Recording: Ron Sexsmith

Artist: Ron Sexsmith

Song: The Reason Why

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records, April 21, 2011.

Ron Sexsmith - The Reason Why

My notes for this set can be found here.

In-store: Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith

Sonic Boom Records. Thursday, April 21, 2011.

I've listened to some Ron Sexsmith in my time. "My time", in this case, ending somewhere in the middle part of the last decade when I was increasingly finding it difficult to distinguish one album from the next. Being a plainspoken singer-songwriter type can be tricky in that way. From the outset Sexsmith has been widely praised as a songsmith, successful because pretty much every one of his songs is about something, and says what it's about — an earnest straightforwardness with a clear thesis statement, like an idealized undergraduate essay. But that's never translated into anything much more than niche success, which has frequently and publicly itched at Sexsmith.

Such are the depths of his struggles with his own success-level and relevance that for his new album Long Player Late Bloomer Sexsmith put himself in the hands of über-mersh producer Bob Rock. Listening to the album gives the impression that was a very bad move, as Rock's over-busy production kinda leaves a goopy layer of commercially-ambitious schlock over some nice songs. Ron Sexsmith should never be autotuned — his voice on the album sounds plasticky, like an aging thespian after too many facelifts.1

Anyway, before heading across the street to play the album release show at Lee's Palace with the full band, Sexsmith dropped into Sonic Boom's basement for a classic in-store with a stripped-down solo acoustic set. This was about the right level of commitment for me at this stage of the game, and there was a nice crowd on hand that must have felt the same. "Wow, I didn't know anyone was coming. This is great," commented the frequently self-depreciating singer, dropping hints about past in-stores that weren't so successful.

The set lead off with "Get In Line" and "The Reason Why", the first couple songs from the new album. Those both came off well, and "No Help at All" was especially nice in its stripped-down setting. "I wanted to write something like Bill Withers would write," Sexsmith explained. Keeping that in mind might help to explain why Rock's schmaltzy arrangement actually serves the song fairly well on the album, coming off like a prime piece of AM gold. Thirty years back, songs like this would have made Sexsmith a CanCon prince, like another Terry Jacks.

The quick set finished with "Love Shines", which would also lend its title to a documentary about the recording of his album. One could get the sense that Sexsmith was drawing from his own frustrations here: "In every nowhere town / There are somewhere dreams / Patiently holding out / To grab the brass ring". As an artistic underdog story, it's really hard not to be on Sexsmith's side, and I can't begrudge him if the sort of gloss that alienates me gets him some security. But for me, the bare essence of the songs from just the man and his guitar was far more convincing than Rock's over-busy production.2 In the end, I was wholly glad I came out, even if Sexsmith's trajectory might limit me to being more of a sympathizer than a fan.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 This album would go on to make it to the Polaris Prize shortlist, but quite honestly it deserved no such honour. One was left with the impression that the jury was either celebrating mediocrity in a stereotypically Canadian way or giving Sexsmith a sort of lifetime achievement nod.

2 In the final analysis, this album must have had some sort of positive impact for Sexsmith, as his just-announced local show (May 17, 2012) will be in the spacious digs at Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Recording: Burning Love

Artist: Burning Love

Song: Alien vs Creditor

Recorded at The Garrison (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival, Night 4), February 19, 2012.

Burning Love - Alien vs Creditor

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here.

Recording: Nat Baldwin

Artist: Nat Baldwin

Song: Wasted*

Recorded at The Great Hall (Wavelength TWELVE Festival), February 18, 2012.

Nat Baldwin - Wasted

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here.

* Thanks to Maureen for passing along confirmation of the title.

Currente calamo: The Wavelength TWELVE! Festival (Part II)

TWELVE: The Wavelength 12th Anniversary Festival

While it's all fresh in my mind, a few notes from this year's WL Fest. Longer, more comprehensive reviews will follow down the road a piece.

Last year's Wavelength festival had a transitional feel, just as WL itself did in shedding its old skin as a weekly series and trying on new formats like so many hats. But throughout 2011, Wavelength really gained strength, with new blood on the programming team and a willingness to try some new and interesting things. It's befitting, then, that this year's festival was more streamlined (down to four nights) and bold in its lineups, reaching out to some bigger names for the headliners while still mixing in a lot of newer, less-well-known acts. My recap of the first two nights can be found here.

Night 3 @ The Great Hall

Saturday, February 18, 2012. The Weather Station / Off The International Radar / Nat Baldwin / Sandro Perri / No Joy

Not too many bodies in the stately (if somewhat echo-y) Great Hall as Tamara Lindeman took the stage. Her Weather Station project might be best suited for listening to 'round a campfire under a starry sky, but it was a fine table-setter here. It was easier to fill the space now that she's being joined by friends to fill out the songs from All of It Was Mine. Ian Kehoe (of Marine Dreams) and Andrew Barker (her bandmate in Bruce Peninsula) added instrumental textures, while fellow BP'ers Misha Bower and Matt Cully came on for some backing vocals. You don't want to wish a small crowd on any artist, but I'm super-glad it was quiet enough in the hall to lean back and listen to this without interruption.

It's perhaps a little bit surprising that the longest-tenured band at the festival was arguably the one that I knew the least about, but I had never crossed paths before with Off The International Radar. Kudos to the WL crew for putting 'em on the bill though, as this was one of my favourite sets of the festival. Employing electronics and keyboards and filled out with bass and guitar, the first word to come to mind as a descriptive would be "planetarium". The slowburning textures might come off as anticlimactic to anyone waiting for the band to kick into a higher gear, but once I caught the rhythm I felt all my limbs getting heavy and a pleasant, zoned-out sensation come over me. And quite perfectly accompanied by General Chaos' swirling lights slowly shifting away behind the band.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

I've never particularly cottoned to Dirty Projector's brand of decentred contemporary haze-pop, which might explain why I never checked out any of the solo material from DP bassist Nat Baldwin. But here, as he set up for a solo set accompanied only by double bass, I was a little intrigued — if only to see if he'd be able to hold the growing crowd's attention. Limiting himself almost entirely to short-stroke bow work, Baldwin still managed to create enough musical range to accompany his pure-pitched vocals. There were a few mildly aharmonic runs here and there, but his approach hewed closer to popcraft than avant garde-isms. But still not too surprising that the chatter from the back of the room started to pick up as the set moved along. Enjoyable regardless, and a nice little challenge to the audience to pay attention.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Since his album release shows back in November, there's been a little bit of buzz for Sandro Perri, and from the crowd's reaction, you might have guessed that he was the night's headliner. Which is kind of awesome to see for an experimental singer-songwriter backed by a band of all-star improvisers. Balancing woozy keyboard workouts with polyrhythmic accents, I liked it most when the band stretched things out and let it cook. Perri is taking this material on the road soon with some of these musicians who can really do it justice — there's gonna be a lot of acclaim echoed wherever he takes this stuff, but somehow I'm glad to see that this really is getting some hometown love before all that happens.

After that came the shoegazing treatment that Montréal's No Joy excel at. But whether it was their intense volume or the late hour, the full crowd was steadily melting away as they played. No matter, this probably sounded the best of any of the times I've seen 'em — and we were treated to a bunch of new material, building on the strengths of their Ghost Blonde album. As always, the band were rigourously uncommunicative while on stage, but I was glad to see 'em chatting and laughing at the merch table afterwards.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Night 4 @ The Garrison

Sunday, February 19, 2012. Most People / Motëm / Army Girls / Burning Love / PS I Love You

Capping it all off was a night back at WL's Dundas West spiritual homebase. There was a surprisingly vigourous crowd on hand soon after doors, and it just kept getting more and more packed. Certainly more on hand than I would have expected for bedroom popsters Most People. The bearded duo had a laptop on stage for backing tracks, but managed to keep things feeling live with guit, bass and a sundry assortment of drums laid out before them. That gave the songs enough momentum to keep things interesting, even if the overall vibe was more laid-back. Is "post-chillwave" a genre yet?

Amongst the changes in Motëm's stage setup was replacing the candles he had last time with battery-powered versions of same. Whether that was some sort of nod to the meta-artifice of his persona — or even if whether or not what he was doing was meant as ironic artifice — I cannot say. Otherwise, the Hamilton-based swkeee-hopper brought a totally different musical set to backdrop his enthusiastic stage routine. I thought the music was a little tastier, but on the whole, I'm unsure on the persona, and I really can't say that I "get" what the whole routine is about.

After that came the shift from the "pop" to the "loud" part of the night, making Army Girls the perfect transitional agent. Drummer Andy Smith and singer/guitarist Carmen Elle just celebrated two years of playing together, so it's no surprise that they're tinkering and finding new ways to keep the older material interesting. Even better, though, was a bunch of new tunes bound for the band's first full-length that showed no dropoff in quality. All of it was warmly received, and this was the closest I've felt to an audience demanding an encore from a mid-bill band in a while.

Listen to a track from this set here.

I sort of sidled a little further away from the centre of the room after that, as I was expecting some moshing action for local hardcore group Burning Love. And while a big pocket opened up in front of the stage as the band got started, the pit never really took off, just creating a large open area for two or three preening guys to shove and posture at each other while everyone else had to squeeze into a smaller space. Not my idea of fun. But I did like the roar coming from the stage, delivered with wide-legged rock stances from the guitarists and bass player. Chris Colohan, meanwhile, delivered the lyrics with a crouch and a growl, occasionally springing down to prowl around that open area on the floor in front of the stage. Because of the preferred vibe differential, I pretty much never go out of my way to see hardcore shows. But I do like seeing it done well, so this is one more case where I'm glad WL was throwing something like this into the mix.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Up to this point, WL stage manager Adham Ghanem had once again kept things running admirably on time. It was only a balky microphone connection before the last act that kept the festival from having a perfect record top to bottom. Still, this set's slightly delayed start was still more efficient than most any other rock show you could think of, and once PS I Love You got going, no one was kvetching about the wait. It was really satisfying to see the fruits of Paul Saulnier's successful labours in the form of a spiffy double-necked guitar that he played for most of the set. There was also the chance to broaden the group's sound by having old friend Tim Bruton (Matters/Forest City Lovers) on stage, playing keyboards and second guitar. The set was based upon some of the new songs coming out on the forthcoming Death Dreams album, though there were a few older audience-pleasers mixed in there as well. Firery soloing from Saulnier abounded, so there's no doubt that the new album is going to be filled with shreddy goodness. The night — and the festival — were capped off with John O'Regan (a.k.a Diamond Rings) coming out to sing on "Leftovers" and "Facelove" during the encore.

Listen to a track from this set here.

All told, an excellently curated and executed festival. The initially-announced "workshop & speaker series" didn't come together, but even without that it felt like an action-packed long weekend. Many thanks are due to Jonny, Ryan, Kevin, Duncan, Dorice, Adam and Adham — plus General Chaos and all the volunteers who kept things going smoothly. Details about the next few events are already starting to come out, and it looks like there's more exciting things afoot. Thirteen might be luckiest year of them all.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Currente calamo: The Wavelength TWELVE! Festival (Part I)

TWELVE: The Wavelength 12th Anniversary Festival

While it's all fresh in my mind, a few notes from this year's WL Fest. Longer, more comprehensive reviews will follow down the road a piece.

Last year's Wavelength festival had a transitional feel, just as WL itself did in shedding its old skin as a weekly series and trying on new formats like so many hats. But throughout 2011, Wavelength really gained strength, with new blood on the programming team and a willingness to try some new and interesting things. It's befitting, then, that this year's festival was more streamlined (down to four nights) and bold in its lineups, reaching out to some bigger acts for the headliners while still mixing in a lot of newer, less-well-known names.

Night 1 @ The Shop under Parts & Labour

Thursday, February 16, 2012. Eucalyptus / Man Made Hill / Slim Twig / Odonis Odonis / METZ

Wavelength is at its best when putting together shows with bands that wouldn't normally be on the same bill. So there was a particularly tasty Wavelength-esque frisson to see calypso-jazz travelers Eucalyptus opening up the festival in the bomb-shelter basement at Parts + Labour. The joint is currently looking fabulous, by the way, thanks to Ivy Lovell's photo installation covering the walls. With a half-dozen players squeezed on the low-lying stage (and a double bass that barely cleared the ceiling on the floor beside it), this is exactly the sort of band that the venue is not designed for, but as the crowd filtered in, Brodie West and company's undulating grooves filled the space up pretty well. I'm pretty partial to the band anyway, so I was definitely getting a kick out of it all — almost as much as the one punk dude who came up front to dance away to the band.

A stylistic lurch after that for Man Made Hill's squelchy mutant dance pop, which packed a certain sort of mind-melting punch. An interesting visual presentation for music that was a little bit like Off the Wall re-imagined after a weekend bender of brown acid and expired cough syrup.

From there, the night played out more like a typical evening at P+L, with sets from Slim Twig, Odonis Odonis and METZ. Slim Twig's new band continues to gel along with his pop sensibilities. The Farfisa-powered grooves were sounding totally fabulous, and couldn't even be disrupted when, in a somewhat random moment, Blake Howard (who'd been playing percussion in Eucalyptus) took to the stage mid-song and seized the microphone to speak to the crowd.

It was finally getting pretty packed up front for Odonis Odonis, who brought some zig-zaggling projections to accompany their electro-surfgaze jams. The songs sound like dispatches from an alternate universe where the JAMC's Automatic redefined the pop music paradigm, and OO took the next evolutionary step of ledging it up with shouty brio.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Closing out the night, METZ delivered their jesuslizard rockstabs with their typical efficiency, encouraging a crowd that was now thick and pulsating on all sides.

Night 2 @ Steam Whistle Brewing

Friday, February 17, 2012. Hut / Silver Dapple / catl / Bonjay / Fucked Up

A shift in scale for night two as the action moved down to the roundhouse on Bremner Blvd. A lot more elbow room and a bigger canvas for General Chaos to project his light paintings. I was actually a little surprised to see Hut up on the big stage — the last time I saw 'em at a WL they decided to rock it right on the floor of The Garrison. But going for the "professional" set up worked well for Daniel Lee's scrap-pop crew, who were now carrying a drummer with a full kit to supplement Daniel Woodhead's stand-up percussion. A slightly muddy house sound kinda suited their M.O. well — to steal a line from Xgau, listening to Hut is a little like operating a bulldozer while playing a Bacharach tape.

I'd been looking forward to hearing Montréal's Silver Dapple for a little while now, based on some of their music coming through the internet. In a world where bands like Yuck are making a splash, this quartet could do pretty well for themselves with their 90's-styled alt-rock jams. Melding controlled distortion to catchy tunes, the band wasn't particularly flashy on stage, but they totally pressed the right buttons for me.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Though I dropped in on one of their acoustic duo sets not too long ago, I hadn't seen local blues-punk titans catl since Andrew Moszynski took over the drum chair. And while the band still knows how to push in and push out — there was an admirably scuzzy run through old fave "Caroline" — it sounds like Moszynski brings a different dimension to the band's more restrained material. A fine set, but I won't feel like I've gotten the full measure of the new material until I see 'em in closer quarters, getting hot and sweaty. With their new album on the horizon, there should be plenty chances coming up.

Speaking of new drummers, this wouldn't be the first time I've seen Bonjay with Kieran Adams on live drum kit, but it was the most punch I've heard since he joined, with some songs being stripped back almost to bare throbbing rhythms. In fact, all three members were playing with intense hunger, and bringing something new to the table. Beat-provider Pho now has a MIDI keyboard alongside his MPC's, creating new sonic possibilities, and vocalist Alanna Stuart was, simply put, on fire throughout, culminating in a powerful shout to end the set that she claimed was inspired by the night's headliners. There were a couple brand-new songs ("Medicine From Melancholy" was one) that went over really well. A triumphant set, though it felt like the crowd was a bit more reserved than the band merited.

I thought at first that might have been because the crowd was out for Fucked Up's punk energy, but looking over the assembled group as the band took the stage, it struck me that the demographic at hand was way more "indie" than "punk". They were still into the band, just not in the manner of the smaller cadre of dedicated types who formed up and waited to leap into the circle pit. Actually, the pit had to wait a good spell to get going, as Fucked Up led off with the live debut of their epic new Chinese Zodiac single, "Year of The Tiger", whose structural DNA is not particularly hardcore, though it is a pretty fab bit of work — and enhanced by some cool real-time video toasting. Once the other shoe dropped though, it was business as usual, with all the accoutrements of a FU gig — including singer Damian Abraham heading to the back of the room and up onto the bar, singing all the way and returning to the stage with his very long mic cord wrapped around his face like some sort of macramé fetish mask. "Anyone can do this," Abraham commented, bringing home Wavelength's DIY ethos, although that most definitely underplays the band's singular live excellentness.

Listen to the epic live rendition of "Year of the Tiger" here.

Bonus content! I shared my audio with Graeme from NOW, who put together this overview of the night:

Recording: PS I Love You

Artist: PS I Love You

Song: Princess Towers

Recorded at The Garrison (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival, Night 4), February 19, 2012.

PS I Love You - Princess Towers

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here. This song has been awarded the coveted CM "Best Jam" citation. Good new tunes — should be an impressive year for the band.

Recording: Army Girls

Artist: Army Girls

Song: The End of Days

Recorded at The Garrison (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival, Night 4), February 19, 2012.

Army Girls - The End of Days

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here. Besides their usual tasty crunch, there was also some boss new material from Army Girls on their WL debut.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Recording: No Joy

Artist: No Joy

Song: Ghost Blonde

Recorded at The Great Hall (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival, Night 3), February 18, 2012.

No Joy - Ghost Blonde

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here.

Recording: Off The International Radar

Artist: Off The International Radar

Songs: TIMF / Baja Claw*

Recorded at The Great Hall (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival, Night 3), February 18, 2012.

Off The International Radar - TIMF / Baja Claw

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here. My notes during this song mention something about a "Tangerine Dream K-Hole", and then trail off into incomprehensibility. Didn't know these guys at all, so this was the first set of the festival that took me surprise and grabbed me.

* Thanks to vibrationist for passing the titles to these along.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Recording: Fucked Up

Artist: Fucked Up (feat. Katie Stelmanis)

Song: Year of the Tiger

Recorded at Steam Whistle Brewing (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival. Night 2), February 17, 2012.

Fucked Up - Year of the Tiger

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here. Celebrating the spirit of Wavelength, Fucked Up tried something new, with the debut of their massive new Zodiac single (an epic in thirteen minutes) accompanied by live video projections. And a guest turn on vocals by Katie Stelmanis to boot!

Recording: Silver Dapple

Artist: Silver Dapple

Song: I Hate My Birthday

Recorded at Steam Whistle Brewing (Wavelength TWELVE! Festival. Night 2), February 17, 2012.

Silver Dapple - I Hate My Birthday

Review to follow, but my quick recap of the festival can be found here. Strong set from the night's Montréal visitors, balancing guitar crunch and pop smarts.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Recording: Pixies

Artist: Pixies

Songs: I Bleed / Dead

Recorded at Massey Hall, April 19, 2011.

Pixies - I Bleed

Pixies - Dead

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Pixies

The Pixies (Imaginary Cities)

Massey Hall. Tuesday, April 19, 2011.

It'd been a couple years since I was down for a gig on Shuter Street, and even this trip was somewhat happenstance. T., with whom I'd gone to many a show back in the day, had an extra ticket and invited me out — so despite some nostalgia-related misgivings, I joined him up in the balcony for the second of a two-night stand of a band playing an album from 1989 front-to-back.1

They say that playing Massey Hall is some sort of meaningful measuring stick that a band has, y'know, made it. But really, it just means you can convince a certain numer of people to pay for a semi-pricey ticket — it's not like "Classic Albums Live" have reached some equivalent point of artistic validation to The Quintet or anything. And it's even more capricious for opening acts. I dunno what went down in what backroom, but it seemed like a helluva break for Winnipeg's Imaginary Cities to be on this bill. Purveyors of a mildly fungible soul-laced pop-rock, they might have been seen as lacking in stature to be "Massey-worthy".

Given that I had seen 'em just about a month before this, I was not too sad when we walked in with the band already on stage. We still managed to catch the last twenty minutes of the set — enough to reinforce my dominant impression that they're "a pleasant diversion to pass the time while you wait for another band". Besides some of their own stuff (like the admittedly-catchy "temporary Resident"), they threw in a cover of Cake's "Mexico" — which was effective in playing Rusty Matyas' vox off Marti Sarbit's, but kinda implied a bit of a lack of faith in their own repertoire. And, anyway, their own "Nine and Ten" was just as successful in that regard. The band seemed a little unused to being spread out on such a big stage, but they had fun with it, bantering with the crowd and even inviting everyone down to the merch table to check out Matyas' own brand of ketchup.

Perhaps, in the end, this was a canny choice for an opener as this might be the sort of pleasantly non-threatening stuff that might appeal to a nostalgia-seeking crowd who probably don't work as hard at finding new music as they used to.

Now into a cash-in reunion phase that has lasted nearly as long as the band's original tenure, the Pixies were taking another kick at the horse by presenting a end-to-end revisitation of the seminal (and wonderful) Doolittle. And that obviously paid off, with the band playing Massey Hall two nights in a row — a good showing even if there were plenty of open seats up in the balcony on this night.

On the darkened stage, a giant screen blinked into life, showing a Chien Andalou highlight reel. The screen would go from opaque to backlit as needed, adding visual accompaniment to the songs, as well as title-cards announcing each phase of the show. There were also giant colour-changing orbs suspended above the stage, and I considered how awesome it would be if they lowered to the stage after the opening act and the band emerged from them, Spinal Tap style.

That was not to be, but there was a mix of the high-tech and ceremonial (I'm so not used to shows with, like, a lead-up and screens and so on) with the band's more down-to-earth approach that was generally agreeable. The four members seemed about as spread apart from each other as they could be, and guitarist/vocalist Frank Black, er, Black Francis seemed unconcerned with interacting with the crowd. That task would fall to bassist/designated banterer Kim Deal, whose chipper demeanour bobbed happily along just like one of her basslines.

She'd also occasionally shout out a progress report on how far through the album the band was, but before getting there the set started off with some b-sides, "Dancing the Manta Ray" (which is mostly notable for being a different song than "Manta Ray", surveyed a few songs later) and "Weird at my School" (not really notable at all). "Bailey's Walk" and "Manta Ray" are, indeed, stronger songs and expressed more of the Doolittle vibe.

And then into the album proper, which should be an anti-climactic experience (no surprise what's coming next!), but it was still exciting when the bassline for "Debaser" kicked in. Otherwise, though there's no doubt that I loved Doolittle back in the day, it'd probably been well more than a decade since I listened to it, so I was actually was a little surprised as the hits, as they say, kept on coming.

There was definitely a bit of live acceleration on songs like "Tame", which made the quick tunes rush by even faster — many were here and gone in a couple minutes flat. The audience was pretty ebullient as the band tackled "Here Comes Your Man", but, perhaps perversely, I think I enjoyed the stuff from Side 2 more, just to see the band tackling non-natural setlist selections like "Mr. Grieves" and "Silver". "No. 13 Baby" — somewhat surprisingly the longest cut on the album, go ahead and look it up — actually was allowed to simmer along a bit in an extended outro, but otherwise the arrangements hewed pretty closely to the originals.

And then, after "Gouge Away", the band departed the stage — and another thing I'm not used to any more is the large-format gig's extended encore breaks, with the band waiting for a few minutes and letting the audience whip themselves up a good bit before returning. Returning to the album's b-sides, they played "Wave of Mutilation" once again, here in its slowed-down "UK Surf" incarnation, and added "Into the White" before retreating again.

After that came a five-song encore that leaned on the early part of their catalogue, with a pair from 1987's Come On Pilgrim ("Caribou" and "Nimrod's Song") and the rest from '88's Surfer Rosa, leaving the last couple albums unvisited.2 And if "Vamos" wasn't particularly the one I'd've hoped they'd pull out of their hat, closing with "Where Is My Mind?" (the audience singing along for the chorus) and "Gigantic" was a rather satisfying finish. The latter even included the band getting a little playful, doing a drop-out to only Deal's bass playing as she laughed and told the audience, "it took us twenty-two years but we finally learned how to break it down!", before ending the song by saying "Good night" to each of the bandmembers.

Ultimately, although it was a pleasant-enough experience and a good gig I was feeling hard-pressed to be as excited as the people around me losing their shit to this, and I wondered, "am I a callous blowhard, or are these people clinging to their past too much?"

I mean, it could be both.

I'd originally posted a recording from one of the encore's non-Doolittle songs here, and now I've added a couple from the album itself here.

1 Plus, I should add, I had already seen the Pixies, back in 2004 when there was a sense of exciting novelty about their reunion — and back in a time when I'd head out to a giant shed on the other side of Pearson Airport to go see a band. If nothing else, Massey Hall was a monumental step up in terms of comfort, sonics and convenience.

2 That Bossanova anniversary tour is gonna be a harder sell, I reckon, and by Trompe le Monde the band might be down to playing state fairs and Elks conventions.