Friday, December 21, 2012

NXNE 2011: Saturday (Part 1)

NXNE — North by Northeast Festival, Toronto, 2011.

Saturday, June 18, 2011 – Part 1. Featuring: Cartoons, Ivan & Alyosha, Guards, Wild Nothing

N.B.: I had written some contemporaneous notes about the festival here. This redux version comes with a few additional observations as I have now had time to properly go through my recordings.

8 p.m.: Cartoons @ Comfort Zone

By Saturday night, the long slog of NXNE was getting to me a bit, and I was more than a little groggy and in need of a pick-me-up. After the first band I was going to see wasn't close to getting on stage as the hour approached, I was in no mood to wait, so I walked over to CZ to find Cartoons already on stage. As it would turn out, being five minutes late meant I missed about a third of their very brief set. Points for not overstaying their welcome. Their abrasive, AmRep-styled guitar-skinning was pretty invigorating stuff, and I managed to pick up a few lyrics like: "You're stupid!" and "Kill the hostages!" in the shouted din.

Later on, more pieces here would fall in place for me, like putting it together that the band is fronted by Denholm Whale (who also serves as the bassist for Odonis Odonis). Cartoons is part of the Buzz scene, centred around that local DIY label and The Garage, its not-metaphoric, now-defunct venue of choice. Many members of that loosely-connected network have been building momentum in the city's scuzz-punk underground, and now that the likes of METZ and The Soupcans have been taking T.O.'s ugly side to the wider world, this substrata of bands might be getting some more attention.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9 p.m.: Ivan & Alyosha @ Lee's Palace

That set certainly gave me a jolt, though with my underlying fatigue, it's around here that my notepad starts mentioning things like "seeing hallucinations almost". As I headed up to Lee's, getting in with folksy combo Ivan & Alyosha taking the stage, my next comment was far less cryptic: "Ah — here's the earnest shit that I've been dodging so far."

Part of that arose from the fact that this by no means my first (or second, or third...) choice for this timeslot. There were a couple things farther afield that I was more interested in — but seasoned NXNE'ers know that the Saturday night is always a hassle for getting around. Between the big, free show at Dundas Square, Luminato, and some manner of MuchMusic event, the east-west streetcar lines were pretty unreliable, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get anywhere and back without missing something, as I knew I would be headed to Lee's down the line. So I figured I might as well get in there while it was still quiet and see whoever was playing the early slot there.

There was, in fact, no Ivan and no Alyosha to be found (they are, indeed, characters The Brothers Karamazov), and my somewhat snide first impression of the Seattle band turned out to be not wholly justified. Having four guys lined up across the front of the stage, with an electric guitar, two acoustics and a single floor tom for percussion did create the notion of a rustic folk-rock combo, though it turned out that the usual drummer wasn't present (possibly due to those omnipresent border issues) so the percussion here was as a result of the bassist filling in.

Musically, this would fit next to the northwestern rootsy, harmony-laden, bearded adult-alternative band of your choice. That might sound like I'm consigning them to "generically bland" status, and yeah, that was kinda my feeling at first. But as the set went on, they won me over a little on the strength of their comfortably stripped-down, likeable songs. There were some nice touches as well, like the echo-y ruffles during "Easy to Love".

Playing songs from their then-current Fathers Be Kind EP as well as tunes from their '09 full-length, plus a few from a still-forthcoming follow-up, they were also genuinely gracious on stage, glad to be sharing their songs, even if it was to a thin early crowd. Though it must be noted that the place was filling in as they played, and by the end they were getting good applause for songs like "On My Way" and the profane clap-along "Glorify" that closed it out.

10 p.m.: Guards @ Lee's Palace

Now it was starting to get busy for the night, with the Saturday Night crowd filling in as NYC group Guards set up for what looked to be a more theatrical set. There was a large backdrop with a freemason-ish logo, a lamp on stage topped by a stuffed bird and a smoke machine obscuring everything. The music had a similarly theatrical heft, dabbling in atmospherics of menacing gloom that were mixed with jaunty shots of lightness.

Between the fog and my perception slowly becoming even more unreliable, I wasn't entirely sure what I was seeing, wondering to myself if, in fact, I was seeing an omnichord on stage. That turned out to be the case, and one the more unique elements of the band's sound were the little trills it provided underneath everything else. Interestingly, though it sounded central to the songs, it was apparently the player's first show with the band.

Or maybe I'm just more inclined to pay attention to omnichords. For most people, however, it's ubiquitously mentioned that vocalist Richie Follin is the brother of Cults' Madeline Follin, though that doesn't mean much to me. He seemed to bring a poppy sensibility and classic rock'n'roll changes, reminding me a bit of Bradford Cox's tin-pan-alley side.

There were interesting moments, but a lot of this didn't connect for me. "Sail it Slow" did just that a bit too much, and when they slowed down again for an extended run through "Trophy Queen" toward the end, it didn't quite carry the crowd along. The upbeat material, when tended to come along in two minute-ish bursts (including a cover of MIA's "Born Free"), fared better, but there wasn't quite there enough to stick in my head.

I hadn't given much more thought to the band since this set, but it looks like the hype cycle is coming back around for them, with a single just dropped and their debut full-length out in early 2013.

Listen to a track from this set here.

11 p.m.: Wild Nothing @ Lee's Palace

By eleven, there was a really full house for Wild Nothing, showing how once again I'd missed the boat on a buzz-y band. Which is mildly strange, as this was the sort of thing that I do casually enjoy — the jangly roll of The Smiths, but with its morose-y vibe replaced by a more upbeat, optimistic delivery. Conceptually not so far from, say, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Originating as a recording project from singer/guitarist Jack Tatum, he was here backed by a sympathetic three-piece band. In theory, that should have opened up the sound a bit from the self-recorded material (on which Tatum played nearly everything) but the band wasn't exactly jamming out on the arrangements.

Starting with "Golden Haze" — the lead-off title track of the then-new EP that followed on the band's full-length debut — the set would be filled with trebly guitars and gently dance-able beats. The pleasingly bouncy "Our Composition Book" won me over and from there I enjoyed the set pretty well. The music is mostly situated in a fairly narrow stylistic patch, but there were enough variety to keep things interesting. Those minor variations weren't always to the good — "The Witching Hour"'s slower tempo dragged a bit and pushed Tatum a bit out of his natural vocal range.

The songs were then all new to me, but the EP and full-length Gemini album, out for more than a year, had apparently been around long enough for the crowd to have favourites, as there was a cheer at the opening notes of "Chinatown" and "Summer Holiday". And also long enough that Tatum already had a couple new ones to mix into the set. "Disappear Always" would emerge on this year's sophomore album Nocturne, and set-closer "She Falls Down" (a bit colder, and more mechanical than the template, here slowing things down in an interesting manner and gaining gravitas) was even tastier, though it doesn't yet seem to be released.

It was an efficient ten-song set, straightforward and without much banter or showmanship, but a good introduction — I grabbed a copy of both discs on the way out the door.

There was a positively huge lineup for Twin Shadow as I made my way out, but that wasn't the set for me. I was headed off for something far weirder...

Listen to a song from this set here.

This was a long-enough night that I'm splitting this account in two — the rest can be found here.

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