Friday, May 22, 2020

Livestream, baby, livestream

I haven’t been to a live show in three months. That’s the longest period of time in my life, since I was 14 years old, that I haven’t waited in anticipation for that first kick drum to reverberate through my chest, for the manipulation of air particles into sound to affect me emotionally in ways I’ve come to recognize have a spiritual and narcotic effect. It’s hard for me to live without. My family and I make music at home. But it’s something else entirely to have someone else take you on that journey. I knew I would miss that feeling. I had no idea how much I would miss that feeling.

And no, streamed concerts are not the answer. I didn’t care for them before, and I don’t now. But they’re what we have right now. It’s the only way we get to see old friends and heroes in real time. So here we are.

I came of age artistically in Guelph in the 1990s. I moved there for university, played in a few bands, got a job, stuck around. For a while there I thought I might never leave. The friends I made there remain some of my favourite people to this day; the music we made together still resonates deeply for me.

One of my favourite people of that time (and there are many) is Vicki Fraser, who blew into town from Ottawa's jam band scene. She was a great singer-songwriter with a huge R&B voice she applied to folk music both on her own and with MVP Tannis Slimmon in the duo Crow's Feet. She often guested with my band, Black Cabbage, and after I played on her debut album, 1999's Dynamite Opening, I played accordion and keyboards behind her that summer. 

Vicki is an exceptionally generous person, and now works as a therapist. Which is why I’m excited that after watching her friends' gigs dry up, she is assembling three Zoom concerts of old friends, based on the three cities Vicki has inhabited in her life: Toronto, Ottawa, and Guelph. A $20 ticket (+ $2.30 fee) delivers an hour-long variety show with five different artists—not unlike a folk festival workshop stage—with all proceeds going directly to the performers. You’re not going to see any of these people play your local pub or folk festival any time soon, and they’re not going to be making any gig money anywhere anytime soon. So: win-win. 

The FB page for these things is here.

The first show, on Sunday, May 31, features Oh Susanna, Regina Gently (the drag alter ego of Gentleman Reg), Culture Reject (Black Cabbage’s Michael O’Connell), Ravi Naimpally (Toronto’s top tabla player), and Dave Clark (Rheostatics, Woodchoppers Orchestra). It sold out within a week. Too late, suckers! But wait, there’s more.

The Guelph event is Sunday, June 14, a matinee from 3 to 4.30pm. The lineup is as follows:

Dave Withers used to play with me in Black Cabbage. He was older than the rest of us pups back then. (He’s still older than us.) He wrote the rock anthems that got us on the radio. These days he does not write the rock anthems. Nor does he write rock bios, including his own, so I whipped this off for the old geezer: “For the last nine decades, Dave Withers has been an enigmatic part of southwestern Ontario's music scene. From his early Victrola recordings of farmhand hollers, to his innovative combination of country music and poetry that inspired Leonard Cohen, to his punk rock days drowning in distortion pedals, to his rebirth as an environmental propagandist infiltrating the public education system—Dave Withers has been impossibly hard to pin down. He didn't properly get his due until the early 90s with Black Cabbage, who coaxed him out of retirement and shoved him into a van driving across Canada. They shoved him out somewhere outside Edmundston, N.B., in 1999. For the next decade he could be spotted playing the same sad-bastard song at every open stage in Guelph (the Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular"). More recently he's been paying his bills in a wedding band while slowly working with producer Scott Merritt on his epic rock opera about a shuttered tattoo parlour.” Some of that is true. Maybe most of it. 

Jessy Bell Smith has been singing with the Skydiggers for years as a backing vocalist, but when she’s given a solo spotlight—as she was at a recent Massey Hall concert I witnessed—she absolutely brings the house down. One of the most spine-tingling vocalists I’ve ever heard in my life—never mind had the immense pleasure of working with—Jessy brings total class to everything she does. She played my Guelph book launch a couple of years ago, delivering incredibly emotional takes on Gord Downie and Tragically Hip songs.

Jeff Bird and Sue Smith have been leading lights of Guelph music for 40 years. Jeff is known primarily for his role with the Cowboy Junkies ever since The Trinity Session, but was in Canadian folk legends Tamarack before that, and has made all manner of music since, including a breathtaking tribute to Hildegard von Bingen performed on harmonica and harmonium. Sue was one-third of the Bird Sisters and co-founded the Hillside Festival, and has been an inspiring teacher for generations of Guelphites—including me.

Nathan Lawr was just out of high school when he joined King Cobb Steelie as touring drummer in 1997. Two years later he joined Aaron Riches’ Royal City, whose first two albums helped kick off an indie rock explosion in Canada in the early 2000s. He’s played with Feist, the Constantines, and many more, as well as releasing a series of fine solo records. These days he leads the Afrobeat-inspired psychedelia of Minotaurs, whose brand new record is a real gem. As is he.

Nicolette Hoang is a next-generation Guelphite with one hell of a killer country voice, which she puts to use in Nicolette and the Nobodies, who released their debut in early 2019. I’ve yet to see her live, which is clearly my loss.

Tickets for the Guelph show are available here:


On to Ottawa. That one takes place Sunday, June 28 at 3pm, with these fine folks on board:

Kinnie Starr is a Vancouver-based artist, who first turned heads in the late 90s by mixing powerful lyrics, grungy guitars, hip-hop beats, and anything else she could find into an intriguing, unique blend. I didn’t know anything about her Ottawa connection until Vicki told me that Kinnie spent part of her teen years there, which is when they connected. Starr has had a particularly rough time in recent years, so it’s a real pleasure to see her back on the scene and performing.

Rebecca Campbell is an MVP in Ontario’s music scene, from her days as a backup singer for Jane Siberry to leading her own band, Fat Man Waving, to performing with electronic project Microbunny with King Cobb Steelie’s Al Okada.

John and Michelle Law are songwriters who run the Kingsville Folk Festival, near Point Pelée. Many moons ago John played in Ottawa band Four Way Street, and now he and Michelle are acclaimed songwriters with Nashville connections and at least one pundit declared them “the best duo out of Canada since Ian & Sylvia.” So there’s that.

Mark Robertson is perhaps best known for his role in Bullfrog, the Montreal funk band that featured world-renowned DJ Kid Koala. Robertson himself also played with Beastie Boy Money Mark, and has opened solo for Maceo Parker, the Wailers, and dozens more. His new album of soulful acoustic songs is called Made Easy for Guitar.

Dave Muir is now a stage tech at the NAC, but his days in Ottawa past include time with Longbottom, the Fabulous Primates and the Ultramundanes.

Tickets for the Ottawa event can be found here:

Go get tickets, people! Especially people I know personally from Guelph days and beyond, and if you happen to have mutual friends with any of the above people.

And check out the great work that is doing as well. You’re bound to find some chums there. My friend Veda Hille—who’s a fellow Scrappy Bitch with Oh Susanna and Kinnie Starr—is doing one on Sunday, May 24 at 3pm Eastern, and Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think, Happiness Project) is doing one on May 27 at 11pm Eastern.

I don’t love the idea of live streaming as a substitute for the live experience, but I’m certainly going to make some exceptions.  

As Vicki puts it, “chums supporting chums.”

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Strange Animal, I've got to follow

Gowan at the Danforth Music Hall, Feb. 26, 2020.
Last night I went to see Gowan, 35 years after one of his shows at the Ontario Place Forum was my first live rock’n’roll experience. Both shows were amazing. And I owe Gowan an apology.

Twenty years ago I co-wrote a book about Canadian music of my youth, the years 1985-95. I’m very proud of it. It turned out to be influential on younger writers and musicians; people still mention it to me all the time. But the opening paragraph contains a sentence I’ve regretted the rest of my life:  

“Some would argue that the youth of the early 80s had no opinion of their country’s culture, but they most certainly did. They thought it sucked.”

I wrote that, as a 29-year-old, as a way of setting up the book’s thesis: that a new generation of punk-influenced Canadian music was poised to assert itself, standing apart from the heroes of the baby boom, classic rock, hair metal and vapid pop. A statement like that is necessary to establish a generational divide. But it’s also wildly incorrect.

In 1985, when I was in Grade 9, Rush were still massively popular. Bryan Adams and Corey Hart were bona fide, million-selling superstars. Platinum Blonde’s first album was thrilling. Some of those things were guilty pleasures for me for a while, but all that music has held up remarkably well—although you’ll forgive me if, after years of ubiquity, I never need to hear Adams’s music again.

Then there was Gowan.

In 1985, he released his second album, Strange Animal. Rob Quartly’s video for “A Criminal Mind” was incredibly vivid and captivating (its use of animation similar to, but not as extensive, as A-ha’s “Take On Me,” released the same year). The song was an odd single, to say the least: a first-person character narrative, a seven-minute piano epic in which the Linn drums don’t appear until almost the two-minute mark; when the real drums kick in at 3:23, it’s almost as powerful as Phil Collins’s entry on “In the Air Tonight.” But the lyric, the voice, the arrangement, and that melody all made it a smash hit. The whole album was recorded with Peter Gabriel’s band (bassist Tony Levin, drummer Jerry Marotta, guitarist David Rhodes); while undeniably rooted in a specific era, the album easily holds up due to the songs, the players and the performances.

Or… does it? I bring a lot of bias to this situation.

Strange Animal is very personal to me. Yeah, it’s a great record and that Ontario Place show remains one of the most exhilarating musical memories of my life. But Gowan, a Scottish-Canadian Catholic boy from Scarborough, means more than that to me, a Canadian with a Scot name who grew up Catholic in Scarborough—a block away from the Gowan family.

I didn’t know the Gowan family, but my classmate Mike Farr did; he lived next door. In Grade 7, Mike brought Gowan’s first album into class for show and tell. We were all star struck by proxy. I’d heard “Keep Up the Fight” on 1050 CHUM; I had just started clipping out the CHUM charts from the Toronto Star and pasting them on my bedroom wall, for whatever reason. We learned that Gowan had gone to the same elementary school as us, and probably had the ancient Mrs. Pereira for Grade 2, because she’d been there since the dawn of time. (Gowan is 15 years older than me.)

This made a huge imprint on this young music fan, along with the time that Bram—minus Sharon and Lois—played for my Grade 1 class before the release of the stone-cold classic One Elephant, Deux Elephants. Rock stars lived in our midst. The music that meant the most to us, music that could influence the rest of the country and the continent, could be made by that guy who came to play at our school or even the guy who went to our school.

1985: Strange Animal came out, and everyone went apeshit. The press loved the Peter Gabriel angle. The singles were all over radio. The video was played practically every day after school. Girls in my class started styling their hair like Gowan (shout out to Rochelle Smith, who was best at it). The guy was a star. And here’s the funny thing: he still went to our local church every Sunday with his family, where he’d be mobbed by teen girls. But that was our little Scarborough secret; can you imagine what that scene would be like in the days of Instagram?

June 1985: Gowan plays the Ontario Place Forum, a uniquely rotating stage by Toronto’s waterfront where admission was either free or minimal (it fluctuated during that decade), where anyone who showed up early enough could get a front-row seat. This venue would come to define my teenage years, as one of the rare all-ages venues a kid could see artists who usually played licensed venues. My friends and I showed up sometime around three in the afternoon, hours before show time. I have no idea what a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old squares did to fill that time. Doesn’t matter. When Gowan took the stage, he was nothing short of electrifying. High kicks. Leaping off his grand piano. Cool/ridiculous dance moves. Killer band, including brother Terry on bass (who might have been playing a Chapman stick, à la Tony Levin; I can’t recall exactly). Thousands upon thousands of screaming girls. It took us 90 minutes to get back to Scarborough by public transit, but we were buzzing all the way.

Flash forward 35 years. Several friends, both old and new, have somehow gone to see Gowan in recent years and raved about it. The man has been embracing his 80s legacy, rather than running from it. You can still call him Larry, but he’s going to play a lot of songs he released simply as Gowan. He’s been paying his bills for the last 20 years by performing with Styx ever since that band’s lead singer, Dennis DeYoung, bowed out for Broadway. I’ve never given two shits about Styx, but more power to him, I thought. Now I figured it was time for me to revisit the man who gave me my first rock’n’roll thrills. My friends all saw him play in secondary markets around the GTA; to my knowledge, he hadn’t had a big Toronto show. When this one was announced for the Danforth Music Hall, promoted by Massey Hall, tickets disappeared quickly. I didn’t think any more about it.

Yesterday afternoon I had an appointment on the Danforth and saw the marquee. Felt a slight pang. Later that day a friend posted about seeing the show in Belleville the night before, and she had nothing but rave reports. I checked StubHub; say what you will about the evils of authorized scalping, but three hours before showtime I was able to get a seat at the back of the hall for considerably less than cost. I was now going to see Gowan.


The pre-show music was all British new wave of the 80s: Level 42, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Big Country, Icicle Works. When was the last time you heard Icicle Works at full volume? In a public place, anyway. Other than some progeny, every person in the audience looked to be between 45 and 55. There was a very clear target demographic in play here.

When the lights came up on the stage, Gowan was perched on top of his keyboard, posed like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. I was somewhat disappointed when he didn’t leap off it with a high kick, but a) that would have been perilous, as the keyboard was on a rotating stand that allowed him to spin it at random points in the show; and b) then he wouldn’t have been able to begin the show with the cascading chords that of Strange Animal’s opening track, “Cosmetics.” That was following by “Walking on Air,” from the same record. Then “Awake the Giant,” which my teenage self figured out was about boners.

The man was in great form: vocally, physically. None of his charisma had faded over the years. That helped when the set then dipped into his 90s material, which I ignored completely at the time; hearing it now, it’s better than I thought it would be, but I don’t think I missed that much. “Keep Up the Fight” was a nice surprise. A cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” tacked on to the regrettable “Moonchild’s Psychedelic Holiday,” was not a nice surprise. Still, I’ll grant points for covering one of the least likely Beatles songs to hear live in 2020. The set closed with “Criminal Mind.” The ladies next to me were tempted to leave at intermission. “I guess that’s it!” one said. Another lady in front of them chimed in, “But ‘Strange Animal!’ ‘Moonlight Desires!’” Later, this same lady could be heard yelling to the stage: “I love you Gowan! Play more 80s! I love the 80s!”

That’s better than the schmuck who kept requesting “at least one Styx song!” “Here’s the deal,” Gowan finally responded. “When I play with Styx, I play Styx songs. When I play a Gowan show, I play with myself. No, wait…” He later threw the heckler a curveball by playing an instrumental piano piece he wrote for the most recent Styx record, which made every other rock’n’roll pianist I’ve ever heard sound like a classically ignorant chump. The guy has serious chops. [EDIT: I've since discovered he has a live solo piano record from 2008, and it's quite good; you can find it on streaming services.]

That’s the thing about watching veterans: if they’re still at it, they’re likely really fucking good at what they do. Music evolves and standards change, but there’s a lot to be said for watching really great performers with decades of experience play music that you struggle to pull off in your hobby cover band. I don’t go to see a lot of oldies acts, but when I do I’m rarely disappointed: it doesn’t matter if it’s Heart, Dolly Parton, Men Without Hats, Shadowy Men, you name it. Sure, no one is there to hear the new material, if there even is any. So what? I’ve certainly gone to see shows by legacy acts because I’m hoping they play something off an unusually good new album (Paul Simon, Tragically Hip), and I’m usually one of only 10 people in the audience with the same wish—and I leave somewhat disappointed. Last night I was there to hear Strange Animal. And Gowan delivered. He played seven of the album’s nine tracks.

Throughout, the veteran performer was warm, self-effacing and funny: “Here’s a song from 19—well, that says it all, doesn’t it, if the year starts with a 19.” Lots of Toronto and Scarborough jokes. Apparently guitarist Bob McAlpine, who played that Ontario Place gig in 1985, also grew up in my neighbourhood. Gowan poached his current drummer from Styx, and his keyboardist from his son’s metal band. MOR hit “All the Lovers in the World” sounded much better live than it does in my doctor’s office; the melody hasn’t left my head in the last 24 hours. The 90s songs in the second set fared better generally. Maybe it was because brother Terry changed into red pants and Gowan sported a kilt, or maybe I was just acclimatized by that point. After an excellent drum solo by Sucherman—that was nonetheless about 10 minutes too long—the second set closed with most of side two of Strange Animal, including the title track. He sent us on our way with “Moonlight Desires.” They haunt me, they haunt me. They weave a spell that puts me under.

The encore opened with Gowan alone at the piano, talking about how “one of the best things about growing up in this city is its history of great music,” before launching into a solo piano version of Rush’s “Limelight” and dedicating it to Neil Peart. Remember in 2016 how Bruce Springsteen paid live tributes to David Bowie and Prince? That’s how this felt to me, in 2020, to the Scarborough boy who’s now pushing 50. Yes, I got teary.


So: I’m sorry, Gowan. Sorry I subconsciously tried to write you out of Canadian musical history. There are a lot of 80s records I’m happy to leave buried under dust. Strange Animal has never been one of them, and nor will it be. I won’t wait another 35 years to see another Gowan show (and besides, you’d be 98). That first one changed my life, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Gowan plays in Richmond Hill on Feb. 29. He has a few Quebec dates, including Gatineau, in March, where he’ll probably play his Harmonium cover.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Owen Pallet on Les Mouches reunion

ˆThis week, Wavelength Music celebrates its anniversary with a weekend festival. They do this every year. This year, however, being the 20th anniversary—along with current pillars (Haviah Mighty, Kaia Kater), some Montreal imports (Yves Jarvis, Little Scream, Lou Phelps) and plenty of largely unknown local talent that has always been their focus—they’ve pulled in some ringers from their earliest years. 

Electro duo LAL are performing their 2000 album Corners. Sandro Perri, a consistent presence in Wavelength circles from the beginning, put out two of his most acclaimed records in the last two years. Hidden Cameras, a band who arguably helped launched the so-called Torontopia scene of the early 2000s, makes an extremely rare local appearance; bandleader Joel Gibb decamped to Berlin years ago.

The most interesting Wavelength act of the weekend, however, might be Les Mouches. This band only lasted a year, 2003-04, before Owen Pallett became better known to the world as Final Fantasy and as a contributor to Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Drummer Rob Gordon also played with From Fiction, who recorded an album with Steve Albini and were signed to Last Gang. Guitarist Matt Smith went on to perform as Prince Nifty. Together, they were a combustible unit whose songs shifted between delicate beauty and jarring explosions, with lyrics filled with longing, sexual confusion and crude jokes. 

There was nothing remotely commercial about Les Mouches, even though they covered a Carpenters song on 2003’s Blood Orgy EP. It’s often uncomfortable listening. But it’s undeniably unique. And it left enough of an impression that the sole full-length, 2004’s You’re Worth More to Me Than 1,000 Christians, was reissued on vinyl in 2015. 

I talked to Owen Pallett this week about many things, for another project; this excerpt is just about Les Mouches, then and now.

What was the genesis of Les Mouches?

After I graduated [from University of Toronto's music program], I wanted to record some songs I had written. I was involved with Hidden Cameras, I was dating Gentleman Reg, and I was friends with a lot of Three Gut people, so I decided to record with Andy Magoffin in London [who made albums for all those people]. I wrote brass arrangements and recorded what I called The Polite Album. Nobody heard it. I think I burned five copies, but [Blocks Recording Club’s] Steve Kado somehow had one. He came into the Free Times Café where I was working, and said, ‘Dude, your album is awesome!’ He was so excited. I was playing some solo shows but it wasn’t doing anything for me. I wanted to start a band. I had seen Matt Smith play a set at the Free Times, doing improv, with a guy name Dane who has since passed away, and Owen Marchildon, who would later be in From Fiction with Rob Gordon. I had known Rob in second year. I don’t remember the early rehearsals that well. [Matt and Rob and I] had long discussions about how we wanted the music to be focused on epiphanies. There would be these moments where it would all make sense. We were all really into Xiu Xiu, especially me, and it was changing the way I wrote lyrics.

You had said you wanted Les Mouches to sound like U.S. Maple meets the Carpenters.

Exactly. That was basically it. We were trying to have that free, Storm and Stress aesthetic, but have it married to—not necessarily conventional songwriting, but really pretty songs. Our first show as a trio was April 21, 2003. It was in Guelph. Our second show was in Toronto with Lungbutter. We started playing a bunch. I didn’t have a concept of what our fan base was, but by the time 1,000 Christians came out we filled the Music Gallery until it was beyond packed. We asked everyone to wear white clothing—and they all did! Matt Smith said, ‘Thank you all for wearing white. Congratulations! You’re all racist!’ (laughs)

And Bell Orchestre opened?

Yes, and Wooly Leaves.

How did you know Bell Orchestre? Had you even met Arcade Fire by that point?

I had met Arcade Fire through Jim Guthrie. [Jim’s band opened for them at the El Mocambo in January 2003.] I remember Regine saying, ‘Bell Orchestre is my favourite band on the planet.’ I didn’t know Sarah [Neufeld] very well at all. Richie [Parry] I kind of knew. But I mostly was just friends with Win and Regine, and not close friends at that point.

Richie wasn’t even really part of the band yet. He wasn’t until spring 03.

It was Bell Orchestre’s first show in Toronto. Then we put out Blood Orgy around Xmas 2003. Those songs were done in the same session as the songs for 1,000 Christians; there was one other session where I did the songs with brass on them. There’s one Matt Smith song we left out because it just didn’t fit on either release, which is too bad because it’s an amazing song. Then we wanted to tour, but I didn’t know anything about touring or how it worked.

Did you tour much with the Cameras, or just around southern Ontario?

I toured Europe with the Cameras in 2003, after Smell of Our Own came out. I didn’t know how DIY touring worked. With the Cameras, we had a van, a tour manager, hotels, it was all set up. But I wanted to book shows for Les Mouches. I was also playing with Liz Hysen in Picastro and she was always talking about how she booked her own tours. Reg was always talking about how he booked his own tours. So we booked five dates. But we never played anywhere other than Guelph, Toronto and Montreal. We opened a few Montreal shows for Arcade Fire in the spring of 04, in the lead-up to Funeral’s release, at the Corona Theatre. But our last show was [in September 04] at a Pop Montreal showcase for Blocks, at Casa del Popolo. That was with Hank, maybe Barcelona Pavilion. The band had a second recording session for a pile of new songs we’d written. Not enough for an album, but I thought we could make things work with four songs that were in our set. We thought we could do more writing in the studio, but it went really bad.

Do you think the creative partnership had just run its course?

No, not at all. We just went into the studio with four or five songs, and afterwards we were just feeling an ennui. We did it at Tantramar Farm [outside Guelph], where they used to have Track and Field. While I was up there, I was wearing this fanny pack that had my birth certificate and my passport and everything. This was a week before we were supposed to go on tour. I lost the fanny pack, and I had no ID and no way of getting anywhere, so we scuttled the tour. I was pretty depressed about it. This was also the summer I had no money. I was also playing more Final Fantasy shows, which had started that spring. In August, or late July, that I played CineCycle and Stuart McLean [of the Vinyl Café] was there. He said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘I actually need a job. If you know of any, let me know.’ He hired me on the spot as a music programmer. I did a really fucking good job.

No job interview, nothing?

I think he just said, ‘What would you program on this show?’ I sent him some stuff, and he said I was hired. I was now working at the CBC and loving it, making money for the first time in my life. Not a ton of money, but certainly more than I’d ever made. From Fiction were doing their thing. Rob was mad at me for a reason I still don’t know. It was hard to book rehearsals and play shows. After that Pop Montreal show, Rob was so focused on From Fiction [who had recorded with Steve Albini and signed to Last Gang]. By the end of the year, Arcade Fire said they were going to do their heroic, life-changing US tour, and asked if Les Mouches were interested in opening. I said, ‘You know what? I want to bring my solo project instead—which you guys haven’t heard, but trust me.’ I showed up at the Great American Music Hall and hadn’t told them that I’d broken my ankle at an AIDS Wolf show. I show up with a cane and a walking cast, got up and played my set with my looping pedal on a stool, and I brought the house down. It was great. After that, Les Mouches really drifted apart. I didn’t really understand the resonance that band had. It was a surprise to me that [Deep Dark United's] Alex Lukashevsky liked it, [Rockets Red Glare's] Evan Clarke liked it, these people I thought were way cooler than I was, and fantastic musicians. I don’t think I got it at the time.

One of the best things about that band was the tension in the music.

Oddly enough, we never felt at odds with each other on a musical level. Rob and Matt always played exactly what was necessary. Robbie tried to explain it to me once. He told me his parents preferred the music he made with From Fiction, only because they could understand it.

Because it’s more linear?

It’s aggressive and complicated. But when they were confronted with Les Mouches music, they were like, ‘We don’t get this.’ After Blood Orgy came out, his dad used to make fun of him by quoting Les Mouches lyrics at the dinner table. He’s say, ‘Well, Robbie, you know, I never had a woman inside my dick.’

That’s an interesting parental dynamic.

I think they were like, ‘You’re in a gay band, Robbie!’ But it’s fine. I love his parents. My parents definitely didn’t get Les Mouches.

It’s not music for parents!

My stepfather had a very negative reaction to it. I think my mom told me that after hearing it he had to lie down or something. He went to my mom and said, ‘I think Owen may be seriously disturbed.’ My mom was like, ‘Oh, really!’ Then she listened to the record and said, ‘Nick, he’s joking! These are fucking jokes!’ Which was true. I was making fun of this shit.

What were you making fun of?

Depends, on song to song. ‘Daddy Needs a Daddy’ is making fun of tropes of gay male desire, while at the same time being very emotional. ‘I want to hold him in my arms and cradle him until his hair turns grey.’ That was pretty much how I felt about who I was falling in love with. ‘Carload of Whatever’ was satirizing bugchasers, which I didn’t know was a thing until I met one.

One of my favourite musical moments is the string arrangement on “Divorce the Ones You Love.”

Oh, really? I think it’s annoying. I don’t have a wide breadth of knowledge of classical music, compared to most classical music heads, but certain works really resonate with me. One of those is Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question.’ The backdrop of plaintive string chords, with these increasingly aberrant woodwind gestures, really had a profound effect on me. The beginning of ‘Divorce the Ones You Love’ is meant to recall that a bit, this very bucolic guitar thing with increasingly violent string gestures that try to interrupt this stillness.

How do you feel about playing this music now?

There are certain songs I’m not going to play, because I don’t think there’s much to commend them. A song like ‘Luci on Her Birthday’ I’m kind of amazed exists. That may be the fifth song I ever wrote. It’s on The Polite Album. It’s exquisitely sad now, when I listen to it. Other songs, I’m really into and really proud of. ‘Love Song to an Empty Room’ in particular I think is great. ‘Requiem to the Victims of Frankfurt’ I’m going to be playing at the Wavelength show—we haven’t played it since 2004—I’m really excited about. It’s so fun to sing this shit, like ‘My dream has a title: cunt marries asshole.’ It’s like—I don’t know. Maybe they’re just bad jokes, like Tim Kinsella in Joan of Arc. But I have a lot of affection for it.

For me, that music is very much situated in that time, which held great possibility. It was either you or Kado who once told me that it was a time of ideas: some projects were better ideas than they were bands, but they were great ideas so it worked. And of course there were also great ideas that were also great bands. There was an audacity to try things, musically or lyrically.

The environment was perfect. Rent in Toronto was so reasonable—

Okay, let's talk about that magical time in real terms. What were you paying?

At 19 Major, I was paying $350 for one room of five. I then moved into a larger room there and paid $400. Then $400 on Queen Street ... Later, [then-boyfriend] Patrick and I moved into a place at Dupont and Ossington, the building Will Munro lived in. Team Macho was based there. We were paying somewhere around $1,200. So rent was reasonable. We had also had the best form of social media back then, which was message boards. People were getting involved in local discourse. Twitter is too broad and international. Message boards were magical. I still post on message boards. It’s how my brain wants to interact with the outside world. I was there very early on in the Toronto message board thing: Anti Antenna.

That was before StillePost.

Anti Antenna was before Secret Arcade, which was before 20hz, which then became StillePost.

Anti Antenna was also a label, wasn’t it?

Yes. Post-rock stuff. The only people I knew posting there were [Feuermusik's] Jeremy Strachan and Shaw-Han Liem [I Am Robot and Proud]. And Jonny [Dovercourt], but I didn’t really know him then. StillePost became a hotbed of discussion. Everybody was on it. Just like Facebook would be today, but this was a much more interesting place because everything was compartmentalized.  It was not designed to be addictive, but meant to accessorize real-life social experiences. Facebook is designed to addict the consumer, to keep you at your computer. Message boards were not. On top of that, there was this new influx of attention. And people were still making money. If you put out a shitty CD and folded it together yourself, you could easily make $2,000 by selling 200 of them. It was a reliable source of instant gratification and income. Blocks made sense at the time. In 2004, we were having discussions about if we should put our stuff up on iTunes, and I was a vociferous ‘no’! I believed the packaging was part of it. I couldn’t foresee that 10 years down the line there would be no CD drives on laptops. I mean, I just recently took my CDs to a store, got money for the ones they wanted, and threw the rest out. Thousands of dollars worth! I kept the ones I play on, and my friends’ CDs, but I threw out my deluxe edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It had a really nice booklet! But I don’t have anywhere to store it anymore.

Les Mouches’ two CD releases on Blocks Recording Club are out of print, although 1,000 Christians received a 500-copy limited-edition vinyl reissue on Orchid Tapes in 2015. Bandcamp link here.

Full lineup and details for Wavelength's 20th anniversary weekend festival, Feb 13-16, can be found here

Monday, December 09, 2019

Best of 2019

2019 was the year I lost my weekly review column after almost two decades, but that just allowed me to pay less attention to trends and go wherever my ears led me. Are these the best records of 2019? Maybe, maybe not, but they were the fuel that kept me alive this year.

Spotify shuffle playlist is here
Apple Music playlist is here

1. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
This album is to Canada in 2019 what Fear of a Black Planet was to the U.S. 30 years earlier. Two MCs raised in a remote northwestern corner of British Columbia have grown into lyrically deft truth-tellers and provocateurs with a command of ancient and recent history. Their flow is animated and exciting; the music beneath it just as much so. While the rest of rock, rap and pop use a lot of language to say next to nothing at all, this crew is razor-sharp and almost always hits their target. Because fellow resistance leaders Jeremy Dutcher and Tanya Tagaq don’t sing in English (for very clear political and aesthetic reasons), that leaves SNRK to confront the oppressor straight on and in their own terms. These are the lyrics that Indigenous and settler audiences alike recite in unison at the high-energy live shows; these are the words that the youth will take to heart. It’s not all righteous fury; there is also a playfulness and levity that makes this music three-dimensional. Solid guest turns by the Sorority (feat. Haviah Mighty), Cartel Madras, Kimmortal, Boslen and others widen the narrative. Maybe there were objectively better albums released this year, maybe not, but this is the only one that felt essential.

2. Nakhane – You Will Not Die
An operatic, queer, black South African transplanted to London making art-pop that oscillates between euphoric R&B and disco to Nick Cave dread, with a few dead-stop solo piano ballads that would be in fine company with Jeremy Dutcher—some even conjure the ghost of Nina Simone. There’s also a guest turn from Anohni and a solo electric guitar cover of New Order. Is there anything this guy can’t do? At the centre of it all is an absolutely stunning voice that delivers goosebumps on every track. This album came out last year in Britain and was released to little fanfare on this side of the Atlantic in early 2019. Why was it so slept on? What’s going on in this world?

3. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
This New Orleans trumpeter has put out four albums in 18 months spanning 2018-19, and they’re all spectacular. Scott favours long, occasionally piercing tones, playing evocative, slow melodies over percussion and synth textures. In some ways, it sounds like what Yellow Moon-era Neville Brothers would sound like if they made an instrumental record with Lanois and Eno, but with a shit-hot trumpeter on top. The ever-fiery Saul Williams orates over a few tracks, and vocalist Chris Turner brings a haunting romanticism to “Forevergirl,” driven by Kris Funn’s acoustic bass line. In its swampy mysticism, Ancestral Recall harkens back to Gris Gris, the perversely psychedelic debut by the dearly departed Dr. John. But Scott makes modern jazz that doesn’t look backwards or sideways; to my knowledge, there’s nothing else quite like this in the landscape of Kamasi Washington or Donny McCaslin or Shabaka Hutchings or Thundercat. Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah is in a world and a class all his own.

4. Orville Peck – Pony
Yes, the guy wears a mask. Get over it. Behind that mask is a great songwriter that draws heavily from classic country music—the two-step shuffles, the twangy guitars, the whistling—but isn’t afraid to take it wherever he wants, including a few nods to Joy Division and Nick Cave. Yes, it’s a pastiche, but the songs are more than solid, and Peck’s voice is nothing short of magical. He reaches into deep valleys and climbs tall peaks, and his voice never breaks in between. Rumour has it that this mysterious masked man has professional musical theatre experience, and it’s not hard to believe: he could elevate anyone’s songbook. It just so happens that he has one of his own, and it’s better than most. 

5. Brad Mehldau – Finding Gabriel
I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about this giant of modern jazz piano, other than that I’ve tried at various points in the last 20 years to find an entry point and been left cold. It wasn’t until David Bowie’s Blackstar led me to explore the work of drummer Mark Guiliana that I only recently discovered that musician’s 2014 duo record with Mehldau, Taming the Dragon. Finding Gabriel doesn’t sound like that or anything else I’ve since heard in Mehldau’s discography. Guiliana is on drums for most tracks, but Mehldau handles them himself (or programs drum machines) on others. There’s no credited bass player; the other instrumentalists are string and wind players, who are used texturally, not in any lead capacity. The rest is all Mehldau, with a choral group providing wordless melodies that are majestic and magical. It’s a modern take on cosmic jazz that is more spacious and spiritual than the likes of Flying Lotus. And on “The Prophet is a Fool,” it uses a father-child dialogue to grapple with current political divisions and He Who Shall Not Be Named. All of which makes this music a necessary balm in 2019—and beyond. 

6. Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned
I owe this discovery entirely to the Polaris Music Prize jury; before she landed on the shortlist, there was next to no press about her in English Canada. Fils-Aimé is a Haitian-Quebecois singer with roots in jazz, but whose work draws heavily from gospel, R&B, and ’90s neo-soul. Needless to say, she has a killer voice, and her backing band is top-notch, as are the vocal arrangements. (She sings in English, in case that’s important to you.) This is the second instalment in what is supposedly a trilogy paying homage to a century of African-American music, which sounds like a ridiculously broad concept until you hear what Fils-Aimé and her collaborators are able to bring to the table. This deserves a much broader audience beyond provincial borders or genre barriers. 

7. Tobi – Still
This is a phenomenal debut album that stands head and shoulders above its peers, in Toronto and elsewhere. Tobi is an astounding singer, though that’s hardly unusual; so is his fellow Torontonian Daniel Caesar or Grammy phenom H.E.R. What sets Tobi apart is the songwriting, lyricism and production on display here. Two years in the making, it’s melodically strong and with arrangements worthy of the Roots’ more adventurous material. He can call out consumerism and misogyny on one song and sing about drunk texting on the next, yet he’s never preachy nor puerile. He’s no mumblemouth rapper either, and his flow isn’t an afterthought when he takes a break from crooning. A Nigerian immigrant to Brampton via Ottawa, Tobi brings a wide range of influences into his take on modern R&B: string-drenched jazz textures, Nigerian pop, kindred spirits Sampha, Anderson.Paak, Kae Sun and more. Here’s hoping Tobi comes to define the next generation of “the Toronto sound,” whatever that is or will be.

8. Lil Andy – All the Love Songs Lied to Us
If Leonard Cohen made a country record, it would sound like this. It’s too bad he never did. The Montreal poet did start out, after all, as a member of the Buckskin Boys, long before he published a single stanza. Sixty years later, Andy McClelland walked the same streets as Cohen, near Parc du Portugal on Montreal’s Plateau, and started a career as a country singer. After the bard died, McClelland spearheaded a local all-star tribute, and contributed to an international art exhibit dedicated to Cohen. The title track here borrows a melody from Cohen (1984’s “Coming Back to You”) and has cynical, wry lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. The song is a triumph, and worth the price of the album alone (along with the beautiful cover art). But the rest of the album is just as strong. McClelland enlists some of Montreal’s finest players, including guitarist Joe Grass, pianist Patrick Watson and vocalists Ariel Engle (La Force) and Katie Moore. His instrumentation and his motifs may be traditional, but his lyrical voice is not. “Even the social housing sparkles at night,” he marvels. Elsewhere, “Things are thin and flatter now / there’s no good way to be / my life feels like some tinny, shitty, bitrate MP3.” This record, however, does not feel that way in the least. No matter what format you hear it on.

9. The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Shabaka Hutchings is the new namedrop for midlife music nerds. Uttering his name is like some secret password into a new world of jazz that appeals to aging rockers and ravers alike. The British saxophonist broke out of obscurity when his tuba-driven band Sons of Kemet was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize last year, and in 2019 he returned to one of his other projects, the psychedelic electronic trio the Comet is Coming. Their second album isn’t as entirely mind-blowing as their debut, but it’s still a monster of a record, digging deeper into dub grooves and getting heavier than Hutchings’s more frenetic excursions in Kemet. No matter what moniker appears on the front of one of his records, he exudes ecstasy (the state) and brings the most out of his bandmates, and vice versa. 

10. Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble – Where Future Unfolds
I’ve always needed music for therapy, but never more so than in the last three years (for obvious geopolitical reasons). In 2019, I needed to hear voices. So the sound of a Chicago choir singing secular gospel songs of solace and justice proved to be just what the shrink ordered. This debut album is a live recording of the debut gig by this 15-member ensemble, helmed by a sound collage artist who started out sampling civil rights speeches before he decided to put voice to new ones of his own. There are electronics and loops at play here, but the focus is on the jazzy rhythm section and the choir, who promise to “rebuild a nation.” Also present is Angel Bat Dawid on clarinets; she put out her own fine record on the consistently reliable International Anthem label. As the world falls apart, gospel and jazz are two of the only kinds of music that make any sense to me anymore. 

11. Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
When this record won the Polaris Music Prize in September, it became the first hip-hop record to win a major prize in Canada, and she became the first black woman to do the same. No disrespect to all those who came before (say the names: Salome Bey, Liberty Silver, Nana McLean, Michie Mee, Lillian Allen, Molly Johnson, Deborah Cox, Jully Black, Fefe Dobson, Divine Brown, Zaki Ibrahim, Cold Specks, Sate, Dominique Fils-Aime, and no doubt many more), but Mighty is the whole package: as a poet, a lyricist, a singer, and a rapper. She’s got party tracks, historical lectures, love songs, and everything in between. She’s never short of breadth. 

12. Digawolf – Yellowstone
This guy lives outside of Yellowknife and has a voice that sounds like the gravel road he likely lives on. But this is no rural folk record: this is a ballsy, modern blues record that leaps out of the speakers. On the first two tracks, anyway; the rest of the record alternates between that mode (“Digital Nomad”) and a heavily Lanois-influenced take on arty, atmospheric folk songs that sound like a million bucks. The only hint you get that Digawolf lives anywhere near the tree line is when he sings in Tlicho, his native tongue, or on “Northern Love Affair,” which, like the rest of the record, is in English. 

13. GRLwood – I Sold My Soul to the Devil When I Was 12
Two self-described “Kentucky-fried queerdoes” in their early 20s open their second record with the line, “Be nice to sad boys or get shot.” Jeeeeeeeesus. It’s delivered over a killer riff and frenetic drumming, and by the end of the song, Rej Forester is unleashing full-on death-metal screams. The rest of the album gets even better from there. GRLwood do righteous rage very well, but it’s far from their only card. They’re also very funny: “I Hate My Mom,” “I’m Having Sex Tonight,” “Gay 4 U.” Most important, they are musically monstrous: Karen Ledford’s drumming, Forester’s guitar work and unique voice, her almost operatic range filtered through a punk rock rasp and shockingly pitch-perfect screeching (see also: Karen O, Kathleen Hanna). Even more important: GRLwood understand the power of dynamics, and so their quieter moments are just as, if not more, effective than the outbursts, making their music so much more than just a full-on frontal assault. I’m sad to report that you’re likely reading about them here first; I’ve seen next to no press about them. That needs to change. I saw them open for Man Man, a show where 500 people instantly fell in love with these young women women. I suspect that reaction is hardly unusual wherever they go. 

14. Murray A. Lightburn – Hear Me Out
This Montreal songwriter has been leading the Dears for almost 25 years now, through ever-changing lineups, management teams, record labels and degrees of bombast. Odd then, that he may have made his best album when he strips almost everything bare and becomes a full-on crooner. More likely, it says more about my own musical taste than his evolution, but the notorious control freak has admitted that he loosened the reins considerably on this project, bringing in jazz players and engineer Howard Bilerman to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The result is part early Scott Walker, part Belle and Sebastian, part Keren Ann, and even a bit Gordon Lightfoot. It’s always been obvious what a spectacular singer Lightburn is, but it’s at the lower volumes here that he really shines. Also, age becomes him: this is a wise, thoroughly satisfying midlife record he might not have been able to make until now.

15. Geoff Berner – Grand Cosmopolis Hotel
Berner is the kind of artist whose interests and opinions threaten to overshadow his music; reading his liner notes are almost as entertaining as the songs they’re meant to accompany. But make no mistake: the man is a master, as plenty of material from his almost 20-year career will illustrate. Berner, who recently founded an ecosocialist political party in B.C. in his not-so-spare time, writes here about the perils of being a left-wing Jew resisting orthodoxy from all sides of the political spectrum (“Not the Jew I Had In Mind”), of ever-present anti-Semitism (“Would You Hide Me?”), of smug preppers (“Oh You Survivalists”) and of clearly obvious political solutions to the world’s ills (“Why Don’t We Just Take the Billionaires’ Money Away?”). Instead of punchlines, he offers gut-punchers; a Berner song is much more likely to invoke impending doom than to resort to a one-liner. He’s not a political comedian writing songs; he’s an ace songwriter who trades in satire. And he’s one of the best.

16. Ice Cream – Fed Up
As debut records by Peaches and Le Tigre celebrate 20th anniversaries, two Toronto women wielding electric guitars and electronics lead a new charge of political grooves over post-punk no-wave disco that manages to sound remarkably fresh (see also: L.A. band Automatic). Grooves as sticky as “Peanut Butter,” textures as delicious as “Banana Split.” Surprising classic-rock lead guitar on “Bun Roo” (surprising because of the genre, not the gender). But those are just the pop songs that act as gateway drugs off the top. The title track rides a slower tempo and darker electronic sounds, while Amanda Crist and Carlyn Bezic sing, “I’m not a shell for your fantasies … real power, no glossy sheen / queens of the void, queens of everything / I want to be free.” 

17. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance
“And now you’re gone / you’re gone as if there ever was a you / who held me dying and pulled me through / Who’s moving on? Who’s kidding who? This is the kind of release that could’ve been what every fan dreads: a icon’s final breaths put to music, in some cases by people he never met—especially when said icon was a total control freak, who often resisted collaborators’ attempts to make his music more interesting (see: Sharon Robinson, Ten New Songs). Thanks for the Dance, on the other hand, is handled with care and respect. Son Adam Cohen is in charge, and he wrangles the likes of Patrick Watson, Feist, Daniel Lanois, Richard Reed Parry, Beck and others to flesh out what are essentially recitations rather than melodies. None of those players is out to hog the spotlight; everything about this record screams humility, from the arrangements to Cohen’s closing line: “Listen to the hummingbird / don’t listen to me.”

18. Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness
“Like Sugar” was hands-down my favourite single of 2018, and the follow-up album didn’t disappoint. The R&B legend sounds as powerful as ever, with a modern sound from producers Switch (Major Lazer, Santigold, M.I.A.) and Sarah Ruba. These are rollerskate jams that Daft Punk dreams of making: killer bass lines, rich funk, and a goddess on the mic. “Don’t Cha Know” harkens back to the slinky grooves of her Rufus days. “Too Hot” is a torchy blues song that puts all new pretenders to shame. “Isn’t That Enough” is a sexy dub jam, and the title track is every bit the equal of “Like Sugar.” Hello happiness indeed: this record is an instant mood-changer.

19. Jamila Woods ­– Legacy! Legacy!
A 13-track song cycle dedicated to key figures in African-American cultural history, set to progressive, jazzy R&B: it sounds like a lot of work, but Woods makes it sound almost easy. “Don’t ever let a textbook scare you,” she notes on the song about Octavia Butler. The grooves are sumptuousness, the production rich, the playing impeccable, and Woods is a captivating vocalist. But listen closer, because she has a lot to say. Obviously—you can’t write a song dedicated to James Baldwin and take it lightly.

20. Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk
Maybe you don’t have to be a Canadian over the age of 40 to appreciate this band, but it helps. If the lineage of the Band, Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Daniel Lanois, Oh Susanna and Orville Peck means anything to you, then Tom Wilson’s project of the last 10 years fits in perfectly. The industry veteran keeps getting better with age, and this is his first album since his bestselling memoir, Beautiful Scars, in which he discovered his adoption story and his Mohawk heritage. Loping bass grooves (Anna Ruddick), extremely tasteful lead guitar (Aaron Goldstein) and harmonica work (Paul Reddick), and the wind instruments of Darcy Heppner all elevate what could be standard bluesy folk rock tunes. Wilson’s rich baritone is central, of course, but it’s the balance of all these elements in the hands of producer Michael Timmins that really ties it together. As always with this band, this record sounds even better while driving through the Canadian Shield.

Honorable mentions:

Begonia – Fear. Powerhouse vocalist from Winnipeg is poised to break out beyond all borders.

Black Flower – Future Flora. Belgian Ethiopian jazz groove band concoct psychedelic delight.

Theon Cross – Fyah. The only solo tuba jazz album to ever make one of my year-end lists—which makes sense only because Cross is an essential member of Sons of Kemet.

Fet.Nat – Le Mal. Pattonesque high fuckery from Hull, Quebec, which led to the best WTF moments of this year’s Polaris gala.

Kevin Hearn – Calm and Cents. Toronto’s MVP doesn’t get nearly enough love for his solo recordings, and this more meditative collection is one of his best. Featuring just the trio of Hearn, bassist Chris Gartner and violinist Hugh Marsh. (See also: Rheostatics’ comeback Here Come the Wolves, also featuring Hearn and Marsh.)

Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka. The worst thing I can say about this record is that it sounds like an extension of his 2016 breakthrough Love & Hate. Which was excellent. So is this.

Reginald Omas Mamode IV – Where We Going? While we waited for a new Kaytranada album (which finally arrived Dec. 13, after this list was made), there were these funky little numbers, partially recorded during a trip to discover family roots in the Mascarene Islands, off Madagascar. Mamode went “In Search of Balance” and found a lot of off-kilter, Madlibbian and Dilla-esque beats, gospel melodies, ’70s funk, and lots of jazzy licks.

Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima. In which one of the greatest rock’n’roll singers of the new century shifts gears and lends her voice to an interstellar psychedelic journey set to a Serge Gainsbourg backdrop.

Purple Mountains – s/t. I’m very late to the David Berman bandwagon—too late, obviously. I look forward to diving deeper before the publication of a Berman bio by one of my favourite writers, due in 2021.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Will Not Hold. Of all the influences to hijack a new S-K record, I did not expect late-’90s Depeche Mode to be the one. This was a necessary experiment that works more often than it doesn’t. But one has to ask: was it worth losing Janet Weiss?

Best 2018 records I heard in 2019:

Gaye Su Akyol – Istikrarli Hayal Hakikattir. This Turkish singer sounds like Googoosh for the modern era, with a bit of Bjork, bossa nova, surf rock, flamenco, analog synths and ’60s psych pop on top of all the usual elements you would expect from the eastern Mediterranean.

Altin Gun – On. Speaking of Turks, this Dutch band embraces the diaspora and filters Anatolian sounds through seriously funky grooves. They followed this up quickly with the fine 2019 album Gece, but start here.

Kikagaku Moyo – Masana Temples. This Japanese band plays German psychedelia with a sitar and a bit of bossa nova, like a weird mix of Stereolab, Black Mountain and Ananda Shankar. Of course it’s great.

Kim Richey – Edgeland. This Americana veteran has been around for 25 years, and keeps getting better. Or at least, that’s what I thought when this here newbie stumbled across this record and then started working my way backwards.

Rosalía – El Mal Querer. The Spanish superstar deserves all the success she found in 2019, but you probably know that by now. For a totally different side of her, check out her understated, acoustic 2017 debut, Los Ángeles.