As a new dad, it's shocking that I got to see as much as I did at the embarrassment of riches that was this year's NXNE, but apologies nonetheless to the approximately 400 bands that I manage to ignore in the following reviews.
Belle Phoenix, Allie Hughes
Both these women are great performers with great voices and a taste for the theatrical. One had me spellbound. The other left me thinking about more compelling matters, like how maybe I should go back home and do the dishes before going out to another show. (Which I actually did.)
Belle Phoenix is a British performer with a page-boy haircut, a muscular band, bluesy riffs and mildly goth-y approach (“I’m dead inside!” “The devil’s son!” are two choruses). She knows how to work a stage, but it all seemed too contrived, starting with the removal of one piece of clothing during each of the first three songs. Or maybe it works better when there are more than 30 people in the room—this was a thankless 9 p.m. slot in a large room.
Allie Hughes is entirely contrived and proud of it. There is no pretense of a “normal” performance here. Her set was structured like a short play, complete with entrance, supporting characters, and the death of her entire band by the end. What that play is about is anyone’s guess; Hughes’s between-song banter was in German. With the ladies of Rouge on backing vocals and a powerful duet with an unnamed male guest, every time Hughes shared the spotlight it somehow made her star shine brighter. Her operatic vocals (she occasionally sings backup with Austra) go for the gold every time, though always in service of the song, not to show off for some imaginary Idol-esque judges. The showstopper is “Why You Wanna Break My Heart,” which is part ’80s heavy metal ballad and part Broadway; Hughes doesn’t blink at the ridiculousness of it all, for if there was even a hint of a wink she’d be insufferable. Allie Hughes walks a fine line—and she walks it very, very well.
Playing all-new, unfamiliar material rarely grants the rapturous response received by Handsome Furs on the closing night of NXNE, in this venue a third of the size the Montreal duo normally play in this town. It didn’t even matter that said material doesn’t pack the same punch as their near-perfect 2009 album Face Control; Toronto was in love with every move by married couple Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry, who ditched any rock star mystique by appearing thoroughly humbled. Even though the new album, Sound Kapital, is performed entirely on synths, Boeckner still played plenty of guitar, which, along with the energy in the room, brought the material to life. Closing track “Cheap Music” is Sound Kapital’s surefire anthem, if not Handsome Furs’ new theme song: few duos extract so much sound and fury from so little.
This Toronto band was so bloodless, I wondered if I had to be British to enjoy it. This is the kind of rock band that doesn’t rock, that hints at psychedelia but sounds hopelessly straight-edge, that appears to be singing but is really just opening their mouths. Which is a shame, as the guitarist has some solid Edge-ish lead lines and the bassist provides nice colour; the stand-in drummer (their regular drummer went camping this weekend, apparently) did an admirable job. All that didn’t direct them anywhere but dullsville.
Despite the ascendancy of Diamond Rings, the alter ego of Matters frontman John O’Regan, his long-running rock band remains one of the most underrated acts in the country. When they were still called the D’Urbervilles (a name they retired earlier this year), they released We Are the Hunters, a pitch-perfect, if slightly unlikely, marriage of Spoon, Joy Division and AC/DC. (The name was changed to the rather bland Matters because most people have no idea who Thomas Hardy is or how to pronounce one of his best-known book titles.) Little has changed under the new name: the songs are as memorable as anything on the incredibly catchy Diamond Rings album, although less so for their melodies than for the powerful chemistry these four young men have. There are no lead instruments, just one big rhythm section—even O’Regan’s voice, with its clipped staccato, helps reinforce the rubbery rhythms. Who knows what was going through O’Regan’s mind, playing for just over 100 people in the basement of the Drake Hotel mere hours after playing solo before thousands in Yonge-Dundas Square as Diamond Rings, but he didn’t look anywhere near disappointed. Why would he? These are the boys he grew up playing music with, these are the men who are his support system, this isn’t about dress-up, this is just visceral rock’n’roll—this feels great.
This Toronto trio could easily kick the ass of every other band playing the festival—musically AND physically. Teeming with testosterone, Schomberg Fair play punk/gospel/bluegrass at either speed-metal tempos or half-time heaviosity worthy of Black Sabbath. Whether it’s a barn-burning original or a traditional like “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” they grab every song by the throat. The guitarist/banjo player has serious chops to spare, but it’s the bassist—he of the bullfrog baritone, the Paul Simonon stance and the surprisingly tasteful use of a wah-pedal—who glues everything together, while the drummer brings the thunder. I’d fallen hard for their 2009 album Gospel but for whatever reason had never seen them until now. What on Earth was I waiting for? If there’s a better young rock’n’roll band in Toronto, I don’t know who it is.