Thursday, June 28, 2007

June review round-up 07

It's the long weekend with plenty of live action in Toronto, including two great shows around the corner from each other tonight at the Tranzac and Lee's Palace.

The Tranzac is holding a fundraiser to improve the venue's soundproofing--it currently shares a wall with its residential neighbour, which puts the kaibosh on late night activities. On the bill are Bruce Peninsula (which you might remember from this) and two all-star soul cover bands: Steel Door and Secret Recipe, the latter featuring the knockout vocals of Anne Rust d'Eye from Jon Rae's River, along with other Riverdwellers and local lights.

If for whatever reason that kind of community event isn't your thing, then I'd highly recommend the Brooklyn/Boston pop band Bishop Allen at Lee's, whose brilliant new album The Broken String (out in July) is highly recommended for anyone who spent 1996 listening to Wilco's Being There and the first Ben Folds Five album. Amazing songs and great production; hopefully they can do it live as well.

Some things that ran in Eye this month that I've neglected to mention:

This interview with We're Marching On, the gentlemen who organized the Track and Field festival. I'll post this transcript sometime in the future. In the meantime, they're playing the Tiger Bar in Toronto on Friday, June 29.

This CD review of The Ghost is Dancing, who are playing a release show on Friday, June 29 at the Drake Hotel in Toronto. Western Canadian dates in July.

This CD review of the new disc from Raising the Fawn, the main band of occasional Broken Social Scenester John Crossingham. It's the first thing I've liked from this band since their 2001 debut, which I wrote about here. Their CD release show is not until August 2 at the Rivoli.

And finally, one of my favourite new discs from the always-fertile Black Mountain posse, which is by Lightning Dust, the duo of Amber Webber and Josh Wells.
[Speaking of that crew, I'm currently reading Blood Meridian and can't say I'm getting much out of it at all other than colourful writing about desert sunsets and unspeakable gore. What am I missing?]

Here are some reviews written for the mainstream daily paper the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.
For scrolling ease, the order of appearance is: Mavis Staples, Patrick Wolf, Antibalas, Keren Ann, Rihanna, Cowboy Troy, Big & Rich, Betty Davis, Miracle Fortress, Metric, Abdominal.

Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti/Epitaph)

How quaint—an album of civil rights anthems. Isn’t segregation, like, so ’60s?

Not exactly. When the idea was first pitched to gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples, she thought these songs belonged in the past. After all, as part of the Staples Singers family, she had sung many of these songs countless times back when black children still needed armed guards to escort them into white schools. But as Katrina illustrated, double standards still abound, which is as good enough a reason as any to breathe new life into them.

With the help of guitarist/producer Ry Cooder, Staples sounds downright fiery on standards such as "Eyes on the Prize" (also covered by Springsteen recently), "On My Way" and "Down in Mississippi." These aren’t rendered as feel-good inspirationals, either; they’re recorded with a powerful sense of conviction and urgency. Cooder finds the funk in each one of them, while Staples is still as commanding as ever, her luxurious voice investing every line with divine grace.

That gift comes in handy during the four and a half minutes of "We Shall Not Be Moved," which might be fine at a rally, but it seems like an eternity here. And some tracks feature Staples giving a roll call of civil rights leaders, which threaten to make the whole album seem like civics lessons with grandma.

But as much as this is intentionally a living museum piece, Staples is still connected to the present day, where there’s still much work to be done. On the album’s finest, funkiest and most ferocious track, she tells us frankly: “Ninety-nine and a half just won’t do.” (June 7, 2007) Staples plays the Toronto Jazz Festival at Nathan Phillips Square this Sunday, July 1, with the Rebirth Brass Band.

Patrick Wolf – The Magic Position (Universal)

It’s like the last two decades never happened. Patrick Wolf was born in 1983, and if an artist gets their formative influences from childhood, it sounds like his parents stopped buying records the day his mom gave birth.

Wolf is a dandy drama queen drawn to lush, romantic pop, with ridiculously colourful fashion and devoid of doubt as to his own greatness. He’s the kind of eccentric pop star that decades of irony and cookie cutter corporatism have sought to erode, which is why The Magic Position sounds like such an artifact.

It would be embarrassing if Wolf wasn’t actually as good as he thinks he is. But he not only writes captivating cabaret melodies, but plays most of the instruments, including viola, ukeleles, and a cavalcade of keyboards with sufficient virtuosity. As a singer, he adopts a shameless swagger; his vocals send you scrambling to your New Romantic reference book to look up everyone from Martin Fry of ABC to Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Meanwhile, he even convinces Marianne Faithfull to sing a duet with him.

There more than enough moments here that reek of self-conscious affectation, but the songs manage to rise above all of that. Lucky for him, lucky for us. (June 7, 2007)

Antibalas – Security (Anti/Epitaph)

What started out as a tribute band to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has evolved to incorporate a wealth of other influences, with the focus remaining on the tightly wound grooves and the punchy horn section. Security is the fourth full-length for Antibalas, and easily the most well-rounded and rewarding.

Producer John McEntire strikes a fine balance between the vintage sound of Antibalas’s forefathers, and a crisp digital sound more akin to his own work in Tortoise. The five-piece horn section takes centre stage here, offering majestic melodies and funky fanfares for the rhythm section to dance around. As always, heavily charged politics play a part in the fleeting vocal moments, but they never distract from the party vibe.

Though Afrobeat is still the dominant influence, most of the grooves here have more in common with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters—a high water mark in futuristic jazz funk that only a band like Antibalas could hope to surpass. (June 7, 2007) Antibalas play the Opera House in Toronto on Friday, June 29.

Keren Ann – s/t (EMI)

No wonder Keren Ann’s music sounds like a disembodied dreamstate. Born to Russian/Javanese/Israeli/Dutch parents, she was raised in Paris and relocated to New York City to record her 2005 masterstroke, Nolita. This time out, she records on three continents as well as in Iceland.

When she actually does sit still to record music, she has a sleepy, calming croon that invites you to “lay your head down in my arms,” and invites easy comparisons to Mazzy Starr and Suzanne Vega.

But don’t get too comfortable. Just as Nolita was adorned with sinister synths and eerie trumpet lines, this self-titled album has an unsettling undercurrent to it. Lyrically, there are many details of how her heart “died a slow weary death,” likely at the hands of a troubled artist. Underneath, a Lou Reed-ish electric guitar chugs alongside the deceptively delicate Euro folk-pop shadings; at the album’s halfway point, on "It Ain’t No Crime," the electric guitar suddenly breaks free from lullaby land into a skronky blues solo to jolt the unsuspecting listener awake.

While she still loves her synths to add textures to the cocktail piano and acoustic guitar base of much of this material, this time she also employs an Icelandic choir to add otherworldly harmonies when they’re least expected. Most of the time they’re barely recognizable, though they do come to the forefront on "Liberty," where their angelic qualities are on full display.

It’s these elements that set Keren Ann far apart from Norah Jones or even Feist, even though she likely has the same appeal for latte listeners. Don’t let the stark black and white album cover, simple title or surface beauty fool you: this is a multi-layered, dense delight. (June 14, 2007) [My live review of Keren Ann's show at the Rivoli is here.]

Rihanna – Good Girl Gone Bad (DefJam/Universal)

Barbadian singer Rihanna is barely 19 years old and this is her third album in three years—and the cracks are starting to show. “I don’t know who wants to be my friend for who I really am,” she intones on the confessional "Question Existing." “Who am I living for? Is this my limit? Can I endure some more?”

That awkward teenage moment aside, Rihanna comes out swinging on the first half of the album, with raunchy guitars on "Shut Up and Drive," a disco throwdown on "Don’t Stop the Music," and the vivid imagery when she sings: “I’m breakin’ dishes up in here all night/ I ain’t stoppin’ ‘til I see police lights.”

Even though her vocals put most of her moppet peers to shame, she might be understandably insecure that hired heavyweights like Timbaland, Jay-Z, Ne-Yo and Justin Timberlake threaten to steal the spotlight. Some of these older men have fond memories of the 80s, which is why there are subtle sampling nods to Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, New Order and Art of Noise—all of whom were in their prime before Rihanna was even born. But the end result is that Good Girl Gone Bad manages to merge the best of 80s pop with modern R&B, not unlike Nelly Furtado (who can no doubt relate to the title).

Furtado’s hitmaker Timbaland shows up on three tracks, though it’s telling that these aren’t even the strongest moments here. He pulls out a New Orleans marching band on "Lemme Get That," but the song "Rehab" not only pales in comparison to Amy Winehouse’s song of the same name, but co-writer Justin Timberlake shamelessly rips off his own "What Goes Around."

Otherwise, Rihanna sounds like she has the summer hits sewn up. And if it does well enough, maybe she can even afford to take a year off. (June 14, 2007)

Cowboy Troy – Black in the Saddle (Warner)

His hick-hop 2005 debut album Loco Motive qualified for comedy album of the year, but Cowboy Troy is ready to be taken seriously—by going metal.

That’s right, if his main influences Garth Brooks and Run DMC already seemed like an odd combination, Cowboy Troy invites metal band Avenged Sevenfold to guest on the opening track, while the rest of Black in the Saddle features crunching guitars to add to the cartoonish genre mashing that he likes to call "Blackneck Boogie."

Producer J. Money (aka John Rich of Big & Rich) returns to sing smooth choruses and make sure tracks like "Hick Chicks" get the slick new country sound they deserve, always making room for a pedal steel and fiddle alongside the drum machines and stadium rock flourishes.

The Nashville Star co-host himself raps about Rambo and Sambo, sneaks in references to the Trail of Tears, and talks about how “People I’ve never met wanna take me body surfing behind a pick-up.” He knows that as only the second black artist ever invited to perform at the Country Music Association Awards, he’s always going to be the odd man out in Nashville, hence songs like "Take Your Best Shot Now," "Paranoid Like Me" and "How Can You Hate Me?"

And really, how can you hate Cowboy Troy? The more ridiculous he gets—and much of this album is nothing if not ridiculous—it’s hard not to admire the guy for his gumption. And hell, if the trashy freak show that is Kid Rock is allowed to get away with this, so should Cowboy Troy, who is just so gosh darn wholesome. (June 21, 2007)

Big & Rich – Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace (Warner)

Cowboy Troy’s mentors Big & Rich are also looking to be taken a bit more seriously, ever since their single "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" pegged them as a novelty act.

Sadly, there’s no fun to be had on this album at all, as much of this mid-tempo material drips with saccharine platitudes that sound like they were written in rehab, including the title track.
Gimmicky guests don’t help matters. Wyclef Jean proves once again to be the most embarrassing man in hip-hop with his cameo on "Please Man," while R&B singer John Legend is invisible on "Eternity."

Finally, if Big & Rich can’t even pull off a countrified cover of AC/DC’s "You Shook Me All Night Long," one has to wonder if they’ll still be able to maintain their credibility as producers on other people’s records. (June 21, 2007)

Betty Davis – s/t (Light in the Attic/Koch)

Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different (Light in the Attic/Koch)

In the early 70s, Betty Davis was a snarling, sly and sexually brazen soul queen who specialized in raw and nasty funk, driven by electric guitars and clavinets that rode one-chord vamps that gave Davis plenty of room to strut.

On her first solo album in 1973, Davis had members of Sly and the Family Stone (including bassist Larry Graham) and Santana, and backing vocals from the Pointer Sisters and Sylvester. Hearing her slink her way through the caustic "Anti Love Song"—possibly written about abusive ex-husband Miles Davis—is to witness one of the most captivating vocal performances in the history of soul music.

She produced the follow-up herself, They Say I’m Different, where her funky vision comes into clearer focus. Though, really, nothing prepares you for the sound of her screaming, “He was a big frrrreak! I used to whip him with a turquoise chain!”

Both albums come with fascinating liner notes by Oliver Wang that document Davis’s mysterious life. But ultimately, the real story comes alive when you crank the volume and realize that this makes Amy Winehouse sound like Sarah McLachlan. (June 21, 2007)

Miracle Fortress – Five Roses (Secret City/Fusion 3)

The lazy, hazy days of summer are upon us, the ones where the heat leads to hallucination, the heart skips a beat at the sight of skin and sunglasses, and some days it’s hard to be motivated to do anything but drive out of town, lie in the grass and stare at the sky.

It’s the time of Brian Eno’s “blue August moon” and Brian Wilson’s “endless summer,” and a time that Montreal’s Miracle Fortress knows well, combining the best of both Brians to create a summery sonic landscape where guitars and synths melt into one another to create indeterminate textures, basslines sound like they’ve been borrowed from soul classics, layered vocal harmonies sing sweet melodies, and various sunbaked sounds conjure images of lapping waves and crying birds.

Indeed, it’s a miracle that this all works together, but Five Roses announces mainman Graham Van Pelt as a wildly creative producer and songwriter, one with a distinctive aesthetic that should sound just as sweet no matter what season in which it finds you. (June 28, 2007)

Metric – Grow Up and Blow Away (Last Gang/Universal)

Eventually Metric would grow up and blow everyone away, but this previously unreleased 1999 debut album clearly denotes baby steps. Here they toy with trip-hop synths and textures, sounding more like a pretentious version of Sneaker Pimps than the trashy new wave rock band they’d evolve into. Some fans might appreciate the chilled out middle ground between vocalist Emily Haines’s brooding solo work and the frantic sound of current Metric, but mostly this sounds dated and very much like a work in progress, made by a Toronto band trying hard to fit into the London/ New York/ L.A. axis (it was made in all three cities). In Haines’s own words, “You are everything/ you are nothing at all.” (June 28, 2007)

Abdominal – Escape From the Pigeon Hole (Do Right/Outside)

Why is it that the finest old school hip-hop is usually accompanied by a hokier-than-thou MC? Abdominal employs some fine beatmasters, including Jurassic 5’s Cut Chemist, the UK’s DJ Format and his fellow Torontonians in Circle Research, Notes to Self and DJ Fase, all of whom mine vintage soul tracks to create a funky backdrop for his nerdcore musings.

At times, it works brilliantly, as on the the bicyclist anthem "Pedal Pusher," the ultimate Toronto shout-out "T.Ode" and the breakneck breath-deficient "Abdominal Workout" and "Breathe Later," where the motormouth MC comes out swinging at rappers who can’t cut it live.

But more often than not, Abdominal sounds downright juvenile, like when he tries to drop as many f-bombs as possible in "Radio Friendly," or when writing horribly dorky sex rhymes like "Open Relationship" or the ridiculous "Sex With Girls."

Despite the skills of everyone involved, it’s tracks like these that leave a bad taste in the mouth. Unlike his equally nerdy Toronto neighbour and old school aficionado More or Les, Abdominal might pack more rhymes into each verse, but he doesn’t have enough to sustain a whole album. (June 28, 2007)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fiery Furnaces 2006

The Fiery Furnaces recently announced that they signed to Thrill Jockey records and a new album is expected in the fall. They're currently on tour and play the Horseshoe in Toronto on Monday, June 25.

Because they burst out of the gate with five full-length albums in three years (one of which was billed as an EP but clocked in at 45 minutes), it seems like an eternity when one ponders the fact that their latest, Bitter Tea, came out a whopping 14 months ago, followed promptly by a bewildering 2CD solo record by main songwriter Matthew Friedberger--which even this big fan found unlistenable.

Bitter Tea was in many ways their prettiest album, especially on the heels of Rehearsing My Choir, a concept album narrated by their grandmother that alienated most of the critical goodwill they had fostered with the brilliant yet divisive 2004 album Blueberry Boat.

The fact that Bitter Tea went largely unnoticed must have been a signal to the band that they needed to slow down if their audience was ever going to catch up. Much to Matthew Friedberger's chagrin, today's listeners don't have the insatiable appetite that fans of his heroes The Who and The Beatles had in the 60s, when they'd put out at least two albums a year.

And after all, few people fall in love with a Fiery Furnaces album right away. Myself, I had loathed the band (even after seeing them live in the fall of 2003) until a fortuitous Damascene moment with Blueberry Boat several months after it came out (facilitated in part by Spitzer's championing, as well as Patti Schmidt's).

I interviewed Matthew for Exclaim when Bitter Tea came out, for a short piece here. I later used different parts of the interview for an article in Eye Weekly here. He tries to explain the connections and threads between the albums, often admitting that there really isn't any. He has amusing ideas of what "proper music" is. He's also very aware of how insular the band can sound to people who might have better things to do--whatever those might be.

Matthew Friedberger
May 10, 2006
locale: cell phone interview while he walked on a beach in Brighton, UK

I understand that you’re not playing any keyboards on this tour.

Yep. No keyboards until the fall.

Why is that and what happens in the fall?

In the fall maybe I’ll play keyboards and no guitar. The last two records have been all pianos and keyboards. The best way to make them fun for everyone was to play them on guitar. It will be fun for me and fun for Eleanor and, hopefully, fun for the people who have to listen to us.

Is anyone else in the band playing them?

Oh, no. No keyboards!

So it’s a total rock show!

Yeah, yeah, that’s the idea.

This record was made so long ago that it doesn’t feature your current touring line-up, is that correct?

Yeah. On Bitter Tea a fella named Andy Knowles plays a bunch of drum kit stuff, but now we’re playing with Bob D'Amico and Jason Lowenstein [of Sebadoh] who plays the bass. They’re not on the record.

Will they be on a future record? Where are you in the backlog of recording and releasing?

If we record in New York, we’d like to have them play. We have a record half done. We record in August, so I don’t know if we’ll finish that record or start a new one, and use the half-done one for scraps.

This is the softest and the sweetest I’ve known the band to be. Not that previous records are abrasive, but the last one was a bit jarring with tempo shifts and instrumentation shifts in the middle of the song. This one is really quite lovely, even Eleanor’s singing is much softer than her delivery on other records.

She was supposed to sound more understated and impassive. Obviously lots of the sounds are ugly and are meant to be ugly in a pretty way. All the tack piano sounds are meant to be harsh but in a familiar way, so you don’t notice that they’re harsh, piercing sounds, because you recognize them for being little tack piano sounds. It’s meant to be a more lyrical record, as opposed to Rehearsing My Choir, which was more prose-y and not meant to sing along to. Some of these songs are supposed to have choruses.

There weren’t that many on the last record.


Also, lyrically, Blueberry Boat relied heavily on rhyming couplets. At some points I found it really distracting, but someone else [Patti Schmidt] pointed out to me that they act as signposts amidst all the other crazy things going on. There’s a very specific meter there, whereas the new songs don’t use as many couplets. Is that a natural growth or is it conscious?

No, that’s it exactly. Whoever said that to you, that was the idea. The lyrics on Blueberry Boat had to rhyme to be the genre element of the songs, which were going to be obviously all over the place musically. On these songs, a lot of the lyrics that don’t rhyme are very simple. They don’t need to rhyme to make them acceptable as rock lyrics, make them genre-appropriate. The music is much more repetitive on Bitter Tea. Even when it changes, it’s an obvious variation on something before. “Borneo” has lots of pretend-Broadway rhyming.

I’ve read that this was supposed to be a companion piece of sorts to Rehearsing My Choir…

It was supposed to come in the same package, and Bitter Tea was supposed to be the first record. The (closing) song “Whistle Rhapsody” was supposed to be the connecting song. Bitter Tea—as far as I know—is pretty much first person stuff, and then the last song is second, third person. Then it was going to go into the older woman’s proper story on Rehearsing My Choir. That’s how they were intended, even though Rehearsing My Choir was done first.

With the exception of the song you just mentioned, I didn’t see many lyrical connections.

It’s supposed to be the other side of the coin, not the continuing-story-of or the prequel or the sequel. There’s no narrative link between the two records, definitely not.

That’s good, I was worried that I was missing it!

No. Bitter Tea—there is some thing where it was supposed to be a young girl writing songs as opposed to an old woman telling stories. That’s the way the records were meant to be related—or not related!

Rehearsing My Choir wasn’t an at-home listening record to me; I listened to it the most in my car, when I could devote attention to it on a long drive and absorb the whole thing. It functioned more of a radio play as sorts. There are moments on Bitter Tea and Blueberry Boat that work that way as well. Does radio drama have any appeal to you? I’ve heard you talk about programme music before.

I think radio drama stuff is fun. There are different ways you can tell stories besides a proper ballad. If you’re going to tell stories on a record that aren’t proper ballads, presumably a lot of it will sound like a radio play or remind people of that. If you don’t have the car driving by, you’ll have something that will maybe suggest the car driving by. Maybe it’s the opposite of the car driving by! Once you start to talk at all, it’s going to remind you of [radio plays]. I don’t know what to say about that necessarily.

For Rehearsing My Choir, it was such an insular record, I just thought in terms of how it was going to be. I didn’t think in terms of how people were going to convince themselves that they weren’t wasting their time listening to it. Do you know what I’m saying?

That’s a challenge with all music, really.

Yeah, it’s always a challenge. Because there are a lot of other things that maybe you should be doing. For me I didn’t think of it as a radio play at all. I thought of it as a record that my grandmother’s going to be talking on. Anything one would say after the fact would just be… after the fact. You can make a record easily for $6000. How much does it cost to make a movie or a TV show? You can write a story for even cheaper, but rock records—people like ‘em and buy lots of ‘em. What’s supposed to be a difficult rock record can sell many thousands of copies. What’s supposed to be a difficult book will sell much less.

People get dropped for selling 10,000 records, but if you sell 10,000 books, that’s a best seller.

Maybe rock records are a good form to tell stories because you can do it in more idiosyncratic ways than you can with visuals. A lot of people should be interested in trying to tell stories with just audio recordings. You can do that on rock records with proper rock music, or between things like on Rehearsing My Choir. That’s not proper rock music—I mean, I think of it as proper rock music, but I understand when other people say it’s not.

But all that’s after the fact. I thought my grandmother’s voice would be striking on a record. All the decisions past that—like she’s going to talk but not sing, or it’s going to be not songs but this kind of little anecdotizing—they were made as a consequence of figuring out how best to use her presence on a rock record.

Have you thought about doing that without lyrics, just an instrumental audio tale?

Oh, well, you mean music? (laughs) No, I have not for myself. On Bitter Tea and Rehearsing My Choir there are a lot of cheap and amusing ways that the music continues the story. On Blueberry Boat there’s a lot of that too. I have these two solo records coming out, and one of them is a story record with lots and lots of music telling the story.

But I wouldn’t want to just have the music, because my understanding of instrumental rock music should be a visceral kind of experience, otherwise it’s not proper rock music. That’s how I think of it, like instrumental metal bands, or bands like the Shadows.

I had read that the second disc of your solo record will be more electronic and experimental.

It’s not electronic—it’s all played stuff. There’s lots and lots of things where there are three (lyrical) lines, and then the music goes on for three minutes, and it’s meant to show what’s happening. It’s meant to be the equivalent of the visuals. There’s a lot of that. But it’s definitely not ‘music’ (laughs)—proper music. It’s a rock record that tells a story, and here’s a part where the music is illustrating the story.

The obvious question with this record is about all the backwards voices and instruments on this record—it’s everywhere!

That was an idea we had on the principle of the thing, that backwards instruments and especially backwards voices, are beautiful, proper, normal rock sounds, and they should be as prevalent on a record as electric guitar. But voices especially sound so nice backwards. It’s such a physical thing. If you see a film of someone moving backwards, it’s fun but it’s not as physical as hearing a voice backwards. It’s a real pleasure. You hear time running back when someone talks backwards.

Anyway, so we thought—or rather, I thought and Eleanor agreed—that as a matter of principle, no matter what people think of what we’re doing, to have backwards things on the record. It gives it a pulpy gloominess. We wanted the record to have this morbid thing, but not in a goth-y or Black Sabbath heavy metal way. Backwards vocals were an obvious way to do that.

Is there a lyrical intent?

There is an excuse in individual songs as to why it’s backwards. In “Blackheart Boy” she’s in a bad situation and the backwards voice is her having a little daydream, and the singing is much smoother so presumably it’s a happy daydream, until she wakes up into the annoying synth and having to sing the situation she’s in.

In the beginning of the “Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” it sounds like you’re singing about someone named Sidney Falson.

That’s the fun about backwards vocals, is you can make up what it says and see what it sounds like.

It could all be about Satan for all we know.

That song is overly despairing, and is therefore devilish in that way. That’s a song that is Satanic in that it gives up to despair.

Speaking of that song and Satan, I was researching this morning and found one guy [] who took the trouble of researching all the proper nouns on Bitter Tea. All the street addresses and everything else. [found here; not sure why the original post is gone.]

Someone did that? Wow.

He says that all the street addresses are in L.A., that they’re “non-profit faith-based centres.”

Well, they’re churches—that’s usually the proper term for them! (laughs) Obviously the Vietnamese Telephone Ministry itself is not a church. I hope people don’t call the number, because it is the wrong number.

Apparently an elderly Spanish-speaking woman picks up the phone.

Yeah, I hope people don’t bother her. It was serendipitous that I wrote it down wrong. It’s better that it’s wrong because there will be no help on the other end of the line.

What about this poor woman? You knew this would happen.

I didn’t think people would call, actually. I guess that was stupid of me.

People are still calling 867-5309!

Well, that was a hit record that was much bigger than this album will be.

I was reading some fan sites, and some people were musing that this might be the final Fiery Furnaces record.

Oh no, no, not at all. We didn’t make a record in the winter because Bitter Tea hadn’t come out, and we didn’t want to have another year-long wait between records coming out. I don’t know if we will or not, but we could have a record coming out in January. We might wait and record properly in the winter, for a variety of reasons. And I recorded a solo record because I felt that I need to keep my credentials as a songwriter, and I knew Fiery Furnaces weren’t going to make a record then. I had a vacation and figured I’d better do something.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Polaris, preliminary

Critics across the country are busy assembling their ballots for the second Polaris Prize, which are due this Friday, June 22. The shortlist will be announced on July 10; the award will be given out on September 24, chosen by a jury of 10 that same night.

Last year, you may recall, Final Fantasy scored a so-called “upset” win over Broken Social Scene, Metric, New Pornographers, Wolf Parade, Sarah Harmer, and fellow underdogs Deadly Snakes, Malajube, Cadence Weapon and K’naan.

In preparing my own ballot this year, I easily came up with a shortlist of 20. I was somewhat surprised by the number of roots-related releases on my ballot; while Canada has always excelled in this genre, my own love for this music has waned in recent years—which means that the artists I love in this genre all surprised me with either the depth of their songwriting or slight twists on anticipated arrangements.

Sadly, I’m not surprised by the lack of hip-hop and electronic music on my own ballot. Much more often than not, my own love for those artists doesn’t extend to an entire album—and the whole point of Polaris is to reward the complete album as a listening experience: not scene politics, not the live show, not commercial status.

I do fear, however, that many critics in the pool will feel the same way, and that this year’s final list will be entirely devoid of anything outside the loose parameters of pop and rock. There are myriad reasons for this, among them the fact that this is what dominates the musical taste of editors and writers in this country (I can count on one hand the number of Canadian writers I trust to write about hip-hop), and by extension the publicity machines. The only Canadian hip-hop most critics hear is the stuff that shows up in their mailbox unsolicited, and I’m as guilty as anyone else.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I have no idea why I hadn't found this excellent Canadian hip-hop site before, but it looks like a great read.

Without a major label hip-hop contender other than K-OS (whose reviews were decidedly mixed on his last album) and Brassmunk (again, mixed reviews), will we see No Luck Club, Omnikrom, Ghettosocks, Politiclive, Birdapres, Marco Polo or Isis in the final Polaris Top 10? Highly unlikely. None of them, except maybe No Luck Club, physically got to as many Canadian critics as Cadence Weapon did last year. I’d argue that credit for his Polaris nod last year was due as much to Upper Class Recording’s mailing list as the album itself.

I’d be equally shocked if a single electronic release squeaks in there. Ditto for anything that could be termed world music, jazz, or roots music that doesn’t have a foot in the indie rock world. I think we should all be paying more attention to David Dacks.

Again, however, I live in a glass house, as my shortlist of 20 will demonstrate.

Unlike Mr. Zoilus and Mr. Chromewaves, I don’t feel like announcing my final choices, but here’s the list I was working with. Five of these made my ballot. Some were disqualified for reasons of length (albums must be either eight tracks or over half an hour), citizenship, or previously released material.

Acorn – Tin Fist EP (Paper Bag). Review here.

Apostle of Hustle – National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts). Reviewed here and here.

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge). Reviewed here. Transcripts here, here and here.

Awkward Stage – Heaven Is For Easy Girls (Mint). Article here. Full interview here.

Blood Meridian – Kick Up the Dust (Outside). Review here. Article here. Full interview here.

Mark Davis – Don’t You Think We Should Be Closer? (Saved By Radio). Reviewed here.

Angela Desveaux – Wandering Eyes (Thrill Jockey). Review here. Article here.

Julie Doiron – Woke Myself Up (Endearing). Interview here.

Feuermusik – Goodbye, Lucille (independent). Will saxophone and buckets be this year’s looped violin? A very dark horse that just might rally enough support from Toronto critics to squeak on the list.

Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk). Interview here.

Hylozoists – La Fin du Monde (Boompa).

Greg Keelor – Aphrodite Rose (Warner). Review here. (scroll way down)

Miracle Fortress – Five Roses (Secret City). A very late entry, but entirely captivating, dreamy pop that sounds like Caribou with better melodic smarts. Review forthcoming.

Phonemes – There’s Something We’ve Been Meaning To Do (Blocks Recording Club). Years in the works and well worth the wait. Though because it snuck out last month with zero promotional muscle, very few critics even know it exists.

Secret Mommy – Plays (Ache). Not sure it’s his best work, but Andy Dixon is certainly this country’s most playful electronic innovator.

Amon Tobin – Foley Room (Ninja Tune). Review here. Article here. Full interview here.

Various – Friends in Bellwoods (Out of This Spark). Interview here.

Various – Jamaica to Toronto (Light in the Attic). Gushing review of live show here.

Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars (Geffen). Interview in the new issue of Magnet.

You Say Party! We Say Die! – Lose All Time (Paper Bag). Review here. (scroll way down)

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict what the shortlist will be. Votes have yet to be even counted, so to be absolutely clear, this is entirely conjecture on my part, based on big hunches about what will be a middle-of-the-road critical consensus.

Apostle of Hustle – National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts)
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
Jim Bryson – Where the Bungalows Roam (Kelp)
Julie Doiron – Woke Myself Up (Endearing)
Feist – The Reminder (Arts and Crafts)
Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk)
Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (Domino)
Joel Plaskett – Ashtray Rock (Maple)
Shout Out Out Out – Not Saying Just Saying (Normals Welcome)
Sloan – Never Hear the End of It (Murder)

Trainspotters, take note: this would mean four from Toronto, two from other Ontario cities (Ottawa and Hamilton), three with strong ties to the East Coast (as opposed to none last year), none from Vancouver, one from Edmonton, two female solo artists, two pop acts that use mostly electronics but are still decidedly rockist, two albums that debuted in the top three of Soundscan, two acts signed directly to international deals. No hip-hop or francophones this year.

But I look forward to being pleasantly surprised on July 10.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Handsome Ned

Handsome Ned is the man that many consider the single reason that Toronto punk rockers discovered country music. Never mind the Mekons, Rank and File or johnny-come-latelies Uncle Tupelo: Canadians have always excelled at giving country music a contemporary context. And on Queen Street in the early 80s, nobody did it better than Handsome Ned.

Listen to the man here.

To celebrate what would have been Ned's 50th birthday, there's a show this Saturday, June 16 at the Horseshoe. Zoilus contributor Erella Ganon has this to say: "Expect to see these fabulous former Ned collaborators: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Steve Koch, John Borra, Cleave Anderson, Teddy Fury, Lori Yates, Johnny Macleod, Jim Masyk, Steve Leckie (of the Viletones), Screamin' Sam, Tony Kenny (of the Razorbacks), Emily Weedon, Heather Morgan, Michael Brennon, Scott B, Joanne Mackell and others performing at the event. It also will feature the re-release of The Name is Ned CD, as well as a preview of the upcoming Handsome Ned documentary film and a limited-edition line of Ned t-shirts."

That's an even better line-up than the original release party six years ago, and I (only slightly) regret that I'll be away camping on a Pennsylvania mountainside this weekend.

To honour the man's memory, here is what I wrote about him in the 2001 book Have Not Been the Same. My co-authors Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack, as always, deserve credit for their editorial eye on this and everything else I contributed to that book.

This is the ballad of Handsome Ned.

On January 9, 1982, an imposing figure in a large cowboy hat took the stage in the back room of Toronto’s Cameron House on Queen Street, one block west of Spadina.

He called himself Handsome Ned, and he was about to start a five-year tradition that galvanized the Toronto music community. Every Saturday, Handsome Ned would put on a matinee performance that would be packed to the rafters with punks, rockers, country fans, new wave refugees and anyone who knew that it was the place to be. Armed with a personality and a towering voice, Handsome Ned turned his audience on to the compelling charms of country, a form that was hardly in vogue at the time. He made no attempt to dumb it down, camp it up or fuse it with modern genres—instead, he tackled it straight on with a fiery passion that was entirely convincing.

Five years to the day, he would be struck down by his heroin addiction, shocking his peers and fans, and leaving behind a legacy that still sounds vital today.

Handsome Ned was born Robin Masyk in 1957 in West Germany, where his father was stationed in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Raised in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Masyk dropped out of high school after Grade 10 to hitchhike across the continent. During a stay in Banff, Alberta he became enamoured with a restaurant called Ned’s, which would later provide him with half of his stage name. In 1978, he moved to Austin, Texas with his brother Jim, where they soaked up the outlaw country music indigenous to the region and talked about forming a band. Upon returning to Toronto the following year, the Masyk brothers started The Velours.

“The Velours used to do a lot of early Elvis, some originals, and Velvet Underground covers,” says Jim Masyk. “It was a mix of influences. We also did ‘Sleepin’ With the TV On’ by the Dictators, and various things that came out of pre-punk: the Velvets, the New York Dolls, all those people. We didn’t play punk per se. When we formed, Ned had a cowboy hat and lambchop sideburns and we were going for rockabilly with a country edge, but targeting the new music audiences at the time. We weren’t going after country music audiences; we were going after the people on Queen Street.”

In early 1981, the Masyk brothers acquired a new punk rock rhythm section consisting of The Next bassist Ronny Azzopardi and the Demics’ drummer JD Weatherstone. They changed their name to the Sidewinders and attracted the attention of Steve Leckie and the Viletones. “Steve Leckie went nuts over us and blessed us, and then we started opening for the Viletones,” says Jim Masyk. “We started taking their audience and pretty soon we started headlining. We were packing Larry’s Hideaway, and it was the Demics’ and the Viletones’ audience that came to see us. We were the new punk in a way. We cranked it up, it was more rockabilly and fun, and less snarling and spitting.”

The Sidewinders would also gig with another rockabilly band, the One-Eyed Jacks, featuring Steve Koch on guitar, who had just finished his stint with the Demics. The band was led by Chris Houston, who had just departed from Hamilton punks the Forgotten Rebels. True to just about everything Houston has done, the One-Eyed Jacks took a light-hearted approach to rockabilly.

“Most of the Toronto rockabilly bands were very purist, and they really took it seriously,” says Koch. “But we didn’t. Most of them did 80 percent covers and 20 percent originals, and we did 80 per cent originals and 20 per cent covers. It was a bit irreverent, because I always looked at rockabilly as a dead art form. That’s why I started to get into country when I met Ned. It was never a traditional part of my musical upbringing. But at that point I was ready to be turned around, because [country] struck me as not being a dead art form. It was happening right now and was really talking to people and wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, wasn’t all form and no content. It was the lyrical content and the dedication.”

Koch had moved from Calgary to Toronto in 1978. “My dream was to get into a punk rock band, if possible the Viletones,” he recalls. After a short-lived band with future Shadowy Men drummer Don Pyle, Crash Kills Nine, Koch’s dream was realized when he was drafted to be one in a series of Viletones guitarists, for one year between 1979 and 1980. “We weren’t learning any new songs, there weren’t that many great gigs and it totally lost direction,” says Koch. “The original Viletones went back to ’76; they’d been doing those songs for a long time. It was time to move on to something else.”

Before he did, however, Koch helped the band with their transition to rockabilly. “At that time,” says Koch, “there was a feeling that doing that old-fashioned punk was dead, which Steve [Leckie] knew as well, so that version of the Viletones went rockabilly for a while. That was okay, because I knew how to do that stuff by getting my chops playing blues at coffeehouses in Calgary. It was not terribly popular at the time. There was a rockabilly influence in Toronto music, because Teenage Head did all those Eddie Cochrane-type songs in a revved up style and everybody loved them. The Viletones started doing rockabilly stuff in 1979, and it was not terribly well-received. We opened up for the Buzzcocks and people threw bottles at us. That was one of the last shows they did with me in the band.”

In 1983, Koch and Ned formed a band called the Running Kind, which focused on Merle Haggard-influenced outlaw country. “I can’t think of anybody else on Queen Street that was doing that at that time,” says Koch. “There was definitely rockabilly, but nobody was doing downtown country music. There were certainly the real professional bands playing country, just like there always was and always will be. But they weren’t downtown, and we brought a different perspective to it, having been through the musical upbringing we had been through.”

That same year, the Sidewinders broke up when Jim Masyk left for the stability of a day job. Before the split, the band recorded nine tracks with ex-Stampeders guitarist Rich Dobson, two of which ended up on a 7” single: “Put the Blame on Me” and “Cryin’ Heartache Misery.” “Put the Blame on Me,” perhaps Ned’s strongest composition, would be used to great effect in Bruce McDonald’s 1989 film Roadkill, where it plays over the opening credit sequence featuring the annual Good Friday parade down College Street – the title phrase amusingly juxtaposed with shots of an actor portraying Jesus carrying his cross. Aside from Ned’s promising songwriting and compelling vocal delivery, the recordings are also notable for not falling into the trap of most ‘80s production. There are no thunderous drum sounds, no processed vocals, no fakery.

By 1984, Ned’s Saturday matinee was the weekly social hub of Queen Street. “There was this whole scene built around Ned,” says Jim Masyk. “You could depend on him being there every Saturday, and you knew the faces. I can’t imagine how many people he knew. Once he met people he remembered them. He was very street level – ‘Hey, you coming out to see me?’ – just a promotional machine.”

“Ned was the king; he was a scenester,” says Greg Keelor. “Because of Ned, [Blue Rodeo] had something to do, that didn’t seem like we were doing something on our own. We did a show with a band from Vancouver, the Rocking Edsels, at the Bathurst St. Theatre. Ned just put it on for something to do. And he was an artist; he was always doing an art show, and we’d play that. A Valentine’s Day show he did was our first or second gig. We didn’t have that facility as a band. We didn’t know how to do that. Every Saturday, at his fantastic matinee, he just played on and on until the band [playing later] that night had to say ‘Get off!’ He was really legit, and committed to amphetamine country. He had a very exciting voice and a great, cool band.”

Ned’s vocals were central to his appeal. In his voice you can detect traces of all the rockabilly greats to come out of Sun Records in the ‘50s: the grit of Johnny Cash, the sweetness of Roy Orbison and the unshakeable swagger of Elvis Presley. In a 1986 Nerve review of his regular Cameron show, critic Tim Powis wrote: “No matter how many times Ned’s done a song, he never seems to fail at grabbing it by the gizzards. His plaintive prairie-dog voice doesn’t just carry a tune, it pushed the doggone thing along like a ranchero herding cattle. Same goes for his hard-attack strumming style … This is a band that could give you the impression the west was won with a saddlebag of bennies.”

Steve Koch would become Ned’s right-hand man for the next three years, first with the Running Kind and the cajun side project Handsome Ned and the Hayseed Hellions, which also featured future Blue Rodeo drummer Cleave Anderson. In 1984, the Handsome Neds were formed, with Koch, upright bassist Rene Fratura, and drummer JD Weatherstone carrying over from the Sidewinders.

Fratura had moved to Toronto from Vancouver, where he had been playing with rockabilly songwriter Herald Nix. Nix’s band arrived in Toronto for the first time in 1983 “with the greatest pre-packaged buzz,” says Koch. The post-punk rockabilly and roots enthusiasts all turned out to see the show, and Koch still claims that Herald Nix had “the greatest band on earth. They had an unbelievable drummer, Russ the Bus, and a crazy man piano player [Mike Van Eyes] who was a musical genius. Herald Nix is a bit of a musical genius himself, and Rene is in a class of his own,” says Koch. “Rene met Ned and was very impressed with him, so he decided to quit Herald Nix, move to Toronto and join Ned’s band. It was like me moving from Calgary to join the Viletones – that was what he wanted to do. When he came along, that added a lot of credibility, a real roots feel to it.” Fratura would also act as a visual counterpoint to Ned, rolling his eyes, contorting his face and attacking his stand-up bass.

The first summer after forming, the Handsome Neds headlined the First Annual Handsome Ned Picnic on Toronto Island, which over the next three years would feature Blue Rodeo, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the Razorbacks and other Ned friends. Although well-attended, the picnics were a private affair out of necessity. “It was word of mouth, because they were illegal,” says Koch. “They were open-air speakeasies, so it was pretty audacious.”

In 1985, the Handsome Neds recorded a 7” featuring “In Spite of the Danger” and “Ain’t No Room For Cheatin’ (In a Song About Love).” It was received well at Toronto campus station CKLN, on the CBC, in certain smaller markets across Canada such as Red Deer and on the two major country stations in Ontario, Hamilton’s CHAM and Toronto’s CFGM. The latter became a big supporter of the Handsome Neds, inviting them to play on their syndicated Opry North program, recorded live at the Birchmount Tavern in Scarborough. “Apparently, we got the first encore that was ever allowed [on the program],” says Steve Koch. “That was a step into the mainstream, but Ned was never really interested in going into the mainstream. He definitely knew what he was doing – and what those people were doing was not where he was going.”

Ned hosted a radio program of his own on CKLN, the Handsome Ned Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor Show, which he started in 1982, the same year his Cameron residency began. The popular program featured studio guests, including Greg Keelor and Murray McLauchlan, and a varied playlist that placed vintage country artists and Ned influences like Lefty Frizzell alongside newer roots-informed music such as R.E.M., Steve Earle and the True Believers. His listenership was so dedicated that 12 years after Ned’s death, a loyal Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor fan brought Jim Masyk a box full of tapes documenting every show Ned ever broadcast.

While everything seemed to be moving forward for the Handsome Neds, the band broke up on the eve of the third picnic in 1986, after two full years together. Ned played his disastrous final picnic as a solo act, abandoned by his band. To make matters worse, Ned’s guitar was stolen and the police busted the event, seized all the money and charged him under the liquor act. “All of us were supposed to go, and we said ‘That’s it, we’re not going,’” recalls Steve Koch. “Nobody likes to say it, but there were dope problems, which leads to ‘not getting paid’ problems. We were losing a bit of focus as to what’s important. Between Ned and the drummer, JD, there was a lot of tension. JD didn’t think that Ned was doing the right things for the band, which could have been true. Tempers flared, but after that, everyone made up. I don’t know about JD, but Rene and I were on speaking terms with him. He knew he had gone too far and was apologetic, and wanted to play with us again.”

In the meantime, he had assembled The New Neds, featuring future Razorback guitarist Tony Kenny, ex-Sidewinder bassist Ronny Azzopardi and ex-Johnny Thunders drummer Billy Rogers. The band recorded one song for a Christmas-themed TV movie starring Loretta Lynn, and were scheduled to record demos for a full-length album in January, 1987.

But that same month, the night before his Cameron matinee was to celebrate its fifth anniversary, Handsome Ned succumbed to a heroin overdose in the back of his beloved Cameron House. “It was a real shocker,” remembers Steve Koch. “We’d pretty much figured that all of that stuff was in the past, that he was headed for new and bigger and better things.”

“His band loved him,” says Greg Keelor, whose Saturday night social circle included Ned, Koch and former Demics frontman Keith Whittaker. “But because of the drugs in that period, there was a certain frustration [for Ned’s band] in maintaining some sort of career momentum – whatever that is. The funny thing about drug deaths is that there’s a period of time before they die when they’ve pissed everybody off. I hear that a lot. Ned and I were barflies together, but we weren’t confidantes in a big way. We played a lot of music together and hung out all the time, but for the people that were closest to him, those were the ones who had been the most hurt for a period leading up to his death. There’s that combination of being pissed off, angry and incredibly sad.”

Once news of Ned’s death broke, his friends and fans congregated at the Cameron. “It was an immediate wake,” recalls Steve Koch. “Everyone knew where to go, right away.” After his funeral, there was a procession of cars down Queen Street, and like the death of a public figure, people lined the streets to pay their respects. “Hundreds of people were standing around who knew him,” says Koch, “and that’s not including the people who actually went to the funeral; there must have been 50 cars.”

“I don’t remember going back to the Cameron,” says Greg Keelor. “The only thing I can remember is that a guy walked in and asked me, ‘Is this where I can get some skag?’ I don’t remember what happened after that. If he had asked [scenester] Mohawk Bob, he would have got the shit kicked out of him. It would have been ugly, because people were just so angry.” Years later, Keelor’s Blue Rodeo bandmate Bob Wiseman would write a song borrowing a title from Ned, “In Spite of the Danger,” that pointed fingers in the circumstances of his death. The lyrics went: “I know who killed you/ and everyone else knows who killed you too/ They found the murder weapon behind your bedroom door/ found an empty syringe next to your arm on the floor.”

Ned’s death was noted in the media with a mixture of drug sensationalism and fond musical memories. “The media needs some kind of sensationalist angle,” rationalizes Steve Koch. “That’s how they sell papers. You can’t deny that he died of an overdose. It’s true, you can’t gloss it over. But a lot of papers also reflected on the importance of the music and what he’d done.”

“The day after he died,” Jim Masyk recalls, “someone from the CBC came to my parents’ house. They interviewed everyone. They came out a few days later with this thing that was just awful, and so painful for us. I wanted to kill the fuckers. We learned a lot from that. Obviously writers need something to write about, and of course, ‘Underground star dies of drug overdose’ is a story. Not having been through anything like that before, I was naïve – shouldn’t have been, but I was. I’d been screwed around enough by the music industry, which was why I wanted to get out of it, but I never expected people would take our words that they recorded and say things before and after it and warp it to whatever message they wanted.”

Musician Kurt Swinghammer was working at the Cameron during that time, busing tables. “The scene at the Cameron was pretty much headquarters for everybody in the arts scene: writers, artists, musicians,” he says. “It was the main watering hole. And when Ned died, the whole tourist thing kicked into gear, because everybody wanted to see where junkies hung out. The Cameron became the most incredibly packed room. The Toronto Star did a full-page story called ‘Mean Street West,’ and it was all about heroin at the Cameron. There were needles in the john, and people were getting dragged outside because they passed out. There was a lot of experimentation, a lot of people were goofing off and thought it was hip or something. When Ned died, a lot of people woke up.”

Two years later, a posthumous compilation was issued by Virgin Records Canada, whose president Doug Chappelle had been a Ned fan and had conducted preliminary conversations with Ned about a record deal before his death. The Ballad of Handsome Ned consisted primarily of Sidewinders recordings, as well as the two songs from the Handsome Neds’ single. It was promoted with a video for “Rockabilly Girls” and by the appearance of “Put the Blame On Me” in Roadkill; in 1989, Handsome Ned was posthumously nominated for a Juno award in the Best Country Male Vocalist category.

In 2000, after two and a half year’s work of researching Ned’s audio archives, Jim Masyk compiled a two-CD set titled The Name is Ned, featuring remastered versions of every studio session he ever did, as well as live tapes from his Cameron House shows featuring the Handsome Neds, and live solo radio performances from CKLN. The fact that Masyk convinced EMI Canada to release it is a testament to the fact that Ned did have fans in the industry, who could have helped bring him to larger audiences had he not met an untimely end.

“It’s helpful to reflect back,” says Masyk of the compilation. “Not only for me personally, having grown to understand better and seeing where his music went and listening to the influence. This was for me and his fans. If other people like it, great. This is Ned, this brings him alive. This is what he said and how he was. It was his character that came through not just in his singing or his activities like picnics and radio shows, but on stage—how comfortable he was. To take what he was really like when he was sitting around with friends and a few beers.”


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

NXNE 2007

Twelve has always been a lucky number for me, and maybe it is for NXNE as well. I’ve attended nearly every festival since its inception in 1995, as both performer and press. Some years I only made it out one night of the three; a couple of years I’m quite sure I didn’t bother going at all. And I’ve studiously avoided the conference centre during the day for most of the last 10 years—the mechanics of the biz always soured my taste for the new music I was supposed to be excited about, making Queen Street seem like a boulevard of soon-to-be-broken dreams.

This year was different. The evening line-up was predictably solid, though because I made a conscious decision to avoid the tried and true, my own picks often came up a bit short. But for Joe and Jane Concertgoer, there were a lot more high-ticket events that let wristbands in, so it was undoubtedly better for the consumer.

The difference was in the daytime. The conference actually had panels I was interested in, some of them even in conflicting timeslots. Some turned out to be duds, some were surprisingly effective and informative. One of the ones I didn’t go to sounded unintentionally hilarious: my new Australian friend Ned Collette writes about it on his blog here (scroll down to the Toronto entry).

The other difference was the afternoon parties. Kelp Records and Saved By Radio teamed up for a smashing shindig on Friday afternoon, the highlight of which was Kelp mainman Jon Bartlett resurrecting Rhume, his rock tour-de-force that left everyone flummoxed. Bartlett is a true believer who throws everything he has (literally) into his performance, which came as quite a shock for those who know him only as the mild-mannered frontman of Greenfield Main or as the guy who puts out Jim Bryson and Acorn records.

Saturday’s place to be was the Six Shooter Records back lot party out in my neck of the woods, the east end. Normally it’s impossible to get Torotonians to cross the RubiDon River, but much as Bloodshot Records’ BBQ convinced CMJ’s NYC patrons that Brooklyn was as happenin’ as Manhattan, Six Shooter threw quite a do that actually moved the shakers onto a streetcar. The irony is that it was such a good party, that I don’t actually remember much of the music performed, with the exception of the unavoidably compelling and well-dressed Ford Pier. Hopefully some newcomers did take notice, and perhaps they browsed the beautiful boutique storefront that the label runs, with one of the best-stocked Canadian music shelves in the city.

Around the corner, mastering engineer Joao Carvalho opened up his lovely new studio to a swarm of ravenous and thirsty partygoers who invaded every corner and spilled out into the backyard. There, an open stage featured unknowns alongside Ron Sexsmith, Danny Michel and Serena Ryder, everyone sticking to a quick three-song set. As with the other two afternoon parties, the informality was a welcome contrast to the schmoozefest happening downtown.

I didn’t make it out Thursday night at all, and bicycle issues foiled many of my Friday night plans. Quickly, then, some things I saw at official showcases.

Said the Whale: Pop band from Vancouver. Potential, but a bit green. Very Shins-y. And, not that this really matters in the least, but bad comic timing on the banter!

Metermaids: Nerdcore hip-hop duo from New York City. Not bad, but the sound system at new venue Rockwood was insanely loud—especially for the sparse crowd and small room.

Memphis: Side project for Torquil Campbell of Stars. My lord, don’t quit your day job. I had to flee during my least favourite song of the past year, the god-awful “Incredibly Drunk on Whiskey.”

Scotty Hard: The Vancouverite behind the boards for Wu-Tang Clan, New Kingdom, and plenty of WordSound and Bill Laswell productions brought a three-piece band with him (drums, percussion, MC) from NYC to flesh out his solo material, but the live approach didn’t improve material that’s probably better at home with headphones. And for some reason, I expected this rather standard instrumental hip-hop show to be more experimental than it was.

Ned Collette: Charming Australian man who schooled me on the differences between Triple J and the much-worthier Triple R radio in Melbourne. His solo electric guitar performance draws heavily from English folk idioms (a topic that hung over the festival thanks to the presence of Nick Drake/Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd), as filtered through his own post-rock instrumental past and a flair for the epic. His use of a looping pedal was thankfully sparse, allowing him just enough space to employ some very subtle fingerboard wizardry that always erred on the tasteful side. Hypnotic and entrancing, you can see why he’s a favourite of All Tomorrow’s Parties.

The Old Ceremony: Helen Spitzer took me to this, based mostly on the fact that they hail from the perpetually fertile scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Not much of a gamble, but it paid off: great songs, great fashion, great instrumentation (guitar/bass/drums augmented by piano, violin, and organ/vibraphone.) A fair bit of Tindersticks/National noir-ish drama, a dash of Squeeze-y pop, and a whole lot of charisma—which, when your parents name you Django, is inevitable. Thoroughly satisfying, and a most pleasant surprise. They have two albums out; don’t let the fact that they opened for Cake sway you.

Bonjay: Top Toronto DJ Denise Benson has been hyping this Ottawa duo, and with good reason. Vocalist Alanna Stuart has a soulful, sexy voice and commanding stage presence (not to mention a fantastic ‘fro), while DJ Pho has production skills that could find him challenging Ghislain Poirier in a couple of years. So far they’re known for their covers (electro soul makeovers of TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and their own material is a bit green, but Stuart has unmistakable star appeal.

Thunderheist: This is another act to benefit from the Benson boost: see her cover story in Eye here. Toronto MC Isis and Montreal beatmaker Grahmzilla concoct a fiery electro-hip-hop party mix that’s hotter than hell, as anyone at this ecstatic Drake performance can attest. Isis is a 21-year old Nigerian-Canadian hoser with mad mic skills, boundless energy, and oodles of sex appeal. Grahmzilla: not so much—he humbly looks lucky to share the stage with such a goddess, but it’s his powerful beats that set the crowd off, before Isis pushes them even further into delirium.

Things I meant to see but missed for a variety of reasons, mostly geographic, fatigue-related, or the fact that I skipped Thursday: Mother Mother (caught a bit of an in-store they were doing, which was enough to make me reconsider my dismissal of their album), Camouflage Nights, Wordburglar, Woodpigeon, Abdominal, Parkas, The Old Soul, The Blood Lines, No Luck Club, Motion, Think Twice, Ghettosocks, King Sunshine, SoulJazz Orchestra, Yo Majesty, Track Dirtyaz, No Dynamics.

Monday, June 04, 2007

State of Hope

NXNE week in Toronto kicks off today, and Luminato continues, but I’m already exhausted and completely satiated before dipping into either.

My summer festival season started on Saturday with the Track and Field gathering. Held just outside Rockwood, Ontario (which itself is ten minutes outside of Guelph), it boasts the side of Toronto music that you rarely read about beyond the message boards. These are, for the most part, the non-careerists who spread themselves out between four or five different projects, where the will to create supercedes all else. These are the artists heard on this year’s excellent Friends in Bellwoods compilation, with only a mere handful bubbling up to anything resembling mainstream recognition (Great Lake Swimmers, Final Fantasy, Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979, Ohbijou).

Helen Spitzer has a full run-down of the weekend’s events in today’s Eye Daily here.

As she points out, the highlight for many was Bruce Peninsula, a new Toronto band that’s evolved over the space of ten gigs in the last year. Rooted in traditional spirituals and blues, the rugged gospel vocals are shared by a female choir and guitarist /marimba man Neil Haverty, with a dextrous rhythm section behind them that have obviously been schooled by the Thrill Jockey roster while simultaneously soaking up the Alan Lomax collection.

But the specifics aren’t as important here as the effect it had on the audience. There’s an inherent joy in seeing a family band such as this: mixed gender, choral vocals, and melodies meant to uplift and offer some glimpse of salvation. The staging helped, as well: an ever-so-slightly-sloped tiny natural ampitheatre, where the stage was set in a beautiful orchard; one had to peer through tree branches to see some band members.

Because of the size of the band (approx. nine or ten, if my sunstroked memory serves correctly), they obviously had many friends in the tightly knit audience. But for everyone else, it was one of those moments where with each successive song, you could feel everyone around you falling deeper in love and losing themselves in the joy of the moment. Applause and enthusiasms increased exponentially after each song, with some even moved to tears. These are the moments that every music fan lives for, the kind that are all too often spoiled by hype machines both macro and micro. Even writing about this now seems to sully the special moment.

(Quick side note: other discoveries for me were Great Bloomers, Rural Alberta Advantage, Water Colour, and Forest City Lovers (I’d only seen Kat Burns solo before). Returning favourites were Bocce, Acorn, Wooden Sky. Go see them all as soon as you can. Also, Great Lake Swimmers were in trio format, with guest vocalist Serena Ryder (rocking a Sylvia Tyson look with her autoharp), which made for an unforgettable summer sunset set.)

Arriving home on Sunday, I napped away the cumulative fatigue I felt after being kept awake all of Saturday by a drunken tambourine player. I had no intention of going out again, until I noticed that earlier in the week I’d made plans to go see Sweden’s Loney Dear at Lee’s Palace. It was a relatively early show (10.15 set time) and I was somewhat rejuventated, so I set out with little to lose.

Normally, when 120 people are in the 500-capacity Lee’s Palace, it’s a very lonely affair. But right from the first song, Emil Svanängen and his four-piece band drew everyone to the front of the stage for their first Canadian show ever. They were audibly very happy to be there, and despite the venue being too big for the crowd, they professed shock that anyone other than the promoters were coming to see them on their first headlining tour. So imagine their surprise when the Toronto audience not only recognized songs within the first two beats (“even my own band can’t do that,” Svanängen deadpanned), but called out for Swedish rarities that Loney Dear weren’t sure they remembered how to play. And, like the Bruce Peninsula audience (though nowhere near as emotional), the audience only got louder and more demonstrative as the show went on.

The look on the face of every band member was priceless. One only has to imagine what it’s like to land in a foreign country halfway around the world to find such an outpouring of love and familiarity. (“You know our songs better than we do. It’s creepy!”) For the boyish Svanängen, who writes stadium-sized anthemic choruses set to a modestly ambitious, richly harmonious folk-pop backdrop, you could see all of his bedroom four-track fantasies coming to life as he listened to these rambunctious Torontonians take up his wordless choruses.

It had the campfire intimacy of a Track and Field show, and yet here we were in an ugly, black-walled bin that we’ve all been a thousand times before. There were those there who were obviously ubergeeked about this largely obscure Swedish band (the fact that they’re on Sub Pop here is their only claim to fame so far), and the rest of us quickly fell in love with the disarming stage banter of Svanängen. But the magic here was watching the band be swept up in the moment, especially when they returned for a richly deserved second encore (as opposed to the confessed artificiality of the first one, befitting Svanängen’s self-deprecating humour).

The connections continued as we all shuffled out the door, as I overheard two Japanese guys recognize each other from back home, finding each other again in a Canadian bar watching a Swedish band. It was the perfect cap on a weekend of musical intimacy, of moments where the world seems that much more smaller.

“All I want is a state of hope,” sang Svanängen. Few people in either audience this weekend could have stated it more simply.