Friday, September 28, 2007

The Acorn, pt 1

This month's Exclaim has my cover story on The Acorn, the finest band in Ottawa, whose last record I reviewed here.

I first met Rolf Klausener when I found him on my kitchen floor, one morning in the middle of Pop Montreal maybe three years ago. He arrived with Jon Bartlett, whom I had given carte blanche to use my Mont Royal apartment as a crash pad for the Kelp Records crew. Rolf made a mean omelette and, as a big Notwist fan, was very polite when challenging me over a racist comment I made about all German music since Kraftwerk being inherently inferior.

That day he was hand-assembling copies of his debut CD from his new project, The Acorn, called The Pink Ghosts. I fell in love with it immediately, its haunting melodies set to a combination of Canadian folk music and bedroom electronics. It soon evolved into a proper band, one that features three of the more expressive and textural musicians you're likely to see in the indie rock ghetto; keep your eye on drummer Jeffrey Malecki in particular.

This interview was conducted after Rolf and his roommate Stef Power drove me from Guelph to Ottawa one beautiful August afternoon and proceeded to wine and dine me at the home they share with bassist Jeff Debutte. Thanks to Ms. Power for putting up with all our boring rock talk, to engineer Jarett Bartlett for an interview I didn't end up using, and to Rolf for his hospitality and for introducing me to his mom the next morning--she's the subject of the excellent new Acorn album, Glory Hope Mountain.

I'd recommend you read the Exclaim piece before wading deep into these waters--despite the fact that the paragraphs aren't double spaced there.

The Acorn
Rolf Klausener and Jeff Debutte
April 19, 2007
Locale: the porch of the Ottawa home they share with Stef Power.

Mr. Klausener, what do the following names mean to you: Rupert Allen, Brent Bambury, Tiffany Beaudin, and Guy Bérubé.

R: (laughs, suspicious). Uh, I don’t know the Tiffany name. Brent Bambury of course was the second host of Brave New Waves…

OK, but you don’t know their relationship to each other and to yourself?

R: No, I don’t.

You were all nominees for Ottawa’s Hottest Fuck at Les Prix Golden Cherry Awards in 2005.

R: (both laugh hysterically) Oh shit, that’s hilarious! I thought, why would you bring up Guy Bérubé? Why would you know him? How did you find that?

On the interweb.

Of course. Well, thankfully, and rightfully, Brent Bambury won that.

How did you get nominated?

I have no… fucking… idea. I think it was because I was doing the SAW Gallery’s website, and they held the event. [Acorn guitarist] Howie [Tsui] and I went to a bunch of their more racy events, this thing called Jizz that was based on this Toronto event (Vazaleen). I took off my shirt a few times, and of course that makes you fuckable or something. Whatever!

Around the time that The Acorn started becoming a band and playing around Ottawa, I heard someone refer to them as the cutest band in Ottawa.

J: Well, that’s true.

R: That’s how we got to where we are.

But did you not do well in Ottawa quite quickly, once it transitioned into a band?

R: I wasn’t playing that many shows on my own. The last show that I played on my own was an experimental music festival thrown by the Pleasure Through Sound folks. There’s something about when you throw a new band together in Ottawa and try to play shows, people will automatically take interest for at least the first or second show.

J: We had some duds in there, like the one with Les Mouches where eight people were there.

R: I think [Les Mouches’] Owen [Pallett, later of Final Fantasy] never wanted to play a show with us again or speak to me again. They were incredible, though. Someone gave me the Toronto is the Best compilation and I loved that band right away. I’d never heard of Owen before. I wrote to him and offered to put a show on in Ottawa for him. It was The Acorn’s third show as a band, and we were quite mediocre.

J: That was a weird night, though, because we had [Kelp Records’ Jon] Bartlett playing drums and [Recoilers’] Jake Bryce filling in for Howie on guitar.

R: It was weird. Then Les Mouches played a phenomenal set. Owen was so good and the projections were so incredible. Then they came over to my house and Owen seemed so completely disenchanted. They played Nintendo and Owen barely spoke to me all night. I thought, wow, I’ll probably never see any of these people ever again.

J: Having played in other Ottawa bands, I thought there was some nice attention being paid to The Acorn that wasn’t to other bands.

R: I’d been playing with the Recoilers for seven years at that point, and there was never any ambition to play outside of the city, or playing more than we needed to. Or booking our own shows, for that matter. I’d never booked a show before. I didn’t want [The Acorn] to play a show with someone that we didn’t want to play with. When I started my own band, I wanted to have fun and be with people I really like and play shows I want to play. That was my only ambition. The very first show we played was with Great Lake Swimmers and Barmitzvah Brothers, and the next show we played was with Julie Doiron. Then we did this art series...

And that was with Radiohead, wasn’t it?

R: Yeah, right. Radiohead and Pulp—it was kind of a weird combo. No, we only played with people we wanted to see. We weren’t very good at all. The Pink Ghosts is mostly instrumental and stuff I recorded in my bedroom on 20 tracks. It was never supposed to be done live. I think it took us a year and a half to get a footing as a band.

J: I still surprised people came to those shows, considering how bad they must have been.

R: I remember Samir [Khan of Kepler] coming up to me after the first show he saw us play, which was the Kelp 10th anniversary show at ZaphBebo. We played a pretty good show that night. He said, ‘You got yourself a good band, and that’s a rare thing.’ I think he was talking about the dynamic we had. I already loved everyone in the band plenty, but that was a nice outside justification.

What drew you to these three guys? Because they’re so obviously the right three guys, in terms of textural playing that they bring to these songs.

R: It was purely instinct and luck and coincidence. I’d seen Jeff play for years, and played with him as well.

You were in [Jeff's band] the Soft Disaster, yes?

R: Briefly, until they kicked me out. I didn’t have the attention span or the chops.

J: You were just in seven different bands at the time.

R: I was aware of how talented Jeff was, and I wanted him in the band but not necessarily on what instrument. He was one of the first people I thought of.

Howie was weird because we’d just started to get to know each other that summer. He’d just moved to Ottawa and we ended up at the same shows, and ended up talking about the same record labels and the same bands, so I knew we had some musical connections. At the end of one party, he whipped out this guitar and started noodling. I had no idea. He said, ‘Oh, I just dabble. I made a little EP with my friend.’ It was this beautiful, noodly, spacey guitar stuff and I thought it was great.

I wanted him in the band because the aesthetic was really similar, but also because I knew he wasn’t a typical musician. He doesn’t know G from F, he doesn’t know a tone from a semi-tone. And he certainly doesn’t know when his guitar is out of tune. But he has amazing instincts. I loved the fact that I got along with him—he’s incredibly funny—and his musical instincts are so natural.

And [drummer Jeffrey] Malecki was really strange, because I didn’t even know he played drums until a few months before I asked him to join. I was telling Colin Vincent that I was sick of playing by myself and was looking for a drummer, and he recommended him and told me he’d been playing jazz drums forever. So without ever hearing him, despite knowing him for years, I took Colin’s word for it and asked him to come over to my living room and play. It was incredibly loud and we had to stop after two songs, but instantly it worked.

J: That was my first time meeting both Jeffrey and Howie too.

R: That was weird. ‘Yeah, okay, so I’m not sure if either of you are real musicians or even know each other, but…”

[To Rolf] You were in five or six bands at that point, and from what I know about Ottawa, that’s not uncommon. But why did you [Jeff] want to join this band, when you already led your own?

J: Earlier, Rolf said that I was one of the first people he thought of. And that’s probably because every time he played a solo show, I’d be the first one to go up and talk to him afterwards saying, “Hey, yeah, so, if you ever need a band…’

R: I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember you ever talking to me at a show.

And yet apparently he was aggressively campaigning.

R: Samir told me that you wanted to play.

J: He told me you were looking for other people. I thought the songs were great and exciting and I wanted to be a part of that. I knew Tim from Soft Disaster was moving to Boston, so I was looking for something else. And these were some of the best songs I’d ever heard anyone in Ottawa write.

Did you hear the Christmas thing? [The first unofficial Acorn release was a Christmas EP Klausener made, featuring a cover of Palace’s “New Partner”]

J: Yeah, he gave it to me.

R: I’d been playing with CuBase for three months at that point. I was so excited to do something on my own, and I gave a copy to everybody I knew, basically. I spent all night burning CDs the night before a New Year’s show at Babylon with 20 bands or something. My roommate Aaron played bass and his brother played drums and we did three songs. I ran around the club all night handing people CDRs.

[conversation interrupted by Jon Bartlett dropping by]

[resumes with Rolf trying to figure out how to turn the new album into soundbites, expressing his frustration with a recent interview that asked him little more than: ‘Why are there ukuleles and marimbas on the record?’—a question it took him 15 minutes to answer.]

R: Obviously she didn’t have much time to listen to the record and didn’t know me, but at the same time, we didn’t throw this together on a weekend. We spent two years making this goddam record.

But Rolf, you have thrown a record together on a weekend before [Tin Fist EP].

R: It’s true. When we first started talking about this album, I wanted to do it live in a room with 15 people—so unrealistic. I didn’t really think that I’d have to sit with the material, with my mom’s stories, for nine months before I could realistically start writing in a way that I felt okay about it. It took that long to absorb. First, the music that I was researching, and then letting the stories percolate and hone what the essence of them was, and what stories were key to moving the whole story along.

So this was two years ago—the Blankets EP would have just been released? Or when did you start thinking about this?

R: Blankets was out and we’d toured coast to coast. My dad had always wanted to write an autobiography, because he’s had an even crazier life than my mom. He worked for the UN in all sorts of secret military things that I will never know about. Based on how he talked about wanting to document that, I thought it would be neat to talk to my mom and learn more about her. I’d always thought about it, and one day at the end of practice I just said, ‘Hey guys, how about we record an album about my mom’s life?’ And they all said, ‘Yeah, cool.’ That was the extent of it. I was closing the door to the apartment as they were leaving.

I interviewed her and had the stories recorded, and then I started researching Honduran folk music. Which wasn’t the original idea, but the more I thought about it, I thought I wanted to do something more than drums-bass-guitar. But I realized it was opening a huge can of worms and it was going to take forever.

I think it was in March of this year, when I thought, wow, this album is never going to happen. We were listening to some rough mixes when we got back from tour and I thought, goddamit, this is nowhere near where I thought it would be. Then I got fired—and the whole album came together! So I’d like to thank my bosses at CHUO for firing me, because I spent the next month writing every day on this porch.

I spent two and a half weeks writing the lyrics to ‘Hold Your Breath’—which is pathetic. They’re not a major revelation or anything. I was very conscious of word choice and movement and pacing. I thought, I’m going to have to sing these songs for the next couple of years, and I want to feel good about the lyrics and care about them. I thought there were a few lines on Tin Fist where I didn’t feel that, where I thought they were a bit too melodramatic.

J: When we got back from tour, it sounded a lot like it sounds now. But for Rolf, lyrically, it was still skeletal.

What did you [Jeff] think of the idea initially? And what did you know about his mom?

J: I’d met his mom once, maybe. She didn’t come to our shows. My first initial reaction was: [raspberry sound] What the fuck???!! This is a really bad idea! [Rolf cracks up]. I thought, and not in a callous way, but: who cares about your mom?

Yeah, but who cares about your broken heart?

J: Sure, that’s even worse. But as the songs started to come about, I realized that it’s also about a lot of bigger things than just his mom, and she was a good way to talk about these things.

I don’t think people have to know what it’s about. The way we all listen to any music, there will be certain lines or phrases that impart meaning, whether or not we understand the lyrical intent or an entire narrative. And The Acorn has never mixed a record to sound like shiny pop music with the vocals way up front, so even other Acorn lyrics for me have been about certain lines or phrases. I don’t think I know what any of your other songs are actually about specifically. I respond more to the music. So I wonder how much of this album’s narrative will be apparent to people who don’t read this article or anything else surrounding its release.

R: I do wonder about that.

Does that make you hesitant to play it up, or is it integral to absorbing the record?

R: It’s there and I don’t want to pretend that it’s not the backbone of the record. That’s why I did spend so much time on the lyrics. It couldn’t be overtly narrative. The themes are really important. There were so many serendipitous moments while writing, connections such as: there was a river and a mountain in her hometown, and then she moved to Montreal, surrounded by rivers and with a mountain. Survival and perseverance threaded through the entire record. As I was writing them, I could see how so many of the themes permeated every story in her life. The highlighted stories were microcosms for her entire life.

Then I started thinking about how they reflected on my life. Towards the end of the record, as I was approaching being born in her life’s narrative, I could see how my life was tying into her stories. There were a lot of moments where a line would come out very spontaneously, and I’d have a little moment of shock, or a giggle, as I realized how much of them tied into my own life. Those were some of the best moments. It didn’t even feel like coincidence.

How many specifics of your mother’s life did you know before you interviewed her?

R: I knew she had a rough life. I knew she was orphaned until she was seven. I knew that her father was not a good father. I knew that she eventually stumbled into Montreal and met my father. But that’s it. Partially because my mom—she isn’t private, but she doesn’t want to talk about the hard elements of her life. But when she does talk about those things… When I was a kid and discovering drinking and drugs, my mother would tell me her own stories and there was full disclosure: ‘Oh, let me tell you about the first time I did heroin!’ [all laugh] Here I was in high school and I’d just got drunk for the first time, and here we’re talking about cocaine and heroin. Disclosure has never been an issue for my mother.

For me, it’s been a matter of taking the time to talk to her and ask her questions. And then she would tell me everything. Everything. The song ‘Oh, Napleon’ was a case where I couldn’t believe what she’d gone through. I alluded to the band what that song’s about, and it was disturbing and I was upset when she told me the whole story. I was amazed by the candour and honesty that came through, and how she took it all in stride.

I can only think of two things in my life that make me re-evaluate any hardship in my own life. One is the movie The Endurance, about the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic, and the other is my mom’s life. Whenever I think about those two things I think I have it so fucking easy, it’s ridiculous.

The image of crooked legs runs through the whole record. What does that refer to?

R: That was a story about when my mother was back at her father’s farm for a few years. She was into the routine of being ignored, of spending time with the servants at the farm and doing menial chores. She was getting closer and closer to her adopted brother, Napoleon. Every night her father would get people to go out and tend to the sugar cane, because there was a refinery on the farm. When her brother was of age, her father asked him to go watch over the people working at the sugar refinery. He was terrified of the dark and refused to do it.

How old was he?

R: Fourteen or 15. She was about 12. He had polio and had a bum leg, and he had to ride a horse to do this. And if he fell off the horse, he would crack his skull open. So he was terrified to do this because he was scared of the dark. And there were no floodlights in rural Honduras in 1953.

The father was insistent, and so he took off his belt, which was sweaty and hot because it was a sweltering night, and whipped Napoleon, who wasn’t wearing a shirt. The belt wrapped around Napoleon’s waist, and when the father ripped off the belt, it tore an entire chunk of skin from around the torso. It was bleeding like crazy.

So my mother, 12 years old, runs to the shed and gets a machete. She runs at her father with a machete and climbs up him as if she’s going to slit his throat. She tells him, ‘If you touch him, I will kill you.’

Things calmed down after a bit. Later that night, after things had settled and Napoleon went to bed with bandages around his stomach, my mother broke into the farm’s safe and took all of her father’s money. She packed it all up and got on this dirt road and walked tens of kilometers overnight, from one in the morning until dawn, to Tegucigalpa, which is the capital, to the Catholic boarding school where she was staying until her father came to reclaim her when she was about six.

She said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money, I’d like to stay here for as long as I can.’ They asked her what happened and she told them the story. The next day her father came by and said, ‘What the fuck is going on? You broke into my safe.’ They talked to him about the situation and he was like, [makes a hands-off gesture] ‘Cool, fine, fuck you, whatever, stay here.’ He left her there. She was there for two years until the money ran out, and then moved out and started living on her own when she was about 13.

That’s where that story came about. There were a bunch of other elements that came into play when I started doing all this research on Honduran folk music, on the Mayan tribes. There’s a story of the firefly. There’s this wonderful element of ceremonial burials in the Kuna culture. One of the things they do is, the shaman would perform this three-day long funeral ceremony when someone would die. On the last day, they would take a firefly and bury it with the corpse, to represent the spirit of the deceased. I love that image, and I was looking for an image to tie together the city lights and the starlight. That tied into ‘Hold Your Breath’ quite well.

The firefly is in both bookend tracks, which both deal with her mother.

R: There’s definitely some artistic license there, when the brother tells her, ‘When you see fireflies, that’s your mom.’ I was thinking it would be neat if her brother was comforting her as she grew up with this firefly metaphor.

‘Hold Your Breath’ was more setting the scene, but ‘I Will Watch Over You’ was always meant to be her mother facing her own mortality and seeing her child being born. And my mother was a breached baby, so she was suffocating. She was pretty much DOA when she was born. ‘I Will Watch Over You’ would have been the inner monologue of what her mother was going through, imparting these words to her child that she would never see grow up. Those two songs bookend each other.

I also realized that there were elements that related to things my mother told me when I was growing up. When I would cut myself, my mom would grab my hand and start sucking the blood. I’d be like, ‘Ew, mom, gross!’ And she’d say, ‘What? It’s my blood going through your veins.’

Also, if you’re going chronologically, ‘I Will Watch Over You’ is a song that my mother could have theoretically sang to me when I was born.

That’s how I took it the first time I heard the record. And I thought, wait a minute, did she die in childbirth too? I’m pretty sure she’s still alive…

R: I didn’t want to make anything up, but it was too tempting. Once I started getting into it all, it was good to have fun with it and have some creative license.

How many of these stories were the band aware of? Did you have explicit access to the source material?

J: A lot of them, like ‘Lullaby,’ it was very explicit. Songs like ‘Hold Your Breath,’ we knew exactly what was going on. Some songs he just gave us a précis. A song like ‘Oh, Napoleon,’ he’d just say: ‘You don’t want to know.’ Probably 80% we were aware of, at least after the fact.

R: She was so open with me, and I’ve seen her be open with complete strangers. She never had a problem with me writing the record. But at the same time, she really doesn’t realize that people will listen to this and we’re going to do interviews where we talk about her life. I really didn’t feel it necessary to disclose everything. If people really, really want to know, I’ll tell them off the record.

Halfway through writing the record, I realized that a lot of them were slow, quiet and kind of sad. I wanted there to be some uplifting stuff on this record, because ultimately her story is really uplifting and beautiful. It was trying to find a way to talk about these stories and themes in a positive way, and not focus on how crazy and challenging her life was. Which was hard.

How and when did she end up in Montreal?

R: She was on a vacation in her early 20s in Miami with some friends, for a few weeks. She bumped into this wonderful Nicaraguan woman who lived in Montreal. They spent a week together, and this woman told her that Montreal was great: lots of Central Americans there, lots of jobs, so much opportunity, a beautiful country with snow. My mom was totally enraptured with the idea of Canada. At the end of her holiday she thought, ‘OK, fuck it, when is your train leaving?’ She packed her stuff…

Just the stuff she brought on vacation?

R: Exactly, and went on an overnight bus ride to Montreal. She got there, and the woman ditched her at the bus station. She said, ‘Oh, yeah, my boyfriend is waiting for me. I’m sorry. Here’s my phone number.’ She gave my mom her phone number, but my mom lost it.

So now she’s stranded in this country where she doesn’t speak French or English, and she walked around all night and went to a hotel. The chambermaids there were all Nicaraguan and Honduran, who told her there was this wonderful area on the north area of St. Laurent where there’s this community centre—which is now [restaurant/music venue] La Sala Rossa—where all the Hispanic people hang out. Just go there, and we’ll find you a place to live. So my mom called a friend in Nicaragua and told her to close her bank account and send her all her money. And she just stayed, and that was it.

What year was that?

R: ’74.

And she met your dad there?

R: After a few different roommates, she was staying with this woman who was pretty nice. They were both working all these crazy textile jobs. My mom got fired so many times because she was so charming and good at lying, that she’d tell them she could work industrial sewing presses and all this stuff. And then she’d get fired. Finally she found a job where she could scheme her way in and stay there.

She got this cheap apartment sharing a bedroom with a woman. Every night, after working for 12 hours, this woman would get all dolled up and go out every night. My mom would say, ‘How can you go out every night and party?’ And the woman would say, ‘Well, you know, that’s what I do.’ My mom didn’t think anything of it.

One night my mom wakes up in the middle of the night, and this woman is fucking some dude right next to her, three feet away from her. She’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?! I’m right here!’ The woman says, ‘Gloria, are you retarded? I’m a prostitute—this is what I do! This is my job!’

My mom thought, okay, I’m outta here. She grabbed her stuff and left that night. She walked around all night, so depressed and not knowing what she would do. So she’s walking around Laurier and St. Laurent.

It’s morning, and she sees this nun about 100 metres away from her, and they’re walking towards each other. She comes up to her and looks at her and says, ‘Sister Margaret?’ They freak out—this was her teacher from Honduras. She was Canadian and had been in Honduras on some kind of Catholic internship exchange, and so this was her childhood teacher. She said, ‘I’m just over here at a Catholic boarding house. Come over, have some tea, we’ll hang out, there are some people leaving and we might be able to get you a room.’ She got a room and ended up staying for months.

One day, this UN social worker, Bernard Klausener was coming by, checking it out and doing the rounds. They introduced him to my mom, they hit it off, and they started dating.

I think I’m going to eat up all my tape if I keep asking you specific questions.

R: I thought about how to summarize a lot of these stories, but I can’t.

How many hours of tape did you get from her?

R: Eight hours. I still haven’t edited it all. She went into so much detail. She tells stories in such a crazy, fractured way, and I just tried to make sense of it all. It’s all from the first 30 years of her life.

-part two will appear soon-

The Acorn's upcoming tour dates are here, starting October 11.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Post-Polaris hangover, part two

H&M's insider trading of Polaris news, continued.
5 p.m. (explanation here)

H: Thank you, baby, for the Tylenol. You are gold. Okay, so before we move on to Joel or the Juniors or the gorgeous Feist poster Kevin Drew was toting all night [each nominee was awarded a specially-commissioned silkscreen], can we deal with more pressing matters? The Fashion.
Steve Jordan is fucking hot.

M: Yes, he is. And he was also one of the only men there, in a room full of slackers, who had any sense of occasion. Which makes sense, seeing how it’s his baby. I think CBC Ottawa’s Alan Neale was the only other man I saw there with some serious style. That man’s a peach. As is the always charming Kevin Drew. Best dressed women: Caitlin Veitch of Six Shooter, Rebecca Webster of Fusion 3…

H: Ya, Rebecca had a stunner of a dress on, she looked gorgeous. Also, Jessie Stein [Luyas, Miracle Fortress] had a party dress on that was tres va-va-voom. I am also immensely pleased about the return of the hat. I’m hoping the trend continues, and that we reverse the Kennedy trend [cue Buck 65’s “Kennedy Killed the Hat”].

M: Does Jace Lacek have any other shirts?

H: Perhaps he has several of the same one. He should commission me for the Besnard Lakes’ next video. The opening shot will be a slow dolly out from a close shot of his hand opening the closet, panning out to reveal an entire closet full of the same shirt.

M: Make sure there’s dry ice involved. All right, Joan Rivers, back to the music. We were both rooting for Miracle Fortress to win, but I have to say that I don’t think the live show works yet. No slag against the players, but it’s such a great studio record that all those textures just don’t come across live. And they’re such a new band, too.

H: I think he might need a full orchestra, or at least an Owen Pallett, to convey that big a sound. With the first song they played, I really missed the stacks upon stacks of vocal harmonies. I do enjoy that they’re trying to do something else with it live, that they’re not trying to replicate the album. I’d put the MF performance in the same category as Julie Doiron’s performance in that respect, but she has the advantage of a band with 17 years of playing together.

M: Upon reflection I find it ironic that you loved the ragged nature of Chad VanGaalen’s performance, and yet you disliked Julie for the exact same reason.

H: Yup, I’m a mysterious woman.

M: Tell me about it.

H: I didn’t dislike Julie’s performance. Let me make that clear. I am sad that not every performer was there: I missed Feist and Arcade Fire because I love the energy of those people. I think if they’d been able to be there, their performance or just their presence would deflate other people’s anti-bigshot attitude toward them, because they’re such genuine people. But what did you think of the video montages, specifically the E-talk Daily montage of the lone Junior Boy?

M: They should have shot that in the shade, at least, or maybe after noon: he was squinting in the most unflattering way through the whole thing. I find those video clips pointless, really. “Yeah, so, um, I made a record.” I was also very disappointed that no one made a goddamn speech when they accepted their poster. Last year, everyone made a speech. I love speeches. The only reason I ever watch the Junos or the Oscars is the hope that someone will say something moving, profound or surprisingly articulate. Of course, that rarely happens, unless Leonard Cohen or Bruce Cockburn is getting some kind of lifetime achievement award. But many of last year’s funniest moments—like Wolf Parade pleading for someone to pay their $1600 Drake bar tab—came during the speeches.

H: Now I’m doubly sad that I missed the show last year, being sequestered in the jury room. Yeah, you’re a sucker for the speeches, aren’t you? You may be the only man I know who wants more speeches at weddings. Do you think the white on black is a good look for Grant, by the way?

M: The white on black violence? He looks like he should be in the Specials.

H: Or the Hives. I think he actually did try to join the Hives, but the rest of the Smugglers held their breath until he changed his mind. It’s interesting, I had a chance to look around at response to the Patrick Watson win, and there’s a common expression of surprise. Also, Guy Dixon at the Globe made Patrick Watson sound like an eight-year-old, which I immediately forwarded to Carl with glee (because I’m a nerd and I love language incongruities, not because I’m mean-spirited). Watson was grinning like an eight-year-old.

M: On the Radio 3 blog, lots of listeners claim to have not been surprised by Watson's win (unlike last year, when Final Fantasy’s win sent shock waves through that entire Vancouver building). My favourite press faux-pas this year is once again courtesy of the Canadian Press. Last year they referred to Final Fantasy as an electronica act. This year, they told the story about Patrick Watson crashing his van—almost making it sound like drunk driving caused the accident. Here’s the quote: “But most of the [$20,000] cash [prize] would settle a rental car bill incurred in a car crash just outside of Fargo, N.D., earlier this year, he said, clutching a beer in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other as he launched into the tale.”

H: Oh hilarious! That is fully ridiculous. I listened to a bit of the Radio 3 podcast, and they did include his telling of the tale (he insists that the crash occurred at the same spot where they found the money in the movie Fargo). The podcast did manage to convey all the best moments, musical and otherwise, in 58 minutes. Which is probably closer to an ideal length for “Galas” such as this one. But they edited out my rebuttal to Grant. Perhaps they don’t want listeners to hold out hope that he’ll call them at home if they complain about something.

M: I think you need to contextualize this “Grant rebuttal” story, once and for all.

H: I did, last night! Should this story really go any further? The reader’s digest version: before we’d ever actually met, I was an avid listener of RadioSonic, the precursor to Radio 3, and after the show one Saturday I sent an email comment from my phone. So at approximately 3 a.m. later that night the phone rang, and I got a semi-irritable Grant on the phone asking me to elaborate on my complaint. It was an auspicious beginning to a beautiful friendship.

M: Ah CBC, the personal touch. If only all civil servants were so accountable. Okay, let’s wrap this up. We haven’t talked about Plaskett, Feist or Arcade Fire yet. Of course, the latter two weren’t there. I loved the fact that AF asked Owen Pallett to accept for them, sent him an email to read and then he forgot it at home. And Feist sent her old friend (and By Divine Right drummer) Mark Goldstein to accept for her. He DID remember the email she sent. Amidst what sounded like genuine humility, it had some horseshit in it about how she was in the UK last night playing a club “that could fit inside the Rivoli three times over.” In fact, she was playing the Hammersmith Odeon. [later: actually it was Shepherd's Bush Empire, capacity 2000]

H: You know, I would have been okay with either of those records winning, even though they’ve reaped the rewards in other ways. I think they are solid and thoughtfully made and beautiful albums, even though I don’t think they are flawless from start to finish, as the Miracle Fortress record clearly is. And ultimately there was a pleasing symmetry to Jian Ghomeshi’s intro to Besnard Lakes being approximately as long as one of their songs. Was it their “Sweet Emotion” track they played?

M: No, it was the Low rip-off. I was happy to discover that [last year’s jury member] Jill Wilson [of the Winnipeg Free Press] is also one of The Four Rock Critics in Canada Who Don’t Like the Besnard Lakes. The other interesting thing in the CP piece is Owen’s quote: “’We should divide the award into two awards: one for the bands who don't have credit card debt and the bands that do. I think that would be a coup. In fact, I'm going to try and make that happen,’ he said. ‘The Arcade Fire do not need $20,000. Leslie Feist definitely doesn't need $20,000.’"

H: That wins the award for the Most Canadian Polaris Comment.

M: Cut down those poppies! I really don’t like the idea that people expect Polaris to be part of our social welfare system, as opposed to a prize based “entirely on merit.” Go get a grant, for Chrissakes. The Acorn got four for their new album, those rich bastards. Should that disqualify them from next year’s contest?

H: All my money is on The Acorn next year.

M: Finally, I just want to say that Plaskett was also great live. And he’s just so gosh darn affable, I don’t think anyone would have complained had he won.

H: Yes, amazing performance even though I’m not crazy about either song. He’s lovely. Carl and I were crushing on him big-time.

M: For whatever reason, the only music running through my head all day was the “Bayer’s Road Shopping Mall” line from “Drunk Teenagers.” Congrats to Patrick Watson, whom I know will go on to much greater things, to all the nominees, and to Steve Jordan for pulling it all together.


Post-Polaris hangover

It’s the morning after the Polaris Prize ceremonies. Helen Spitzer was a presenter, introducing Miracle Fortress; I was in the peanut gallery. We both talked ourselves hoarse at the Drake after-party and are in full recovery mode at the moment.

In true Canadian fashion, I just made a fried egg sandwich with old cheddar and maple-smoked bacon on whole wheat bread with tomato, washed down with coffee. I’m going on four hours sleep. I also walked the kiddo to school. Helen Spitzer caught a few more winks than I, but she’s currently holding a wet cloth to her head, groaning, recoiling at the sight of my greasy breakfast, and cursing the name of Eye Weekly editor Dave Morris for buying her the final glass of wine at the Drake.

M: Good morning, Ms. Spitzer.

H: Oh.

M: I figured this would be easier—and more entertaining—than actually conversing at the breakfast table this morning.

H: I must thank you for deciding in favour of writing over speech. You are a wise man.

M: I tried to find the Patrick Watson album this morning, to no avail. I don’t think I’ve listened to it in a year—but don’t tell [Secret City Records’] Andrew Rose that. I’m pretty sure it’s in one of these five dozen boxes of CDs we have here. Do you have any desire to hear it?

H: Patrick is the first person I encountered walking up to the Phoenix earlier in the evening, funnily enough. I don’t have any desire to hear any music right now, although that is a reflection of my state and not Patrick’s record. Though perhaps listening to something louder than the fridge at this moment might be good for us.

M: Rumour has it he was downright tanked before the ceremony even began. I’m surprised he managed to make a halfway-decent speech at the end.

H: Rumours, huh? Hey, perhaps that’s what you should put on the turntable. Timex Social Club …oh, good man. [Barclay has just put on Destroyer’s Thief] This record I blame for inadvertently turning me into a rock critic. Is this the vinyl?

M: No, CD. [Helen is currently stalking around the kitchen clutching her stomach and reaching for more bacon.] I know you had planned to take the stage last night [she introduced Miracle Fortress] to “The Sublimation Hour,” but I didn’t hear it. In fact, I didn’t hear any of the presenter’s entrance music—or, for that matter, most of what any of them said. The podium mics didn’t seem to be functioning properly for most of the evening. But there’s no mistaking that Grant Lawrence did a fine job as host—even though I know there’s a lot more he wanted to jab at.

H: I want the gentle reader to know that I declined the bacon. Yes, Grant was certainly in fine form last night, though NOTHING quite outshines Bookman’s singing intro to Julie Doiron. Especially the moment he said, over the roaring cheers, “there’s one more verse.” Carl Wilson was having giggle fits next to me. He might have fallen off his chair just a little bit.

M: I love Dave Bookman to bits. For those that weren’t there, Bookman introduced the New Pornographers at last year’s ceremonies but singing “California Girls” with lyrics changed to pay tribute to Carl Newman and company. This year he did the same thing for Julie—though the really weird thing is that, despite obviously being a huge fan, the guy still doesn’t know how to pronounce her francophone name. Attention Mr. Bookman: it’s “dwa-ron,” not “door-ee-on.” But speaking of Ms. Doiron, she and her Eric’s Trip bandmates delivered one of the more discussed performances of the evening. I loved it: I thought it was raw, inspiring and slightly dangerous, and she seemed a bit loopy (I don’t mean in the Final Fantasy sense) and unpredictable, which I really appreciated. You, on the other hand, hated it, yes?

H: I think hate is a really strong word, Barclay. I just felt that arrangement (raw, dirty, double guitar attack) didn’t serve her in that venue. I don’t know that her voice works at that volume. But maybe I was just thinking about the TV audience. [picking up the Polaris commemorative CD thing] “Pianos are the new turntables?” [from the Patrick Watson blurb] What could he possibly mean? I’m reading the write-up for what we know now is the Polaris prize-winning CD, Close To Paradise, and I find it amusing that fully half of Brendan Murphy’s blurb is actually about Brendan Murphy.

[conversation moves to the bedroom, so Helen can lie down. In our bedroom after the war, if you will.]

M: I guess I liked the incongruity of the Doiron performance in that space. Regarding the Watson quote, yeah—that’s totally ridiculous. I think most people in the room were shocked if not baffled when Watson snapped the prize. It simply didn’t seem to be on anyone’s lips, not in the initial lead-up to the shortlist, and not in the months since the nominations were announced. I think he’s an incredibly talented guy, and watching the band live I was reminded how amazing each of them are individually. But the whole thing just doesn’t gel for me; I get no emotional connection to any of the material. In fact, last night it looked downright masturbatory.

H: It was a very baffling win. I do think my jaw actually dropped. And you’re right in that his album wasn’t being discussed by critics during the lead up to this as a serious contender. Which makes me wonder if it didn’t win by being everyone’s number two. Hey, Joe Jackson wrote a song about that. But I do believe that the process in the jury room was slightly different this year.

M: You were saying something last night, when we were talking about acts that we didn’t want to win it. Neither of us are fans of the Besnard Lakes, and yet you said that if they won it would at least make sense: there’s a near-consensus regarding that band.

H: Because people who love that record really loooooooove that record. And I respect that, even though I’m befuddled. I have a strong sense that there are very passionate feelings about that album, I have a strong sense that people also feel passionately about Junior Boys. But this was sort of like The Dears winning.

M: Which we all knew wouldn’t happen. What a terrible record. I really wish I could have heard what Aaron Brophy was saying in his introduction, because I desperately want someone to articulate to me what’s actually good about that record. I should point out that this morning, the first Polaris-related email I got was from Jon Bartlett, gloating about the fact that he totally called a Patrick Watson win. I think he pegs it on Laurie Brown being on the jury.

H: I think a more entertaining evening could have been had if, instead of calling on random critics to introduce acts, we could have called up jury members to defend their pick.

M: And then what, face heckles from the crowd? Or like a cross-examination?

H: Yes, exactly. Don’t you think Grant would make a good Crown Prosecutor?

M: Isn’t that what he does for a living when he interviews indie bands? “Is it not correct, sir, to say that in the fall of 2006…”

H: No, that’s Nardwuar.

M: We should talk about Chad VanGaalen.

H: Oh!!! Performance of the evening, by far. There was something just so beautifully pure about the ramshackle joy of his playing - it just blew the television artifice to smithereens. For that brief interval anyway.

M: Television artifice? I didn’t really get that from any other performers.

H: No, I meant the room itself. It reeked of television.

M: I wonder what Chad would have done had he won, seeing as how vocal he’s been, publicly and privately, about how he doesn’t really like Skelliconnection much himself. I also thought it was great how Patrick Watson was rooting for him, as were other artists.

H: I don’t love the album, but fuck, I love Chad.

[end of part one. Helen continues groaning and clutching her head. We’ll talk about Miracle Fortress, Joel Plaskett and others shortly.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

Polaris predictions

Polaris Prize ceremonies are tonight, and host Grant Lawrence is trying his best to prepare jokes that won’t offend the corporate sponsors, the artists, or last year’s host Jian Ghomeshi. It’s a thankless job. Buns will be thrown.

It's no secret I'm rooting for Miracle Fortress, the one and only album on the list that I find consistently rewarding. The rest of the list, for me, consists of either of great artists with several weak tracks, or of people I never would have considered in the first place. Five Roses is a gem from beginning to end, no qualifying statements necessary. Read my review here.

Because I can't resist, this is how I would argue it in the jury room:

Arcade Fire: When it's good, it's great, and the best material here will outlast most other records released in the past year. But though successful on many levels, there are still a couple of tracks here (namely the first two) that are mediocre at best. See interviews starting here. See review here.

Besnard Lakes: I realise that there's a "critical consensus" about how great this band is (according to Brad Wheeler in today's Metacritic-combing Globe and Mail article), but other than the opening track I don't hear anything but sludgy shoegazey guitars, pretty vocals singing no melodies, monotonous and soulless rhythm, and repetitively dull lyrics. I know they're nice people. I know Jace Lacek is a great producer. But this band leaves me stone cold.

Dears: I've always found this band hot and cold, but even this skeptic thought No Cities Left was a grand achievement. This, on the other hand, had me pressing 'skip' halfway through every plodding track. I'm glad Mr. Lightburn claims to be feeling more optimistic these days, but you'd never guess that from the tepid music found here.

Julie Doiron: Great record, her best since Love Tara. See interview here.

Feist: Lots of great songs, but there's a reserve here that keeps me at a distance. Plus, a couple of weaker tracks derail the album's overall strengths. Hear my pre-Reminder interview here.

Joel Plaskett Emergency: Musically, this is the most fun album on the list, and is tailor-made for anyone who grew up loving rock'n'roll on AM radio. "Fashionable People" is a candidate for single of the year, and elsewhere Plaskett covers all his favourite genre bases easily. Lyrically, however, he doesn't always hit his mark, and it's the only thing that stops me from loving this album outright. See interview here.

Junior Boys: Occasionally they have great songs, but have never struck me as a great band and this is by no means a great album. At least half of it puts me to sleep. Which is too bad--seeing as how they're the only act on the list to break the indie rock hegemony.

Miracle Fortress: Practically flawless. See Helen Spitzer's interview here.

Chad VanGaalen: A truly great artist, but this is not his best work--and apparently he doesn't think so either, judging by reports of comments he's made at live shows. I think he got this nod because it took a long time for most jurists to discover the far superior debut Infiniheart.

Patrick Watson: There's no question that the guy--and his band--is infinitely talented, but his music occupies the muddy ground between songwriting and soundscape experimentalism, often failing at the former while the more abstract moments are the ones that succeed. Either way, it doesn't add up to a coherent record. Watson is still stuck in the "most promising" department rather than deserving this prize. Read my Eye piece here.

Who will take it? Looking at the final jury, I haven’t the slightest idea. That’s a decidedly mixed bag of people—hell, we might even have a hung jury. One thing is for sure, however: unlike last year’s Toronto-heavy jury selecting a Toronto artist from a list dominated by Torontonians, there won’t be any of the usual catty Canadian behaviour calling out the winner’s geography as a principal political factor in the prize. Still, it’s always a challenge to keep politics out of a decision like that: let’s hope the best album (on that list) wins.

Which, of course, is Miracle Fortress.

And if you want an award you can vote on yourself, head over to SOCAN's Echo Songwriting Prize and vote for either Nathan, Feuermusik, Abdominal, Besnard Lakes or Chad VanGaalen. Winner gets 5000 clams.

Magnet reviews, summer 07

In our continuing game of catch-up, here are four reviews that ran in this summer's issue of Magnet, the one with Spoon on the cover. It also featured an interview I did with Rufus Wainwright.

Coincidentally, three of these four reviews are of artists who many thought might get the nod for tonight's Polaris Prize, but didn't make the shortlist. More on that in the next post.

Who’s afraid of the Art of Noise? Not Battles, perhaps the only rock band that could pull off a cover of “Close to the Edit.” They don’t do that here, but only because they don’t have to. Battles open their debut album with eerie whistling and an indeterminate clang that could be an electronic gamelan, before drummer John Stanier slices up AoN’s “Beatbox” rhythm and Tyondai Braxton punctuates the chorus with creepy child-like syllabic singing that conjures 80s video flashbacks of that precocious punk rock child and her chainsaw. As one of the few guitar bands on experimental electronic label Warp, Battles are more than willing to chuck any rockist clichés and stretch their instrumental prowess wherever their textural whims take them, often trapping melodies inside an intricate instrumental web where rhythmic shifts signify the verses. The monstrous live drums of the Bonham-esque Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk) are the anchor here, while guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka alternate between Afrobeat-style rapidfire rhythm guitar picking and angular leads that colour the grooves rather than pulling them apart, unlike most other recovering math rockers still searching for their soul. “Atlas” is the obvious anthem here, where a Gary Glitter beat is the backdrop for Braxton’s twisted vocalizations, which here sound like an army of robotic Smurfs being marched into a blender. All together now: “Ba-da-bap-bop-bo, Ba-da-bap-bop-bo…” (Warp,

My interview with Battles will run in the next issue of Magnet, due on stands any day now.

Tears of the Valedictorian
Few bands conjure as many claustrophobic nightmares as Frog Eyes. Frontman Carey Mercer will always sound like a jittery carnival barker, on a sleepless week-long speed bender, attempting to give you a literature lecture before the devil chases him out of town. Even when his band gives him time to breathe, there’s still a manic tension lingering in the air waiting to explode. On their previous trio of albums, Frog Eyes managed this maelstrom with a stately grace that’s now sadly lacking. New guitarist McCloud Zicmuse and keyboardist Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake) are new dancing partners for Mercer’s quick-strum mandolin-esque guitar leads. But instead of Frog Eyes’ usually compact three-minute onslaughts, we get a nine-minute litmus test called “Bushels,” with tedious guitar solos and Mercer jumping around like a mad yodeling golddigger at the end, insisting, “I was a singer!” Drummer Melanie Campbell remains the glue that holds this all together, even if she has a tendency to repeatedly emphasize the first seven eighth notes in a two-bar phrase. For a band with such a singular sound, the aptly titled Tears of the Valedictorian marks the point where it passes into self-parody. After all, post-graduation life is scary: it’s when lessons learned get put into action and new challenges await. See you at Swan Lake. (Absolutely Kosher,

Tony Dekker sings like an angel—but not the kind of pristine classical cliché that wouldn’t dare stray from the confines of a church. Dekker’s choirboy voice is the type of angel that appears on your shoulder when you’re full of doubt, both of self and of spirit. It represents a ghostly figure, between worlds, navigating mysteries of divine will, war and natural beauty. That’s a lot of weight to carry, and Dekker’s voice betrays a ring of weariness with the known world. After all, his previous two albums—underrated masterpieces, both of them—were stacked with songs about open spaces, urban claustrophobia and mental collapse. An escape into mystical matters can only mean things are looking up. Dekker does this with deft subtlety; like the best spiritual secularists, any religious meaning here is entirely metaphorical and inferred. Hell, it might all be conjecture. Either way, Ongiara is by far the Swimmers’ most optimistic album, even if no individual song matches the heights of his earlier work. Spinetingling backup vocalist Serena Ryder helps Dekker lessen his rep as Loneliest Man in the World, as do the string arrangements by Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) and the earthy production. Ultimately, this angel doesn’t sing with pious arrogance; he sounds like he’s been as broken down as you’ve ever been, but knows the way to guide you back to the light. (Nettwerk;

Great Lake Swimmers play the River Run Centre in Guelph, ON on Friday, September 28 with Final Fantasy and Ohbijou, and the Phoenix in Toronto on September 29 with Chad VanGaalen.

Plague Park
Springsteen-mania is everywhere these days, but perhaps only Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner would think to marry that with the throbbing primitive electro-blues of Suicide. It’s not as unlikely as it seems. Springsteen has been covering Suicide in his recent solo shows, and admits to their influence on Nebraska. As one half of Handsome Furs—with his fiancée Alexei Perry handling drum machines and electronics—Boeckner makes these unlikely bedfellows sound like old soulmates, and even suggests a sedated Peter Murphy being invited to this imaginary supergroup. Boeckner’s Boss-y ways ring through in every anthemic guitar riff and “woah-oh-oh,” but instead of aiming for stadium rafters, Boeckner sings with humility and resignation, even when promising to “burn this city to the ground.” It helps that those guitars are often buried underneath Perry’s electronic percussion, making Plague Park sounds positively paranoid—never more so than on the plodding “Dumb Animals,” where insectoid guitars buzz over crashing drums and clanking percussion, creating a deliciously morbid tension. Considering how prolific his Wolf Parade partner Spencer Krug has been (Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake), Handsome Furs shows that Boeckner is no slouch and capable of a few left turns of his own. When they strike up the Parade again this fall, the bar will have been set considerably higher. (Sub Pop,


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Summer re-cap, part two

More files today from mainstream daily newspapers, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

As a side note, I'd like to also blame my month-long absence on internet woes and the horrific customer service of Sympatico, which I urge all my Canadian readers to avoid. I'll spare you the gory Kafka details.

In alphabetical order: Caribou, Common, Parkas, Payola$, Stars, Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, Nicole Willis.

CaribouAndorra (Merge)

The worldwide pride of Dundas, Ontario first made his name with minimal electronic music assembled with free jazz samples and minor melodies, before morphing into a psychedelic jam band with two drummers.

On his fourth album, Dan Snaith delves deep into pop territory: every track here features heavily reverbed vocals, including a guest spot from Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan. Snaith eschews some of the more drawn-out drones that marked his last two albums, but his attempts at writing fully realized pop melodies don’t always pan out—which is why his kaleidoscopic musical vision is still the main reason why he holds a singular place between the worlds of electronic music and psychedelic folk rock.

Snaith is most successful when he stays away from the in betweens and pushes to either extreme, as he does on Andorra’s bookends: opening track “Melody Day” is his finest pop song to date, while closer “Niobe” brings in more electronics and considerably more abstract arrangements, making it the most intriguing moment on the album. (August 23, 2007)

Caribou plays the Starlight in Waterloo on September 28, the Rivoli in Toronto on September 29, with other central Canadian dates following. More dates found here.

CommonFinding Forever (Geffen/Universal)

Hip-hop isn’t usually an older man’s game, and at age 35, Common should most likely be washed up. And yet Finding Forever finds him continuing to improve and hone his craft, delivering his most satisfying work to date.

Finding Forever features 11 fat-free tracks that draw from the deep well of 70s soul music; it’s obvious that Common is consciously aiming to create a classic album, not just a couple of singles backing up filler. To do this, he once again employs his one-time protégé Kanye West as producer. They first worked together on 2005’s Be, where West managed to coalesce Common’s diverse influences into a cohesive hip-hop whole: R&B, gospel, jazz, Marvin Gaye-era soul and abstract pop.

Some star power guests help lift things up a bit—including Lily Allen, D’Angelo, DJ Premier and (once again doing his best work outside of Black Eyed Peas)—but this is very much the Kanye and Common show, even if West only raps on the hometown ode "Southside." Common even starts dropping West-isms at one point, like rhyming “bling-ay” with “sing-ay,” though his everyday people narratives are as engaging as always elsewhere.

West’s sample material ranges from the delightfully obscure (Ethiopian jazz records) to the painfully obvious (Nina Simone, Paul Simon), yet in each case he bends them to his own needs, providing a perfectly smooth backdrop for Common’s character sketches and social critiques. There’s also one track here by Common’s late collaborator J Dilla.

Though West’s presence certainly helps, Common has reached a stature where he doesn’t have to worry about trends or maintaining his credibility—or even pop hits. Proving that sometimes the good guys still win, this debuted in the Top Ten, and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the hip-hop records of the year. West himself will find this hard to beat when his own album comes out later this summer. (August 16, 2007)

ParkasPut Your Head in the Lion’s Mouth (Saved by Radio)

Every band in Canada—even those from the Big Smoke—will empathize with the Parkas when they sing: “We’ve come to audition for these Queen Street politicians, but I’m not quite Toronto enough tonight.” Hailing from Thunder Bay, London and Guelph, the Parkas play a kind of rock’n’roll that isn’t cool enough for most indie kids and is too ragged for the radio crowd, which entitles them to a certain amount of underdog sardonicism that permeates their second full-length. They’re not milking sour grapes, but their experiences—sharply documented in a DVD that accompanied their last EP—give them a healthy perspective and insight that allows them to write lines like: “Honesty is the best poverty and liars already won the lottery.” The songs don’t always measure up to the lyrics or the spirited performances, but producer Dale Morningstar helps them capture their live bar band feel—much like his work on Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park—while also helping craft some delicate textures on the tracks “Margaret Atwood” and “The Wolves Darling.” (August 2, 2007)

The Parkas play October 9 at Club Vinyl in Guelph, October 11 at the Drake in Toronto.

Payola$ - Langford (EMI)

Twenty years after their last album, the creative partnership of Bob Rock and Paul Hyde emerge with an EP that is as promising as it is frustrating. Hyde is still full of bristle and bile: each of the six songs here deals with societal and moral breakdowns, and for the most part his pointed pen manages to score political points without being overly heavy-handed. When it doesn’t work is when Rock decides to flex the cheeze rawk muscles he honed from producing Metallica and Aerosmith. When Hyde’s first-person villain snarls “Phone hell, tell them I’m coming,” Rock amps it up to Bon Jovi proportions until it’s barely listenable. Which is a shame, because much of the rest of the EP—including the native rights warning “Bomb,” the aging radical anthem of regret “Revolution,” and the grumpy grandpa punk rouser “Goodbye to Rock N Roll”—shows that this partnership still has plenty of punch, not to mention the pop hooks that made them a major force in Canadian rock in the early 80s. (August 16, 2007)

StarsIn Our Bedroom After the War (Arts and Crafts/EMI)
(a different review in this week's Eye appears here)

War? What war? The current state of conflict is an abstract notion for most North Americans, who would much rather sing silly love songs while the world burns.

Stars, on the other hand, write love songs where war is always in the background, where the characters’ inability to express the simplest emotions is confounded by the greater calamity outside their window.

Stars’ singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with the outside war either—often it’s merely a loosely alluded backdrop to affairs of the heart. Or, in the case of the rousing first single “Take Me to the Riot,” it sounds like more a respite from boredom rather than a call for revolution, mere role-playing to battle ennui.

“Barricades” is more direct: a plea to an old lover or friend—a resigned radical—to rejoin the narrator at the riot scene, luring them with the less-than-enticing line, “The love died, but the hate can’t fade.” Set to solo piano accompaniment and Campbell’s off-Broadway vocal delivery, it will be a litmus test for those who already cringe at song titles such as “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending.”

But wartime window dressing aside, In Our Bedroom After the War is a major step up for Stars in general. Combining the new wave romanticism of their early material with the more rockist approach of their breakthrough album (Set Yourself On Fire), they’ve also absorbed some influences from the diverse list of Canadian peers who showed up on that album’s far superior remix record earlier this year.

Now the textures are more rich, they’re more likely to shift moods and time signatures in the middle of a song, drummer Pat McGee sounds more and more like Radiohead’s Phil Selway, and all of them are able to flex their rock muscles without it sounding overwrought, as it did last time out. And, as before, they know that their primary strength is having Campbell and Millan trading off lead vocals as much as possible: the surefire future single “Midnight Coward” sums up all of Stars’ best moves in less than four minutes. (August 30, 2007)

Stars play the Phoenix in Toronto November 26-28, and Le National in Montreal on November 30.

Linda ThompsonVersatile Heart (Zoe/Universal)

There’s nary a wasted moment on Versatile Heart, which is to be expected from a folk artist who has only put out three solo albums in the past 22 years. In that time, Thompson’s ex-husband Richard has put out one album after another coasting on his reputation, while their son Teddy has found prominence as a solo artist. Teddy shows up to co-write, co-produce and play guitar on this album, and he turns out to be a better writer with his mother in mind than he does on his own albums. Other guests pop by—Rufus Wainwright contributes a song, his sister Martha offers some vocals, and fellow British folk royalty Martin and Eliza Carthy also appear—but Thompson is the one steering the ship, proving herself an adept stylist with folk-pop (the title track), traditional British folk (“Katie Cruel”), American protest songs (Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow”), country heartbreakers (“Give Me a Sad Song”) and string-drenched melancholia (Wainwright’s “Beauty”). A versatile heart, indeed. The song selection, the arrangements and the performances are nearly flawless. You won’t any trouble believing her when she sings: “Give me a sad song/ I’m in a class of my own.” (August 23, 2007)

Teddy ThompsonUpfront and Down Low (Verve/Universal)

Linda’s son Teddy has been seen chumming around with Rufus Wainwright for many years, and even if they didn’t have famous folk music parentage in common, their voices are remarkably similar. But instead of operatic pop, Thompson finds his own sound by diving deep into vintage country music on his third album, consisting primarily of cover material.

Upfront and Down Low extracts gems from the songbooks of Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton and others, and dresses them up in dinner jackets: elegant strings, subtle pedal steel, backing vocals from Iris DeMent and Tift Merritt, and Thompson’s rich tenor voice. He steers away from obvious song choices and sings each line as if Patsy Cline’s producer Owen Bradley was on the other side of the studio glass.

This all suits Thompson’s talents to a T—and, combined with his stunning performance in the Leonard Cohen tribute film I’m Your Man, suggests that his real talent is as an interpreter and producer, rather than as a songwriter. (August 23, 2007)

Teddy Thompson plays the Mod Club in Toronto on Monday, September 24, opening for Nick Lowe.

Nicole Willis and the Soul InvestigatorsKeep Reachin’ Up (Light in the Attic/Outside)

Sixties soul music continues to inspire people around the world, which explains why this Brookyln-born singer ended up first in the UK—where she sang with The The and recorded for early trip-hop label Mo’Wax—before moving to Finland and enlisting an all-Scandinavian backing band.

While most soul revivalists prefer the raw sounds of Stax Records and the like, the sound of Willis and her band is more in line with slick Motown productions, with rich string and horn arrangements enriching Willis’s butter-smooth vocals. There’s nothing in the natural grooves that would suggest the players grew up on anything but classic soul music—there’s none of the clinical academic approach that one might suspect from musicians so culturally removed from the source.

There’s no question she’s the finest soul singer in Finland, but a few more records like this and she’ll be giving Sharon Jones some competition back on her home turf. (August 30, 2007)

Also reviewed in the paper, but not reprinted here for quality control reasons (my own, not because I didn't like some of these records): Hairspray OST, Immaculate Machine, Required Listening 2 (Do Right), Sum 41, The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson, Suzanne Vega, Justice, Ulrich Schnauss, Corneille, Bedouin Soundclash, Talib Kweli.

If you work for any of these artists and need a clipping, let me know.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Summer re-cap, part one

Apologies, blogosphere. Moving house took a lot more out of me than I expected.

The next few days will be devoted to some catch-up, before we get to in-depth interviews with the Weakerthans, The Acorn and Bruce Peninsula. We'll start today, though, with reviews penned for the mainstream daily newspapers Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Here's what July had to offer for the Record. In alphabetical order: Editors, Roky Erikson, Legion of Green Men, Mother Mother, Ohbijou, Spoon, Two Hours Traffic, Various Artists - Healing the Divide, and Porter Wagoner.

EditorsAn End Has a Start (Red Ink/Sony BMG)

With their 2005 debut The Back Room, Editors proved to be one of those rare British bands who could explain the missing connections between Joy Division and U2, with a knack for stadium pop melodies, all tarted up in gothic accessories. Their dramatic flair was part of the charm: the fact that they could pull this off without sounding like self-important blowhards was a minor miracle.

Sadly, that luck has run out. An End Has a Start gives every indication that Editors’ actual ambition is to be a slightly darker version of Coldplay, complete with utterly banal platitudes passing off as poetry. There’s actually a song called "The Weight of the World," while on another singer Tom Smith tells us, “The saddest thing I’ve ever seen is smokers outside the hospital doors.” Really? He should try watching some genocide documentaries.

Anyone pleasantly surprised by the first Editors album should be switching their allegiance to The National by now. (July 7, 2007)

Roky EriksonYou’re Gonna Miss Me OST (Palm)

Even in the ridiculous world of rock’n’roll, there are still stories that stretch the limits of credulity.

Take the case of Roky Erikson, who helped pioneer 60s psychedelic rock with his Texas band 13th Floor Elevators. His unhinged howl suggested he was already on the edge, but copious amounts of LSD pushed him further along. Arrested for marijuana possession, he pled insanity and had electroshock therapy during his incarceration. When he got out, he wrote songs about “working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog” and vampires and aliens while his personal life collapsed into increasingly bizarre twists and turns.

This is all documented brilliantly in the film You’re Gonna Miss Me, just released on DVD, which is easily the most spellbinding and incredulous bio-doc since Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 portrait of cartoonist Robert Crumb and his dysfunctional brother.

The accompanying soundtrack is not a definitive overview of Erikson’s work—there are only two songs here by the 13th Floor Elevators—but it is a thorough biographical sketch that touches on each period of his unsung career. Throughout, Erikson proves to be much more than a nutjob with a good story behind him. At times he’s an impassioned soulman like Van Morrison, others he’s a deranged rocker whose spinetingling voice inspires genuine chills that shame his more cartoonish peers.

His sensitive side is also on display, as heard on two previously unreleased acoustic songs that are featured in the film: "For You (I’d Do Anything)" and "Goodbye Sweet Dreams." Both are incredibly poignant after witnessing the trainwreck that has been his life. But, like the rest of this soundtrack, they hold up well even outside the overwhelming context provided by the film. Like the best rock’n’roll always should, they transcend the emotional anguish that spawned them—which, considering the strength of the film, says a lot. (July 19, 2007)

Legion of Green MenBaqontraq (Post Contemporary/Outside)

This Burlington electronic duo appear to have pulled a Rip Van Winkle, emerging with their first new album in eight years and sounding like time stood still. Picking up where 1999’s brilliant Floating In Shallow Water left off, Baqontraq recalls a time in the late 90s when underground producers were moving away from the colder strands of techno into the warm environs of dub reggae, with ambient textures floating above drum’n’bass undercurrents. This time out, there are more live horn sounds, more of a direct roots reggae influence, and one track that takes dub’s reductionist technique to an extreme by pulling out the drums altogether, with lapping waves of echo providing the rhythm.

Baqontraq sounds like it could easily have been made ten years ago, but that’s not a slag, as LOGM were always two of the better producers in this field. Whether they’ll still be able to capture the imagination of an electronic scene obsessed with the new is beside the point, as this marks a welcome return for a pioneering group in Canadian electronica. (July 5, 2007)

Mother MotherTouch Up (Last Gang/Universal)

The first thing you notice about Mother Mother is their vocals—every clipped and chipper note of the three-part harmony between brother and sister Ryan and Molly Guldemond and Debra-Jean Creelman. Their sound is initially a hard sell, if not downright grating. But as the 13 tracks on their debut album unfold, it’s those unusual, almost alien vocals that become the band’s calling card, employed in a variety of original ways.

The accompanying music is similarly skewered, and is impossible to describe without making it sound awful: funky acoustic pop that draws from country and punk rhythms as well as percussive folk ala Ani DiFranco. I’m cringing just writing that, and yet such are Mother Mother’s charms that their music quickly overcomes first impressions, deserving as much praise its singular sound as for surviving the myriad pitfalls that come with this territory. As a recording, however, Touch Up is a bit too, well, touched-up. (July 26, 2007)

OhbijouSwift Feet For Troubled Times (Outside)

The two sisters at the core of Ohbijou, Casey and Jenn Mecija, grew up in Brantford—a ghost of a town where everyone leaves eventually, driving through fields of farmland towards a bigger city full of social uncertainties, where the bustle of urban life clashes with the idyllic childhood that small towns provide.

Whether or not that actually sums up the Mecijas’ childhood is entirely conjecture, but the music of Toronto’s Ohbijou captures that melancholic feeling perfectly, both in lyrics and in arrangements. Raccoons sing ballads while tumbleweeds roam the small town streets. Love feels like espionage in the big city. The sisters’ harmonies are front and centre, but every player in this ensemble plays with exquisite taste and invention. Plaintive cello lines frame an acoustic arsenal of ukuleles, banjos, mandolins and pianos that rarely ever fall into folk clichés. The undeniably pretty surface makes them instantly loveable, yet just underneath are extremely subtle subversions that illuminate the sadness at the core of many of these songs.

They’ve been one of Toronto’s loveliest secrets for the past two years, but that’s about to change. This is a newly remastered version of their 2006 debut album, which now has national distribution to coincide with their recent western tour. (July 26, 2007)

Ohbijou open for the Akron Family on September 26 at Barrymore's in Otttawa, and play an impossible-to-miss show at the River Run Centre in Guelph with Great Lake Swimmers and Final Fantasy. They'll also be at Pop Montreal on October 4, and headline Lee's Palace in Toronto on November 9 with Bruce Peninsula.

SpoonGa Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)

Don’t let the year’s goofiest album title throw you off. However stupid it may be, it actually does say something about Spoon’s skill at distilling the best rock, R&B and pop songwriting to its bare bones. There’s nary an extraneous note to be found on a Spoon album, and on this, their sixth, they may well have perfected their formula.

Spoon does this by approaching pop music the same way any expert reggae or soul band would: have the guitars play only on the accented beats, use the piano to provide most of the colour, never let the drummer play a fill, and let the bass enter the dance only at the most effective moments. In doing so, Spoon is one of the only rock bands since The Clash to truly utilise the simplicity of soul music, able to surrender all show-off rocker poses to slide into a groove—best heard on the horn-driven acoustic R&B song "The Underdog," which could easily have slipped on to London Calling.

Not that Spoon necessarily make dance music. "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb" might swing with the best of the Motown greats, but it’s preceded by the sparse and spooky "The Ghost of You Lingers," where the drums disappear and eerie synths loom over a piano pounding out eighth notes.

What makes Spoon such a magnet for music geeks is their production style, which sounds straight out of Abbey Road studios in the late 60s, with total stereo separation that appeals to headphone listeners everywhere.

It’s easy to intellectualize and analyze the studio technique, but it’s the punchy pop songs hit you straight in the gut—and, as the album title implies, the lyrics don’t get in the way. Singer Britt Daniel slaps non-sequiturs together in the best Beck fashion, but despite this and the fact that he still seems to be suffering from a massive head cold, the nasal singer sounds dead cool wrenching emotion from a song that’s actually called "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case."

More than anything, Spoon know that by leaving wide open spaces in their songs, every little nuance is illuminated. And despite the simple appearance of these disposable pop songs, there’s plenty to chew here on that continually rewards listeners of every stripe. This is one for the ages. (July 12, 2007)

Spoon play the Kool Haus in Toronto on October 15.

Two Hours TrafficLittle Jabs (Bumstead)

Two Hours Traffic’s brand of likeable guitar pop—big harmonies, chiming guitars, songs about sidewalks, summers and backseat sweethearts—never goes out of style, and the 11 songs on this debut are a promising start. They enlisted the help of Joel Plaskett as producer, and while he doesn’t take them along for the same sonic rides he does on Ashtray Rock, he does know how to dress up a bare-bones rock band with just the right touches. The songwriting is catchy, though their best days are obviously still ahead of them. (July 26, 2007)

Healing the Divide: A Concert For Peace and Reconciliation – Various Artists (Anti/Epitaph)

What better way to embark on a Buddhist reflection on peace than with a soundtrack by Tibetan monks, sitar master Anoushka Shankar, the native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai, Philip Glass with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso… and Tom Waits?

After opening with a speech by the Dalai Lama, this 2003 Lincoln Centre concert proceeds in a meditative mood—highlighted by Glass and Suso—until Waits comes out to break the ice by singing songs of damnation and spiritual redemption, accompanied by typically inventive arrangements by the Kronos Quartet, a first-time collaboration that makes this worthwhile for any Waits fan.

While he provides some thunderclouds to contrast the calm of the opening acts, he’s also the most cathartic act of the evening—as evidenced by the rapturous audience response. Perhaps instead of meditating for peace, what we really need is a visceral release where we confront the confusion and realise that—in Waits’ own words—"God’s Away On Business," and it’s up to us to keep the devil "Way Down In the Hole." (July 12, 2007)

Porter WagonerWagonmaster (Anti/Epitaph)

On only his second album in 25 years, Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner doesn’t opt for any modern ornamentation or novelty pop covers, and neither is this a stark recording along the lines of Johnny Cash’s comeback records. Rather, this is a very old school Nashville album, with seasoned session players fleshing out a balance of originals and covers, recorded in three days.

The 79-year old’s new material is mostly written from a widower’s perspective, but this is not a morbid album by any stretch: check out the oddly cheery song about ghostly visitations, called "Be a Little Quieter (If You Can)." Wagoner is not out to make a big deal about his reappearance; rather, this simply picks up where his golden period left off, which is as good an entry point as any for new fans. (July 7, 2007)

Also reviewed, but not reprinted here: Beastie Boys, The Besnard Lakes, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Los Campesinos!, The National, Xavier Rudd, Smashing Pumpkins, Socalled, T.I. If you work for any of these people in any capacity and want a clipping, drop me a line.