Monday, September 24, 2007

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,


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