Thursday, October 16, 2008

Awkward Chic

There’s been much to discuss lately, including a recap of the Polaris Prize gala and some Pop Montreal reportage.

But more immediate concerns spring to mind. Namely, two out-of-towners in Toronto this weekend that could use some attention; both are horribly underrated and I haven’t seen anything in local press about them. I’d been meaning to write something large about each, but autumn being what it is, time has been extremely scarce.

Tonight at the Horseshoe is Vancouver’s The Awkward Stage (they’re on early, at 9pm). Their second album, Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, is one of the only pop records that I’ve been listening to consistently all summer. It’s safe now to say that singer/songwriter Shane Nelken has surpassed his former employer, the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman—at least based on the latest set of songs from each. Nelken writes fantastic classical pop melodies, expands his arrangement skills on this second album, and is the kind of “smart” songwriter that isn’t winking at you in every second phrase or, even worse, flexing his thesaurus for vocab brownie points.

I’m the kind of middle-aged pop fan who’s ready to put all his Elvis Costello albums in a box under the stairs, and has little time for the disciples that now follow. (Though my Joe Jackson love remains, for whatever reason). And yet Nelken never comes off as smug or showy—not even when writing a jazzy waltz called “True Love on Three With Feeling.”

His lyrics here are, for the most part, astounding. Nearly every song either paints a complete narrative portrait or contains plenty of poetic zingers per capita; his turns of phrase and internal rhyme schemes put him up there with Randy Newman; perhaps someday soon even Leonard Cohen, circa I’m Your Man, (although obviously an entirely different tone and a slim fraction of the generational gravitas). There are too many lyrics to quote, but my favourite one in this past month of electioneering is the way Nelken creates a jaunty chorus from the line: “Fear and anger, baby, it’s all I got.”

Yet for all his wordiness, Nelken never tries to cram more words-per-minute to crowd the melody. And the arrangements are universally excellent: the acoustic songs are lush and lovely, while glammed-up guitars give songs like “Hey Modern School Girl” and the raucous “Anime Eyes” more punch than was ever heard on the band’s debut album two years back. “Mini Skirt of Xmas Lights” covers all the band’s bases in one song.

I had a few more things to say about Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights in a CD review here. And I had a long discussion with Nelken when his first album came out in 2006; that is posted here. I’d forgotten that we talked a bit about high school reunions; I’m bound for mine next weekend.

The Awkward Stage play the Horseshoe tonight at 9pm. Later that same night, Halifax’s orchestral pop combo Fall Horsie (the band is better than their name) play Tiger Bar with Toronto heroes Forest City Lovers; I last wrote about the latter here.

Friday night finds Pas Chic Chic returning to Toronto from Montreal. The last time they were here didn’t turn out so well, despite the amazing set they played; I reviewed it here. I’ve also written about their 2008 album Au Contraire here and here. I only caught the last two minutes of their packed Pop Montreal set a couple of weeks back; I’m looking forward to seeing them play in the middle of a strong bill at the El Mocambo, featuring Edmonton’s Wet Secrets (responsible for perhaps the best rock song of 2008, “Get Your Own Apartment”) and Montreal’s We Are Wolves, who were positively explosive at this year’s Hillside Festival. Finer Friday night entertainment you will not find.

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