Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Burning Hell

You don't name your band The Burning Hell unless you're a misanthrope with a sense of humour. Mathias Kom is the ukulele-wielding singer/songwriter behind this loose Peterborough band (note: definitely not a collective, as he explains below), whose joie de vivre and life-affirming live shows offset Kom's comedic curmudgeon persona—a character he pokes plenty of fun at in his self-deprecating and wry lyrics.

Kom started out as a sideman in a late incarnation of the Peterborough band the Silver Hearts, and he shares that band's love of accordions, trumpets, banjos and cabaret songs. Whereas the Silver Hearts revelled in the boozier side of Tom Waits's catalogue (especially Rain Dogs, which they covered in its entirety), Kom garnered plenty of Magnetic Fields comparisons early on—due to his baritone voice, his ukulele, and his love of Cole Porter-ish couplets. But as The Burning Hell have grown, they've not only found their own voice (despite a revolving door line-up, depending on who's available) but they've become the most fun you're likely to have at a live show any time this year.

Their 2008 release Happy Birthday was more of a sad sack affair, but the brand new Baby is raucous and rollicking and covers all their bases: calypso, new wave, punk rock, cinematic instrumentals, and cabaret folk songs.

I first heard of The Burning Hell via my friend (and ex-bandmate) Jenny Mitchell, whose Barmitzvah Brothers project were a favourite of Kom's around the time he was getting The Burning Hell off the ground. The two have plenty in common: a thrift store aesthetic, a love of large bands, the ability to write duets, and a hilarious deadpan observational wit. On top of that, Mitchell's home of Guelph and Kom's adopted home of Peterborough have always existed on parallel axis, with thriving, supportive arts communities and a strong DIY spirit. Mitchell was drafted into the band to play banjo and Omnichord; she and Kom also duet on two of my favourite Burning Hell songs.

Mitchell just finished hosting a week's worth of events at her father's now-defunct (as of today) Family Thrift Store in Guelph, which is being razed for a new downtown library and condos. Artists who performed included Tony Dekker (Great Lake Swimmers), the D'Urbervilles, The Magic, the Sunparlour Players, the (reunited) Barmitzvah Brothers, the (reunited) Neutron Stars (my band with Jenny), and it closed with a rousing performance last night by The Burning Hell. It's no wonder they got the closing slot: they bring a circus with them wherever they go, and they're exactly the kind of band you'd want to dance "the apocalypso" with as the world goes up in flames. Cue what should be the theme song for 2009: "When the World Ends."

I'm telling you right now to go to Hell, starting tonight, April 1, at their hometown release show at the Gordon Best Theatre in Peterborough, followed by the Horsehoe in Toronto on Thursday, April 2, and dates eastward from there, all the way to Newfoundland for three dates mid-month.

The interview below, where Kom and I discuss academia, alcoholism and the apocalypse—and Men Without Hats—was conducted for this article in Exclaim. Exclaim also posted an exclusive non-album MP3 here.

Music and tour dates here.

Most hilarious infomercial explains it all to you here:

Mathias Kom, Burning Hell
March 4, 2009
Locale: phone interview from Vancouver studio, recording new material

How was your Whitehorse winter?
It was amazing. It was good as a hideaway retreat and I got a lot done. It’s an awesome place. I fulfilled a childhood fantasy of dog-mushing, so that alone made it worth it.

What’s the winter population of Whitehorse?
Around 25,000. Which is 80 per cent of the population of the Yukon.

Are you a native of Peterborough?
I moved there to go to school about 12 years ago. I grew up in Winnipeg and Kingston.

I’ve always had a fondness for Peterborough for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that it’s very much like Guelph—only more drunk.
That’s absolutely accurate, although more bad things are happening behind the scenes in Peterborough. I always have this impression of Guelph that people don’t get into trouble there. But people get into trouble in Peterborough.

There is a darkness there, and a lot of bad drunks. I don’t know what the drugs are like there, but there certainly seems to be a lot of alcohol.
Oh, it’s huge.

Any theories?
I have no idea. I’ve lived there for a long time, but I can’t say exactly what it is. The good side of all that is that the parties are fantastic! It’s not an entirely bad thing. And the music scene is incredible.

Yet not many break out of Peterborough. There are a lot of rounders.
That’s true, over the years not a lot of people have done much outside of Peterborough, with the notable exception of the Silver Hearts and some theatre companies. It is such a nice community to make music or do theatre in, and it’s so supportive with so many opportunities. There is a level of comfort there. You can play shows in 10 different bands, five nights a week.

Were you in a later version of the Silver Hearts? I know you ended up poaching most of that band.
I was very briefly. I was the fourth-string guitarist toward the end of their life.

There was a hiatus, so was that the final end?
Yes. And they continually do reunion shows maybe twice a year. For about six months I played acoustic guitar with them.

What did you take from that experience, other than some of the players?
(chuckles). They’re one of my favourite bands of all time. I was very honoured to be sharing a stage with those people, and all the songwriters in that band have written some of my favourite songs ever. On the other hand, in terms of organization, the lesson I learned was that I never, ever want to be in a collective. There are ways to manage a large band and ways not to. There were too many cooks in that band.

So your Hell is a dictatorship.
A benign dictatorship. We all have input, but I want to be in charge. I like that power, and I exercise it kindly.

So you’re not a hippie.
God, no.

One thing that strikes me right off the bat with this new record is that it opens with a birth, the penultimate song is about the end of the world, and the final song is a tonic where we dance our worries away.
There was no concise vision for this album at the beginning, but it turned out nicely.

You are a birth and death kind of writer, however. I know your band had an intimate relationship with pregnancy and birth in the past year. [Jenny Omnichord found out she was on pregnant while on tour in Kingston; her baby Otis can be heard on Baby’s opening and closing tracks.] Are there other babies in the band?
Not yet. I shouldn’t say much more. I myself am committed to not having any kids. But the process of watching Jenny go through pregnancy was fantastic, and it’s been great to watch other friends of mine have the same experience. I don’t personally understand what’s so great about bringing a child into the world.

Because of the world, or because of children?
Both, really. But Otis is great. And it all turns out in the end. But I’m a very anxious person.

On “When the World Ends,” you use the term “apocalypso,” which I feel I’ve heard before. Is that yours or did you crib it from something?
I didn’t consciously steal it. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. I was thinking about that band Apocalyptica, that Metallica cello thing.

What are some of your favourite apocalypse songs?
Hmm. That’s tough. I think more about songs I would like to hear as a soundtrack to the apocalypse.

Like Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again”?
I was thinking of an old Birthday Party song called “Deep in the Woods,” which has nothing to do with the apocalypse, but every time I hear it, I know that’s what I want to hear when the shit hits the fan.

Have you always had an apocalyptic streak, or have events in recent years accelerated this sentiment?
It’s always been there. There are three themes that I’ve always written songs about. One of them is the end of the world, or at least the way we have built a society and a culture obsessed with the end of the world. The other two are fear of life and prolonging life.

Are you a Book of Revelations kind of guy, or a New York Times kind of guy?
Somewhere right in the middle. I get a lot of kicks out of looking at history and the way that all cultures have a beginning-of-the-world myth and everyone talks about the end of the world. Every year there are a thousand new descriptions of what we should be afraid of today or what we will be afraid of tomorrow. The last 10 years have taken it to an extreme in terms of film and video games, and it’s getting to a cartoonish point. The campiness of the end of the world is what interests me now.

What year were you born?

So you’re not that much of a Cold War child.
Not really, no.

I’m 1971, so when I started reading newspapers there was still a very distinct sense that the whole world could end at any second because of nuclear war. But I feel like by the ’90s people were chilled out a bit—perhaps naïvely so.
The ’90s was more about global ethnic conflicts and endangered species. We lost that fascination that I think has come back now—though not in the visceral sense that people had in the ’50s and ’60s. My mom is American and she would tell me stories about doing drills in school and hiding under their desks to prepare for nuclear bombs. That always stuck with me. Collectively, I think we’ve all made this cartoon of global disaster. There is also reality in there, especially with nuclear war—that hasn’t gone way. Politicians have stopped shoving it down our throats, but the threat is still there.

And now it’s rogue missiles. You’re likely not going to be bombed by a government that you might be able to negotiate with.
No, it’s much more uncertain, which makes it harder for people to talk about.

Was the last song [“Everything Will Probably Be Okay”] a necessary tonic after “When the World Ends”?
I wrote the song initially to condense into a song all of the arguments I’ve ever had with Jenny Mitchell, which all stem from the fact that she’s always saying, ‘Don’t worry, relax, everything will work out’—even in the face of certain disaster on tour. I’m always the one that’s stressing out unnecessarily.

The line “tomorrow is just another word for today” sounded familiar to me, so I went to the highest authority and googled it. I came up with a quote from the 2001 World Social Forum in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, from a writer/philosopher named Eduardo Galiano.
I know Eduardo Galiano! Did he say that, really?

“There is no greater truth than search for truth. The system presents itself as eternal. The power system tells us that tomorrow is another word for today.”
That’s fantastic! Now I can say that I’ve quoted a prominent Latin American intellectual. I read a book by him when I was in school at Trent, and I remember liking it a lot. It was called Upside Down: A Primer For The Looking Glass World. Part of why I liked it so much was because many of the dreadlocked suburban kids in the class—this was 1997 at Trent, so that's about half of them—hated the book because it was too negative.

What do you like about his writing?
There was a lot of doom and gloom in the course, and I was struck by how he managed to make all that doom and gloom sound beautiful. He was less of an academic and more of a poet.

What beauty do you find in the gloom?
My group of friends in Peterborough—in addition to throwing great parties—we’re very good at being negative, in entertaining ways, I think. But we’re less sunshine-y than the people I know in Guelph. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve never taken anything particularly seriously. Jenny and her friends have a way of just relaxing, even in the face of bad times, like what’s happening with the Thrift Store right now. I’ve been so impressed by the whole community that’s risen up around this situation. The gloom is always there. There’s always something to be negative about, and I’m good at finding those. But I’m growing as a person now and seeing the silver lining a bit more.

You might even have kids!
I can’t even commit to a dog.

Have you read Voltaire’s Candide?
Many years ago.

Do you and Jenny have a Candide/Pangloss relationship?

What did you go to school for?
I got my B.A. in international studies, and I did my M.A. in migration and ethnic studies.

So this is the reason for songs about Bretton Woods and the Berlin Conference?
Yes. My secret ultimate ambition is to produce a coffee table book about important conferences throughout the ages, with an accompanying soundtrack. The challenge I’ve found so far is that there are all these conferences I want to write about, but historians have not paid enough attention to the mechanics of the conferences, the people who were there and how they interacted. No one was at these things as a social anthropologist, and that’s what interests me. Not so much what came out of the conference, but imagining these people as real people and what their personal politics were like. The challenge is finding that material, because I don’t want to make it up.

Have you read the Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919?

It’s all about how the leaders at the peace conference related to each other, what baggage they all brought with them, how they battled with perceptions at home while they carved up a new Europe after the First World War.
That sounds great. I’ll have to pick that up. My friend Brian has been trying to get me to write about a little-known conference on Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia. He heard my song “Bretton Woods,” and said that’s all well and good because that conference got a lot of press. But Bretton Woods was preceded by this island conference which was a totally secret meeting of all the top heads of finance in the U.S., where they set the gold standard and paved the way for decisions at Bretton Woods. But it’s impossible to find information about the conference itself, other than biographies of who was there. I also want to imagine conferences that maybe never happened, about things that are very real. I imagine a conference about Hammurabi’s Code in Mesopotamia, where they wrote the first example of a written law.

I noticed a couple of snide references to academia on this album. You ask, “Will college kids still be as dumb?” in “When the World Ends,” and in “Animal Hides” there’s a line about how “for once what the students say is true.” How do you feel about the Trent University populace?
I had a great time at Trent and learned a lot from people I was TA’ing. The line in “When the World Ends” is more about Mardi Gras and the way that particularly American college students go to New Orleans and Daytona Beach, and just, uh…

Show us your tits.
Exactly. They turn a town or most of a state into a bad episode of a reality TV show. The students line in “Animal Hides,” I have mixed feelings about university in general. I don’t regret at all going through school, but it’s important to have a balanced perspective on that importance.

I know Trent to be a rather political campus…
Used to be.

Apathy took over?
It’s not apathy. Apathy to me implies that people know something about what’s going on and choose not to do anything. Now, Trent is more a case of people being clueless. Whether or not they would care if they knew what was going on, I’m not sure. There is still a core of activists there trying to do good things, but it’s not the same university it was when I went there. Trent does have a reputation as an activist university and sometimes got national attention for challenging the administration, but I don’t see that now.

Trent, Guelph and York were always known as being shit-disturbers, and now I just think York disturbs enough shit for everybody.
Definitely. They’ve taken the mantle.

The last time two times I saw you play, you covered Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World.” What does that song mean to you?
That song, that band—Men Without Hats in a lot of ways introduced me to music. I have a really fond place in my heart for that band.

Your introduction to the song in Montreal was very heartfelt.
It’s true. Pop Goes the World was the first album I ever bought with my own money, at Portage Place in Winnipeg, when I was 9. I bought the cassette and wore it out and then bought another and wore that out. Then I was introduced to their earlier stuff, and I’m a huge fan.

What else are you covering?
I haven’t played it live yet, but I love “Like a Prayer” by Madonna; I love the choral beginning. And I love playing “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. Love that song.

I’m sorry to hear that.
One of my favourite songs to cover, in all seriousness, is “Love Hurts.”

I just saw Gentleman Reg and Jim Guthrie sing that song as a duet on Valentine’s Day. I’ve always loved that song, but I didn’t realize until then how bad some of the lyrics are.
Definitely, some of them are pretty ouch, but if delivered in the right way they can be fantastic. My favourite version of that song is by Kim Deal and Robert Pollard. And the Everly Brothers are fantastic.

No Nazareth for you?
They probably did the most popular one. They took it to the extreme that maybe it was destined to go to. But I like it when it’s more intimate.

I like Roy Orbison’s too.
Gram Parsons does a great one.

What makes Jenny Mitchell an ideal duet partner for you?
I’ve always been a huge fan of her songwriting. I’ve always thought we had a lot in common.

My favourite song on Happy Birthday was “Municipal Monarchs.”
That came out of a cabaret project I had with Charlie Glasspool. When I first got to know Jenny, long before the Burning Hell existed, I had written that song for Jenny to sing at this cabaret—not as a duet, just to write a song about Guelph and to get Jenny to sing it. She came all the way to Peterborough to sing this one song. I didn’t know her that well at the time. I loved the way the song went. That song is in some ways the story of our friendship.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Juno Awards 2009

I felt like a cheap whore from the moment Nickelback opened the show with "Something In Your Mouth." What better way to open the steaming shit sandwich and parade of prostitution that was the 2009 Juno Awards?

First off, I'm not predisposed to hate the Junos, as every other cred-clinging journo does. I've watched almost every telecast in the last 25 years. The relatively recent makeover of the Junos by CTV and Insight Productions (Canadian Idol), though incredibly tacky, has injected much more life into Canada's overly earnest approach to its star system—for better and worse. The "red carpet" coverage by E-Talk is beyond insipid, the hosting by both comedians and musicians has been uniformly awful, and the high school pep rally approach to regional boosterism is infantile.

But the show is stuffed with live performances, giving plenty of time to newer artists as both performers and presenters, and is a tightly run ship without any slack. I've always felt that Canadian music is rich and diverse enough to have both our shameless starfucking awards show, and a healthy underground that has nothing to do with the former. The Juno Awards, at least the ones that are televised, are about mainstream culture. Have your Polaris party somewhere else, and rest easy that we don't have to put all our cultural wish fulfillment in one basket.

I'm actually predisposed to enjoy awards shows in general--well, really just the Oscars and the Junos--for those rare moments of poetry, the mixture of hubris and humility in the acceptance speeches, and the general spectacle which, even at its worst, can be counted on for camp value (witness last year's wonderfully ridiculous and awesome Jully Black performance).

This year's Junos was absolutely devoid of humour, a horserace, or anything else that can usually be counted on to keep our interest over the course of a pithy two hours of television. Thank god Bryan Adams and Kathleen Edwards were making bedroom eyes at each other the whole time, on stage and off. Otherwise the most scandalous part of the whole evening would be the fact that Elvis Costello stuttered while uttering the word punk, a mere minute before he was forced to exclaim the word "Nickelback!" while announcing the winner of Album of the Year.

Host Russell Peters was no help, especially in his attempts at being racy--and racial. "Hey, I hear Sarah McLachlan is single. Hey Sarah, don't let one brown guy mess it up for the rest of us!" Jokes about coke and Steven Page didn't fare much better. Peters must be the reason that we were constantly reminded after commercial breaks that this show contained "mature" content, but Peters would have been funnier—and at about the same level of "maturity"—if he shut the fuck up and made music with his armpits instead.

The veterans who were trotted out to present awards looked out of place and slightly baffled. Pairing k.d. lang and Buffy Ste. Marie to present the songwriter of the year award was inspired; Buffy was probably wondering why lang didn't include her on Hymns to the 49th Parallel, a tribute to all the other great Canadian songwriters of the boomer generation. For her part, lang was probably wondering why anyone thought to nominate Hedley in a songwriting category. You know Hedley--the mall punk band who dress like the Crew Cuts, or a cruise ship wait staff. R&B veteran Deborah Cox presented an award with a shamelessly self-promoting Kreesha Turner, who started singing her single for no apparent reason; Cox looked suitably embarrassed for the poor young girl.

Shortly afterwards, the token appearance by the country's heritage minister is even stranger this year because a) James Moore is a giant, towering over the two country music nobodies he's presenting with; and b) Moore couldn't have looked less excited to be celebrating Canadian culture. But honestly--can you blame him? He actually looked like he was going to cry, and for an all-too-brief moment I felt I saw some humanity in his eyes—until I remembered that he told the red carpet team (aka The CTV Cross-Promotional Juggernaut) that he was most excited to see Nickelback. Ah well, only a Conservative cabinet minister could call The Stills "Best New Group" with a straight face. I'm also curious if he had a few words with Jian Ghomeshi (manager of Best New Artist, Lights) about CBC funding.

Kardinal Offishall won well-deserved Junos for both Hip-Hop Recording of the Year and Best Single. He wasn't there to accept, claiming to be in Europe; he was probably still nursing an East Coast/West Coast beef from the year that his shocked mug was captured on camera after losing to the then-unknown Swollen Members. In a videotaped acceptance speech, he attempts to start a beef with Nickelback. Shoot any turkeys lately?

All-around good guy Sam Roberts played his song about how "the kids these days don't dance to rock'n'roll;" Russell Peters introduced it by telling Roberts that "only the white kids don't know how to dance." Wow, how edgy. (And truth be told, it doesn't look like most of Roberts' stationary band knows how to dance to rock'n'roll either.)

The musical highlight of the first hour was supposed to be Sarah McLachlan, peddling her Greatest Hits-padding new divorce song with an all-star band of Luke Doucet, Melissa McClelland and Jim Creeggan. Wearing some kind of potato sack top that was supposed to distract us from her mysteriously morphing visage—which is the subject of plastic surgery rumours among the ladies I know who claim to notice these things—McLachlan made a bid to become the new Celine Dion, singing more with her arms than her actual voice. I kept waiting for the chest bump. "It's so confusing," she sings in part of the chorus. No kidding—who are you and what have you done with Sarah McLachlan?

Halfway through the broadcast, the best Canadian music I'd heard so far was "Living On Video" by '80s Quebecois synth pop band Trans X, featured in a new Diet Pepsi ad.

Songwriter of the Year Dallas Green performed as City and Colour with special guest Gordon Downie, who was sage at centre stage waiting for his verse, his hands awkwardly crossed over his crotch like a schoolboy waiting for a pee break. Green is dressed like a nerdy accountant in a '70s heist film who's always the first to get bumped off. Thankfully, the only tasteful set design of the entire evening happened to accompany one of the only half-decent performances.

Too bad Loverboy didn't perform; it would have been more exciting than the four individual yet equally earnest and dull speeches each member gave, thanking just about everyone except the drum tech on their 1982 tour. Mike Reno is dressed like a casino manager or a Sopranos extra. In keeping with the '80s nostalgia theme, the guy who used to produce K-Tel commercials was hired to assemble the Loverboy retrospective. I suppose a tacky band deserves tacky packaging. Having Bob Rock introduce them was fine, but more than any other moment of the evening, this is when the Junos needed Nardwuar the Human Serviette, to apply the appropriate amount of respect and ridiculousness that a band like Loverboy demands. They credit their late bassist for giving them "the gift of eloquence"—uh, if that's true, the guy must be turning in his grave after hearing these speeches. (Apparently Bruce Allen advised them not to perform. Clearly, his days of sound management are behind him.)

That the Pepsi Fan Choice Award goes to Nickelback surprises no one but the band themselves. Chad Kroeger looks as shocked and stunned as if he'd just won the Polaris, not the Pepsi prize. Does this mean "Something In Your Mouth” will be the new Pepsi ad campaign? One of the other Nickelbacks accepts the award by saying, "This is why we still don't have a real job." No shit. Judging by the, uh, difficulty that, uh, these four guys have putting, uh, putting a sentence, you know, together on, uh, national television, they'd be laughed out of every job interview.

One of the parade of awkward athletes, who is there to promote CTV's Olympic coverage 12 months from now, claims in a monotone that: "We. Are. Very. Excited. To present this next performer. He is really. Rock. And. Roll.” And here comes Bryan Adams! Playing his classic "Cuts Like a..." Oh wait, he's playing a new song, solo acoustic no less, as a duet with Kathleen Edwards, her violin, and her breasts. (As she herself commented on the red carpet: "I had boobs. Who knew?") Musically, the chemistry is there, and the song, while no great shakes, is decent enough, but we're distracted by the army brat staring at the diplomat's daughter with googly eyes the entire time, seemingly oblivious to the tens of thousands of people in the arena waiting to yell, "Get a room!"

When Sam Roberts wins Artist of the Year, the look on his face tells us that he's been as bored and disgusted by the past two hours as the rest of us, and suddenly realizes that he's won a big award and should be excited about it. He gives a gracious, almost teary speech, before he and his band are shuffled off the stage.

Elvis Costello presented the Album of the Year award with Diana Krall. He is there because (in order of importance): a) he has a new CTV show, b) because he married into B.C. pop royalty and c) because people think he's Someone Important despite selling a fraction of the numbers that Bryan Adams has over the same time period. The nominees are a steaming shit sandwich, including two Quebecois albums that are tributes to the '70s and '80s (the former is redundantly faithful; the latter is campy acoustic versions of the likes of "Pump Up the Jam"), and mall punks Hedley and Simple Plan. Anyone who's ever been a fan of anything Elvis Costello has ever done starts projectile vomiting upon hearing him exclaim the winner's name: "Nickelback!" And Chad Kroeger quickly puts all those Costello fans (aka music journalists) in their place with a smug smile and cracking, "Oh, man, the press are going to love this."

The evening closes with a tedious mash-up of Great Big Sea's histrionic "Gallow's Pole," Hawksley Workman's guitar wankery, and Guelph's worldbeat remixers Eccodek on hand percussion. It's a mess. (I feel bad for Eccodek, who are acquaintances of mine, but it's not like anyone will remember the guys in the back with three seconds of screen time.) And after two hours of booing my screen and needing a bath, I feel positively ashamed to be a Canadian music fan. I spent the rest of the night apologizing to my girlfriend for making her watch it.

Thank you, Juno Awards. I'm going to go burn a flag now.

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 08 reviews

Reviews from the last 90 days that ran in the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Bibio – Vignetting the Compost (Mush)

In an alternate universe, Bibio is a nice little acoustic folk band, the kind you stumble across at a local café or a tree-laden side stage at a folk festival. As it is, the music of this one-man project sounds like the British folk music that Bibio’s Stephen Wilkinson grew up with—if it were being played on old tape machines that were deteriorating during the recording process (much like the compost of the title, perhaps). Everything sounds off-kilter, broken and a wee bit wobbly, which only adds to the mystique and charm of this oddball album, which is firmly rooted in folk traditions but treated with enough psychedelic discombobulation to take it to a whole other level. Bibio was discovered by the equally entrancing Boards of Canada; if that duo ditched their synths and drum machines to go unplugged, it might sound something like this. (K-W Record, February 26)

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti)

That Neko Case is a powerful singer is a given. That she’s meticulous in the studio is also clear from her increasingly abstract output of minor-key and moody waltzes. But while she’s always been a fine lyricist, the key step forward on Middle Cyclone is her way with imagistic wordplay, coupled with some of the more personal lyrics she’s written in years.

It’s suitable, then, that these dreamlike images are accompanied by dusty music boxes, detuned guitars, a barn full of deteriorating pianos (literally—as she explains in every recent interview), saxophones, and analog synthesizers, which all take full advantage of the tabula rasa that her open-ended songs provide.

Her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which was years in the making, suffered from the sound of being overcooked: every tiny moment sounded like the belaboured work of a perfectionist, diminishing Case’s raw talents. “I hear the tiniest sparks in the tenderest sounds,” she sings here, only now she’s learned to loosen her grips again and allow small surprises to happen throughout Middle Cyclones.

That said, there are still moments that are unnecessarily stiff. It’s entirely in character for Case to write a cheeky line like “I’m a maneater/ and still you’re surprised when I eat ya”—and yet her delivery of it is far too formal and mannered for such a campy sentiment, which would be much suited to a raw garage rocker co-written with the Sadies. (Although it should be noted that Case is likely being quite literal with that song, sung from the POV of a wild carnivore.)

Yet if this is Case’s finest hour as a lyricist and a producer, her songs themselves still sound like they’re written as afterthought—random snippets colliding and grafted together, depending on the strength of her voice to tie everything together. Which it inevitably does, but when she covers pop oddballs like Sparks and Harry Nilsson here, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear her wrap her lungs around a melody with a sense of direction.

But then, Neko Case is never one to settle for easy answers, and Middle Cyclone is as intriguing, beautifully flawed, evocative and powerful as any of her best work. (K-W Record, March 5)

Amelia Curran – War Brides (Six Shooter)

This Newfoundland/Halifax songwriter claims, “I am just a Tuesday in a world of Friday nights.” But if Friday nights are for rowdy carousing, Tuesdays are for the simplest of pleasures and routines. That’s not to say they’re dull—despite her demure coffee-house exterior, Amelia Curran is a far cry from the milquetoast mistresses of easy Sunday mornings. She sings like she understands both heartbreak and the trials of integrity: “I gave away my heart but I’m gonna keep my soul.” Her engaging performance is one thing; her songs themselves would survive even the worst singer, being the kind of timeless Maritime-tinged folk songs that already sound like they’ve been sung a thousand times. Curran only needs a single guitar to convey her songwriting strength, but her engineer Phil Sedore knows exactly when to add the smallest touches of mandolin, cello, accordion or trombone that make all the difference.

In creativity and commerce, Curran shares similarities with her fellow Newfoundland expat Don Brownrigg, who put out an astounding 2008 album called Wander Songs; they both released their albums locally before being re-released by prominent Toronto independent labels in the past 12 months. War Brides first came out in 2006 and garnered her a couple of East Coast Music Award nominations; now is the time for the rest of the nation to take notice. (K-W Record, February 19)

Julie Doiron – I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day (Endearing)

For a songwriter who has built a career on writing sad songs that are also intensely personal, Doiron defies expectations by bookending her new album with songs titled “The Life of Dreams” and “Glad To Be Alive.” In between, that change of attitude is marked by her ever-increasing confidence as a performer—as opposed to the often painfully meek amateurish performances that belied her strength as a writer—as well as a willingness to explore approaches and textures that break her out of the grunge/folk ghetto she’s been in for almost two decades now. As on her last proper album, the 2006 Polaris-nominated Woke Myself Up, her midwife is her ex-Eric’s Trip bandmate Rick White, who knows how to push her into her best performances.

While this all bodes well for Doiron’s evolution as an artist, the material here doesn’t measure up to either Woke Myself Up or her 2008 collaboration with Mt. Eerie, Lost Wisdom—both of which were career highlights. Doiron still sounds best at her saddest and spookiest—which she does in a few instances here, but not so much when she’s singing songs like “Nice To Come Home.”

When an artist has made a career out of vulnerability and detailed diary entries, it’s difficult to knock them for suddenly being happy; if anything, this prompts a larger discussion about whether misery, not mirth, always makes better music. (K-W Record, March 26)

Faunts – Feel. Love. Thinking. Of. (Friendly Fire)

There are bands that try to sound like ’80s new wave and miss the mark; there are bands who nail the sound but bring nothing new to the table, especially songs. Faunts are a band who use plenty of tools that date back more than 20 years, but sound entirely modern—making the ’80s sound better than you remember them. There are elements of recent Radiohead, Junior Boys and the Notwist in Faunts’ nod to chilly soundscapes, melancholy moods and New Order fixations, where intricate guitar interplay underscores the synth lines and crooning vocals. The production is also top notch, putting the album in the same league as any number of inifinitely higher profile British bands. After debuting with a couple of earlier sleepy releases, this could be the one to put this Edmonton band on the map. (K-W Record, February 26)

Robyn Hitchcock – Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc)

In 2008, Robyn Hitchcock had another one of his many close calls with the mainstream, when his longtime friend and fan Jonathan Demme cast him as a rather unorthodox wedding singer in the Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married. Hitchcock doesn't have a lot of straightforward love songs in his long discography, but “Up To Our Nex” is actually one of them, and suited the film perfectly.

That song appears here, the 20th album in his prolific career, and the second with a backing band called The Venus 3, featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on guitar (as well as two R.E.M. sidemen, who are enjoying their own creative renaissance these days). Hitchcock must always be approached with caution: though he's a lovably enigmatic pop songwriter with occasionally absurdist phrasing, it's rare that his charm lasts the length of an entire album. When the first song on Goodnight Oslo finds him singing, "Ring my chimes I'm a ding-dong daddy," you have every reason to be trepidatious—especially when he punctuates it with a "yes, siree!"

And yet Goodnight Oslo is a surprisingly solid and rewarding album, the first Robyn Hitchcock release in years—if not more than a decade—that could actually appeal to someone other than Robyn Hitchcock fans. His trademark British drawl is still an acquired taste, but it's bolstered by lovely backing vocals throughout—including some by devout acolyte Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. Buck's presence is obvious, especially on the jangly “Your Head Here,” which sounds like a riff borrowed from any of the first three R.E.M. records.

Ultimately, however, it's best to approach this without any baggage. As the man himself says, "It doesn't matter what you was, it's what you is/ and what you is, is what you are." (K-W Record, February 26)

Lucie Idlout – Swagger (Sun Rev)

Lucie Idlout is a rare type of female rocker, who doesn’t sound like she’s either auditioning for Canadian Idol or trying to be anything but the mainstream rocker she is—existing somewhere in the netherworld between PJ Harvey and Alannah Myles. Idlout possesses a rich, complex voice that can be compelling over acoustic guitars, minor key keyboards or a raging rock rhythm section. And she’s got a few chips on her shoulder: most of her characters deal with domestic abuse, alcoholism, or both; some are small town girls lost to big city prostitution, walking the line with “high heels on a gravel road” (a much more compelling image than Lucinda Williams’ comparatively drab car wheels). While Idlout expresses obvious concern for her characters, she’s not a sympathetic softie who’s willing to wallow—she closes the album singing, “When you’re tired and feeling down … I won’t be there for you.” The title is not an idle boast; she’s got swagger, and it’s evident on every track here. (K-W Record, February 19)

Handsome Furs – Face Control (Sub Pop)

With “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues,” Handsome Furs tip their collective hat to both the talking blues—the classic American songwriting style popularized by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan—and to Cold War culture, that provides plenty of inspiration here. It’s indicative of their ability to merge melodies that may well be old folk or blues standards, and marry them to Cold War-era machinery. The latter is underscored by an obsession with Russian culture: Vladimir Putin’s mug adorns the back cover, song titles include “Nyet Spasiba” and “Radio Kaliningrad,” and the album title refers to a bizarre elitist entry requirement at Moscow nightclubs.

Their electronics aren’t the only throwback to 30 years ago; like acts of that era, Handsome Furs also share a love of early rock’n’roll and, by extension, the blues: howling vocals drenched in reverb, bent guitar notes and a primitive, raw approach to music-making—all elements that were lost in the ’80s with the intoxicating acceleration of technology and the smooth edges demanded when synth pop went mainstream. While crisp and pristine, Perry’s electronics are rich in speaker-rattling bottom end, providing a perfectly tinny tension with Dan Boeckner’s ghetto guitar sounds, which come alive brushing against the constraints of his mechanized rhythm section—a combination which is much more danceable here than on their comparatively dour debut album Plague Park.

Even better, however, are Boeckner’s vocals, which are much more compelling against a sparse backdrop than they are amidst the cluttered mess that was the last Wolf Parade album. It’s still thrilling when he reaches down the back of his throat for a raspy punk rock howl, but just as often he slips into an uncharacteristic croon that suits him well—he’s a classier guy than he lets on.

Handsome Furs sound very much like a mash-up of the most visceral elements of developing rock’n’roll culture from the last 50 years, but not in any pompously self-conscious or campy way. Like all great rock’n’roll, the best thing about it is that it sounds effortless. (K-W Record, March 12)

K’naan – Troubadour (Universal)

K’naan’s story sells itself: born in Mogadishu, Somalia, to a family of poets and singers, he escaped to Harlem during the civil war and settled in Toronto, where he taught himself English by listening to hip-hop. His first album got international attention, won a Juno, and led him to working in Jamaica with Bob Marley’s children on a highly anticipated second album.

This makes for a great story on the CBC, but Troubadour is a thrilling pop album from beginning to end, starting with the swaggering hip-hop of “T.I.A.” (This is Africa) and the big horn riff and children’s chorus of “ABC’s,” and from there to the boisterous pop of “Bang Bang” (which survives a Maroon 5 cameo) to the Ethiopian jazz samples of “America” and even the cheesy ballads like “Fatima” or the strident optimism of “Waving Flag.” The sole misstep is the re-recording of “If Rap Gets Jealous,” which appeared on his first album, done here to diminished effect with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on guitar.

Troubadour kicks off with K’naan promising to take “rappers on a field trip to Africa.” Tales of his youth and the ongoing tribulations of his relatives in Somalia inform most of his narratives, whether he’s discussing war-torn streets or waiting for Western Union transfers. “We’re from the only place worse than Kandahar, and that’s kind hard,” he says, but later adds: “I take inspiration from the most heinous situations/ creating medication out of my own tribulations.” Indeed, his love for life is evident in every groove heard here; preaching is kept to a minimum, though there’s no denying his message.

Troubadour is a triumph, not just for Canadian music but for international hip-hop, with the kind of uniting appeal along the lines of Lauryn Hill’s debut album: a genre-defying, cross-generational and inspirational confluence of charisma and choice material. (K-W Record, March 12)

Loney Dear – Dear John (Polyvinyl)

If Emil Svanängen wasn’t a home-recording enthusiast, it’s almost conceivable that this Swedish songwriter might have a career as a hitmaker for teeny techno-pop sensations. On this, his fourth album, his melodies are set to increasingly energetic, thumping beats with insanely catchy la-la-la choruses that are just the kind of earworms that radio hits are made of. Of course, because he writes primarily in minor keys, it’s unlikely that Svanängen’s would translate to a pop crowd looking for mirth over melancholy.

Loney Dear imagines an improbable world where Moby and Elliot Smith made an album together—and it didn’t suck. Early ’90s synths make Dear John sound oddly dated, but they’re hardly enough to distract from the songcraft. Svanängen likes to layer his songs slowly: they often start with next to nothing except a melody and guitar, before a glistening glockenspiel slowly introduces a chorus melody, the drum programming builds insistently, and then the string section or Scandinavian choir comes in like a vision of northern lights before Svanängen steps back into his bedroom and unplugs everything one instrument at a time. Loney Dear is a class act and Dear John is Svanängen’s finest album to date; hopefully his move to a smaller indie label won’t let it get lost in the shuffle. (K-W Record, March 19)

Buddy & Julie Miller – Written in Chalk (New West)

Buddy Miller is one of the most in-demand sidemen in Nashville, recording and touring with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Solomon Burke, and most recently Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. His wife Julie is a respected songwriter, covered by Dixie Chicks, Brooks and Dunn, and dozens more. “You and me are gasoline and matches,” they sing together, and they light plenty of sparks when they bring their own material to life.

Buddy’s guitar playing is never flamboyant—he’s a great guitarist and doesn’t need to prove it, least of all on his solo album. Instead, he digs his teeth in vocally on fiddle-driven laments for bygone days, raw bluesy rockers, and gritty country songs. Both he and Julie have a nasal Nashville twang, though hers is better suited to harmony than taking the lead on trumpet-laden torch songs (“A Long Long Time”). When she’s singing songs as good as “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” however, it’s hard to complain.

Written in Chalk will no doubt be beloved by musicians and songwriters first and foremost, but don’t be surprised to hear songs like “Hush Sorrow,” “One Part Two Part” and “Ellis County” make their way into other people’s repertoire sooner than later—though chances are nothing will beat these originals. It’s Miller time for all serious Americana fans. (K-W Record, March 19)

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – s/t (independent)

Listening to Olenka and the Autumn Lovers, it easy enough to imagine that it’s 1988 at a 3 a.m. basement speakeasy in Krakow. It’s late enough to still raise a glass, but the hour is sobering enough to be contemplating the chances that glimmers of hope might actually conquer decades of fear, never mind the uncertain future that lies ahead either way.

Olenka Krakus opens her debut album with the ominous line: “It was a dark and stormy night when we were headed out of town,” which is a perfect introduction to both her music and its history. She grew up in Communist Poland before her family moved to Vancouver; she assembled her Autumn Lovers in London, Ontario and recorded this remarkable debut largely live off the floor in Kingston and Vancouver. Accordion, violin, cello, clarinet and upright bass colour her own classical guitar accompaniment, playing minor key melancholy that’s perfectly suited to her slightly androgynous voice. Klezmer scales and haunting five-part harmonies will have you weeping in your wine glass and waltzing your troubles away.

For a band that’s less than a year old—and with two other EPs already to their credit—Olenka and the Autumn Lovers have made a remarkably accomplished debut that sounds like the career pinnacle of a long-lost East European treasure only now getting reissued by a North American enthusiast. Instead, she’s alive and well and just getting started. (K-W Record, March 12)

Joel Plaskett – Three (New Scotland/Maple)

Joel Plaskett loves vinyl records, old-time country music, ’70s classic rock, ’60s soul, making music with your parents, and songwriter circles on the CBC. He’s not the kind of guy who worries about current trends—nor the collapse of the music industry. This might explain why, in 2009, he’s putting out a three-CD set, with nine songs per disc, the vast majority of them clocking in right around the three-minute mark. No matter what he’s up to with this numerology, Plaskett has been one of Canada’s most consistently reliable songwriters for a decade now—and this album is a prime example—so he can be afforded plenty of slack.

Most artists have trouble filling a single disc with worthy tracks; Plaskett defies all expectations by not only refusing to let any clunkers through, but also avoiding any indulgent experimentation that usually accompanies such a large endeavour. Three touches on all of Plaskett’s strengths, ranging from quiet intimacy to what sound like lo-fi drum machine demos to high gloss. Remarkably, however, Three maintains a consistent tone throughout: there’s little of the power pop that he performs with the Joel Plaskett Emergency (last heard on 2006’s Ashtray Rock), but plenty of female vocals, horn sections, country touches, and more of a Maritime/Celtic influence than ever heard in his music before—all are decorative rather than distracting.

As he embarks on his first headlining theatre tour Plaskett leaves no doubt that he’s a lifer who’s building a songbook that’s going to help define his generation of Canadian songwriters. At this rate, he’ll be booking a full week at Massey Hall next year—with enough quality songs for different set lists every night. (K-W Record, March 26)

United Steel Workers of Montreal – Three on the Tree (Weewerk)

After a long day at the steel plant, who wouldn’t want to kick back with an old-timey string band singing songs about local legends of axe-wielding murdering jealous whores of Griffintown, finding dead women in the river, or confronting your father’s killer? The United Steelworkers of Montreal have a few slightly more lighthearted songs about busted picket lines and class warfare and the nihilism of hockey riots—just to mix it up a bit. These three songwriters and four singers (and two silent instrumentalists) tap into Montreal’s rich roots and bluegrass communities and lots of local lore. Help them raise a glass to working-class woes when they hit the Trans-Canada this month. (K-W Record, March 12)

U2 – No Line on the Horizon (Universal)

No Line on the Horizon—the image suggests a big blank space. Which is the feeling one is left with after U2’s twelfth album, where they face down a midlife crisis by trying to recreate every single stage of their career—starting with the decision to employ not only longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as producers once again, but also Steve Lillywhite, who was at the helm of their first three albums in the early ’80s, when they first defined their expansive, stadium sound.

It doesn’t begin well. The opening title track borrows a riff directly from 1991’s “Zoo Station” and slows it down to a sludgy, uninspired crawl toward long-lost glories. That’s followed immediately by “Magnificent,” which could be lifted directly from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire (albeit a good sign). However, by the time they reach the new single “Get On Your Boots”—which pops up halfway through the track listing—they’ve resorted to ripping off Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” with a bizarre drum break from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” thrown in the middle, while Bono wails: “let me in the sound!”

“Moment of Surrender” has the potential to be a big beautiful ballad on par with “One,” until Bono’s supposedly soaring chorus instead sinks with lyrics about seeing a “vision of invisibility” while “punching in the numbers at an ATM machine” and being ignored by passers-by. What this is about is anyone’s guess—maybe he had all his money in Icelandic bank accounts. Lyrics aside, this is the finest performance here by the rest of the band, including a supple and seductive rhythm section and The Edge’s textural guitar and backing vocals.

There are more than enough signs here that U2 want to be a viable artistic entity again, and not just The Biggest Band in the World. If they don’t exactly succeed, there are only a few outright clunkers (something called “Stand Up Comedy” being one of them); many of the highlights betray the heavy influence of Eno and Lanois, who are granted co-writing credits for the first time in their 25-year association with the band. (And Eno fans would be well-advised to check out his other recent collaboration with an ’80s pop icon, Talking Heads’ David Byrne—who ages gracefully seemingly without effort.)

There are enough signifiers here to please fans of any stage of U2’s career, but none of it either holds a candle to past achievement. Now that they’re approaching their third decade together, U2 today is what the Rolling Stones were in the 80s: possessive of a singular sound and a huge personality, but without any idea what to do with either. Hopefully U2 take the promise heard here and heed their own advice: “restart and reboot yourself; you’re free to go.” (K-W Record, March 5)

M. Ward – Hold Time (Merge)

M. Ward is a man of the subtlest charms. He’s an astounding guitarist, although he rarely lets on by showboating. He’s a seductive vocalist who never raises his voice, forcing you to lean in closer. He can write songs that sound like dusty, long-lost folk or country classics, yet somehow you barely notice the fleeting melodies. If anything, M. Ward’s principal strength is his production skill, which was fully unleashed on his 2008 album She & Him, a collaboration with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel that served as an ode to early 70s AM radio pop.

On Hold Time, M. Ward pushes himself with new textures that find him bathing in reverb, Brian Eno-esque sepia-toned synthesizers, and languid loveliness throughout. It’s the first time in his solo work that Ward has fully embraced the studio and relished in every minor detail, to the point where the sound of this record is as important as any of the actual songs on it. The least successful—and most distracting—tracks are the ones that draw attention to themselves, such as a painful and tortuous Lucinda Williams duet, or a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” that manages to be worse than John Mellencamp’s. Otherwise, this is the most satisfying M. Ward recording since his breakthrough 2003 album The Tranfiguration of Vincent. (K-W Record, February 19)

William Elliot Whitmore – Animals in the Dark (Anti)

Spoiler alert: William Elliot Whitmore is only 30 years old. You’d never know it, listening to this—his fourth album and first for the Anti label—and maybe you’ll even enjoy it more if you believe that he’s a Southern gospel preacher twice his age, one with a lifetime of betrayal, suspicion and disappointment behind him. Right from the opening track, “Mutiny,” he calls for mass insurrection on a stirring call-and-response field holler that’s as profane as it is profound. He spends the next 47 minutes railing against wars without end, old devils, running from Johnny Law, and a lifetime underground; he closes with a song titled “A Good Day To Die.” Not once does he sound like he’s a youngster putting on ancient airs, which even icons like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits did in their overly self-conscious youth. Instead, you believe every word out of Whitmore’s mouth; he sounds like Solomon Burke singing Springsteen’s Nebraska, only with an apocalyptic bent. This album is astounding enough on its own merits; accompanied by the headlines of 2009, it hits that much harder. (K-W Record, February 19)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! (Universal)

Once one of the most exciting rock bands of the decade, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rushed headlong into irrelevancy with 2005’s stillborn and toothless Show Your Bones, an album devoid of danger or any inclination that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be able to age gracefully. Their reinvention and resurrection heard here means that the exclamation point in It’s Blitz! isn’t just a cheap signifier.

Shedding their garage rock roots entirely, It’s Blitz! finds guitarist Nick Zinner bringing synths to the forefront, enhancing the post-punk disco that was always an undercurrent in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound. While his blasts of white noise and rockabilly abandon are missed, his new approach avoids many of the clichés of the neo-new wave revival. Karen O is nowhere near the banshee she once was, and it’s obvious that she sinks her teeth into the slower, more atmospheric tracks here—none of which have the pop potential of their 2004 hit "Maps," but are no less affecting.

It’s Blitz! is obviously the work of a group who are all now on the other side of 30—they’re less convincing when they try to act tough. Despite its title, “Heads Will Roll” doesn’t suggest than any such thing will happen. Yet even the weakest moments here still sound inspired; she may not be the firebrand she used to be, but Karen O still has charisma to burn, and her backing boys are the perfect match. (K-W Record, March 26)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Gentleman Reg

You've seen his striking face at seemingly every show in Toronto. You've heard him sing on a dozen albums by the likes of the Hidden Cameras, Jim Guthrie and the Constantines. You may not know Gentleman Reg, but now—with the international release of his finest album, Jet Black, on Arts and Crafts—you most certainly will.

I've had the pleasure of knowing Reg Vermue for over ten years, when we both lived in Guelph. The first time I ever heard him was when he was hosting an overnight shift on the campus station CFRU; he was funny, had a distinctive voice, was extremely awkward and unprepared behind the mixing board, and was playing amazing music—probably a mix of the Breeders and Prince, two of his most formative influences. He later drafted me to play keyboards on his debut album, The Theoretical Girl; he was very green as a songwriter and guitarist and I was (am) a very meat-and-potatoes musician who needs to know what the chords are. We've both done much better things since.

The album was a decent debut, but he wouldn't start coming into his own until 2002's Make Me Pretty, by which point he was part of the vibrant and influential Three Gut Records scene (Royal City, Constantines) which helped revitalize Toronto's independent music scene. He was also an important member of the Hidden Cameras, providing angelic harmonies that were perfectly suited for the long notes of Joel Gibb's melodies.

But despite his visibility, Reg has always languished in the periphery; he's everyone's best friend, but could rarely get arrested for his solo material. And when you're in the circles of people like Final Fantasy, the Constantines, Jim Guthrie, Broken Social Scene and Stars, it's hard to live up to those standards.

Reg is nothing if not tireless, however, and he continued to improve his craft until people couldn't help but take notice. Each album has been a huge improvement over the last, and Jet Black has been well worth the five-year wait. It's his first album that has a serious push behind it, and it's the perfect timing for a proper coming-out party: it's by far his best work.

Because I know him personally, I know how frustrating it was for him to shop Jet Black around before finally getting the green light from Arts and Crafts—which is ultimately a perfect fit, seeing how all of his biggest supporters and peers are somehow now connected with the label. His dear old friend Liz Powell (Land of Talk) is the newest member of Broken Social Scene; BSS often invite him on stage to sing one of his own songs in their set; his fellow Three Gut refugees the Constantines joined the roster last year; Hidden Cameras are also part of the fold.

Whether or not Arts and Crafts came on board, however, I knew that Reg would never give up. In 1998, when he was still in Guelph, he was the hustler behind a compilation of local artists called The Goods, which was remarkable for maintaining consistent excellence, and is a perfect time capsule of the late '90s indie rock scene in that city. One of the artists on The Goods was the Valentines, a short-lived but legendary local band that featured a young Liz Powell, an even younger Evan Gordon (Sad Clowns, The Magic), James Ogilvie (now a sound engineer for Neko Case, Arcade Fire and others) and Coby Dowdell (Pussy Chute). Their contribution was a song called "Rewind," which Reg has been covering for years, and does on Jet Black as a duet with Katie Sketch of The Organ. It contains the unforgettable chorus: "There's no point in going back/ when our masterpiece is crumbling."

Except that Reg's masterpiece didn't crumble. It's out right now for all the world to finally hear.

Gentleman Reg plays March 11 at the Montreal House in Peterborough before playing Canadian Music Week on March 12 at the Horseshoe. He'll also be at SXSW.

Jet Black is streaming here.

Gentleman Reg
February 25, 2009
Locale: Semolina Bakery on Ossington Ave.

There a drum fill that opens the record, and then you jump right in. It sounds like you’ve been waiting five years to burst out of the gate.

It’s true. This went through so many track listings and orders. For a long time “When Heroes Change Professions” was the first track, but I didn’t want to start on a slow note. I wanted to really announce the opening.

How long did you actually work on the album? When did you start?

Darby and Joan came out near the end of 2004. In December 2006 we went into the studio and recorded the first beds. The first couple of months of 2007 we recorded and mixed. Later in the year we recorded “Rewind” and added “We’re In a Thunderstorm,” which I had done before anything. Then I spent 2007 shopping it around. Once Arts and Crafts picked it up, it sat around for almost all of 2008.

Did it not go through incarnations? Didn’t you re-do stuff?

Yes. In April 2007 it was done, but I thought, ‘Oh, it’s okay. It’s not amazing.’ It took a long time to get back to it, because [producer] Dave Draves is in Ottawa. That’s when I added “Rewind” and the dance song. I’d wanted to do “Rewind” for ten years. The band had played it as a rock version for a while, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I realized it needed to be more of a Cat Power version to work. We also cut a lot of songs down on the computer. The original version of the album was over an hour, which is way too long. It’s hard to have perspective sometimes, and you think, ‘All these songs are great!’ But a six-minute piano ballad is a lot to ask of people, even it’s an amazing song. There was another eight-minute song in there too, and where do you put something like that on a pop record?

Many young artists think that the first version of a song is the way it always has to be. This, however, sounds like a lot of ideas condensed and distilled. It’s also about surrendering your ego, having someone else in the room telling you that a certain part doesn’t need those two extra bars, or whatever.

I did let go of my ego a lot. I stopped thinking of these songs as precious things that couldn’t be touched. There’s lots of reasons for that. One is that the subject matter isn’t entirely autobiography; there’s much more fiction. When I had the original version of the album, I’d ask myself, why isn’t this amazing? With “Heroes” we turned a four-minute song into a three-minute song, and it’s way better “How We Exit” was written on guitar as a pop song, but once we started messing with it, we came up with this new wave, high energy bass line. That was me, [drummer] Greg [Millson] and [Ohbijou’s] Heather [Kirby, Reg’s bass player for a couple of years], and now it’s such a better song. For “We’re in a Thunderstorm,” Shaw-Han Liem gave me a beat with a couple of chord changes and a guitar loop, and I was told to make a song. I had to structure the whole thing, and it was a whole new way of writing that was exciting.

It’s more freeing when you’re not worrying about every chord underneath.

And because I don’t think of myself as a guitar player and I don’t know music theory, I get limited with chord progressions. I never would have wrote the “Thunderstorm” melody if he hadn’t given me that beat.

Was the sound of “Thunderstorm” one direction you were thinking of pursuing entirely? Would that be your own Hercules and Love Affair?

I wanted to do something different. I talked to a couple of DJs and producers. Most of them were interested, but couldn’t understand that I wanted to do something like early Bjork. I couldn’t verbalize it exactly. But then Shaw-Han Liem [I Am Robot and Proud] and I worked on a whole bunch of stuff. We have about five songs. It was fascinating, because his stuff is instrumental and not verse-chorus and it’s so much more out there. It was fascinating for him to hear me say, ‘Okay, this is the verse and it’s going to be that long.’ But it never went anywhere, until he gave me two more beats, and this was one of them. I’ve also been doing it with Dan Werb of Woodhands; we have a whole bunch of songs, but he’s very busy: he has a job and is in school and has his band. I’ve found that when people give me beats, I immediately have melodies and it’s very easy.

It seems like it’s been quite an odyssey to put this record out: first to make a version that you’re happy with, and then to find a home for it and find people who are excited about it. One of the things I’ve always admired about you since The Goods is that you’re someone who is very driven. Knowing what went into this project, I know how easy it would have been to think about giving up, and think, “Does anybody want my music?”

Well, that’s part of what took a long time. There was definitely a period there. We tried to work Darby and Joan for a good year afterwards, and I went through three different managers. Then I figured I had a bunch of songs, so I started recording again. But the band—the personalities—wasn’t working out. So once I dissolved that, there were definitely moments where I thought that Gentleman Reg was done and I would move on, or at least change the name. Maybe it was a sign that I’m not a good leader. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then when I thought that if I don’t start recording, I’d just go crazy. So we kept the dates we’d booked and Greg and I went into the studio. It was weird recording just drums and rhythm guitar for a pop record. There was a lot of self-doubt, but I knew I would never quit playing music.

I can’t picture you doing that.

No, me either. But I really took stock of things. Because I can be quite introverted, I’m not like Joel Gibb, who leads a pack into whatever crazy thing he does. I don’t have that spirit. I’m not the natural egomaniac that you need to be. I’ve talked about changing the name Gentleman Reg many times—with every record I’ve put out, really.

I’m really happy that “Rewind” wasn’t recorded until now, when it’s among all sorts of equally amazing songs. Earlier albums had good songs too, but here that song really finds a home.

I think so too. There’s something about that song that’s really anthemic, that line: “there’s no point in going back when our masterpiece is crumbling.” How could I not want to sing that line?

Do you remember the first time you heard that song?

I think I do. I think it was upstairs at the Albion at a show. I remember freaking out—as I would at every Valentines show, because they were all different and so incredible. For years I wanted to record their song “Rivers.” I don’t know if you remember that one.

I don’t have any recordings from them other than the one song.

At some point James [Ogilvie] gave me four-track cassette of everything he ever made, solo stuff. It’s a shame—I could do a whole album of James Ogilvie covers, because they’re such classic songs.

Why is it co-credited as a traditional melody?

That’s a joke. I wrote him to tell him I was recording the song, and he said ‘fine,’ and then I sent it to him and told him it was going to be on the album and if that would be cool. And then I didn’t hear back (laughs). Finally I said, hey, I just need you to know that it’s going on the album and I need your blessing. He wrote back and said, ‘Yeah, it’s cool, I was never into our version of that song and it doesn’t mean anything to me, so do whatever you want.’ He said to credit it to the Valentines and made some quip about it being public domain.

What if it shows up in the closing credits of some film?

He’ll probably change his tune! I can see that happening with that song, because it sounds like it could be for the series finale of Six Feet Under or something. [note: Reg’s ex-bandmate and high school friend Tim Kingsbury did play on a song used in the series finale of Six Feet Under, Arcade Fire’s “Cold Wind.”] Somebody last week interviewed me and complimented me for being so vulnerable and personal on that song, which was interesting. I guess I relate to the lyrics, plus I’ve had them in my head for 10 years. There are really intense lyrics in there: “I will forgive it dad/ it seems that beer’s what makes you mad.” I love them because I would never write something like that.

How did you meet Katie Sketch, with whom you sing that as a duet?

My band toured with The Organ in Ontario. We did a bunch of tours with them. Katie sang on stage with us a few times. It wasn’t until she moved here that we started hanging out. For a while she’d come over once a week and we’d play guitar and try to write songs. Nothing came of it songwriting-wise, but we realized that our voices sound incredible together, because she has this low female vibrato and I’m in the higher register. Then when I thought to do “Rewind” as a song, I knew it had to be a duet with her.

I wanted to ask you about touring with Stars, who I know have upped their theatricality quite a bit lately.

Oh yeah. They throw fresh flowers out into the audience every night.

There’s been such an evolution in your songwriting over the years, and I wonder if touring with a band like that affects your approach to performance as well.

I’ve talked with Torquil about that before. They’ve brought me on tour so many times, and it’s because we love what each other is doing. I love getting dressed up now and engaging with the audience. They really appreciate that I do that, and I’m not just some guy opening for them.

Are you working on your stand-up?

Ha! It’s not self-conscious, but I am aware that it’s like radio when there’s dead air. I’m really comfortable on stage.

You weren’t always.

No, I know! I don’t know why it happened. I’m more outgoing and comfortable in general now.

We all survived the ’90s.

Yes, no more need for shoegazing. I love how Stars developed, and yet I know people who can’t stand that kind of performance. Now, I’m so critical of bands. I can’t watch a band with 18-year-olds, that’s one thing. I can’t watch a band that has nothing to say. And I can’t watch a band that isn’t trying. I can’t do it anymore.

It’s an age thing, too, and I’m the same way.

I don’t want to be bitter or jaded, but I don’t care about what an 18-year-old has to sing about anything, really. Not that it’s not valid, it’s just not valid to me. I want a worldly, Rufus Wainwright-ish perspective on things that’s over-the-top and elaborate and with intelligent humour.

And just being entertained, too.

Yes, you’re on a stage and people paid to come see you.

People who criticize a grand performance will say that the artist is vain, that it’s all about them. When really, it’s the exact opposite. Standing on stage, doing nothing and pretending the audience isn’t there is as vain and phony as you can get. You don’t have to be totally extroverted, but you do have to project something.

Well, look at Cat Power in the last few years. She did a show at the Phoenix that was amazing. She’s quite shy and introverted, but not in the debilitating sense anymore. She did this thing at the end of the show where it was done, and everyone was clapping. She just stood at the mic and lit a cigarette and started smoking. Everyone was thinking, what’s going on? But it was so amazing. Plus, she’s gorgeous. But then she started singing a cappella and it was an amazing moment. I didn’t think it was pretentious or set up; it was very natural and in the moment.

Have you had any other watershed moments while watching someone on stage or hearing a record and realizing something you’ve wanted to try or change in your own music?

Watching Leslie Feist, for sure, because I’ve seen her play lots. She’s up for the drama and the performance and the rocking out. And she’s had to be. Her audience has grown to such a degree, to a kind of audience that expects something. People who just know one song are coming to her shows, and they need to see a certain kind of show. But also, if you’re playing a stadium you need to do a little bit more if you want it to be successful. But I’ve seen her at the Rivoli and then at Lee’s and then at the Hummingbird and then at the ACC. She works in every situation, which is incredible to me. It’s such a testament to the songwriting, the arrangements, the band.

Tell me about your time on stage with her.

That was a moment, for sure. I was touring with Broken Social Scene in Europe, and they opened for her in Paris. I just went to the shows to hang out. On the second night, I was sitting side stage the whole time. During the encore I went backstage to get a drink, and Kevin Drew came rushing down saying, “Reg, get down here! Leslie wants you to sing!” I thought he was joking: “Fuck off.” “No, get down here right now!” It was at this gorgeous sold-out theatre in Paris, and I had no idea what she wanted me to do. Kevin said, “After this song you have to go up and sing ‘The Boyfriend Song.’ ” It just happens that Kevin and Brendan [Canning] had been backing me up on that song on the tour, so they knew it and suddenly I had a band. So she introduced me and told everyone that she wanted them to hear my song. It was crazy.

But not that crazy when you consider how often Kevin would pull you up on stage in Toronto and elsewhere.

True, but that was the biggest crowd I’d done it in front of. I was actually crying afterwards, because I was so emotional and freaked out by her kindness. It’s not like we’re best friends. I know her, but I don’t have her phone number. So for her to do that, why would she take time out of her show to do that? I still don’t really know.

Last time you made a video with lemurs in your bathtub in an igloo, and another set in an orgy. What do you have in store this time?

We did one video for “Thunderstorm,” and there’s a drag queen singing the song. Her name is Facelift, she’s local. It’s a party scene in a loft with a dance-off, a female breakdancer, no narrative really. There’s a group shot of the whole crowd singing the song. I’ve shot a couple. I did one for “Rewind” with Katie, which we shot in a motel on VHS; it’s a split-screen video. A friend of mine in Glasgow shot one for me, which was an arty thing. It’s for “To Some It Comes Easy.” I had so much time waiting for the record to come out that I wanted to do photo shoots and videos. And now we’re going to do one for “How We Exit.”

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Old Ceremonies, New Towns

A quick note:

A well-kept secret is sneaking into Toronto this Thursday, March 5, a class act you’d be ill-advised to miss. The Old Ceremony are five dapper dudes, all well into their 30s, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina—three qualities right there that appeal to me (my in-laws are Carolinian, and Chapel Hill in particular holds fond memories).

Singer/songwriter Django Haskins knows the back alleys of Tin Pan Alley and probably has more than a few later Nick Cave records in his collection—although his own songwriting is harder to pin down, at moments downcast folk songs, at others it's Squeeze-able pop songs, and more often than not it involves the bottom of a bottle at 3 a.m. in a lonely hotel piano bar.

Haskins grew up in Gainesville, Florida, started playing in bands when he was 13, went to Yale, and learned how to write a melody that spoke for itself while living and performing in China. His bandmates are classy gentlemen that include violin and vibraphone capabilities among their many talents. This is not a band that leaves any blood on the floor; they prefer to drape their darker tendencies in the shadows and moods of the impeccable arrangements.

The O.C. have three albums to their credit; their last one, Our One Mistake, features their best pop songs, but the new one, Walk On Thin Air, is more consistently engaging as Haskins continues to find his own voice.

I first saw them at NXNE a couple of years ago, on a hunch from Ms. Helen Spitzer (she of the Carolinian tendencies), and they were the most pleasant surprise of the whole festival. Find out why when they play the Dakota Tavern in Toronto on Thursday, March 6, or read more here. Either there on on the MySpace page, start with "Plate Tectonics," "Walk on Thin Air" and "Papers in Order."