Friday, August 21, 2009

Aug 09 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in August and late July.

Bahamas – Pink Strat (Nevado)

Afie Jurvanen has spent the last few years playing guitar in Feist’s band, and as you might expect, there’s plenty of tasty, subtle guitar playing that is set to spacious, drowsy ditties that go down like sangria on a summer night, with appearances by Feist and some Great Lake Swimmers. What makes it even better is that Jurvanen is also a seductive singer who you can’t help but falling for, even if he croons, “Take me home/ I’ll be yours until morning/ and then leave without warning.” Many of these 12 songs are equally ephemeral, yet entirely satisfying nonetheless. (July 23, K-W Record)

Black Mold – Snow Blindness is Crystal Antz (Flemish Eye)

It’s almost better if you don’t know that this is the work of Chad Van Gaalen, the Calgarian singer/songwriter who builds instruments, records the kitchen sink at home, dabbles in electronics and does animation on the side. Here, there is nary a trace of the inventive and supremely melodic bedroom rock that colours the rest of his discography so far. In fact, an acoustic guitar doesn’t even show up until the second last track; his distinctive voice is nowhere to be heard.

Black Mold is where Van Gaalen immerses himself in synthetic soundscapes, both vintage and modern, spanning everything from Tangerine Dream up to the art school approach of Matmos to the stuttering glitches of Venetian Snares. (Little wonder that one track is titled: “Finally Someone Invented a Teleporter!”) Though he’s toyed with these textures on his singer/songwriter records, here he surrenders himself entirely—with the deceptive exception of opening track “Metal Spider Webs,” set to cello, upright bass, clarinet and Moog synthesizer. Melody is in short supply, or at least overwhelmed by pitched-up percussion and sound snippets, but such is Van Gaalen’s ear-tickling density of delights that it barely matters. (Aug. 13, K-W Record)

Chairlift – Does You Inspire You (Sony)

Chairlift won the lottery by having their song ”Bruises” (“I tried to do handstands for you”) used in an iPod commercial; its buoyant ’80s synthpop groove and charming male/female duet—the twee-est tune since Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks”—is by far the main attraction on this, their uneven debut album. But there is plenty of goodness to be found here, even if the Eurocentric duo—originally from Colorado, now in Brooklyn—are at best batting .500. Vocalist Caroline Polacheck sings convincingly en francais in “Le Flying Saucer Hat”; the closing “Ceiling Wax” is space-y cinematic science fiction soundtrack material. Chairlift are never short of melody; their stumblings usually depend on how cutesy they get, with lyrics like: “the most evident utensil is none other than a pencil/ not a multi-coloured stencil.” Not that it really matters, as they’ve already scored one of the most delightful singles of 2009 (actually 2008, as this is a major label re-release) with “Bruises.” (Aug. 13, K-W Record)

Coralie Clement – Toystore (Compass)

The title Toystore refers to the fact that this trilingual French singer decided to set her third album to a sonic backdrop of instruments like the alto half-violin, a baby Farfisa organ, and slide flute—along with more “real” instruments often pegged as child-like: ukulele, xylophone, melodica and penny whistle. But there’s nothing naïve or childish about Clement’s music itself, which is confident adult pop drawing from French chanson, torch songs, jazz and folk. And when she decides to get sultry, as on the not-so-romantic duet with Etienne Daho, “Je ne sens plus ton amour,” there’s definitely no childplay involved. Babymaking, maybe. (Aug. 13, K-W Record)

Dead Weather – Horehound (Third Man)

Sex. Death. Mothers. Devilish dalliances. Ponies. The Dead Weather has it all, set to heavier-than-thou psychedelic blues.

Bandleader Jack White has always injected Zeppelinesque flourishes into his main gig, the White Stripes, so the sound of the Dead Weather isn’t a huge surprise. But White doesn’t want to be Jimmy Page—he wants to be John Bonham.

White takes drum duties here, ceding the guitar to Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age. Bass is handled by Jack Lawrence from White’s first side project, the Raconteurs—which White followers should know this band trumps on every level. Lead vocals are in the sexy, sweaty hands of Alison Mosshart of The Kills, who slinks and snarls her way through this material. Together, they have instantly combustible chemistry; judging by the way they throw themselves into every ferocious note heard here.

Yet for all the monstrous moments scattered throughout Horehound, they’re interspersed with subtle, spooky touches and the occasional softer moment. Fertita spends almost as much time playing raunchy organ as he does guitar. As producer, White leaves plenty of space between every groove. This is by far the most fascinating and intricate production job of his career, as the instrumental “3 Birds” shows, partly because unlike his other projects, this band arrived with a total carte blanche, a freedom he uses wisely—and after carefully choosing his colours, there’s plenty of white space (no pun intended) remaining.

White shares many of the lead vocals with Mosshart, but she’s the one selling much of this material. “I always get the things I want,” she insists, and it’s hard to imagine anyone standing up to her after hearing her sing lines like: “I’d like to grab you by the hair and hang you up from the heavens.” (July 30, K-W Record)

John Doe & the Sadies – Country Club (Outside)

The Sadies are not only a powerhouse band on their own, but they also have a secondary career as a backing band that brings out the best in the bandleaders who hire them. That should be the case here with John Doe, who is best known as one half of the dynamic duo that fronted the ’70s L.A. punk band X; he’s spent much of the past 20 years as a rootsy singer/songwriter. The Sadies know both sides of his musical personality intimately. And yet Country Club is tepid and tame, with little of the fire and magical mystery that the Sadies do so well; shockingly, this sounds like any group of competent, faceless studio musicians. Doe is mostly singing covers, and as a vocalist he doesn’t have the kind of interpretive gifts to make that work—in fact, he often sounds as bored as we are. “Are the good times really over for good?” he asks, on Merle Haggard’s song of the same name. It certainly sounds like it here. (Aug. 27, K-W Record)

Jessie Evans – Is it Fire? (Fantomette)

Jessie Evans is a San Francisco singer from a bunch of bands you and I have never heard of. Her solo debut is out on an obscure indie label. But it doesn’t take long to fall under the sway of her electro-mambo rhythms, brought to life with her torchy vocals and melodic tenor saxophone lines. The latter conjures instant images of Martha and the Muffins, Romeo Void or any other early ’80s new wave bands (or even Condition, one of my personal favourites from the Canadian underground of that decade), though the drum machines, synth bass and electronic shadings are decidedly modern. Marimbas and accordions add to the exotica vibe that arrive via the Latin rhythms and occasional Spanish lyrics. She gets some help from former Siouxie and the Banshees member Budgie, as well as Calexico trumpeter/keyboardist Martin Wenk—a combination that hints at the breadth of influences at work here. Though the component elements of her sound are easily identifiable, Jessie Evans is one of a kind. (Aug. 13, K-W Record)

Fiery Furnaces – I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey)

I’m Going Away appears at a time when the Fiery Furnaces seem to have exorcised their excesses and are poised to start anew. To prove it, singer Eleanor Friedberger pens all the lyrics this time out; until now, her pen had been largely dormant since her contributions to the debut, Gallowsbird Park. And not surprisingly, her comparatively simpler approach to wordplay gives these songs more room to breathe; there’s even a drum solo, reinforcing the fact that their incredibly dextrous touring band is playing an increased role in composition. There are still the abrupt tempo shifts, nods to vaudeville and rock operas, and other oddities, but Matthew seems to have chilled out somewhat.

The side effect of whatever ADD drug they’re on is that the highs are not as high as on past records. Instead, like fellow Chicagoans Wilco, they’ve settled into an almost comfortable groove that suits them well, even if it means leaving their more dramatic days behind. (Aug. 6, K-W Record)

The Flatlanders – Hills and Valleys (New West)

This slipped under the radar when it was released in March—but then again, this Texan trio of songwriters Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore has always operated on the down-low. They formed 40 years ago, but only became an active recording band in the last decade, after each of them had achieved solo success. Together, they bring out the best in each other; Ely claims that the three of them might spend days refining one line of a verse, and that attention to craft is clear.

These sixtysomething songwriters don’t have anything to prove to anyone, but Hills and Valleys is a tour-de-force of honky-tonkin’ heartbreak and resilience. But other than the multitude of musical strengths on display, it’s the topical lyrics—at once contemporary and timeless—that sets it apart from just any pack of geezers getting together for laughs. The opening track, “Homeland Refugee,” details the ironic phenomenon of reverse migration away from the economic wasteland that is modern California, back to Texas where this generation’s grandparents once fled for the land of milk and honey.

These gentlemen have seen a lot of hills and valleys in their lifetime, but with this album they’re standing on top of a mountain. (Aug. 20, K-W Record)

Friends in Bellwoods II – Various Artists (Out of This Spark)

Two years ago, Out of This Spark was a new record label that launched with a compilation—that’s a story that’s common enough. But Friends in Bellwoods was a shockingly strong and consistent collection that documented a tightly knit Toronto group of musicians—with its tentacles in various southern Ontario communities, as well as Ottawa and Montreal—and helped introduce artists such as the D’Urbervilles, Rural Alberta Advantage, and Sebastien Grainger, as well as slightly better-known artists such as Gentleman Reg, The Acorn and Snailhouse.

All those artists return, along with new friends Basia Bulat, Timber Timbre, Final Fantasy, Bruce Peninsula and Great Lake Swimmers.

But with the exception of Snailhouse and Rural Alberta Advantage—both of whom deliver knock-out songs that stand with their best—the returning artists and marquee names all take a back seat to newcomers—and complete unknowns—such as Kite Hill (Ohbijou’s Ryan Carley), Sylvie Smith (ex-Barmitzvah Brothers, now of The Magic), Le Pigeon (featuring members of City and Colour and Rheostatics), Kate Rogers, Lisa Bozikovic, Low Notes, and Hooded Fang.

Special mention also goes to the D’urbervilles for their spirited cover of Timber Timbre’s brooding “Magic Arrow”; for all the community spirit and cross-pollination demonstrated here, it’s shocking that this circle of artists doesn’t dip into their collective songwriting pool more often.

Like any sequel, Friends in Bellwoods II doesn’t share the consistency and novelty of its predecessor, but it’s still an essential guide to one of the most creative communities in the country right now.

The album will be launched in Toronto on Friday, August 28 at Lee’s Palace, with Ohbijou, Bocce, Forest City Lovers and Evening Hymns. An all-day event will take place at the Tranzac club on Saturday, August 29 featuring Tusks, The Acorn, Great Bloomers, Kate Rogers, Bellewoods, Kite Hill, Lisa Bozokovik, The Low Notes, Snowblink, Emma McKenna, The Phonemes, The D'urbervilles, Sebastien Grainger, Bruce Peninsula, Dinghies, Kids on TV and more.

The launch continues in Guelph on September 17 at the E-Bar, featuring the D’urbervilles, Bocce and Evening Hymns, and in Waterloo at the Grist Mill on September 18 with the D’urbervilles and Evening Hymns. (Aug. 27, K-W Record)

Helado Negro – Awe-Owe (Asthmatic Kitty)

Brazilian tropicalia music is usually breezy and escapist in the first place, but in the hands of Helado Negro—who sing in Spanish, not Portugese—it’s a hallucinogenic, psychedelic experience for a mind-meltingly hot summer’s day. Bossa nova rhythms, acoustic guitars, clarinets, pipe organs, drum machines, subtle electronics and percussion all bleed together in the sun-baked vision of bandleader Roberto Carlos Lange, with some help from occasionally collaborator Guillermo Scott Herren of Prefuse 73. Little of it makes any sense; none of it has to. Aside from music, Lange has a background in visual arts and mixed media, which goes a long way in crafting this evocative and unique musical vision. (Aug. 6, K-W Record)

Jónsi & Alex – Riceboy Sleeps (XL)

Jónsi Birgisson is the alien-voiced singer of Sigur Ros, the Icelandic band who manage to make the saddest music in the world sound inspiring and triumphant. And while their latest album found them in a—relatively—upbeat mood, Birgisson had to shelve all that eternal sadness somewhere. Here, he collaborates with his partner Alex Somers to make largely ambient, droning music employing Sigur Ros’s string section (and band in their own right) Amiina and a choir. If you’ve ever found Sigur Ros to be mildly morose, Riceboy Sleeps will be insufferably slow and plodding, as nine-minute tracks go nowhere fast, not even terribly interesting as atmospheric music. For bona fide fans, well, Riceboy Sleeps is just like Sigur Ros—without the vocals, the melodies, the chord changes or most of the instruments. (July 30, K-W Record)

La Roux – s/t (Universal)
Yacht – See Mystery Lights (DFA)

The death of writer/director John Hughes has launched a sepia-toned and affectionate remembrance of his ’80s output, which—like many cultural iconography from the ’80s—is likely better appreciated from a distance rather than realizing how dated and awkward they really were. (With the awesome exception of Prince, of course: see below.)

Yacht and La Roux both revel in ’80s aesthetics; for La Roux this extends deep into singer Elly Jackson’s fashion sense as well. And while at several points in the last 10 years this might have been perceived as fresh or novel, the ’80s revival is well past its best-before date at this point. There are, of course, many acts who continue to spin creative sonic silk out that decade’s sow’s ear—Bat for Lashes and Fever Ray being the best examples in 2009. Yacht and La Roux are not in that company.

La Roux is the more popular of the two, with a high profile in its native U.K. and a recent nomination for that country’s Mercury Prize; they’ve also charted here in Canada. And yet this debut album sounds like a rejected demo from 25 years ago, full of the kind of songs that would be shoehorned into quick-buck carbon copies of John Hughes’s iconic films. The best song here, “Bulletproof,” is the only one that betrays any of Elly Jackson’s personality, and even then it only makes you want to reach for your old Yazoo records. If La Roux is to be taken seriously, then revisionist history will start claiming Heaven 17 were the misunderstood pop geniuses of the past 30 years.

Yacht are only slightly more interesting, if only because their circle of friends appears to wield some influence. One half of the duo, Jona Bechtolt, came up in Oregon’s lo-fi indie pop scene revolving around K Records, originally as one half of The Blow. And this new Yacht album is out on DFA Records, home of LCD Soundsystem, which has been responsible for some of the most exciting (albeit retro) dance music of the last decade.

Yet Yacht sound simply torn between these two worlds, trying to write twee pop songs on the one hand—with the deadpan vocals of Claire Evans feigning disinterest—and trying to sneak on to the dance floor with retro-futurist grooves that ultimately fall flat. As a result, it sounds like pop music for people who are bored of pop music; dance music for people who are bored of dancing. Which means that Bechtolt is just asking for trouble when he make the chorus of an eight-minute song out of the repeated phrase “it’s boring/ it’s boring/ it’s boring.” (Aug. 20, K-W Record)

Lightning Dust – Infinite Light (Jagjaguwar)

Amber Webber is one of the most distinctive female voices in Canada, but only here, on her second album fronting Lightning Dust, has she truly come into her own. As the female foil in the dude-fest that is psychedelic rock powerhouse Black Mountain, her supporting role doesn’t do full justice to her range and abilities. On the first Lightning Dust album, she played the part of a mournful maiden wallowing in despair.

As its title might suggest, Infinite Light is a much more luminous affair. Webber and her co-conspirator Joshua Wells keep things sparse, using little more than acoustic guitars and keyboards, but a song such as “The Times” manages to rock out using only piano power chords, bongo and a shaker. She’s still at her best on slower, noir-ish numbers that owe a debt to Nick Cave, like “Honest Man,” a duet with Wells, or the lovely, string-laden ballad “Take It Home.” But it’s when she stretches out on songs like “I Knew,” a barnburning country stomp recast for ’70s keyboards and an insistently pulsing drum machine, that she truly shines and shows off her versatility. (Aug. 6, K-W Record)

Major Lazer – Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (Downtown)

As a DJ, Diplo is one of the most influential figures of the last five years, for bringing beats from Brazil to the world, for helping launch the career of M.I.A., for putting his hometown of Baltimore on the musical map, for a steady stream of remixes, and for a lovely, understated album recorded for Ninja Tune.

As one half of Major Lazer, Diplo joins DJ Switch (M.I.A., Santigold) for a Jamaican vacation, recording at the legendary Tuff Gong studio. There, they set out to make a dancehall record—though one that was clearly made by insatiable scavengers of sound. On the opening track, “Hold the Line,” a Dick Dale guitar riff sets the tone, while horses and loons (!) and cellphones bleat and beep in the background underneath duelling dancehall MCs.

Soca, hip-hop and Brazilian beats all work their way into the mix, making Major Lazer the ideal summer mix tape. Not everything works, of course: there’s one awful excursion into Autotuned pop, and a couple of tracks delve into dancehall’s raunchier and violent side. But those are offset by the jazzy jaunt of the giddy "Mary Jane," the futuristic spy movie sounds of "Lazer Theme," and the sweet roots reggae sounds of "Can’t Stop Now."

Plenty of non-Jamaican artists have flirted with radical reinventions of dancehall (i.e. The Bug), but Major Lazer is one of the few to make a pop record in this genre that is as joyous as it is daring. (July 30, K-W Record)

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – Outer South (Merge)

As Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has been a prolific one-man songwriting machine since he was 13 years old. Ironically, now that he’s started performing under his own name, he’s allowed his new bandmates in on the songwriting process, which means that Outer South—credited to Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band—features shared vocals and, frankly, songs that aren’t up to Oberst’s own standards. There are times when this is glaringly obvious—one song’s nasal chorus offers to “sleep on the air mattress with you.” But for the most part, even the weaker songs here—including some of Oberst’s—are buoyed by the Mystic Valley’s classic rock perfectionism. This is an outfit that sounds like Oberst locks them in a sauna shack for 12-hour rehearsals, working out dual guitar harmonies and vocal arrangements until their fingers bleed and their throats are shredded; every one of these dudes is a killer player, but there’s no showboating here—they’re all part of the team. Though it’s understandable that he would want to show them off, Outer South would benefit from some brevity; without a knockout track or two to match Oberst’s best, they may as well be treading water. (Aug. 27, K-W Record)

The Prince Brothers – From This Place (

The Prince Brothers may not be part of any cool clique in Toronto’s music scene, but their musical strengths speak for themselves. They specialize in straight-up ‘70s-style AM piano pop with rich harmonies and occasional country and cabaret touches—something that their peers like Ron Sexsmith, Danny Michel and countless others specialize in. Both Bryan and Eric Prince are fantastic singers, and know how to write melodies to wrap their pipes around; pianist Ben Kobayashi is an integral part of the arrangements, as responsible as the two vocalists for bringing each song to life. The only thing holding them back is that they work in an extremely crowded genre of similar mainstream acts; but they can rest assured that their songwriting chops alone are head and shoulders above the crowd. (Aug. 27, K-W Record)

Purplish Rain: A Tribute to Purple Rain – Various Artists (

Yeah, yeah, Michael Jackson, Thriller, whatever. Have you actually listened to that album lately? (Judging by his sales figures this summer, you probably have.) A quarter century later, you can still judge a music fan on whether they’re a Michael Jackson person or a Prince person, just as the boomers had their Beatles vs. Stones wars to supposedly define a cultural divide. Both Jackson and Prince were bicultural aliens, musical omnivores and total freaks. One was sexually neutered; the other was sexually explosive. One was a chameleon who wanted to fit in everywhere; the other made everything else fit into his vision.

Which brings us to the 25th anniversary of Prince’s Purple Rain: an amusing trifle of a movie, its soundtrack is a towering classic, for reasons better suited to an essay than a brief review. The quality of this online-only tribute album is but a small testament to Purple Rain’s endurance. There are no huge names here; instead, a parade of unconventional artists take Prince’s stubborn streak to heart and reinvent his masterpiece on their own terms.

None attempt to match Prince’s bombast, with the exception of the Riverboat Gamblers’ admirable punk take on “Let’s Go Crazy.” The Twilight Singers transform “When Doves Cry” into a piano ballad, focusing on the anguish that made the single an unlikely Top 40 hit in the first place. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings turn “Take Me With U” into a vintage soul rave-up; Mariachi El Bronx re-imagine “I Would Die 4 U” in a Mexican setting, somewhat less successfully. Lavender Diamond takes the longing of the title track, strips the histrionics and substitutes a subtlety that makes it sound like a simple John Lennon ballad—which in many ways, it is. Others (Of Montreal, Chairlift, Craig Wedren) are more faithful, but no less effective.

Best of all: it’s free (unlike Prince’s own myriad online adventures in marketing). Go to; the password you need to know is “keyboardist.” (Aug. 20, K-W Record)

Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall (Matador)

It’s easy to write off a guy who calls himself Jay Reatard. (Needless to say, it’s not his given name.) His earlier garage punk records were driven by adrenalin and little else, though they nonetheless managed to build considerable expectation for this, his first proper album for one of the biggest indie labels in the U.S. For his moment in the sun, Reatard steps up his game while maintaining his lo-fi aesthetic and proto-punk urgency, although now his songwriting is considerably stronger, lightning-quick acoustic guitars strum underneath white noise guitar solos, and Reatard’s vocals draw heavily from British Invasion-era ’60s pop. Only three of these 12 songs are over three minutes long (and even then not by much), but Reatard (do people call him that to his face?!) packs each one full of 50 years of rock’n’roll history, from rockabilly to psychedelia to punk to goth to ’90s indie rock, with maximum melody and energy at ever turn. Original? No, but this is record collector rock at its finest. (Aug. 27, K-W Record)

Rock Plaza Central - … At the Moment of Our Most Needing (Paper Bag)

It’s too bad we know that Rock Plaza Central are a group of normal Torontonians led by ex-Maritimer Chris Eaton. Because otherwise, it would be easy to imagine this album as the product of an isolated commune somewhere north of Bancroft, where everyone is raised on a diet of banjo and brass and British folk harmonies.

This, their second proper full-length as a full band, achieves a unique mystique that doesn’t fall into easy categorization: this exists removed from even the freakier sides of current folk music, to say nothing of alt-country or rock. “Handsome Men” makes lyrical references to the Rheostatics and Gordon Lightfoot, and “The Hot Blind Earth” is an obvious musical nod to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” At once atmospheric and droning yet triumphant and propulsive, it’s captivating as it draws you closer in; this is not an album of background music that makes an easy first impression.

Eaton is known for being a wordsmith—his last album had a narrative concept, and he’s written two novels—but here he lets his bandmates do most of the storytelling, with Fiona Stewart’s violin in particular acting as responsible for the album’s emotional tenor as Eaton’s own voice. That warbly voice can be off-setting, but he gets plenty of vocal assistance from his motley crew, who turn the kernels of his songs into mantras sung in five-part harmony: “Don’t you believe the words of handsome men”; “When we fall far from the light/ will it make our darkness bright.” (July 23, K-W Record)

Superchunk – Leaves in the Gutter EP (Merge)
Spoon – Got Nuffin EP (Merge)

Iconic indie label Merge Records celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and two of its latest releases are by veteran acts who show no sign of becoming dusty artifacts.

Superchunk have been laying low for the past six years, in part because half of the band have day jobs running the increasingly successful label. The last time we heard from them, they were moving away from their scrappy ’90s buoyant punk into mid-tempo songs decorated by acoustic guitars and synths. It was a maturity that suited them well, although now that they’re invigorated by the end of a long layoff, all the energy of their earlier work is again at the forefront. “Learned to Surf”—which appears in both a rocking and acoustic version—stands among their best singles, and the rest of this brief comeback also bodes well for an upcoming full-length expected later this year.

Spoon’s new EP is more like an old-fashioned 7” single: one pop song and two b-sides that pull apart and stretch the band’s already deconstructionist take on rock music. The title track is little more than a pulsing bass-and-drum pattern over which singer Britt Daniel croons while piano and ’80s-style guitar dance around underneath; hopefully there’s a LCD Soundsystem remix in the works. “Tweakers” is little more than a cut-and-paste rhythmic experiment; “Stroke Their Brains” shows that even when Spoon is on autopilot they’re still unique and entirely satisfying. (Aug. 6, K-W Record)

Wye Oak – The Knot (Merge)

More than a few musicians who start their career on a noisy bent end up adding a country twang to their sound. For young Baltimore duo Wye Oak, however, they like to throw it all against the wall at once, with songs that confound any genre expectations at all. On their superior second album, The Knot, they write dreamy songs that ache with melancholy, occasionally coloured with violin and pedal steel, but there’s always a crash of distortion waiting around the corner. Jenn Wasner’s vocals are oblivious to anything her partner Andy Stack throws at her; she sounds like a solo sad girl in her bedroom, despite the towers of guitars surrounding her. Fans of Low and Yo La Tengo will find plenty to love in the sound here, even though the songwriting doesn’t really fit into any easy category. Wye Oak’s debut was slightly promising if not generic indie rock; The Knot is the work of an accomplished, unique act. (July 30, K-W Record)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Merge XX OO

Summer festivals—even great summer festivals—are a dime a dozen. Camping, road trips, outdoor settings, gorging on gluttonous and glorious musical buffets: these are merely par for the course.

But there’s something much more special about an event that only takes place every five years, in a small town, curated by a boutique indie label that feels like family.

And so it was that my ladyfriend and I headed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina last week to celebrate Merge Records’ 20th anniversary. We had myriad personal reasons to embark on the journey as well—which, truth be told, were probably the main push that brought us there. We’re both fans of the Merge roster, but there didn’t seem to be a lot on the line-up that we hadn’t seen many times before; the main musical attraction was the Magnetic Fields, who rarely tour and who have soundtracked our lives—together and apart—since the release of 69 Love Songs 10 years ago.

There was a part of me that wondered if this would be a swan song for my indie rock past. I have little nostalgia for much of anything from the ’90s, a decade that for the most part sounds like one long wasted creative opportunity. I rarely, if ever, get excited about guitar rock bands anymore. My tolerance for standing inside black-walled clubs for hours on end is at an all-time low. And although their curatorial history is largely impeccable, I found 2008 to be a consistently disappointing year for Merge releases.

So why did I end up having the best musical vacation of my life at Mergefest?

For starters: the people. The staff at Merge—past and present—are, to a person, warm, engaging, entertaining, and fanatical music geeks. They remember your name and face even if you’ve only seen them for a grand total of five minutes in the past five years. And then there are the fans, the ringleader of which is “Crazy” Tony Susco from Jersey City. He MC’ed the Saturday night proceedings, and organized the Friday afternoon kickball game that introduced strangers from all corners of the continent, who became fast friends over the course of the weekend at various dinners and day trips to swimming holes.

Secondly: the locale. From Toronto, Chapel Hill is definitely worth a leisurely drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains with a camping stop along the way. The town reminds me a lot of Guelph or any other quaint university small town with nearly every amenity you would want from a major city (and Raleigh-Durham is a 20-min drive away). The food was uniformly excellent. And most importantly for an event like this, the Cat’s Cradle club holds a lot of people comfortably, with good sight lines from anywhere, a back patio to escape to, and consistently excellent sound. If you’re going to be stuck in a club all week, this is the one to be in. (Hats off to the remarkably efficient stage crew, as well.)

To the music: Each night was a surprise. The organizers purposely kept the schedule a secret, in part to ensure excitement for each slot. This was occasionally frustrating—is our dinner going to run late and we’ll miss Favourite Band X in the opening 7 p.m. slot? It also dangled the idea of additional, unannounced surprises—which was ultimately a big tease, especially for the trainspotters who were somehow convinced that Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire or Dinosaur Jr. would show up. I think I was the only one crossing his fingers for the first-ever show by the reclusive East River Pipe. (Not entirely improbable: Fred Curnog was there all weekend with his wife and daughter, smiling and hugging everyone and enjoying the shows. One of my weekend regrets was finding this out too late to meet him myself.)

Friday night opened with what had been promised would be a can’t-miss affair—which it was for locals who remember the band Pure, who hadn’t played together in something like 18 years. Even Merge didn’t know what had happened to them in the interim, until the drummer showed up at a Portastatic show in Asheville last year. Pure were the first of many reunions—most of which meant far more to the locals than to the tourists like me.

Pure were followed by Lou Barlow, who was a new Merge signing when he opened the 15th anniversary shows five years ago; at that show, he was opening for a band no one had heard of called the Arcade Fire. His 2004 album Emoh holds up remarkably well; he has a new one due in the fall. Yet through his set and the subsequent show by Oakley Hall, I was regretting the fact that I was missing Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers—one of my favourite songwriters ever, and whose Forfeit/Fortune album of 2008 has been in constant rotation in our house since its release. He was playing an early solo show in Durham entirely unrelated to the festival; I could easily have seen that and caught the last three acts at Cat’s Cradle, as one local did. Why he wasn’t at Mergefest is anyone’s guess, just as it’s a mystery as to why he voluntarily chose to self-release Forfeit/Fortune, his finest album.

The Clientele is a band I didn’t have the time of day for until I saw them at Mergefest five years ago, playing on the Sunday night of the festival in the beautiful Carolina Theatre opening for Lambchop. There, their wispy British dreampop was a cool breeze after a week of sweaty rock’n’roll. Here, they helped open the week with music that ultimately sounds best when you’re on vacation and your mind has time to wander; I’ve seen them in Toronto and I’ve heard their records, but nothing compares to seeing them in Carolina. They too have a new album due in the fall.

Hanging out on the back deck between sets meant that you often walked back in the club with no idea if anyone had started playing or not—and no idea who it might be. So when I strolled in to see the Magnetic Fields on stage in mid-song, I may have exclaimed “holy fucking shit” a bit too loudly for the hushed, reverent tone of the room. Vocalist Shirley Simms was on board to sing the songs from the 2008 album Distortion (played entirely without distortion—this was an all-acoustic set, with Stephin Merritt on some kind of mandocello, Sam Davol on acoustic guitar, John Woo on cello and Claudia Gonson on a real piano) as well as her share of the 69 Love Songs. It was as magical and marvelous as I could have imagined, and for the first time since seeing Leonard Cohen last year, I was weeping openly at a show—and I was definitely not the only one. The only song not from the aforementioned albums was “Give Me Back My Dreams” by the 6ths (originally sung by Sally Timms); sadly, Lou Barlow didn’t perform “In the City in the Rain,” the song he recorded with the 6ths. During “Come Back From San Francisco,” Claudia leapt up from her piano mid-song, clearly alarmed by some critter that then crawled behind John. What the audience couldn’t see was a six-inch flying cockroach (the Southern euphemism is “palmetto,” apparently) making its way around the stage, cracking up the entire band, who nonetheless managed to finish the song by only slightly butchering the coda. Of course, it’s hard to imagine a more forgiving crowd.

The Rosebuds had the challenge of following up the most sublime moment of the weekend—and as a result, I can’t remember a single thing about their set, other than that I heard my two favourite songs from Night of the Fireflies. Conor Oberst and his Mystic Valley Band then put on a marathon set at the end of an already-marathon evening. Despite the awesome intensity of his band—the kind of players who sound like they practice together for eight hours a day before the gig—I remain mostly indifferent to Oberst’s charms, and not for any of the usual playa-hater reasons. He does, however, earn my respect for insisting on wearing a ridiculously large black sombrero that he would reinstate after every guitar change.

Thursday began by meeting Claudia Gonson in the parking lot of the Cat’s Cradle, and telling her how much the set meant to me, and that the Magnetic Fields were the one band I was looking forward to the most all weekend. “Oh, well, sorry for wrecking the rest of your weekend!” she replied. The rest of the Magnetic Fields had split, but Gonson was very present all weekend, happily chatting with anyone and everyone, posing for pictures, jumping up and down for her favourite bands, organizing swimming excursions, and getting all Merge artists and staff to sign her copy of Our Noise, the new oral history of Merge, like it was a high school yearbook. I spent the rest of the weekend wishing that she had gone to my high school.

One of my companions for the weekend had to miss Thursday night due to a prior engagement; she didn’t miss that much. The Broken West opened the night with a solid set that made me want to revisit their records; they also covered a song from the Teenage Fanclub album that Merge put out. Sadly, few other bands made similar gestures; apparently Spoon has covered Destroyer’s “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane” in the past, but they wouldn’t this weekend.

Richard Buckner sounded exactly the same as he did when I last saw him five years ago, with each dirgey number bleeding into the next with minimal melodic differentiation. I’ve never been a fan; this didn’t change my mind. I had no prior opinion of Guv’ner, another one of the weekend’s reunions, but it was painfully apparent to everyone that they had barely practiced—perhaps not even picked up an instrument—since their last gig ten years ago, when ’90s amateurism was going out of style. Versus also seem stuck in the ’90s, and not in a bad way—just not in a way that sounds remotely interesting anymore; they were a time capsule, and sounded suitably frozen.

So when New Zealand’s 3Ds took the stage and announced that this was their first gig in 18 years, my expectations sank. (It didn’t help that I only knew one of their songs, “Beautiful Things.”) The band themselves seemed befuddled that anyone still cared at all, never mind a packed club on the other side of their world. And yet this was one reunion that clicked; even at its sloppiest, they still had the kind of chemistry that’s impossible to acquire or enforce.

That set the stage for Superchunk, the reason for the season. Merge’s flagship band has been largely silent for the past six years, with only occasional area appearances distracting them from their families, their jobs as Merge executives, or, in the case of drummer Jon Wurster, an extremely busy session career. I’ve seen this band several times over the past 15 years, and have never been disappointed—except possibly when they were touring my favourite album of their’s, 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, which found them introducing more acoustic guitars and keyboards while the dwindling audience that came to see them in Toronto mostly wanted them to sound like it was 1993 again. So maybe it’s best that they’ve been laying low, because shows like this prove that these four musicians are in absolutely no danger of losing their edge—just in case that’s something people actually care about. They were on fire from the first notes, each one of them incredibly animated and invigorated, and the set list spanned their entire discography (including early manifestos “Slack Motherfucker” and “Cool”), slowing down only for “Like a Fool,” which was no less intense than the rest of the set. For many people there, this was a weekend highlight; for me it was as good as Superchunk always is; maybe I just take it for granted that they’re such a phenomenal live band.

Friday opened with the Essex Green, who I missed because we were dining with new friends we met at the afternoon’s kickball game. They were followed by Yet Another Reunion, this one being the (aptly-named?) Spent; much like Versus, this sounded fine, but it was a part of the ’90s I’m happy to leave behind.

Unlike most people there, I had few expectations of Lambchop, the much-revered Nashville orchestra that has probably put out more records on Merge than anyone else on the roster. I enjoy two of their albums (Thriller, Nixon); the rest do nothing for me, in some cases even less than that. I saw them put on a somnambulant set here five years ago, the highlight of which was the between-set banter between singer Kurt Wagner and pianist Tony Crow. Here, however, they executed a carefully paced set that began with the delicacy they’ve built their career on and slowly ramped up into the R&B and soul excursions heard on Nixon, which inspired some bona fide disco dancing on the floor. From there, however, the intensity continued to be ratcheted up to full-on techno territory, with all 12 members devoted to a pulsing groove that wound up Wagner to the point where he finally abandoned his seated position and started to get seriously unhinged, climaxing in a verse of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” that took everyone in the room right over the top. Lambchop are a band that doesn’t tour; their hardcore fans are spread few and far between. Seeing them have a packed club in their clenches like they did here is hard to imagine anywhere else; this was an extremely rare treat, and it was the unanimous highlight of the entire weekend.

The only way to follow that was for something completely different. Ladies and gentlemen, Polvo. Revered as gods at home both in North Carolina and far afield, Polvo are a big deal to a lot of people. (Dan Bejar: “I got in a taxi at the airport and told the cabbie, ‘I’ll give you $100 if I get to see the last 10 minutes of the Polvo show.’ ”) Those people enjoyed this show. I couldn’t care less, and unlike with Lambchop, there was to be no conversion.

So still coming down from Lambchop, expectations were again lowered for Pipe, a local Punk Rock BandTM on the reunion train. Except that Pipe is everything you want a Punk Rock BandTM to be: ferocious, fowl, snarling, soaring and soaked in beer cans that the audience has pelted them with. These were not creepy old men trying to relive their youth; they could happily kick the ass of ten dozen bands half their age. Score one for the local team.

Spoon were the closers on Friday, and studiously avoided their “hits” in favour of newer material and songs from their first Merge release, Girls Can Tell. Spoon’s popularity may be growing—their last album debuted in the Top 10 in the U.S. and Canada—but this set found them getting pointier and more peculiar, with increased use of Echoplex, dub drops and sharp guitar parts. Spoon were the only act of the whole weekend who draw any serious influences from soul music (Lambchop’s twisted take notwithstanding), and while that went a long way to loosen up the dance floor (especially after Polvo and Pipe), there was still a detachment present that garnered a noticeably subdued reaction for a band that is Merge’s second-most-popular active group. People lost their shit for Lambchop and Pipe; people seemed to merely appreciate Spoon. Perhaps there was no more shit left to lose.

Saturday afternoon was an outdoor show under a tent in the parking lot of the Orange County Social Club, the go-to bar for all pre- and post-show activities. Various commitments caused me to miss nearly all of this, except for the Radar Brothers and an encore set by the 3Ds, both of which went down fine with sno-cone mojitos and mint juleps on this blazing hot day. That meant missing The Music Tapes (one of the only non-guitar bands present, sadly), Portastatic (whose “Noisy Night” always conjures Carolinian memories), Matt Suggs (whose last album, as part of the band White Whale, is one of the most underrated Merge releases—go find it right now!), and Tenement Halls.

Other than the Magnetic Fields, the one act I was most looking forward to seeing was Telekinesis, Merge’s newest signing—if only because I had seen most everyone else before, and Telekinesis’s self-titled debut is the best power pop album I’ve heard since the New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema. The album is the work of drummer/songwriter/singer Michael Benjamin Lerner; he does have a touring band, but a series of family emergencies and calamities caused them to cancel on him for the weekend. So he called up Nada Surf guitarist Matthew Caws and the Rosebuds’ Ivan Howard on bass; they practiced once, three hours before their gig opening up the Saturday night show. You’d never know anything was amiss; they’re all pros, and Lerner’s songs would stand up to any treatment. Lerner probably isn’t much older than the label itself, but you can bet that he’ll be a big part of the next 20 years.

Erectus Monotone: sweet Jesus, are the ’90s reunions over yet? And does Ladybug Transistor count? Because I haven’t even thought about them since they played this festival five years ago.

Which brings us to M. Ward, who apparently insisted that he not close Saturday night, perhaps because he was playing again on Sunday with She & Him. I’ve been a casual fan of his since I first saw him in San Francisco seven years ago; he’s an amazing guitarist and singer, a great producer and a decent songwriter. My only complaint is that I find his songs and albums interchangeable; I rarely reach for them. I’ve seen him solo and with various bands over the years, but his current line-up is by far the best configuration for his live show. They bring out the old-timey rock’n’roll in him, right down to the covers of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and the occasion-appropriate Beatles’ “Birthday.” Ward seems to be having more fun on stage than ever; this set was much more joyous than any of his recordings would ever suggest.

Joy is not something one would normally associate with a Destroyer set, but Dan Bejar seemed to actually be enjoying himself. Maybe it’s Mergefest itself; my favourite Destroyer show was his performance here five years ago, with a back-up band of Merge staffers dubbed “The Treacherous Fops” who picked the set list. This time he played solo—not an easy feat after M. Ward’s barn-burning set—and played songs from nearly every Destroyer release, reaching back to “Streets of Fire” from the debut (later covered by the New Pornographers). The newer songs held up well in the absence of his backing band, on whose arrangements much of his recent records have relied heavily. Bejar pondered requests and happily engaged in some mutual heckling with the enraptured crowd—much like with the Lambchop show, it’s hard to imagine an audience that was as totally geeked out as this one. As a huge fan who was ready to give up on Bejar a couple of years ago, this set won me back. Maybe all it took was the occasional smile from the stage.

That left Imperial Teen… and the notion that there was still going to be some surprise act. Most delusional overheard comment: “I heard that Imperial Teen were never supposed to play and their name was only a placeholder for the super secret surprise.” Yeeeee-ah. Right. So facing that kind of implausible expectation, sure, Imperial Teen might have been a bit of a letdown. And sure, they’re not the greatest band in the world. But they’re a fun party band, and they managed to rouse most of the audience who wasn’t still crying over the fact that they’d spent the past week dreaming the impossible dream of a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion. Get over it, people! And dance!

Sunday night we finally got to leave the Cat’s Cradle for the considerably more upscale Memorial Hall on the leafy University of North Carolina campus. Opening the show was another new Merge signing, Baltimore duo Wye Oak, whose new album, The Knot, is so unbelievably superior to their passable debut that I barely believe it’s the same band. Jenn Wasner is a haunting vocalist and occasionally raging guitarist; drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack does all sorts of on-stage juggling to complement her many-changing moods. Sadly, backing vocals are not one of his live duties, and nor are any of the violins and pedal steel heard intermittently on The Knot. But those are minor quibbles, and I’d love to hear this band in a club; the cavernous acoustics of Memorial Hall are not cut out for rock bands, even ones as sparse as this one.

They are, however, ideal for American Music Club. I had no idea what to expect from this set; I knew songwriter Mark Eitzel’s towering reputation among many critics, and I knew that I’d heard him occasionally over the years and nothing every really stuck. So I was a bit shocked, to say the least, to see a dumpy guy in a trucker hat accompanied only by a pianist and singing like Tony Bennett—with all the vocal reach and mic control that reference implies. Eitzel is a storyteller first and foremost, both between songs and in his lyrics, and while I still doubt I’ll buy one of his albums, I would go see him again in an instant. He’s an amazing and unique showman who is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious; I can’t even begin to contemplate a comparison point.

She & Him are anything but unique; singer Zooey Deschanel writes songs that fit perfectly into early ’70s Laurel Canyon pop ala Carole King and Linda Ronstadt. Nothing wrong with that—after all, Telekinesis and M. Ward are just as derivative—but after a weekend of unique and iconoclastic performers like Lambchop, Destroyer and the Magnetic Fields, it certainly seemed the wrong note to close on. And this was definitely a more mainstream crowd than that at the Cat’s Cradle; even before she sang her first note, the first dude of many piped up, “We love you, Zooey!”

I like the She & Him album well enough; I couldn’t care less that Deschanel is an actress first and a singer/songwriter second. Live, however, she is simply unbearable: cutesy, cloying, bouncy, and seemingly without any knowledge of how to sing into a microphone properly—which is key when you have a chirpy voice like she does. (After witnessing Mark Eitzel, this was a particularly egregious crime.) To make it worse, her stage banter was cringey—perhaps because it wasn’t scripted. I felt bad for the band, including M. Ward, not only because they were mere window dressing for the Zooey show, but because the acoustics smothered the set in rumbling bass.

And then came the covers. Deschanel and Ward do a fine acoustic version of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” mostly because she sounds far better when she’s singing harmony than lead. But tackling Sam Cooke was considerably trickier; attempting Joni Mitchell was a trainwreck (“You Turn Me On I’m a Radio”). As her piece de resistance, she actually had the chutzpah to blurt her way through Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”—I cannot begin to enumerate the reasons why this was such a horrible, horrible idea.

There were many jaded indie rockers in the audience who don’t like sickly sweet pop music of this vintage variety in the first place—but I do, which made this show hurt even more. Where’s Camera Obscura when you need them? Needless to say, there was some extremely spirited lobby conversation afterwards.

Not that any of that could stain the memories of the past week. Mergefest is one of the only rock festivals with the down-home intimacy of a folk festival (next weekend’s Wolfe Island Music Festival, outside of Kingston, is another), due in large part to the Merge ethos itself: open ears, open minds, sustainable scale, earthbound expectations.
They inspire a loyalty that few other labels maintain, both to and from their artists; and naturally, that trust extends to the mutual relationship with the label’s fans, who gather once every five years for what more than one person called an “indie rock fantasy summer camp.”

A thousand thank yous to all the Merge staff, as well as everyone else who made this trip so amazing: Martin Hall, the Orange County Social Club, Carl “I don’t want to use the phrase ‘genre exercise’ before nine in the morning” Wilson, Wendy Spitzer, Jay Cartwright, Tony Susco, Autumn Cannella, Django Haskins, Jessica from Asheville, Margaret from Orlando, Craig and Rosa from San Francisco, Saleen from NYC, Todd from D.C., Kirk from Lumberton, Mary Catherine from Seattle, Ky from Boston, Carl from Top Drawer Records in Seattle, Bob the Tragically Hip fan from Seattle, Matt from the Dead Mechanicals in Baltimore, and everyone else I encountered there. And to the lovely Helen Spitzer, who five years ago first talked me into doing this—and so many more wonderful things ever since.