The current issue of Magnet, with Bright Eyes on the cover, marks my debut with the publication. Very little of their content is posted online, so today's post includes the reviews I penned in the print edition.
Also, I've updated the portfolio section to include audio interviews I did for Icebergradio.com last year. I didn't think you could direct link to them until now. I'm particularly proud of the Matmos and Yo La Tengo ones, which delve quite easily into the absurd. There are also links to Feist and Sigur Ros.
Last night's Amon Tobin show: loud. And very few traces of Foley Room. I was very glad I got there early, however, as Montreal live electronic rock band Plaster tore the roof off and had the audience demanding more... information from the accented francophones. ("Fucking A! What's your name?" "Can you spell it?")
And if for some bizarre reason the Samaritans are reading this, the ones who scraped me off Queen St. after being thrown from my bike thanks to wet streetcar tracks, the ones who did remarkably deft bike chain surgery, may I say that it made me happy to be living in Toronto the Good. It was my second strange street encounter of the night: entering the show, a fiftysomething guy with a young daughter (granddaughter?) innocently inquired what was going on at the Opera House, which led to a discussion of John Cage. Lessons learned: never underestimate the generosity and intelligence of strangers.
I digress. Here's some Magnetic reading.
APOSTLE OF HUSTLE
National Anthem of Nowhere
A Little Place in the Wilderness
Side projects usually go one of two ways: either a limp, half-assed distillation of said artist’s day job, or a chance to boldly go where their own band dared not go before. New albums by members of Stars and Broken Social Scene help reinforce this dichotomy, even if their Canadian citizenship allows them carte blanche to bend the rules of collectives and cross-pollinating musical communities. Both album titles suggest a sanctuary that exists beyond borders. Both bands try to create their own sonic world. Neither sound aligned to any country, city or particular social scene.
Prior to becoming one of a dozen guitarists in the Scene, Apostle of Hustle’s Andrew Whiteman had a long, storied career in Toronto music, ranging from soul, spoken word, Latin and rock bands—divergent interests that fought for space on AoH’s dense debut, 2004’s Folkloric Feel. This, however, sounds like the album Whiteman’s been waiting to make his whole life: an electrifying emulsion of dirty rock and pristine pop, of raw electric guitars and sleek Lanois-esque atmospherics. Most importantly, this fuses Whiteman’s love of Latin rhythms into his experimental and rock backgrounds with the ease of the Latin Playboys, though with the expansive scope that comes with Broken Social Scene. In other words, this is what Calexico’s Garden Ruin could have been.
If Apostle of Hustle breaks loose from any expectations, Memphis suffers for having too many. It helps that Whiteman is not the principal songwriter in BSS, while Torquil Campbell is the attention magnet in Stars. Here he collaborates with silent partner Chris Dumont, who douses every song in washes of guitars and keyboards that tie in well with Campbell’s hopeless romantic persona, telling tales of lost souls who spend their lives in the cinema and recount ghost stories. But because his voice is so familiar, Memphis can’t help but sound like neutron Stars, splinters of the supernova cast adrift. It doesn’t help that “Incredibly Drunk on Whiskey” is his lowest lyrical moment to date. Considering, however, that the best song on the 2004 debut was a Pet Shop Boys cover, there are considerably more promising signs here to suggest that Memphis may yet find their day in the sun. (Arts and Crafts, www.arts-crafts.ca; Good Fences, www.good-fences.com) -Michael Barclay
Les Matins De Grands Soirs
There are those that will try and convince you that French is not a rock'n'roll language—including many francophones themselves who choose to chanter in the language of les maudites anglais. Thankfully, there are plenty of young Quebecois—including current critics' faves Malajube—who are happy to prove them wrong. Montreal's Les Breastfeeders play a brand of howling garage rock where lyrics barely matter, not when their three-guitar onslaught is commanding you to the dancefloor. Les Breastfeeders take on 60s garage barely leaves room for a breath, Singer Luc Brien plays the snotty street tough to a T, while his fille foil, mod dreamgirl Suzie McLeLove, swoons her way through the poppiest moments. They're beyond question a blistering live band, though the home stereo doesn't really do justice to their many charms. On disc, you may well wonder why they employ sixth member Johnny Maldoror to play only tambourine and hand claps; live, he's a shirtless dervish in a white fur vest and pinstriped pants, humping the stage and mooning the audience. Like any ambitious garage band, there are attempts at more grandiose gestures, but the bagpipes on the six-minute closing track "Septembre Sous La Pluie" can't salvage the song. At their best, Les Breastfeeders are worthy successors to their neighbours the late, great Gruesomes and Les Lutins. Xenophobes only lose out, left to cry in their Freedom Fries.
(Blow the Fuse, blowthefuserecords.ca)
A famous progeny, fashion model and actress with a wafer thin voice releases a hotly tipped debut album with the help of all-star collaborators. Sound familiar? On an entirely superficial level, there’s little separating Charlotte Gainsbourg from Paris Hilton, other than an incriminating sex tape—oh wait, there are a couple of tone deaf and creepy videos she made with her dad 20 years ago, including “Lemon Incest.” But as she points out herself here, “You got the surface and the substance confused.” Coming from French pop royalty—Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, for all you Europhobes—and having a legitimate film career (The Science of Sleep, 21 Grams) already bolster her credibility, even before she calls in Jarvis Cocker, Air and Nigel Godrich to write and produce her album. These gentlemen aren’t merely slumming with star power. The results are everything you’d expect from the guys responsible for This is Hardcore, Moon Safari and Sea Change: a wonderfully weightless musical backdrop with lyrics ruminating on the perils of stardom, the disembodied mindset of the international traveller, hidden beauty and ghostly lovers. Gainsbourg herself is a whispery, transparent presence, to the point where one has to wonder if she sings that way because she wants to—in the best French tradition of cooing chanteuses—or if, like Paris Hilton, she has to. Either way, she still suits the pre-dawn mood alluded to in the title, a waking dreamstate where illusions seem all too real. (Because; www.because.tv) -Michael Barclay
Drums and Guns
Alan Sparhawk has been overheard in public calling this Low’s hip-hop album. Hyperbole aside, it’s nonetheless a left turn for Low, with nary a trace of the crushing guitars here that defined Low’s 2004 cruncher of a coming out party, The Great Destroyer. In their place are plenty of mellotrons and other keyboards, the type that are central to the sonic architecture so characteristic of returning producer Dave Fridmann’s planetarium pop experiments. Neither the keyboards nor the crackling and lurching drum machines distract from the vocals; Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are front and centre in the mix, as if an a cappella album was surrendered to a Fridmann remix. Guitars, when present at all, are run through backwards effects, just another ominous texture to underscore the paranoia and dread that runs through titles like “Your Poison,” “Murderer” and “Violent Past.” Musical moods are communicated more effectively than lyrical ones. Especially such a prominent vocal mix, Sparhawk sounds mildly ridiculous stretching a metaphor like, “Let’s bury the hatchet like the Beatles and the Stones.” For all its bombast, The Great Destroyer also happened to be Low’s strongest collection of songs, which this is certainly not. Nonetheless, having stretched their previous formulas to the breaking point last time—both musically and personally—Drums and Guns suggests that there was a phoenix in those flames. This sounds like the first step; next time they’ll take flight. (Sub Pop, subpop.com) –Michael Barclay
Wow, that was an even shorter retirement than Jay-Z. Trans Am
announced their break-up in 2004, spawning the wheel-spinning
swan-song Liberation and a nonetheless exhilarating and epic
live set that left even casual fans screaming for more—a plea that
obviously registered. They reconvened in New Zealand: far from their
studio, far from the apocalyptic tenor of their hometown of
Washington, DC, far from their familiar gear and effects. This is the
sound of this power trio starting over practically from scratch, or at
the very least rediscovering their strengths and letting more of their
initial influences shine through: "North East Rising Sun" is a
one-chord electro incantation that channels "Tomorrow Never Knows,"
while "Obscene Strategies" rides a "White Horse" into the sunset. The
vocoder vocals are thankfully kept to a bare minimum, and even the
moments that resemble 80s sci-fi TV themes somehow survive any kitschy
retro stench. These kick-ass Kraftwerkians hit their stride when the
flowering analog synth chords bloom atop stadium rock riffs on
"Conspiracy of the Gods," which is also where drummer Sebastian
Thompson brings the hammer with enough roto-toms to make Neil Peart
jealous. Sex Change contains everything you've ever wanted from
Trans Am, and if you weren't paying proper attention, this could even
pass for a posthumous greatest hits.
(Thrill Jockey, thrilljockey.com)
The following two reviews were written for the "75 Lost Classics" feature, as this is Magnet's 75th issue. All considered albums had to have been released in the magazine's lifetime, starting in 1993. I was happy to provide the CanCon; Stuart Berman also wrote about Zumpano.
JERK WITH A BOMB
Pyrokinesis (Scratch, 2002)
Before they scaled mountaintops and coloured them pink and black with
newfound comrades in arms, East Vancouver's Steve McBean and Josh
Wells were still a duo dodging men in uniform, running with thieves,
and committing acts of corporate sabotage in the streets of their
crooked city. They searched for signs of love and hope underneath "the
bloody weight of history," and found some by letting others into their
strictly stuckist guitar and drums universe, including some dirty
keyboards they dragged from the dumpster. This is the wasted landscape
and deconstruction that was necessary for their rebirth as Black
Mountain, where they discovered optimism amidst increasingly sludgy
CATCHING UP: Shortly after this album's release, JWAB began adding
members and morphing into Black Mountain, whose 2005 debut on
Jagjaguwar marked McBean and Wells's worldwide coming out party (and
Coldplay opening slots). That band has since spawned a cottage
industry of spin-offs, including Pink Mountaintops, Blood Meridian,
Ladyhawk, Sinoia Caves and Amber and Josh.
Alone at the Microphone (Three Gut, 2001; Rough Trade, 2002)
Crawling through shit and mud to be with your beloved and your banjo has never
sounded lovelier. Like any classic album, Alone at the Microphone
existed in its own imaginary world, both lyrically and sonically. The
air in this particular universe is dank with death and loathing, full
of foul fiends lurking in stoney rubbish, spewing forth semen with
hurl in their hair. Guelph, Ontario's Royal City crawled out of their
spacy basement with dog-eared copies of the Bible and Milton to detail
the depths of the spiritually downtrodden, and in doing so set
themselves apart from their more polite peers, predating freak folk
and terrifying the alt-country set at the time. Not that it's a
fearful album: their journey through the profane includes glimpses of
the sacred, a realisation achieved with beautiful starlit arrangements
that dazzle to this day.
CATCHING UP: Royal City went on permanent hiatus in 2004 shortly after
the release of follow-up Little Heart's Ease. Singer/songwriter Aaron
Riches is now a theology student in Nottingham, UK; guitarist Jim
Guthrie continues to release equally captivating solo album, is a
touring guitarist in Islands, and has penned some of Canada's
best-loved TV ad jingles; bassist Simon Osbourne backs up drummer
Nathan Lawr's solo singer/songwriter project. A b-sides album has long