Monday, June 27, 2011

June '11 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in the past month.

Matthew Barber – s/t (Outside)

Six albums into your career is an odd time for a self-titled album, but when you shack up at home with an eight-track and play every part on the album yourself, what else would you call it? Toronto singer/songwriter Matthew Barber breaks it down to bare bones on 10 songs that are mostly dedications to his beloved, either his family or his wife. “I sing because I’m a singer/ it’s what I do with my life,” he says. There’s nothing particularly weighty on the mind of this former philosophy student; the homespun music doesn’t demand any more. The only time his charm wears off is on the closing track, with an opening couplet that should never have left his pillow, never mind his bedroom: “Oh Lexi / you’re sexy/ your body lets me in.” Otherwise, these songs suggest that Barber is best when he’s straightforward and stripped down. (June 23)

Download: “Middle of a Dream,” “Blue Forever,” “Man in a Movie”

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

Since For Emma Forever Ago, his breakthrough 2008 debut as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon has said that he doesn’t want to be just another guy with an acoustic guitar—which nonetheless was exactly what that album was. For its follow-up, he’s assembled a large band, including veteran pedal steel session player Greg Leisz and avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, created electronic textures to intertwine with guitars and banjos, and layered his vocals extensively. It all adds up to otherworldly 22nd-century folk music, made all the more alien by Vernon’s own voices, which most of the time sound like a choir of Vocoders on helium. (Perhaps that’s why Kanye West is a big fan and sought him out as a collaborator.) While the album is certainly unique, and interesting in small doses, it gets really grating, really fast. The final test of patience is the closing track, “Beth/Rest,” which Vernon admits is an homage of sorts to ’80s singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby—not even one of his studio albums, but perhaps a murky home demo, coloured with horribly dated electronic piano sounds. This doubly eponymous album is a bold move, but it’s bound to be a divisive one. (June 23)

Download: “Minnesota, WI,” “Hinnom, TX,” “Perth”

Booker T – The Road From Memphis (Anti)

Dennis Coffey – s/t (Strut/K7!)

Two soul legends deliver their best work in decades, if not their entire storied careers.

Booker T. Jones, the organ player best known for his classic track "Green Onions," has spent most of the last 30 years backing up people like Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and otherwise igniting few of the fireworks he did on his classic recordings with the MGs. He was last heard on an uninspiring album backed up by the Drive-By Truckers, the memory of which is entirely erased by this triumphant return.

It’s easy to credit the electrifying sound of The Road From Memphis to Jones’s collaborators: his backing band is the Roots, the producer is Gabe Roth from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Dennis Coffey is on guitar (see below). Maybe it’s because of them that the 66-year-old Jones dances around the keys with the dexterity of his youth, but he sounds positively on fire, egged on in particular by drummer and co-producer ?uestlove. The material serves him well: a mix of original instrumentals, spritely versions of hits by Gnarls Barkley and Lauryn Hill, and contributing vocalists Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Sharon Jones, Matt Berninger (The National) all complement the mood perfectly. (Lou Reed, on the other hand, not so much.)

Guitarist Dennis Coffey is not as well-known as Booker T, but he’s played on dozens of hit records from his hometown of Detroit, including many Motown sessions. The opening guitar riff to the Temptations’ “Cloud 9”? That’s him. He also scored a major solo hit in 1971 with “Scorpio,” a favourite of hip-hop producers since the days of Public Enemy.

This self-titled album finds him revisiting some of his classic sessions, on tracks by Parliament, Funkadelic, Wilson Pickett and others, with help from local vocalists from Detroit’s soul and garage scene (including Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs) as well as hot R&B newcomer Mayer Hawthorne. Whereas with Booker T the material and the collaborators push the star to great height, here the same combination mostly allows Coffey to quietly do what he does best: sit in the background, write kick-ass arrangements, let the band as a whole do its thing while Coffey himself drives the beast with rhythm guitar that’s distorted, fuzzy, heavy on the wah pedal, and always extremely tasteful. There are few, if any, showboating solos here: Coffey isn’t that kind of player, although he certainly has the chops to do it. The original compositions are just as vibrant as the classics.

There’s no mistaking Booker T’s album as the work of anybody but, and it’s guaranteed to please any old soul. Coffey, on the other hand, is the surprise: that anyone still makes hard-edged soul like this with a large band, a psychedelic edge and such colourful arrangements is an unexpected delight.

The only thing better than the arrival of these two records would be news that they’re touring together. (Note: they're not, though Coffey checks into the Horseshoe in Toronto on July 8.) (June 2)

Download Booker T: “Walking Papers,” “The Road From Memphis,” “Rent Party”

Download Dennis Coffey: “I’ll Bet You,” “7th Galaxy,” “Space Traveller”

The Burning Hell – Flux Capacitor (Weewerk)

A “flux capacitor” is the key element of the time machine used in Back to the Future. The album named after it finds songwriter Mathias Kom reflecting on his odd life, his childhood obsessions and his wandering nature (he’s lived in Winnipeg, Peterborough, Whitehorse and now St. John’s). Kom has a wry wit and conversational vocals, which means much of this material is more entertaining as a friend telling you funny stories, rather than actual songs. It would all be little more than an inside joke—and arguably a lot of it is—if Kom wasn’t so engaging and charismatic, which is why the autobiographical “My Name is Mathias” is an album highlight, though “Nostalgia” is probably more fun live than it is here.

His band—a new group of St. John’s players, not the Peterborough crew from previous albums—boasts plenty of baritone saxophone, clarinets, violins and trombones to bolster Kom’s ukulele backdrop and baritone vocals, and Flux Capacitor has more orchestral arrangements than the organized chaos of Kom’s previous line-up. Though it’s not his strongest work, there’s still plenty of proof that Kom is a unique and original songwriter, capable of using an Albert Einstein quote in song that indirectly sums up Kom’s own work here: “We are all equally foolish before God, and equally wise.” (June 9)

Download: “My Name is Mathias,” “Report Card,” “Pirates”

Mark Davis – Eliminate the Toxins (Saved by Radio)

Mark Davis is kind of a morose guy. On the opening track of his third solo album—the previous two having dealt with the death of a spouse—he decries the god who robbed him of his beloved; later on he tells someone who has lost their father that there are “so many ways / to wake up dead.” And yet he insists, “Waste no tears on me, sad-eyed lady.”

And nor should you. Despite its often dour details, the album takes its titular advice to heart, finding hope and inspiration amidst the emotional wreckage. Davis is the rare artist who can channel catharsis from morbid material, whose empathetic voice offers hope and embodies survival.

It helps that he writes immediately affecting songs, with a melodic gift worthy of any of the greats; every single song here sounds like a modern classic. He draws from obvious influences—“Go to Ground” provides an aural image of Neil Young hanging out in Berlin with David Bowie and Brian Eno in 1978—and yet the album is a decidedly modern take on psychedelic roots rock, one where vocals run through a Leslie speaker sound just as alien as the drum machines and synthesizers that colour what are, at their essence, straightforward folk songs. Even all of those tools are only slight distractions; the core instrumentation wouldn’t sound out of place on any Blue Rodeo record: rich acoustic guitars, 12-string electric guitars, banjos, harmonicas and even whistling.

Davis successfully combines the comfort food of Canadiana roots rock with spooky sonic spellcasting in ways that few artists other than Daniel Lanois even attempt. That he does it by throwing chunky rock songs and pop hooks into the mix is even more impressive. Perfect production, timeless songs—what more do you want? Eliminate the Toxins may be full of ghosts, but you’ll want these songs to haunt you for a long, long time. (June 16)

Download: “Waste No Tears,” “A Good One,” “Let the World Know Where You Are”

Dengue Fever – Cannibal Courtship (Fantasy)

All cross-cultural mash-ups are cannibalistic in nature. In this case, Cambodian musicians of the ’60s produced a unique regional take on American rock and pop music of the day. Thirty years later, a group of L.A. musicians, fronted by a Cambodian expatriate from a popular musical family there, take that Cambodian hybrid and make it into modern American music with traces of east and west African influences. “You’re just another stamp in my passport,” sings vocalist Chhom Nimol, but she and her band don’t feel the same way about the musicians in their record collections.

Dengue Fever know that there are two ways to approach this material: with an absurdist sense of fun—like on “Cement Slippers,” the goofy first single and duet between guitarist Zac Holtzman and Nimol—or with serious reverence to all elements of the amalgam. Three albums into their career, Dengue Fever lean more toward the latter, though the mystery stops with a thud when modern rock guitars weigh down a chorus, as on the title track or “Family Business.” There are also some outright cringe-worthy moments, like “2012” (“There are so many predictions!”). But Nimol is captivating throughout, and Holtzman effectively wields his new instrument, a double-neck guitar—one neck is a Fender Jazzmaster, the other an electric version of the Cambodian instrument called the chapey.

Dengue Fever have this corner of cross-cultural collision all to themselves, and make cannibalism seem terribly tasty. (June 30)

Download: “Cement Slippers,” “Sister in the Radio,” “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius”

Fucked Up – David Comes to Life (Matador)

I was one of the few unconvinced that this Toronto band’s 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life was somehow a watershed moment for hardcore punk, despite the fact it won the Polaris Prize, got them signed to one of the most-respected American indie labels, and garnered attention from plenty of mainstream press and even public radio both here and in the U.S. To an aggressive genre born and ossified in the early ’80s, Fucked Up brought broad ambition, flutes, violins, female vocals and other distractions to counteract Damian Abraham’s visceral one-note growl. But on the album itself, somewhere underneath the 70 layers of guitar tracks, they forgot how to be a great punk band (which you can hear them be on the 2009 compilation Couple Tracks); Common Life was as bloated as the prog rock that punk was created to slay in the first place.

Now comes what the band claims is a rock opera. At 18 tracks and 70 minutes, Fucked Up prove once again that they don’t lack for ambition. And the first third of this album sounds like it’s paid off: the production is 10 times better than on Common Life, with the guitars roaring out of the speakers, Abraham comfortably placed in the mix instead of sounding like the guy who’s always belching loudly at the party, and songs that match fist-pumping punk energy with, well, the idea of a rock opera that The Who pioneered in the late ’60s.

Yet the album loses steam quickly after that, and not just because Abraham sounds monotonous on a good day, and not because no one in the world can possibly comprehend the narrative, which apparently has something to do with love lost and found while living in Thatcher’s England. After the initial burst of inspiration on the opening tracks, the music doesn’t function as punk, not as prog, not as pop, and certainly not as rock opera. The production—especially the guitar tones—is the only consistent strength here, and it’s curious how close the band comes to sounding like U2 at times, which surely was not what they were going for. But who knows? (June 16)

Download: “Queen of Hearts,” “The Other Shoe,” “Turn the Season”

Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)

Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry have spent the last two years touring almost every corner of the world, especially the ones that few other Canadian bands dare to tread: Montenegro? Burma? Lebanon? Check, check, and check. They’ve learned that the unifying global music is not rock’n’roll—it’s the synth pop that blares out of basement clubs, taxicabs and storefronts the world over. And so Boeckner sets his guitar aside for most of Sound Kapital, and joins Perry in programming the synths and drum machines, making the combination of equally joyous, abrasive and raucous music that the likes of Kraftwerk, Suicide, Skinny Puppy and even Depeche Mode could never have visualized.

Anyone who loved his now-disbanded group Wolf Parade knows that Boeckner writes killer songs and is a powerful howler of a rock singer. In Handsome Furs, he still highlights those strengths while he and Perry dive deep into sound sculpting. Their 2009 album Face Control featured some of the most delicious guitar sounds put to tape in recent memory, contrasted with harsh synths and deep drum machines; here the guitar is only a texture, taking a back seat to icy Europop synths that Lady Gaga would love to get her hands on. (The album was mixed in Finland and Berlin, for whatever that’s worth.)

Sound Kapital isn’t as jam-packed with hooks and riffs as Face Control was, but it’s a different, darker beast. Boeckner takes more pointedly political turns than ever before, singing in a voice of the disembodied and disenfranchised about the “damage of the Western world,” vowing to “never be repatriated,” railing about how “you don’t serve the people” and asking “what about us?”

Part of what Boeckner finds fascinating about the far-flung places he visits is the sense of renewal, of forging a new history instead of being trapped in the prism of the past: “No nostalgia on the stereo / No hits because there’s no radio / no replacement / a thousand lonely kids making noise in the basement.” Even if Handsome Furs—Boeckner and Perry grew up in Lake Cowichan, B.C., and Elora, Ont., respectively—don’t happen to come play for some of those thousands of lonely kids in their hometown, Sound Kapital itself will make the world seem a lot less lonely. (June 30)

Download: “What About Us,” “Cheap Music,” “When I Get Back”

Junior Boys – It’s All True (Domino)

There’s nothing like failure, real or perceived, to motivate the creation of greater work. Junior Boys’ bandleader Jeremy Greenspan was apparently so distraught at the muted reaction to the electronic group’s last album—which, granted, was far from their strongest work—that for two months he set up shop in Shanghai, the other side of the world from his home base in Hamilton, and started writing and recording new material as a form of therapy.

Even without that back story, it’s evident from the titles that Greenspan is undergoing some kind of mid-career crisis: “Second Chance,” “A Truly Happy Ending,” “Kick the Can,” “You’ll Improve Me.” The music suggests he’s coming out on top.

Junior Boys have always been trapped between sad-sack pop songwriting, new wave revivalism and current electronic trends; they were discovered, after all, by Steve Goodman, aka Kode 9 and the man who launched the now-ubiquitous British electronic subgenre known as dubstep. Greenspan seems willing to let the pop part of the equation slide a bit; while still melodic, he’s diving deeper into sounds and surrendering to the grooves, especially on the euphoric nine-minute closing track “Banana Ripple,” easily the most buoyant and deliberate disco move on any Junior Boys album, the sound of Greenspan dancing his blues away into the night. (June 23)

Download: “Itchy Fingers,” “Playtime,” “Banana Ripple”

Kevin Kane – The Home Version (independent)

Since the breakup of his ’80s band the Grapes of Wrath, songwriter Kevin Kane has lived largely under the radar, and not entirely by his own design. A series of fine solo records went largely unnoticed, which is reason enough for him to revisit his rich catalogue (especially now that the venerable West Coast performer has relocated to Toronto). The Home Version is just Kane and his guitar, reaching back to the first Grapes of Wrath recording (“Misunderstanding”) right up to his last album, How to Build a Lighthouse. While the lush harmonies he’s known for are sadly lacking, the intimacy of the recording—which among other things allows you to focus on his fine acoustic guitar playing—makes up for it. (June 23)

Download: “Misunderstanding,” “Days,” “Last to Know”

Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts (Matador)

Sonic Youth are such a prolific band, both as a unit and with umpteen side projects, that very little attention is ever paid to one member’s solo record anymore—especially because no one can remember the last time the band produced something worth getting excited about.

Yet here is guitarist Thurston Moore’s acoustic solo record, produced by Beck and laced with eerie violin and harp passages. Simply by unplugging, Moore—who helped rewrite the rules of rock guitar in the late ’80s and early ’90s—sounds refreshed and engaged. Whether he’s drawing from Nick Drake, Indian folk influences, or trademarks of his own oeuvre, Moore pulls between pop and the avant-garde just as he always has. The result is certainly not a singer/songwriter record, but an enchanting surprise from a veteran reinventing himself. (June 2)

Download: “Blood Never Lies,” “Mina Loy,” “Illuminine”

My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO/Maple)

My Morning Jacket are one of the great American rock bands of the last decade, a reputation largely gained through their live shows. It’s there that one can completely appreciate the full-throat projection of Jim James’s voice, the sweeping dynamics that can coax lullabies into epic Southern rock anthems, the spaciousness provided by the band’s dabbling in reggae and electronics. Expect to hear all of that on the live box set they’re planning on releasing shortly.

In the studio, My Morning Jacket is not an easy band to pin down. While that can occasionally lead them down some unusual paths—like the Prince-inspired falsetto funk of the last studio album, 2008’s Evil Urges—that experimentation provides ample rewards more often than not. (Though in the case of Evil Urges, it certainly didn’t—which makes this the first good MMJ album in five long years.)

And so in an inconsistent discography, Circuital stands as one of their best albums to date, one that combines everything they’ve ever done well with subtle rhythmic approaches that could make a case for them being the American Radiohead, only with a stronger interest in pop-song structure. (The title track even sounds a bit like Radiohead’s “Creep,” as covered by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers with Daniel Lanois on lead guitar—just in case you’ve ever wondered what that would sound like.)

There are times when things threaten to get a bit loopy—like the female choir singing woah-oh-ohs throughout a Tom Jones-like number called “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” (yes, it’s about the genre of music)—but Circuital is both remarkably consistent and constantly surprising. Pedal steel guitar and Rhodes piano are always at the forefront, with the associated country and soul influences permeating through every track, no matter where else the rhythm section is leading the band. James’s voice ties everything together: he’s becoming a more effective singer at every end of his range, not just the high notes.

As good as Circuital is, no doubt it shines even brighter on stage. My Morning Jacket play the Kool Haus in Toronto on July 11. (June 9)

Download: “Circuital,” “Victory Dance,” “First Light”

Snailhouse – Sentimental Gentleman (White Whale)

Montreal’s Michael Feuerstack “writes the songs that make the grown men cry,” he sings in the title track of his eighth album. It’s one of several moments here of self-reflection on his role as a melancholy man, as a musician who’s always on the outside looking in, as a self-aware songwriter who cuts to the heart of every situation with a well-placed couplet like, “I want the headaches that you bring / I want the painkillers, too.”

Following up his must-own masterpiece Lies on the Prize is no small task; instead, Feuerstack focuses on bringing out the strengths in his most recent backing band, who make Snailhouse gel as a real group for perhaps the first time ever, instead of simply being a vehicle for Feuerstack’s songs. He still pulls in some favours from his all-star friend pool; including appearances from Katie Moore of Socalled and Pietro Amato of Bell Orchestre and the Luyas; Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara mixed the album. Yet any Snailhouse album is ultimately about Feuerstack’s lyrical ability to make you chuckle and cry simultaneously and unsuspectingly—or, in one extreme case, dance “on the ledge with your heads in your hand like some solitary conga line.”

He’s one of Canada’s finest songwriters, and sadly one of its most unsung. If you’re a fan of sentimental gentlemen in general, you’ll fall for this Sentimental Gentleman in particular. (June 23)

Download: “Daydream,” “Sentimental Gentleman,” “Great Storytellers”

Tyler the Creator – Goblin (XL)

It’s an odd coincidence that this album came out the same month that Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange celebrated its 40th anniversary. Tyler the Creator, the ringleader of a massively popular L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—who went from being an underground online sensation to the subject of 10,000-word essays in the New Yorker—makes his mainstream debut with an album drenched in nihilism, misogyny and ultraviolent imagery that makes A Clockwork Orange seem antiquated and quaint.

Tyler frames the album as a dialogue with his therapist; and so instead of an all-out shockfest, Goblin is a whiny orgy of self-loathing where the protagonist claims he doesn’t have the guts to kill himself, hates being famous, blames all his trouble on women and his absent father, and has violent sexual fantasies while masturbating and doing drugs. Occasionally he attempts to be somewhat sensitive on tracks imaginatively titled “She” or “Her”; the former promises to deliver eight bullets to the subject of his stalking affection if she dares to turn him down after hearing such a charming come-on.

So why are we supposed to care? If Tyler had an ounce of charisma, he might at the very least be amusing. But after countless disclaimers about how he’s not a role model, how no one should do what he says (i.e. “Kill people, burn s---, f--- school,” goes the chorus of “Radical”), he comes off as a poser who doesn’t even have the guts to embrace his more-loathesome-than-thou persona. Is Tyler supposed to embody our darkest thoughts? Is he a trickster kicking against all social convention? Is he just a jackass?

He claims, “I’m f---in’ radical, I’m motherf---in’ radical.” Just as anyone who walks around saying “I’m so cool” is obviously the uncoolest person in the world, Tyler the Creator is little more than a 19-year-old boy who needs some kind of therapy—preferably not the kind conducted in public and on record. (June 16)

Download: “Yonkers,” “Nightmare,” “She”

Rave On Buddy Holly – Various Artists (Fantasy)

Buddy Holly is famous for three things: a) his biggest hit was “That’ll Be the Day (That I Die)”; b) he died in a plane crash at 22 with two other pop stars in 1959; c) Don McLean had a baffling #1 hit in 1971 with a song ostensibly about Holly’s death, “American Pie.”

Holly’s discography goes much deeper than this morbid trivia, of course. Despite the brevity of his career, almost every track he ever recorded was a classic—and there’s plenty of evidence of that on this 19-track collection, where even the duds at least have a great song beneath the bizarre performance (I’m looking at you, Lou Reed’s “Peggy Sue”).

The inspired guest list includes Nick Lowe, Patti Smith, Fiona Apple, My Morning Jacket and more, most of whom play it relatively straight—sometimes too straight (Justin Townes Earle) or flat (Zooey Deschanel of She & Him being the worst offender). Cee-Lo, the Black Keys and Florence and the Machine all reinvent a ’50s production aesthetic in their own modern ways, combining elements of rockabilly, bossa nova and New Orleans jazz.

Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, on the other hand, chooses to channel mid-period Billy Idol, for better or worse. And throughout “It’s So Easy,” Paul McCartney howls almost unintelligently like a manic southern rock radio DJ, like he’s suddenly trying to convince everyone that he was the really wigged out Beatle (hey kids, remember “Helter Skelter”?!). And Kid Rock is shockingly tasteful, using only bass, gospel backing vocals, handclaps and a horn section to deliver a soulful version of “Well All Right.”

This tribute was assembled to commemorate what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday. If he left this legacy and songbook at the age of 22, one can only imagine what else he would have got up to in the past 53 years. (June 30)

Download: Cee-Lo Green – “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care),” Florence and the Machine – “Not Fade Away,” Kid Rock – “Well All Right”

The Weeknd – House of Balloons (independent)

It’s rare for an album to arrive out of nowhere and turn an entire genre on its head. That’s exactly what’s happened with Toronto R&B artist The Weeknd (not to be confused with the ’90s indie rock band from London, Ontario, who spelled “weekend” properly). Little is known about the people behind The Weeknd, other than that the singer is a 20-year-old named Abel Tesfaye, with help from the occasional producer (including Martin “Doc” McKinney, who’s worked with Esthero, Santigold and many more).

The Weeknd is a strange bridge between modern R&B conventions—the smooth, Autotuned vocals, the melismatic flourishes, the R. Kelly-ish plainspoken anti-poetic take on cooing come-ons—with the dark, spooky corners of dubstep, the sinister edge of Massive Attack and the inventiveness of Prince at his strangest. For that reason, it’s likely to infuriate fans of both sides: it’s far too weird for mainstream tastes, and yet the vocals are anathema for anyone who thinks T-Pain is responsible for all the evils of modern music. Tellingly, both Drake and Adele are huge fans and supporters.

Like Drake, The Weeknd specialize in self-doubt mixed with decadence, except that Tesfaye, though juvenile, is nowhere near as loathsome a lyricist as Drake (though he’s occasionally just as juvenile). He’s also a much better singer and the music is far superior—spacious and haunting where Drake just sounds empty.

The inventiveness heard here has justly fascinated critics around the world, making The Weeknd one of the biggest buzz bands of the last few months—and two more albums are expected by years’ end, as well as a collaboration with Drake. Whether they prove to be a one-off fluke or the beginning of a new wave of R&B remains to be seen, but House of Balloons—even with all its flaws—is daring enough to be considered a game-changer. (June 2)

Download: The entire album is available for free at the band’s website,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

NXNE 2011

As a new dad, it's shocking that I got to see as much as I did at the embarrassment of riches that was this year's NXNE, but apologies nonetheless to the approximately 400 bands that I manage to ignore in the following reviews.

Belle Phoenix, Allie Hughes

Both these women are great performers with great voices and a taste for the theatrical. One had me spellbound. The other left me thinking about more compelling matters, like how maybe I should go back home and do the dishes before going out to another show. (Which I actually did.)

Belle Phoenix is a British performer with a page-boy haircut, a muscular band, bluesy riffs and mildly goth-y approach (“I’m dead inside!” “The devil’s son!” are two choruses). She knows how to work a stage, but it all seemed too contrived, starting with the removal of one piece of clothing during each of the first three songs. Or maybe it works better when there are more than 30 people in the room—this was a thankless 9 p.m. slot in a large room.

Allie Hughes is entirely contrived and proud of it. There is no pretense of a “normal” performance here. Her set was structured like a short play, complete with entrance, supporting characters, and the death of her entire band by the end. What that play is about is anyone’s guess; Hughes’s between-song banter was in German. With the ladies of Rouge on backing vocals and a powerful duet with an unnamed male guest, every time Hughes shared the spotlight it somehow made her star shine brighter. Her operatic vocals (she occasionally sings backup with Austra) go for the gold every time, though always in service of the song, not to show off for some imaginary Idol-esque judges. The showstopper is “Why You Wanna Break My Heart,” which is part ’80s heavy metal ballad and part Broadway; Hughes doesn’t blink at the ridiculousness of it all, for if there was even a hint of a wink she’d be insufferable. Allie Hughes walks a fine line—and she walks it very, very well.

Handsome Furs

Playing all-new, unfamiliar material rarely grants the rapturous response received by Handsome Furs on the closing night of NXNE, in this venue a third of the size the Montreal duo normally play in this town. It didn’t even matter that said material doesn’t pack the same punch as their near-perfect 2009 album Face Control; Toronto was in love with every move by married couple Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry, who ditched any rock star mystique by appearing thoroughly humbled. Even though the new album, Sound Kapital, is performed entirely on synths, Boeckner still played plenty of guitar, which, along with the energy in the room, brought the material to life. Closing track “Cheap Music” is Sound Kapital’s surefire anthem, if not Handsome Furs’ new theme song: few duos extract so much sound and fury from so little.

Little Girls

This Toronto band was so bloodless, I wondered if I had to be British to enjoy it. This is the kind of rock band that doesn’t rock, that hints at psychedelia but sounds hopelessly straight-edge, that appears to be singing but is really just opening their mouths. Which is a shame, as the guitarist has some solid Edge-ish lead lines and the bassist provides nice colour; the stand-in drummer (their regular drummer went camping this weekend, apparently) did an admirable job. All that didn’t direct them anywhere but dullsville.


Despite the ascendancy of Diamond Rings, the alter ego of Matters frontman John O’Regan, his long-running rock band remains one of the most underrated acts in the country. When they were still called the D’Urbervilles (a name they retired earlier this year), they released We Are the Hunters, a pitch-perfect, if slightly unlikely, marriage of Spoon, Joy Division and AC/DC. (The name was changed to the rather bland Matters because most people have no idea who Thomas Hardy is or how to pronounce one of his best-known book titles.) Little has changed under the new name: the songs are as memorable as anything on the incredibly catchy Diamond Rings album, although less so for their melodies than for the powerful chemistry these four young men have. There are no lead instruments, just one big rhythm section—even O’Regan’s voice, with its clipped staccato, helps reinforce the rubbery rhythms. Who knows what was going through O’Regan’s mind, playing for just over 100 people in the basement of the Drake Hotel mere hours after playing solo before thousands in Yonge-Dundas Square as Diamond Rings, but he didn’t look anywhere near disappointed. Why would he? These are the boys he grew up playing music with, these are the men who are his support system, this isn’t about dress-up, this is just visceral rock’n’roll—this feels great.

Schomberg Fair

This Toronto trio could easily kick the ass of every other band playing the festival—musically AND physically. Teeming with testosterone, Schomberg Fair play punk/gospel/bluegrass at either speed-metal tempos or half-time heaviosity worthy of Black Sabbath. Whether it’s a barn-burning original or a traditional like “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” they grab every song by the throat. The guitarist/banjo player has serious chops to spare, but it’s the bassist—he of the bullfrog baritone, the Paul Simonon stance and the surprisingly tasteful use of a wah-pedal—who glues everything together, while the drummer brings the thunder. I’d fallen hard for their 2009 album Gospel but for whatever reason had never seen them until now. What on Earth was I waiting for? If there’s a better young rock’n’roll band in Toronto, I don’t know who it is.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Men Without Hats NXNE

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Men Without Hats “reunion” show, but I definitely didn’t expect Ivan Doroschuk to open with a techno cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and conclude with an Erasure-worthy cover of ABBA’s “SOS.”

I also didn’t expect him to have the body of an 18-year-old, or to be every bit the rock star he was almost 30 years ago at the height of his fame. Or to be specific, what his friend John Kastner of the Doughboys described as a “gay pop star”: Ivan prances about like a fey hippie on ecstasy, and frankly it doesn’t look like an act. One wonders if the impish frontman leaps around his house like this while performing menial chores (“Where did I put those keys? Oh, over here!”).

And yet Ivan is nothing if not charming; you can’t help but like the guy. The fact that he has an arsenal of pop hooks in a surprisingly strong catalogue helps a lot; contrary to common misperception, this was not a one-hit-wonder band. Even the one new song in the set wasn’t a buzzkill—that slot was reserved for the clunky relic “Living in China,” with lyrics that rhyme “Ping-Pong” with “egg foo young.” All the hits from 1982-1987 were here: “Moonbeam,” “I Got the Message,” “I Like,” “Antarctica,” and of course the set-closing “Safety Dance.” (The female keyboardist who spells out the song’s title vocally seemed to be studying her laptop a bit too closely, prompting my friend to comment, “Is she reading the lyrics?” “S-S-S-S-A-A-A-A-F-F-F-F…”) Double-barrelled non-sequitur intro of the night: “But enough political songs. Here's a song about mescaline,” said Ivan, introducing “Pop Goes the World.”

One song was dedicated to long-time Toronto supporters Michael Hollett and Alice Klein of Now magazine, which was the only publication to claim that Ivan was a serious songwriter in the late ’80s: in 1989 they picked The Adventures of Women and Men Without Hate in the 21st Century—an album title that could have been brainstormed during a Now editorial board meeting—as the #3 album of the year, after Lou Reed’s New York and Blue Rodeo’s Diamond Mine, and ahead of Sarah McLachlan, Daniel Lanois, Kate Bush, Neville Brothers, and The Tragically Hip. Alas, Ivan didn’t think the album was important enough to play anything from it anymore.

In Have Not Been the Same, Ivan provides what I always thought was one of the book’s most bizarre quotes. When trying to align himself with Montreal’s punk scene, he says, “I always thought of Men Without Hats as an electronic hardcore band with a hit single.” And while I still don’t think there’s anything “hardcore” about Men Without Hats, one could argue that the relentless eighth-note assault, delivered here by a loud electric guitarist as well as two keyboards, owes more than a bit to the Ramones. Indeed, I’ve seen more than a few reunion shows in my time; the vast majority of them have been at least somewhat limp and nowhere near as loud or aggressive as Men Without Hats were. Who knew?

Ivan is the only old Hat in the band. He and brother Stefan had a major falling out (there are lawsuits involved), and brother Colin showed up at this show (in a doo-rag?!) just for “Where Do the Boys Go.” But no offense to the original band: anyone could play these songs, and people only ever remember Ivan, the man who advised us all that “You can act real rude and totally removed and I can act like an imbecile.” Except that this wasn’t a rude, arms-crossed convention crowd; everyone at this intimate show was ready to “surprise ’em with the victory cry.”

Men Without Hats play a free outdoor show in Yonge-Dundas Square—presumably to considerably more people than the 150 at this show, and with kids in tow—on Saturday night at 8 p.m., opening up for Devo.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: Grapes of Wrath

Later this week, Have Not Been the Same, the 10th anniversary revision/reissue, should be on bookstore shelves across the country. The launch party is Friday, June 10 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, featuring Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath (tickets available from Soundscapes, Rotate This and Ticketmaster).

Between now and the date of the launch party, Radio Free Canuckistan will provide a series of insights into the origin of the book, what went into the reissue, and everything you never knew you wanted to know about the project.

Today I turn the blog over to one of my co-authors. To almost everyone I know, Ian A.D. Jack is the mystery man of our trio. Both Jason Schneider and myself are active writers, but even before Have Not Been the Same was first published in 2001, Ian Jack had shifted careers and become an elementary school teacher east of Toronto. Thus his status as "the other guy," which is certainly unfair, as he's worked as hard—if not harder—on this project as Jason and myself.

It was Ian who dove deep into the murky worlds of Skinny Puppy and Voivod, two bands we knew had to be in the book because of their importance and the way they fit into our thematic structure—and the fact they had great stories—but it's safe to say that none of us listened to much of their music. It was also Ian who had to navigate the tricky territory of Nettwerk Records, particularly the lawsuit brought against it by some of Sarah McLachlan's former collaborators. And it was Ian who, in this new edition, writes sympathetically and eloquently about the tragic life and death of the Nils' Alex Soria, a tragic story of shattered hopes and crippling addiction where several main characters often contradict each other—it's the part of the new edition that I'm most proud of.

So without further ado, Ian will now introduce you to the opening act at tomorrow night's launch party, Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath.

My experience as a music fan is different from my co-authors, who grew up in or near Toronto, because my formative musical years took place in my seven years living in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In the pre-Internet, limited-cable '80s, Thunder Bay had CBC'S Video Hits, Good Rockin' Tonight and NBC'S Friday Night Videos, or Top 40 radio and local radio for music exposure. This meant beyond the international Top 40, Canadian music was pretty much dominated by Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Luba and Gowan. My mother loved folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas and Ian & Sylvia, as well as ABBA; my dad was a massive fan of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. The common ground for both my parents was the Beatles.

When I wanted to take a chance on something outside of that safehouse, I went to the Thunder Bay Public Library. They had a vinyl collection that sparked my early love of Men Without Hats, Talking Heads and U2. I remember an album cover with three handsome young men with corkscrewed hair standing in front of a big house: Treehouse by the Grapes of Wrath. The cover intrigued me, but for some reason I never checked out the album. U2 pretty much owned 1987 and my Grade 9 year.

By the time I was 16, I had moved back to my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, a pretty town an hour east of Toronto on the 401 that was proximal enough to the big city to give me access to touring bands and more media outlets I was instantly enraptured by CFNY FM — the precursor to Edge 102.1 — and the CityTV/MuchMusic programming (City Limits, The New Music, and the MuchMusic Spotlight), all of which were unavailable to basic cable subscribers in Thunder Bay at the time. All of these media sources had a massive impact on my musical tastes. I fell in love with a slew of British bands – The Cure, Love and Rockets and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

The American underground was equally appealing – Pixies, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth. But I was still drawn to my early listening experiences from the nest: folk rock and pop rock laced in harmonies. In the late '80s, there were suddenly a number of Canadian bands incorporating these elements in their work that were equally cool to me as any bands on my international list: TPOH, the Northern Pikes, 54-40 and the Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath's third album, 1989's Now and Again, was introduced to me through a gorgeous, perfectly produced two and a half minutes acoustic single that was all over the aforementioned media outlets, as well as a respected friend heavily rotating the CD at weekend parties. Now and Again became a staple in my house, and not surprisingly, one of the new albums my mother also enjoyed. (The Forgotten Rebels “Surfin' On Heroin,” not so much.) I started learning the guitar at 16. Along with Beatles and U2 standards, it was the songs from Now and Again that I learned how to play—horribly, of course, but with just as much heart as for any of my other favourite songs.

Later that year, the Grapes of Wrath played Victoria Hall, the town hall in Cobourg. It was one of my first concerts, and the very first Canadian band I saw live. They played in the same space where I later attended high school proms and where I would eventually get married. It seemed so exotic to have these Canadian Rock Stars playing a town of 15,000 with the same passion and light show that you would see at one their bigger shows in Toronto or Vancouver.

My love for the band grew with the release of These Days, the fourth and final album for the first stage of the band’s career. Produced by John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead) it arrived just as I finished high school and headed to university. I saw them a final time during my frosh week at McMaster University in Hamilton in 1992, and the band split acrimoniously by Halloween of that year after a (reportedly) incredible gig at the Commodore in Vancouver. As is history, Kevin was fired from his own band and the other three quarters of the band continued as Ginger. It was evident to any honest fan that Ginger would never measure up to the chemistry or legacy of the Grapes. Though bassist Tom Hooper is a gifted songwriter, Kevin's absence made it pretty clear what a prominent role he played in carving the band's sound, not to mention his talent as a songwriter. It would be years before I would get to hear anything from Kevin. This type of mystery only propels a music geek's curiosity. For years I would read music magazines, and later scour the Internet, with hopes that news would surface on a new project from Kevin.

When we started planning this project in 1997, we all had a wishlist of bands that we wanted to cover. The Grapes of Wrath's story was in my top three. The Grapes of Wrath were probably one of the few bands that we all enjoyed, but their story was mine to tell. I knew it was going to be a central thread in the Nettwerk chapter, but I had no idea what kind of involvement the members of the band would have in our project. At this time, Ginger had folded, and Kane had kept a very low profile working in a guitar factory, finally releasing a sparse and melancholic acoustic solo album, and producing some material from Zumpano's debut album, Look What The Rookie Did. Lawsuits between the two parties were still active, and my interview a year earlier with former keyboardist Vincent Jones was like pulling teeth, clouded partly because of the reality of litigation.

I finally managed to contact Kevin online. After five years of being out of the spotlight, he released his first solo album. We traded some emails while I was finishing up my teaching degree in Kingston. He informed me he was hesitant to engage in a phone interview, and preferred either an email interview or in person. I knew that I would need the latter in order to really find a central voice in the book. My wife and I decided to go on a cross-Canada voyage after I graduated, and beyond experiencing the country together and visiting friends and family, my mission was to make it to Vancouver and Salt Spring Island to interview former members of the Grapes of Wrath.

When we got to Banff, Alberta, I received a call for a job interview back in Ontario. I flew home from Calgary leaving my wife to drive across British Columbia on her own. We briefly considered aborting our trip in Alberta, but reaching Vancouver was too important.

Two days later I met my wife at the Vancouver airport. We took a ferry to Salt Spring Island — spotting a pod of orcas, of course — and I spent a sunny afternoon interviewing Kevin's former bandmate Tom Hooper and Hooper's partner, Suzanne Little, formerly of Lava Hay. (Later in Vancouver, I would also interview Little's former bandmate, Michele Gould – another musician I am grateful to for providing an amazing interview and helping us launch the 2001 edition of our book with a great performance.)

I was shocked to hear from Hooper that the estranged bandmates were on speaking terms and contemplating playing music together again. Hooper spoke with regret about time that had been wasted, and admitted that their musical chemistry had been greatly missed. He also cited that both of them had sons the same age, and having children had brought a lot into perspective for him.

My interview with Kane, however, was up in the air. After a couple of uncomfortable phone calls trying to settle on a date and location (I only had four days in Vancouver), Kevin agreed to meet me at the Arts Club Lounge on Granville Island. He looked me up and down and admitted that he felt uneasy about revisiting the past. I assured him I was approaching this project as a fan and I was looking to tell a balanced story. After the first few ice-breaking questions, Kane relaxed somewhat, and provided me an interview that music journalists dream about getting when they're writing a big story. Over two hours, we talked about his entire history with the Grapes, his relationship with Nettwerk, his views on media and the Canadian music industry. He was candid, well-spoken and all three authors agree he owns some of the best quotes in our book. His voice appears throughout some of the essay chapters and he is essential part of the Nettwerk story.

I'm not sure why Kane trusted me. I was persistent over a year in my hunt for an interview, and he knew that I drove across the country (in part) to talk to him. He knew I wasn't a typical journalist hunting for a sensationalist story.

I asked him to sign a journal of mine, a fanboy tradition I've continued with my interview subjects. Kane smiled at the request, and drew a self-portrait reading the future book with an exclamation point over his head. A year and a half later, I informed him that we had scored a publishing deal with ECW. I sent him periodic emails updating him and eventually sent him a published copy of the original. He admitted the time when we spoke was a difficult period for him, but that he had come to a better place and hoped his past interview didn't screw up his present. I am sure that reading one's history — especially one such as his — is not easy. It is my utmost hope that our book celebrates his work and his life and that this revised version reminds him how important his story is.

While we were writing the original edition of Have Not Been The Same, Hooper and Kane produced another album, the very respectable Field Trip in 2000, and briefly toured before parting again. After a pair of solo albums each, they began playing acoustic shows together again; Chris Hooper, Tom's brother and original Grapes drummer, rejoined the band in 2010, making it a reunion of the original trio. Though none of the members felt they had anything to add to the original story during our revisions, the burying of the hatchet and reunion of the original trio provided a wonderful conclusion to their tale in our book. Last November, the Grapes of Wrath played a triumphant show at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, and continue to remind people why they're a beloved Canadian band with a celebrated songbook that has been important to me for over 20 years. I know I am not the only one that feels that way.

The Hooper brothers still reside in British Columbia, thus making it hard to have the Grapes of Wrath play our launch party, but Kevin Kane now lives in Toronto and accepted our invitation to play. It is a great honour for me to have one of my favourite voices and songwriters be a part of the evening.

Ian A.D. Jack

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: King Cobb Steelie

Later this week, Have Not Been the Same, the 10th anniversary revision/reissue, should be on bookstore shelves across the country. The launch party is Friday, June 10 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, featuring Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath (tickets available from Soundscapes, Rotate This and Ticketmaster).

Between now and the date of the launch party, Radio Free Canuckistan will provide a series of insights into the origin of the book, what went into the reissue, and everything you never knew you wanted to know about the project.

Few bands of the CanRock Renaissance could claim to be equally—and successfully—influenced by Fugazi, NoMeansNo, dub reggae, the early waves of what would later be called electronica, free jazz, ambient techno and pop music. In fact, I can only think of one: King Cobb Steelie.

That this band was ever signed to a Canadian major label (EMI) is incredible, even considering the throw-everything-against-the-wall approach the industry took to finding the next big thing in the ’90s. They represented the antithesis of everything Canadian rock radio was looking for in alternative acts: “precious to you, an aberration to me.” Their roots were in the idealisms of community radio and in activist politics, their list of influences was comparatively obscure, and their list of collaborators were contrarian outsiders: Steve Albini, Bill Laswell, Guy Fixsen (Laika, My Bloody Valentine), Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Change of Heart.

Despite all of this and occasionally self-righteous lyrics, they didn’t take themselves too seriously: like Shadowy Men, their song titles were full of clever puns and absurdist wit, and oddball samples were peppered throughout the first album (“Perhaps a frontal lobotomy would be in order!”). KCS started out playing half-hour sets and giving away their debut seven-inch for free: the latter act seems quaint now that every band under the sun gives away at least a free MP3 as an album teaser, but at the time it seemed a revolutionary act condemning the commodification of art.

The self-titled 1992 debut is filled with fiery purpose, all jagged edges, turntable stabs and rumbling bass lines that showed Kevin Lynn to be the most exciting bassist in Canada whose name wasn’t Rob Wright. (I’d argue he still holds that title.) As Kevan Byrne counts down the beginning of opening track “Duotang,” he sounds exhilarated and somewhat uncertain what he’s about to dive into—punk, funk, dub, abstract ambient and, uh, grunge—but ready to embrace the adventure. Listening to it today, some of it is very much of the early ’90s (“Is that teen spirit I smell or just wishful thinking?”), but a lot of it remains powerful and in many ways more gripping than either its obvious influence—the post-punk dance party of Gang of Four—or the young New York whippersnappers who rediscovered Gang of Four in the early 2000s (looking at you, The Rapture).

Its follow-up, and their major-label debut, was 1994’s Project Twinkle—an album the band admits was a rush job to accommodate Bill Laswell’s busy production schedule (recall, if you will, that the Material/Herbie Hancock/Public Image producer released about an album every month during the mid-’90s, mostly meandering ambient dub records with Parliament/Funkadelic alumni). What was to be the band’s big coming out party was instead their weakest album, though instrumental tracks “Italian Ufology Today” and “Technique”—the least “commercial” tracks on the album—easily hold up with the best work of the band’s contemporaries. The album came out on Lunamoth, a short-lived vanity label with EMI funding that put out records by Hayden, the Wooden Stars (featuring Michael Feuerstack of Snailhouse) and Ui (a band led by Sasha Frere-Jones, now music critic for the New Yorker).

By the time of 1997’s Junior Relaxer, the band had truly hit their stride, with the help of new drummer Sam Cino, programmer Don Pyle, guest vocalist Kinnie Starr and producer Guy Fixsen. They somehow spun a single out of a song commemorating slain Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (“Rational,” which was a MuchMusic hit), but again it was the instrumentals (“Quo Vadis,” “Swiss Crumb”) that made the most impact.

Though King Cobb Steelie shared artistic allegiance with all sorts of international artists of the time—Cibo Matto, Massive Attack, Beastie Boys, Asian Dub Foundation—they were often left stranded on an island of their own. The associations with Albini, Laswell and Fixsen didn’t seem to get them any traction on the world stage, and most people in Canada didn’t know or care who those people were. (Albini being the exception, though their work with him was limited to two songs that appeared on a compilation.)

The 2000 album Mayday, recorded as the band was stripped down to the trio of Byrne, Lynn and percussionist Mike Armstrong, was more of a concerted pop effort, with fine results: “Home” and “The Stinger” still sound huge and current today. And yet it didn’t seem to win them any new fans, which is probably why 2004’s Destroy All Codes was an almost entirely instrumental excursion into digital funk, sounding like a 21st-century version of the Meters. Sadly, that album seemed to sink without a trace.

King Cobb Steelie’s career is full of what-ifs: what if they got the fuck out of Canada? What if instead of signing to EMI they made connections with international labels who would know what to do with them? What if the rest of the world actually cared about weirdo Canadian music then the way it does now? What if Canadian audiences weren’t so conservative and instead embraced an innovative band of the moment, rather than always being 10 years behind?

No matter: King Cobb Steelie were and are a great band, one that was simultaneously very much of the moment and yet out of step, out of time. Because of that, they helped show other Canadian artists that our choices involved more than being just yet another scrappy grunge band, yet another folk rocker or yet another corporate rock shill. That there were all sorts of worlds to tap into and still be a great rock band. That you can stay in your tight little community forever and preach to the choir, or you can roll the dice and engage with the world—both options are fraught with risk, but the latter is worth it if you open the mind of even a few unsuspecting listeners and set them on an entirely different course.

King Cobb Steelie were one of the bands of that era that changed the way I thought about music—both the creation of it and the marketing of it. But at the end of all the endless gum-flapping, the latter doesn’t really mean shit; it’s the music that still stands, and it stands tall. And that’s what we’re going to be celebrating at Lee’s Palace on Friday.