Articles posted in March 2009

You’re Nobunny until some bunny loves you

Nobunny is to rabbits as John Wayne Gacy Jr. is to clowns. Not to suggest that Nobunny is a serial killer, since he (probably) isn’t. But like the infamous murderer, he takes an ostensibly cute costume and perverts it, making it seem more creepy than lovable. He wears a bunny mask at all times, but its white fur is matted and gross, its nose a wolf-like snout. The mask covers only the top part of his face, revealing a scruffy stubble that makes him look like he’s been on a three-day bender. His music is equally unkempt, as he plays sloppy garage blues with ultra-lo-fi recording methods and buried, distorted vocals.

Many of his tunes are Check Berry-inspired 12-bar boogies, but Nobunny is no blues purist. “BoneYard” is equally influenced by bedroom electronica, with a canned electronic beat and warped vocal effects that at times blur the line between human voice and instrument. Similarly, “I Am a Girlfriend” features tinny keyboard leads and sampled spoken-word clips—a refreshing change from the live-off-the-floor anachronism that dominates the modern blues scene.

Both songs appear on Nobunny’s debut full-length, Love Visions, which was released late last year via Bubbledumb.
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Japandroids are go!

Brian King and David Prowse’s garage rock duo, Japandroids (a.k.a. JPNDRDS), is built around ragged guitar-drums interplay and scrappy production, making it sound a lot like many other bands of its kind (McLusky, the Constantines). But the group is distinguished by its sentimental streak, with lyrics and melodies that reveal a sensitivity behind the brash, noisy exterior.

Take, for example, “I Quit Girls,” the closing track off Japandroids’ debut full-length Post-Nothing. While the title might suggest a dismissive middle-finger to the female sex, it’s actually a love song, its title clarified by the lyric “After her I quit girls.” Similarly, Pitchfork-approved lead single “Young Hearts Spark Fire” has a the cinematic quality of an ’80s anthem—if the band turned down the distortion and added a couple of synthesizers, this could be “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” or “In Your Eyes.” It’s a coming-of-age classic, with its shouted chorus of “We used to dream / Now we worry about dying.”

King and Prowse holler their songs without a trace of self-consciousness, meaning that angst-ridden lyrics such as “Young Hearts Spark Fire” sound cathartic rather than depressing. This makes Post-Nothing the perfect soundtrack for your first identity crisis, the kind that comes at age 17, when you realize high school is almost over. It’s the same thing that makes Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club so enduring—at its best, Post-Nothing makes it sound possible to cling onto your last moments of youth and make them last forever.

When the band misfires, it’s because it’s because of the tendency to become cloyingly sweet. “Crazy/Forever” features the refrain “We’ll stick together forever,” and drives it into the ground by crooning it ad-naseum. Such moments are rare, however, and their effect is leavened by the fact that the whole thing is soaked in fuzz.

Japandroids may not be as brawny and vitriolic as you would expect out of a fuzz-rock duo, but it’s the group’s soft side that has raised it to buzz-band status. Post-Nothing is being released on vinyl and as a digital download, but not on CD; it comes out April 28 via Unfamiliar, but can be streamed now at imeem.
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A complete and nutritious breakfast

There something very bohemian about Language-Arts‘ fusion of folk, hip-hop and jazz, and the Vancouver quartet would probably sound more at home playing in a vegetarian restaurant than a club. I’m not such a fan of the group’s half-spoken pseudo-rap, but there’s no denying “White Socks in Birkenstocks” from the tour-only EP Small Run. The song begins with classical guitar plucking and a deep, droning cello, soon swelling to accommodate keyboards, bass, and surprisingly hard-hitting drums. The hooks come quick and often, from the squeaky falsetto chorus to the layered, wordless harmonies of the breakdown. It’s perfect baroque pop, balancing immediate catchiness with texture and atmosphere.

mp3: “White Socks in Birkenstocks”

Language-Arts is offering several free downloads from its website, including three of the four songs from Small Run. “White Socks in Birkenstocks” will reappear on the upcoming full-length Where Were You in the Wild?, due out sometime in 2009.
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Hey Rosetta! @ the Media Club, 3/27/09

Normally, I couldn’t care less about the self-congratulatory corporate sideshow that is the Juno Awards (anything that glorifies Nickelback is the enemy). But this year, with the awards being hosted in Vancouver, I’ve reaped the benefits of JunoFest, the city-wide festival showcasing many of the country’s best independent acts. The folk-rock collective Hey Rosetta! is one of the many bands burned by the award nominations, but the Junos gave the St. John’s band its due credit in the form of a headlining slot at the Media Club on Friday night.

Shawn Hlookoff opened the show with a set of slick, serviceable folk ballads and sensitive piano pop. Accompanied by a guitarist and a percussionist, his music sounded pretty much like anything you’d hear on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy (think John Mayer crossed with McDreamy).

Second on the bill was local pop rock five-piece Said the Whale, who kicked things off with the much-YouTubed single “This City’s a Mess” from last year’s Howe Sounds/Taking Abalonia. The rest of the set, however, was dominated by new material, as frontmen Tyler Bancroft and Ben Worcester traded off on cuts from the group’s forthcoming album. The stand-out moment was the smash-hit-in-waiting “The Magician,” a chunky riff-rocker with a hook so massive it could make Rivers Cuomo blush. The set was capped off with another new song, “Goodnight Moon,” which began as a gentle ukulele ballad before exploding into frantic strumming and euphoric “ba ba ba” shouts.

Next up was the Midway State, and the Toronto group immediately lost my interest by beginning its set with pompous arena lighting and dramatic, prerecorded intro music played over the PA. It sounded a bit like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who, and it might have been impressive if performed in a stadium in front of 30,000 people; in a stuffy basement club, however, it came off as silly. The set itself was comprised of grandiose piano pop, its blatant Anglophilia making the group almost indistinguishable from Coldplay or Keane.

Thankfully, Hey Rosetta! brought things back down to earth with a no-nonsense set of impassioned chamber folk and whiskey-fueled roots rock. Despite having six musicians on stage, singer Tim Baker’s voice soared above it all, his sonorous vibrato resembling John Frusciante on the best day ever. The band’s sound was more hard-hitting live, with blistering takes on “Red Heart” and “There’s an Arc” that far outstripped their recorded versions in terms of sheer energy. With a dual guitar attack and the occasional extended jam, the band sounded at times a bit like My Morning Jacket (this is what Evil Urges could have been if it didn’t suck). The highlight came on the final song of the night, as the group showed off its Newfie roots on the folksy “New Goodbye.” With the clock nearing 2 AM, the song swelled from an acoustic ballad into a full-blown epic, its transcendent pay-off coming with the lyric “I will die wide-eyed.”
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Goodies from the Too Pure Singles Club

Whenever I tell people that I’m a member of the Too Pure Singles Club, they assume it’s some sort of a Christian dating service. What it actually means is that every month, I get a new 7″ from an artist on the British indie label. I wasn’t too familiar with most of the label’s roster prior to joining the club, but it’s already delivered some gems.

Last month the label sent a double A-side by Peggy Sue, an alt.folk group from Brighton-by-way-of-London. The group’s music is significantly less cutesy and wholesome than the name suggests, with haunting two-part harmonies from frontwomen Rosa Rex and Katy Klaw. “Lazarus” begins as a simple acoustic ballad, but a massive, shuddering drumbeat soon propels it to a pounding climax with strained, half-shouted vocals. “Alice in the Kitchen” is similarly percussion-heavy, with a marching beat that almost overpowers the song’s strummed guitar and mandolin.

This month, it’s “What a Drag” by the Brooklyn quartet Bear Hands. These days, the mixing of hip-hop and rock is strictly taboo, but the single absolves the genre of the crimes perpetrated by 90s nu-metal. The song contains no actual rapping, but the fat (“phat”?) hip-hop beat in the chorus is a defiant middle finger to anyone who said rap-rock was best left in the 90s. But rhythm aside, the song is actually fairly typical of millennial indie rock, with reverb-soaked guitar leads and subtle, textured keyboards.
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Shouting from the telephones

Victoria-based quintet the Paper Cranes are fronted by the husband-and-wife team of Ryan McCullagh and Miranda Roach, but their songwriting is anything but blissfully domestic. Instead, McCullagh’s lyrics are fixated on heartbreak and loneliness, while his vocals evoke the brash emotionality of Robert Smith. On their debut full-length, 2008′s Halcyon Days, the group sounded a lot like Hot Hot Heat, mixing spiky new wave riffing with catchy dance-rock beats.

The Paper Cranes have released a brand new single, “Telephone,” as a free download on their website. It’s easily the band’s best tune yet, with a bouncy piano groove and wheezy, Dylan-esque harmonica breaks that give the song a sunburnt, rootsy quality. In contrast to the sunny melody, the lyrics are typically gloomy, describing widows pining for lost husbands (“Rheumatic fingers trace their names / In fog on breath on frosted window pains”). It’s not too big a departure from their previous work, but it shows that the Paper Cranes are learning to hone their hook-writing abilities while keeping the lyrics as poignant as ever.

mp3: “Telephone”

The band’s website also promises that a new album entitled Chivalry’s Dead will be out in 2009, but neglects to say whether it’s going to be an EP on and LP.”
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All I need is this right now

It’s hard to describe Hannah Georgas‘s music without selling her short. Take a song like “The National,” the swooning centrepiece of her debut EP, The Beat Stuff. Over a plucked banjo and soothing, wordless harmonies, Georgas describes listening to the National (the band, not the CBC show with Peter Mansbridge as I first imagined) and hoping to reunite with an ex-lover. The song works within a familiar folk pop template without anything gimmicky or even particularly original about it—it’s just a flat-out brilliant song.

It speaks volumes about the strength of Hannah’s songwriting that “The National” doesn’t simply overshadow everything else on the EP. “All I Need” begins with gentle ukulele arpeggios, gradually swelling to a propulsive climax that is the closest the EP gets to breaking the traditional singer-songwriter mold. Hannah even lets loose with a few screams on the song’s repeated coda, “All I need is this right…NOW!” On “Mama’s Boy,” Georgas takes a cue from Alanis Morissette and plays the “woman scorned” card—unlike Alanis, she manages to do it with her dignity intact; its sneering chorus of “I guess it’s easy to get over an asshole” is the best romantic exorcism you could ever ask for.

She also shot a video for the EP’s title track, showing her singing the tune while walking around the seawall in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Spencer Schoening of Said the Whale makes a cameo playing percussion (is that a bucket?) and being generally awesome.

The Beat Stuff is out now via Upper Management. She will be heading into the studio soon to work on her debut LP with producers Howard Redekopp (the New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara) and Ryan Guldemond (Mother Mother).
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If you’ll be their bodyguard…

Living Thing is actually Peter Bjorn and John‘s fifth album, but for all intents and purposes, it’s their second. Barely anyone had heard of the Swedish trio prior to the 2006 album Writer’s Block, and hardly anyone noticed when they released the largely instrumental Seaside Rock last year. So it’s disappointing, but not entirely surprising, that Living Thing has all the hallmarks of a sophomore slump: it emphasizes production above quality songwriting, and plays against all of the strengths that made the breakthrough record so good. Gone is the band’s signature breezy guitar pop, replaced by minimalist electronic arrangements that mostly consist of little more than a canned beat a buzzy synth. It’s a gutsy album to be sure; it just isn’t much fun to listen to.

Thankfully, Living Thing does achieve one moment of “Young Folks”-worthy brilliance with the afropop-inflected title track. It’s pure Graceland, mixing the bass slides of “You Can Call Me Al” (“Bonedigger, bonedigger”) with the sunny guitar leads of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Placed in the middle of a bleak, austere album, this moment of vibrancy is all the more dazzling for the contrast.

The album will be released on March 31 via Almost Gold, and it’s currently streaming at the band’s MySpace.
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First base wins first place (in our hearts)

In the past couple of years, there has been a sudden influx of bands mixing bubblegum pop with fuzzed-out noise rock, including Wavves, Vivian Girls, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

First Base, an anonymous one-man band from Ontario, has received none of the publicity of the bands listed above, but his sugary lo-fi pop is just as infectious. Recorded using the most rudimentary methods (Windows Sound Recorder), First Base juxtaposes dirty electric guitars against goofy toy keyboards and then cranks the volume until it all distorts. The lyrics are rendered almost indecipherable by thick vocal harmonies, which bring to mind the Beach Boys run through a fuzzy PA system. There’s even a dash of rockabilly thrown in for good measure; it might be called the blues, if only it weren’t so euphorically happy.

The band does not yet have an album, but released a cassette single through Pizza Party Records, which promply sold out. The MySpace tunes are updated regularly, so check back frequently to hear the latest. Especially make sure to listen to “First Base,” a perfect summer pop song with a driving electronic drumbeat doubtless culled from a cheap keyboard’s pre-set beats. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian, this is the best eponymously-titled song I’ve ever heard.
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Bathed my heels in Jasper

That picture isn’t a placeholder—it’s the actual artwork of Pre-Release EP by the Victoria-based singer-songwriter Aidan Knight. He plays guitar in the power pop quintet Maurice, and as a solo artist he has released a series of low key mini-EPs through his website. The latest, Pre-Release EP, was posted in January of this year, and it is the best of the bunch. As the title and artwork suggest, it’s not intended as a stand-alone work, but is a teaser for his forthcoming (as-yet-untitled) debut full-length.

“Jasper” follows a traditional folk blueprint, with simple three-chord strumming, lap steel guitar, and banjo arpeggios. It’s the kind of tune that could have been written any time in the last 50 years, sounding timeless without pretension—don’t worry, there’s no faux-Southern twang here. The lyrics, which describe bathing in a river to be reborn, presumably refer to Jasper National Park in Alberta. Given the resolute secularism of most modern indie music, it’s tempting to read the song as a celebration of communion with nature; still, it’s tough to ignore the biblical implications of lines such as “What a relief to see all your sins absolved.”

“Knitting Something Nice for You,” the second of the EP’s two tracks, takes things into a more experimental direction. Beginning with sparse acoustic plucking and synthesizer drones, the song soon swells to a chorus of densely layered vocals. Halfway through, it unexpectedly changes completely, with the sudden entrance of keyboards and drums. Even though the chord progression remains constant, it’s not until the reentrance of the vocal line that it even sounds like the same song. This ultimately gives way to an experimental noise outro, as the final 45 seconds are made up of static swells and sampled vocal loops.

Based on Knight’s written description of the EP, the songs on Pre-Release are rough mixes of tracks that will appear on the upcoming full-length. There are no other concrete details offered regarding the LP, but these songs provide a compelling reason to keep checking back for updates. The EP is available from Aidan’s website as a free 128k download, with 320k files being offered for a donation.
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