Articles posted in May 2009

Clues @ the Biltmore Cabaret, 5/30/09

Clues and Apollo Ghosts are responsible for two of my favourite records of 2009, so last night’s show at the Biltmore seemed like the perfect pairing. Unfortunately, however, poor promotion meant that the venue was only half full, a problem likely accentuated by the early start time (there was another show starting at 11).

Apollo Ghosts took the stage at 8:45, immediately kicking into high gear with “Little Yokohama.” The band’s energy was relentless, especially singer/guitarist Adrian Teacher, who thrashed around the stage and made Iggy Pop crazy-eyes at the audience; within the first two minutes he had already climbed onto the risers at the side of the stage to perform a guitar solo, crouching slightly so as not to bang his head on the low ceiling. In keeping with Teacher’s manic intensity, the set emphasized the band’s punk influence, eschewing quirky ballads in favour of Ramones-inspired stompers like “Land of the Morning Calm” and “Bad Apple.” The trio scarcely paused between songs, and this blistering pace meant that Apollo Ghosts were able to play almost half of Hastings Sunrise, as well as several cuts from their brand new EP Forgotten Triangle. Of the new songs, the standout was the set-closing “Palm of my Hand,” during which Teacher led the audience in a Congalaise Flea Dance, as well as performing a guitar solo while crowd surfing.

After the party atmosphere established by Apollo Ghosts, Clues’ brooding art rock was an anticlimax. The performance began with the creeped out drone of “Elope,” featuring frontman Alden Penner’s half-whispered vocals and bandmate Lisa Gamble on musical saw. The rest of the set emphasized Clues’ abrasive tendencies, with squalling feedback and thundering dual percussion; “Haarp” was an explosion of noisy crescendos and jagged guitar riffing, and even the bouncy “Perfect Fit” was overdriven and harsh.

The five members switched instruments on nearly every song, all joining in for shouted group refrains on “Ledmonton” and “Approach the Throne.” It was an impressive show, but the group’s stage presence was haughty and withdrawn; audience interaction was kept to a bare minimum, and Penner & co. seemed eager to leave the stage, wrapping up almost half an hour before the 11pm curfew. Perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so off-putting if not for the contrast with the energy-filled Apollo Ghosts.
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Danny Michel @ the Biltmore Cabaret, 5/28/09

To call Danny Michel a singer-songwriter only tells half the story. Not to sell the man’s music short—his lyrics are quirky and memorable, and his guitar playing is borderline virtuosic. But at last night’s show at the Biltmore Cabaret, many of the most memorable moments came between songs, as Michel regaled the captivated audience with stories and jokes, and even noodled with brief snippets from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With his charming stage presence, he recalled the ever-affable Hawksley Workman, his face plastered with a perma-grin throughout the hour-plus set.

Armed with only his guitar and a loop pedal, he created surprisingly dynamic arrangements by overlaying his songs with hand drumming (playing on the body of his guitar) and harmonized vocal scatting. This allowed him to show off his chops with numerous extended solos, at one point including an interpolation of the theme from James Bond. He recalled the husky voice and retro sensibilities of M. Ward, with songs that ranged between dusty folk noir ballads and countrified rockabilly. The stand-out was “Whale of a Tale,” a series of outrageous lyrical boasts, including “I discovered a dinosaur,” and “I once broke out of prison.” Michel closed out the set with a cover of Elvis‘s “Song of the Shrimp,” a bizarre tale of crustacean murder that was the perfect end to an eccentric set.

The show was opened by local singer-songwriter Hannah Georgas, who played a brief-but-stunning acoustic set with Robbie D., a multi-instrumentalist from her band. Without a rhythm section to support her noisy tendencies, Georgas’s vocal freak-outs were more restrained than usual, placing the focus on her lyrics rather than her arrangements. “All I Need” was sombre and haunting without the propulsive dance rock climax, and the usually-sneering “Chit Chat” was similarly mellowed-out. Nevertheless, Georgas’s bandmate provided enough dynamics to keep things unpredictable, switching between electric guitar, banjo, ukulele, and shakers, as well as providing backing vocals. Ryan Guldemond of Mother Mother joined the pair on guitar for “Love Sick,” a new tune culled from Georgas’s upcoming full-length album. Based on the quality of it and other new songs, the LP is going to be one to watch out for when it’s released early next year.

Carolyn Mark also played a set, but I had just run into some friends, and wasn’t paying much attention. Whoops. It was undeniably pretty, but nothing really caught my attention, aside from when she sung a vocal solo while gargling a mouthful of water.
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Another great Black Mountain spin-off

It doesn’t look like we’re going to get a new Black Mountain album this year, but that’s okay, since the spin-off projects are coming in quick succession. A few weeks ago, it was Outside Love, the amazing new album by Stephen McBean’s Pink Mountaintops project. Next up is Lightning Dust, Amber Webber’s psych-folk duo with Black Mountain compatriot Joshua Wells.

The group’s upcoming sophomore album is called Infinite Light, and its first single, “I Knew,” has been released as a free download. Beginning with the rat-a-tat of an electronic bass drum, this sparse beat is soon joined by backwoods acoustic strumming and Amber Webber’s ever-tremulous vocals. Her singing is dark and dramatic as always, this time delivered with an affected twang in keeping with the folksy guitar. Buzzy synth arpeggios enter in the second verse as Webber describes an anachronistic romance with a bad boy hero seemingly drawn straight out of Western flick. It’s a charming tune, part Southern gothic, part electro minimalism.

mp3: “I Knew”

Infinite Light is due out August 4 via Jagjaguwar.
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Grizzly Bear @ the Commodore Ballroom, 5/27/09

I didn’t make down to Sasquatch this year, but at least I’ve been able to enjoy some of the festival’s sloppy seconds (ewww…sorry). Animal Collective played on Sunday, and on Monday TV on the Radio was in town (which I passed on, since I’ve already seen the group once on the Dear Science tour). Last night, Grizzly Bear played a record release show at the Commodore, celebrating the critically-approved Veckatimest.

During a mid-set rendition of “Colorado,” the closing track off of 2006′s Yellow House, a fan screamed “You’re amazing!” at the top of his lungs. And that simple statement pretty much said it all—Grizzly Bear is a technically stunning band, each member is virtuosic at his instrument, and bassist Chris Taylor is so man-pretty he could have been carved out of porcelain. (That last statement might be irrelevant to the band’s music, but it’s still worth noting.) Every song was flawlessly executed, without so much as a note or a beat out of place.

But the band’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. With such meticulous attention to every detail, the performance came off as overstudied—no one could ever accuse Grizzly Bear of being too lively on stage. What’s worse, with only four members on stage, the band wasn’t able to replicate the grandeur of its studio arrangements. “Cheerleader,” so hauntingly beautiful in studio form, was flat and lifeless when replicated live.

The songs that worked best were those that emphasized melody over musicianship. “Two Weeks” and “Knife” were predictably awesome, as were the explosive harmonies on the chorus of “While You Wait for the Others.” But on the less pop-oriented material, the band resembled the chamber pop equivalent of prog. It’s counter-intuitive to suggest that a band play less well, but for Grizzly Bear, it would be nice to see the members take a less studious approach.
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The jury’s still out on the Dead Weather

Given the declining quality of Jack White’s many releases, the Dead Weather feels a bit like a make-or-break type project. Reactions to the group’s live shows have generally positive, so there’s reason to be optimistic about the quartet’s debut album, Horehound, which will be released on July 14.

The group released its second single, “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” yesterday via Jack’s own Third Man Records. Today, the song was released online as a free download (newsletter signup required). The tune doesn’t really settle my ambivalence towards the project. It features plenty of fuzzed-out garage rock riffing, with shrieking vocal trade-offs between White and bandmate Allison Mosshart (lead singer of the Kills). It’s got a complex structure, with plenty of tempo changes and no clear chorus. This makes it a challenging and unpredictable listen, but its restless structure feels a bit like a case of too few ideas, rather than too many; none of the sections are good enough to merit repetition, so the group has no choice but to change directions every 30 seconds.

The jury’s still out until Horehound hits the shelves (or, more likely, until it hits the internet sometime before). Click here to download “Treat Me Like Your Mother.”
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Animal Collective @ the Commodore Ballroom, 5/25/09

The last time I saw Animal Collective, it was on the Feels tour, and the group looked almost like a regular rock band: Deakin rocked out on guitar, Panda Bear provided thundering tribal percussion, and sort-of-frontman Avey Tare spazzed out like he was on catnip. And the burly, bearded Geologist looked like a bass player, even if he actually served the role of sampler from behind a synth deck.

But the 2009 incarnation of the Baltimore experimental outfit looked like a slightly more animated version of Kraftwerk, its members spending almost the entire show hunched over tables piled high with synthesizers and looping machines. Now reduced to a trio (Deakin is sitting out this album and tour), the group had scarcely any live instrumentation, with Avey, Panda and Geologist acting primarily as button-pushers and knob-twiddlers. To compensate for the lack of action onstage, the show featured a flashy, psychedelic light show, with swirling colours projected onto a huge white beach ball hanging above the stage.

Ironically, by eschewing traditional rock instrumentation, Animal Collective’s sound has become more palatable than ever. Like this year’s (comparatively) pop-friendly Merriweather Post Pavilion, the performance emphasized the group’s Beach Boys-style harmonies and incessantly catchy melodies. “Summertime Clothes” got the crowd bouncing early with its buzzy synth loop and relentless four-on-the-floor beat. A few songs later, “My Girls” provoked such an enthusiastic singalong that the audience nearly drowned out the band during the choruses. Best of all was the pulsing techno of “Brother Sport,” which featured percussive shrieks and reverb-soaked chanting from Avey Tare and Panda Bear.

The show was dominated by Merriweather tracks, but the band also included reworked versions of a few older gems, including “Lablakely Dress,” the set-ending “Slippi,” and a dense electro version of “Who Could Win a Rabbit” that was almost unrecognizable as the same song that appeared on 2004’s Sung Tongs. “Fireworks” was one of the only songs of the night to feature live guitar and drums, its pounding middle section stretched out into an epic jam. Despite being reduced to ¾ of its usual lineup, Animal Collective’s live show was better than ever, balancing boundary-pushing experimentalism with tight musicianship that emphasized the group’s ever-increasing songwriting prowess.

The show was opened by Grouper, a waifish singer-songwriter armed with only her guitar and an array of effects and loop pedals. Her set was dreamy and atmospheric, overlaying haunting ballads with ambient swirls of heavily manipulated guitar sound. It was pleasant performance, but the highlight came near to the end, when a guy standing near me affected a booming British accent and yelled “You’ve satisfied us! Indeed!” I’m not sure if he was expressing genuine appreciation or requesting that she get off the stage, but it was brilliant either way.
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The Awkward Stage search for a style

Shane Nelkin, the singer/songwriter behind the Awkward Stage, has collaborated extensively with A.C. Newman, acting as the lead Pornographer‘s backing guitarist on his recent solo tour. It’s no surprise, then, that Nelkin’s work with the Awkward Stage recalls the joyous energy of the New Pornographers, rife with buzzing keyboards and sunny pop hooks.

Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights is the Awkward Stage’s second album, and it features more of the sprightly power pop that first got the group signed to the Canadian indie powerhouse Mint Records. Surprisingly, however, it’s the album’s quieter moments that pack the biggest punch—”We Dreamt of House” is a sombre ballad, its sparse arrangement featuring little more than Nelkin’s acoustic guitar and his heavily reverbed voice. “I Hurt the Ones That Love Me” is similarly powerful, beginning with a minimalist arrangement that later gives way to pounding piano and chirping horns.

In addition to bouncy power pop and acoustic folk ballads, Slimming Mirrors contains forays into overdriven punk (“Anime Eyes”) and even heavy metal riffing (“Mini Skirt of Xmas Lights”). Of the 15 tracks, three are brief instrumental interludes, but rather than tying the album’s disparate styles, they only break up the flow even further—”(Than)” is a piano/violin duet that sounds like nothing else the band has ever done. So as good as the songs on Slimming Mirrors are, they never coalesce to form a truly great album. The Awkward Stage would be best to choose a style and stick with it—based on the quality of the acoustic tracks, let’s hope that the Awkward Stage goes folk for album number three.
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Here come the “blow your mind” jokes

Although Grizzly Bear’s third album, Veckatimest, isn’t officially out until this Tuesday, a low quality rip leaked in early March, meaning that many fans have already had it in rotation for the better part of three months. Rather than taking the wind out of Grizzly Bear’s album release, however, the leak seems to have fuelled the hype, as the rave reviews are starting to pour in.

The Brooklyn quartet has released a video for the lead single “Two Weeks,” a fantastic chamber folk tune based around plinking piano chords and a soaring, Brian Wilson-evoking melody. Grizzly Bear uses harmonized vocal runs where other baroque pop bands would have used lavish strings, meaning that the song retains its humanity, despite the orchestral grandeur of the arrangement.

The group has shot a video for “Two Weeks” just in time for the Veckatimest release date. It begins with the four members sitting in a church, lip syncing and smiling creepily with blank expressions. Nothing happens for nearly half of the song’s four-minute runtime, until their faces gradually begin to glow. As the song reaches its crescendo, their heads explode in fireworks, with white sparks shooting out of the backs of their heads. It’s a strangely compelling clip, which is bound to illicit lots of bad jokes about “blowing your mind.”

Veckatimest is due out May 26 via Warp.
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Great Bloomers spread out the awesomeness

“Catching Up,” the lead track off of Great Bloomers’ 2007 EP, set an impossible precedent. As I wrote last week, the song is a jaw-dropping knockout, both infectiously catchy and heartbreakingly nostalgic, swelling from a solemn ballad to an upbeat rocker. It hardly mattered how good the rest of the EP’s songs were—they were all eclipsed by the opening track. Speak of Trouble, Great Bloomers first full length, contains no songs that top “Catching Up’—but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The moments of brilliance are more evenly spread this time around, and every one of the eleven songs contributes to the album’s overall effect.

Stylistically, Great Bloomers haven’t changed much. Their sound is still based around the piano and voice of frontman Lowell Sostomi, varying between hooky pop (“Daylight”) and stomping roots rock (the twang-y “Honey Blanket”). As with most piano pop outfits, it’s tempting to compare the group to Ben Folds Five, especially on the shapeshifting title track, which begins with chirpy saloon piano before morphing into waltz-time doo wop, eventually breaking out into an upbeat folk rock bounce. But unlike the ever-ironic Ben Folds, who sings with his tongue firmly planted in-cheek, Great Bloomers are unwaveringly sincere. “Fever Days” is seeped in the same misty-eyed nostalgia that made “Catching Up” so unforgettable, as Sostomi plaintively sings “I miss everything I’ve seen.”

In keeping with the band’s earnestness, the production on Speak of Trouble is clean and never distracting, resting the full emphasis on the songs themselves. The piano is typically placed high in the mix, although it occasionally takes a backseat to overdriven guitars. The breezy, guitar-led groove of “Young Ones Slept” gives way to start-stop breaks, punctuated by distorted guitar riffs and rolling drum fills. It manages to be catchy without resorting to a dumb, obvious chorus, and its outro of “Bury the hatchet in our own back yard” is one of the album’s most indelible hooks. It’s the kind of song that might have been overlooked on the band’s EP—but without “Catching Up” to steal its thunder, it stands out as one of the highlights on one of the year’s best pop/rock albums.

mp3: “The Young Ones Slept

Speak of Trouble is out now via MapleMusic.
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The new Dinosaur Jr. will melt your face

The dudes from Dinosaur Jr. have nothing much left to prove to anyone other than themselves. They’re already accepted as indie legends, widely acknowledged as having laid the groundwork for 1990s alt-rock. At this point in the band’s career, any new music seems a bit like playing with fire—with they original lineup back together after over 15 years, it would be a shame to taint the legacy of those ’80s classics. But after the awesomeness that was 2007′s Beyond, there’s good reason to be optimistic about new material from Dinosaur Jr.

Thankfully, the trio’s latest, Farm, does not disappoint. Its twelve songs are fuzzy and loud, never letting up over the album’s hour-long runtime. But despite the noise rock assault, the group’s music is inherently passive; this is mainly due to singer J Mascis, whose lazy vocal delivery once made him a touchstone for the ’90s slacker ethos.

Thankfully, this laziness doesn’t translate sloppy songwriting, since the group’s knack for melody is as sharp as ever. “Plans” is the album stand-out, a hazy fuzz rocker with an oblique-but-affecting refrain of “I got nothing left to be / Do you have some plans for me?” Lead single “I Want You to Know” is about the closest the album ever gets to sounding upbeat, with swaggering powerchords and so many hooks, you’ll hardly know which part to call the chorus.

MP3: “I Want You to Know”

As well as packing the songs with memorable melodies, J Mascis fully embraces his inner guitar hero on Farm. “I Don’t Wanna Go There” is nearly nine minutes long, and over half of its runtime is taken up by an epic guitar solo—with a perfect balance of melody and face-melting shreds, it’s some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard in years. Forget your concerns about preserving Dinosaur Jr. in its historical moment—this is a record to crank up in your basement while you hang out with friends, drinking beers and exchanging the odd “Dude, this rocks.”

Farm is due out on June 23 via Jagjaguwar.
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