Articles posted in June 2009

Dave Longstreth: llama shepherd

I missed the first wave of hype for Dirty Projectors‘ new album, Bitte Orca; by the time I got around to listening to it, the internet was already flooded with rave reviews, so writing about how good it was seemed a little redundant. But I’m taking the opportunity to talk about it now because Projectors have released a video for lead single “Stillness Is the Move.” Like the rest of the album, the song mixes radio-friendly accessibility with bizarre genre-bending, combining a sexy funk groove with sped up guitar licks and Amber Coffman’s soaring R&B vocal runs. Orchestral swells take over in the final moment, bringing the tune to an elegant, baroque-tinged conclusion.

Given the song’s disorienting mish-mash of styles, it’s fitting that the video is equally baffling. Draped in a Mother Teresa-like white shawl, Coffman leads a dance routine in a clearing at the pinnacle of an island. Meanwhile, bandleader Dave Longstreth guides a llama through an evergreen forest. (What?) Despite its apparent inanity, it’s a captivating clip, with gorgeous scenery and some nifty camera work (lord knows how they pulled it off at the top of a small mountain). Coffman alone is worth the watch, as she delivers a charismatic performance with lots of extreme close-ups; the camera is so penetrating that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch (ala “Nothing Compares 2 U”), but her vulnerability is riveting.

Bitte Orca is out now via Domino.
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A story set to music (apparently)

Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch has always specialized in vivid character portraits. His songs depict social outcasts—Judy, Lisa, Antony—who shun religion, seeking comfort in medication, sexuality or music. But despite his knack for characterization, Murdoch’s songs have rarely been narrative; rather, they are fragments, full of rich detail but lacking structure or progression.

God Help the Girl changes that, slotting Murdoch’s songs into an album-long narrative. Theoretically, at least, since it isn’t always clear what the story’s actually about. The liner notes help to illuminate the main character, Eve, but don’t sufficiently explain how all of the tunes fit together, nor provide any insight into the album’s secondary characters. The characters are voiced by a variety of hired guns, and Murdoch himself plays the role of James, singing on two of the album’s 14 tracks. Backing instrumentation is provided by members of Belle & Sebastian, as well as a full orchestra.

The best moments on God Help the Girl are those that sound closest to typical Belle & Sebastian. The title track could have fit nicely on The Life Pursuit, and describes a character—Eve, the titular “Girl”—who is more or less interchangeable with Judy (from “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” as well as other songs). The song describes Eve’s descent into reclusive depression, but it’s propelled by a buoyant melody and plenty of witty lyrical jabs: “You have been warned I’m born to be contrary / Back when at school I wrote from right to left”.

Unfortunately, not all of God Help the Girl is able capture the same magic as the title track. The album is hampered by its vocalists, most of whom are unable to convey the fragility of their characters. Eve is voiced by newcomer Catherine Ireton, whose powerful performance isn’t quite fitting for her wounded character. Listening to her sing a song like “Act of the Apostle” (a recycled version of “Act of the Apostle II” from The Life Pursuit) is a bit like listening to Joss Stone‘s cover of “Fell in Love with a Girl”—sure, it’s an impressive performance, but why bother when the original songwriter does such a better job? For this reason, the best fit (apart from Murdoch himself) is Asya of the teenage trio Smoosh, whose gently lisping vocals make her perfect for the role of Eve’s friend Cassie; her contribution to the countrified waltz “I Just Want Your Jeans” is one of the collection’s highlights.

The album is also hampered by a few clunky lyrics that seem more like vehicles for the story than effective stand-alone songs. “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” is clearly intended to be played during a nightclub scene, and it comes off as an over-literal play-by-play of events: “Shuffle to the left / I kick the boy behind / To make a little room / Boogie to the right.” The movie version of God Help the Girl is due to start shooting next year, so perhaps tunes such as this will work better in film.

Ultimately, God Help the Girl is a pleasant diversion for Belle & Sebastian fans, but the overall effect is similar to that of 2000′s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant: a few moments of brilliance interspersed with disappointing experiments and awkward vocals. Hopefully the planned movie version doesn’t distract Murdoch too much from getting to work on the next B&S album.
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Rock ‘n’ Roll excess with heart

The Dudes play no-nonense, good time rock ‘n’ roll, and their latest album, Blood Guts Bruises Cuts, embodies the spirit of ’70s bands such KISS and ZZ Top. To describe it as archaic is an understatement: this is the kind of band Spinal Tap was making fun of 15 years ago. With their lumbering drums, singalong choruses, and seemingly endless supply of chunky guitar riffage, the Dudes veer dangerously close to the much-miligned genre of “frat rock”—no mistake, this is the perfect soundtrack to a raging kegger, the kind of album that ought to be accompanied with chants of “Toga! Toga! Toga!”

But, somehow, they pull it off. Rather than coming off as trite or superficial, the Dudes music is heartfelt in its rock ‘n’ roll excess. They draw heavily on soul and R&B, particularly during the album’s dense vocal harmonies—check out “Ghosts We’re Buried On,” with its ghostly one-word refrain: “Soul.” The group’s penchant for vintage soul is complimented perfectly by frontman Dan Vacon’s wearied, poignant vocals—he can make an unabashed party rock tune like “Girl Police” sound downright heartbreaking. And although his lyrical subject matter is typical frat rock fare—parties, girls, rock ‘n’ roll—his wit and emotional detail prevent him from ever descending into cliche. “Mr. Someone Else” is a sordid tune about wanting to steal a friend’s girlfriend, but Vacon’s tumbling rhyme scheme makes it sound almost revelatory: “Your girl is better than my girl / She gives you loving that i bet / Is better than I get.”

It’s an addictive mixture of stadium-sized bombast and softhearted emotionality, and, with the exception of the experimental final track (“Bonus”), any one of the 14 songs on Blood Guts Bruises Cuts is catchy enough to be a radio single. It’s tough to see why, after 16 years together, the Dudes still haven’t broken out of their hometown of Calgary to achieve mainstream success—after all, the Dudes could easily fill the same niche as the Trews, only with better tunes and a bigger heart.

Blood Guts Buises Cuts is out now via LOADmusic.
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Rah Rah @ the El Mocambo, 6/21/09

I’ve been in Toronto this weekend, checking out NXNE. Some highlights of the festival so far have included Hannah Georgas (backed by members of Mother Mother), the Dudes and Said the Whale. But the greatest surprise was Rah Rah, an indie rock six-piece from Regina. The band’s performance mixed the baroque intensity of Arcade Fire with the thundering rhythm section of the Go! Team, featuring swirling guitars and shouted group vocals. The band members traded off instruments on nearly every song (only guitarist Leif Thorseth stayed put), and Kristina Hedlund switched between violin and accordion. The overall effect recalled Broken Social Scene at its most accessible—like “Cause = Time” with more easily discernible lyrics.

This isn’t to suggest that Rah Rah is a one-trick pony: the set highlight was “Duet for Emmylou and the Grievous Angel,” which was built around massive Can-rock guitar chords and a stunning, radio-ready chorus. Unfortunately I didn’t know any of the songs beforehand, as it could have been the ultimate singalong moment. Elsewhere, the band tapped out polyrhythms against a tick-tocking electronic beat, and one song featured three band members on tambourine.

As well as the songwriting, what distinguished Rah Rah was its sense of fun, and the band members’ unaffected charisma. One song used crackling Pop Rocks (yes, the candy) as an instrument, and another featured an exploding confetti cannon. Without distracting from the musicianship, these moments made Rah Rah one of the most giddily joyous concerts in recent memory. I picked up the group’s 2008 album Going Steady, which I will write about soon. According to the merch girl, the band’s sophomore album is recorded and ready for mixing, and is due for release later this year.
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Two suns spinning at different speeds

Bat for Lashes‘ sophomore full-length, Two Suns, is a breakup album, but don’t go in expecting a collection of downtrodden, sad sack ballads, ala Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan) or Sea Change (Beck). Instead, songwriter Natasha Khan a high-flown metaphor to explain her heartbreak: she and her lover are planets, unable to communicate as they travel along separate orbits. It’s a grandiose and slightly absurd conceit, but Khan pulls it off because of her unwavering conviction: the opener, “Glass,” contains the lyric “The hands of the watchman / In the night sky / Points to my beloved / A knight in crystal armour.”

As if the celestial metaphor were not enough, Khan also adopts the alter-ego of a self-destructive drag queen named named Pearl (Georgie Fruit, hmm?). This character allows Khan to deal with surreality of life as a successful musician (in the wake of her 2006 album Fur & Gold). Pearl is finally excised in the album’s final track, “The Big Sleep,” an operatic death duet sung with Scott Walker.

This lofty lyricism is supported by ethereal synth washes, baroque piano, and pulsing electro beats. Along with Khan’s dramatic vocal style, the result is similar to Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush. ‘Daniel” is the best distillation of Bat for Lashes’ new style, as it swells from a gently buzzing keyboard riff to propulsive dance groove with lush vocals layering and vaguely Eastern sounding synth leads. It’s an unforgettable song, and a highlight of one of the best albums of the year so far.
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Picking up where Lotus Child left off

Three years ago, Lotus Child seemed to be on the verge of a major breakthrough. The group’s sound combined hooky piano rock with disco-infused new wave, and its 2006 album, Gossip Diet, earned the band a loyal local following. Widespread success eluded the band, however, and it quietly broke up last year.

Singer/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski have reformed under the moniker the Zolas and have released a teaser EP, which consists of three songs that will appear on their debut album, Tic Toc Tic, due out this fall via 604 Records. Given that the two principle members are the same, it’s not a surprise that there is a distinct similarity between the two groups; based on three songs currently available, the Zolas are more stylistically adventurous, with songs that feature unexpected changes in tone and tempo. Opener “You’re Too Cool” begins as angular piano rock, soon giving way to an R&B-infused refrain sung in Gray’s impressively glass-shattering falsetto. The song changes pace once more, bursting into a brash arena pop bridge with ’60s girl group backing vocals.

The EP’s two remaining songs are equally as dynamic: “The Great Collapse’ is driven by jaunty arpeggios, which contrast against Gray’s bittersweet lyrics (“Free what you love ’cause it’s gonna die anyway / Those golden days will be fossilized endlessly”). “Marlaina Kamikaze” is a tense, unsettling breakup song which swells to a bouncy chorus with group sung call-and-response vocals. It’s a catchy tune, building off the strengths of Lotus Child but with a darker and more challenging sound. It’s tough to develop too much of an opinion about a band with a recorded output of only three songs, but this is a promising start for the Zolas.
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I’ve been feeling weird, get over it

I’ve taken a gig as tour manager for a local band, meaning that I’ll be on tour for the next month. I plan on writing as much as possible while I’m on the road, but my updates are bound to be less consistent than usual. i’ll be back home on July 12, at which point I’ll resume my usual blogging routine.

In the meantime, enjoy this new video for “Over It” by Dinosaur Jr., the latest single from the group’s awesome new album Farm. The clip features the band members skateboarding and biking around town, setting an appropriately lazy summer vibe for the fuzzed-out tune and J Mascis’s apathetic vocals. There are also plenty of gratifying wipeouts, which makes it well worth the watch.

Farm is out now viaJagjaguwar
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Float down Grand Street in daylight

Matt & Kim‘s second album, Grand, is so named for its expansive arrangements, which are significantly more intricate and textured than anything on their 2006 debut. Of course, grandeur is a relative term for Matt & Kim; they’re still just a keyboard ‘n’ drums duo, so don’t go into Grand expecting choirs or lush string arrangements. The group is more subtle (and perhaps too poor) for such bombast, opting instead for nuanced production and a more densely layered sound. The plinky piano and clattering drums of “Daylight” are joined by vocal harmonies and otherworldly synth pads; these production touches transform an otherwise fun tune into a bona fide anthem, and a stunning first single. “Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare” similarly benefits from richly overdubbed vocals and chirpy keyboards that mimic violins.

As well as upping the production value, Grand offers more in the way of songwriting variety, with several mid-tempo tunes and even one percussion-less ballad (“Turn This Boat Around”). The album’s centrepiece is “Lessons Learned,” which juxtaposes a frenetic beat against half-time vocals and droning keyboards, giving the sense that it’s moving in slow motion. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, with dream pop harmonies and lyrics that toe the line between angst and sentimentality (“Thinking ’bout tomorrow won’t change how I feel today”).

Grand comes in at just shy of 30 minutes, including the remix of “Daylight” which is tacked onto the end. But rather than feeling unsatisfying, this brevity makes the album all the more thrilling, There’s not a dud in the bunch, and by the time it’s over, you’ll be ready to listen to it again.

Grand is out now via FADER Label.
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Dragonslayer battles preconceptions

Spencer Krug is quickly becoming a Canadian indie rock legend, but this status comes at the price of unrealistically high expectations. As a member of Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, and Frog Eyes, he’s released so many outstanding albums in the past five years that it’s tough to judge any new material on its own merits. So although Sunset Rubdown’s latest, Dragonslayer, is yet another solid release, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by Apologies to the Queen Mary or Shut Up I Am Dreaming.

Dragonslayer follows in the footsteps of recent albums by Wolf Parade and Swan Lake by stripping back the studio trickery in favour of a more organic sound. Much of the album was recorded live off the floor, placing the emphasis on the band’s performance rather than the production. But despite the simplified sonics, the songs themselves are as intricate as ever, with twisting structures and cryptic lyrics. Opener “Silver Moons” is a song that only Krug could have written, with a piano plunking out a baffling time signature and an inscrutable refrain of “Silver moons belong to you.”

There are no duds on Dragonslayer, but the trouble is that there aren’t really any knockouts either. There’s nothing here that’s likely to get under your skin in the same way that “I’ll Believe in Anything” or “Stadiums and Shrines II” did. The closest Krug gets to matching those past triumphs is “Black Swan,” which follows the Nirvana-patented quiet/loud/quiet formula with sparse, percussive verses interspersed by heavily distorted rock-outs. But despite being one of the nosiest, most immediate moments of Krug’s career, it still lacks the ethereal brilliance of his best work.

Dragonslayer is out June 23 via Jagjaguwar.
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Cock rockers of the 1950s

Based on image alone, it would be fair to assume that Pretty Vanilla plays self-congratulatory cock rock. The Vancouver trio dresses like it wandered off the set of a Poison video, with skin tight leather pants, high-heeled boots, and copious amounts of black eyeliner. Given this facade of rock ‘n’ roll excess, it’s only fitting that the group’s debut EP is called 7 Inches Deep, a sexual reference so thinly veiled it barely even qualifies as figurative.

Thankfully, the four songs contained on 7 Inches Deep sound nothing like what you’d expect based on the packaging. Far from excessive wank-rock, Pretty Vanilla’s music is charming retro pop, recalling 1950s Top 40 hits delivered with a slight punkish edge. Opener “Lost in the Soda Shop” (presumably an allusion to the Clash‘s “Lost in the Supermarket”) borrows its chord progression from every doo wop song ever written, and even features “bap-she-wally-wally” backing vocals; Nikki Nice’s sneering, androgynous singing prevents the song from coming off as overly campy, as do the lyrical references to angel dust. Of the EP’s four tracks, only “Paper Tiger” breaks the AM pop mould, its mid-tempo swagger harking back to Electric Warrior-era T. Rex.

With such obvious reference points, originality is clearly not Pretty Vanilla’s strong suit. Still, that isn’t such a problem when the music is so much fun. The weather’s getting hot, so throw on 7 Inches Deep and go for a ride with the top down–preferably in a ’57 Corvette.

7 Inches Deep is out digitally and on 7″ (duh) on June 13th.
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