Articles posted in July 2009

Pony Up channels Glasgow

Pony Up hails from Montreal, but thanks to vocalists Sarah Moundroukas and Sarah Wills, the four-piece has more in common with Glaswegian twee pop than the windswept theatrics its city is usually known for. Moundroukas and Wills are not born singers, but their thin, occasionally strained voices are a large part of what makes the band so charming. The lyrics on Stay Gold, the group’s second full-length, are often angry and embittered, but the singers’ innocent delivery makes them seem poignant. The twisted sense of romance displayed on “Making More Beneath” is vintage Belle & Sebastian, especially its unsettling request to “Marry me for fun / And lock me up.” Meanwhile, “Sounds Like My Wedding Night” is near-identical to Camera Obscura, with deadpan vocals and punny lyrics: “You’ve got her nose / Everyone knows I’m her child.”

For most of Stay Gold, Pony Up, favours countrified acoustic strummers and breezy, jangling pop rock. Occasionally, however, they venture into more hard hitting terrain, as on the galloping rocker “Charles.” The driving rhythm is set against tinny synth leads and the usual girlish vocals, making it the catchiest song on the album. (Interestingly, the synth lines sound a heck of a lot like the ending of “Grounds for Divorce” by Wolf Parade, so perhaps there is a touch of Montreal to the band after all.)

mp3: “Charles”

Stay Gold doesn’t have a knockout single, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. The band chose to self release the album, which is a little surprising—after all, plenty of labels would doubtless be attracted to the the clever songwriting and effortless charm. If you want to pick it up, you’ll have to head over to the group’s website.
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Elephant Stone makes the old sound new again

Elephant Stone is the kind of band where you could probably guess what it sounds like based on the name alone. After all, the Montreal quintet is named after a Stone Roses song, a dreamy jangle pop single from 1988. Fittingly, the group’s influences are almost entirely British, fusing ’90s Britpop with ’60s psychedelia and, yes, liberal doses of the Stone Roses.

Luckily, hazy pop rock is fashionable right now, so Elephant Stone’s debut album, The Seven Seas, doesn’t come off as outdated—note the similarity between “I Am Blind” and “Contender” by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a song that came out earlier this year. And the songwriting is sharp, so the group is likely to seem outdated any time soon. “Bombs Bomb Away” is upbeat and hooky despite its morbid subject matter, while the swooning anti-love song “Blood from a Stone” is laden with cinematic strings and gorgeous tremolo guitar.

The group’s forays into psychedelia are, unfortunately, less successful. On several of the songs, frontman Rishi Dhir doubles on sitar, and these tracks seem more like caricatures of ’60s world music than genuine embodiments of it. “The Straight Line” is an aimless seven-minute sitar jam and, placed right in the middle of the album, it sucks some of the energy out of the collection. The sitar works better on “The Seven Seas,” when it is used as an accompanying instrument in a focused pop song.

Still, despite the occasional misstep, The Seven Seas has plenty of well-written pop songs, and is an excellent contribution to the retro jangle rock scene. It’s out now via Elephants on Parade.
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Good luck trying to find this band on Google

When I wrote about Girls‘ performance at the Biltmore a few days ago, I mentioned that their best song was the singalong epic “Hellhole Ratrace.” The song is the first single from their upcoming debut album, the simply-titled Album, and the group recently shot a video for the tune. At seven minutes long, it’s not your typical radio single, but the song’s cinematic quality makes it perfect video fodder.

The clip depicts a dusk-till-dawn party, taking Girls and a group of friends around their hometown of San Francisco. Nothing much really happens—the action high point is when they steal a candy bar from a corner store. But the video uses some of the oldest tricks in the book—slow motion, lingering close-ups, lens flares—to great nostalgic effect. The video’s depiction of youthful abandon is the perfect accompaniment to the song’s seemingly endless refrain, “I don’t wanna die / Without shaking up a leg or two / Yeah, I wanna do some dancing too / So come, come on, come on, come on and dance with me.”

Beginning with sparse acoustic strumming and subtle atmospherics, the arrangement explodes about halfway through; fuzzy dream pop guitars take over, bringing the song to a blissful climax that’s sustained for over three minutes. Meanwhile, the video shows the band climbing up to a lookout over the city to watch the sunrise.

It’s a nice clip for a great song, so be sure to give it a watch (so long as you have a high tolerance for dude-on-dude kissing).

Album is due out September 22 via True Panther. The label will also release a 10″ single of “Hellhole Ratrace” on August 18. An mp3 download of the track is available below.

mp3: “Hellhole Ratrace”
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The soundtrack for your next “Disco Sucks” rally

Things Fall Apart
The Novaks‘ debt to ’70s rock is so obvious, it feels a little silly even bothering to point it out. Almost everything on Things Fall Apart sounds like it was intended for Ford-era arenas: “Destroyer” features lumbering, Zeppelin-esque guitar riffs, while “Sometimes I Gotta Go Down” is a blues vamp that resembles late John Lennon. Meanwhile, the organ-drenched rocker “Under Those Wheels” sounds so much like Tom Petty that it could have probably been slotted into one of his albums and nobody would have noticed the difference. This is especially apparent because of singer Mick Davis’s nasal vocals, which sound near-identical to Petty’s.

Things Fall Apart is a fun listen, but at times it does feel a little like a pastiche. In that sense, the Newfoundland trio has more in common with Wolfmother or Jet than with actual ’70s rock. (But let’s give the Novaks their due—they’re infinitely less stupid than Jet.)

The best song on the album is the one that is least indebted to the ’70s: “There Goes the Night” is laced with daydream guitar licks and moody melodies that recall ’90s alt-rock. The lyrics display a biting wit not found elsewhere on the record, including a hilarious jab at “Some little shit with a picture phone.” It shows that there’s more to the Novaks than just a retro retread. And, so long as the Who are charging $100 a ticket for energy-sapped reunion tours, the Novaks are probably the better choice to fulfill your classic rock craving.

But band shot a video for “There Goes the Night,” although I must admit I’m not quite sure what the make of the weird underground art space/corporate/police raid storyline. Regardless, it looks pretty cool, and the song alone makes it worthwhile viewing.

Things Fall Apart is out now via Sonic Records.
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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart @ the Biltmore Cabaret, 7/24/09

pains of being pure at heart
Five minutes before the Pains of Being Pure at Heart were due to go on stage, I walked past the merch table and saw singer Kip Berman passed out cold on the couch. I guess that might explain why the Brooklyn four-piece got off to a slightly slow start during last night’s show at the Biltmore. Opening with a new song (I had never heard it before, at least) the group was a little sloppy, Berman’s eyes staring blanky across the crowd. Next, they stumbled through “This Love Is Fucking Right!,” its chorus marred by off-key vocal harmonies.

Thankfully, the band found its legs with a searing version of the single “Young Adult Friction.” Unlike the sunny jangle of the studio version, the song was a blast of white hot distortion, its guitars soaked in shoegaze fuzz. The group had a second guitarist in tow, meaning that the band’s sound was even more muscular than usual. An amped-up take on “The Tenure Itch” incited a mosh pit near the front of the stage, and one fan attempted to crowd surf but wiped out badly.

The band debuted a new song, “Higher Than the Stars,” the title track of its upcoming EP. With dreamy synth pads and a blissful pop chorus, the song sounded a bit like a long lost anthem from an ’80s teen movie.

Unfortunately, drummer Kurt Feldman broke his snare drum, and since no one had a replacement, the set was cut short. During the final song, “A Teenager in Love,” the snare sounded like Feldman was hitting a torn piece of a loose leaf paper. Nevertheless, the group still managed to play most of its self-titled album, plus a handful of B-sides. The show was unlikely to convert any skeptics, but for fans of the album, it was an excellent showcase of the band’s songwriting chops.

The evening was opened by Girls, a San Francisco four-piece that, like Women, is entirely made up of men. Still, it was easy to see where the group got its name, since both of the guitarists had long, flowing locks of blond hair. Most of the group’s songs sounded like ’50s doo wop played with the dreamy jangle of I.R.S.-era R.E.M. Girls sounded best when they stretched into more ambitious territory, as on the epic singalong “Hellhole Ratrace.” The group’s first full-length is due out in September, and, based on last night’s performance, it could be one of the breakthrough albums of the fall.
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Deerhunter & Black Lips @ the Commodore Ballroom, 7/23/09

Deerhunter and the Black Lips
It’s the week of “big indie” here in Vancouver. Two nights ago, I caught the Decemberists‘ full-length run-through of The Hazards of Love at the Vogue. I reviewed the show for Guttersnipe, so I won’t bother to write a full review here, but the band was predictably awesome, especially guest singers Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond).

Last night, Deerhunter and Black Lips co-headlined a show at the Commodore Ballroom. Deerhunter went on first, playing an array of songs from its back catalogue, drawing most heavily on last year’s Microcastle. Unlike the ambient drones that feature so prominently on their studio albums, Bradford Cox & co. downplayed their experimentalism in favour of stomping, bass-heavy takes on “Cryptograms” and “Never Stops,” whipping the crowd into a frenzy of moshing, crowd surfing and stage diving.

The energy level was upped even further when the band tore through a fuzzy version of “Nothing Ever Happened,” its epic instrumental passages punctuated by Cox’s squealing feedback solos. The set highlight came during “Saved by Old Times,” featuring an unhinged vocal cameo from Black Lips guitarist Cole Alexander.

As rowdy as Deerhunter’s performance was, Black Lips’ set was full-blown mayhem. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but the group must have played well over 20 songs, each of them a concise blast of southern-fried punk mayhem (as well as a foray into doo wop with the single “I’ll Be with You”). No song passed without several attendees climbing up on stage to crowd surf; security kept its distance, and the band didn’t seem to mind sharing the spotlight with its fans. Unfortunately, a few crowd members exploited Black Lips’ generosity, and at one point, four fans milled around of stage for several awkward minutes. Two of them, apparently meeting for the first time, began dirty dancing until another concert-goer climbed on stage and mercifully dragged them off. Later, a burly fan (who looked for all the world like Sully Erna of Godsmack) grabbed Jared Swilley’s microphone and began screaming until it was physically wrested from him by a roadie.

As the set went on, bouncers poured water bottles into the dangerously jam-packed audience. This added to the barrage of bottles and glasses being thrown around the room; just as the band was starting, I got nailed in the head with a half-full water bottle. The music itself wasn’t as memorable as Deerhunter, but it was easily the most chaotic I’ve ever seen the audience get in the Commodore Ballroom.

Local blues rock the TVees opened the show with a fun, if overly anachronistic set of punchy retro throwbacks. Dressed in dapper suits and ties, the group’s blues punk rave-ups evoked ’60s garage rockers like the Sonics and MC5. It was enjoyable enough, but it would be nice to hear a little more personality in the band’s retread of such an oft-imitated style.
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A band, not a man

When I first heard “The Daredevil Christopher Wright,” the eponymously-titled song by the Daredevil Christopher Wright, I was under the assumption that Christopher Wright was the group’s lead singer. I was, therefore, understandably taken aback by the song’s group-sung refrain, “I wanna grow up to be Christopher Wright.” I soon learned, however that the group’s namesake is actually a (fictional?) stuntman who suffered the fate referred to by the album title In Deference to a Broken Back. So what initially seemed like a brazenly self-congratulatory singalong is actually an unsettling invitation for an early death, a message that’s in keeping with the album’s morbid tone.

Opening track “Hospital” describes ascending to heaven, its plaintive melody sitting atop of a bed of sawing strings and wordless moans. The rest of the album is similarly preoccupied with mortality, from the ghostly waltz “Acceptable Loss” to the bouncy “Bury You Alive,” which makes the grisly promise of its title sound almost cheerful. Nearly every track features dense strings arrangements and rich choral harmonies, transforming the group’s oddball folk songs into baroque hymns that recall Fleet Foxes at their darkest. The eeriness is intensified by singer Jon Sunde’s high, nasal vocals, which sound a bit like he took a hit of helium before the recording sessions.

Occasionally, the band makes an unexpected foray into bubblegum rock, as on “A Conversation About Cancer,” which retells the story of David and Goliath with sunny harmonies and a skipping, countrified beat. “A Near Death Experience at Sea” similarly belies its title with joyous horn flourishes and goofy doo-wop vocals.

The album finishes with “The Stewardess,” an unexpectedly sobered love song with deep vocals that makes Sunde’s voice sound practically normal. Beginning with the lyric “Won’t you come back? / I’m not the same without you, without you / Let’s face the facts / Not nearly as clever, as funny to anybody but you.” It’s so heartbreaking in its simplicity that it diminishes somewhat from the achievement of the rest of the album. After all, if the Daredevil Christopher Wright is this good at writing uncomplicated folk pop, why bother with the quirky bells and whistles (literally) of the rest of the album? Nevertheless, In Deference to a Broken Back is as beautiful as it is creepy, making it one of the year’s stand-out debut albums.
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Way better than album seven is going to be

Although Weezer sucks more and more by the day, the group’s early material remains as good as ever. Really, has there been a better summer album released in the past 20 years than 1994′s Weezer (aka The Blue Album)? (Feel free to dispute that. Perhaps Person Pitch?) Rather than hear any more Make Believe/Red Album-caliber crap, I’d much rather hear reinterpretations of the group’s classic material—which is why I’m getting such a kick out of Weezer – The 8-bit Album, released today as a free download by the netlabel Pterodactyl Squad.

The album is exactly what the title suggests—a Weezer tribute album with all of the songs reinvented as 8-bit electro jams that would have fit nicely in any Nintendo game circa 1986. It’s a hilarious concept, and actually makes a surprisingly entertaining listen. It draws on a variety of lo-fi artists, and its 14 tracks cover a range of well-known singles and obscure B-sides.

The best tracks are those that are most faithful to the source material. “Buddy Holly” (performed here by nordloef) follows the melody of the original tune exactly, but transforms it into a Street Fighter-style rave-up. Tugboat‘s take on “El Scorcho” is gently plodding, and its chirpy melody could have been drawn from Super Mario Bros., an effect that’s intensified by sounds that resemble mushroom power-ups.

mp3: “El Scorcho”

The tracks with vocals don’t fit so well as the instrumentals, as they somewhat diminish the video game atmosphere. Bit Shifter‘s version of “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” is especially awkward, as it includes an interpolation of the Pixies‘ “Wave of Mutilation”—an interesting medley to be sure, but it’s out of place here.

But I’m probably over-thinking it. After all, the whole album is fun to listen to, and it accomplishes what any good tribute album should—it makes you realize just how great the source material truly is.

Head over to Pterodactyl Squad’s website to download the whole thing for free.
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Joel Plaskett & the Emergency @ Surrey Fusion Festival, 7/18/09

It was probably bad planning on the part of the Surrey Fusion Festival to hold the event on the same weekend as the Vancouver Folk Festival. Then again, maybe not, since the festival was packed regardless. (The fact that it was free probably didn’t hurt.) The focus of the event was cultural diversity as opposed to high-profile acts, but that didn’t stop the organizers from scoring Halifax singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett as the headliner.

Plaskett, along with his backing band the Emergency, played a variety of cuts from his 15-year back catalogue, drawing most heavily on Three, his triple disc opus released earlier this year. While the album featured ornate arrangements including horns, fiddles, and plenty of backup vocalists, the Emergency performed as a four piece, meaning that the tunes were stripped down to their basic parts. “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’” was reinvented as an intimate acoustic duet with guitarist/keyboardist Peter Elkas. On the other end of the spectrum, “Extraordinary” featured noisy hard rock accompaniment for Plaskett’s bluesy guitar workouts.

But even better than the musicianship was Plaskett himself, as he charmed the crowd with witty banter and his magnetic stage presence. Many of the highlights of the show were non-musical—watching the band perform “Through & Through & Through,” for example, when Plaskett cracked up as he Elkas affected squeaky falsettos and attempted to recreate the female-sung harmonies of the studio version. During “Work Out Fine,” Plaskett’s spoken intro morphed into a surprisingly convincing rap about his cat White Fang; this effortlessly segued into the song’s hopeful, glass-half-full message.

The show finished with a goofy, synth-heavy take on the 2007 single “Fashionable People.” Plaskett sung the song from behind the kit, joking that his bandmates sounded like computers during the song’s robotic refrain. He wrapped up the song with a thundering drum solo, emphasizing what was already clear: as well as a virtuosic musician, Plaskett is, hands down, the coolest person in Canadian indie rock. Even if you don’t like his albums, be sure to check out his live show and witness one of the most charismatic performers around.

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Jack is back

Dead Weather cover
Initially, it didn’t look like there was much reason to be optimistic about the Dead Weather, Jack White’s collaboration with Allison Mosshart (the Kills), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence (the Raconteurs). White’s projects have been declining in quality in recent years, and the Dead Weather’s early singles were more baffling than they were infectious. “Hang You from the Heavens” hardly lived up to the radio-friendly accessibility of “Fell in Love with a Girl,” “Seven Nation Army,” or even “Steady, as She Goes.” And with its rambling structure and numerous tempo shifts, “Treat Me Like Your Mother” was simply too eclectic to work as a single.

Within the context of Horehound, however, these songs hold up much better; what the album lacks in knockout singles it makes up for in relentless energy. The album hits like a full-on assault, its primal garage blues and ominous spaghetti western guitar riffs making it Jack’s best album since 2003′s career-defining Elephant. Unlike the Raconteurs overly-fussy Consolers of the Lonely, the Dead Weather returns the White Stripe to his minimalist roots with gritty lo-fi recordings that befit the raucous mood.

Of course, Jack doesn’t deserve full credit for the success of Horehound, especially since the album relegates him to the less visible roles of drummer and producer. It’s Allison Mosshart who’s placed front-and-centre, her howling vocals channeling the woman-scorned intensity of Karen O (circa Fever to Tell). Her brash screaming on “Bone House” evokes an era of rap metal era before it was tainted by Limp Bizkit; fittingly, Fertita provides a freak-out tremolo solo that’s crazier than anything Tom Morello has produced in years.

But despite the group’s apparent democracy, it’s the moments when Jack takes over that are the most memorable. The album’s best track is “Cut Like a Buffalo,” and it’s the only song for which White receives sole writing credit. Punctuated by blasts of distorted organ and disorienting, proggy breakdowns, Jack’s vocal performance is downright maniacal. While the lyrics are too obtuse to fully decipher, lines like “You cut a record on my throat then you / Break me wide open” are chilling.

Horehound is the first album recorded in Jack’s new Third Man Studio in Nashville and, based on the evidence here, the experience appears to have revitalized his career. After the hyper-compressed sheen of Blackbird Studio (where Icky Thump and Consolers of the Lonely were recorded), White has returned to the unrefined glory of his best work. With a slew of new projects in the pipeline, there’s now plenty of reason to be hopeful for whatever comes next.

Horehound is out now via Third Man.
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