Articles posted in October 2009

Starfucker @ the Biltmore Cabaret, 10/10/09

Starfucker @ the Biltmore, 10/10/09
Who the hell left the heat on at the Biltmore? Last night I showed up at the venue an hour before Starfucker was scheduled to go on stage, and despite the fact that there were only a dozen or so people in the room, it felt like walking into a furnace. In fact, given that the bar is in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel, there’s a distinct possibility that there was indeed a furnace somewhere nearby.

As bad as it was for the audience, it must have been that much worse for the two dudes in opener Deelay Ceelay. A band consisting of a pair of drummers jamming to a electronic backing track, they spent the entire half-hour set hammering out floor-shaking dance beats, scarcely even pausing to wipe off the sweat that was pouring down their faces. Watching their tandem drumming was a bit like watching synchronized dancers (think of it as an electro version of Riverdance), and this hypnotic effect was intensified by the accompanying video, which was projected onto a white screen at the back of the stage. The group didn’t play structured songs, as the music functioned more as a soundtrack to the visual presentation. Still, the duo provide hooks in the form of samples—the Beach Boys‘ version of “Sloop John B.” and T.I.‘s “Whatever You Like” both worked their way into the mix.

Starfucker offered less eye candy than the opener, but the band’s no-nonsense performance was just as fun. From the joyous synths and disco beats of “Boy Toy,” which opened the set, to the trance-like refrain of closer “German Love,” good vibes were in plentiful supply. Even the punkish rock-outs of “Laadeedaa,” which on another night might have provoked moshing and headbanging, resulted in audience members doing the twist and performing campy lowrider dances.

Despite the upbeat tunes, the concert was given a slightly omninous atmosphere by the random snippets of talking that would play over the PA between songs. Frontman John Hughes also added to the weird-factor, spending much of the set staring blankly out over the audience with an absent expression in his eyes. Occasionally, however, he would break out in spastic fits of dancing, at one point spending several minutes in crowd.

The standout of the set was the bubblegum bounce of “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second,” during which circles of dancing opened up in the crowd and fans began play-boxing with complete strangers. (Full disclosure: those were my friends.) Still, the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for the group’s cover of Cyndi Lauper‘s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which began with a sparse drum-and-bass arrangement before exploding into technicolor keyboards and breathy harmonies. It could have easily seemed gimmicky or cheap, but it was oddly sincere. Which is, of course, what makes Starfucker so good—the group is every bit as sugary as any prefab pop act, but it approaches every song with genuine sweetness and conviction.
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Graham Wright explores his soft side

Graham Wright - "Crooked Moon"
Tokyo Police Club is known for its spiky post-punk and electro-tinged atmospherics, but under his own name, keyboardist Graham Wright favours mellow bedroom folk. Last year, he released The Lakes of Alberta, an understated five-song EP about an affair with a woman with a husband and child. It was (and still is) available as a free download, and its vivid imagery and wistful nostalgia made it a promising solo debut.

Once again, Wright is offering up a free download, although this time it’s only one song. “Crooked Moon” begins with whispered vocals and gentle acoustic arpeggios, a sparse arrangement that is eventually fleshed out by chiming glockenspiel and charmingly sloppy banjo leads that evoke Sufjan Stevens. But it’s the lyrics that are the primary draw, an intimate profession of love that begins an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Based on the message that accompanies the track, it doesn’t sound like Wright has any immediate plans to release a solo LP, as he says he has plenty of songs written but that “it may be years before anyone hears them.” It looks like we may have a long wait ahead of us, but “Crooked Moon” should help to tide us over until he finally decides to release a solo full-length.

Download the track over at Wright’s website.
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Said the Whale offers eclectic Canadiana

Said the Whale - Islands Disappear
Earlier this year, Said the Whale released The Magician EP, a vinyl-only 7″ that featured the ebullient power pop single “Camilo (The Magician)” plus three unreleased tracks. Although it was essentially an outtakes collection, it showed that the band had made massive leaps in both songwriting and production. Each of the four songs sounded completely different, but each stylistic foray was equally gripping.

mp3: “Camilo (The Magician)”

Islands Disappear, the band’s second full-length, is similarly impressive, although on a much larger scale. No two tracks sound alike, but every one of the thirteen songs is a keeper, worthy of playlist inclusion. The title track is a creepy Tom Waits-style waltz, its junkyard arrangement laced with clattering percussion and chilling horns. “Gentleman” is bubblegum folk pop, shamelessly hokey but completely endearing (the second verse begins “I am an uncool Canadian kid / Awed and inspired by all the popular guys”). Most eclectic of all is “Goodnight Moon,” which begins as a ukulele/glockenspiel lullaby before exploding into a euphoric coda of “bap bap ba” vocals with a rhythm copped from “Lust for Life.”

Part of the reason for the album’s variety is that the band’s two singer-songwriters, Tyler Bancroft and Ben Worcester, have such distinct styles. Bancroft typically favours upbeat pop rock, while Worcester usually sticks to mellow, folksy material; unlike some bands with dual songwriters, with Said the Whale it’s always immediately obvious who wrote what. But despite this, the two singers are unified by their lyrics, which are abounding in geographical place names and detail-rich Canadiana. This includes tributes to the band’s hometown of Vancouver (“Black Day in December,” “False Creek Change”) as well as songs inspired by the band’s numerous cross-Canadian tours (“Emerald Lake, AB,” “Holly, Ontario”). Perhaps the greatest thematic statement of all is “Out on the Shield,” a description of the drudgery of life in a former gold rush town that could describe countless cities across the country.

While the sunny melodies and lush arrangements mean that Islands Disappear is an immediately enjoyable listen, it’s the lyrics that ensure its replay value. It’s easily one of the best albums of the year, and if there’s any justice in the music industry (which there isn’t, but here’s hoping), it will be the boost that Said the Whale needs to move from regional buzz band-status to the upper echelons of Canadian indie rock.

Islands Disappear is due out October 13 via Hidden Pony.
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In December, drinking horchata

Vampire Weekend - Horchata
Logic would dictate that releasing an album in early January would be commercial suicide. Then again, Animal Collective managed to pull it off earlier this year with the breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion. In 2010, Vampire Weekend will be taking the same gamble, issuing Contra on January 12.

After a mysterious countdown clock appeared on the group’s website, the group released the new single “Horchata” as a free download yesterday. It bears many of the hallmarks of the group’s self-titled debut, with collegiate strings, gentle melodies and charming, faintly smug lyrics. But rather than the Afro-pop that characterized the band’s previous work, the new song sounds faintly tropical; with plunking marimbas, clattering percussion and faintly burbling electronics, the instrumental passages recall a more straightforward version of High Places.

It’s a fun tune, although it doesn’t sound quite as natural as the Graceland-isms of the debut. This is mainly because singer Ezra Koening affects a slight accent (is that Jamaican he’s trying to do?), making the whole thing come off as a bit of a pastiche. Still, the songwriting is as hooky as ever, so don’t write off Contra just yet.

Head over to the group’s website to download the track. Contra is due out January 12 via XL.
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Islands are back on track

Islands - Vapours
Let’s give Islands a mulligan on Arm’s Way. The band’s 2008 album was a disaster, from its creepy cover art to its overblown, string-heavy arrangements. With prog epics that were silly but not in the slightest bit catchy, it played against all of the strengths that made 2006′s Return to the Sea such a fun pop album.

Thankfully, on Vapours, songwriter Nick Thorburn is back to doing what he does best. The pompous theatrics have been abandoned in favour of unfussy electropop arrangements that are typically comprised of little more than a synthesizer, a guitar and a beat. The epic-length tracks are also gone, as the album’s twelve songs clock in at 42 minutes. (Arm’s Way was 68 minutes.) Most importantly, the melodies are hummable and the songs are memorable. Despite the recent glittery press photos, Vapours is an album of style over substance, with production that’s intended to serve the song and nothing more—even the T-Pain-style Auto-Tune on “Heartbeat” sounds strangely natural, as if nothing else could have worked in its place.

Drummer Jamie Thompson is back in the fold after a one-album departure, so perhaps he is partly responsible for the return to form. Still, it’s Thorburn who’s the star here. His voice is at its quirky best on “Switched On,” on which laser-beam synths drift over top of clattering rhythms and sunny doo-wop harmonies. On “Vapours,” keyboards squelch and Motown-style horns trill as Thorburn makes condensation sound both sleazy (“The vapours might make you wet”) and romantic (“You know I had my share of doubts / Until I saw the vapours in your eyes”).

mp3: “Vapours”

The crunchy “Tender Torture” features a straightforward disco groove, with bubblegum synth leads that are the perfect accompaniment for its sweetly romantic lyrics (“I’ll be your strings / If you pluck them I’ll sing for you”). The dense electro beats and moody guitars of “Shining” are perhaps the closest the album gets to the melodrama that derailed Arm’s Way; still, surrounded by summery pop and major-key bounciness, the song comes as a welcome departure.

Vapours isn’t revelatory or grandiose, but, thankfully, it isn’t trying to be. It’s an album that doesn’t aspire to be anything beyond a simple collection of pop songs, and this humility is what makes it so likable.

Vapours is out now via ANTI-.
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The Dead Weather’s creepy new video

The Dead Weather - Horehound
For the most part, the Dead Weather‘s Horehound is a democratic album; despite the larger-than-life presence of Jack White, the band has always insisted that each of its four members plays an equal collaborative role. “I Cut Like a Buffalo,” however, is the exception to that rule—White sings lead on the track, which is the only song on the album for which he receives sole writing credit. Predictably, the spiky, organ-laced rocker is the highlight of the album.

The Dead Weather has released a video for “I Cut Like a Buffalo,” and it’s fittingly White-centric. The singer/drummer directed the clip, and he’s the only member of the band who appears in it. Just like the song itself, the video feels like a peek into the darkest recesses of White’s imagination. Against a chilly blue background, a group of faceless, red-haired women stare at the camera as they wield gruesome butchers knives; if you were ever looking for a metaphor for Jack White’s music, this is it.

The rest of the video is made up of quick-cut clips of White singing into a vintage microphone and looking as pale and twitchy as ever. At one point, he suspiciously eyes a man wearing a bowler hat that flashes the words “press” and “terrorist”—I guess that explains the lyric “I cut a record on my throat then you / Break me wide open.”

“I Cut Like a Buffalo” is on the excellent album Horehound, out now via Third Man.
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Yukon Blonde makes its mark

Yukon Blonde - Everything in Everyway
After toiling for three years in relative obscurity under the name AlphaBaby, the four members of Yukon Blonde chose a new name and relocated from Kelowna to Vancouver. If their goal was to make a name for themselves in the big city, they’re well on their way—as well as delivering an exhilarating live show, the band’s debut EP, Everything in Everyway, is an infectious collection of psychedelic rock and lush, pastoral folk.

The a cappella harmonies that introduce opening track “Streets” evoke the haunting group vocals of Fleet Foxes. Although the rest of the song is a little more upbeat than the beginning might lead you to expect, the moody intro sets the tone for the rest of the EP. Yukon Blonde may be a rock band, but it relies on delicate arrangements and careful orchestration rather than bombastic, riff-heavy fireworks.

mp3: “Streets”

“Tapes Forever Be Tapes” begins with a drum-and-bass groove, fleshed out by disorienting atmospherics–it’s probably a guitar, but it could just as easily be a synthesizer or even a violin. Later, acoustic guitars enter, giving the song a California folk rock vibe that evokes CSNY. “Free Your Mind” is the standout of the disc, hypnotic bass octaves providing the backdrop for Revolver-esque chord changes and charmingly drug-addled philosophizing.

Closing track “Nico Canmore” scales things back, beginning as a mid-tempo ballad with cavernous guitars and distant, harmonized vocals. Halfway through, however, it erupts into a guitar jam that’s the closest the EP gets to replicating the group’s exhilarating live show. With an LP due out in early 2010, this last track suggests Yukon Blonde’s potential to deliver a gritty rock album. For the meantime, however, the band’s rich psychedelic folk is reason enough to get excited.

Everything is Everyway is out October 6 via Nevado.
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