Articles posted in November 2009

Talking like teens

Tegan and Sara - Sainthood
“On Directing,” the fourth track on Tegan and Sara‘s Sainthood, features a refrain of “I know it turns you off when I / I get talking like a teen.” The song appears to be addressed to a lover, although it’s tempting to read the read as a response to critics; after all, the Quin sisters have built their entire career off raw, emotional songs that sound like they were torn out of a teenager’s tear-stained journal. And although they will be turning 30 next year, they still sing in strained voices that sound distinctly youthful.

Sainthood is the their sixth album, and it hits all the usual nerves—depression, insecurity and heartbreak. The punkish “Nightshore” centres around a chorus of “My misery’s so addictive,” while the divorce-lament “Night Watch” declares, “I deserve this anguish on my house.”

It’s heavy stuff, but the slick production of Chris Walla and Howard Redekopp means that it never comes off as too much of a bummer. It’s easy to get distracted by the hummable melodies and glossy guitar/keyboard interplay with even noticing how bleak most of the lyrics are. “The Cure” is the catchiest of the bunch, a breezy new wave rocker anchored by jangling arpeggios and a steadily driving rhythm section. Opener “Arrow” is similarly memorable, with robotic blasts of guitar and drums that sound like they were cribbed from Mother Mother‘s bag of tricks.

The album’s final track, “Someday,” is perhaps the best song Tegan and Sara have ever written (yes, including “Walking with a Ghost”), striking a perfect balance between poignancy and pop bliss. Over a spiky groove with an organ melody clearly inspired by Wolf Parade, Tegan dismisses her body of work, singing, “Might write something I might wanna say to you someday / Might do something I’d be proud of someday.” Although it lacks the melodrama of the sisters’ usual work, it’s even more powerful to hear them criticize the same art that made them famous. It shows that, even after six albums and widespread commercial success, Tegan and Sara still have the fire to keep progressing and refining their craft.

Sainthood is out now via Vapor.
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A roundup of published works

Camera Obscura - The Blizzard/Swans
Please excuse this self-indulgent entry, but I thought I’d give a quick roundup of some recently published works.

I haven’t posted many show reviews in the past month because most of the concerts I’ve covered lately have been published elsewhere. For Exclaim!, I reviewed Metric, Dinosaur Jr., Billy Bragg and Julian Casablancas. For the November issue of BeatRoute, I covered Starfucker and Chad VanGaalen.

Also for BeatRoute, I interviewed Arkells, Hannah Georgas and Prairie Cat. They also republished my You Say Party! We Say Die! cover story.

Speaking of Prairie Cat, I reviewed his new album for the Georgia Straight. I also wrote about the new Language-Arts album.

Lastly, I wrote a show-preview-profile-type-thing on Billy Bragg for The Tyee.

It’s less than a month until Christmas, which means it’s time to start listening to holiday tunes. Camera Obscura has released a new single to usher in the season, a cover of Jim Reeves‘s “The Blizzard,” first released in 1964. It’s the usual melancholy, countrified beauty from the Scottish pop icons. It’s backed with “Swans,” from this year’s My Maudlin Career.

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Washed Out provides summer nostalgia

Washed Out - Life of Leisure
It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriately-named artist than Washed Out. The bedroom recording project of Ernest Greene, the Georgia native’s music is woozy and deeply nostalgic, sounding something like the sonic equivalent to a Polarioid picture.

His debut EP, Life of Leisure, is built around trance-like electro beats and warm washes of dreamy synthesizer. The lyrics are almost indiscernible, densely layered and swathed in a warm blanket of reverb. The cinematic swoon of “Feel It All Around” seems like it’s unfolding in slow motion, as tinny drums clatter against purring keyboards and twanging surf guitar (which I’m pretty sure is actually keyboard) for three moments of pure, soothing bliss.

Rather than the ’80s-influenced laser-beam synths that have become so prevalent over the past few years, Washed Out sounds closer to ’90s electronica—which makes sense considering that Greene is 26, and would have been in high school when bands like Boards of Canada and Air first gained recognition. Closing track “You’ll See It” especially recalls this era, with a propulsive techno beat that could have easily been turned into a dancefloor anthem; Greene, however, overlays it with daydream vocals and woozy keyboards, meaning that it’s more likely to put you to sleep.

It’s pure summer music, and is bound to evoke memories of sitting on the beach on a hot July day. Even though we’re almost in December, the effect is the same, and Life of Leisure makes for the perfect seasonal escape.

It’s out now via Mexican Summer.
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10.5 on a scale of 10.5

The Magician - Who Will Cut Your Grass When I'm Gone?
Nathan Moes, a.k.a. the Magician, runs the risk of coming off as a little gimmicky. He has performed magic tricks on stage, and his debut EP is littered with allusions to other artists, from the Unicorns-referencing title (Who Will Cut Your Grass when I’m Gone?) to the wonky “Smoke on the Water” riffing at the end of “Introducing.” But all the gimmicks in the world can’t distract from the fact that the EP’s seven songs are packed with indelible pop hooks and witty, captivating lyrics,

“NJ V. NJM” features a fuzzy bassline working around an ominous minor key progression, its blippy keyboards shedding light on the titular Unicorns reference (it sounds distinctly similar to “Tuff Ghost”). The lyrics draw from T.I.‘s “What You Know,” and its hilarious appropriation of hip-hop slang (“With my kicks, with my slacks, with my cardigan / Yeah, I’m a 10.5 on a scale of 10.5″) comes off about as cool as Weird Al‘s “White & Nerdy.” The best part about Moes’s humour is that it’s unclear to what extent he’s in on the joke; no matter how silly the lyrics get, his delivery remains resolutely deadpan. But surely he must be kidding…right?

mp3: “NJ V. NJM”

Like his beloved Unicorns, the Magician has a knack for tossing off a moment of pop perfection without seeming to realize it. “Indicator Stop Bath” begins as a focused, upbeat pop song, but after barely a minute it falls apart, the drums taper off, and the piano is left to noodle around on a chord progression for nearly two minutes of daydream sublimity. “Ant/Whale/You & Me” contains a joyously catchy bridge, with triumphant piano flourishes and a poignant, rising melody. Placed after the first verse, you wait for the rest of the song hoping it will return; it never does, meaning you’ll have no choice but to listen to the song again.

While you’re at it, better re-listen to the entire EP.

The Magician has recently recruited a backing band, the Gates and Love, and the outfit is planning on entering the studio soon to record a full-length. In the meantime, check out three of the songs from Who Will Cut Your Grass When I’m Gone? here.
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Vivian Girls repeat history

Vivian Girls - Everything Goes Wrong
At 36 minutes, Everything Goes Wrong is over 50% longer than Vivian Girls‘ self-titled debut from last year. Given that this is a standard-length LP, it would be fair to expect the Brooklyn trio to branch out a little and show that there’s more to them than just another fuzz pop band with hummable melodies and scuzzy production.

Everything Goes Wrong, however, makes no attempt to distinguish itself from the pack, and its 13 songs offer almost nothing in the way of variation. For some listeners, this will come as a disappointment, but that’s probably unfair. After all, this is more of the same quality material that earned the band so much recognition in the first place. “Can’t Get Over You” is a dreamy, distorted doo-wop throwback, while lead single “When I’m Gone” buries its sugary harmonies in atmospheric reverb.

mp3: “When I’m Gone”

The most immediately obvious thing that distinguishes the album from its predecessor is its track lengths; unlike the band’s previous bite-sized offerings, Everything Goes Wrong contains two tracks that clock in at over four minutes. Still, none of the tracks drag, so it doesn’t make much of an impact on the album’s overall effect. Rather, the most significant difference here is that the songs sound more like straight-forward punk, with barreling tempos and thundering drums. The lyrics are fittingly venomous, with “Walking Alone at Night” sneering ,”What do I care? / You were just a waste of my time.” Only closing track “Before I Start to Cry” eases back on the full-throttle assault, its slow-burning tempo setting the tone for its heartbroken tale of lost love.

It’s unlikely to win any new fans, but it isn’t trying to. Although it won’t convince any skeptics, Everything Goes Wrong offers more of what made Vivian Girls one of last year’s breakthrough albums.

It’s out now via In the Red.
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A sweater on the ocean floor

Vampire Weekend - Cousins
“Horchata” was the first single off Vampire Weekend‘s upcoming album Contra, and it suggested that the band would be subtly branching away from its Afro-pop beginnings while retaining the same relaxed, collegiate style that made its debut such a big hit in 2008.

The album’s first video, however, takes things in a different direction. The song is called “Cousins,” and it’s a frantic, jittery rocker that sounds a bit like “A-Punk” after a few shots of espresso. It’s not as catchy as the band’s best work, but it does show off some impressive guitar chops—check out frontman Ezra Koenig’s fills during the song’s instrumental passages.

As for the video, it’s a memorable execution of simple concept: a camera running back and forth down a track in a back alley while the band perform around it. For much of it, they ride along in a small cart in front of the camera, lip syncing and generally acting like goofs. It gets fancy near the end with confetti canons exploding during the song’s triumphant coda and showing the band in white paper (just like the picture to the left).

“Cousins” is out on 7″ on December 15 via XL. It will also appear on Contra, due out January 12.
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Your latest shitgaze fix

Little Girls - Concepts
Those already disenchanted with the shitgaze genre should probably stop reading now. Little Girls is the solo project of Toronto musician Josh Mcintyre (member of the garage punk duo Pirate/Rock), who recorded the debut album Concepts on his laptop, much of it using the computer’s built-in microphone. The result is muddy, distorted as hell and drenched in reverb. It’s not the kind of project that will appeal to sound engineers and audiophiles, but his gritty no-fi surf rock sets an effectively ominous mood that makes the album addictive listening.

Little Girls’ music isn’t instrumental, but it may as well be. Most of the songs on Concepts contain lyrics, but the vocals are buried low in the mix, and are managled with fuzz and cavernous reverb. On some songs, they’re tough to even distinguish from the guitars, acting like any other instrument in the densely layered tracks. The percussion is almost entirely electronic, with simplistic beats that sound like they were recorded off vintage keyboards.

Numerous tracks recall the murky reverbitude of Psychocandy-eya Jesus and Mary Chain, especially “Thills,” which apes the rhythm from “Just Like Honey.” For the most part, however, the closest sound-alike is Wavves. And while Little Girls don’t have any pop songs quite as memorable as “So Bored,” you can enjoy Concepts without having to reconcile yourself with the public persona of Wavves frontman Nathan Williams.

mp3: “Thrills”

Concepts is out now via Paper Bag.
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A pysch folk time capsule

Woods - Songs of Shame
According to interviews, Woods have a permanent member whose role is “tape effects.” Upon listening to the Brooklyn group’s most recent album, however, I’m not sure what the hell his job actually is. Songs of Shame doesn’t flaunt its lo-fi aesthetic in the same way as fuzz-soaked releases by Wavves or Times New Viking, but there’s no mistaking the album’s rudimentary recording methods. An eleven-song collection of psychedelic rock and campfire folk, it sounds like it was probably laid to tape in the band members’ bedrooms. And, while there’s likely some subtle sound editing going on that I’m not aware of, there are no flashly tape effects on the whole album.

Considering that the group was once the songwriting project of singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl, it’s not entirely surprising that much of the collection is made up of sparse acoustic strummers. These stark folk songs are made are made all the more eerie by Jeremy Earl’s high, feminine voice, which sounds not-quite-human during the sloppy, waltz-time “Born to Lose.” It’s mainly due to Earl’s bleating vocals that Woods have frequently been pigeonholed as freak folk, joining the ranks of other strange-voiced artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. His singing is also the main reason that the band bears a distinct similarity to Neil Young; this is especially noticeable during the cover of Graham Nash‘s protest tune “Military Madness,” which sounds like it arrived in a capsule from 1970.

Elsewhere, Woods resembles a psychedelic jam band; “September with Pete” is nearly ten minutes of stoned noodling that scarcely even changes chords, mostly just acting as a vehicle for a wobbly, wah-wah-soaked guitar solo. It’s such brazen wankery that it’s hard to fault the band for its self-indulgence. While the song might not merit close listening, it’s by no means unpleasant or abrasive, and it befits the album’s sleepy, Sunday morning vibe. It’s a stunningly authentic replica of late ’60s psychedelia, making Songs of Shame a must-hear for anyone still stuck listening to the Velvet Underground or the Byrds on repeat.

Songs of Shame is out now via Woodsist.
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Unexpected charisma from Alex Turner

Arctic Monkeys
Arctic Monkeys‘ third album, the Josh Homme-produced Humbug, is a solid-but-unspectacular collection of desert rock that scales back the group’s usual garage-y post-punk snottiness in favour of cryptic lyrics and atmospheric production. The collection’s clear standout is “Cornerstone,” a mid-tempo ballad about being haunted by a breakup. The lyrics are classic Alex Turner, with vivid detail and scathing wit; the tune itself, however, sounds closer to the Kinks, with breezy acoustic strumming and jangling electric leads.

The song recently got the video treatment it deserves. It’s a simple but weirdly compelling clip, featuring Turner singing into a tape recorder in front of a plain white background. He hams it up admirably, serenading the camera and performing campy hand gestures that go along with the lyrics. Given that he spends most live shows staring blankly out over the audience, this video is a surprising display of charisma from the Monkeys’ frontman.

Humbug is out now via Domino.
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Q&A with the Zolas

The Zolas
Last week, the Zolas released their debut album Tic Toc Tic, a twelve-song collection of bouncy piano rock that’s equal parts catchy and heartbroken, ranging from apocalyptic love songs (“The Great Collapse”) to R&B-infused attacks on hipster culture (“You’re Too Cool”).

The Zolas are currently touring Canada in support of Tic Toc Tic with Immaculate Machine, and on December 18th will return home to Vancouver to play all-ages show at the Vogue Theatre with Hey Ocean!

I recently caught up with singer/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski via e-mail to discuss the new album, the tour, and befouling the washrooms at an all-girls college dorm.

CH: Where are you as you answer these questions?
ZG: Between Waterloo and Windsor on the 401. Aaron is driving and Tom and I decided to sit in the back and be productive and then watch movies.
TD: We just dropped Aaron’s girlfriend Mary off at her all-girl residence at Wilfred Laurier where Zach and I snuck in and took shits in their bathroom. There was a piece of graffiti in the stall that read: “’I am really high, therefore I am.’ –Descartes”

CH: Why did you choose to rename yourselves the Zolas, rather than stick with the Lotus Child moniker?
TD: No. You don’t understand, it’s called The Zolas now.

CH: There are a couple of songs on Tic Toc Tic that criticize Vancouver’s hipster/Biltmore scene. As an indie band, do you have any concern about alienating your fan base?
TD: No, because I think even hipsters are beginning to realize how ridiculous they are.
ZG: Tom can say that pretty unhypocritically, but I’m about as much a hipster as anyone. A lot of this album is about being in your twenties and living in Vancouver, and being a part of what’s called a hipster scene is a part of that for me. These songs aren’t that critical of it either. I mean, yeah, what I want more than anything is for us to start behaving like politically motivated young people instead of just dressing like them. But when I was in high school it was cool to dress like a wigger and call girls bitches and not give a shit about anything. Now cool is to dress like a philosophy student who plays in a band and refuses to use plastic bags. It’s not enough, but it’s progress.

CH: There’s a lot of songs on the album that describe failing relationships. What inspired the lyrics?
ZG: It’s what you’d imagine, I guess. Over the last year and a half I lost a big love.

CH: Do you have any plans to expand the Zolas’ lineup beyond a two-piece?
TD & ZG: Yeah. Eventually there will be full-time bass and drums. It’s more about finding the right people. Like right now we’re on tour with Aaron Mariash, drummer of Will Currie and The Country French, who we met in the summer, and there’s talk of a civil union between us and Henry and the Nightcrawlers, whose album 100 Blows everyone should be waiting for. It’s like someone asked Elvis Costello to write the soundtrack to a Wes Anderson movie.

CH: You’ve toured Canada from Vancouver Island to St. John’s, Newfoundland. What’s your favourite place to pass through?
TD: To be totally accurate, we’ve never been to Newfoundland, and we still haven’t played at home in Vancouver or Vancouver Island, (ed: oops) but our favourite city to play is Montreal. Zach and I both have siblings living there, and they have two things I love: 1) excellent music stores, and 2) bring-your-own-wine restaurants. That’s all it takes for me. Plus we’re always well-received there.
ZG: My favourite place to pass through is any provincial border. I love traditions, and we started a tradition this tour of sharing a Cherry Blossom every time we cross a border. It began as a joke in a candy-laden laundromat about how nobody ever ever buys them, and how inappropriate it would be for three guys to share one. I wouldn’t call them our favourite, but they’ve grown on us.

CH: What music have you been listening to in the van?
TD: Mostly jazz today – Avishai Cohen, Brad Mehldau
ZG: Henry and the Nightcrawlers, Fiona Apple, Radiohead. But our jam this tour is “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. We play that song at least twice a day. Tom just bought it on iTunes, actually, so that we can dispense with the MySpace version and fully appreciate the sonics. It’s playing right now as I type this. It’s perfect. The chorus hits so fucking hard.

CH: What’s your dream gig?
ZG: You know, we’ve still never played at home, so I’m going to say at the moment I think the dream gig would be an outdoor festival with all of the great bands we’re lucky to be friends with in Vancouver. Mother Mother, Dan Mangan, Said the Whale, We Are the City, Hannah Georgas, Henry and the Nightcrawlers, Hey Ocean!, Brasstronaut, and a lot more. As far as I’ve heard, our city has never really had a supportive, open-hearted music scene before, and suddenly here it is and we get to be a part of it.

CH: What’s the shittiest gig you’ve ever played?
TD: I think we played the worst by far in Halifax, but it only served to prove the mystifying truth about performing: people tend to like your worst show about as much as your best show.
ZG: Sudbury wasn’t great either. We’re on tour opening for our new friends Immaculate Machine, and they got super sick, and then we slept in the band room under the bar on naked mattresses and questionable comforters. We decided to sleep wrapped up, soft-taco-style, and personally it felt like having unprotected sex with my whole body all night.

CH: What’s next for the Zolas?
TD: Finish this tour and go home, play with Henry more, play our first show in Vancouver (an all-ages show with Hey Ocean! to be announced soon).
ZG: I have to practice piano for a musical I’m doing in February and March called Billy Bishop Goes To War. I also just moved into a special new house between whose walls I’m just excited to exist.
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