Monday, November 23, 2009

The Rural Alberta Advantage and Great Bloomers – November 18 at Club Lambi

Great Bloomers
If your MySpace describes you as talented "beyond your years," that probably means you're young – which doesn't really have to mean anything. Take Toronto's Great Bloomers for instance, whose alt-country Canadiana served as a perfect prelude to The RAA last Wednesday. The band laid down Cuff the Duke basics with a voice that sounds like a twangy CHOM 97.7. They also overcame sound troubles when guitarist Nate Hindle gave up on his hollow body and instead sang on the finale, thought it was clear the poor guy had no idea what to do with his hands. Enjoyable, yes, though it made me yearn for another other band doing the old thing well.

The Rural Alberta Advantage
The first two songs from The RAA had two-thirds of the band restricted to back-up vocals and a floor tom, which was unfortunate because the drum sounded like shit. When drummer Paul Banwatt eventually moved to the kit, I was taken aback by how friggin' tight and loud he was, bringing the punk to tin-can Hometowns foundations like "Don't Haunt This Place" and "Drain the Blood," and the Chemical Brothers back to rock with "Sleep All Day."

Meanwhile, guitarist and real Albertan Nils Edenloff delivered on his Aeroplane-tinged vocals and small town authenticity, expressing genuine interest in meeting people after the set. But for some reason, he did a cover of "Eye of the Tiger." Why?

Before the show, The RAA's pithy, prairielectro-folk hadn't really won me over, but enjoying the set from the fringes of the Wednesday night dance party convinced me to give the tar-loving Canadians a chance.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dirty Projectors and tUnE-YaRdS – November 15 at Le National

In a sort of Cagibi coming-out party, Merrill Garbus happily shared the Bird's finest offerings with new and old fans Sunday night. I could attempt to describe her staggering vocal skills, but instead I'll let Drew Nelles: "sometimes she sounds like a eunuch, sometimes like she’s laying down a reggaeton track, sometimes like she’s disembowelling a zebra on the savannah." Garbus often explores all three roles in a single track, while also laying down multi-layered drum loops and ethereal harmonies with ease.

Chances are she could have other people doing these, but it's more fun to see her create full drum beats one morcel at a time, and churning her sung parts into a kind of oral synth. Once, it sounded like a second snare part was a bit off, but with the full beat realized, it became one of the set's most danceable tracks (since she was simply laying down the opposite hand's contribution – forming an backbone akin to acoustic Animal Collective).

It was nice to see half the headliners (Angel, Dave, and Brian) bobbing enthusiastically to the side of the stage. Like the Dirty Projectors' sound, Garbus' little guitar was mainly clean, but turned to a bruised distortion with enough attack. The accompanying men in white offered cute harmonies compared to her powerful wail, and coordinated dance moves to boot. Party on!

Dirty Projectors
It's easy to justify seeing this band multiple times – especially in indie, talent and experimentation are rarely matched to such a satisfying degree.

In this post-album tour, the band switched up the set list (which had remained fairly consistent over the summer), starting with tracks from the U.K.-only 12-inch and "Cannibal Resource," on which Dave Longstreth employed noticeably more distorted tones and new parts. These ended up being a theme of the evening, as his racing right hand sometimes gave way to minor bumps and blips. This is all relative, however, as you'd be hard-pressed to commission anyone to execute these parts' intricacy played with similar proficiency.

Trowing in Bitte Orca closer "Fluorescent Half Dome" into the first third of the set was a nice touch, Brian McComber's dynamic drumming more pronounced than ever. Afterward, Longstreth settled into his new role as a frontman of a Le National-worthy band, offering stage banter beyond monotone "Thank yous" for the first time this year. Plus, it was funny. Fielding two comments at once ("We like you" and "I have to pee"), he reciprocated the first ("Yep, we really like being here too") and responded to the second with a story about having to leave a Harlem Globe Trotters game when he was a kid ("When you gotta go you gotta go").

The band also took advantage of the headlining slot to re-imagine Bitte Orca tracks with new arrangements, most notably a semi-acoustic version of "The Bride," proving that Nat Baldwin is not lugging around his double-bass in vain. "Two Doves" also had a greater calming effect later into the set (as opposed to opening it), following thunderous renditions of "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and "Thirsty and Miserable." Of all the highlights, however, the Solange-inspiring "Stillness" suffered from guitar troubles and even minute pitch issues, though as always, Amber killed the finale. Overall, Sunday night's set found the band exploring their new role as a bigger-than-Sala act with a longer, re-assembled set showcasing their winsome mix of the deceivingly steady and potently ornate.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Most Serene Republic – November 14 at Zaphod's (Ottawa)

Meligrove Band
...was a no-show Saturday night, apparently down with the swine. Whoever booked the new opening band probably did so at the last minute, because they were pretty awful. Group vocals with no harmonies, boring song structures, drum fills that don't quite fit...all in all, they reminded me of decent high school shows. That also provides a nice segue since high school is where I first saw The Oneironauts (who then became Most Serene).

The Most Serene Republic
It's been almost 5 years since the underwater cinematographers played with The Junction at an indie music night at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, Ontario. At the time, it seemed like The Junction was slated to break out, bringing their jazz-pop intensity outside the southwestern Ontario scene. Instead, however, a younger version of Most Serene became the first Arts & Crafts signees outside the immediate Broken Social Scene family, and did their best to navigate the hype stowed upon them. Three albums later, their main task seems to be rekindling that initial buzz, though it doesn't seem like they're going back to their earlier incarnation anytime soon. After "Where Cedar Nouns and Adverbs Walk" – whose centrepiece shout-along "I think we all know the words" brought me right back to 2004 – the band mocked the chorus, which they wrote when they were 19.

As Most Serene blew up, The Junction quietly got a distribution deal with Universal, but after a so-so debut – which veered from their cleaner roots toward distortion and screams – got dropped. Though they're back with a sound that better emulates their earlier wonders, there's no tour to back it up. Taking different paths, both bands have found out how tough the industry can be.

Most Serene's Saturday night set could have benefited from better sound, since it's easy to lose track of seven people playing through nightclub speakers. Seeing them at Guelph's Hillside Festival two years ago, I was re-invigorated by their swirling tightness and singer Adrian Jewett's patented kookiness. Though he still employs some impish dance moves, Jewett has traded his high-pitched tomfoolery for mid-ranged normalcy – and the wannabe Emily Haines next to him isn't quite strong enough as a lead. With their musicianship muddied and the main character tamed, the band seems to be sacrificing their energy for an undefined focus.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mark Bragg, Rae Spoon, Wax Mannequin – November 13 at Zaphod's (Ottawa)

Mark Bragg
The exuberant east coaster got the night rolling with a taut set of honest collar rock. Near the start, it sounded like The Coral's debut minus the superfluous instrumentation, and finished with a dose of breakneck bluegrass. For back-to-basics bands, feeling is often most important, so this band's sheer tightness was a bonus – thanks in part to bassist Rajiv Thavanathan of Toronto's Oh No Forest Fires. "This band is smokin'," says Braggs, a St. John's native who's been performing for about 10 years, after the show. "I forgot how tourin' makes bands wicked tight."

With a brief explanation of each song's origin (concluding with "And that's what this song is about"), the fast-talkin' Newfoundlander made a novella out of the short set. I was surprised to learn this type of storytelling was a new component of his live show, "specifically learned from Rae and Wax," Braggs tells me, adding, "I've always been shitty at introducing songs." Apparently he's past this phase. With the new shtick forcing him to re-think the songs' meaning, Braggs is better able to communicate his dark fiction more directly with those before him.

Rae Spoon
Rae makes their unique status as a transgendered country singer known from the get-go, offering an engaging set of surprisingly electrified acoustic numbers with a side of basic Macbook beats. Think Hank Williams with a penchant for minimalist Postal Service. Drawing on experiences living in the Yukon, Halifax, and Berlin, Rae provided funny anecdotes – topics include dial-up internet; queer Country day; and the parallels between being a German cowboy and a trans Calgarian – between (and during) many of their folky, charming tunes.

Why the banter? "When I get on stage, people don't know how to perceive me," Rae tells me, explaining that the personal narrative woven throughout the show comes as a result of consistent touring over the past 10 years. Especially for country – which Rae even remarked as a genre relying heavily on stereotypes – theirs is a bold statement, though it doesn't outweigh the quality of the music. "Come on Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down" is still stuck i
n my head.

Wax Mannequin
After two solid openers, the punky old timer (brandishing both suspenders and an iPhone) ran through a set of fist-pumping Tom Waits in fine fashion, though some songs could be mistaken for CCR or Lou Reed covers. I think that's a compliment.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dan Auerbach – November 8 at Le National

Apparently Le National is a tough venue to fill. Not even post-Veckatimest Grizzly Bear could accomplish the feat this past June, and though the Auerbach-adoring crowd certainly showed its affection throughout Sunday night's show, there was still a little too much room to groove on the down-sloping floor. Plus, it didn't help that the extra white lights – strung in an 'X' from the sound booth to the back of the stage – brought attention to the fact by over-illuminating the room, making it feel like the end of the show several times throughout. Nevertheless, the set was a well-rehearsed, loud-as-hell re-ordered rendition of Keep It Hid, opening with a tender "Trouble Weighs a Ton" brought to life by harmonies shared at the mic.

At a Black Keys show at La Tulipe three years ago, I remember Auerbach providing more than enough guit-gusto through two Marshall stacks – his highs running through four 12-inch speakers and his low-end through eight of them – so I was interested to see how he'd maneuver the stage with five other players, including two drummers. The band certainly put on a good show, but it didn't convince me that the Keys' two-man show is significantly lacking numbers.

The sound was at times clear as a bell – or, in the Fast Five's case, shakers, tambourines, and a triangle – though at others the onslaught of unified fuzz was a little much, making it hard for lead guitars to cut through the mix. Auerbach seemed to remedy the problem by adding an inordinate amount of distortion on some solos, fighting off his own noise as if the band's wasn't the main barrier to him getting heard.

Spending much of the set establishing rolling, mid-tempo grooves drenched in organ, faster tracks ("My Last Mistake") came as a welcome, crowd-pleasing relief. Regarding the former, "Street Walking" was definitely a highlight, as was the let's-get-this-party-started "I Want Some More." A good time, but right now I'm more excited for Drummer.