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Record Review: Said the Whale – “New Brighton EP”

This reveiw originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

For anyone who fell in love with Said the Whale’s sophomore record, Islands Disappear, first spins of their new four-track EP will come as a bit of a shock. While that album’s specificity of place is what drew many in, New Brighton refuses to saddle any of its songs with a set location. But if the novelty of hearing the changing landscape of Vancouver’s False Creek set music was all Islands Disappear had going for it, the record would never have been the slow burning sensation it was.

New Brighton sticks with the rest of Said the Whale’s hallmarks – the savvy mix of indie and folk rock, soaring harmonies and quirky, observational lyrics – seeming to indicate that their third effort won’t veer too far from the formula that brought them national acclaim. Their songwriting, which was already top-notch, has improved, creating a tight quartet of indie pop gems. The sprightly pace and sunny demeanour of “Lines” is the clear highlight, while the start-stop rhythm of “Sandy Bay Fishing Song” shows that the group aren’t afraid to venture into relatively foreign sonic territory while retaining their innate tunefulness.

New Brighton comes across as lightweight at first, but repeated listens reveal these songs’ nostalgic depths.

“Lines”

Portrait of an emo fan at 30; or, why I can’t get over the Get Up Kids

What the hell is wrong with me?

A couples weeks ago I was hipped to an emerging scene in the North Eastern part of the States  made up of bands who use 90s emo as their primary touchstone. They embrace the tortured vocals, jammy guitars and heavy breakdowns of groups like Promise Ring and Texas is the Reason. Of course, as soon as I heard about this I immediately started scouring the Internet for records. Safe to say that I’m now completely enamored with bands like Everyone Everywhere, Into It. Over It., and Grown Ups and the label Top Shelf Recordings (as an odd side note, these bands and this genre are for some reason being classified as Twinkle Daddies. I’m not making this up.)

Seeking out new bands is all fine and good. But what bothers me is the kind of bands that I’m after. These twinkle daddies basically sound like bands I loved ten years ago. And here I am, a decade later, still being pulled into their little sonic webs.  I can’t stop listening to the music of my youth. And when I say the music of my youth, I’m referring to the slew of late-’90s, early ’00s emo bands I swooned over in my early 20s – Lifetime, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World, Saves the Day and the Get Up Kids – I listen to them on a regular basis,  their albums taking up valuable space on my overstuffed iPhone. I’ve even rebought have these LPs on vinyl. And now they’re brushing up against a bunch of new ones that sound just like them.

I get the appeal of what’s familiar. What I can’t account for is my continued devotion to bands who were supposedly meant to appeal when you’re in your teens and early twenties. Most of the songs are in some way about unrequited love aimed squarely at young men (yes, there are female fans, but I’m going with the stereotype here) unable to process their teeming emotions. So why do I, four months shy of 30, continue to identify with their music? Even  the bands who are most identified with the emo tag did everything they could to drop the association by either breaking up, drastically changing their sound or both. If they can walk away, why can’t I?

While the stereotype of the awkward 17 year old crying to Dashboard Confessional songs in their room has become a little tired, it’s not that far off from the truth. Over the holidays I read Andy Greenwald’s book Nothing Feels Good, which back in 2004, tried to make some sense of this whole emo thing. And based on the accounts from the fans he interviewed, my self-identifying with the problems these dudes were singing about paled in comparison to the emotional connection other people had with it.

But I think there’s more to the music than just broken hearts and spineless young men. What I continue to connect with is the non-specific emotional malaise, not the pained tales of heartbreak. Whatever problems I had with girls are long since past me (I’m in a long term relationship) and even if they weren’t, the problems that arise with the opposite sex at 30 could never be encapsulated in a 3-minute Dashboard tune.  What remains though is a general confusion with life.

Which is whay I’m so drawn to this new generation of bands,  their songs about tiny apartments and having bigger fish to fry speaking to me far more that the orchestral pop and folk-tinged indie rock that so pervasive, particularly up here in Canada (and thanks to Arcade Fire’s recent Grammy win, won’t be disappearing anytime soon). There’s a restless energy to these bands. Like the best music rooted in a punk rock aesthetic, they’re raging about something, even if its not immediately clear what that something is.

I similarly still feel this restlessness, though I can’t quite pin down what it is.  Suffice to say though what I continue to hear in the band’s of my youth and this new generation of groups is a sense of uncertainty about what’s to come.  Their pained wails and thrashing guitars saying far more than any movie or book I’ve encountered have been able to.

At some point maybe this feeling will pass, and I’ll look back on these songs with the same sense of longing nostalgia that I’ve since bestowed upon bands like Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. But even the bands who walked away, due to frustration of expectations or embarrassment at the public airing of their deepest feelings have returned to not only play together live again, but to record new music. If they can continue to find new meaning in their own music, why can’t I? And why can’t a new crop of groups tear this music away from the clutches of mainstream stereotypes and make something meaningful with it again? It seems as if what were once constants aren’t so constant anymore.

The Get Up Kids – “Action and Action”

Ke$ha : spoiled party girls :: ICP : white-trash

In the year end issue of Spin, comedian Patton Oswalt refered to pop-singer Ke$ha as the “Arbys to Lady Gaga’s In ‘n’ Out Burger.”   While I find this statement both hilarious and true when it comes to the quality of the two singer’s music, it also perpetuates an image of Ke$ha that I don’t entirely agree with.

Since she dropped her single “Tik Tok” back in 2009, people have thought of Ke$ha as the poor-man’s Lady Gaga. And while it’s true that both apply their make-up smeared pop to Euro-disco beats, the similarities end there. You see Lady Gaga has pretensions towards artsiness that her numerous imitators seem unable to duplicate. Whether she actually succeeds in making art is a whole other debate, but there’s no doubt that there’s an element of fucked-up performance art in everything Gaga does. Her video for “Paparazzi” probably comes closest to portraying the life-as-art thing she so desperately strives for.

Ke$ha on the other hand, harbours no such pretensions. Down to the dollar sign in her name, it seems that all the singer wants is fame and fortune. How she gets it seems besides the point; she’s gonna get it no matter how many strangers beds she wakes up in hung-over as shit, partying her way to trophy-wifedom. At least that’s what her music videos would have us believe. And so far it’s working: “Tik Tok” even managed to supplant Danny Elfman’s theme to an episode of the Simpsons last fall in a move that either payed homage to, or ironically made fun of the track. I still can’t tell.

What’s worse is that at least in her music, Ke$ha gives no indication that drinking and fucking your way to the top might not be the best course of action, or that there might even be another option. And while Ke$ha is hardly the first singer to celebrate spoiled party girls – Paris Hilton’s ill-fated foray into music comes to mind – she’s the most vocal adherent to the cause. Just check out “We R Who We R” where she rallies the troops who “make the hipsters fall in love” and are “running this town just like a club.” Her message: accept us or else.

But Ke$ha’s hardly the first artist to champion a much-maligned demographic who perhaps should have remained firmly on the pop-culture sidelines. Back in ’99 Eminem and Kid Rock did the same thing for white-trash, making wife-beaters and white-angst the style of the day. And while both of those artists have since done a lot to distance themselves from the fans who once made-up the backbone of their base (okay, maybe not so much in Kid Rock’s case), a gaggle of less talented groups quickly swooped in to fill the void. Some, like Insane Clown Posse and their annual Gathering of the Jugalos, continue to blight our airwaves with their extreme ignorance.

So for everyone waiting for the Ke$ha scourged to pass, I’ve got bad news: she’s here to stay. Even if her career blew up in a puff of smoke tomorrow, she’s laid enough groundwork for a whole slew of vapid, self-entitled pop-tarts who look like they taste like whiskey and whose knowledge of feminist theory starts and ends with “Girl Power” and are ready to invade our airwaves. Because not giving a fuck is a hell of a lot easier than actually giving one. So it’s not going to be too hard to recruit new converts to the cause.

“Blah, Blah, Blah”

Live Review: Robyn @ Sound Academy, Toronto 01/26/2011

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca.

Robyn’s self-directed reinvention finally seemed complete last year, when she unleashed her excellent Body Talk full-length. The album closed the book on her transformation from late ’90s teen-pop star into Euro-disco diva, embraced by indie-minded hipsters and, if her Toronto gigs are any indication, the gay community as a whole.

But as her star re-emerged on the pop-culture landscape, Robyn seemed to find herself right back where she started. Last fall, the Swede appeared on teen-drama phenom Gossip Girl, while she will be playing warm-up act to teen-pop sensation Katy Perry across North America this summer, playing some of the very same venues she turned her back on over a decade ago. So in reclaiming her image, has Robyn simply come full circle?

Her rescheduled performance at Toronto’s Sound Academy would suggest not. Drawing heavily on the dance-floor fillers that populate Body Talk, Robyn proceeded to throw down the gauntlet for all subsequent pop shows that role through town, swinging, dancing and twirling her way into the hearts of the sold-out audience who cheered her every move.

Robyn fills her songs with heartfelt emotion, giving her listeners an actual piece of herself as opposed to a manufactured version. Similarly, onstage Robyn gives a piece of herself to her audience and, in turn, feeds off their energy in a performance that is neither hindered by the shallowness of a singer like Perry or the choreographed and distracting spectacle of Lady Gaga.

Her exuberant personality won over even the most casual fans in attendance, as she had the entire bar dancing along to her three-piece band (her second drummer was mysteriously absent), who were decked out in white lab coats. Throughout the 90-minute set, the singer never wavered in her energy levels, stalking the stage with a determination that rivals Mick Jagger, grinding the air and generally defying physics with her flexibility and dance moves in a pair of impossibly huge platform shoes.

Whatever Robyn has in store for the future, it’s clear that she continues to occupy the driver’s seat of her own career. While she may continue to flirt with the mainstream she once abandoned, these dalliances are on her terms. If Robyn decides to move away from the fan base whose fervent adoration helped spread word of her resurrection, it will be of her own volition.

“Hang With Me”

Record Review: Fat Music Vol 7: Harder, Fatter + Louder

This review originally appeared at Chartattack.com

It’s been eight years since Fat Wreck Chords released one of these infamous comps. Back in the late-’90s and early 2000s, these el-cheapo collections worked as a fantastic introduction to punk, or at least the pop-friendly type of punk that dragged the genre into the mainstream a la bands like Blink-182 and Simple Plan.

Part of their appeal of course, was the cost: five bucks was a steal back when actually stealing music would get you a ride in the back of a cop car.

So it’s not surprising that the label abandoned the series back in 2002 in favour of more pointed, often politically-charged comps.

Volume 7 though picks up where Uncontrollable Fatulance left off in 2002, offering 22 tracks from the label’s deep roster of bands. There’s a good dose of old favourites (Strung Out, Chixdiggit!) along with relative newcomers (Cobra Skull, Old Man Markley).

If you, like me, remember these collections as a somewhat homogenous sounding take on punk, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the depth, diversity and quality of the material on offer here. The opening salvo from nine-piece punk bluegrass crew Old Man Markley is especially nice, as is the laid-back ska of Mad Caddies and Celtic punk fury of old favourites the Real McKenzies. Of course, Teenage Bottlerocket and vets like No Use For A Name (who deliver a great Cheap Trick cover) and of course NOFX keep things firmly grounded in the label’s core sound.

Fat Music Vol. 7 is without a doubt one of the strongest entries into the Fat Music series, presenting a label overview with no weak links. Anyone who abandoned the label figuring they’d grown out of that phase of their life will have their love reinvigorated by bands both old and new.

No Use For a Name – “Dream Police”

Record Review: Flowers of Hell – “O”

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

In retrospect, it seems inevitable the Flowers of Hell would stretch out their experimental post-rock into a single, continuous 45-minute track. The songs on the trans-Atlantic collective’s last disc, Come Hell or Highwater, were already pushing the boundaries of traditional song lengths.

Taking what was already a sprawling sound to new heights, O isn’t exactly the kind of track you listen to on repeat while riding the subway; it’s best experienced alone, in a quiet room, turned up really loud to grasp the full sonic range and emotion. Music of this kind tends to be made electronically, usually by someone alone in their bedroom, basically because it’s difficult to get a bunch of musicians in a room playing together and not have at least one of them make a mistake over a 45-minute span. Group mastermind Greg Jarvis managed to capture O in one live take after many rehearsals and demos, giving the recording a very visceral feel.

Presented with a DVD on the disc’s DualDisc flip side, O includes a host of extra material, including a fancy stereo mix of the title track, music videos and individual live cuts, and a great 50-minute set recorded at Toronto, ON’s Music Gallery. While neither easy listening nor watching, O is nevertheless a triumph

Incoming: Kids & Explosions

Yesterday, one of my new obsessions, Babe Rainbow aka Cameron Reed tweeted about mysterious producer Kids & Explosions, “who makes songs by stealing other people’s songs and making them worse.” He had in turn heard about through Gorillavsbear.

Kids & Explosions are basically Girl Talk’s bratty little brother and Shit Computer is basically a kick to Greg Gillis’s hairy face. Like Girl Talk Kids & Explosions boldly mixes well-know indie and classic rock riffs with hip-hop verses. But where  Gillis kind of just beat-matches and then lets it ride (particularly on 2008’s Feed the Animals), Kids & Explosions grabs the tunes by the collective balls and manipulates them to his own whims, chopping and cutting them up until they resemble something else entirely. So while there’s still the joy of recognition with each new sample that’s introduced, but the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

Yeah, yeah, without Girl Talk, Kids & Explosions probably wouldn’t even exist, but so is life in the pop-culture hype machine. I stand by what I said until Gillis drops a new record blah, blah blah, whatever. Listen and enjoy.

UPDATE: A quick Google search has revealed that Kids & Explosions is, in fact, Josh Raskin, the Toronto director who made the Oscar nominated short I Met the Walrus.

Shit Computer can be gotten here. It’s pay-what-you-can.

Kids & Explosions – There Is a Burning Ball of Fire in Outter Space

Incoming: Writer’s Strike

It seems like all my favourite bands from when I lived in Halifax are coming out of the woods in some morphed or abridged form. Back in June I wrote about It Kills, which features 3/5 of I See Rowboats. Now the First Aid Kit have re-emerged as Writer’s Strike, the name-change no doubt a result of the higher profile (but not as great) Swedish duo of the same name. They’re also offering up a proper studio version of the track “Bad Time” a song they had previoulsy recorded live in their practice space and posted on YouTube as “Bad Time Worse Time.” They’re also heading out on tour across Eastern Canada that sees them in Toronto at the Silver Dollar on October 28. See you there?

The First Aid Kit – Bad Time

New Ted Leo & the Pharmacists Video: “Bottled in Cork” aka Ted Leo vs Green Day

Call it the work of a jaded, aging punk rocker who feels he never got his due, or clever satire that comments on the mass-commercialization  of a genre to which many have dedicated their lives; what’s clear is that Ted Leo (like most self-respecting music fans in my opinion), is non-too impressed with Green Day‘s rock musical, American Idiot. And these guys were once lable-mates! (okay, never at the same time). You can check out the clip for the stand-out cut off The Brutalist Bricks below.

“Bottled in Cork”