The Grove Festival: Palma Violets

Palma Violets sound a little bit like Bowie doing his best Sid Vicious impression; it’s Garage Rock on peyote. The light organ play in the background, the overuse of the bass drum, the borderline manic guitar, it all works; even the happy shakers on their track ‘Set Up for the Cool Cats’ sound more like a social commentary then some motif they learned from Fleetwood Mac.

Admittedly I did not know who they were when they came on the stage. The Grove Festival was advertised as a ‘Boutique Festival,’ so I expected to see a few bands with street cred that weren’t booked to play Lolla. I gotta say though, these guys were so incredibly refreshing that I literally watched the whole thing with a sort of gapping crooked smile on my face, the kind you get when you see something ridiculous that’s impressive at the same time. And by refreshing I mean the lead singer, Samuel Fryer, worked the stage like some drunken nephew who escaped the family luncheon, stole a guitar, busted through security onto the stage, and proceeded to rock his face off to everyone’s delight. Think Michael J. Fox’s guitar rip in Back to the Future but instead of clean cut ‘80’s, it’s Edward Furlong two days into a binge, sweating twice as much, with all the on-stage presence of Shannon Hoon at his best. Simply said, they were incredible.

Twenty years ago the music industry started making anti-corporate statements that took the form of artists dressing like our grandparents. Reused clothing, greasy hair, vintage, vintage, vintage, anything that could be deemed anti-establishment was considered the height of political awareness; everyone knows Kurt Cobain’s iconic wool cardigans. I saw this I-don’t-give-a-sh*t-what-you-think attitude in Palma Violets, and for the first couple of tracks, I think the audience saw it too and didn’t know quite what to do with it. It’s hard for people to get into a set that they feel isn’t played for them, which arguably it wasn’t. The boys have this way of playing that makes you wonder if they think they’re still in their parent’s garage. After two tracks though, it would have been hard for anyone to argue their ability to rock, their talent, and how cool Fryer looked smoking on stage. By the time they played ‘Best of Friends’ the entire park was looking for a justifiable reason to break the cool-factor-scorpion-dance that both sides were participating in and just tell the band they loved them, but it’s hard when you think the people receiving the compliment don’t give a f*ck. Enter the lyrics of the song that received the first raised hands of the day: I want to be your best friend, and I want you to be mine too, I want to be your best friend, and I want you to be mine!!! The repetitive chorus gave the audience a chance to sing along finally, and connect. Fryer let his cigarette hang out of his face as he clapped his hands over his head. There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? No everyone’s friends.

I would like to take this time to give a shout-out/ extend my own hand of friendship to William Doyle, who is BY FAR one of the greatest drummers I have ever seen live. I kept screaming, “Look at the f*cking drummer!!! Look at him go!! Are you seeing this?!?! Good Lord!! Just look at him!!” You can hear the dynamicism on their recorded tracks as well, but I’m telling you, this drummer is the tits. The whole band it awesome, fine. But Doyle, in the litter that is the drummer pool, you are a special kitten.

Palma Violets was by far the greatest surprise of the day. Huge sound and their sweaty Hobart Salesmen work shirts brought me right back to the beautifully unwashed boys of early grunge. These hard rocking boys from London know how to make an audience feel like they don’t give a sh*t you’re there….but you’ll be glad you were. Rest assured I’ll be chasing them again.

Ken Yates – Twenty Three album review

The twang of the steel guitar hits you instantly; the silvery plying of emotion from your body. Something about the sound of wilting metal that takes you instantly to an expanse of field somewhere in the Midwest…Ken Yates debut EP Twenty Three is everything that that initial note promises, stories of love and loss, simple songs thoughtfully penned without grand ambition, secrets of life extracted from caught moments in time.

So here’s the thing about good folk music; its melody and lyricism in equal measure. You can say whatever you like about how a harmonica makes you feel, or what the twist of a voice catching does to your insides, but if you don’t get that you’re listening to a sung story then you’re dead in the water. Ken Yates understands this.

Curtain Call is a beautiful song, one that allows valuable insight into Yates’ pared down expectations of fame. This song could be written about anyone. At first listen it’s seemingly written about a love interest, a girl at a country dance who projects a better version of herself because her confidence wanes when she is without approval, but it could just as easily been written about him. If that’s the case, think about the introspection that would have to have gone into writing a song about being the best version of yourself, flaws and all, for no audience at all. That in itself is true artistic merit.

‘I don’t want to Fall in Love’, arguably the album’s most commercially successful song, has gotten an incredible amount of airtime on Sirius XM’s Coffee House station. You’ve heard this song. Everyone has. It delivers what a country folk song should; unpacking both the fearful and excitable side of love from the viewpoint of a shy and most likely twice burned man who refuses to give up on the idea of love entirely, even if he writes a song telling us otherwise. What an incredible thing, a five minute profession of self realization that we as listeners recognize as a lie. That in itself is songwriting magic.

There is something pure about the way Yates approaches music. Soft country may not be everyone’s cup of sweet tea, but I believe Yates has talent. He is a great songwriter, as confessed publicly by his hero John Mayer. Twenty Three is a dish best served while you swing lazily in a hammock, a bottle of beer warming in fading country light, your cowboy hat tipped over your face as you listen to life lessons stream from the speakers as weaving silver threads.

The Grove Festival: Girl Talk

I tip my hat to the event planners who had the foresight to put Girl Talk on before Hot Chip, who played before Phoenix. The three of them were a proper jab-hook-uppercut combo that bowled us all over. Girl Talk…There are not a lot of curtains to pull back here, so-to-speak. No insights that one cannot deduce for themselves if they’ve heard even just one of Gregg Gillis’ tracks. You could play 30secs if any of his mixes to a stranger on the street who seemingly has no understanding of what’s hip, ask them three words to describe what they think his concert might be like, and they would be right. It’s like this: the songs sound the exact same, but instead enjoying it in your living room that’s the size of a hamster ball, it an entire square city block of sound. Bigger IS better. Always.

As I fear giving you a redundant perspective, I’m going to take an editorial risk here, and attempt to explain the concert as it banked off of my friend Amy who was standing beside me. It’s like this: I’m actually reviewing my friend Amy watching the concert, instead of reviewing the concert itself. It’s Girl Talk through an ‘Amy’ filter. Got it? Are we clear? A postmodern concert review? I don’t think anything would make Girl Talk happier.

First off you should know that my friend Amy and her better half Grant are easily the most decorated concert soldiers I know, which even if I was trying to be humble, is incredible. They have seen so many bands, have collected so many tickets stubs, seen so many venues, and in the specific case of Grant, bought a gazillion concert tees. Seriously. He had a tee for almost every band that played the festival, and he changed them as the bands changed to show his fandom. (I tip my hat to YOU, Sir.)

“Holy sh*t, write that down,” Amy says. She’s doing her condensed booty shake which means she’s feeling it, and wants to move so badly that only small movements will guarantee she moves enough. She’s points to the stage, “MJ’s Do You Remember vs. Daft Punk’s Get Lucky! That’s new. Sh*******t.” She continues to move. She looks at me again and this time taps my notebook. “Write it down.”

Girl Talk has revolutionized the mixed tape. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. Who else do you know who can mix like he can? Nobody. Maybe your mother, but we don’t know who she is. “Look at him go!” Amy’s screaming because Gillis has removed his soaked white t-shirt and is swinging it above his head. She turns to me, “He’s like a little DJ Ninja.” I look up to the stage and sure enough he’s making exaggerated Bruce Lee gestures.

Every DJ has his own dance persona. Some of them favour a simple fist pump, others make hands like they’re begging for justice while jumping up and down, not to mention the ever elusion no-dance-at-all which makes you believe the DJ doesn’t even know the crowd is there. Girl Talk is a full extension kind of guy. Finger tips, to pointed toes, he explores the full breath of bodily expression. Amy giggles, and then smiles affectionately. “Ahh, that’s adorable.”

The stage is flooded with people pulled from the crowd, and I would wager his entire entourage. Honestly though, thousands of people around us are having the best dance party of their lives “Lindsay, my mind is exploding right now. Aren’t you dying?! This is so awesome.” As the set progresses, the bulkier dudes up front who at first were dominating the stage are beginning to run out of steam. “Uh, oh. Some of them are slowing down,” she says, and raises her eyebrows in concern. She nods towards the pixie-sized girls with fairy wings who are covered in body paint. “At least we know some of them are going to make it.”

I can tell you who did make it. Amy. As Girl Talk’s last climactic beats echoed through the park, Gillis raised his hand as if the salute the drifting notes as they sailed away. Amy closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, then turned to me again. “Bathroom then beer.”

The Grove Festival: Gaslight Anthem

Occupying in my personal opinion the best time slot for natural light, Gaslight Anthem is one of those successful underground bands who everyone loves and no one has ever heard of at the same time. Proper Indie starlettes, it is so incredibly obvious when you see them live why they have accrued such a loyal cult following. They may not be mainstream, but when lead singer Brian Fallon offered up his microphone, like he did last year at another concert, it was Eddie Vedder who rose to the challenge to sing with the band. So…ya. You should know this band if you don’t already.
Gaslight Anthem has a huge catalogue and generally isn’t one of those bands who really shine in a 45min time slot. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take what I can get, but after such a short set they left the stage and I felt like I was being left in bed just when things were really getting going. Bands like Gaslight Anthem need at least an hour and half for listeners to get their fix. They are just one of those bands; bands that bring you back to that time in your life when music was invigorating for the first time.

It might be easier for people in my age bracket to understand this, as Gaslight Anthem has been true to their sound since their inception in 2007, but their particular brand of rock calls to mind that early millennial punk-easy-rock sound that was equal parts Thrifty’s flare jeans and non-gendered nail polish, and ironically disintegrated most standards of which is socially accepted as cool at the time. Today, in 2013, Gaslight Anthem is the epitome of modern rock. They continue to push the limits of conventional songwriting while still honouring the rock elements that gave the likes of Springsteen and Billy Joel their mass appeal.

They played mostly from their newest release Handwritten, peppering the set with a few oldies but goodies. When ‘45’ started up there was an amazing moment in the crowd when those who knew the song roared, and those who didn’t know who they were watching looked to those who did and nodded emphatically. Crowd synergy. As musicians they are beyond talented. They know who they are, and their the sound seems to come effortless which is amazing because as performers they are quite adept at pulling the heavy single-foot-stomp that we as listeners employ to keep time along with the drummer when the beats are deep and the bass is as responsible for that as the drums.

Like I said, the sunset was tempering into twilight. After writing all of these reviews up today it is becoming increasingly clear that I am obsessed with light. Seriously though, no matter where you’re reading this from, no matter what time of day, make a note to wait for the sunset. Download ‘National Anthem’ from Handwritten, press play, and tell me if the orange light filtering from the West isn’t made better by that song.

The Grove Festival: Phoenix

Phoenix started their set with the first track from their new album Bankrupt!, aptly titled Entertainment. By this time the park had completely filled up, and people were pressing aggressively towards the blue lights filtering off of the stage. I was behind a fence, stage right, watching the sea of neon wayfarers fist pump through the first few tracks. By all accounts the energy was there. Girlfriends were propped up on their boyfriend’s shoulders, there was a lot of looking back to see if the people behind you were seeing what you were seeing, as we do when we are watching spectacle. We had all gotten to the point where we were screaming for the volume to be cranked all the way up in order to have our faces pushed back as we pushed forward with our arms raised. Matrixes of lights crisscrossed in front of us; floating pictures and video were projected onto a screen behind the band; and eventually we all gasped at pyrotechnics.

Somewhere around the third or fourth track however, Phoenix lost my attention, and I settled into really wondering if this band was worth the production value their team had quite obviously put into their show. So I did a little research and discovered that lighting technicians/ ‘The Light Show’ costs somewhere between $150,000-$500,000 per concert. That’s incredible! Especially if you take into consideration how much the musicians are actually making. If the record company is the one promoting the event, then they get paid and the artist makes a percentage of the total tickets sales and from that manager fees, promoter fees, road crew, road crew beers, and all the bits and bobs of travel are also paid out. In fact the only direct way to pay the band is by buying their merch, which if you like the band is something that you should be doing every time.
I began to wonder what we as viewers are actually paying for: the music, or the show. Moreover, how have these terms become mutually exclusive!? Today, the relevance of these questions has become paramount when considering how music junkies can participate in helping the industry out of the red. Concerts themselves are becoming the last stand for listener appreciation. Music streaming, pirating, and a myriad of other ways to get your music for free is slowly killing the industry. As my friend Baz always says, businesses crumple under the pressure of these ‘million little paper cuts.’ Q Music Corp. has no other choice but to rely on concert goers for steady income, and so begs the question: What are we paying for?

This is not to say that Phoenix isn’t a band without merit, and that I didn’t enjoy feeling the swell of the music and the crowd. Phoenix IS popular for a reason. Somewhere during their set though, the lights took over and they seemed to be only a live soundtrack to the dancing blue beams, strobe lights, and eventually the fireworks. Bottom line, the lights outshined the band, and as a trend that’s a huge problem.

As the show began to power down, the lights went out, and we began to hear the tinkling organ keys of the title track, Bankrupt!. In those fleeting seconds of darkness and clean notes everything that I just said gelled in my brain and I understood how important clean music was to me. As the song transitioned, the lights flooded up, and we all broke into a comfortable sway, mesmerized by the lights and Thomas Mars’ cool vocals. When the song faded, so did the light, and so the day was over. When I walked out of the park ten minutes later, little yellow ringed black dots still plagued my vision.

The Lumineers at Edgefest 2013

Have you ever been to an outdoor festival that should have been rained out? Have you ever stood in a field with thousands of other sopping wet party-goers waiting for the last band of the day, thinking to yourself, ‘I’ve got this far. I can make it another hour’?
Last night Edgefest was nearly obliterated by the rain. Rivers of rain and cried tears pooled in the park’s crevices, wet teenagers who couldn’t feel anything anymore anyway huddled under tarp that they ripped down from the fencing, and I actually picked up empty garbage bags from the ground and wrapped them around my shoulders to try to shield myself from the monsoon. Covered in a massive sheet of plastic, I crouched down and tried not to think about how cold and tired I was, how much I was looking forward to a warm bath and as many fuzzy layers as I could get my hands on. Water came off of me in streams. It got to the point where I was weighing how much The Lumineers actually meant to me – what I was willing to put myself through in order to hear them live…

When the filler music died down, and the crowd began to rush the stage, I stood and wandered closer; shaking the plastic wrap and feeling the falling water soak my feet. Pink flood lights beamed out over us, illuminating the rain in the darkened sky. The band picked up their instruments and as soon as the first few notes were strummed I knew what they playing; CCR’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain.’ I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me. At no other time in my life has that song meant so much. Isn’t that the exact reason why we chase live music? To feel that perfect moment of calm amidst the chaos? To feel like the universe has purpose? How else could such a moment be designed?

Never in my life have I experienced such a concert moment; a song so perfectly chosen, one so soothing and so nostalgic, one that delivered such a sense of interconnectedness with not only the band, but the sky, and the day, and every decision that led up to the first words being sung. The Lumineers played that song for us, as a thank you for weathering the storm, and I looked onto them with new appreciation. Not only are they musicians with some great songs, they are a band who understands the magic of music.

Wampire – Curiosity album review

‘Curiosity’ is bass heavy electric infused rock. Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps, the duo manning the Wampire control center, use their debut EP to explore the nature of death and existence. You can hear them sort the themes out through their instruments; the bass line illustrates their happy-go-lucky attitude, the drums exemplify the chaotic nature of their reality, and their voices show their languid acquiescence to the aforementioned.

The track Outta Money is extremely well layered. It, as with most of the other tracks on the EP, has a haunting feel to it. The reprise in the background, with the soulful moaning up front, paired with the electronic element as well as the general tone of their music…this could easily be the second favourite song of Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill; second only to Q Lazzarus’ Goodbye Horses. Even the reverberating notes that draw the tune to a close do incredible work making one feel the omnipresence of whatever it is that Wampire attempting to articulate.

Moving on to Trains, a track that has a vintage resort feel to it; a small nod to The Black Keys and Buddy Holly wrapped into one amazing song. It works too ways. Firstly as an important break in the heavy content. This song, written about one of the most trivial aspects of day-to-day life, waiting for the train, is surprising refreshing set against the deeper themes. Secondly as an incredible lay-up to the final track on the album.

Magic Light is a must listen. Positioned expertly at the end, it is the conclusion to their exploration, their findings if you will; the answer to their beguiling questions. Everything Wampire think about life can be found in this song. “…on this merry-go-round, your feet never touch the ground, I’ll be in the park, meet me after dark….Come a little closer, let me gaze into your eyes, magic never felt so good.”

There is no shortage of great tracks on this EP. Wampire has an uncanny ability to mix genres in an awe-inspiring way. True, there is a hint of ridiculousness to their approach to music, as exemplified by their name, and their cover art; but do not let the sarcasm of their Glamour Shot dissuade you from believing that this band is genius. True artistry went into the making of this album. The opening track The Hearse has all the makings of true murk pop anthem. It may take a couple of go-throughs to get used to the whimsical way in which they approach the idea of death, their use of the iconic image of a hearse to illustrate the intersection of the morose and celebration is just one example of many in which Wampire pokes fun at the seriousness of dying. Punch lines or not, this band has an amazing sound.

Alpine – A is for Alpine album review

Alpine showcases their languid vibey feel in the first two tracks of this EP wonderfully. Lovers 1 and Lovers 2 blend seamlessly into one another and the combined voices of Phoebe Baker and Lou James create a dream-like world where listeners are free to float down a rainbow river and wave to the unicorns munching lazily at the water’s edge. The drum play on these tracks, especially the continuous ripple of the symbols on Lovers 1, feels like a fat rain drops landing on a placid lake, an aqua shiver that excites the soul.

However, the tracks grow increasingly more complex as the EP progresses, and the ephemeral nature of the vocals are sacrificed when the focus is placed on the layers of disco beats, drum synthesizers, and all other motifs synth-pop. The overall effect is a seemingly hodge-podge final product, a musical soup made of muddled themes, garnished with glitter. There are so many things happening at once mechanically on so many of these tracks that it’s difficult to attach your ear to any one element, any one motif, as so many of them are employed at once. Even the voices, which were lulling and emotionally evocative at first, become repetitive and eventually invoke paranoia.

The emotional response of the listener is not the only thing affected by the pared down lyrics, the overall narrative of the album suffers as it is difficult to teach a lesson using a Socratic method when the conversation never progresses, and at the end of the day, the point of creating complexity through the synth layers feels misguided or even completely lost.

Having said that, there is a commonly agreed upon notion that a person needs to hear something seven times in order for them to remember it. Maybe that was Alpine’s plan all along. If that is the case, there is something to be said about their ability to choose two statements per track to express who they are as individuals. Who needs a biography when you can boil down who you are into two concise statements? Take the track Gasoline, saying over and over again, ‘I wish it wasn’t just the night time,’ after ‘There’s gasoline in my heart.’ Hard to debate the point when there is so little to the argument.

At first glance this album sorely lacks depth, but I found myself pondering the possibility that this could be the intended design, and that there was something to choosing simplicity of text over long-winded diatribes about the nature of good and evil, or for that matter the storytelling structure that folk employs. ‘A is for Alpine’ is an acid trip narrated by fairy voices on a loop; the instrumental elements deliver a journey into the ether, and the colloquial lyrical structure offers a simple perspective, an ethos declared via mantras. This debut album merits a listen, even if it is only to see what you can remember after listening to it.

NXNE Day 3: The National, Yonge Street and Dundas Square – Toronto

No Toronto festival is complete without an appearance at Yonge and Dundas Square. NXNE is one of the few festivals who makes good use of the square, scheduling a number of performances each day. The square has water fountains whose pools exist under the square, fountains that burst water into the air at intervals, and usually a grouping of tables and chairs. Most of time, when bands play here people gather and are able to spread out, maybe even sit down. However, when bands like The National play the entire city shows up, including everyone who has never even heard the music; it becomes spectacle, and everyone there becomes a willing participant.

“It’s so nice to perform in an intimate space without distractions,” says Berninger. “How are you Toronto?!” Then follows the whooping of umpteen million people. The homeless guy standing beside me smiles wide, a three year old girl on her father’s shoulders fist pumps, and seven miniature dogs of various varieties yip from their owners’ elbows. Like I said, the entire city is there.

The problem with Yonge and Dundas Square, in my opinion, is that it’s a terrible place to see music. You don’t really see anything unless you show up seven hours early or have binoculars. You stand in a sea of heads and look up to nothing except the billboards, all of that aggressive advertising breathing in your face. And because there’s so much concrete and human, the acoustics sound like muddled echoes. For a band like The National, this venue destroys their sound. All of tricky changes, all the musical genius that makes them so incredibly unique is lost and all we’re left with is a lot of bass and a lot of moaning. But that’s really not the point. Music at YDS is about the venue. The bands strive to headline just for the sheer size of it and people congregate there because that’s what you do as a citizen with an hour to spare.

Put simply, YDS is an amazing place to see people, not music. Being there means more than just being able to soak in the chords and the lyrics, it means participating in a musical journey with a horde of strangers. Free concerts in the middle of any city are so much more than the fans it attracts. It is a musical gift to the city that is offered to everyone, and everyone should take advantage of such a thing.

Little Boots – Nocturnes album review

Nocturnes, is Little Boots’ second studio album, released years after her moderately successful debut album, released in the midst of a burgeoning 90’s synth revival in Britain, and released among several other studio albums paying tribute to the aforementioned movement, each featuring female vocalists working the hardware themselves. MNDR and Amanda Warner come to mind, Robyn (who actually had a career in the 90’s,) and Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell. She’s swimming in congested waters to say the least.

Is this album groundbreaking? No, it feels like more of the same. But it doesn’t need to be earth shattering when music like this is predominately anthems for a tranced-out horde or by patios that serve $14 Mojitos. The pulsing tracks on this EP are doing their work; sending the body into a lull, the body begging the mind to create its own light spectacle within if there are no club lights to get the rush from.

Long live the studio album with a complete narrative, albums with an arc so wide and grandiose that to NOT listen to it in its entirety would be sacrilegious, albums that offer an accomplished musical journey… But we don’t need this from synth-pop, or maybe we don’t expect it. All a good synth-pop album needs to be worth the tube to the record store, or more accurately, worth the click of a mouse, is a few thudding squeal-inducing-fist-pumping dance tracks to get us out of our chairs, and enough content to hold the anthems up as we anxiously await their turn.

Nocturnes accomplishes this. There are some heavy hitters backing up Little Boots’ musical whimsy; DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy produces; Hercules and Love Affair’s Andy Butler, Bomb the Bass’ Pascal Gabriel, Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford all wrote for the album. Right out the gate we’re hit with the incredibly vibey ‘Motorway’ which feels like an electronic carpet ride through the galaxy level of Super Mario Kart. ‘Satellite’ is another track to crank; pure glitter energy, and listeners will be huge fans of the irony in lyrics like, “when I get to high, when I get to high, you’re calling, you’re calling, you’re calling, get back to earth.” It is highly probable that James Ford’s ‘Shake’ will dominate the summer’s club scene. The layered beats on this track are outstanding, and her vocals would seduce even the walliest of flowers onto the dance floor.

As a sophomore effort, I think this album shows artistic growth. Nocturnes is a pared down version of her first album Hands, yet it is able to suggest a nouveau complexity that she attributes to time spent DJing in the last few years; time spent developing her sound and identifying her own limits to push. It was time well spent. The newest additions to her catalogue display the audio trickery of an apprentice enchantress, and each are emblematic of a budding artist within.