Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Sappyfest XI Coverage

August 3rd, 2016 | Features | 0 Comments

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Sappyfest XI was my second Sappyfest and it was great. The lineup was not quite as good as the lineup in 2014 (which featured Constantines, Cousins, a Shotgun and Jaybird reunion, and Dusted, among other great acts), but it was still absolutely wonderful.

For those reading about the festival for the first time, Sappyfest is a three day festival held every summer in the wonderful little college town of Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, featuring various up-and-coming, as well as long-beloved bands from across Canada. Festival goers camp out around town, chill, meet new people, shop, grab coffee, explore the area, check out sets. Everyone’s really nice and well-behaved. There’s no hard drugs (or even much soft); good vibes abound. The whole thing is pretty utopian.

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In the positive spirit of the festival, I’m not going to write about any of the bands I didn’t like. There were no bands I actively disliked, but there were a couple that just didn’t really interest me much. But who wants to read about bands they shouldn’t like? Nobody. So let’s talk about the bands that were great, and that you should check out.

DAY I

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Due to a flat tire and other issues encountered on the drive up to Sackville from Brooklyn, I didn’t get to the festival until like 9 or 10pm. The first set I saw was Halifax/Toronto power-pop supergroup Tuns‘. It was pretty cool. As one might expect from a band consisting of former members Sloan, Super Friendz and The Inbreds, the songs were extremely well-composed, and the performance was legit.

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Canadian East-coast folk-punks Horses played the first late set in the bowling alley under Thunder and Lightning bar. I’d never heard the band before, but I really liked them. The played an appropriately raucous set.

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East-coast indie-rock legend Shotgun Jimmie closed the first night. A former Sackville resident himself, Jimmie’s set was effortlessly great, and easily the standout of the festival’s first night.  He played most of the set solo, banging out a beat with his feet on some floor drums while playing guitar and singing.

The song selection drew on an abundant number of quasi-classics from his stellar discography. At one point he stopped playing guitar in the middle of “King of Kreuzberg” and sang both the lyrics and instrumental melodies of one song along with the audience before kicking everything back in. At another, he called Jon Mckiel (another great East-coast indie rocker in his own right) up to play drums while he sang Guided By Voices‘ “Game of Pricks” a cappella. He also played this song (it went over very well).

After the set I went to sleep.

DAY II

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The next day I spent most of the morning at the zine & craft fair.

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I managed to catch the last song of Hamilton, Ontario’s ornate Cosmos Quartette. It was pretty impressive. A lot of people seemed blown away by them (I think Shotgun Jimmie, the night before, even said “they’ll change your life” or something).

Toronto folkies Luka went on next. It wasn’t bad. My girlfriend said they were her favourite band of the festival.

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Guelph’s wonderful Kazoo! Fest had a little showcase in the bar Duffy’s. Guelph experimental two-piece Badminton Racquet played and were one of my favourite discoveries at the festival. Guitarist Kyle Coveny used a wide array of pedals to get a really warped guitar sound, banging out metal power chords and sneaky riffs over drummer Nathan Campagnaro‘s avant beats. Their $2 cassette EP was an easy sell. They were followed by Cupcake Ducktape, but I missed their set to see The Wooden Stars.

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Formed in 1994 in Ottawa, The Wooden Stars were a great 90s Canadian indie rock band. They’ve reunited for a bunch of shows since more or less disbanding after 1999’s classic Julie Doiron and The Wooden Stars album (more on that later). In 2008 they even released another album called People Are Different (admittedly, not my favourite Wooden Stars album). As great as The Wooden Stars are, both as songwriters and musicians, the set was kind of low-key, and maybe didn’t feature the best song selection.

I went to sleep soon after their set, since I hadn’t slept well for two nights and was exhausted at this point.

DAY III

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Jay Arner opened up the MainStage show on the third day of the festival. The Vancouver synth-pop artist was another one of my favourite new discoveries of the festival, and even though he played an early set, it was nonetheless excellent. If he hadn’t run off so quickly with his merch, there’s a good chance I would’ve grabbed a cassette of his recently released Jay II.

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Montreal sample-gazers Phedre also played a nice afternoon set. I’ve been a fan of the band for a long time. The chill, afternoon outdoor setting worked well for their kind of gooey experimental pop.

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Moncton’s French-language Les Hotesses d’Hilaire rode into town in a distinctively-painted tour bus that let everyone know the band was a big deal. Thankfully they lived up to expectations. Their songs may not have been Radiohead-y masterpieces of creativity and composition, but all that really mattered was that the band hold down the fort behind boisterous frontman Serge Brideau, who stomped around the stage sing-shouting ridonc jokes about French-Canadian politics (“I’ll French you on the English!”) in his thick French-Canadian accent. Being from Toronto and not speaking French, I probably didn’t get half (or even 10%) of the jokes. But the man’s boundless charisma needed no translation to make for an incredibly entertaining stage show.

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Julie Doiron‘s performance with The Wooden Stars some 17 years after the release of their album together was debatably the centrepiece set of the festival. As guitarist Mike Feuerstack predicted the reviews would note, the set was plagued by all kinds of technical issues, from the band not having enough beers (that’s a joke…kind of…), to a broken guitar string, to a replacement guitar that didn’t work, to monitor levels taking a while to get to where the band wanted them to be. Even with all the issues, the set was the best of the festival. The ensemble performed the album’s meticulous arrangements with the skill and grace of seasoned veteran musicians. Which, of course, they are. Even some of the album’s less memorable songs became masterpieces onstage.

The set was also notable for its non-musical qualities. The band’s (especially Feuerstack’s) hilarious stage banter kept everyone entertained while Shotgun Jimmie changed guitarist Julien Beillard‘s string backstage. At one point, in the midst of technical difficulties, Feuerstack said “oh god, I can see the Exclaim! review now…” He also asked the crowd how many people’s nipples were getting scratched by the festival wristband while they were in the shower. A lot of hands went up. Apparently this is a common problem.

It was also amazing how many people were there with small children. Kids were present throughout the festival, running around the maze of legs, wearing big, hearing-protection headphones. But it seemed this was the set their parents were all waiting to see. It was the set that brought young and old together. There was even a funkily-dressed old lady standing on a chair. After the set, I saw her walk off with a Julie Doiron & The Wooden Stars vinyl.

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The last set I saw was Halifax slack-rockers Nap Eyes. I wanted to watch their set while drinking my last Canadian beer (so much better than American beer) of the trip at Thunder and Lightning. That’s why the pic above is an over-the-fence shot. I could hear the band just fine, and they sounded great. Three days of driving, sleeping in tents, bathing in rivers, watching sets and exploring Sackville had left me exhausted. The band’s lazy-day serenades served as a beautiful and fitting coda to the whole Sappy experience.

I went to my tent to get an early night in. I had to wake up early the next day to get a good start on the 12-hour drive home. I could still hear Sackville super-crew Weird Lines. Good night, sweet Sappy…good night…

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Obscurity Points // Magical Power Mako

June 22nd, 2016 | Features | 0 Comments

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Magical Power Mako was a dude named Makoto Kurito who started recording and releasing some really cool, weird Japanese psychedelic rock in the early 70s. I stumbled onto his best known work today, the 1975 album Super Record, and was totally enthralled. While there’s a lot of cool Japanese psych stuff from the 60s and 70s onward, what set Mako’s stuff on Super Record apart for me was that, like his early 70s home recordings that were later released as the HAPMONIYM box set in 2002, Super Record feels like a cool collage of weird, stylistically all-over-the-place music. It doesn’t feel like an album that was made to sell or impress anyone – it feels homey, intimate and diy. It’s also fairly mystical outsider music, and reminds me in that sense of Joachim Skogsberg‘s Jola Rota, which has a similar sensibility.

Since I just found Mako today, I haven’t had the chance to check out his other albums – which appear to be a bit less streaming-friendly – but hopefully I’ll get to them soon.

Obscurity Points // Trad, Gras & Stenar

April 27th, 2016 | Features | 0 Comments

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Admittedly, this blog is quickly becoming exclusively about curious stuff I see at Academy Records in Greenpoint. Trad, Gras & Stenar (Trees, Grass & Stone) is no exception. I saw the anthology for their 70s live albums Djungelns Lag and Mors Mors on the shelf and thought “that looks interesting…” And here we are.

Trad, Gras & Stenar are a Swedish progg rock band from the late 60s/early 70s. They were known for their live show, which had a lot of interesting audience participation stuff. That’s pretty irrelevant for us now listening to their recordings, but luckily they were also known for solid jams, and those you can hear on the recordings (which are also on Spotify). If you’ve ever listened to Dungen (or more likely their semi-copycats Tame Impala), this is one of the bands those guys are imitating. It’s earthy, mysterious, a bit mystical – real old school psychedelia.

The musicians in TGS were ‘men about town’ and played in a bunch of other respected Swedish bands from the period, including Parson Sound and (International) Harvester. As I’m quickly learning, the Swedish underground prog and psych scenes from the period were really something special, so those are all names worth checking out. And if you’ve got any recommendations of underground Swedish psychedelic bands from the 60s/70s that I should look into, let me know in the comments.

Top 10 Albums of 2015: #5-1

December 25th, 2015 | Features | 0 Comments

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5. Mount Eerie – Sauna

I used to think that Phil Elvrum had some ‘meh’ albums. Actually, almost all his albums are incredible, mystical and entrancing. Sauna is as well.

Pitchfork noted that Sauna feels like it completes a trilogy with Clear Moon and Ocean Roar. But I’d say that if anything, those albums were two sides of one coin. Sauna is an entirely new coin, made in the same line. It feels more encapsulated, whole, than the aforementioned albums. Elvrum’s trademark innovatively homespun production is, as always, magnificent in its earthiness.

4. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

Fading Frontier would be Deerhunter‘s sellout album except that it is not in any way. The band’s writing is perhaps stronger than ever, and though the songs are a bit cleaner, less punk and/or shoegaze than on previous albums, that actually ends up making them sound more classically Deerhunter than anything else. Six (or seven, if you count Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. as two) great albums in and Deerhunter sound like they’re just hitting their stride.

3. Fred Thomas – All Are Saved

All Are Saved is a minor masterpiece. It’s not minor because it’s not good enough to be a full-on masterpiece, but minor because its a small, intimate album. Its a report from the frontline of indie rock. A ‘caution’ label for those ready to sign their souls away for a maybe-maybe-not satisfying career as a somewhat appreciated indie rocker, forever destined to remain the critics darling and the rest of the world’s “who?”

The fact that nobody really cared about any of the other (seven) albums Thomas put out before this one only makes All Are Saved that much more special. Like he was the dude sitting on the couch playing guitar at a party while nobody listened or paid attention. Knowing all the while that he was onto something good, and eventually, even if it took years and years, some peeps would figure it out. All Are Saved is the album where some of us figured it out.

2. Viet Cong – Viet Cong

2015 was a rough year for anyone on the wrong side of political correctness. If you’ve been living in a cave since December 2014, just watch the last season of South Park and you’ll get a bit of the idea. But what if you just wanted an edgy band name to match the sound of your edgy music?

I’ll admit the name was insensitive – I don’t agree that it’s racist. But it would be a lot easier for me to get on the castigation bandwagon if the band did not make such a phenomenal album that, by a band with any other name, would sound just as astounding. It’s even better on vinyl, where you can pick apart the layers of noise creating a sediment-like soundscape through which spacey synths and harmonic guitars shine like flashlights in a dark cavern.

And really, the album itself has its priorities in order. It stares (without blinking) at how chaotic our ‘organized’ societies are when one dares lift the seal. I also liked hearing a couple guys from Calgary sing the line “fingertips in the fountain fondle liquid gold”.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Carrie & Lowell, as an album, was such a revelation that it made everyone like Age of Adz and Illinois – perhaps two of the greatest albums of the last ten years – a little bit less. At the time of their release, the aforementioned albums’ elaborate arrangements and compositional backflips made “Sufjan is a genius!” more or less a statement of fact rather than exultation. But by comparison with Carrie & Lowell, both seem overproduced and disingenuous. Carrie & Lowell feels so effortlessly beautiful. So honest in its minimalism. Why would anyone want to hear Sufjan play anything other than an acoustic guitar and quiet synth in his DUMBO apartment?

I’m not sure how Sufjan can top this one. But people probably said the same thing about Illinois.

Top 10 Albums of 2015: #10-6

December 24th, 2015 | Features | 1 Comment

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2015. It was ok year. Not the greatest, not the worst. I’d say that applies both to my life personally, and the albums that came out. Here were some I liked in order.

10. Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire

If I had to say why I liked this album in comparison with other Lightning Bolt albums, I would have to take some more time to diferentiate them. As it stands, this was definitely an album I listened to and liked a lot this year, my first as a resident of Brooklyn. Lightning Bolt, even though they’ve moved back to Rhode Island, are so emblematic of Brooklyn. Like, the good Brooklyn, the cool Brooklyn – basically Bushwick, or Williamsburg ten years ago. It’s scrappy, minimal, badass, tattooed, noisy, young, experimental, ferocious. Don’t ever change, LB. At least not too much.

9. Bjork – Vulnicura

Vulnicura is relatively low on my list because I always kind of lost interest as the album went along. But even so, I can’t deny that this contains a wealth of gorgeous and astoundingly honest music. Definitely one of my favourite Bjork albums. The orchestration is incredible, and Bjork‘s vocal performances throughout thoroughly moving.

8. Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket

Sometimes a great band is rewarded by a lack of success. Whereas mediocre bands may blow up briefly, then spend the rest of their careers trying to live up to the moment in time they’re forever associated with, a great band that exists in relative obscurity, but with a dedicated fanbase, can keep pushing itself and developing over time, untethered to a particular time or sound.

I saw Frog Eyes at the too-cool-for-school venue Babys All Right in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago. It was amazing how honest and real Frog Eyes seemed compared to so many of the other ‘so hot right now’ hipster bands I’ve seen play the same stage in the last year or so that I’ve been living in NYC. I think maybe it had to do with the fact that Frog Eyes was older than most bands that play there. They’re at the age when people have a family and a mortgage and stop caring about looking cool. It was just refreshing.

I always felt like Frog Eyes could (in some alternate universe with more critical discernment) have blown up a couple years ago, but didn’t and have been kind of persisting in that void of disappointment ever since. Listen to how much slower, and less energetic their albums have become – though ultimately I believe that’s been for the better. They’ve made the best albums of their career in that void, including Paul’s Tomb, Carey’s Cold Spring, and this year’s Pickpocket’s Locket. Putting dollars and cents aside, maybe the lack of great, big success for this great, little band has been better for everyone in the long run.

7. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

Another wonderful Julia Holter album of striking composition and impeccable arrangements.

6. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year With 13 Moons

An album that caught me with its cool title and kept with me its deep swirls of beautiful sound. I spent a lot of hours listening to it while studying.

Check back tomorrow for #5-1!