"Do you think a French speaking band would ever make it in America?"
It’s a question posed to me by two girls working for a radio station called CHOQ. With no time to think and a microphone stuck under my nose I utter something asinine along the lines of: “Sure, if you have good songs with good melodies and good hooks, then language shouldn’t matter.” Yet we all know—according to American album sales at least—that language does matter. On Saturday evening, though, sandwiched between the funny-for-a-minute comedian Jon Lajoie, and the pulsating dance-punk of We Are Wolves, Karkwa, proved that perhaps language, when used as an instrument instead of a story-telling device, really doesn’t matter.
Straddling the middle ground between Sigur Ros and Radiohead, Karkwa proved that words could still affect meaning even if you don’t understand what’s being said. In essence, Radiohead are, for all intents and purposes, a foreign language band. Thom Yorke’s enunciation often takes literal meaning out of what he is singing, but in return it pours additional meaning onto the songs through sheer emotion. Karkwa never come close to topping Radiohead or Sigur Ros, but if one band were to break through the language barrier, and provide Canada’s French-speaking provinces with an internationally recognized act, it might just be this four-piece.
With their mix of traditional Francophone pop, krautrock rhythms, and Stereolab-style synth drones, Pas Chic Chic provided an intelligent approach to mood music that could also feasibly cross over into non-French speaking territories. Basked in a red glow and fronted by former Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Roger Tellier-Craig, the five-piece droned and dallied through a dark set of early ‘80s synth sounds that called to mind Serge Gainsbourg fronting Cabaret Voltaire. Accented by female backing vocals, the odd new romantic riff, and some chugging Velvet Underground rhythms, it was easy to get lost in their swirling mass of sound and forget that they were singing in French altogether.
Many of the other French-speaking acts didn’t fare so well. The festival kicked-off, or should I say faced-off, with Quebec’s Les Dales Hawerchuk, a four-piece band named after a famous hockey player I’ve never heard of. Their brand of rudimentary rock, propelled along by some strong bass playing and chugging power chords, was passionate but pedantic. Sitting somewhere between an angst-less Rage Against the Machine, and the Offspring, the only word of their set that I understood appeared during the last song, with a chorus that stated: “L’Attention.” Unfortunately, they aren’t able to hold mine.
Despite the MC asking that we “please cheer up for Chinatown” we aren’t sad until they actually started playing. Unlike the movie of the same name, there was nothing mysterious about Chinatown, the band. Their brand of rock and pop lacked dynamics and they felt flat. I don’t think it helped that they were the first band of the second night’s showcase, but even the $15 they offered fans to move up front didn’t elicit many takers. They have big anthemic keys and, on occasion, a Beatles-esque bounce, but there was no delineation in their sound. They did, however, put on a good show. That is, of course, if your idea of a good show is the use of guitars as extensions of hidden appendages.
By far the strangest act I see also happens to be one of Quebec’s biggest stars. Pierre Lapointe, a 27-year-old crooner, headlined the closing night at Metropolis with a mix of chanson-style singer-songwriter solemnity and cabaret-infused rock. When sat at his piano, he was reminiscent of Rufus Wainright and perhaps a smidgen of Serge Gainsbourg. But when he stepped away from his stool and danced around the stage with theatrical, over the top gestures, it was all a little, well, laughable. The crowd certainly seemed to be into it, and apparently his esoteric lyrics have a lot to do with this, but for those not in the know, Lapointe’s set ended the festival on a very bemused note.
Now, I don’t want to draw a xenophobic line in the sand and state that the French-speaking acts were “worse” than the English-speaking acts, because that wasn’t the case. Some of my favorite performers—Couer de Pirate, Karkwa, and Pas Chic Chic—all utilized the French language. Indeed, the worst acts of the festival, to my ears anyway, were the Anglophones.
Colin Munroe opened up Les Foufounes Électrique’s Saturday afternoon showcase and while his simultaneous singing/standing/drumming approach to playing was impressive, his songs were not. Famous for his cover/interpretation/remix of Kanye West’s “I Want Those Flashing Lights”, Munroe—backed only by an additional guitarist—multi-tasked his way through a set of perfunctory pop that I imagine would be popular with high school girls and trips to the mall. Unfortunately, I am not a high school girl and I hate the mall.
Utilizing four-piece harmonies and falsetto-tinged vocals, Sweet Thing announced their Thursday night appearance in style, propositioning themselves as a Canadian Fleet Foxes. Unfortunately, the first Toronto-based band of the festival to take the stage immediately collapsed into a mix of driving drums and funky guitar that sounded like a tumultuous Killers playing ‘70s AM rock. Despite a skyscraping quality that stretched their songs to their musical limits—especially singer Owen Carrier’s vocal gymnastics—their stylized set ultimately came up short.
To be honest, I didn’t hear much of Lioness. Sure, I was there, but the trio’s take on the Gossip’s stark, soul-inflected sound left me concentrating more on the conversations that were happing around me than the actual music. Every time I did return my attention to the stage, each song sounded far too similar for the band to make an impact despite singer Vanessa Fischer’s strong stage presence and vocal style.
As a fan of the Oscar winning soundtrack to the zany animated French-language film, The Triplets of Belleville, I was expecting a lot from Beast. The band’s singer, Beatrice Bonifassi, provided vocals for the soundtrack and—despite the band’s name, which conjured up images of Scandinavian heavy metal—I was expecting something similarly off the wall. Unfortunately the four-piece band, Bonifassi backed by drummer/producer Jean-Phi Goncalves, plus bass and guitar, played an uncomplimentary mix of Bristol trip-hop (Portishead / Tricky) and Rage Against the Machine-style riffing. It’s clear that Bonifassi has a great vocal range, and on record Beast is less blustery and better, but live they lost my interest pretty quickly.
Unlike Beast, I wasn’t expecting anything from David Martell, who took to the stage shoe-less and slippered with an acoustic guitar in hand at the M for Martini afternoon networking event. Behind him stood an all female backing band consisting of accordion, cello, and a lone backing singer. I feared the worst and while it wasn’t quite my thing – an overwrought singer-songwriter with orchestral touches—my lack of expectations worked in Martell’s favor as I found his acoustic strumming a fine companion for the first drink of the day, if not the second.
One English language band that could eventually become export-worthy, though, is the Arkells, whose brand of rudimentary bar rock grew on me with every song. The young looking five-piece produced a solid set of eager country rock songs, with the emphasis almost exclusively placed on the rock side of this musical coin. Taking their cues from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and his ilk, the Arkells played it straight, and would be just as happy, it seems, playing to a bunch of Hells Angels as they would playing to a bunch of hipsters.