I began my final day of Pop Montreal by shooting over to the tiny Jupiter Room to see Oxford Collapse. From some positive press I’ve seen, I had a vague understanding that they’re a dance-rock act but that’s all I knew.
The Jupiter Room doesn’t offer much in terms of space. The stage is quite large but the floor in front is tiny with a bar and a raised sitting area taking up the bulk of the room. Oxford Collapse decided to play on the floor without the aid of monitors. This gimmick works best for bands that have a truly incendiary show or whose volume is so overwhelming that a proper sound mix isn’t necessary. Oxford Collapse are neither of those things. Vaguely dance-y, sorta math-y, Oxford Collapse play indie rock of a more banal kind. There must be a hundred of these bands in college towns across America. The lack of monitors showed as the band fell out of time and didn’t notice that they were grossly out of tune.
After that fairly uninspired set, I made my way up St. Laurent to the Academy Club for the one of the most hotly anticipated sets of the entire festival. Hometown heroes and ex-members of the Unicorns were headlining their first official hometown gig as Islands. Aside from a few surprise warm-up gigs and a spot opening for Beck earlier in the week, this was the first time the new band was out in a club setting. The hype was palpable. By the time I arrived all spots for pass holders had been filled. I forked over $10, and walked into the nearly empty club, wondering if the pass quota had just been greatly reduced.
Kicking things off was Vegas-style sideshow act Alan Astor. Coming out in a giant robe, white pants, and a bone necklace, the bearded performer looked more like a cult leader than a performer. Singing to pre-programmed backing tracks, Astor belted of pop tunes with inane lyrics. Imagine if Andrew WK covered Neil Diamond songs and you might get an idea of what I’m talking about. His enthusiastic performance was lost on the crowd, who sat on the floor of the club watching him with detached bemusement. Alan Astor has a long to way to go.
Holy Fuck were next and they tore the roof off the place. Easily the best act of the night and, if they can find a way to make their name a bit more palatable they will be huge. With two tables worth of garbage, salvaged electronics, and toys backed by a live drummer and bassist, Holy Fuck created an unholy, danceable racket. Like some kind of unholy alliance between Wolf Eyes and LCD Soundsystem, Holy Fuck are astonishing. Loud—really loud—unhinged, and catchy, Holy Fuck just may be the ones to finally bring headbanging to the dancefloor.
By this point of the evening, the temperature in the club (which had no air conditioning and no ventilation as far as I could see) was rising to truly inhuman levels. Pop Montreal staffers were no longer letting people in and out of the club. I later read accounts of people at the show going to the bathroom, opening the windows and sticking their head out for some fresh air.
Anyhow, with the discomfort level rising, Los Angeles indie rapper Subtitle hit the stage. With beats provided by his iBook, he ripped through a set of truly forgettable hip-hop tunes. His rhymes were decent, and his flow was tight, but the songs were just, well, forgettable. He is refreshing in that his ego is kept in check—his lyrics are (thankfully) not of the blings and hos variety—but that also comes at the cost of a personality. Subtitle has skill, but needs to take things to the next level.
Finally, it was time for the debut of Islands. What crowd was left at two in the morning crammed to the front of the stage. Now, it should be mentioned that the Academy Club was once a dance studio. The stage, such as it is, is only raised a half-foot from the ground. So unless you were in the first few rows, the view was obscured almost entirely. I figured it was two in the morning, and it was my last show, so I toughed it out towards the front.
Islands clambered on stage, dressed in white. With eight people this made for quite a sight. The live incarnation of the band is a supergroup of sorts with Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse, Wooden Stars) and Jim Guthrie lending support on lap steel, percussion, guitar, and vocals. Additionally, Islands was augmented with a duo on violin. It promised to sound spectacular. Too bad the soundman had no idea what he was doing. After the relatively easy jobs of watching over the sound for Alan Astor and Subtitle, and the sheer volume of Holy Fuck, he just wasn’t prepared for Islands.
As evidenced by their contribution to the Pop Montreal sampler, Islands’ pop sound relies on a myriad of subtleties. Unfortunately almost nothing could be heard. As the band played, the keyboards and vocals projected well, while the backing instrumentation, particularly the strings (not helped by the fact one violinist didn’t even bother playing near a microphone) and the vocals were lost in a mix that was muddy at best.
Islands, who were having a grand old time in front of the hometown crowd, invited Subtitle to join them on a track, triumphantly playing through their set. A huge refrigerator-sized box at the back of the room filled with Islands t-shirts shows that they are ready for the popularity that inevitably awaits them. But it would do them well to figure out their live sound before they set out to conquer the world.
I wish I could comment more on their music, but to be honest, Islands, and their audience, deserved better than what they got.