Music

It Ain't Austin Yet, But North by Northeast 2012 Rocked

To paraphrase Guy Clark, it ain’t Austin yet, but it’s getting there. There were 800 bands. I saw about 30. Here's what I thought about nine of them.

Like its more famous Austin-based forebear, North by Northeast (NXNE) is a hell of a way to spend a few days if you’re a culture junkie with excess energy. NXNE brings some 800 bands and 40 films to Toronto (which is probably not, despite the old joke, the actual centre of the universe) for about seven days’ worth of general mayhem. It is (along with the Toronto International Film Festival and Pride) among the best festivals that this diverse and deeply artistic city has to offer.

Though by all accounts the daytime film program is getting stronger year after year, I’ll admit to having never taken advantage of it. (To be blunt, there’s just too much music to see and hear every night -- and all night, too, since bars are allowed to extend last call to a vampire-friendly 4:00 a.m. during the fest -- to spend my sleepy days running from screening to screening.) But anyway, it is at night when the festival really shines.

A wide and impressive cross-section of bands make the list year after year -- between hip-hop, dance, punk, pop, folk, country, experimental and plain old rock ’n’ roll, there is surely something for everyone on the voluminous schedule. And, boasting contributions from indie upstarts trying out their new sound to seasoned veterans on a comeback trail, the festival celebrates the new while paying great respect to long-established masters.

In short, it is a music-lover’s dream to wander these vibrant streets from show to show, taking in the good, the silly, the dreadful, and the absolutely transcendent.

To paraphrase Guy Clark, it ain’t Austin yet, but it’s getting there.

Well, now, it’s over; let the headaches, muscle cramps, and general malaise kick in. After spending the better part of a week running around Toronto chasing bands as they hammer out 45-minute sets, meeting up with old friends, drinking the inevitable multitude of $7 pints of beer and those bottomless carafes of joe, what do I have to show for it? And so now, in the hazy come-down from all of that amber ale and all of those caffeinated ups, let’s review.

I saw all or some of about 30 sets by as many bands over the course of four nights. Here is a roundup of the best (and worst) of these.

 

Tomboyfriend

This Toronto-based band plays calamitous, camp-heavy pop-rock in a way that demands (not just invites) comparisons with the mid-1970s New York post-Factory scene. Featuring dancing female back-up singers in pseudo-pirate costumes, a shirtless and sweaty frontman with a gloriously over-the-top vocal, shimmy, and sway, and offering the general impression of what happened when careful glammy art rock collided with gritty punk, this set simply floored the packed house at the Boat, a Kensington Market mainstay.

 
Gus & Scout

What happens when the son of Jann Wenner (of Rolling Stone fame) and the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis (of just general fame) get together and play in an indie rock band? Well, for starters, they draw attention from labels and the curious, despite the fact that they are not at all ready for this kind of attention. This set (at the semi-legendary El Mocambo club) was sloppy, somewhat awkwardly performed (especially from Scout: lots of fiddling with her necklace and hands in and then out and then in the pockets), and overall giving of an impression of too many people telling them that they are ready when they are simply not. No doubt they will be a good band one day with some woodshedding and some more careful attention to presentation. But, today is not that day.

 
Cousins

One of the best bands I saw at the festival, and among the most promising groups to emerge this year. A guitar/drums combo that rides an immense array of hooks and shiny melodies while pummeling the audience with fuzzy, pounding garage rockery, Cousins pulls the audience into their world almost immediately. With the ability to transfix one half of the crowd while compelling the other to shake it down, Cousins is perhaps the best rock act to come out of Halifax since Sloan.

 
Daniel Romano

The single most underrated musician working in Canada today. Daniel Romano is a country crooner of the early 1970s So-Cal school; people compare alt-country musicians to Gram Parsons so freely that it became a stupid cliché many decades ago, but in this case I will stand behind it. The sweetness of his voice, the raw openness of his lyrics, and the psychedelic rock ’n’ roll sensibilities he brings to his otherwise straight ahead country and western music all conspire to present a sound at once eminently familiar and thrillingly fresh. Standing there onstage at the Black Box in a tight suit (that looked suspiciously like it had been made of Alligator-skin) and ten-gallon hat, the look was all performative, all dress-up kitsch. But, once his guitar found the chords and his voice rose above them, we were all transported along with him to that same dusty frontier town from which he dreamed he had emerged.

 
Purity Ring

Playing to an absurdly packed and sweaty Wrong Bar, this Montreal-based electro-pop duo likely gave what many will be calling the show of the festival. Not me. It was fun dance music, and the room was buzzing with the kind of ecstasy- and coke-fueled vibe you’d expect to find at a 1 a.m. show by a dance outfit on a night when last call won’t come for three hours. But, to this mostly sober guy at the back, standing with another rock journalist who is herself usually a fan of the band, neither of us could find the musical draw here. There was a big beat, there was a great party atmosphere, but there wasn’t much “there” there. Still, you could say the same for my lame critique, so there’s that, too.

 
Jeremy Fisher

Hamilton-raised and now Ottawa-based folksinging troubadour Jeremy Fisher came onstage at the Dakota with a broad grin and great opening song, and proceeded to hold the audience in his palm for the entirety of his set. This is not in itself exceptional -- it’s what we expect from any good performer, really. But, what made this set to impressive was that it was kind of a mess. Fisher forgot lyrics on at least three occasions, bashfully apologizing to the audience every time. But then he also garbled the chords to a tune. And then, while trying a cover of a Jean LeLoup song, he blew that, too. And yet: somehow with every flub, with every unforced error, Fisher seemed to bring the audience even closer to him. They cheered. They gushed. The woman beside me actually kind of fake-swooned at one point, then tuned to me and laughed, all mock embarrassed, face aglow. Jesus, I thought, is this all part of the act? Fisher’s songwriting is strong, his dry husky voice warm and captivating (and evocative of Dan Bern at his most melodic), but it was his performance that was outstanding. What should have failed miserably was spun, with almost no apparent (but surely a great deal of practiced) effort, into a triumph.

 

Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

The Black Belles

This band, discovered and produced by Jack White and recently featured on the Colbert Report, is comprised of three women in matching black dresses, sporting black lipstick and, on the two guitarists, big black witch hats. They play heavy-metal-inflected garage rock. Basically, they sound sort of like the way the White Stripes did, and they way a million other Stripes-obsessed bands also sound, but they almost completely fail to distinguish themselves from those other pretenders. Playing to an amazingly crowded Horseshoe Tavern -- simultaneously Toronto’s best live music bar and hardest place to get a drink -- the Belles ran through 8 or 9 songs in about 25 minutes (just over half of their allotted time) and never managed to leave much of an impression. Cool look, but no substance. If I want to listen to the White Stripes, Jack, I’ll listen to the White Stripes. Not this pale (or is it merely powdered?) imitation. (Also: sometimes, not always but sometimes, songs should include a chorus. Or maybe a bridge. Just me?)

 
Andre Williams and the Sadies

It doesn’t get much better than the Sadies. Indeed, when you add it up, the Sadies are probably the single most consistent live act in Canadian music, and have been for nearly 15 years. Toronto’s alt-country good boys bring professionalism, showmanship, and verve to whatever they do. This collaboration with R&B also-ran Andre Williams is no exception; though deeply eccentric and somewhat uncomfortably riding a certain unconscious reverence for the authenticity of “the old wizened black man” that infects so many white roots musicians, there is no denying the fabulousness of this stage show. Williams’ bizarre songwriting, his chic pimp outfits and strutting stage presence -- at 76 years old the man still has more sex appeal than your average 26-year-old -- and his thrillingly gravel-road rasp of a voice make for a perfect foil to the clean, eclectic roots rock of his band. They made one of my favourite records of the year, so far, and gave one of the you-shoulda-been-there shows of the festival.

 
Reigning Sound

This was my greatest “new band” of the festival, and they’ve been around for over a decade. Just goes to show, no matter how many hundreds of records you hear every year, there’s always a hundred or so more that you’ve missed, that when you finally hear you can’t understand how it got by you. Canadian rock journalist Jenny Charlesworth sent me a note on Facebook suggesting I check these guys out, and I obeyed. (This, incidentally, is how you survive NXNE -- flurries of fb and Twitter messages traded back and forth with other, cleverer critics and music fanatics who will tell you where to be, what to see, what not to miss.) And, thanks to her tip, I saw my favourite show of the festival, and of the year so far. Asheville, North Carolina’s Reigning Sound make punk-inflected rock’n’roll with such grinning intensity, with such careful attention to melody, with such unflappable cohesion, with such compellingly memorable lyrics, that I was three songs deep before I took a breath. Somewhere in the sweet spot where the Replacements, The Faces, The Pixies, and Uncle Tupelo intersect, you’ll find the glorious Reigning Sound. Of all the bands I saw at NXNE, this was the one that found me at home after the show, ears ringing at 3 a.m., buying their records on iTunes. Reptile Style, indeed.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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