Canadian weekend

Gentleman Reg, Alex Lukashevsky, and Final Fantasy @ Tonic, 6/24
Jason Collett, Buck 65, and Feist @ Central Park SummerStage, 6/25
(w/ a brief reference to Sunset Rubdown and Frog Eyes @ Mercury Lounge, 5/22)

Critics and fans of the (now years-old news) Canadian indie rock renaissance sometimes draw a line between The Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. They want you to pick sides, to choose your collective. They organize lists of Canadian acts by placing them in one column or another (unless they’re as big as New Pornographers, who get their own category, but don’t seem to have as many bands coming up in their image). Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Bell Orchestre, Final Fantasy all line up under Arcade Fire, on the basis of professional affiliation and style alike — a shared flair for melodrama and snowbound angst. Stars, Apostle of Hustle, Feist, maybe even Caribou fall in the BSS column: jangle, clang, layers of overlapping melodies, electronics and horns rather than AF’s predominant string section.

The division is oversimplified, of course. What to do with someone like Destroyer, whose solo style defies his association with New Pornographers and would seem to align better with the AFs, if he didn’t seem to warrant status as a sort of elder statesman when he gets together with pals like Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown’s boy scout-faced Spencer Krug? Same goes for the unclassifiable Frog Eyes, whose frenetic set at Mercury Lounge last month took me by such force and by such surprise that I still haven’t fully processed it. Sure Spencer played along with the set, and sure they’ve both collaborated with Destroyer, but Frog Eyes’s Carey Mercer — who sings with his frog eyes shut and plays guitar with his tongue sticking out — has a level of intensity that deserves a category all his own.

frog eyes

Is it a Montreal vs Toronto thing? Not entirely, as the collaborations and crosspollinations reach across province lines and city limits. (The NPs, too, hail from Vancouver.) Is it gay versus straight? Perhaps metaphorically, if not in every case literally: the AF line does have a lot of fabulous queer artists (though the links more often than not run through the proud-and-out Hidden Cameras rather than AF themselves), and Lord knows half of BSS’s stage appeal is the sexual tension between Kevin Drew and his sexy co-stars, but I don’t think sexuality is the final word. Age? The BSS side probably has a higher average age; their song “Alive in ’85” has always suggested itself to me as a reminder that most of the band — Drew may be an exception — probably was born between ’65 and ’70 and grew up with New Order in the cassette deck. Given that so many of the AF affiliates seem to have been born in the ’80s, the age thing may be worth considering, but Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who has numerous ties to the AF side, is almost my age. (He was born in 1972.)

Whatever the basis for the Great Canadian Divide — if there really is one — this weekend witnessed a heavy dose of both camps in NYC. As Gentleman Reg put it during between-song banter, opening for Final Fantasy the other night at Tonic, it’s as if the whole country had taken pity on Americans in our dark hour and sent delegates down, with sunshine halos, to redeem us. Or something like that.

If pushed to pick between the frequently listed Top Two, I’ve always been on the BSS side. The Arcade Fire’s Funeral was a great album, but the angst (and the ELO tempo change ripoffs) can be a bit much — though I confess the songs worked their way into my bloodstream over the course of 2005. I feel the same way about Krug’s projects, Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, which occasionally feel like the emo kids have gone to art school. Me, I’m a sucker for BSS’s bigness — the dozen folks flanking the stage, the smiles, the strutting, the occasional costume changes, even the gratuitous tambourines. I’m a sucker for Emily Haines and Leslie Feist and rowdy trombones and raunchy lyrics. I think Kevin Drew’s “Sexiest Berenstein Bear Alive” schtick and occasional nasal whine actually puts him closer to the AF/Wolf Parade camp than critics generally admit, but he has the rest of the band to keep his head out of the clouds. I know I wouldn’t like him as a solo performer.

At Tonic on Saturday night, though, the boys from the other side of the divide just about made me want to swear off the collectives altogether. What Gentleman Reg and Final Fantasy — both of whom have ties to Hidden Cameras, though Final Fantasy, aka Owen Pallett, is best known for his string arrangements on AF’s Funeral — had in common with the ragged, bitter old troubador Alex Lukashevsky wasn’t sexual energy or boyish charm, but a penchant for wordplay. All three acts were lyrical delights. I may have heard him wrong, but I think Reg altered the lyrics to his early single “It’s Not Safe” (To be Naked, Young, or Creative Anymore) to “It’s not illegal …” Anyone who’s listened to Hidden Cameras knows the verbal fun each song can pack. Lukashevsky, whose music I’ve been trying to track down for some time, without a lot of luck, delivered punchlines as much as verses and choruses. (My favorite line of his came from a song called “Sarcastic Blues”: “You were as pretty as a middle sister could be.”) Lukashevsky, who performed in a stretched out thriftstore kelly green Polo shirt with an army green jacket, looked downright weatherbeaten compared to the other acts. More than AF or BSS he reminds you of other Canadian antecedents, namely Leonard Cohen. “Most of my songs are about couples. Occasionally threesomes,” he deadpanned. His guitar playing and his lyrical delivery alike constituted what Dave, who saw the show with me, called “his own unique idiom” — drunken, staggering, sleeping on the floor (because he can’t sleep where pity has been). Dave bought the CD, and one or the other of us will review it eventually.

The star of the evening, though, without a doubt was Owen Pallett as Final Fantasy. Fey, winsome, boyish, coy: these words don’t begin to let you into the world he’s created in two solo albums, the most recent of which, He Poos Clouds, I reviewed here a while back. He wasn’t dressed like Peter Pan, but he could have been without stepping out of character. (One memorable moment came when he tucked his violin bow down the back of his shirt to launch into a pizzicatto interlude: it stuck up over his head like an arrow in a quiver.) Owen began his set by shouting into the f-hole of his violin, recording himself, and looping the sound as a bass backdrop. On the album he’s backed with a string quartet; live he plays all the lines himself, stepping on pedals to record and replay loop after loop, part after part. There’s no doubt he bears similarities vocally to other blood vessel-popping popsters like Spencer Krug, whose songs seem simultaneously painful to perform and catharctic, but Pallett is playing on a different level than most of his peers. Classically trained as an opera composer, Pallett writes songs that could sustain treatment by a stage full of singers. When I think of “chorus” in relation to what he writes, I imagine a Greek chorus, though one that’s been possessed by demons or demonic suburban parents, and it’s to his credit as a performer that even as a one-man act, he can make you forget that he’s responsible for every sound you’re hearing and each individual voice you imagine combining to produce songs that feel more like scenes.

Final Fantasy

One humorous aside: I was reminded of Trixie’s account of Radiohead’s recent Philly show by a rather voluptuous young woman — maybe she was German? — who rushed to the front of the room when the Final Fantasy set started. Up against the stage, she swayed, raised her hands, clapped, snapped her fingers, sang along: all as if she were at a Van Halen show rather than a tiny club on the LES listening to a violin-playing indie melodramatist. She wasn’t fooling — the girl loved the music — but her antics almost had Pallett laughing. When two kids next to her played concert-police and told her to scram she ended up right in front of me and Dave, swaying, rocking, dancing, knocking us in the ribs with her elbows, after which she’d apologize profusely but explain that she just couldn’t help herself. “You’re a genius,” she’d yell between songs. “We love you! We support your music!” (All of this in a German accent.) After a particularly rousing violin flourish at the end of one song, she delivered the best line I’ve ever heard someone shout at a show: “Vienna! Mozart! We love you!”

Sunday afternoon was family outing to SummerStage. It threatened rain, and the astroturf had mud seeping through the color of baby cheese, but we were there to see Feist as a family, so we didn’t care. Her voice was ragged and she seemed a little tired — she’s been touring how long in support of Let It Die? — but we’re still talking Feist here, people, possibly the sexiest singer on the planet. She seemed to have enough new material to fill a great new record, but we loved the oldies, which always had the feeling of standards. Kevin Drew’s guest appearance for the final song, a rendition of BSS’s “Major Label Debut,” may have packed only half the charisma (if twice the celebrity self-consciousness) of his fellow Canadians the night before, but it was worth it to finally have my kids see Feist live. Anna, who had just celebrated her 12th birthday with a gaggle of girls sleeping over (I escaped, in fact, to see Final Fantasy), is the singer for her school’s “rock shop.” She’s a Feist fan of her own volition — we try not to force our music on the kids and encourage their own tastes even when they diverge from ours — and I wanted her to see Leslie in motion. For most of the set she and Molly played games on the muddy ground in a little fort they’d created beneath our umbrellas, but for the last few songs, starting with the slow version of the Bee Gees’ “Inside and Out,” she agreed to get closer to the stage, where we could see Feist’s facial expressions, the muscles in her legs, her cheekbones that could slay a Philistine army. We danced to the closing numbers, hummed along and grinned to “Major Label Debut”‘s PG-13 chorus, and agreed that as rock-star role models go, you’re not going to do better than Our Lady of Total Sexiness and Rock.


7 responses to “Canadian weekend”

  1. Dave says:

    Great writeup, Bryan. Hope you’re enjoying that Lukashevsky CD I forgot at your apartment.

  2. Dave says:

    I would add: The Canadians on Friday night (at least Lukashevsky and FF) sounded like they’d spent loads of time in their bedrooms, more than usual for musicians, coming up with very surpising sounds. BSS has spent that same amount of time together coming up with their collective sound.

  3. hey, it’s me again, still thinking about final fantasy. i ran across this blog entry today about the album and thought it was worth sharing. is anyone else listening to this album right now?

  4. Nathan says:

    i am — wow.

  5. hey my lovely LA friends: i looked up the date for Final Fantasy on the Echo’s website and it turns out it *is* the 12th, but it’s listed as an “Echo Presents” show at Pedro’s.

    Click here for another recent description of his live set, from one of my favorite music writers.

    AND for you New York friends, it’s not too late to see Silversun Pickups, even if you missed them at Mercury Lounge last week. They’re playing TONIGHT at Union Hall, a new venue in Park Slope.

  6. since i dominated the comments section on this originally, i won’t feel embarrassed to add this late-breaking news: Final Fantasy just won the Polaris Prize in Canada, sort of their equivalent of the Mercury.

    I say again, this time with more friends on both coasts to back me up, do not miss his show if you have a chance to see it.