Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Concert Roundup: The Radio Dept., Braids, Baths, and Tennis

I've fallen a bit behind with my reviews of late (I'm on vacation, which, strangely, leaves me with less free time, not more), so I've written up a few shortened reviews of a few shows I checked out in February. 

THE RADIO DEPT. @ Lee's Palace, February 7, 2011

The Radio Dept.'s Johan Duncanson and Martin Larsson at Lee's Palace in Toronto (did I mention that the lighting was terrible? The lighting was terrible). All Photos by Colleen Hale-Hodgson.

Maybe it's just me, but is Sweden the new "it" country, or what? I have been hearing nothing but good things coming from this neutral patch of land of late. My most recent Swedish discovery, The Radio Dept., brought their shoegazer outfit to a very grateful Toronto audience for the first time February. 

Young Prisms from San Francisco took up opener duties. With beer in hand, Young Prisms muffled lyrics and languid pace made for a decidedly laid back set. They've got a sort of lo-fi, Sonic Youth-on-downers thing going on (helped by front-woman Stefanie Hodapp's listless vocal delivery). Maybe it was the low energy, or maybe just the muddy mash of guitar/bass/drum/vocal (with little dynamic spacing), but I was underwhelmed by Young Prisms. They need to work on bringing out the hooks buried beneath the fuzz.

The Radio Dept. impress on their recorded material (see: the recently released Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 for proof), but I'll warn you that they're a bit of a snooze live. It may have been the venue's fault (I love Lee's as much as the next Torontonian, but how is it that every band I see there has sound issues?), but for some songs the bass from the drum machine drowned out almost every other instrument. The band uses a drum machine on their records so it's not surprising that they use one live, but it was surprising that the a lot of the pre-recorded hooks and synthesized melodies - the quirkiest, most engaging part of their music, I'd say - was either drowned out or were played with such understatement that I barely noticed them. It's too bad, because songs like "This Time Around" and "The Video Dept." from 2010's Clinging To A Scheme have an innate energy that could easily fill a concert hall with sonic wonder. Lead singer Johan Duncanson vocals, which are run through a distortion filter on Clinging To A Scheme, weren't distorted in any noticeable way live, removing some of the dreamy atmosphere from those songs.

I may not have been wowed by their live act, but plenty of my fellow concert-goers were vocal in their appreciation. This is one of those bands that you can still claim ownership of as they haven't quite hit it big anywhere yet, and their music is the sort that encourages long-time devotion.

The Radio Dept. must have liked Toronto because they're coming back on May 29, this time visiting the legendary Horseshoe Tavern. As of this posting you can still pick up a $15 ticket from Soundscapes

INTERPOL @ The Sound Academy, February 15, 2011

Paul Banks, lead singer of Interpol.

I have not been keeping up with Interpol. I was pretty into their second album, Antics, when it came out in 2004, but let their two follow-up albums, 2007's Our Love To Admire and 2010's Interpol, slip by unnoticed. It seems I'm not the only one.

School of Seven Bells were supposed to open the show but got held up at the border (or something like that), which is unfortunate because I was really looking forward to checking them out. Low Level Flight, led by former Canadian Idol Ryan Malcolm, subbed in as openers and were pretty unremarkable. (Funny, I linked to their website above, which, much like their music, has no content in it - zing!). But in all seriousness, Low Level Flight possesses a lot of polish, but very little was shining on that stage.

It seems that Interpol has stalled creatively over the past few years. Bassist Carlos Dengler, whose on stage antics were a well-loved staple of Interpol's live performance, left the band shortly after Interpol was recorded. He was replaced for this tour by David Pajo (now no longer with the band), who all but disappeared along with drummer Sam Fogarino and keyboardist Brandon Curtis.

There was some excuses made online about how lead singer Paul Banks may have still been getting over an illness during the Sound Academy show, which explained a shortened set and off vocals (the vocals sounded great to me, so I'm not sure why people were complaining about that). But really, an illness doesn't explain how whenever a track from Interpol was played the crowd's energy dropped palpably. I can understand fans wanting to hear more familiar fare, but these new songs clearly lack the charisma and surging gravity of Antics anthem "Slow Hands" or Turn On The Bright Lights favourite "NYC".

Still, this was the first time I'd ever seen Interpol perform, and it was a thrill to hear songs like the above-mentioned live. When things came together, I could still sense the magic that gave Interpol their success with the first two albums. Hopefully they can find that creative spark again and get their fans excited about some new material.

BRAIDS AND BATHS @ The El Mocambo Tavern, February 19, 2011

Braids wail and rock Toronto's El Mocambo Tavern.

As one of the best reviewed bands of 2011 so far, it was not a surprise that Montreal-based band Braids (formerly of Calgary, Alberta, but we won't hold that against them) were able to attract such a large crowd for what was billed as an opening gig. Native Speaker is an excellent dream pop album filled with layered vocals that snap from dreamy to ferocious and back again, synth-led melodies that drift in and out of focus, and clicking tongues and guttural croaks to accent fluttering piano keys. I thought that lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston's vocals were overdubbed on the album, but it's actually Katie Lee who beefs up the vocals, providing an added power to key lines.

Some of the more intricate songs were really fascinating to see put together live. Lee would crouch beneath her keyboard, mic in hand, and record the clicking of her tongue, looping it with the various pedals lined up beneath her. Everyone in the band had pedals or other electronic equipment that they would twiddle with throughout the show, feeding guitar riffs in and then spitting them out again, chopped up or warped in some fantastic way.

The band did an excellent job of recreating this layered and intricate album live, proving that their ambitions match their talent. They'll be coming back around to Toronto with Toro Y Moi on April 7 at Wrongbar. Tickets are $10 at Soundscapes and Rotate This.

Baths works the knobs and sliders.

I've mentioned laptop artists before in passing, but, aside from a few openers, I've never actually seen one live. Well now I can say that I've seen what is probably one of the best laptop musicians around right now. Baths (nee Will Wiesenfeld) music features a dense patchwork of clicks, swirls, piano, drum machine, samples, and falsetto-tinged vocals. The music is remarkably engrossing. I've heard the word "genius" be thrown around when describing Wiesenfeld, and listening to 2010's Cerulean, knowing that he recorded it over two months from his bedroom, it's not hard to see why.

My favourite track on the album (and live) is "Animals", which consists of an infectious hook from a stringed instrument I can't quite place (help? Anyone know what that is?), hip-hop beats, and adorable-sounding children talking about elephants who love giraffes. Its unbridled glee is refreshing, and exactly what great dance music is made of. It also demonstrates Baths' main strengths - creating engaging musical stories through well-timed samples and beats. And much like the song, Wiesenfeld plays it with the spastic glee of an over-talented ten-year-old. He handles his MIDI like any virtuoso guitarist would pluck their guitar strings - it's an instrument that allows one man to become an entire band without having to strap cymbals between his knees.

Wiesenfeld encouraged the audience to dance, but even if the packed crowd had room to fling about, I don't feel like Baths' at times complex rhythmic structures really lend themselves to a dance club atmosphere. There's a definite groove there, but there's also complex, often dark stories being told that makes me want to listen and unpack more than it makes me want to two-step.

To perform material like this (where all of your instruments require a powerful RAM card and stock in USB cables) I think that you have to have a big personality to rival perception that you're up there pressing the play button over and over instead of creating music (this isn't true, of course, but I feel like the perception is still there). Wiesenfeld exuded an effortless confidence while working behind a lightly decorated folding table. If you want an idea of what a Baths show might look like, I've included a live video of Cerulean track "Plea" below.

He definitely have more energy than The Radio Dept. (in fact, they have some similar, fun hooks, and could really take a lesson on how to perform for an audience from Wiesenfeld, but I digress).

TENNIS @ The Horseshoe Tavern, February 25, 2011

Alaina Moore of Tennis.

It was a barely-there set from an very young band. It is, perhaps, a little cruel to judge a band whose music is so firmly entrenched in a specific stylistic era, but they chose to work with that sugary-sweet '50s/'60s pop, so there's little I can do to help them.

Admittedly, Tennis does the whole '50s/'60s pop justice - lead singer Alaina Moore's voice is well-modelled after Lesley Gore and Dusty Springfield, and the easy melodies are as soothing and catchy as their historical contemporaries - but this is 2011 and while retro-chic is always in, it should always be offset by modern sensibilities.

Anyway, this is all more of an indictment of their music rather than their live show, which is, unfortunately, about as substantial as their tunes. I was expecting a bit more showmanship to match the era their music apes, but there were no poodle skirts or sequence or even one single choreographed hand gesture.

The setup was very simple - Moore on keyboard, Moore's husband Patrick Riley on guitar, and James Barone on drums. It was blisteringly hot inside the Horseshoe Tavern; everybody, including the band, had tiny sweat pools at their feet. The set was mercifully short due to the fact that Tennis only has one album to work with (Cape Dory, released earlier this year). I was impressed with Moore's vocals, which were spot on for most of the set, but everything else just underlined how ho-hum their music is. It was fun the first few listens, but, as if they were putting the "bubblegum" in pop music, it loses flavour after a a few chews.

Here's the title track from Cape Dory for you to get hooked with (but listen to it a dozen or so times and you may see what I mean).

So, a few underwhelming shows, mixed in with a few good ones - nothing outstanding so far this year. Lets see if March fares better when I see the Elephant 6 collective at Lee's Palace, Warpaint at Wrongbar, and Destroyer at Lee's Palace. Who are you going to see this month?

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