Introducing Little City; and The British Columbians, Made for Darker Things

I spent a week in Toronto this spring, fittingly, during Canadian Music Week. At first, I was determined to do that thing where you post a few times a day about all the awesome stuff you’re doing and the cool new bands you’ve heard. It was a good idea and I managed to keep it up for a whole 45 minutes before I realized I had more important things to do like seeing cool new bands. I think I’m starting to understand why most blogs and media outlets send multiple correspondents to these things. It’s just too much for one person to take in.

Even now, six months later, there are still at least a dozen incredible sets that I have yet to cover, which, I think, surprised even me. I can still remember puzzling over how they’d managed to keep so much talent hidden for so long. So, how it is that a band comes to be voted best undiscovered band in Canada is beyond me. I’m just glad I don’t have to vote in that particular competition because I’d likely be crushed under the weight of all those zip files and Spotify playlists long before I ever came to any sort of conclusion.

It’s a title Vancouver quartet The British Columbians took in 2009 (not bad for a band that got together to “just [play] around without any big ambition”). Listening to them, you could easily mistake their brand of filthy blues rock for the work of a band from the Deep South. And their sophomore release Made for Darker Things is no different. From the wailing opener “Evil in the Pines”, Darker Things conjures up images of balmy summer nights and dodgy dive bars where hard living old men on rickety three-legged bar stools play Delta blues behind a haze of stale cigarette smoke and cheap beer. Made for Darker Things is an album that lives up to it’s name. Dirty, dingy, with moments of arena-ready grandeur, this is the music your grandmother warned you about.*

Made for Darker Things is out 13th September. For those in the Vancouver area, there’s a release show on the 9th.

You probably know by now that I like a band that know who they are—I’m very much like a cliché personals ad in that sense—but it’s true. It makes the whole first impression thing that much easier. So, when I stumbled out of the cold and into Bread & Circus late on the last night of Canadian Music Week perfectly unwilling to think critically about anything, I was thankful to find a band like Little City onstage. And I realise that, from the way I’ve just phrased that, it could be inferred that the band play some kind of mass produced autotuned tripe, but nothing could be farther from the truth. It takes a special degree of care and attention to navigate a band setup with as many potential timbral pitfalls as theirs includes, but the Toronto area natives clearly have their route mapped out (pop band + banjo + lap steel + French horn = brilliance, apparently).

The truth is, Little City are the kind of band it’s really hard not to love which will be made abundantly clear to anyone who has 21 minutes to listen to their debut EP The Going and the Gone. While the lead track, “Bright Glow” with its prominent harmonica and lap steel parts betray some country roots, Little City are first and foremost a band with an innate pop sensibility and indie rock attitude. Just check out the infectious “Rise Up” or the closer “Lincoln Learning French” to see what I mean. (And, if that’s not enough, well, when was the last time you saw someone do this with a banjo?) With Frances Miller’s lush, cool vocals the perfect complement to the richness of the band’s instrumentation, Little City’s performances are marked by a sort of luxurious sincerity reminiscent of Laura Marling** or 40 Acres era Caedmon’s Call that is absolutely irresistible.

*…if your grandmother ever warned you about music. Mine never did. Mostly, we just hung out at her house, watching Oprah and General Hospital until my mom got off work.

**Special thanks to Mishkin from Birdeatsbaby for talking me through my writer’s block on this one. And for the Laura Marling reference.


Canadian Music Week Recap – Day 1: Free Times Cafe

Christine OwmanSo, Day 1. I’d built myself a pretty hefty coming in to CMW, intending to bounce from one venue to another to catch all the most exciting acts (in my opinion anyway) appearing at the festival—a schedule, somewhat surprisingly, heavy on electronic and synth-based acts. Though, when I made that schedule, I had no idea that, in Canada “everything is far from everything”. But after dragging my suitcase over a mile through the snow and rain, I was in no mood to carry on in the same fashion late into the night. In the end, though I was approved to cover nine venues Wednesday evening, I pulled up a seat at the Free Times Cafe from which my body and I, destroyed after traveling all day on a full 20 minutes of sleep and one cup of coffee, refused to move. What I was left with was an evening of singer-songwriters and absolutely no regrets.

The first of them, Christine Owman [SoundCloud], was the one I’d come to see. Intrigued by the videos I’d seen combining electronics and theatrics with decades old film footage, there was no way I was going to miss the live spectacle. Nor was there any way that Ms. Owman, loop station and musical saw in tow, was going to disappoint, filling her set with all the dramatics of an ugly breakup coupled with the sweetness of the reconciliation.

Once I’d made the executive decision to never move again, all that was left for me to do was to sit back and listen to JP Hoe, whoever he was. Who he is, kids, is a singer-songwriter from (I think) Manitoba with beautiful voice and crystal clear tone. But it was on a handful of numbers, accompanied by a couple of friends, where the music shone—gorgeous ringing vocal harmonies sinking into every forgotten corner of the room. One particular highlight for me was the first of these, a song from a holiday EP—something about singing ‘O Holy Night’—was absolutely striking’, with a handful of surprise chord changes thrown in for good measure.

Following JP Hoe, Louise Burns and her band, apparently surprised by the smallness of the stage, mounted an emergency stripped down acoustic set, while I, along with Australia’s Eli Wolfe (not performing that night, but he’ll be wandering the US and Canada this summer) watched from the wings. And though, based on my pre-CMW artist notes, I was suitably enthusiastic about LB’s full band set up, something about the minimalist approach they took at Free Times Cafe Wednesday night highlighted entirely new aspects of the music. Even down to the extra reverb in the mix—excessive reverb, almost, for such a tiny room—gave the music a serendipitous Phil Spector vibe.

In the end, I desperately needed those few hours. To dry off, yes. To warm up, definitely. But most important was the reassurance that my plans could be changed for whatever reason—expediency, practicality, or just plain laziness—and I could still experience memorable and often beautiful performances by bands I hadn’t had time to preview in the preceding weeks. Little did I know that this would become a running theme throughout the festival.

[More photos from Day 1 on Facebook.]

More bands for your CMF schedule

If you missed part one, read it here. Or, if you’re on the homepage, just scroll down.

There are over 800 bands playing at CMF this week. Did you honestly think that I would be able to keep all my recommendations confined to a single post? Of course not. Here are some more. Get these on your schedule. Now.

Maylee Todd & Pegwee Power
Toronto, ON
Performing: Revival, Friday @ 8:45PM
Supermarket, Friday @ 1:00AM

Part of a strong lineup of early sets at Revival Friday night, Maylee Todd and special brand of indie soul promise to deliver one crushing set on Friday night. Just look at that promo photo. How could you ever be disappointed with that. And if you can’t make the early show, she’s playing again in the wee hours.

Vidulgi OoyoO
Seoul, South Korea
Performing: Clinton’s, Thursday @ 12:30AM

Some breathtaking Korean shoegaze that hearkens back to the early days of My Bloody Valentine. Those who find themselves at Clinton’s Thursday night are liable to have their hearts stolen. Just don’t swoon too much. I can’t promise anyone will have the presence of mind to catch you.

Nottingham, UK
Performing: Painted Lady, Friday @ 1:00AM

YUNIOSHI are the whole reason I’ll even be in Toronto this week. It’s not everyday one of Britain’s most exciting robofunk bands plays a North American show. And when they do—if you’re me at least—you make sure you’re in the audience. I wrote about how much I love YUNIOSHI a few weeks ago, so you can go back and read that if you want more details. And if you’re not the reading type, well, just watch the video. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

The Zoobombs
Tokyo, Japan
Performing: Bait Shop, Saturday @ 3:30PM
Comfort Zone, Saturday @ 1:00AM

The Zoobombs have, apparently, been around for ages. Long enough, at least, that I am ashamed to say that this is the first I’ve heard of them. But their psychedelic hyper-rock has got me hooked.

White White Sisters
Nagoya, Aichi, Japan
Performing: Painted Lady, Saturday @ 1:00AM

Another one from Japan. And another one I’ll be sad to miss. Hovering somewhere in between metal and electronica, White White Sisters are high on blistering technique and breakneck speed—something I can only characterise as musical sublimation. I can’t say I know for sure how that would physically present, but the metaphor sounds pretty bang on to me.

Fever Fever
Norwich, UK
Performing: Rivoli, Saturday @2:00 A.M.

Another one of my UK favourites. Art punk monsters from one of my favourite little labels, Cherryade Records, Fever Fever are tearing a path through North America on their way to SXSW leaving a trail of burning stages and broken hearts in their wake. It’s a late show, but I reckon you’ll have forgotten all about that by the time you’ve heard this.

Send for me a Spirit Guide

Hi, guys.  Although I don’t really want to follow Eric’s last post because of its relevance, the world needs more music, and someone’s going to have to bring it, and it might as well be me.  Also, it may be a little less relevant, but Evening Hymns did release Spirit Guides only just a few months ago, and I’m pretty sure the tour just ended.  So, yeah.  My last post on Ohbijou was really just a ploy to eventually talk about Evening Hymns, and eventually I’m going to have to cover Friends in Bellwoods because I’m really loving the layered, orchestral, organic art coming out of … Bellwoods.  Canada never fails me.

So, we here at TIH sort of like to make up lots of standards to decide whether the album you listen to is the greatest album ever.  For instance, I have eleven favorite songs that change every day.  Eric takes it to the next level with Super Desserts,  I think, which is great.  I’m basing my new rule on Spirit Guides, and that is, you know the album you are listening to is the greatest album ever if there is a track where all that is happening is a thunderstorm.  And you probably are thinking, “what?  If I want to listen to a thunderstorm, I can just listen outside.”  Except you can’t, can you?  I can’t, because it’s not raining here, and it’s definitely not thundering, and I don’t live in Lakefield, Ontario, and I don’t know what the rain sounds like there, there where Jonas Bennetta was on November 1st.  Eric can’t listen to one either, because he lives in the state of Freezing, where it snows instead of rains, and where it’s always winter and never Christmas.  Just kidding, spoiler alert, Narnia isn’t real, but it sure snows a lot in Ohio.

Seriously though, the fact that Jonas would put a track with just a thunderstorm reflects something true about the whole album.  Organic is making some kind of comeback, and I haven’t learned how to put organic musicality or organic sound into words yet, but I’m working on it.  Either way, Spirit Guides is all about the organic.  Song titles like “Dead Deer,” “Mountain Song,” “Mazinaw Lake,” “Tumultuous Sea,” and “Cedars” are indicative of lyrics focused on both the peace and chaos that accompany natural elements.  Evening Hymns does a great job hashing out the peace and the chaos, too.  The melancholic harmonies of “Cedars” will put you in a trance, the structure changes of “Tumultuous Sea” reflect just that, and if you like Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” that’s great and everything, but you should probably listen to a less Starbucksy mountain song and it should probably be “Mountain Song.”

The music major that is still hiding inside of me somewhere (I was a music history major for awhile…quit THAT because I thought I could only listen to classical music…I was wrong) loves the orchestral nature of the album, too.  Sure, there’s acoustic guitar and more acoustic tracks (“History Books”), and that’s one of my soft spots anyway, but there’s practically a mini-orchestra, also.    What a great way to capture lots of different emotions–with the voices of different instruments.  Tracks like “Tumultuous Sea” and “Mazinaw Lake” contain long improvisational sections, and whether or not they actually are improvisations, the feel is that the sound is something coming from inside the musicians.  The idea of something beautiful coming straight out of a person and their instrument, without all the fuss that is songwriting…that is freedom.

I have to say that writing a review of Spirit Guides has been pretty difficult for me because while I do love it a lot, it’s very hard to put into words exactly what Evening Hymns has done with it.  What makes an album reach into your soul like this?  That sounds like total cheese, but seriously, I want to know.  These are indeed evening hymns; there’s something very personal, even intimate, about Spirit Guides, and that’s just what you need, I think.

Send for me a Spirit Guide/send for me a ghost/you became my shadow/as I was driving down the coast
lit up the stars in the desert/revealed the bending of the night/I held onto your hand and I/got pulled into the light
and I saw you in flannel/drifting, taking off with a pocket full of cedar/and your hand so soft
and I knew that you were with me/because I heard you turn and say/
that everybody’s gonna live forever/and no one ever dies, anyway

I wish I had friends in Bellwoods

There is one word for the way I have been feeling recently: unmotivated.  Can we just get that out of the way?  Great, thanks.  I apologize.  We’ve had snow days for the past three days (don’t ask how much snow we’ve gotten–it’s really shameful.  Hampton Roads is not capable of handling any amount of snow whatsoever) and so now I have the opportunity to sit down and listen and write and not have all my energy zapped by my day job.  The only problem I have now is that the cat is using me as his monkey bars.

Because my cool high school friend Reid gives me music sometimes, I have been listening to Evening Hymns’ Spirit Guides.  I was going to do a write-up on that first, but now I have discovered Ohbijou and I think because they are sort of Evening Hymns’ roots, I will write about them first.  Ohbijou is from Canada, and something cool is that in 2007, they put together a compilation CD for Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank called Friends in Bellwoods, which is named after a house where 2 of the members live in Toronto, and they just got their friends together and made an album, I guess.  I like those kinds of things, I think they’re pretty cool.

But I’m not going to talk about Friends in Bellwoods because I’m going to talk about their most recent not-Friends-in-Bellwoods (2009) album, Beacons.  It is one of the albums that reminds me that I should never make “best of” lists because I can never listen to enough music to know if I’m really covering the best.  Who knows what’s out there that hasn’t been heard?  I wish I had heard this before I’d made my best of 2009 list.   Beacons was released by Darling You Inc., under exclusive license to Last Gang Records, and it features some of TIH’s favorite instruments, like glock, harpsichord, violin, electric piano, and mandolin.  The atmosphere of the album is perhaps what makes it so special(duh).  Reminiscent of The New Pornographers or Mates of State, bass and/or piano and/or strings often provide a nice driving bassline as a foundation for more layers upon layers, building into eventual catharsis…my favorite.  “New Years” and “Memoriam” are both perfect examples of this.

Something else I should mention: Casey’s voice = beautiful.  I’ve heard some complaints from mostly really annoying people who I don’t like very much in the first place about how “indie girls all sing the same way.”  Well, if you think “indie girls all sing the same way,” you don’t listen to enough good music.  I understand where the sentiment comes from if you have only ever heard Paramore and Flyleaf and A Fine Frenzy, but if you have heard the White Stripes and Stars and Samantha Crain and Belle & Sebastian and God Help the Girl and Fiona Apple and Jenny Lewis and Ohbijou, you would think before you spoke.  Also, I’m sorry, but what is indie in the first place????  I still don’t know and refuse to concern myself with it.  All this to say, Casey’s voice is uniquely lovely and flexible–haunting, strong, and delicate.  So if you are under the impression that “all indie girls sing the same way,” you have 2 choices.  You may stop reading this blog and continue complaining, or you may listen to Ohbijou and sit in awe at the vocals.

And Casey’s haunting voice matches the lyrics.  This is an album for winter, I think, exemplified on “Black Ice” (the winter brings a heaviness/this weight is a hand/over the things i shouldn’t say/there’s black ice, no sign) and “Cannon March” (mother shoot those cannons off/destroy this wicked place/the winter brings peculiar things/to thaw and leave no trace).  The lyrics are poetry, beautiful even apart from the music and fantastically complemented by it.  All in all, I suppose the album is pretty dark, but there are traces of light and hope that make it anything but depressing.  I don’t know.  I enjoy it.

Some of my favorite tracks are “Wildfires,” “Eloise and the Bones,” and “Make It Gold.”  “Wildfires” is great because it drives, and Casey’s voice is especially well-suited to the long phrasing.  I adore the ups and downs of the phrasing, the syncopation of the melodic line juxtaposed with the constant driving percussive downbeats and bassline.  I don’t know what I love about “Eloise and the Bones”–the lyrics aren’t so much lighter, but the sound is, and I think I really appreciate that.  “Make It Gold” has precious music box feel at the beginning which is done really well–I find that bands can easily screw this up and make it feel gimicky, but Ohbijou doesn’t–instead, it’s tender and a bit nostalgic, until again, the layers build and end in catharsis.  My favorite thing.

If you want to listen, check out

If I started my own country…

Something else coming out of Canada that you can all cherish (and replace Celine with): Born Ruffians. Can we begin with the band name? There’s nothing I love more than the word “ruffian,” and these guys clearly agree, fit the description of “ruffian,” and probably were born that way…like feral children. The cheering, the shouting, and the Luke LaLonde sounding like he could break into a yodel at any given second—it all adds up to a musical experience that can be likened to the monkey cage at your local zoo. Okay, these guys aren’t that wild. You will realistically listen to them without getting annoyed or freaked out; in fact, they are perfect for the car ride where jumping around is more important than steering, so you can just make your poor innocent passenger take the wheel.

Born Ruffians’ first complete album, Red Yellow And Blue, came out in March 2008 and is full of your typical instruments made fantastically interesting. The first half of the album is arguably the most accessible, most tracks being driven by complex rhythms and yodel-shouting (what is this, some kind of Canadian vocal technique?). “Hummingbird” is like the band’s fight song, “I Need a Life” like the band’s anthem, and “Little Garcon” a pretty adorable love song for such a rambunctious group. This isn’t to diminish the second half of the album. On both “Hedonistic Me” and “In a Mirror” the combination of LaLonde’s higher-pitched (not quite Barry Gibb but we’re getting there) voice and the choppy melodies makes for some incredibly interesting tracks. Overall, this album will do the opposite of bore you…by the end, you’ll be shouting and clapping right along.

With Red Yellow And Blue comes music incomparable to anything else you’ll find today. There’s no “if you like Born Ruffians, you may also like this artist,“ because these guys stand alone in their sound with their wild voices and fast-changing melodies. Keep your eyes and ears open, because I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from them in the near future! In the meantime, check out their myspace.

Stay with me, go places

For a good Christian girl, what better music to review than The New Pornographers? While their name might make you blush, The New Pornographers emerge unashamed of both their association with Canada (don’t lie, you doubt the Canadian music scene too-Celine Dion? Shania Twain? SUM 41? Really?) or their admiration of Burt Bacharach, whom they acknowledge as a serious influence. There’s nothing better than a band that embraces their identity…and no need to hide them from your parents, because after all, rock and roll is the new pornography (thanks, Jimmy Swaggart).

 In 2007, The New Pornographers released Challengers, an album which announces through its movement and unavoidable catharsis that the eight band members have officially synced. What sets them apart is that each song uniquely emphasizes rhythm and harmony, with enough melody to remain extremely accessible, but not so much that we’re bored out of our minds. The music moves, which is more than I can say for most pop music, where after 30 seconds, you’ve been there, you’ve done that, and you know where you’re going (back there again). With each song on Challengers, you’re going somewhere. In fact, you’re going to the epic “Unguided,” in the middle of the album, and the definite climax. In six minutes of brilliance, they crescendo until the final release. And then you can just stop the album because you will feel so free. Just kidding, don’t stop the album, unless it’s to cry a little, but turn it back on again after you’re done sobbing. You need the rest of the album to get your bearings back.

 Perhaps the most accessible songs because of their fantastic balance of rhythm, harmony, and melody are “My Rights Versus Yours,” a perfect, seductive first track, and “Myriad Harbour,” which features the most comprehensible lyrics on the entire album. Otherwise, who needs a drumset, or hell, a percussion section, when real string instruments (because we all hate crappy synths) drive “Failsafe” and “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth”? Answer: not us. I especially love how these lovely band members use their voices as instruments, giving a mystical, haunting effect to “Challengers” and “Adventures in Solitude.” Altogether, it’s refreshing to hear such beautiful harmonies, which must be the benefit of having at least four vocalists.

What do their lyrics mean? Who knows and who cares? They’re absolutely gorgeous even if they don’t make much sense. “Come head-on, full circle, our arms fill with miracles, play hearts, kid, they work well…”

 While “Unguided” must be the climax of the album, each song provides its own cathartic effect. Never before have you experienced this kind of release in so many songs on a single album. And this is why we call them The New Pornographers.