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.


CMW Recap – Day 3, part 1

I’ve said it before. A lot of things about Canadian Music Week caught me off guard. Of course, though I complained about the distance thing for the first couple of days, I really did grow accustomed to it once the sky stopped spitting on me every time I set foot outside. (Realistically, a ‘short’ walk in Toronto is really no different from a ‘short’ walk in Chicago or London, just with fewer commemorative plaques to read along the way.) But the main thing I will be taking away from CMW (other than the bomb I’m going to drop on you in my Day Five summary) is the sad fact that, while some of the most exciting music I’ve heard is happening so close by, such a miniscule fraction of it manages to trickle down to us here, south of the border.

And, yes, it’s rather ironic that I would make such a statement at this point in the weeks, as Day Three would turn out to be the most internationally diverse lineup I would experience during the course of the week, but with most of the bands (even the English and Greek ones), I already had some idea of what to expect. However, walking into Revival (a gorgeous venue in its own right), I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What awaited me would prove to be the most exciting show I’ve seen since the Babblers made a surprise stop in Columbus last year.

As we’ve discussed here before, new wave certainly seems to be alive and well all over the world at the moment. And then there’s my torrid love affair with the Stiff Records back catalogue, which has been well-documented over the course of the last six months or so, but I certainly didn’t expect to find all of that embodied by an immaculately attired four-piece from Montreal called GIRL. I’d been handed one of their fliers at a showcase the night before though they were, in fact, one of the first acts to be added to my CMW schedule two weeks earlier. From the opening chord to the final chorus, the pace of the show was relentless. There is something amazing that happens when a band is firing on all cylinders. In this case, frenetic energy and raucous singalong refrains. It wasn’t long before I felt a tap on the shoulder from another audience member eager to know who they were. Make sure to download their free EP from Bandcamp (or from the player I embedded below). The more I listen to it (and I’ve listened dozens of times since I returned home), the more I get the feeling that it could well be the most promising thing I’ve heard so far in 2011. Of course, there’s still the matter of the name. Though, if long-winded San Francisco stoners—Girls—had any sense of decency, they’d hand over the moniker to the boys from Montreal.

Following GIRL* was—well—an actual girl. That is, Gabby Young and Other Animals. In this case, the Other Animals were local music students as the usual Animals had been left back in Britain. With a sound that walks some sort of line between Kate Bush and Regina Spektor, Gabby Young puts on a show that is impossible to ignore. And that’s not just a credit to the bright red hair or elaborate stage attire. It’s a testament to a performance both riotously fun and beautiful executed with poise and personality. Some of you may have had a chance to catch one of her showcases at SXSW last week. If not, hopefully, at least, we can expect to be seeing a little more of her around these parts. Just a few hours before her Revival set, a North American release of her album We’re All In This Together on Four Quarters Entertainment in April. And it’s a good thing, too. Given the state of things, I reckon we could all use a little more circus swing in our lives.

Going into CMW, there was one artist I kept hearing about more than any other. Most everyone I heard from appeared far more interested in the fact that I was going to see Maylee Todd than the other marquee names on the CMW schedule (e.g. Janelle Monae, Janet Jackson, Sammy Hagar: none of whom are of particular interest to me anyway—well, maybe Janelle Monae). It’s no secret that word of mouth publicity like that can backfire, raising expectations so high that no artist could ever realistically hope to fulfill. But when they do—that’s something else entirely.

And Maylee Todd is everything they said she’d be. From the aethereal crooning of her beautiful solo harp numbers to the powerful soul of full band explosions reminiscent of 70s Motown, Maylee’s shows are unforgettable. I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about, but just think: this was only the warmup set for a full scale spectacle later that evening. The second show, unfortunately, conflicted with another gig I’d be attending down the road. But still, I understand now why so many people kept insisting how incredibly lucky I was to be there, even for a 30-minute set. I don’t if Maylee has played many (if any) shows here in the States, but I sincerely hope Canada will share her with us soon, because there’s nothing I can say that could even begin to do her justice.

*Apparently, there were some major label A&R guys among the audience at Revival Friday night, as well—not particularly interesting or relevant information in this case, but a good setup for the snarky comment I am about to make. (At one point, I—along with everyone else—was encouraged to give them a round of applause though I have yet to figure out what they’d done to earn it. Is spiky hair now grounds for a standing ovation?)

CMW Recap Day 2 – El Mocambo/Rancho Relaxo

Day two of Canadian Music Week and I’ve been glittered within an inch of my life by the Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party who, I am told by a man who caught a glimpse of my media wristband at another showcase earlier today, are Canada’s next top band. The folks at Rancho Relaxo likewise seem to share his enthusiasm. It’s the most energetic crowd I’ve seen all night despite the fact that it is 2:30 A.M. and Toronto has been awash with rain and freezing temperatures since I arrived 36 hours ago. In the end, I too was powerless to resist their wonky sex pop and fought my way to the front to experience my first Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party close up and personal with the rest of the glitterati.

[Download: Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party – ‘My Five’ mp3]

TLGLTP were a brilliant way to close my first full day at CMW, so much fun, in fact, that I left the show so full of energy that I opted to forgo a cab and walk 20 minutes back to my room through the steady winter rain. Day two began with the first of three days of Live Near Bellwoods living room sessions at the Toronto Institute for the Enjoyment of Music: a series of performances that proved to be so incredible, I’ll wait and dedicate a full week to them soon.

So, instead, fast forward a few hours and a few blocks to El Mocambo where a nice lady found my passport before I even realized I’d lost it and Familia (Maple Ridge, BC)—who bring so much soul to their hook-laden indie rock, it really ought to come with a warning label—played a blistering set with the tightest rhythms and powerful vocals I heard all night. It’s difficult to photograph a band like Familia, if I’m honest: far too easy to lose sight of things like focus and shutter speed with all that uncontrollable dancing and hip-shaking going on. So if my photos from this particular gig are a little blurry, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. You’re just going to have to entice them down here to the States and out to Britain for a bit of a tour. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

And, if you can, get them to bring Some Community (São Paulo, Brazil) along with them. As I learned Thursday night, the combination of Familia’s soul pop and Some Community’s art pop makes for one undeniably sexy lineup. I’ve talked about Some Community here before, but suffice it to say that they are even more fun live than I had hoped they’d be leaving a small but enthusiastic audience completely shattered by the end of their high-octane set. I don’t know why someone hasn’t signed them yet. All this band really need is a little exposure north of the Equator (an iPad advert, perhaps) and this band could do quite well for themselves here. And I’ll be honest with you, I’ve definitely got a crush on guitarist/bassist/occasional melodica-ist Gabriela Gonzalez.

[Download: Some Community – ‘Random Words’ mp3]

From El Mocambo, it was on to Rancho Relaxo to meet up with members of Yunioshi and Spaceships Are Cool for a bit of Icelandic sex on a Kaoss Pad in the form of Bloodgroup (Reykjavik, Iceland). Now, I don’t know if you can recall the last time you saw two nonironic keytars on the same stage, but I reckon it was sometime around 1987 (and I can’t even promise I was privy to it then as I was only 3 years old). But it’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed firsthand and I can tell you, Bloodgroup play those keytars like the electro-rockstars they are and everyone within earshot lapped it up excitedly. And by the time the band had worked their way up to their Facebook hit ‘My Arms’ (from Dry Land) it was clear the capacity crowd was ready and willing to take it in all night long. But seriously, when the beats and nerdgasms flow in torrents from the stage like that, can you really blame them? I mean, I’ve never really given much thought to becoming a groupie, but for Bloodgroup, I might reconsider. Anyone feel like joining me in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves in October?

You already know how the rest of the evening went. (Hint: it’s up there at the beginning. See that neat time-displacement thing that I did?) At the end of a day like this, the only question really left to ask is, how is it even possible that anything could match this? The answer is ‘Friday’.

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.

Canadian Music Fest: must see, part 1

It’s that time of year again. Festival season is upon us. All the fundraisers and Kickstarter campaigns are wrapping up and thousands of fans, bands, and media folk are making their final preparations for their respective fests and it all kicks off midweek with Canadian Music Week and Canadian Music Fest (I’m still not entirely sure where the differentiation lies). And I’m all set to go: flight booked, hostel reservation made, media accreditation confirmed.

For those of you headed to Toronto for the fest this week, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a few posts highlighting some of the acts I am most excited to see and a couple I was heartbroken to cut due to scheduling conflicts. As if you needed more things to work into your schedule.

Toronto, ON
Performing: Painted Lady, Wednesday @11:00 P.M.

It was about a year ago when I first encountered Snowblink as the opening act for fellow Toronto boy, Owen Pallett. I was awestruck by their sound and remained entranced for the full 45 minute set. Every chord—every pitch—so deliberate and perfectly placed, while other two-piece acts make an impression by making a lot of noise, Snowblink succeed in the intimate intricacies of song structure. I even began an email interview with them which never ran because I am rubbish with email interviews. I should probably apologise when I see them on Wednesday.

Brooklyn, NY
Performing: Hard Rock, Thursday @9:00 P.M.

The Thursday 9PM slot gave me a lot of trouble as I was working on my media guest list form. There are fully four three star bands (according to the arbitrary guestlist triage rating system I was forced to develop) playing in that time slot. And, as I, contrary to popular belief, can only be in one place at a time, I was forced to cut several top priority bands in one hack job. And Xylos were, by far, the band I was saddest to see go. I hope they’ll forgive me. And I hope some of you will attend their showcase in my stead or a show on their current tour and report back to me.

Some Community
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Performing: El Mocambo (upstairs), Thursday @10:00 P.M.

Do you all remember a few years back when Apple used that one CSS song in an iPod commercial. Well, apparently there’s a lot more of that stuff going down in Brazil than Apple was keen to let on. And it’s a good thing, too, since CSS seem to have fallen off the radar for the time being. But Some Community will be in Toronto this coming week and their particular brand of art pop, falling somewhere between punk and funk, is not to be missed.

Reykjavik, Iceland
Performing: Rancho Relaxo, Thursday @11:00 P.M.

I don’t even know where to begin with Bloodgroup. In my CMW listening notes, I’ve written the words ‘electro nerdgasm’ followed by something like half a dozen stars. The rating is probably slightly exaggerated, but watch the video and I think you’ll see where I’m coming from. Something about the Iceland outfit (and fellow supporters of Friday night highlights YUNIOSHI) sent me reeling. Is it possible for a single individual to have simultaneous nerdgasms? Because Bloodgroup are ticking all my boxes.

Brandt Brauer Frick
Berlin, Germany
Performing: Drake Underground, Thursday @Midnight

An electro-acoustic trio out of Berlin, Germany, Brandt Brauer Frick are another one of those bands who owe a lot to marquee minimalists like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, but are about as willing to be relegated solely to the classical side of the divide as the defiant likes Mason Bates (aka DJ Masonic) or Gabriel Prokofiev. The music: loads of layered ostinato and polyrhythms and just about every other cool rhythmic trick you ever learned in music theory (and some others you didn’t learn).

Aaaand, here’s a bonus version of Bloodgroup’s ‘My Arms’. Like I said, nerdgasm.

Introducing: Yunioshi

I first heard Yunioshi last year over a stretch of time when Tom Robinson was giving their song ‘Believe It’ frequent airplay on his 6Music Introducing show only to add a second track, ‘Ctrl’ to the mix a few weeks later. The Notts quartet play a particular hybrid of electrofunk and robot rock that is at once highly original and impossible to forget. And, more recently, I’ve spent the last few weeks lurking around SoundCloud listening to all their posted tracks whenever possible.

In recent months, the band have continued to gig around the UK while also playing the Iceland Airwaves festival and making their mark in North America including a booking for next month’s Canadian Music Week in Toronto (and yes, I do plan to make the trip across the border to be there for it). You can get a taste for their live shows through their handful of YouTube videos and with this free download of the live version of ‘Ctrl’. But even those won’t provide a complete picture of the Yunioshi live experience. Did I mention the band also have a reputation for providing fresh baked goods for those who attend their gigs? No, seriously. There’s cake.

The band have released an EP—How To Survive a Robot Uprising—and a couple of free tracks (including the live version of ‘Ctrl’ as well as a cover of Shakira’s ‘She Wolf‘). Rumor has it, there may be some more old tracks made available for free in the near future. But—and this is of the utmost importance—the band have just jumped on the Bandcamp bandwagon, which means I can embed the Robot Uprising EP right here and you can have a go at it right now. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll spin this at least a dozen times before you go to bed tonight and then buy it so you can take it with you everywhere you go tomorrow. While you’re at it, why don’t you go ahead and check out their appearance on air with Tom Robinson and this video from the How To Survive a Robot Uprising EP launch. Trust me, you’ll want to.

Yunioshi will be in and around Notts a few times in February (ok, twice in Nottingham, once in London), but if you’re in the Toronto area (or anywhere in North America, really) why don’t you come hang out with us at CMW.

P.S. If you know a place in Toronto where the band can rent or borrow a guitar and possibly a keyboard stand for CMW, get in touch with the band on Facebook or Twitter (or just email/tweet me and I’ll do it). Thanks. You’re cool.